Monday, March 31, 2003

A recent US Marine raid on the Iraqi town of Shatra allegedly targeted several senior Iraqi military leaders, including one Ali Hassan al-Majeed, whose role in the use of non-conventional weapons during the Iran-Iraq war earned him the macabre label, "Chemical Ali".

Hmm....I wonder how many antiwar activists think it's really cool that this dude's still known by his old "stoner" nickname from college?

Just a thought....

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Few events stir partisan passions like a war, and it shouldn't be surprising that press coverage of the war in Iraq tends to reflect that heightened partisanship. As I've pointed out before, commentators on press bias tend to fall into two categories: those who expect journalists to serve their audiences, and those who expect journalists to serve "journalistic ideals"--that is, the commentator's personal prejudices. Needless to say, I fall into the former group. But the latter point of view, with its obvious attractions, has adherents across the political spectrum.

Consider, for example, the contrast between the two main Oxblog contributors. Josh Chafetz defends Al Jazeera television, despite his distaste for their bias: "I don't like their slant, either. But Al Jazeera is an independent media outlet, and most emphatically not a propaganda tool." His colleague David Adesnik, in contrast, questions the journalistic legitimacy of journalists at a Bush-Blair joint press conference who asked "confrontational and predictable" questions: "this sort of desperate attempt to find bad news only exhausts the press' credibility."

Now, press conferences are political theater, and in different cultures, that theater takes different forms. The British seem to enjoy the Kung Fu movie style, with richly choreographed shows of sparring skill between journalists and politicians. Americans, on the other hand, prefer costume drama, with somber reporters getting sober answers to their solemn questions from grave, pensive leaders. Neither form is inherently better than the other; both entertain their respective publics, reassuring them that their leaders exhibit the attributes demanded of them--gravitas for an Amerian president, wit for a British prime minister.

In recent war-related press conferences, however, some American reporters have been experimenting with the style of their British peers--presumably hoping to escape the subordinate role assigned them in American press conferences, and to avoid being upstaged by the Brits. Adesnik sees this drift towards the British style as anti-Bush bias, tempting journalists to "grill the President as if he were the defendent [sic] in a murder trial."

Meanwhile, Slate's Meghan O'Rourke suggests that the "standards of taste and sensitivity" that led American television networks to avoid airing footage of US POWs "look less like editorial wisdom and more like carrying water for the Bush administration." Now, this is probably the first time that the Fox network has been accused of lacking the guts to show shocking and disgusting images on television. One has to assume, then, that if even they won't touch the material, it's because their audience has made their opposition to airing the POW footage crystal clear.

It's surely no coincidence, though, that where Chafetz sees a rudely anti-Bush press corps, O'Rourke sees a fawningly pro-Bush one. Chafetz supports the war, and is inclined to view expressions of hostility to it as motivated by partisanship. O'Rourke doesn't explicitly state her view of the war, but it's not hard to discern; she credits the BBC for presenting "a more balanced and detailed picture," by showing, for instance, "images of Iraqi civilians in hospital beds." (The concern that the BBC might thus have been carrying water for a different president--the one most likely controlling the hospital treating those civilians--doesn't seem to trouble her.)

What Chafetz and O'Rourke share, and Adesnik rejects, is the view that the journalist's duty is not to his or her public, but rather to some supposedly objective standard of journalistic practice. It's an appealing principle, and it's an appropriate guide for the most basic journalistic task--that of distinguishing truth from falsehoods, and avoiding reporting the latter. When applied to broader editorial decisions, however, it's not only unhelpful; it can actually contribute to the slanting of news, by providing reporters and editors with an excuse for adhering to a politicized "objective "standard" that in truth reflects their own preferences.

I don't deny that it's tempting to dismiss Al Jazeera (or, for that matter, Fox News) as a propaganda organ, if one doesn't like its editorial stance--just as it's easy to criticize American questioners at press conferences for being either scandalously disrespectful or shamefully obsequious (depending on one's view of the politician being questioned). And Al Jazeera's recent status as virtually the only available independent news source in the Arabic-speaking world may have allowed it an unusual amount of leeway to bias its news without adverse consequences.

But today, as Mamoun Fandy points out in the Washington Post, there are nearly a dozen Al Jezeera-wannabes in the region, and any of them--even Al Jazeera--risks losing credibility with its viewers by misleading them, just as state-run news services in the Arab world have done in the past. At the level of basic accuracy, therefore, they have a clear incentive to improve the factual accuracy of their reporting, so as to avoid disillusioning--and thus losing--their audience.

On the other hand, to the extent that their editorial decisions cater to their audience's persistent tastes and interests, they can hardly be faulted for "propagandizing". Propagandists impose their views on their audiences, rather than vice versa.

Friday, March 28, 2003

Mark Kleiman asks a perfectly reasonable question: "Why should money you earn be taxed more heavily than money you inherit?" Of course, it's also unclear why money you earn should be taxed less heavily than money you inherit. I always thought the right solution to the problem of the inheritance tax was to abolish it--and then make inheritances taxable as ordinary income. That probably wouldn't have satisfied "death tax" opponents, of course, but it's likely to be more politically palatable than restoring a special tax on inheritances, should the political climate eventually change and the issue re-emerge.

Another advantage of treating inheritance as ordinary income is that it goes well with a tax reform that's a particular favorite of mine: unlimited tax sheltering. Suppose that taxpayers could deposit or withdraw as much money as they pleased into or from tax-sheltered accounts (the equivalent of 401(k) plans or IRAs), whenever they wished--with the proviso that withdrawn money is taxed as ordinary income. Inevitably, all income not spent would be deposited in such accounts, to avoid taxation. In other words, the income tax would suddenly become a consumption tax--and a potentially progressive one, to boot. Economists would be happy--they generally prefer consumption taxes to income taxes. Redistributionists would be happy--the progressivity of the tax system would be preserved. Savings would be appropriately rewarded, high living would be appropriately taxed, and people with uneven incomes but steady, modest consumption would not be penalized as they are by today's system.

The one catch: the whole scheme depends on inheritances being counted as withdrawals, lest large, income-generating fortunes be passed down from generation to generation, tax-free. I guess that means we won't be seeing this particular reform anytime soon.

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Having attempted to explain Canada to Americans before, I feel compelled to respond to the blogosphere's flurry of interest in the recent remarks by US ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci. Four prominent bloggers--Daniel Drezner, Henry Farrell, Matthew Iglesias and Kevin Drum--have all concluded, apparently based on a Globe and Mail report on Cellucci's comments, that Canada was threatened, in a crude and insulting yet unspecific way, with retaliation over its lack of support for the Iraq war. All four appear to have completely misconstrued the situation, partly by relying on a single news report; a second account of the Celluci speech provides some extra context.

To begin with, this little dust-up actually follows a completely familiar pattern. Every decade or so, US-Canadian relations enter a strained period, the American ambassador eventually delivers a mild, diplomatic rebuke, and Canadian nationalists hit the roof in response, crying, "intimidation", "infringement of sovereignty", and so on. (The Globe and Mail report hints at this pattern, although it suggests, implausibly, that the current conflict is unprecedentedly serious.) None of it should be taken terribly seriously--any more than the obnoxious remarks by Canadian officials about which Celluci was complaining. It's merely the way two very old friends let off steam at each other.

Secondly, it's clear from the National Post report that Cellucci was not making any veiled threats regarding Canadian non-cooperation with the American war effort. Token military support would no doubt have been welcomed by Washington, but it would hardly have made much material difference. (It should be noted that Canada did contribute to the Afghanistan campaign.) Even Canada's French-style diplomatic hostility to the Iraq war is at most a minor irritant to Washington, on a par with, say, the softwood lumber dispute.

The real issue--the one about which Cellucci issued his veiled threat--is that of "homeland security". For various reasons, the Canadian government has at times dragged its feet in dealing with terrorist groups, with the result that Canada has come to be viewed as something of a haven, and even a staging ground, for anti-US terorist cells. (Recall that Ahmed Ressam was caught importing bombing materials across the border from Canada in 1999.) As long as the border between the US and Canada remains wide open, American border security is in practice no tighter than Canadian border security, and Canada's generous immigration laws and occasionally lax attitude towards certain violent groups is thus of direct concern to US officials. Hence Cellucci's remark that "[f]or Canada the priority is trade, for us the priority is security....Security trumps trade."

I predict that the Canadian government will duly heed Cellucci's warning, as it's clearly in the interest of both sides for it to do so.
"This is a strange situation where you have a broad ruling and no one can appeal it." That from Ann Beeson, an ACLU lawyer representing the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, after the Supreme Court turned down her Constitutional challenge to a provision of the USA Patriot Act. The provision allows the Justice Department's criminal and terrorist investigation units to share information, eliminating the "Chinese wall" that previously separated them. Heather MacDonald makes a convincing case that the separation was irrelevant to civil liberties and detrimental to security.

I can understand Ms. Beeson's frustration, though. When all the dictatorial, undemocratic authorities have refused you, where can you turn? Sure, the citizenry hold ultimate power in a democracy, commanding through their franchise the authorities who made the decision in the first place. Sure, they've consistently shown themselves willing to listen to all sides of the debate on issues such as this one. Sure, they may be the subjects for whom the rights the ACLU holds so dear were intended in the first place. But appeal to them to exercise their legitimate sovereignty? Stoop to participating in the undignified, corrupt democratic process? Try to persuade ordinary people that your point of view is correct? Perish the thought!

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Jacob Levy, with the concurrence of "Oxblog"'s David Adesnik, argues for an exception to my stated principle that enemy soldiers are not subject to the same protections as enemy non-combatants. Levy suggests that when one side has an overwhelming advantage over the other, it has a responsibility not to inflict gratuitously large casualties on the vastly inferior force.

The problem with this claim is that "overwhelming advantage" can really only be determined in retrospect. Consider, for instance, the recent battle near An-Najaf, where US Marines may have killed as many as 500 Iraqi soldiers without losing a single man. That sounds like a pretty overwhelming advantage to me. Can we conclude, then, that the Marines should have noticed this imbalance during the battle, and cut the attacking Iraqis a little more slack--perhaps letting them get a little closer before firing on them?

Now, Levy might mean to distinguish between, say, attacking soldiers and fleeing ones. But, again, how are the putative victors to know that the vanquished are not fleeing to join a much larger, more threatening horde? No, if they are truly beleaguered and fleeing for their lives, they always have the option of surrender. Otherwise, they simply cannot be assumed to be at an overwhelming disadvantage--until, of course, they've become casualties.
Comment dit-on "chutzpah" en francais? Peut-etre "Gilles Meunier"? As a board member of the "French-Iraq Association for Economic Cooperation", M. Meunier has high hopes for heavy French involvement in Iraq's reconstruction, according to the Associated Press (via The Command Post's "Dustin").

Why French companies, rather than, say, American ones? First of all, as officials in Paris point out, French firms have much more experience working in Iraq. (But, as Rummy would say, that's old Iraq.) Secondly, says Meunier, "I don't see how American executives can work when their lives will be at risk....There will be such hatred toward Americans." No, no, Iraq is where they'll be trying to work--not France....

(An aside: I don't share the virulent anti-French hostility being expressed by some Americans these days. The French may be indulging in a lot of venal, cowardly appeasement of brutal regimes lately, but in doing so, they only highlight their own essential harmlessness. Both Iraq and France have weapons of mass destruction, after all, but while one slaughters its own people and threatens its neighbors, France pummels America with the full weight of its resolute UN obstructionism. The only thing truly dangerous about that is the way some people take it far too seriously.)
The person who betrayed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is reported to have received a total of $27 million for his efforts. I wonder how much the alleged mole in Saddam Hussein's inner circle is slated to get....

Monday, March 24, 2003

"It never ceases to amaze me," writes legendary communitarian thinker Amitai Etzioni, "how some issues that seem so cut and dry to me, evoke such heated debate among others." I know how he feels. His subject is an old debate, dating back to 1989, over what an American journalist traveling ("embedded", in current parlance) among soldiers of a hypothetical foreign country ("North Kosan") ought to do upon learning that those soldiers are about to ambush American soldiers. When the question was first posed, several prominent journalists answered that their job as journalists was to report the story, not to protect American soldiers. Needless to say, military and government officials asked the same question saw things differently. Etzioni's opinion is apparently captured by his rhetorical question: "No one was asked if they might warn the troop of North Kosanese if they were to about to walk into an American ambush."

Well, that question might clarify the issue for Etzioni, but I'm at a loss to see how. In the original scenario, the journalist's duty to "objectivity" or "the story" is placed in conflict with the journalist's duty to country. In Etzioni's version, the two duties are in harmony, both arguing in favor of not warning opposing troops. What light, then, does it shed on the more difficult original case?

A more revealing hypothetical would place the journalist among a criminal or terrorist gang about to ambush and murder a group of police officers, or innocent civilians--or even members of the journalist's own family. Two points are thus illuminated:

  • There are some duties higher than the journalist's duty to "the story". Whether duty to country is among them is a measure of one's relative estimate of the importance of duty to country.

  • By agreeing to be hosted by a person or group, a journalist implicitly places him- or herself in a position of trust with respect to the hosts. If that group is inclined to commit targeted acts of violence, then voluntarily trusting oneself to its care implicitly expresses faith in the group's judgment in choosing targets. Such faith should not be placed lightly, lest it be betrayed in exceedingly ugly fashion.

  • The question is thus not, "what should a loyal, law-abiding American journalist do when traveling with soldiers ambushing Americans, or criminals or terrorists ambushing their victims?", but rather, "what is a loyal, law-abiding American journalist doing consorting with troops fighting against Americans, or criminals, or terrorists, lending them legitimacy by trusting in them so completely?" If the answer is, "there's nothing wrong with that", then obviously there's nothing wrong with the journalist cooperating with his or her hosts in other ways as well--such as keeping mum about one of their impending atacks.

    At that point, the journalist has effectively become an accomplice, and American troops or police should be expected to deal with him or her accordingly.

    Sunday, March 23, 2003

    David Brooks of the Weekly Standard makes an important point about the current war in Iraq: that it is being conducted according to an evolving set of rather bizarre politically-motivated rules. The "embedded" journalists supplying live video feeds back home are the most obvious example, but these are almost certainly not going to be around long. (It's only a matter of time--perhaps during the next war, if not this one--before they end up accidentally revealing something of great value to the enemy, at which point they'll be severely restricted, if not banned altogether.)

    But Brooks notes another, subtler development: "Has there ever been a conflict in the history of man in which the one army strove so mightily to not kill the soldiers of the other army?" Indeed, there are those who are trying to extend the admirable historical trend towards greater protection of civilians, so that it applies at least partly to combatants as well.

    Now, rules governing the treatment of enemy soldiers are at least as old as those governing the treatment of civilians, and at times, some troops (ransomable Medieval noblemen, engagement-shy Afghan militiamen) have fared quite well by convention. But the new trend towards characterizing soldiers as innocents, and therefore just as morally deserving of protection as defenseless women and children, is a disturbing development.

    A particularly egregious example is a recent New York Times op-ed by Uwe Reinhardt in which he writes that a young Nazi conscript at the Battle of the Bulge was "as innocent as those of us who weren't in uniform." (In that particular case, he just might be correct--though probably not in the sense that he means.) "For all we know", Reinhardt continues, "he would have happily quit fighting and joined the allies." (In other words, he was only following orders.) But it's simply not the case that soldiers are innocent in the same sense as non-combatants, for the simple reason that once they are equipped and sent to kill people, they have the power to decide whom to try to kill. And some Iraqi soldiers, as we now know, have conspicuously exercised that power.

    Even in the case of a given soldier--say, a present-day North Korean--who is simply too badly misinformed to make an ethical (or pragmatic) decision of this nature, the moral argument for treating enemy soldiers gently has the fatal defect that it richly rewards its own rejection. Unreciprocated kid-gloves treatment of enemy civilians can certainly put an army at a disadvantage; witness the Israeli army's troubles suppressing a terrorist infrastructure that murders Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians. (For that reason, the mere risk of harming the enemy's "human shields" does not normally suffice to deter military operations.) But behaving gently towards soldiers who show no similar compassion in return would almost always be an utterly insuperable handicap, as today's reports of faked surrenders in Iraq amply demonstrate. Rules of war that are conditional on mutual observance cannot be considered as moral universals, but only, at best, as conventions subject to abrogation when violated by the enemy.

    Thursday, March 20, 2003

    It seems likely that Saddam Hussein is still alive, in spite of the Bush administration's publicly-expressed doubts. In fact, the administration may not actually have any doubts at all; indeed, for all we know, they may never have had any reliable information about the Iraqi leader's location in the first place. As it turns out, merely claiming to have successfully targeted the top Iraqi leadership is useful regardless of those leaders' reaction. If they respond by going into hiding, then their survival is cast into doubt, and the credibility of their command is thus reduced. On the other hand, if they make a deliberate show of being alive and well, they risk exposing information about their whereabouts that may be used to track and target them in the future.

    One could even say, in retrospect, that if the alleged intelligence information that led to the cruise missile strike had never existed, it would have behooved the CIA to have invented it.

    Wednesday, March 19, 2003

    The latest and most distinguished member of the "Bush is blowing it" club is Fareed Zakaria, foreign affairs (and, formerly, Foreign Affairs) heavyweight, writing in Newsweek. As someone who often expatiates at length on international relations, on which I'm no expert, I sometimes wonder at my own hubris in daring to challenge the discipline's most august scholars. Then I read stuff like Zakaria's shallow nonsense, and I remember that sometimes just a passing familiarity with recent events can put one ahead of the leading lights in the field.

    Zakaria's claim has three parts. First, "in its campaign against Iraq, America is virtually alone. Never will it have waged a war in such isolation. Never have so many of its allies been so firmly opposed to its policies. Never has it provoked so much public opposition, resentment and mistrust." Second, "[w]hat worries people around the world above all else is living in a world shaped and dominated by one country—the United States. And they have come to be deeply suspicious and fearful of us." And finally, the Bush administration "developed a language and diplomatic style that seemed calculated to offend the world....In terms of effectiveness, this strategy has been a disaster. It has alienated friends and delighted enemies."

    Now, none of these three claims is unfamiliar to current readers of the major newspapers' op-ed pages (Thomas Friedman alone has probably made each of them a dozen times or more over the last couple of years). What's remarkable about them, though, is their astonishing lack of historical perspective. I speak here not of dusty, millenia-deep classical historical perspective ("as at Thermopylae/Nippur/Yanling..."), but rather the basic historical perspective of a reasonably educated, current events-aware person who understands that people have not always seen the world exactly as op-ed columnists do today.

    With respect to America's isolation, for example, Zakaria goes to great lengths to distinguish the current, supposedly unprecedented wave of international opposition to America from the Cold War era, when, for example, "in most polls, 30 to 40 percent of Europeans supported American policies." Zakaria's second point--that fear of American world domination is the source of much of the hostility--rests directly on his first. "U.S. supremacy is hardly a recent phenomenon," he writes. "Yet for five decades after World War II, there was no general rush to gang up against the United States"--supposedly because of the latter's history of friendliness and generosity.

    A more accurate statement would be that America's military umbrella discouraged a few allies--sometimes--from participating in a general rush to gang up against the United States. It's certainly true that at least a large minority of Western Europeans back then were occasionally able to keep in mind the role of hundreds of thousands of American troops in protecting them from the ravages of Soviet conquest. On the other hand, European opposition to American actions like the invasion of Grenada or the Marine intervention in Lebanon (to say nothing of the Vietnam war) was hardly incomparable with today's mood. The invasion of Grenada in 1983, for example, was condemned outright in the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 109-9, with 5 NATO countries abstaining, and the rest joining the majority.

    And as that Grenada vote indicates, the non-European world was, if anything, even more anti-American back then than it is now. Another UN vote from the eighties endorsed the International Court of Justice's 1986 ruling that the US was guilty of violating international law in its support for the Nicaraguan Contras. It passed in 1988 with 89 yeas and only two nays (the US and Israel); 48 countries (including most--but not all--NATO countries) abstained. The Assembly passed a sequence of similar anti-American resolutions regarding Nicaragua over the next couple of years, all by very similar margins. As Jim Pinkerton (of Zakaria's own New America Foundation) recently wrote, "By the mid-'70s, the General Assembly, expanded by decolonialization to 138 members, was dominated by its Third World majority. America's ambassadors to the UN, including George H.W. Bush, the future 41st president, were ineffective at stopping or even articulately arguing against a string of anti-American votes."

    Zakaria's most commonly-agreed-with--and most ridiculous--claim, though, is that it is the Bush administration's "tough talk of a Chicago mobster" that has "generated international opposition and active measures to thwart its will". Reading Zakaria or his likeminded colleagues, one would gather that Osama bin Laden and Jacques Chirac had been created on September 12, 2001, by an international consortium piqued at America's sudden lapse into bad manners. Nowhere do they acknowledge that the tide of anti-Americanism had been steadily rising around the world--and in Europe and the Islamic world in particular--since its low ebb around the time of America's twin victories in the Cold and Gulf Wars. (Robert Kagan, in his influential Foreign Policy article, noted this same phenomenon, although he invented an unconvincing grand philosophical conflict to explain it.) Bin Laden's "fatwa" declaring jihad against the United States was issued in 1998. French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine coined the term "hyperpower" ("hyperpuissance") to describe the American menace (and he really characterized it as such) in 1999. These events, lest we forget, occurred during the administration of a president who embraced multilateralism wholeheartedly and spent much of his time in the White House trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute through negotiations.

    It would certainly be reassuring to take at face value Zakaria's claim that "in diplomacy, style is often substance." After all, if mere style adjustments could recapture the popularity of an America flushed with victory in the early 1990's, then its image problems would be easy to solve. Unfortunately, factors as diverse as internal European politics and a worldwide Muslim fundamentalist revival have been driving the long-term upward trend in global anti-American hostility. Under these conditions, as I have already pointed out, the power of mere diplomacy to turn uncooperative nations into staunch allies is, to say the least, quite limited.

    Monday, March 17, 2003

    The New York Times' William Safire, echoing other conservative voices, has proposed that the US move its European military bases out of Germany and into some (currently) more friendly countries like Poland and Hungary. This action would, he says, "reward those countries whose leaders stand with us".

    Unfortunately, it would also solve the problem of Germany being less US-friendly than those Eastern European countries. Around the world, there is no surer way to nuture passionate anti-American hostility in a population than to station American troops there. It doesn't matter how enthusiastically pro-American the country is to begin with--think of the Philippines--or how necessary the American presence--think of South Korea. By comparison with some of the others, in fact, Germany is a relatively hospitable host. (Need I mention, for instance, Saudi Arabia?)

    This pattern shouldn't surprise anyone. Visceral hatred of foreign countries is not usually built upon calm, rational geopolitical or economic analysis. To one who fancies himself a patriot, the permanent presence of foreign soldiers--even friendly ones--can begin to feel like an occupation. And to put it bluntly, soldiers--primarily young, aggressive, unmarried males with average-or-below educational levels and little prior international travel experience--are hardly a nation's best ambassadors. In Japan, for instance, hostility towards American bases peaks anew with each new case of rape involving a US soldier and an underage local girl.

    The "ugly American" is usually portrayed as a tourist. But a soldier is even worse: he stays longer, spends less, and is more likely to cause trouble than any middle-aged Midwesterner in loud shorts with his camera and family in tow. The Poles and Hungarians may be warm and grateful today, but give them a few years of housing GI Joe, and they'll make the French look like flag-waving pro-Americans by comparison.

    And in Germany, at least, the US can defend its presence by pointing out that, yes, it really is an occupying conqueror.

    Sunday, March 16, 2003

    If Thomas Friedman says it, then it must be the conventional wisdom. His latest is no exception: "I am glad Mr. Bush is meeting with Tony Blair. In fact, I wish he would turn over leadership on the whole Iraq crisis to him. Mr. Blair has an international vision that Mr. Bush sorely needs. 'President Bush should be in charge of marshaling the power for this war,' says the Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen, 'and Tony Blair should be in charge of the vision for which that power should be applied.'"

    I've already noted the popularity of the "Bush is screwing up" view among what Mickey Kaus calls the "balking hawks"--reluctant pro-war pundits, generally liberal, whose reluctance has intensified lately. The latest corollary, apparently, is that Bush can't hold a candle to Tony Blair on the diplomatic front, and should have let him take the lead all along.

    Well, as far as I know, this whole second-UN-resolution fiasco wasn't exactly George W. Bush's idea in the first place. Nor was the letter of support from the eight "New Europe" countries that blindsided the French and thus cemented the latter's virulent opposition to the war. Indeed, if it hadn't been for these feckless attempts on Tony Blair's part to palliate his own domestic and Continental political vulnerabilities, it's a fair bet that the troops cooling their heels in Kuwait would be in or around Baghdad by now, and Both Blair's and Bush's troubles would largely be behind them. Who, then, geopolitically speaking, has the two left feet?

    In fact, the fellow who seems to have played his cards most deftly, at this point, is none other than Jacques Chirac, who has parlayed his pathetically weak international position into one of remarkable power and influence, simply by taking advantage of the clumsy multilateralist posturing of Tony Blair. The Americans alone would have been invulnerable on that score, as would the British, I suspect, had Blair adopted a Thatcherite, Britain-first stance to neutralize his domestic opponents and fortify himself against his Continental competitors. But Chirac saw Blair's one-world woolly-mindedness as an opportunity, and has (so far) exploited it perfectly. Where Blair has been conciliatory, consensus-minded and idealistic, Chirac has been arrogantly confrontational, unilateralist and cynically self-interested. Guess who won?

    Now, Blair is a professional politician of renowned canniness, and perhaps (as I suggested before) his hawkish-but-warm-and-fuzzy balancing act was really the only pro-war path that offered him any hope of domestic political survival. Even were that so, however, it would be hard to credit Blair with any particular tactical brilliance, or to blame the Bush administration for the two allies' shared predicament--except, perhaps, in that Bush was too willing to humor a hobbled ally in the name of "multilateralism".

    Thursday, March 13, 2003

    Slate's "Well-traveled" column is visiting, of all places, Montreal--a city I know well, having inhabited it for five years as a child and two more as a postdoc. It is, without question, a beautiful city, and well worth visiting (in the summer, at least). There's a festival virtually every weekend in July and August, the old city (along with many other districts) is wonderfully picturesque, and the restaurants and nightlife are terrific. The atmosphere has a distinctly European-cosmopolitan flavor that is simply unique in North America.

    It's also a rotten city in which to live. The economy has never really recovered from the rise of Quebec Separatism in the 70's, taxes are sky-high, municipal government is chronically corrupt and fiscally irresponsible, and the undercurrent of Francophone-Anglophone political tension adds a completely unnecessary layer of discomfort to everyday life. (And did I mention the horrible weather? Snow like Buffalo, and bitter cold from December through mid-May.) Anyone there with any ambition who can stand living in an English-speaking locale moves to Toronto or the US as soon as the opportunity arises. The locals who stay alternate between contemptuous denunciation of the deserters and rueful concession that their logic is inescapable.

    In fact, I suspect that these two descriptions are not entirely unrelated. For a city to be elegant and picturesque, its inhabitants must value elegance and picturesqueness more than other things--say, economic progress or material comforts and conveniences. If a critical mass of the population embraces the former priorities, then those who value the latter ones will likely vote with their feet, gracing some other municipality with their philistine industriousness.

    One thinks, for example, of "tourist trap towns" like Venice or Bruges in Europe, or New Orleans or Memphis in the US, where a core district has been turned into a de facto theme park. The inconveniences of inhabiting a tourist-ridden, tourist-priced, tourist-dependent city well past its historic prime are enormous, and the residents with the initiative and resources to leave who nevertheless stay, presumably do so out of devotion to the same rich cultural atmosphere that draws the tourists in the first place. The dyed-in-the-wool couldn't-possibly-live-elsewhere Montrealers I've known, for example, talk about the bagels, the smoked meat, the legendary neighborhoods and hangouts, and the city's numerous other traditions and institutions with at least as much love and pride as any materialistic suburbanite bragging about his or her new house or car or job.

    The attachment is understandable; after all, local customs have always played an important role in giving people a sense of rootedness and identity. What's striking about the strong-cultured cities I've mentioned, though, is that they always hearken back to an earlier, greater time, to which their loving denizens cling with a kind of vicarious nostalgia--often for what they themselves never experienced. In Montreal, the glory years date back to the postwar period, when the city was truly Canada's first and foremost, the nation's leading center of culture, industry, commerce and politics--until the Separatists ruined everything in the seventies, sending terrified Anglos and their businesses scurrying westward to Toronto. The Montreal of Mordechai Richler, Schwartz's and the Main that Slate's Gary Shteyngart is celebrating this week is the Montreal of fifty years ago, not the Montreal of today.

    One wonders if, say, the economically struggling Silicon Valley of fifty years hence will be full of people justifying their loyalty to their hometowns by sentimentally extolling the traditions that make it special--the casual khakis now viewed as elegantly chic; the low-paying jobs that still provide free lunches and massage booths, as in the old days; the popular obsession with "classic" electronic gadgets now decades out of date. Out of such quirky, archaic symbols, it seems, is the modern urban sensibility made, and made meaningful.

    Tuesday, March 11, 2003

    "It is not really responsible behavior. It is not well brought-up behavior....They missed a great opportunity to shut up."

    --Jacques Chirac, President of France

    "Shut up, you minion, you agent, you monkey."

    --Izzat Ibrahim, Vice Chairman of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council

    It would be easy, of course, to use this juxtaposition of quotations to poke fun at the French president. (And heck, it's not as though he doesn't deserve it.) But there's obviously no valid parallel between an elected French politician and a terrified subordinate of a monstrous-but-soon-to-be-deposed dictator. How, then, did two such different statesmen end up making such similarly jarring, embarrassing remarks? Why are such conspicuous breaches of diplomatic niceties so rare and shocking? What (presumably unusual) conditions lead to their occurrence? And why do they seem to be on the increase? We cannot answer these questions until we have clarified the nature and function of diplomacy itself.

    Diplomacy is built on an ancient truth: that international politics is transacted between people, and that interpersonal skills can therefore be applied to it. The simplest, most obvious example is that of brokering a negotiated agreement between two (preferably non-democratic) world leaders; there is little that distinguishes such a scenario from, say, the negotiation of a deal between two businessmen. The tools of the art of diplomacy-cum-negotiation--flattery, verbal craftsmanship, "atmospherics"--are thus naturally applicable to such cases. And just as naturally, diplomats the world over strive, in their own interest, to create both the illusion and the reality of their tools' applicability whenever and wherever they can. Thus the proliferation of diplomatic protocols, formalities and conventions, all of which serve to nurture the belief that--to paraphrase the feminists--the interpersonal is the geopolitical, and any dispute can be treated, in effect, as a social one.

    As often as not, though, international relations are governed by hard facts, of the kind that are not amenable to the diplomat's soothing social skills. For example, when one is a high official in a regime whose lifetime (and hence, in all probability, one's own) is numbered in days, there is little to be gained by respecting etiquette, and much (well, perhaps a few more days' survival) to be gained by being seen to spare no effort in defending one's ruthless master.

    A more common case, though, is that of the representative of a democratic government. In a world where democratic politics--including international politics--is carried on in front of cameras and beamed around the world instantaneously, there is little room left for the personal touch. These days, a diplomat's foremost concern is often not, "how do I word this reply so as to sway my negotiating partner?", but rather, "how do I word this reply so as to appeal to my party's constituency back home, or my counterpart's party's constituency back in his (or her) home country?".

    Of course, bodies politic are not always best pandered to with gentle words about foreigners. Jacques Chirac, for instance, is not likely to lose many French votes by being rude to the Bulgarians. And the Bulgarians are in turn unlikely to be swayed by soothingly diplomatic words from the French president; they are asking their leaders for concrete results, not cheap talk. Chirac was thus much more likely to get their attention with a blunt threat to stall their EU membership quest than a gentle admonition that their pro-American stance was "unhelpful".

    As democracy spreads, this shift in the diplomatic environment--and in the diplomat's role in it--away from the traditional one, will gradually intensify. Future diplomats would do well to study public relations as much as international relations, and domestic politics as much as geopolitics, if they are to serve their employers effectively. The era of the diplomat as fawning courtier may well be over.

    Sunday, March 09, 2003

    A popular liberal opinion these days--voiced, for example, by Fred Kaplan in Slate, and by Joshua Micah Marshall--is that the Bush administration is messing up royally on the international diplomacy front, losing friends and allies with its ham-fisted, indelicate approach to Iraq, the rest of the Middle East, Europe, and the world in general. Meanwhile, it has become common on the right to blame America's current international troubles, from 9/11 to Saddam Hussein's longevity to European impudence, on the complacently accommodationist foreign policy of the Clinton era. Byron York and Reuel Marc Gerecht are two typical purveyors of this position.

    These arguments, of course, are mirror images of each other. Bush is accused of poor technique--implicitly in the service of a good strategic cause--while Clinton is accused of putting his formidable diplomatic skills in the service of an ill-chosen strategy. Both criticisms, however, underestimate the degree to which even American presidents are constrained in their range of decisions by domestic and international political circumstances.

    It is easy to complain in retrospect, for instance, that Bill Clinton should have recognized the growing threat of al Qaida and the likelihood that an Iraq freed of UN weapons inspectors would eventually have to be confronted militarily. But even had he been so inclined, Clinton would have had no hope of winning domestic political support for serious military action. In fact, he was bitterly excoriated even for the small-scale cruise missile strikes he ordered launched in 1998 on Osama bin Laden-related targets in response to the African embassy bombings of that year. And if George W. Bush intended anything like the current mobilization against Iraq during his administration before September 11th, there was little sign of it. (And no, I'm not convinced by after-the-fact claims of prior grand, secret plans; such plans are generated all the time for every contingency. Only when they're floated in public, to test their political viability, can they be considered serious.)

    Likewise, it's easy to attribute the current administration's diplomatic travails to its own lack of finesse. One could argue, for instance, that the tactic of attempting to get UN Security Council approval for the American attack on Iraq was flawed to begin with, since it's (now) clear that even the most vigorous diplomacy would not have won French or German approval for toppling Saddam Hussein. (On the other hand, arguments that the administration should have been more conciliatory and multilateralist, in the hope of winning those countries' support for an attack, can be seen now, in retrospect, as clearly misguided.) However, the steadfastness of this "Old European" intransigence was hardly a foregone conclusion when UN Resolution 1441 was negotiated and passed. And it may be that in any event, without all this assiduous courting of UN approval, Tony Blair's domestic support would have collapsed to the point of actually forcing him to abandon his prowar position. If so, then the few weeks' wait, while expensive, would still have been less costly than the alternative.

    Hindsight is always 20/20; neither Jacques Chirac nor Osama bin Laden is exactly a predictable actor. Moreover, the predictions of politicians in a democracy are useless unless embraced by their constituents. And as the European public is amply demonstrating these days, a free polity cannot be persuaded of that which it simply does not wish to believe.

    Thursday, March 06, 2003

    Should suspected terrorists, such as the recently-captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, be tortured in order to extract information from them? Eugene Volokh has a lengthy, ambivalent discussion of the issues surrounding the question. But most commentators, including Richard Cohen, and Anne Applebaum, seem to take it for granted that torture is fundamentally wrong under all circumstances. As Applebaum puts it, "radical Islam will also come to a swifter end if we abide by our own rules of decency at home, and apply them to others as well."

    We should immediately acknowledge two obviously legitimate objections to torture: (1) torturing an innocent person is clearly never justified, and torture should therefore never be used when there is the slightest doubt about the victim's complicity in truly odious deeds; and (2) torture is usually not the most likely effective interrogation technique, and should only be used in cases where no other method can be expected to succeed at preventing similar odious deeds in the future. (The classic example is the "ticking bomb" hypothetical, in which a detainee is known to have life-saving information about an immediately pending terrorist attack.)

    But suppose that neither of these objections apply--what then? Well, the arguments against torturing terrorists seem to suffer from exactly the same weakness as the arguments against executing murderers; criticism of the most extreme case is really a proxy for general discomfort with the entire class of treatments. When suspected Al Qaida members captured in Afghanistan last winter were first incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, human rights organizations complained about harsh security measures, inadequately comfortable accommodations, and other run-of-the-mill discomforts. Hawkish commentators such as Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds ridiculed the griping. But the Afghan prisoners weren't being put up in fairly harsh, prison-like conditions merely to save money. For one thing, uncomfortable circumstances can prompt prisoners to offer more "cooperation" of various kinds in return for better treatment. How, exactly, is such imposition of discomfort different from torture, except in degree?

    Not that degree isn't important, of course, in information-extraction techniques as well as in punishments. We don't execute people for parking violations, after all. But the assertion that torture is always immoral rests on the fallacy that torture is somehow different in kind--not just degree--from the ill-treatment that is meted out to wrongdoers all the time. Or to put it another way, diehard opponents of torture under all circumstances are really against all kinds of coerced cooperation, and use the term, "torture" in order to conjure up its beatings-and-electric-shocks connotations--just as capital punishment opponents really oppose all punishments, and single out capital punishment because it's the harshest punishment currently being contemplated.

    Indeed, anti-torture activists do not limit themselves to complaining about beatings and electric shocks; Amnesty International notes that "the definition of torture is constantly evolving", and that "[h]uman rights treaties define torture in broad terms" that apparently can include, for example, sleep deprivation or solitary confinement. The UN definition simply refers to "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental"--an obviously open-ended formulation. The line between "pressure" or "unpleasant treatment" and "torture", in the torture opponent's lexicon, appears simply not to exist.

    It would be nice, of course, if we never had to use coercion to extract cooperation from criminals and terrorists, just as it would be nice if we never had to use harsh punishments to deter criminals and terrorists. But we do, unfortunately, have to use these tools from time to time, because human beings are capable of terrible things, and terrible methods must sometimes be employed to prevent or deter those terrible things. If the only way to save lives is to use such methods on a Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then use them we must. That is our punishment for belonging to the same deeply flawed species that produced him.

    Tuesday, March 04, 2003

    Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, in the midst of a long discussion of Vatican-Jewish/Israeli relations, has posted a fascinating email from a self-described Coptic Christian named Peter Hanna, bemoaning his community's rabid anti-Semitism. "[A]n unnaturally high number of Christians are complete bigots," he writes; "the things I've heard at my church (of all places) would make your head spin." Hanna attributes the sentiment to the "hardline pro-Palestine stance" of the current Coptic pope, and cites the "well-known saying in Arabic: 'In aharda il Yahoud, bokra il Massihian'--which means 'Today the Jews, tomorrow the Christians'" as proof of the short-sightedness of the Coptic embrace of the Muslim majority's anti-Semitism.

    Based on what I know from past conversations with a Coptic Egyptian I knew in graduate school, the Copts in Egypt (and presumably Christian Palestinians, and perhaps even Lebanese Maronites, as well, these days) are currently caught in an increasingly tight bind. All of these groups have traditionally embraced the secular nationalisms of their home countries, as a counterweight to Islamic radicalism (which they have perceived, understandably, as a terrible danger). Christians thus always viewed Nasser and Arafat as allies, and embraced the anti-Israel animus these leaders stoked as an essential ingredient of their nationalist ideologies.

    Increasingly, though, secular leaders are deliberately blurring the line between religious and secular nationalism, so as to co-opt the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism. Thus Arafat raises alleged Israeli threats to the Al Aqsa mosque as his rallying cry, and has his own organization recruit suicide bombers, in emulation of Islamist terrorist groups. Meanwhile, the nominally secular nationalist Egyptian government, while vigorously combatting Muslim Militant groups, has also sought to dampen religious hostility by supporting elements of the Islamic agenda--most conspicuously, demonization of Israel and Jews.

    Christians in these places, having wedded themselves to their secular nationalist allies, thus find themselves now with no other option than to accept these allies' accommodationist strategy, on the assumption that they will in any event stand (or fall) together with the secularists. After all, if Arafat's and Mubarak's embrace of anti-Semitism keeps the Islamists at bay until the fad passes, then for Christians, it will have been a small price to pay. And if it fails, then the outcome will in any event be much worse for the region's Christians than any vague guilt they might feel over echoing a few toxic slogans about evil Jews.

    Of course, these motives don't necessarily carry over directly into Europe; the fierce anti-Israel posturings of the European Christian churches, including the Vatican, have complex causes, and are hardly dictated by the interests of Middle Eastern Christians. (After all, Lebanese Maronites received absolutely zero sympathy from Europe when they were allied with Israel during the Lebanese Civil War.) Still, it is probably much easier for Christians in Europe to make common cause with the likes of Yasser Arafat when, for example, his thugs occupy the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, as long as the local Christians dare not raise their voices in protest.

    On the other hand, the Christian communities in the Middle East are in rapid decline, with emigration skyrocketing in response to the rise in Islamist militancy. The Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, for example, is seeing a huge shift in the composition of his flock, as emigrating Palestinians are replaced by the Christian relatives of Russian immigrants to Israel, who obviously identify more closely with the Jewish majority than with Muslim Palestinians. It is thus not inconceivable that the local Orthodox Church, traditionally staunchly pro-Palestinian, might eventually adjust its politics to better match its demographics. If so, then the wall of anti-Israel solidarity among Christian churches in the region would be broken, with potentially far-reaching effects.

    Sunday, March 02, 2003

    I've mentioned before that Americans harbor an alarmingly deep distrust of democracy; Eugene Volokh has now provided another piece of evidence for the prosecution. A while ago, he asked the readers of his blog ("The Volokh Conspiracy") to suggest the one Constitutional amendment they would most like to see enacted. Among the most popular, apparently, was repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment--the one that provided for direct election of members of the Senate. (Previously, Senators had been appointed by state legislatures.) Jacob Levy, another (possibly temporary) Volokh Conspirator, apparently also finds the repeal idea attractive.

    Now, it's a fair bet that Volokh's readers (and fellow writers) disproportionately share his libertarian ideology and deep affinity for the law. And as I've mentioned before, both traits correlate strongly with a willingness to surrender popular sovereignty to appointed tribunes with unchecked, absolute power, in the rather naive hope that this power will be used to promote libertarianism and/or to generally please the legal profession. In this case, Levy et al. presumably hope that allowing state governments a direct voice in the federal government would help restrain the latter's power, to the delight of libertarian lawyers. (Of course, they mean the federal government's power to run roughshod over state governments; the federal government's power to run roughshod over the electorate's wishes is rather more benign, in their eyes, as long as it's used "correctly".) There is, however, a huge, throbbing, screaming counterargument against this hope, one that has not exactly been out of the news lately, and that can be summed up in two words: European Union.

    The EU consists of a directly elected parliament with little power, a bureaucracy called the European Commission, and a powerful governing body called the EU Council. This council is made up of the heads of the governments of each EU member state--providing the member states with even more direct control over the Union than an appointed Senate would have over the federal government. The result is an EU that is spectacularly unresponsive and notoriously corrupt. It is also, obviously, very, very far from a bastion of libertarianism and due process; far from seeking to restrain centralized power, the leaders of the member nations naturally see the EU as a potential lever with which to extend their reach by imposing their wills upon their fellow members. The thought that perhaps they should be aspiring to rein in, rather than expand, their own or their bureaucracy's prerogatives, apparently occurs to these professional power-wielders no more frequently than it would to, say, the average Supreme Court Justice.

    Skeptics of democracy--particularly in America--tend to trust systems and mechanisms more than populations. They imagine that if they could only design a governmental structure with the right gears and levers, then power would simply be forced to operate in the directions dictated by the mechanism, irrespective of the intentions of the participants (including the general public). Unfortunately, governmental mechanisms are made up of people--indeed, primarily people who, by virtue of their chosen vocation, are inclined to try to bend the gears and levers of power in the direction they choose, whatever the intentions of the designers. I have no idea what appointed Senators would do with their suddenly-less-accountable role, but I am supremely confident of two things: that they would handle it much less responsibly than if they were directly elected (and thus accountable to the public for their actions); and that democracy's skeptics would quickly devise some newfangled (and even less democratic) structural "fix" to the system, rather than concede that there's simply no form of political accountability more effective than democratic accountability.