Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Mark Kleiman used to be more forgiving of the US army's failure to prevent the looting of ancient artifacts from museums and libraries in Iraq. But now he's furious at the Bush administration for its "apparent indifference to the disaster". "There are consequences," he writes, "to being ruled by barbarians."

Well, philistine that I am, I'm indifferent to the "disaster" myself--relatively speaking, at least. Sure, it would have been nice to save these relics, since they may have much to tell us about the earliest days of human civilization. But I don't think they were worth sacrificing any lives over, and I find it rather disturbing (as does, of all people, anti-Bush ultra-partisan Atrios) that so many people--including, particularly, a great many who averted their eyes from the slaughter of thousands upon thousands by the former Iraqi regime--can be more powerfully moved by the loss of a bunch of artifacts than by the liberation of millions, at an astoundingly low human cost, from an unimaginably brutal tyranny.

Of course, I don't claim for a moment that the Bush administration's position on this matter is motivated by anything other than political expediency. In a similar case, for example, when the Afghan Taliban declared some sacred Buddhist statues to be objects of idolatry, and destroyed them, the administration largely ignored the event--until after September 11th, when it was used to further justify military action against Afghanistan. In that case, as well, I--along with both Atrios and Slate's Anne Applebaum--found it odd that a few statues were the object of more international concern than the millions of Afghans facing drought, famine and ruthless oppression at the time.

If these be the priorities of the civilized, then count me among the proud barbarians.

Monday, April 28, 2003

So the other day I was reading the Dixie Chicks....

....and I thought of Patrick Belton's rather elaborate Oxblog critique of their Entertainment Weekly cover. (Honest, that's what came to mind.) You see, according to Belton, Karen Finley's famous habit of smearing her naked body with chocolate in front of a paying audience "undoubtedly qualifies her as an artist," whereas he's "not sure this is true for the Dixie Chicks," whose posing nekkid for a magazine cover "seems only a diversionary tactic."

This seems completely backwards to me. The Dixie Chicks can hardly be accused of using their nudity as a "diversionary tactic", since there's nothing to divert our attention from. Sure, there are words scribbled on the images of the musicians' bodies, symbolizing the vilification the singers have endured following the lead singer's anti-Bush remarks at a European concert. But if the point of their posing nude for an Entertainment Weekly cover was actually to provoke thoughtful reconsideration of the role of the artist as political commentator--rather than, say, to provoke lots of furtive glances across the magazine rack at a trio of hot, naked music chicks--then the Dixie Chicks' publicist is obviously a complete incompetent. (Note to said publicist: New York Times op-eds provoke reasoned discussion; nudie cover shots provoke lust. There's a difference.)

On the other hand--leaving aside Karen Finley, for a moment--let us consider another famous depiction of the nude female form: "The Birth of Venus", by Sandro Botticelli. Now, the nude Venus at the center of this painting really is a diversionary tactic. I know this because I, personally, have all the artistic discernment of a golden retriever (a poker-playing golden retriever, perhaps), yet I can still appreciate this painting--inasmuch, at least, as it provokes lots of furtive glances at the hot, naked goddess chick on the scallop shell.

There is of course much more in the painting (I'm given to understand) for the aesthete to appreciate, but frankly I don't really notice any of it, and I'm pretty sure it would all leave me cold were it even pointed out to me. I can only conclude that the nude Venus is the visual equivalent of the stupid puns in Shakespeare's plays: coarse entertainment for all of us ignorami, munching on our snacks and watching from the pit. Or, to use Belton's phrase, it's "only a diversionary tactic" to keep us philistines amused.

Now, I'm not claiming that Botticelli's painting isn't an artistic masterpiece. But then, how hard is it to paint a nude that grabs the viewer's eye? (I can't for the life of me fathom Picasso's paintings--or his fans--but I give him credit for ingenuity in figuring out how to paint female nudes that normal heterosexual males are not particularly drawn to look at.) If Botticelli's goal had been to dazzle us strictly with his magnificent aesthetic sense, rather than, say, to distract us from his weak command of the craft of drawing human proportions, or simply to amuse cruder viewers--including, for all we know, patron Lorenzo di'Medici--he could have left Venus clothed or modestly obstructed by the shell. Or he could have just painted a still life instead.

And no, that wouldn't have been a particularly onerous restriction on his artistic freedom. Artists endure--and the great ones overcome--far more limiting constraints all the time. (For all we know, Botticelli himself was a born filmmaker who had to make do with oils because he was born a half-millenium too early.) To suggest that Botticelli decided to make his Venus fetchingly naked because his pure aesthetic sense demanded it is like--well, like saying that the Dixie Chicks' publicist simply couldn't think of a way to discuss public resentment of politicized artists that didn't involve a provocative nude cover photo. And if Belton thinks that Karen Finley can't think how to express her views without the "diversionary tactic" of smearing her own naked body with chocolate....

Of course, Belton didn't invent the idea of an artistic "good" way and a crassly commercial "bad" way to use nudity, profanity or other frowned-upon means of expression. In fact the idea is practically universally accepted in literate circles, even though it makes absolutely no sense. Are Shakespeare's lousy puns transformed into brilliant witticisms by virtue of the quality of the plays in which they appear? Or can we admit that Shakespeare's plays are great in spite of the presence of the odd bit of cheap wordplay, not because of it? And as with puns, why not with nudes?


An update: Patrick Belton has helpfully informed me by email that Karen Finley's nude form could not possibly be categorized as a "diversion", in the above sense. I'll defer to his judgment in that regard.

Friday, April 25, 2003

Daniel Drezner has some appropriately pessimistic comments about the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazen, as prime minister under Yasser Arafat. There's no doubt that Arafat will do everything in his power to undermine Abu Mazen, who represents a threat to Arafat's dictatorial power. Abu Mazen also has no political base to speak of; neither the public nor the ruling Fatah establishment is likely to back him in any significant endeavor, let alone a confrontation with Arafat. That is especially true of the mission that Israel and America obviously hope he will undertake: dismantling the various Palestinian terror organizations (including Fatah's own, the "Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades") and making other security-related concessions to Israel in return for eventual Palestinian independence.

That's unfortunate, because there are a few tantalizing hints in Abu Mazen's background that suggest that had he actually been empowered and supported, rather than simply appointed, he might well have been one of the closest available approximations to a genuine peace partner for Israel. He is said to have publicly denounced the campaign of violence initiated by Arafat in 2000 as a disaster for the Palestinians, and to have told Palestinian refugees in Syria bluntly that they no longer have homes in Israel to "return" to, and should stop believing that they do. If accurate, these accounts of such unusually frank, pragmatic statements--to Palestinian, not Israeli or international audiences--would be real breaths of fresh air. Sadly, they are also most likely the kiss of death for any hope of his wielding real power in the violent, extremist, self-immolating world of Palestinian politics.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Rick Santorum's comments about homosexuality, on which I've already commented briefly, continue to generate controversy. The first wave included Oxblog's David Adesnik, Matthew Yglesias, "Atrios", Arthur Silber, Bill "DailyPundit" Quick, and a whole host of gay rights groups, who all took Santorum's comparison of homosexuality with polygamy, incest and adultery as a vicious, bigoted insult against homosexuals. Then Eugene Volokh made exactly the same point I made--that from a moral and legal point of view, there is considerable merit to Santorum's comparison--and took it one step further by arguing bluntly that all of these, when involving consenting adults, should be considered legal, under the principle of "freedom of sex". First waver Yglesias, joined by Kevin "Calpundit" Drum, Andrew Sullivan and Jacob Levy, dodged the issue by shifting their attention to other parts of Santorum's remarks, which were more generally critical of all sex outside of marriage, and pronouncing him on those grounds a puritan fascist homophobe bigot, and much worse besides.

It was left to Slate's William Saletan to ask the lingering question: "Morally, I think incest is bad because it confuses relationships. But legally, I don't see why a sexual right to privacy, if it exists, shouldn't cover consensual incest. I think Santorum is wrong. But I can't explain why, and so far, neither can the Human Rights Campaign." In fact, Yglesias now wonders why anyone would object to Santorum's legal comparison of homosexuality with incest--a comparison which he just yesterday considered a revolting demonstration of anti-gay bigotry. It seems we're all pure sexual libertarians now.

And yet....it's not just William Saletan who doesn't seem quite at ease with the whole "incest--hey, whatever" business. Andrew Sullivan actually distinguishes between incest and homosexuality, on the grounds that the former greatly increases the risk of conceiving genetically abnormal children. (Volokh explicitly rejects this argument, pointing out that people with heritable genetic defects, for example, are not forbidden to procreate.) Jack Balkin and Oxblog's Adesnik invoke "evolving social norms" to distinguish the two behaviors, while continuing to condemn Santorum for even suggesting the comparison in the first place. And both Volokh and Yglesias, while stoutly defending the legality of consensual incest, felt compelled to make it clear that they find the very thought of incest personally repugnant. Yet not only had none of the participants felt the need to say any such thing about homosexuality, but we can just imagine how most of them would have reacted had, say, Rick Santorum done so.

What are we to make of this mess?

First of all, it's clear that pure sexual libertarianism--"an it hurt none, do as thou wilt"--is not the guiding cultural principle these days, at least in the blogosphere. On the contrary, what we see operating amounts to a new "traditional" sexual ethos, replacing the original one to which a few throwbacks such as Rick Santorum adhere. For want of a better term, I will refer to it as the "college consensus", because it reminds me of the sexual conventions I am familiar with from my college days.

Now, while college kids were (and, I presume, still are) quite sexually open and "non-judgmental", as the expression has it, in my day, they were no more dogmatically devoted to strict libertarianism than today's bloggers are. Rather, their sexual beliefs were derived from their perception of what attractive, popular, sophisticated, socially successful college kids would want to be seen to believe. This calculation inevitably involved a certain tension: on the one hand, one didn't want to be perceived as too prudish, uptight, or timid; on the other, one feared being thought creepy, slutty, or desperate. One therefore attempted to walk a confident, frank, open-minded line between dullness and depravity.

One's attitude towards homosexuality, for example, was a clear social marker. To feel (or, at least, to admit) discomfort at seeing open displays of gay affection was unforgivably uptight; it was viewed as a clear indication of discomfort with sexuality in general--and perhaps with one's own. One student who wrote a letter to the school newspaper expressing disgust at a gay couple he saw engaging in a bit of uninhibited slow dancing at the local pub touched off a heated debate between the campus' small contingent of Santorum's kindred spirits, on the one hand, and most of the rest of the student body, on the other. There was no question which side "won", in social terms at least.

Although there wasn't much discussion of incest on campus (thank goodness), pornography played a similar role. It was considered ignorant and backward to want to criminalize pornography on moral grounds, but deep offense at the "degradation of women" it was said to represent was commonplace among women, and men were generally expected to explain, "incest-style", that while we may defend people's legal right to watch the stuff, we personally found it unappealing and objectionable. (In other words, our sex lives were just fine without it, thank you.)

Of course, sexual norms change over time, and no doubt today's college students are very different from those of roughly twenty years ago. Nevertheless, we might wish to pause and ask ourselves whether the traditionalist, religiously-based perspective of Rick Santorum, whether we agree with it or not, is really so much more ill-intentioned--or, for that matter, more arrogantly, shrilly moralistic--than the college consensus or its successors, whatever they may be. Perhaps those of us whose social lives no longer depend on our impressing our peers with our sophistication can set an helpful example by attempting, henceforth, to engage in a more toned-down, less hysterical debate.

Monday, April 21, 2003

Oxblog's David Adesnik, among others, is shocked and appalled at Rick Santorum's comparison of homosexuality with polygamy, incest and adultery. Now, I understand that many--perhaps most--people today consider private sexual activity between consenting adults to be morally unobjectionable by definition, and most gay sex would certainly fall into that category. On the other hand, many of these same people, apparently including Adesnik, find it outrageous and offensive that anyone would compare gay sex with (presumably consensual) polygamy, incest and adultery, because the latter are all.....uh, what? Icky and disgusting? Prohibited by the Bible? Just not done, you know, by Our Sort of People? Somebody help me out here....
An update to my earlier posting about CNN's cosiness with Saddam Hussein's regime: Ethan Bronner jumps to CNN's defense in the New York Times. "Covering totalitarian states forces a journalist to act in compromising ways," he writes. "It's easy to say Mr. Jordan and CNN made the wrong choice....But I, for one, would be very slow in condemning them. Anyone who has faced the choices forced on journalists in those circumstances knows exactly what I mean."

In other words, to extend my previous analogy, "a girl's gotta eat". The defense is understandable, if not exactly convincing. However, it does remind us that any profession benefits when its members collude to set prices. According to Franklin Foer's article, all foreign journalists were forced to play ball with the Iraqi regime in order to get access. But had they all (or at least all of the major ones) set boundaries for their cooperation, then they might have won concessions from the regime, which, after all, did not want to forgo any hope of influencing its press coverage by forcing all journalists to stay away and interview defectors and emigres instead.

Slate's Jack Shafer makes a similar point in a different, but related context: the rules imposed by the US armed forces on journalists "embedded" in troop units during combat missions. In one recent instance, the Times' Judith Miller admitted to acceding to a fairly onerous set of restrictions--including pre-publication review, otherwise known as censorship--while reporting (though possibly not even "embedded") with a military team searching for chemical weapons in Iraq. Shafer asks "what chance....more independent newspapers have of covering terrorism and war", if the Times is willing to accept such conditions "on the side". It's a fair question, although Miller was at least completely frank about her concessions, and even Shafer admits that the information she obtained in return qualifies as a bona fide "scoop".

It's worth asking, then, whether CNN, too, was exceptionally accommodating towards its totalitarian foreign hosts in Iraq and Cuba. The Foer article in fact singles out Eason Jordan as a prime suck-up, and CNN is apparently willing to be uniquely friendly to the Castro regime in Cuba, as well. These examples suggest that far from maintaining solidarity with its fellow news organizations, CNN has been willing to break ranks and sell its virtue for less than its competitors. If so, then it has clearly undermined foreign press organizations' efforts to obtain a freer hand in reporting on conditions in those--and other--dictatorial countries. And in retrospect, its coverage--and that of its competitors, too--thus became less informative, not more so. It's not exactly a record for the world's leading news network to be proud of.
Charles Krauthammer is furious that the French and Russians are resisting the lifting of UN sanctions against Iraq, demanding in return a greater UN (i.e., Russian and French) role in Iraq's reconstruction (i.e., oil business). Krauthammer would like the US to demand that the Security Council end the sanctions immediately, and simply flout the sanctions altogether if the Council refuses. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it would be terribly hypocritical of the US to break the sanctions regime after years of demanding the world's adherence to it.

Instead, the US should concede the point, allow the sanctions to continue, and announce that America will henceforth obey them with exactly the same scrupulousness and respect that the French and Russians have shown them, lo these dozen years or so. Problem solved.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

US troops in Iraq have apparently found as much as $656 million in US 100-dollar bills, hidden on a palace grounds in Baghdad. The cash was apparently transferred to the Bank of Iraq from the Bank of Jordan, and is said to appear genuine.

I'm not so sure. The Middle East is positively rife with extremely high-quality counterfeit US currency, believed to have been printed primarily by the governments of Iran and possibly its allies in Syria and Lebanon. (Some joke that, in yet another instance of the waning of America's industrial dominance, the US has dropped to number 2 or 3 in the world in the manufacture of US $100 bills.) Even if the alleged transfers from the Bank of Jordan were "legitimate"--in the sense of being properly accounted for at least that far--it would hardly be surprising if these bills' origins were of considerably more dubious origin. And the Iraqi government, with no doubt many thousands of trusting cash recipients, would be an excellent laundering route for illicit currency. (Then again, if this stash was intended for emergencies, rather than for general slush-fund use by the Iraqi ruling family, then clean, authentic currency might have been requested specifically as an extra bit of insurance.)

Of course, the US government is highly unlikely to say anything, one way or another; the Treasury folks hate to talk about just how much counterfeit American currency is out there, for fear of eroding worldwide confidence in the greenback. It's a huge problem, though, and the increasing speed with which the US Mint cycles its currency designs is only a stopgap measure.

Fortunately, cash is only a tiny fraction of the total value of US-dollar-denominated financial instruments. The main problem is abroad, where banks are less trusted, a greater fraction of economic activity is "underground", and (American) cash is thus correspondingly more popular as a safe store of value. Hopefully the spread in the reach of the Internet will eventually make it easier for people around the world to avail themselves of trustworthy non-cash financial instruments, wherever they are, and cash can then become a sufficiently small fraction of overseas US-dollar transactions that even a rogue government with the right kind of printing equipment would have little impact on foreign dollar holdings.

Saturday, April 19, 2003

CNN executive Eason Jordan recently published an anguished admission that his network often soft-pedaled the Saddam Hussein regime's atrocities in order (he claims) to save the lives of their employees in Iraq. The blogosphere's reaction has been overwhelmingly negative, particularly once it was noted that last year Jordan dishonestly touted the scrupulous objectivity of CNN's reporting on Iraq.

Not that Jordan's confession could have surprised anyone familiar with his network's practices. His earlier self-defense, in fact, was a response to a Franklin Foer article last year in the New Republic that documented Western journalists' kowtowing to the Iraqi regime in return for access. And having personally noted for years CNN's fawning, dissident-free coverage of Cuba, I certainly concur with Matt Welch's observation that CNN's bureaus in Havana and Baghdad have been mere "propaganda huts".

But we should remember that the line between CNN's behavior and what might be described as "ordinary journalism" is thinner and less obvious than many would assume. As Mickey Kaus notes, journalists are known to occasionally pen "source-greasers", flattering articles about people (typically incoming office-holders) who they hope will supply them with good material in the future. Such suck-ups can even extend to covering up for a particularly cherished source. For example, Howard Kurtz (quoted in the Daily Howler) claims Jacob Weisberg once admitted, of erstwhile presidential candidate, Vietnam vet, legendary journo-shmoozer and all-around great guy John McCain, that "the press protects him....He delivers these stupid lines all the time. The typical response from journalists is either not to report it or to congratulate him for being so blunt instead of treating it like a gaffe."

In other words, it is not particularly unusual or shocking for journalists to cultivate access to treasured sources by downplaying their misdeeds and granting them obsequiously laudatory coverage. If domestic politicians can get that kind of kid-glove treatment, Jordan must have thought, then why not foreign dictators?

The reason why not, of course, is that Saddam Hussein was far worse than any domestic politician in a democratic society is ever likely to be. His control over the information coming out of Iraq was far tighter than the control exercised by John McCain's campaign manager--indeed, at least some of the McCain remarks allegedly hushed up by the press corps eventually became public anyway. And the evils about which CNN was silent in Iraq were far more horrible, and far more deserving of the audience's attention, than a few embarrassing gaffes by a presidential candidate.

To paraphrase the old joke, we all know--or should know by now, at least--what journalists are, and it's really just the price they're haggling over. Eason Jordan's CNN made the mistake of choosing the wrong customer, surrendering too willingly, and charging too low a price, and now it looks about as cheap and sleazy as a news organization possibly can. Even in the demi-monde of journalism, after all, there are gradations of dignity, and CNN, by shamelessly flirting with tyrants, long ago lost every last shred of its own.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

The bizarrely ambivalent Arab reaction to the fall of Saddam Hussein has consistently shown greater apparent concern for the loss of Iraqi and Arab honor than celebration of Iraqis' gain in freedom, democracy or even physical safety. Oxblog's David Adesnik, true to his inveterate democratic optimism, suggests that the problem is a lack of previous experience of positive effects from Western influences, including democracy. Similarly, Thomas Friedman attributes the negative Arab reaction to the fall of Saddam Hussein to "an entrenched Arab mind-set, born of years of colonialism and humiliation, that insists that upholding Arab dignity and nationalism by defying the West is more important than freedom, democracy and modernization." Optimists such as Adesnik and Daniel Pipes also see an opportunity in the current turmoil for a kind of awakening in the Arab world, as it tries to make sense of the Iraqi experience.

The problem with this theory is illustrated by the Palestinian take on the liberation of Iraq. The Palestinians, of course, have close familiarity with a functioning democracy, and have also experienced firsthand, in recent years, the disastrous effects of the accession to power of a corrupt, militaristic, unaccountable local dictatorship on their own lives. Yet, as I've pointed out before, they still overwhelmingly prefer such a violent dictatorship over any of the peaceful, democratic alternatives.

It's important to remember that this sentiment is no more some kind of idiosyncratic Arab cultural pathology than is the so-called Palestinian "death cult" which celebrates the massacres of Jews in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. In fact, self-sacrificing romantic devotion to a brutal, charismatic, dictatorial leader was quite popular in the heart of Europe in the 1930's, and has probably been the norm throughout history--usually in the context of a monarchy, military state or theocracy.

Democracy is a very recent and, one might say, rather unnatural form of government, comparable to such artificial organizational "technologies" as the traffic light. Once such a mutually beneficial convention has become established by consensus, everyone benefits, and it thus tends to display great resiliency over time. However, establishing the convention to begin with can be difficult, because if it's rejected in advance by a significant fraction of the population, then its beneficial effects are negated--as in the case of locales where traffic lights are routinely ignored, and thus rendered quite useless. Although one never can tell--societies can, after all change radically in amazingly short periods of time--it seems unlikely that the consensus necessary for the convention of democracy to take root is about to form in any large Arab country any time soon.

Tuesday, April 15, 2003

There has been much discussion in pundit circles of the proper role in the future Iraqi government of Ahmed Chalabi, the head of an exile group called the Iraqi National Congress. ("Oxblog's" David Adesnik has something of a roundup of the controversy.) Personally, I had no opinion on the fellow until I learned one crucial fact: apparently, he has a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Chicago.

Having known a number of mathematics PhDs, I can say without the slightest hesitation that under no circumstances should such a person be allowed to run a faculty meeting, let alone a country. Perhaps he should be encouraged to pursue a career in professional football instead.

Okay, maybe he can be allowed to run the new Iraqi army. After all, we certainly wouldn't want him to start feeling frustrated...

Monday, April 14, 2003

Most of the debate between Europe and America over the latter's intervention in Iraq has centered on moral or legal issues: national sovereignty, human rights, democracy, multilateralism, and so on. Framed in that fashion, the argument frequently degenerates into a crossfire of mutual recriminations and indignant assertions of moral absolutes. Robert Kagan, in his celebrated Foreign Affairs article (since padded into a slim book), argues instead for a philosophical explanation for the Euro-American conflict. He sees Europe's disagreements with American foreign policy as stemming from the former's military (and general geopolitical) weakness, which makes it uncomfortable with shows of raw power. "[I]n truth, the ambition for European 'power' is something of an anachronism....even in the realm of “soft” power," writes Kagan. "[T]he political will to demand more power for Europe appears to be lacking, and for the very good reason that Europe does not see a mission for itself that requires power. Its mission is to oppose power."

It's a charming characterization, to be sure. But it flies in the face of the most basic common sense about the conduct of international relations. A far more reliable model assumes all nations to be following at all times a simple set of geopolitical rules:

  • Morality is subservient to state interests, and is of value primarily as a pretext for pursuing those interests;

  • Power, when available, should be exercised maximally, against any other state, if doing so is safe and furthers state interests; and

  • Other states that are immune to such exercises of power should be accommodated, insofar as they cannot be coerced.

    Seen in this light, Kagan's notion of a European emphasis on economic and diplomatic relationships over military ones (as typefied by the EU) can be interpreted as a conscious decision to pursue an alternative route to power. In effect, Europe has decided to cede the military field to America, and to concentrate on the realm of economic and diplomatic power, where it believes it can challenge American hegemony. A prototype for this kind of exercise of power might be the sanctions regimes against South Africa and Rhodesia, which brought about "regime change" in those two countries through economic and diplomatic means alone. European involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict follows a similar pattern; its position has the dual purposes of serving its own economic interests (by placating economically uncoerceable Arab nations with which Europe would like to expand its trade) and maximizing the leverage of its economic and diplomatic power (by exercising it against the one country in the region--Israel--most vulnerable to it).

    Under this interpretation of European power politics, America's vigorous assertion of its military power is threatening because it moves the competition onto ground where Europe is at an overwhelming disadvantage, and thus neutralizes Europe's particular local advantages in the economic and diplomatic spheres. Naturally, America is in the opposite position; where possible, it is inclined to attempt to use its military power to advance its own interests, regardless of the damage it will do to other countries (such as those of Europe).

    It is easy, of course, to apply this analysis to, say, France's anti-war position, and indeed many have done so. But America's stance, as well, is not difficult to characterize as self-interested in the same way. I refer here not to the vapid "it's all about oil" refrains of clueless anti-war protesters, but rather to the simple observation that morality has a more complicated relationship with America's choice of military targets than many American hawks would like to admit.

    For example, China is a dangerous country with a corrupt, oppressive government, but it is also largely immune to American military pressure, because of its large army and nuclear deterrent. It also threatens its neighbors economically, by undercutting their prices when exporting to the West; but that is, from America's point of view, somebody else's problem (chiefly Japan's). Hence America accommodates China, making little noise about its many very serious human rights abuses. In contrast, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was weak enough to intimidate militarily, and the neighbors it threatened were American allies who looked to the US for protection. Hence America spent twelve years applying military pressure to Iraq and ranting about its human rights abuses, culminating in the recent invasion and "regime change". From a European point of view, then, America's behavior certainly appears to be following the aforementioned rules of self-interested exercise of power.

    Substituting Europe for America in the above analysis produces an interesting set of analogies. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was, like China for the US military, impossible for European economic or diplomatic power to coerce, since its leader was immune to diplomatic isolation or the imposition of suffering on its populace. It also posed no economic threat to its neighbors, and its military threat, while real, was someone else's problem (chiefly America's), since no Middle Eastern country would ever have looked to Europe for security against military aggression. Europe's self-interested posture towards Iraq, then, leaned towards accommodation. On the other hand, America--like Israel--is vulnerable (moreso than Iraq) to economic and diplomatic pressure (although the former can only be applied at a substantial cost). Moreover, its military threat has been directed against countries like Iraq, with whom France and Germany had a rather accommodating multibillion-dollar long-term trade relationship. It therefore shouldn't be surprising that Europeans have viewed America as a greater threat than Iraq, and have expended much effort in trying to contain it, rather than Iraq.

    Note that I take no notice in this analysis of protest marches, celebrity stunts, country/Western songs, television images of falling statues or bleeding victims, or any other manifestations or movers of public opinion. But then, public opinion can hardly be said to have determined the behavior of the nations involved in this conflict. Few countries' populations, for example, have presented a cultural "unified front" against the war as seamless as Spain's; yet its political stance was so resolutely pro-war that prime minister Aznar was one of only two leaders invited to meet with George Bush and Tony Blair at the pre-war summit in the Azores. In fact, none of the eight European leaders who signed an open letter backing the American hard line on Iraq could be said to have been pandering to public opinion. It may be that the leaders of all eight (and those who later joined them) were suddenly stricken (after years of indifference) with overwhelming pangs of conscience upon considering the plight of oppressed Iraqis. More likely, though, they were weighing the dispute between the Anglo-American and Franco-German camps, and taking care of their nations' interests by backing the side they figured had the most to offer.

    Now, one can certainly dispute the justice of subordinating moral concerns to calculated self-interest in formulating a national foreign policy. And in the long run, it's certainly the case that the grand acts of states are judged on moral criteria as well as by tactical advantage gained. But if we want to understand why countries behave as they do, rather than whether they should, it's usually more reliable to examine apparent selfish interest as the most likely cause. And none of the parties involved in the lead-up to the Iraq war--not Bush, nor Blair, nor Chirac, nor Schroeder, nor even Saddam Hussein, who was clearly dealt the weakest hand, and nevertheless managed to string it out over the better part of a year--can be said to have acted in a manner inconsistent with the hardheaded, coldhearted pursuit of their nations' material interests.
  • Saturday, April 12, 2003

    A report in the Daily Telegraph detailing spectacular finds at the Baghdad office of the Iraqi intelligence service raises some fascinating possibilities. The most boring, of course, is that it's complete nonsense, and that "obtained by The Telegraph" means "described to The Telegraph's reporter at the hotel bar by a roaring-drunk American intel clerk making stuff up in order to sound important". If it's not just a liquored-up boast in a bar, though, then something truly astonishing has happened. In particular, somebody credible told a Telegraph reporter that Russian intelligence, according to an Iraqi document, had obtained details of a private meeting between Tony Blair and Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.

    Now, if this fact was really discovered in the last couple of days in an Iraqi document cache and promptly passed on to The Telegraph, then somebody's head should be at the top end of a very sharp stick right about now. The last thing the British or Americans could possibly want, after all, is to warn the Russians' source for this information of his/her/their/its new status as a big, fat, semi-exposed counterintelligence target. Indeed, leaking this tidbit to the press is the functional equivalent of a Russian mole within American or British intelligence contacting his controller in Moscow and warning that another agent's cover has been blown. (And if I weren't certain that there are far safer ways to deliver that warning than via a reporter for The Telegraph, I'd suspect that that was precisely what just happened.)

    One might be tempted to believe a more reassuring alternative hypothesis: that the "information" in the document had already been determined to be bogus--that is, that the Russian source was clearly either non-existent or unreliable--and that revealing knowledge of the document had thus been determined to be harmless. But if the source were non-existent, and the report had been fabricated to mislead or merely impress the Iraqis, then the Russians would know that, and would not be fooled by claims that the discovery had been found plausible. And if the source were unreliable--a double agent, say--then the allies would have no reason not to let it keep passing on its "information", its credibility unsullied by newspaper accounts of its activities that strangely failed to lead to exposure.

    An alternative reassuring explanation is (slightly) more plausible: suppose you'd uncovered a really juicy intelligence source being used by the Russians to spy on Tony Blair or Silvio Berlusconi. You've already insulated it from valuable information, and you'd like to just roll it up--make an arrest, expel a diplomat, disable a microphone, whatever. But there's one problem: you discovered this source through a source of your own--a mole in the post-KGB, for instance--and revealing that you've discovered the Russians' source "over here" might cast suspicion on your own source "over there". You're in a bind--until you discover this document in the Iraqi intelligence archives that directly implicates the enemy source. Problem solved! You leak the document to The Telegraph, and you now have a credible explanation for "discovering" the Russian source, one that doesn't involve your prized mole.

    I wish I could say I thought this the most plausible story. Unfortunately, I suspect that it's far more straightforward--a low-level American intel clerk, suitably lubricated, decides to impress a journalist with some real information, and furthermore to indulge in a bit of gloating, in the company of a Brit, over the Swiss-cheese quality of the latter's Majesty's government's security apparatus. If I'm right, then the aforementioned stick is no doubt being sharpened as we speak.

    Then again, I probably just read way too much Le Carre as a kid....

    Thursday, April 10, 2003

    Mark Kleiman, who's normally very thoughtful and reasonable (ask Amitai Etzioni), completely loses it in response to a recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Orthodox religious authority's prohibition against women carrying a torah or wearing a tallit at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Suggesting that Israel is "in the grip of misogynist religious fanatics", he accuses the country of forbidding "open worship by women", and compares the situation to "how the Jordanians forbade Jews to pray at the Wall".

    As Kleiman may or may not be aware (the article he links to is suspiciously ambiguous about this), women certainly are allowed to pray, publicly, at the Wall. They're not allowed to carry a torah or wear a tallit, because the Orthodox religious authorities consider it inappropriate for women to do so. (I doubt the reaction would be any different if, for example, a group of men insisted on trying to pray at the Wall without covering their heads.) Reform and many Conservative Rabbis strongly disagree on this particular point, and have periodically tried to hold services at the Wall according to their own rules. In other words, this is all an internecine dispute between religious factions about proper liturgical practice. It has nothing whatsoever to do with human rights, "misogynistic fundamentalist fanatics" (some consider the Orthodox as such, but this particular issue is a lousy justification for doing so), or permitting "open worship by women".

    In fact, it's perfectly commonplace for religious sites to be governed by religious authorities, who then protect the sanctity of the site by placing restrictions on behavior there. It's also (unfortunately) commonplace for inter-sect disputes to cause tensions over correct practices at such sites. (Anyone who thinks the conflict over the Wall is bad should look into the situation at the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)

    Now, I'm certainly not going to defend using the threat of rioting to enforce one faction's view of correct practices, as was apparently done in this case. But neither is the Supreme Court entitled to meddle with the government's choice of religious authority over this particular holy site. (Note that the current Israeli government is one of the most secular-leaning in decades. On the other hand, this particular issue is not a very high priority for the secular majority, since it only affects the fairly small Israeli Reform and Conservative communities.)

    In any event, likening the recent ruling to the Jordanians' complete ban on Jewish worship at the Western Wall, prior to 1967, is just absurd.

    Wednesday, April 09, 2003

    Daniel Drezner has managed to embrace, in a single paragraph, every single erroneous premise behind the conventional wisdom regarding postwar Iraq. Here's a mild, good-natured mini-Fisking:
    For Operation Iraqi Freedom to succeed, military victories must be followed up with humanitarian victories.
    As the expression goes, tell it to the Marines. Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime have been gutting Iraq for decades. Oil money has been used to fund a massive military and a decadent kleptocracy. Thousands upon thousands were imprisoned, tortured and murdered for political reasons, or for no reason at all. The country is a shambles, and the deterioration would only have continued under Saddam's rule. Merely halting that freefall is by itself a magnificent triumph.
    It's not enough to defeat Saddam's regime, there needs to be tangible evidence that conditions are improving.
    "It's not enough to defeat the Soviet Union, there needs to be tangible evidence that conditions are improving." Actually, economic conditions worsened considerably in Russia for the few years immediately following the end of the Cold War. (Of course, political conditions, while far from perfect, were still substantially better than under Communism.) Can we conclude that Drezner would consider the Cold War a disastrous defeat for the West?
    If not, then Arab satellite networks will simply replace footage of the (relatively few) civilians injured during attacks with footage of squalid living conditions in liberated cities.
    And in the unlikely event of an heroic humanitarian success, can we expect Al Jazeera to fill the airwaves with paeans to American goodwill?

    The Arab satellite networks' anti-American tilt is no more determined by American humanitarian conduct than their coverage of the war was determined by American military conduct. The networks are simply catering to the prejudices of their audiences, which are in turn a product of all sorts of social, economic and domestic political influences that have nothing whatsoever to do with Iraq--or even necessarily with America.

    It would be delightful, of course, if an American-led effort resulted in a rapid, durable reconstruction of a devastated Iraq. It would also be delightful if Al Jazeera were to hail that reconstruction as a laudable American achievement. But the first eventuality is a longshot, the second is practically unthinkable, and the two are in any event nearly entirely uncorrelated. Neither of them should be a necessary condition for declaring the ouster of Saddam Hussein a great American (and British) victory.

    Tuesday, April 08, 2003

    Lots of folks seem to be having loads of fun laughing at, staring dumbfoundedly on, and speculating on the mental state of, the Iraqi Minister of Information, Mohammed Al-Sahhaf (colloquially known as "Baghdad Bob"). While the amusement is understandable, the amazement isn't.

    When you are the spokesman for a totalitarian regime, your goal is not credibility through honesty, but rather credibility through fear--to convince your government's citizens that it is in the interests of their personal safety and security to believe your statements absolutely (or at least to be seen to do so). Baghdad Bob has never been worried about looking stupid or crazy in front of his people, as long as they don't dare say so. In fact, a totalitarian regime actually gains strength by being perceived as powerful and ruthless enough to motivate its citizens to say the most absurd things in its support.

    Even in its current dire state, the regime has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by vigorously asserting Al-Sahhaf's nonsense. After all, he had no credibility whatsoever to lose among those who laugh at him now. And if even a handful of people still believe him--or more importantly, believe the underlying message that the regime is not dead, could survive, and will come looking for anyone who did not behave as though they believed him--those people will cooperate with the forces of the regime, rather than the coalition, and he will have thus increased his own chances of survival, however slightly.

    Those who are baffled by his ludicrous bombast are obviously very lucky to have been so sheltered from totalitarianism that its workings are incomprehensibly alien to them. But the less fortunate understand all too well the terrible threat behind the propagandist's clownish lies, and recognize that Baghdad Bob's brand of humor is not absurdist, but rather very, very dark.
    Many thanks to my readers--this blog has already achieved over 100,000 hits this week, apart from some technicalities.

    Monday, April 07, 2003

    News flash: Saddam Hussein's cousin has officially changed his nickname to "Embalming Chemical" Ali.

    Sunday, April 06, 2003

    Judith Weiss of Kesher Talk, contributing to the Command Post, directs our attention to an astonishing "slideshow" collection of photographs in the New York Times, depicting the capture of Baghdad's airport by US troops. Viewing it drives home just how massively the digital technology revolution has changed our view of the world:

  • Before digital imaging and satellite transmission, it would have been impossible for such vivid pictures to have passed so quickly from the photographer's camera to the New York Times.

  • Before the World Wide Web, it would likely have taken several days for them to reach my home in any form, even had I been a Times subscriber--and given that I'm not, I would never have known to look for them.

  • Before modern digital image editiing software, it would never have occurred to me, on seeing these photos, to cock a skeptical eyebrow and mutter to myself, "Photoshop?"
  • Meryl Yourish perceives an anti-Israel--and perhaps even anti-Semitic--strain in the positions and rhetoric of today's left in general, and the Democratic Party in particular. Israeli-American blogger "Haggai" disagrees, arguing that while some of the ferment on the left's radical fringe may be disturbing, the mainstream Democratic Party--as typefied by the largely pro-Israel frontrunners in the 2004 candidacy race--is still at least as supportive of Israel as the Republicans.

    I agree with Haggai that anti-Semitism hasn't made serious inroads into mainstream American politics, in either party. I also agree with him that describing Bill Clinton as anti-Israel (as Yourish does) is extremely unfair. One may certainly object to his administration's policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in hindsight one would have a pretty strong case. But it's hard to find daylight between his position at the time and that of Ehud Barak, who was, after all, voted into power by a solid majority of the Israeli electorate. A policy that is supported by most Israelis can't really be called anti-Israel.

    On the other hand, the collapse of the peace process has unmistakably changed the political equation in the US with respect to Israel. Today, a pro-Israel position simply "fits" better in the Republican Party than among the Democrats. Affection for Europe and the UN, the Israeli Labor Party, Israel's peace camp, and negotiation over confrontation in general all tend to draw the Democratic Party away from the current Israeli government, while the opposite tendencies in the Republican Party tend to draw it more towards Sharon and his coalition. September 11th only intensified these trends, by adding into the mix the differing approaches of the Democrats and Republicans to Iraq, terrorism and the Arab world in general--again, with the Republicans finding more in common with Israel than the Democrats.

    Now, I'm not claiming that this movement has any kind of deep moral significance. It's easy for those of us to whom Israel is important to forget that for the vast majority of the world's people, Israel is like any other country (and there are literally dozens) locked in a regional battle. Opinions on it thus tend to line up somewhat arbitrarily based on the kind of vague partisan correlations I've described. They can also flip fairly quickly; consider, for instance, the contrasts between the administrations of, say, Carter and Clinton, or Bush the father and Bush the son.

    Precisely because these views are not terribly deeply-held or carefully-considered, they tend to be quite simple and polarized ("Israel is intransigent and belligerent", or "Israel is a valuable and steadfast ally"), and to determine opinions on particular sub-issues (peace plans, violent incidents) irrespective of the details of the sub-issues themselves. For a typical Democratic or Republican Party activist, the obscure fine points of the "road map" proposal, for example, will inevitably take a back seat to their party's overall perceptions of the reasonableness of the Israeli government. And today, those overall perceptions will be considerably more positive among Republicans than among Democrats.

    For Americans who consider their domestic partisanship far more important than a minor, faraway conflict, there is no apparent harm in forming opinions on the latter in this somewhat capricious manner. Conversely, those who feel strongly about Israel should be prepared to be as nimble in their partisan affinities as major parties are in their Middle Eastern ones. Meryl and Haggai are, of course, free to decide which category they belong to.
    A gushing puff piece has appeared in the Jerusalem Post on recent improvements in the Israeli government's public relations program. It claims that dynamic new leadership and better organization are why "Jewish and Israeli media professionals can now be proud of a public affairs apparatus which is equilvant [sic] to anything that Burson-Marsteller or Hill and Knowlton could churn out."

    Now I have no doubt that the dedicated flacks staffing the government's brand-spanking-new "National Information Center" are among Israel's finest. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if their work has improved of late, then there is at least one other factor at work: the development in Israel of a consistent, unifying consensus position to attempt to sell to the world. When a country--and even a government--is bitterly divided on fundamental issues, it will inevitably have trouble fending off criticisms (that some in the government may partly share) and convince skeptical foreigners of their case (of which many of the natives themselves may not be convinced). It's also obviously difficult to attract skilled personnel and organize an effective PR effort to convey an ambiguous, confused, halfhearted message.

    One example: during my visit to Israel last August, I was given to understand that the Israeli Foreign Ministry under Shimon Peres had a policy of not directly attacking Yasser Arafat. One can only imagine the difficulty of trying to get Israel's message across to the world under such constraints--and the beneficial effects of lifting them.

    Thursday, April 03, 2003

    If you really wanted to peer into the heart of Baghdad, into Saddam's inner sanctum, and discern whether the Iraqi government is on the verge of collapse or ready to hang on grimly till the bitter end, where would you turn? Well, if you're Slate's "military analysis" columnist, Fred Kaplan, you'd read the latest papers and check out what the politicians are saying. The Saudi foreign minister, for example, just renewed his offer of exile to the Iraqi leader. The German chancellor and foreign minister made some positive noises about a possible impending collapse of the Iraqi regime. And the Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah, who had been under house arrest in Najaf, has just rescinded his order--made while under Iraqi guard--to resist American forces.

    Now, what on earth could possibly cause all these people (who probably also read the papers, just like Kaplan) to suspect Saddam might be in trouble, unless they're privy to extra-special, top-secret inside information--say, about American tanks converging rapidly on Baghdad--that the rest of us could never imagine having access to? "Surely Saddam's allies shifting into neutral, neutrals relishing his downfall, and local foes moving into open opposition mean something," writes Kaplan. For example, it might mean that many foreign government officials watch CNN.

    So much for Slate's "military analysis."
    Now that the war in Iraq seems to be moving rapidly towards its foregone conclusion, commentators are focusing their attention on the anticipated aftermath. Pessimists like Joshua Micah Marshall and Robert Wright envision an out-of-control neoconservative-ridden Bush administration attempting replays of the Iraq war throughout the Middle East, trying and failing to establish region-wide democracy, and instead merely ratcheting up anti-American hatred and, ultimately, terrorism. Optimists like Daniel Drezner are more sanguine about democracy's prospects in Iraq, although, as Mickey Kaus points out (and Drezner agrees), the prospects for the neoconservative "grand regional plan" outlined by Marshall look bleak.

    But these terms of debate massively overstate the appropriate success criteria for the Iraq campaign. Consider the case of Afghanistan: it's not likely to be a democracy anytime soon, but while some might argue that the US is not doing enough to resuscitate that country, few would consider the campaign to liberate it from the Taliban a failure. There's no reason why similar criteria can't apply to Iraq: if it's cleansed of non-conventional weapons, and left with a government that's less anti-American, less threatening to its neighbors, and less cruel to its own people than the previous regime--surely not a hopelessly ambitious set of goals, given the baseline set by Saddam Hussein--then there would be no reason not to congratulate the US (and allied) Armed Forces on a successful mission.

    As for the popular argument that the war will only inflame anti-Americanism in the "Arab street", leading to more Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, there are good reasons to doubt this prognosis:

  • There is no shortage of terrorist recruits today; millions are already ready to fight and die to kill Americans for Islam. Yet since 9/11, al Qaida has been seriously weakened, and no comparable terrorist organization has arisen to replace it. Clearly, the existence of multitudes of zealous volunteers is not the limiting factor in determining the success of Islamist terrorism overall. To the extent that other factors--such as the willingness of regional governments to suppress terrorist activity within their borders--are decisive, it makes sense to concentrate on those.

  • There is no necessary correlation between the hostility of Arab/Muslim governments towards America and the feelings of their people. Jordan, for example, is chock-full of bitter Anti-American fanatics, whereas Iran actually sees large pro-American demonstrations from time to time. There's no question, though, which government is more friendly to America, and which is more threatening.

  • To the extent that public opinion matters in the Middle East, there is simply no reason to believe that such actions as the war in Iraq turn more people against America than any of the alternatives. Lest we forget, America spent the decade following the Gulf War making nice with Islamic countries, defending Muslims in Kosovo and devoting all its energies to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During that period, anti-Americanism in the Middle East flourished as never before, culminating in the atrocity of 9/11--which was widely celebrated throughout the Muslim world.

  • Now, I don't deny that the Bush administration could conceivably botch the aftermath of the Iraq war completely, provoking Iraqi and broader Arab and Muslim hostility. (My best advice to the US would be to install an indigineous government with the aforementioned desirable properties as soon as possible, and then get the hell out before foreign soldier rage kicks in.) But lest anybody forget, exactly the same predictions of doom were made following the war in Afghanistan. Yet far from inflaming anti-Americanism, the ouster of the Taliban seemed--for a while at least--to have had a remarkable damping effect on it. The ouster of Saddam Hussein may well end up doing the same.

    Tuesday, April 01, 2003

    Gideon Rose, Fareed Zakaria's successor at Foreign Affairs, has come up with a novel variation on the Bush-is-blowing-it school of diplomatic criticism: never mind the EU--the administration should have been more assiduous about getting its own bureaucrats on board before attacking Iraq. "[W]hat has been truly breathtaking has been the speed with which elements of all the major national security bureaucracies have openly distanced themselves from the war plan," writes Rose. "This blowback owes as much to the style of the administration's politics as to the substance of its policies."

    If true, this is all very good news for the Bush administration. Of course, if the war takes a significant turn for the worse, then the voices of dissent (more accurately, the voices of frantic posterior-covering) in the bowels of the federal security establishment will grow much, much louder and more insistent. But in such a case the administration, having staked its credibility on a failed military campaign, would obviously be in deep trouble anyway.

    On the other hand, if the war continues to go as well as it has so far--that is, not perfectly, but very well indeed--then the chorus of don't-blame-mes piping up out of the bureaucracy will turn with astonishing speed into the proud kvellings of success' thousand fathers. And if Rose is correct in lumping together "those at home and abroad who might well have been brought to some grudging support for this war had it been sold more honestly, more tactfully, and in less revolutionary terms", then the opportunistic grumbling from America's fair-weather allies will presumably be silenced as well, once the war has been won.

    Prediction: following the fall of Baghdad, the French papers will be full of bitter recriminations from anonymous French bureaucrats who "knew all along" that Jacques Chirac's reckless unilateralism was overambitious, unsustainable and doomed to failure.