Monday, April 26, 2004

I suppose it's not surprising that a respected international relations guru would propose an original idea about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and that two prominent bloggers would pronounce it brilliantly correct--despite its being one of the stupidest ideas proposed on the subject in a long time.

The guru in question, Walter Russell Mead, argues that "the greatest single cause of anti-Americanism in the Middle East today is not the war in Iraq; more surprisingly, it is not even American support for Israel, per se. Rather, it is a widespread belief that the United States simply does not care about the rights or needs of the Palestinian people." He proposes that the US organize an effort to compensate Palestinian refugees financially for their losses in 1948, and help them (again financially) to integrate into their current countries of residence, or else into a future Palestinian state.

Mead claims to have come to his conclusions after "meeting diplomats, officials, policy experts, military leaders, students and ordinary citizens" throughout the Arab world. It's hard to imagine, though, where he might have met these people. In Kuwait, where Palestinian transient workers were expelled en masse in 1991 for supporting Saddam Hussein's invasion? Iraq, where Palestinians have been similarly reviled after the liberation, because of their alliance with the hated Saddam? Lebanon, where Palestinians are denied citizenship, confined to refugee camps, and widely blamed for the disruption that led to the civil war that began in 1975? Egypt, which controlled the Gaza strip for nineteen years, yet did nothing to help Palestinian refugees during that time, leaving it to a UN organization (UNRWA) to provide them with day-to-day help?

Today, the entire Arab world contributes less than four percent of the annual budget of UNRWA, . The US provides thirty percent. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is a major financial supporter of Palestinians--provided that they're terrorists. The facts simply don't support the claim that Arab sympathy for the Palestinian cause is anything more than a vehicle for venting hatred against Americans and Israel (or, more accurately, Jews).

Why, then, would Mead and his supportive bloggers embrace such a nonsensical idea? Most likely, it's because they want to. After all, the thesis has several attractive qualities: it offers a simple solution to a problem (Arab hatred of America) that seems otherwise intractable; it requires neither an ugly, possibly violent confrontation with hate-filled opponents nor an embarrassing public capitulation to them; and it allows for American relations with both Palestinians in particular and Arab nations in general to be improved without jeopardizing America's friendship with Israel.

In fact, if it had the merest shred of a connection to reality, it would no doubt be a truly brilliant idea.
Apparently, in the wake of the recent troubles in Iraq, at least one conservative supporter of the American campaign there has developed doubts about the administration's handling of the Iraq campaign's aftermath. Three bloggers have cried foul in response, arguing (in Matthew Yglesias' words) that
When George W. Bush is president and is advocating a war and you, too, are advocating for war, then the fact of the matter is that you are advocating that the war be conducted by George W. Bush. That Bush would botch things was a perfectly predictable consequence of said support, based on--among other things--the fact that he'd botched everything else he'd ever done.
Or, as Kieran Healy puts it,
[S]upporters of the war can’t run away from the problems of its aftermath just because they personally might have done things differently, because frankly anyone who knew anything about both the Bush administration and the complexities of a war in Iraq could have predicted that it was going to be a mess.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it "proves too much". After all, numerous opponents of the Iraq war complained that it would waste too many soldiers' lives, while provoking massive worldwide hostility to America and neglecting the effort to eradicate Al Qaida. Surely, though, those opponents must have known that this administration would have found ways to get troops killed while alienating world opinion and falling down on the anti-terrorism job, even had it not chosen to target Iraq. Shouldn't they have been thankful, then, that at least the war in Iraq would topple a horrible dictator in the process?

A more reasonable discussion of the pros and cons of the Iraq campaign, I think, needs to be independent of whether the Bush administration can be assumed a priori to be evil and/or incompetent. And the striking thing about all of the aforementioned retrospective assessments of the war is their astonishing level of collective amnesia. The remarkably short, painless, casualty-free conduct of the military campaign itself has apparently now reached the status of an a priori given, and its effectiveness is therefore currently understood to be best measured by the state of Iraq's transition into peaceful, united, democratic statehood.

Now, there's no doubt that some supporters of the Iraq war have set themselves up for failure by creating absurdly optimistic expectations for Iraq's miraculous metamorphosis from fascist hellhole to democratic role model. But that's no excuse for the rest of us to live in their dreamworld. Iraq is, and most likely will continue to be, a far better place for Saddam Hussein's having been toppled. To be dissatisfied at the lack of more spectacular progress there is to embrace the neocons' own fantasies of democratic transformation--a rather poor position from which to critique them.

If one starts from my initial position, however--that is, sincere ambivalence about a risky, potentially catastrophic military incursion with the sole goal of ousting a horrible, dangerous military dictator--then the whole project looks markedly better in retrospect than it did at the outset. It's true that no "weapons of mass destruction" have been found--although few doubt that a chemical weapons program would have been easy for Saddam to reconstitute, given that he had had a highly successful one in the past. On the other hand, the strongest argument against the war--the largely unuttered "body bags" argument", envisioning a long, drawn-out, horribly bloody campaign involving thousands of civilian and military deaths--turned out in the end to have been completely contradicted by events.

I've already made it clear numerous times that I consider the grand effort to democratize Iraq to be naively optimistic. And I suppose it's possible that by hanging around for long enough, the American army could ultimately damage its country's strategic position enough to undo its spectacular victory in Iraq. But to declare the current circumstances there a disaster based on a little continued unrest is to lose track of the recent history of that troubled country--which about a year ago experienced, despite a few bumps since, a truly wonderful upturn in its fortunes, thanks to its friends from the United States of America.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

John Holbo at Crooked Timber ridicules as "wrong on both counts" Anne Applebaum's lament that "Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it [and] High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it." The comments responding to his posting are generally divided between those who wholeheartedly agree with him and those who agree with Applebaum's criticism of popular culture, while defending high culture.

I'm hardly surprised that Crooked Timber's relatively intellectual members and audience share a common sympathy for "high culture", and are inclined to rise to its defense while lambasting popular culture. But it seems utterly obvious to me that they have everything entirely backwards. Popular culture doesn't "hate" high culture, but rather alternates between ignoring it and paying homage to it. The slighting references to it in pop-culture contexts, cited indignantly by Crooked Timberites, are only noticeable to someone looking very hard for them; more typical are ostentatious references to familiar classics, intended to lend an aura of dignity to otherwise low-to-middlebrow fare. Meanwhile, as I pointed out some time ago, art forms such as poetry separate themselves so much from their popular equivalents--such as hiphop--as to refuse even to consider themselves part of the same art form, for fear of being recognized as pitifully irrelevant by comparison.

The fact that modern leftists tend to be allies of high culture is somewhat ironic, for the very notion of "high art", which is not much more than a hundred years old, is largely a reactionary upper-class response to the rise of the middle class during the industrial revolution, and its undermining of the aristocracy's traditional patronage-based control over culture. Once old money could no longer outbid the masses for the allegiances of artists, it became necessary to justify the former's tastemakership some other way--and Matthew Arnold helpfully provided it. The nineteenth-century left, for their part, had little use for his snobbish depiction of art as moral instructor with which to civilize the Philistines (read: commoners), and expected artists to serve the workingman humbly alongside all the other bourgeois parasites living off his labors.

It was another movement, bohemianism, that turned out to be the savior of "high art", as it careened towards irrelevancy along with the vanishing ruling class it served. The original Bohemians rejected the new cultural dominance of the mass market, and rightly observed that the surplus wealth of a modern economy offered an alternative: idiosyncratic art generated for a small audience. While it couldn't compete with mass-appeal art, it could still support a single artist willing to sacrifice comfort for freedom.

From the perspective of the recently-dethroned patrons of high art, however, the Bohemians' oevre displayed certain very attractive qualities: it was smaller-scale, harder to find, and usually more difficult to appreciate than the mass-market kind. It thus offered a cultural playing field on which the leisure class, simply by applying its reserves of spare time, could claim to outperform the average consumer of popular art. And while money was declining as a definer of class, education, socialization and leisure became more central to elite identity. The upper classes soon adopted the avant-garde art of the Bohemians and their successors as their new symbol of cultural superiority, replacing Arnold's beloved instructive classics.

Today, most defenders of "high art" think nothing of lumping the reams of ephemeral drivel produced by modernist poets, avant-garde composers, "conceptual artists" and unreadable authors together with the likes of Shakespeare, Mozart or Rembrandt. In fact, they share nothing, apart from a common rival: popular culture, which threatens to obscure the earlier greats and obliterate the modern mediocrities entirely.

Indeed, the high-popular distinction would not even have been recognized by the pantheon of classic heroes, most of whom catered unembarrassedly to popular audiences. (The latter's tastes were, in practice, not always much inferior to those of the wealthiest patrons.) Rather, the current practice of elevating certain types of art to an exalted plane is more a product of a century's worth of class warfare than of any serious aesthetic consideration.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

The burst of panic over the current unrest in Iraq is somewhat amusing to those of us old fogeys whose memories extend back as far as those long-ago days of, oh, around mid-2003. Back then, if you'll recall, a fairly large, well-organized insurgency was running an effective guerrilla campaign against the occupying US troops, inflicting steady casualties and preventing order from being imposed on several major locales. Military operations against the insurgents were allegedly killing, injuring or just inconveniencing large numbers of Iraqi civilians, provoking them to resent and even oppose the American occupiers. The way was thus supposedly being paved for the return of a revitalized Saddam Hussein on the heels of a fleeing US occupation force, sick of taking bullets for a sullen, hostile populace.

Today, despite appearances, the combined Sunni-Shia "uprising" is not a serious threat to the US occupation forces. I expect that within a few weeks at most, the rebellion will have been thoroughly quashed, Muqtada al-Sadr will be either killed, captured or in hiding, and American troops will once again be in fairly complete control of Iraq. Unfortunately, that's where the Americans' problem starts.

For the current unrest is not really a severe problem in itself, but rather a symptom of a much larger one: the massive power vaccuum into which former Ba'athists and al-Sadr are attempting to step. The Americans have concentrated excessively on "reconstruction" and democracy, rather than building a credible (that is, sufficiently force-projecting) domestic alternative to the former Ba'athist power structure. Worse still, they've announced their intention to, in effect, cut and run by mid-year, handing over authority to a pitifully weak provisional government. The door has thus been opened for both Sunni remnants of the old regime and Shia agents of neighboring Iran to fill the void the US troops will leave behind.

I argued eight months ago that the pursuit of democracy in Iraq was getting in the way of the urgently-needed process of building a credible governmental power structure there, and that the consequences of these misplaced priorities would be disastrous for both the US and Iraq. This past week's troubles are not themselves the disastrous consequences of which I spoke. Rather, they are a mere hint of the chaos that will reign--and the ease with which foreign powers like Iran will exploit it--if the Americans stick to their publicly stated plans.