Tuesday, June 22, 2004

According to the Guardian, a "senior US intelligence official" is about to publish a book that amounts to a "bitter condemnation of America's counter-terrorism policy, arguing that the west is losing the war against al-Qaida and that an 'avaricious, premeditated, unprovoked' war in Iraq has played into Osama bin Laden's hands." Spencer Ackerman has apparently interviewed the book's anonymous author, giving a fairly detailed picture of his view of the war on terror. (NBC's Andrea Mitchell has also interviewed him.)

All in all, the position taken by "Anonymous" is not a surprising one for a foreign policy bureaucrat to take. It is, however, surprising coming from an American foreign policy bureaucrat. For his words perfectly encapsulate the worldview that has dominated European foreign policy thinking for decades. It is a worldview, in particular, that will be strikingly familiar to any student of a certain British statesman, circa 1938.

Consider his characterization of Al Qaida: the enemy are extremely angry, and not entirely without justification. ("Bin Laden's critique presents in resonant Islamic terminology a coherent jihadist explanation for practically everything Muslims can find offensive about the U.S.") Confronting the enemy would entail unspeakable bloodshed on the most massive scale imaginable. ("To secure as much of our way of life as possible, we will have to use military force in the way Americans used it on the fields of Virginia and Georgia, in France and on Pacific islands, and from skies over Tokyo and Dresden....this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America's only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.") Fortunately, the enemy's grievances are limited and regional. ("U.S. support for Israel that keeps the Palestinians in the Israelis' thrall; U.S. and other Western troops on the Arabian peninsula; U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; U.S. support for Russia, India and China against their Muslim militants; U.S. pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low; U.S. support for apostate, corrupt and tyrannical Muslim governments.") We can therefore avoid confrontation--and the resulting horrific carnage--by acceding to the enemy's demands. ("I think we should look somewhat at our relationship with Israel. Clearly we need an energy policy, not just in the United States but in the West, that makes us less dependent on oil out of the Gulf. For myself, I can't figure out what American interest we would have in Saudi Arabia if it wasn't for oil.") Then they will happily return to butchering their minorities and leave us alone. ("If they all killed each other to their heart's content, it wouldn't affect America at all.")

Now, it should be noted that despite its most famous calamitous failure, appeasement--as characterized by the above list of principles--isn't an obviously foolish strategy in every instance. As applied to Europe's rebellious colonies, for example, it provided a fairly apt justification for a war-weary continent to disengage from its troublesome overseas possessions--a policy which had plenty to recommend it at the time, and even in retrospect can claim at least one spectacular success (India) and many positive results for postcolonial Europe (if not always for the populations of the former colonies themselves). Clearly, appeasement's costs and benefits must be evaluated for each case independently.

How well, then, does European-style appeasement apply to America's war on terror? Two crucial incompatibilities leap to mind. First of all, the radical Islamists' goals--however limited they may have been at the start--are clearly no longer merely regional. Their rhetoric, their global reach, their choice of targets--all point to a movement dedicated to attacking "infidels" wherever they may be found, not merely in the Middle East. (Indeed, pace "Anonymous", Al Qaida has shown remarkably little interest in Israel for a supposedly regionally-focused organization.)

Even more jarring, though, is Anonymous' assertion that apocalyptic levels of violence will be necessary to crush Al Qaida. ("They've ridden out two wars. They're on the offensive at the moment. What are we left with? If we don't use our military power, we really just sit and take it.") His claim that the war in Afghanistan was a complete failure demonstrates the absurdity of this view: "[soon] you're going to have a government back in Kabul that looks like the Taliban, perhaps under a different name." Perhaps, but the last Taliban government crumbled completely in a couple of months at the hands of a ragtag rebel army, assisted by a few well-placed American smart bombs and special forces ops.

And that's the real weakness of the appeasers' claim that America's military prospects are hopeless: Al Qaida is not Nazi Germany, with a formidable modern army poised to conquer Europe. It's not even Iraq under Saddam Hussein, with a large-but-decrepit army and rumored caches of chemical and biological weapons. It's a terrorist organization with no territory of its own, hiding out among allies in a few regions where at least some of the locals are friendly. Such groups make enemies as easily as they make friends, and America only has to help those enemies enough to keep the balance of power firmly weighted on America's side.

Afghanistan has already fallen; Pakistan appears to have been won over, after a couple of failed assassination attempts clarified the Pakistani president's thinking somewhat; and Saudi Arabia's royal family now has ample reason to respond to Al Qaida's threat to its own hold on power. However chaotic Iraq may be right now, there will doubtless be plenty of Shiites and Kurds eager to accept American help in subduing al Qaida-allied Sunnis, the descendants of Saddam's murderous henchmen. Where, then, will the terrorists go? Syria? Iran? Dangerous enemies to be sure--but again, regimes that are not exactly world powers, and not without regional (and even domestic) adversaries of their own. If this is the threat of which "Anonymous" speaks, then one can only imagine how frightened he must have been of Saddam Hussein, who now inhabits an American-run prison. Rank timidity and abject capitulation in the face of any threat of violence may seem like a perfectly reasonable prescription for toothless Europeans, but it's strange advice to offer to a well-armed, assertive America. I'm afraid Anonymous has wasted his career on the wrong continent.

Monday, June 21, 2004

Conspirator Eugene Volokh has been hosting a discussion of the controversial topic of what makes a man sexy, and whether modern men are up to snuff in that department. It all began with a comment from a friend of his to the effect that "most men can learn to be sexy", but that "most men don't really want to be sexy; they want sexy to be them". That is, they "behave as if the only life possibilities are being the way they are, or acting. The idea of growth and change don't make the radar." [sic]

There followed claims that men do try to be sexy, but in the wrong ways (i.e., by being financially successful, instead of elegant or charming); that male sexiness is a matter of confidence--which specifically includes comfort with one's natural self; and that women create the problem by being forgiving of poor presentation in men, while the latter are far more exacting in their standards regarding women.

What puzzles me about the whole discussion is that it takes for granted Prof. Volokh's friend's original assertion that modern men are unwilling to pursue sexiness to please women. Yet, within my lifetime, I've witnessed a veritable revolution in men's fashion, in which it has become perfectly acceptable (for some, positively mandatory) for a man to spend hours per week at the gym, building his muscles, large amounts of money on exotic hair and skin care products (and considerable time each day applying these products), and even larger amounts of money on conspicuously labeled designer clothes that at one time were seen, when worn by men, as the very symbol of risible superficiality.

In fact, the real novelty of the complaint that began the discussion is that it was phrased, not as a romantic wish for an idealized Prince Charming, but rather as a mildly petulant scolding of the not-up-to-snuff male. Of course, revulsion at slovenly, charmless men is hardly new--these were the heroines' dreaded matches in countless traditional romances of past eras. Today, though, women are not bound by the need to secure their material futures through such unappealing marriages--they can fend for themselves in the job market quite nicely, thank you. As a result, they are free to demand more from men--the same things, in fact, that men have always demanded from them: conformity to their own ideal of attractiveness and charm in the opposite sex.

And men are complying in droves, toning their muscles and highlighting their hair as demanded by the new, independent woman. No wonder Prof. Volokh's friend feels free to ridicule the blindly self-satisfied male as hopelessly uncompetitive--for in today's market, that's what he is.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

I have a long-term interest in "freedom of speech", and in trying to understand and explicate what it means, or at least what it should mean. I am not especially interested in what any particular law or constitution or court has said about this. Rather, I am interested in what freedom of speech should mean, and in what laws our legislators should make regarding freedom of speech. Some of what follows is original, and some is not.

"Freedom of speech" means, in its simplest form, the freedom for me to speak to people who want to listen to me. This is indistinguishable from the "freedom to listen", that is, the freedom to listen to those who want to speak to me. I think it is also indistinguishable from freedom to write (to those who want to read me) and freedom to read (those who write for me). It is a special, and most important, case of freedom of association and freedom of activity between mutually consenting adults.

There are many issues that have to be discussed relating to this. Some examples are: libel and slander, copyright, conspiratorial speech, crime facilitating speech, crime inciting speech, advertising speech. I hope to address all of these in the future. For now, let me just say that libel and slander laws do such immense harm to freedom of speech and give us so little in return, that I think we should completely get rid of these laws.

What I want to address for now are some aspects of the issue of how the Speaker and the Listener get together. Some of this is very difficult. For example, what laws, if any, should there be restricting "spam"? After all, one man's annoying spam is another man's perceived penile improvement.

But some things are simple. If you want to speak to someone who you know doesn't want to listen to you, then this is not your right by freedom of speech, and it interferes with his right to freedom of association. For example, some people have suggested that protesters have the right to "confront Bush". But in fact, no one has (or should have) the right to confront anyone (other than law-breakers) who wishes not to be confronted.

So what then is the legitimate purpose of protesters? The legitimate purpose of protesters, or demonstrators, is to present information and opinions to those who might care to hear them. The targets of their statements are probably not the object of their protest but rather potential sympathizers, and decisions about how and where they should be permitted to protest should take this into account. Now I realize this is easier to say than to do, especially since we shouldn't expect or desire our public officials to make decisions about public speech that are too subtle. But there is no reason we should go out of our way to protect the right of some people to harass others.

For example, if I shouldn't be allowed to harass a co-worker by following her and imposing my views on her, then I shouldn't be allowed to get together with my friends and harass people going to an abortion clinic. Or harass delegates at a conference under the guise of an "anti-globalization" protest.

Now I am more for free speech than just about anybody, but we should realize that massive, harassing, often threatening demonstrations are not about speech, but rather they have more in common with a riot -- in which case they shouldn't be allowed, or with a parade -- in which case parade permits should be issued for use of public land on whatever basis parade permits are issued. In practice these massive demonstrations are very much against freedom of speech, since the participants usually do every thing they can to inhibit and drown out the speech of those they disagree with. I don't know exactly how demonstrations should be constrained, but the goal should be to minimize harassment and maximize the number of different views expressed that can possibly influence people.

A related issue concerns the question of when it is right to send someone a complaining letter/email/phone-call. Since we don't know how to regulate spam I don't expect we will be able to regulate this, but at least we can think about the morality of the situation. A typical example is when an ivy league professor says that Bush is worse than Hitler and what the U.S. really needs is to be attacked a lot more by terrorists. A typical response by outraged bloggers is that everyone who is disgusted by this should send the writer complaining email; a phone call or two wouldn't hurt either. Why do they advocate this? Are they seriously trying to change this person's views? No, they are merely trying to harass him so that he will think twice about making such statements in the future. I have been on the receiving end of such harassment, the perpetrators being ivy-league-professor-types and their friends. The real harm done by such professors is not the disgusting public statements they make, and not even the much more damaging harm they do by imposing their views in their classrooms, but rather their near total success at intimidating colleagues who disagree with them into silence. We should fight this intimidation, and not become part of it.

A similar problem arises with a recent remark by Tim Blair, who is well-intentioned and who I generally respect. Unfortunately he thinks that because Jon Bon Jovi made some public statements that some people disagreed with, it is appropriate for those people to drive by his house and shout things out. I don't think it is appropriate, and I don't think harassment like this should be legal.

I hope to write more on this subject. By the way, the best writer on the internet on Freedom of Speech, Eugene Volokh, has also discussed many of these issues here.

I've updated this post, adding a 4th item to the list of things bloggers shouldn't do.

Monday, June 14, 2004

The passing of Ronald Reagan has reignited the debate over his role in the death of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The standard conservative line, expressed, for instance, by John Lewis Gaddis, is that Reagan's expensive arms buildup forced the Soviet Union into a level of military competition that it was economically unable to sustain without either reforming politically or collapsing economically. As Gaddis quotes Reagan: "capitalism had given us a powerful weapon in our battle against Communism – money. The Russians could never win the arms race; we could outspend them forever."

The problem with this theory is that economic hardship and military competition have never succeeded in bringing down a ruling Communist regime, before or since. Former Soviet acolytes Cuba and North Korea, as well as China under Mao, continued their militarily aggressive and brutally oppressive ways through economic catastrophes far worse than the Soviet Union suffered during the 1980s. Likewise, non-communist dictatorships throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and even the former Soviet Union itself have flourished during massive economic failure--and some have even found the resources for foreign military ventures along the way. Apparently, ruthless repression, combined with control by fiat of an entire nation's wealth, can compensate for a lot of economic mismanagement in winning obedience from one's downtrodden populace.

An alternate theory, more palatable to liberals, is that it was American engagement and detente, not competition, that brought down the Soviet Union. I had thought that a previous version of this thesis--that the Helsinki accords fatally undermined the Soviet Union's claim to legitimacy, by committing it on paper to respect human rights--was about as ludicrous a version of that theory as one could ever hope to find. But a recent variation, touted by Slate's David Greenberg, and by John Patrick Diggins in the New York Times, is even more laughable: it credits Reagan himself, who, by being friendly and accommodating towards Chairman Gorbachev, supposedly seduced him into enacting reforms that were fatal to the Communist Party.

Putting aside the ridiculous idea that a Soviet dictator would agree to dismantle the apparatus of his own power as a result of the beguiling charms of an American president, the simple fact is that Reagan spent most of his administration confronting and denouncing the Soviets whenever possible, declaring his expectation that Communism would disintigrate and his intention of speeding the process as much as he could. He did talk face-to-face with Gorbachev at several summits, and reportedly they were on good terms. But any Soviet leader who could be talked out of power by a charming foreigner would have been talked out of power by one of his more ambitious comrades in the Party long before reaching the top.

Of course, we're left with the question of why the Soviet Union did collapse, if not as a result of Reagan's bluster or charm. Slate's Fred Kaplan implicitly offers an intially plausible theory: that the Soviet Union fell because Mikhail Gorbachev, the top of the Soviet pyramid, recklessly initiated a whole set of reforms that quickly and fatally undermined his own Party's hold on power. The attraction of the theory is that it fits our normal picture of autocracy: if the autocrat's word is law, then the autocrat's decisions--including those that result in a complete surrender of power--will be obeyed.

However, the Soviet Union was not an autocracy tout court, but rather an institutional oligarchy, with a ruling party instead of a ruling despot. Such regimes usually act to save themselves even in the face of squeamish leadership--think, for instance, of the Chinese Communist Party's purge of Zhao Ziyang for lacking the stomach to attack the Tienanmen protesters, or General Jaruzelski's declaration of martial law in Poland, overthrowing the civilian communist leadership, in order to crush Lech Walesa's Solidarity union.

There have, it is true, been cases of such institutional oligarchies giving up their monopoly on power--Mexico and Taiwan come to mind. But both these countries already had fairly robust civil societies independent of government, thriving commercial sectors, relatively free information flow and even rudimentary democratic politics by the time their ruling parties accepted a democratic change of government. What caused the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to acquiesce so meekly in its own overthrow, in the absence of similar internal forces?

My best guess--and I admit that it's at best a guess--is that more than any other ruling oligarchy, the Soviet Communist Party adhered to an elaborate founding ideology that commanded its members' loyalty--and was also vulnerable to refutation. In particular, the premise of Soviet communism--putting aside the unfalsifiable ideas about the perfection of socialism--was that the revolution that began in Russia would gradually spread to the rest of the world, until capitalism had been completely defeated.

The real shock, then, that fatally undermined the Party's faith in itself was the wave of instability that shook the communist world during the 1980's. In Poland, Afghanistan and Nicaragua, communist governments actually stood a chance of being overthrown and replaced with non-Marxist alternatives. This was nothing like the heresies of China and Yugoslavia--mere schisms within the fold--or even the Nazi invasion, a military attack from outside. Nor could it be compared with the brief, easily-crushed uprisings in Eastern Europe in 1956 and 1968. Rather, the prolonged threat of genuine counterrevolution from within, emanating simultaneously from several parts of the empire, cast doubt on the historical inevitability of irreversible Communist advancement, as expressed in the Brezhnev doctrine. Meanwhile, the economic burden of buying quiescent loyalty from Eastern Europe, Cuba and other allies was approaching unsustainability, and thus threatening a further erosion of the communist domain.

Only such a fundamental challenge to the founding premises of Soviet communism, I believe, could have persuaded the Party to accept the huge--and ultimately lethal--risk of Gorbachev's proposed reforms. And only a widespread perception of these reforms' urgent necessity could have held the Party back from abruptly terminating them before they spun wildly out of control, breaking up the empire they were designed to save and bringing down its ruling Party.

How much the Reagan administration contributed to this challenge is difficult to estimate, even in retrospect. Would the Nicaraguan and Afghan rebels have posed a serious threat without American aid? How much did American encouragement affect the Polish underground resistance? Regardless of the answer to these questions, though, the Reagan Doctrine was, in retrospect, clearly on the right track--most likely moreso than either the massive arms buildup of the '80s or the diplomatic lovefest that followed it.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Most of the discussions I've read about American mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq seem to me to be a bit off. Let us take it as given that American's have treated some Iraqi prisoners in ways that are morally very wrong and (possibly) illegal.

Let us also take it as given that America mistreats (in far worse ways) prisoners in federal prisons. Let us also take it as given that Americans in the 1940s mistreated prisoners of war and raped innocent civilians. Let us even take it as given that Allies during WWII murdered vast numbers of German prisoners of war. (They did.) Let us also take it as given that Americans committed a large amount of inexcusable bombing of civilians during WWII.

So what should our reaction be? First of all, we should not in any way excuse these atrocities on the grounds that our enemies are worse. On the contrary, we should be trying to put people and governments in power that -- in addition to the other characteristics they should have -- have a strong commitment to not permit this kind of abuse. If Kerry, for instance, has a history of outspoken opposition to the mistreatment of prisoners in Massachusetts prisons and in federal prisons, then this would be one good reason for voting for him over Bush. This is a discussion for all supporters of America to engage in. They should be discussing this with each other, and WITH NO ONE ELSE. (Similarly, questions of whether Israel should have settlements or should occupy the West Bank or should destroy homes, are questions for supporters of Israel to discuss amongst themselves, with absolutely no representation from those who want to destroy Israel.)

Furthermore, these discussions are of absolutely no relevance to the question of who is on the right side in the war, or to the question of whether or not America should attack or occupy Germany or Iraq. So I strongly disagree with Andrew Sullivan when he states that "This administration ... has erased some of the distinction between who we are and what the enemy is, a distinction central to the moral case for this war." The distinction may be central, but it is robust enough to withstand an awful lot of bad behavior on our part, given what the enemy is. Should we really consider turning the world over to utter barbarians simply because we fail to live up to our own ideals? (Should we open up our prisons because they are horribly run?)

But, you may ask, might not "our failure to live up to our own ideals" become sufficiently severe that our opinion of who is on the right side in the war might shift? In principle, yes. In practice, the genocidal monsters we (and the Israelis) are fighting now, or were fighting during WWII, are so terrible that we'd have to work very hard to even approach the situation where there is some sort of moral equivalence.

But, you may ask, is there not a danger that some people with a poor moral compass might switch sides upon hearing of American bad behavior? Not really. The difference between the two sides is so great that there may not be one single person in the entire world who will change sides because of this. Of course, there are many people who will say that they used to support the Americans but have now switched sides, or imply that they used to support the Americans but are now agnostic; these people are lying. Does anyone really believe that the allied bombing of Dresden caused someone to become a Nazi who wasn't already one before?

But, you may ask, aren't there decent people who believe -- incorrectly -- that American bad behavior is causing people to switch sides? Certainly. Those who believe this have a very low opinion of Iraqis, and I wish they would explicitly recognize that. Also, if they think we should withdraw, or they think we should not have entered in the first place, due to the reality or likelihood of our bad behavior, then I would like them to make a clear argument for this position. Do they feel the same way about non-American troops? Do they feel the same way about UN troops? (This is just one example of misbehavior by UN troops; this is another.)

But, you may ask, isn't it possible to fully appreciate the moral gulf between America and its current enemies, and still think it was a bad idea to invade Iraq? Of course. Perhaps it wasn't sufficiently in America's interests or sufficiently moral, especially if you believe the outcome will merely be replacing an awful dictator with a slightly better one. Perhaps you feel we should have given up on Iraq (especially given the retroactive knowledge of a lack of WMD) and spent some of the money on, say, Afghanistan. I would like to see someone make these arguments well. Typically the argument given involves understating Saddam's awfulness, hindsight about the WMD, and a whole slew of adhominem arguments about Bush, or oil, or Halliburton, or Je Zio Lik neo-conservatives. I believe the situation was very similar in the years leading up to America joining WWII. There were undoubtedly decent arguments that one could have made for America not getting involved in the war. But people did not make decent arguments. They understated the awfulness of Germany, and they overstated the awfulness of imperialist England. (A perfect example of such a speech is one made by William Randolph Hearst. When I visited his mansion I listened to a tape recording of that speech, and it changed my life.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

John Rosenberg complains that author Percival Everett complains that a New York Times review of Everett's latest book mentions that he (Everett) is "African-American". Everett apparently feels that it is "insidious racism" for someone to think that his race is in any way relevant to his career as an author. Rosenberg suspects that Everett is being somewhat insincere.

Well we can finally obtain closure on this issue. It seems that Everett is the (presumably proud and willing) recipient of the 2002 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. This "is the first national award presented to published writers of African descent by the national community of Black writers." Everett is also on the panel judging the 2004 awards.
Dan Simon has graciously permitted me to guest-blog here, until such time as I bring the discourse down to too low a level. My pseudonym "LTEC" stands for "Let Them Eat Cash"; this is a slogan I made up that summarizes and over-simplifies the kind of capitalist welfare-state that I advocate.

I hereby promise to try to stick to the following rules that I have made up:

1) I will never accuse someone else of being "arrogant". The fact is that our opponents always appear arrogant to us, and us to them, so that the word effectively has no meaning. Perhaps someday someone will describe a meaning for this word in such a way that we can reasonably judge a person's arrogance independently of his opinions. Until then, it's a good word not to use.

2) I will never describe an opponent as being "well-intentioned" unless I have good evidence for this, and truly believe it. In fact, I believe that many people, including many journalists and many people that I know, are very ill-intentioned indeed.

3) I will not call a person "stupid", unless I actually believe it. One thing I have learned is that some very intelligent people are capable of saying really stupid things ... and capable of being very ill-intentioned.

Of course, the statements I will make here represent not only my own opinions, but also those of Dan, my family and my employer.

UPDATE (June 17, 2004)
4) I will not make fun of an opponent for being old or young or thin or fat or ugly or of bad complexion. I will not be one of those people who delight in pointing out that Michael Moore is fat. I will not be like Solzhenitsyn who can write for a thousand pages about the murder of tens of millions of people, and then accuse the murderer of being "short" and "pockmarked".

Monday, June 07, 2004

I'm pleased to welcome a guest blogger for a trial run. "LTEC" describes himself as a "cowardly university professor", and his views on many subjects are somewhat different from mine (whatever he might claim on that score).

If you prefer to contact him privately, he can be reached at "letthemeatcash, at yahoo-dot-com". I hope you enjoy his postings.

Friday, June 04, 2004

The "Copenhagen Consensus" project, an effort headed by environmentalist gadfly Bjorn Lomborg to rank global development efforts by cost effectiveness, is under fire for disparaging anti-global warming measures like the Kyoto protocol. Strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions ranked dead last on the project's list of proposals, and were singled out, along with "guest worker programs for the unskilled", as "bad" ideas.

Now, I confess to being a bit of a global warming skeptic, for various reasons. But let us put skepticism aside for a minute, and accept the oft-touted climatologists' "consensus" that global warming is at least highly likely to worsen, and at least partly caused by the burning of fossil fuels. It still doesn't necessarily follow that the best approach to dealing with it is to attempt to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Consider, for instance, snow. It kills thousands a year worldwide (through transportation accidents, strandings, avalanches, and so on), and no doubt costs billions of dollars a year to deal with. Nevertheless, it is not widely believed to be a wise idea to try to mitigate the damage caused by snow by altering the weather (say, by figuring out how to keep snow away from inhabited areas). On the contrary, any such effort, it is assumed, would be bound to be hideously expensive, massively disruptive, and far from certain to succeed. That's because weather is notoriously difficult to change, and has such widespread, varied and complicated effects when it does change that assessing the net impact of any such change is virtually impossible.

Similarly, global warming--even if it is significantly a consequence of human behavior--is likely to be hideously difficult to reverse in a controlled, unambiguously desirable way. By comparison, coping with the possible effects of global warming seems like a far more tractable problem. Expanding deserts? Desertification has been going on for a long time, and all sorts of means are available to combat (or cope with) it. Increasing tropical storm activity and flooding? Again, storms and floods are well-understood phenomena, normally (and far more efficiently) dealt with using evacuations, shelters and barriers rather than by attempts at prevention. Colder winters in some locales? See under: snow.

My strong suspicion is that environmentalists' focus on attempting to reverse global warming itself, rather than mitigate its ill effects, is motivated primarily by an emotional--even religious--aversion to human influences on nature. Because global warming is seen as manmade, undoing it--in effect, returning nature to its supposed pristine state before human intervention--is viewed as desirable in itself, irrespective of the practical costs and benefits. Conversely, coping strategies which simply accept weather as a given are acceptable only when the weather is purely the product of Mother Nature's whims. As far as I can tell, there is no practical reason to make this distinction.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The main story in this week's New Yorker is entitled, "Among the Settlers", and carries the summary blurb, "Some Jews believe God sent them to the occupied territories. Will they destroy Israel?". A narrated online slide show by the author, Jeffrey Goldberg, explains his concern: the settlers, in forcing Israeli troops to protect them by militarily occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are placing Israel in the ultimately untenable situation of ruling undemocratically over a hostile Arab population roughly as large as its own Jewish population. The resulting tension between Israel's security needs and democratic character is irresolvable and potentially ruinous for the nation.

This argument is, of course, decades old. It was at the heart of the Israeli peace movement's position in favor of unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories at least as far back as the 1980's. It remains today the core belief of the dovish Israeli left. And it's therefore entirely unsurprising for it to feature prominently in the New Yorker. What's odd about it, though, is the timing of its presentation. Prior to the start of the current hostilities in September 2000, Goldberg's thesis was widely embraced as a justification for the Oslo process. Shortly thereafter, it was trotted out as an explanation for the terrorist campaign known as the "Al Aqsa intifada": by failing to withdraw unilaterally from the territories, Israel had provoked the bloodthirsty wrath of a subjugated people. The same argument was used to declare "Operation Defensive Shield" (the return of Israeli troops to the territories) doomed to fail.

But today, the empirical evidence is unmistakable: vigorous military action in the West Bank and Gaza has drastically reduced the ability of terrorists to operate against Israel, and the number of victims of terrorism has declined with similar alacrity. (There have been no suicide bombings inside Israel proper for two and a half months now, and far fewer civilian casualties this year than at the same time in the previous two years.) The crisis atmosphere in Israel has hence abated somewhat, with the expected salutary effect on democratic politics. In short, Goldberg's analysis simply doesn't stand up to the facts: it was surrendering the territories to terrorists that put both Israel's security and her democracy at risk, and retaking control of them that warded off the danger.

Indeed, it's striking to compare Goldberg's assessment of Israel's prospects with the objectively assessed prospects of the Palestinians. Four years ago, the latter were on the very verge of getting their own state, making peace with their powerful neighbor, and establishing their unquestioned geopolitical legitimacy. Today, they are destitute, violence-torn, occupied, largely forgotten, and without any apparent hope of mitigating any of these problems. By comparison, the supposed long-term threat to Israel posed by the settlers seems negligible. Why would Goldberg even bother to pay attention to it?

The answer is that despite the pragmatic phrasing of Goldberg's argument, it was never seriously intended as a hardheaded analysis of Israel's situation. Reading between the lines of Goldberg's narrative, one can clearly discern that his real concerns are moral and political, rather than practical. He believes that Israel's military rule over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is morally wrong, and should be ended for that reason. (And it would be unfair not to concede the obvious point that the Palestinians living in the territories do undergo suffering at the hands of Israeli troops. Their movement is interfered with, their safety is endangered by military incursions, and their political aspirations are left unfulfilled.) Moreover, Goldberg is politically opposed to the settlers and their religious-nationalistic agenda for Israeli politics, and wishes to see Israel take a more secular, internationalist path.

But this moral/political argument, taken on its own, runs up against the practical counterargument that withdrawal from the territories would be a security disaster for Israel--as, indeed, it was the last time it was tried. (The Oslo process handed over large portions of the territories to the "Palestinian Authority", which promptly turned them into terrorist havens.) After the debacle of Oslo, it's hard to find anyone with even a scintilla of sympathy for Israelis who is willing to demand such enormous security risks from Israel merely to cater to some leftists' moral and political preferences. Hence Goldberg has to rephrase his case as a practical one: Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza to protect settlers, not to suppress terrorist activity, and this occupation therefore threatens Israel's long-term safety, rather than enhancing it.

This pattern of argument--"it's only practical to embrace my moral and political outlook"--seems to crop up repeatedly in debates over Middle East policy. For example, it's mirrored in the debate taking place in America over the treatment of prisoners by US troops in Iraq. The latest offender is Fred Hiatt, who argues in the Washington Post that the stories of torture emanating from Abu Ghraib prison are first and foremost a setback to Iraq "hawks", who want America to remain in Iraq to shape its political future.
Iraqi detainees might have been going home to their families and saying, as German POWs did so many decades ago, that these American soldiers are for real, that they treated us humanely -- that maybe they mean what they say about liberation, not occupation. Instead, the United States is reduced to pleading that it's not as bad as al Qaeda...Who pays the price for the president's dishonesty? Soldiers such as Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli and his troops, who, as The Post's Scott Wilson reported last week, are out in Baghdad's slums, fighting insurgents one hour and fixing sewers the next. The prison scandal and the administration's failed response haven't doomed those efforts, but they've lengthened the odds. They've given aid and comfort to the enemy.
Now, there are certainly legitimate moral and political reasons for outrage at the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by US troops. (The scale of the abuses, and the appropriate scale of the outrage, are more complicated questions, of course.) But it's absurd to suggest that Iraqis' opinions of the US or its occupation will be radically altered by this set of revelations. They are, after all, only the latest (and most credible) of a steady stream of allegations of American misconduct that opponents of the US occupation have been beaming at Iraqis since the military campaign began. And if Americans themselves--as Hiatt concedes--have been reacting largely according to their partisan predispositions, there's no reason to expect that Iraqis would do otherwise. Most likely, those Iraqis inclined to disapprove of the American presence will cite the graphic images of mistreatment as yet further justification for demanding an American withdrawal, while those who prefer a guiding hand through the Iraqi transition to a new government will accept American claims that the misdeeds were isolated, atypical, and ultimately forgivable.

But then, Fred Hiatt doesn't need a practical justification for preferring that the Bush administration had "embraced the heroes such as Spec. Joseph Darby, who sounded the alarm[,]....apologized to the people of Iraq, appointed an investigator from outside the chain of command, pledged to abide by the Geneva Conventions." Even if it could be proven that these actions would have had absolutely no effect on Iraqis, Hiatt would surely have recommended them as morally obligatory and politically appropriate. Likewise, if Jeffrey Goldberg could be convinced that the occupation and the settlers were not long-term threats to Israel's safety, he would almost certainly advocate ending the former and removing the latter, for moral and political reasons. The assertions by these writers that their preferred political paths are in fact practically necessary therefore deserve to be taken with at least a grain of salt.

As a final example, consider the "neocons" who argue that the Middle East must be democratized--at the point of a gun, if necessary--if America is to be protected from the threat of radical Islamist terrorism. The problem with this argument is that many of these same neoconservatives were advocating an aggressive, democratizing American foreign policy long before the Islamist terrorist threat became a matter of serious concern. At least some of them, it is clear, would be proposing American initiatives to undermine and then democratize authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, even if there were no Al Qaida. Hence, while it's easy to sympathize with their enthusiasm for dispatching odious despots, their assertions about the insufficiency of less aggressive alternatives should nevertheless be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Some people would cite this story as a sad demonstration of the difficulty of being Jewish in the modern world. Others might angrily denounce the obscurantism of modern Jewish piety. I choose to look on the bright side: if Jews are free to worry about such literally microscopic issues, then their lives must be pretty good.