Tuesday, January 27, 2004

For those who care about such things, I've just enabled RSS for my blog--the link is on the left.

For those who don't--well, frankly, neither do I.

Monday, January 26, 2004

I've just finished reading the extraordinary memoirs (available online) of Henry Morgenthau, American ambassador to the Ottoman empire from 1913 to 1916. Originally published in 1918, this account of his time in Constantinople is a rare example of a fascinating historical document that's also wonderfully entertaining to read. Morgenthau presents colorful sketches of the major personalities with which he interacted as part of his job--particularly Turkish leaders Dalaat Pasha and Enver Pasha, and German ambassador von Wangenheim--and clearly explains the strategic military and diplomatic issues of the day.

His most valuable contribution, however, is to give telling insight into what might be described as inchoate German and Muslim fascism. From his conversations (as a neutral party) with German military and diplomatic representatives in the lead-up to World War I, for example, he becomes convinced that the German leadership had been planning on war for years; that they expected to win, and to impose harsh terms on the countries they anticipated defeating; and that if they lost, they would simply study their mistakes, correct them, and start another war in a decade or two. His portrayal of Germany as a confident, aggressive, ruthless nation, with absolutely no principles beyond victory at all costs, no fear of defeat, let alone war, and no compunction about planning for victory in the next war--in 1918!--is frankly stunning to read in hindsight.

His portrayal of Turkey is comparably evocative. Run jointly by a triumvirate of former democratic idealists ("Young Turks") turned ruthless dictators, his host country is, like its German ally, full of aggressive, ruthless confidence--but without any of the economic or military prowess to back it up. As a result it throws itself into grandiose political and military campaigns that lead only to slaughter and disaster. Its victories--repulsing the Entente navy at the Dardanelles, and the British Empire's forces at Gallipoli--are a result of massive German assistance. Its other endeavors are bloody, feckless disasters, in which large numbers of innocents are slaughtered, Turkish troops are soundly defeated, nothing is accomplished, or all three of these results come to pass. All the while, though, official pronouncements remain faithful to a kind of "Baghdad Bob"-style mirror reality, in which Turkey is always noble and blameless, its enemies evil and corrupt, and its inevitable success assured. A more vivid picture of a modern Middle Eastern Muslim nation would be hard to draw even today, let alone in 1918.

The main lesson of Morgenthau's portrait of these two countries, it seems, is that nations that are dangerous--to their neighbors, their despised minorities, and to the world--share certain identifiable characteristics. By now this list should be familiar: a large, dense population, a history of vigorous, chauvinistic, somewhat race-tinged nationalism (perhaps masking deep internal disunity), a strong military tradition, a national inferiority complex encouraging a sense of slighted belligerency, confidence inspired by a recent spurt of political or economic vigor, and, of course, a ruthless, thoroughly undemocratic government with an ambitious ideology. Perhaps now my prediction about the rise of China as a major source of world conflict in 2004 makes more sense....

Friday, January 23, 2004

French Education Minister Luc Ferry, fresh from his proposal to ban headscarves and other religious accessories from schools, has now suggested that beards, too, might be banned.

Frankly, not only is he a lousy education minister, but I never really liked him on "90210", either.
If you want to understand the effect of the American military campaign in Iraq on international diplomacy, look no further than former National Security Council staffer Flynt Leverett's op-ed in the New York Times. "The idea....that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's apparent decision to renounce weapons of mass destruction was a largely a result [sic] of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein....misrepresents the real lesson of the Libyan case," writes Leverett. Rather, he attributes Libya's cooperation to several years of gentle diplomacy, during which "an explicit quid pro quo was offered: American officials indicated that a verifiable dismantling of Libya's weapons projects would lead the removal our own sanctions [sic]." The lesson we should draw from this success, according to Leverett, is that "we must not only apply pressure but also make clear the potential benefits of cooperation....Until the president is willing to employ carrots as well as sticks, he will make little headway" in disarming rogue nations.

In fact, Leverett's own words completely undermine his claim that the toppling of Saddam Hussein hasn't radically strengthened America's diplomatic position. After all, who in the world, two years ago, would have characterized America's imposition of harsh economic sanctions against a target nation, to be lifted only if that nation complied wholeheartedly with US demands, as a balanced, "carrots as well as sticks" approach to diplomacy?

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

A (second) update to the previous post: at first, I was puzzled as to why the Brooks column caused so many people to blow a gasket. I'm embarrassed to admit that it took Matthew Yglesias to explain it to me. (Certainly Mark Kleiman's posting should have tipped me off.) In fact, the controversy is not at all about neocon conspiracy theories in general, or about anti-Semitism, or silencing debate--it's about Gen. Wesley Clark. Brooks mentions Clark in his article, in a way that might imply that he considers Clark one of the wacky conspiracy theorists who believe in a super-powerful cabal of neoconservatives running American foreign policy. And that's gotten Clark supporters (perhaps Democrats in general) hopping mad.

Now, I have no idea what Clark's current position is on the "neocon conspiracy" issue, but I do know that he is on record as saying,
As I went back through the Pentagon in November 2001, one of the senior military staff officers had time for a chat. Yes, we were still on track for going against Iraq, he said. But there was more. This was being discussed as part of a five-year campaign plan, he said, and there were a total of seven countries, beginning with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan....I left the Pentagon that afternoon deeply concerned.
Of course, much has been said, since then, about this quotation and its implications about Clark's beliefs. Similarly, his claim that "[t]here was a concerted effort during the fall of 2001, starting immediately after 9/11, to pin 9/11 and the terrorism problem on Saddam Hussein....it came from the White House, it came from people around the White House," has been analyzed to death by supporters and opponents. I'm prepared to accept that fairly benign interpretations of these remarks are plausible, and even that reasonable people might consider Brooks' characterization of Clark as a conspiracy theorist to be unfair. But under the circumstances, I'm a bit surprised that Brooks' offhand partisan shot at Clark, buried in an op-ed column (Oxblog's Josh Chafetz seems to have missed it, too), has managed to provoke such a fuss. Methinks the bloggers doth protest too much....
It appears that David Brooks has touched a few raw nerves in the blogosphere, with his column bemoaning "all these articles....about how Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Doug Feith, Bill Kristol and a bunch of 'neoconservatives'....had taken over U.S. foreign policy." Joshua Micah Marshall, Matthew Yglesias, and Crooked Timber's Daniel Davies have all responded with righteous fury, claiming that Brooks is attempting to silence critics of neocons by dismissing them as conspiracy theorists, and worse, anti-Semites ("con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish'," writes Brooks). Marshall and Davies then go even further, vaguely intimating that there is, in a sense, a neocon conspiracy to take over U.S. foreign policy, and that Brooks is attempting to deflect legitimate criticism of their efforts.

Now, criticism of neoconservative foreign policy is certainly not necessarily conspiracy-theory-mongering (although occasionally it is, as Brooks is right to point out). And the anti-Semitism charge is a particularly tricky one, because it can be taken (although it obviously shouldn't) as implying guilt by association. But it takes a special kind of chutzpah to deride Brooks for accusing neocon critics of being conspiracy theorists, while simultaneously lending encouragement to conspiracy theories about neocons. And the "silencing" charge is strictly projection, in the Freudian sense. The conspiracy theorists appear to have exactly the intention they attribute to Brooks himself: to silence their opponents through inflammatory labelling.

For the people they lump together as "neocons" are not some shadowy cabal of master manipulators at all. They write articles and give lectures, trying to explain their point of view; they participate in the political process, supporting candidates of their choice; and they work in a democratically elected government, helping to formulate and communicate that government's foreign policy. Like that other "right-wing conspiracy" of the '90's (though perhaps not as "vast"), they are a "conspiracy" chiefly in the eyes of their virulent opponents, who label them as such not because they are in any sense inordinately powerful or conspiratorial, but only to paint them as evil and illegitimate.

It would be easy to write an article to the effect that the particular group of prominent public figures known as "neocons" espouse foreign policy views that are profoundly mistaken. (In fact, I've criticized those foreign policy views myself. And Marshall once managed to write an article on the subject that mostly sticks to serious, thoughtful critique--despite its inflammatory title and occasional forays into conspiracy theorizing.) Many of the neocons' critics, though, suffer from such muddled, incoherent thinking about international affairs that a clear, convincing critical analysis is utterly beyond them. That, I believe, is why they resort to coy insinuations--ranging, at the far end, all the way into unhinged ranting--about evil neocon conspiracies.

UPDATE: Mark Kleiman joins the ranks of the rankled, complaining that Brooks unfairly impugns everyone who "thinks that the prophets of a new Amerian empire (1) have a collective screw loose and (2) have too much influence in the Bush II administraiton." [sic] Now, as I mentioned, Brooks never claimed that anyone criticizing neocon foreign policy is automatically "a kook and an anti-Semite" (Kleiman's words). Nevertheless, the complainers--including Kleiman--who have protested being lumped with the nutcases, haven't exactly been going out of their way to portray themselves as the very souls of moderation. I'm reminded of a Woody Allen character whose Jewish mother accuses him of dating a shiksa: "Mom, to you every girl who's not Jewish is a shiksa."

Sunday, January 04, 2004

I really think somebody ought to have looked into this urban legend before introducing this product.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Well, it's time to review my predictions for the past year, and issue new ones for 2004. First, last year's record:
  • A year from now, Iraq will be where Afghanistan is today: a troubled but largely ignored backwater where things are much better than before the US invasion, and American troops help minimize the chaos, but there's still plenty of turmoil, and the long-term political structure of the country has yet to be fully sorted out.
  • Correct, apart from the "largely ignored" bit. I still expect, though, that once US troops are no longer in Iraq in large numbers, Iraq will be as prominent in the news as Afghanistan is today.
  • Another terrorist "mega-attack" will occur, this time somewhere in Western Europe.
  • Fortunately, some excellent police work in several European countries, uncovering a number of terrorist cells primed for action, ruined the accuracy of my prediction. Al Qaida has focused instead on Middle Eastern targets (although the generous might be willing to consider Turkey part of Europe).
  • Yasser Arafat, Kim Jong Il, Ayatollah Khamenei and Hugo Chavez will (barring death by natural causes) still be clinging to power in their respective political entities at the end of the year, although perhaps somewhat more precariously than at present. The "engagement" strategies pursued by the UN, EU, OAS and other multilateralist organizations with respect to these leaders will have absolutely no effect on their strength or belligerence levels. Their satrapies will suffer further declines in living conditions, but will otherwise (and, particularly, in political terms) remain largely unchanged.
  • My most accurate prediction. Arafat had a bit of a scare, but came through with flying colors, while Chavez managed to postpone the reckoning till next year. Kim and Khamenei were never seriously in jeopardy, despite a few overstated rumblings in the blogosphere.
  • The major American market indices will experience yet another year of net decline, as will the US Dollar and real estate market. The American economy will have dipped back into recession by the end of the year, and the domestic American political debate will have largely shifted from international politics to economics. The president's popularity will suffer significantly as a result, although not as severely as his father's did.
  • Way off base, apart from the dollar. Of course, it's awfully tough to time the markets.
  • Japan will at last begin adopting some necessary financial reforms. Their short term effect on its economy will be markedly negative.
  • Some reforms have at last begun, but the American-led boom has so far cushioned Japan from the adverse consequences.

    Now for some predictions:

  • George W. Bush will soundly defeat his Democratic opponent, Howard Dean, in November. The Republicans will maintain control of both houses of Congress, with roughly the same margins as today.

  • Paul Martin will not win a majority government in a Canadian federal election.

  • US troops will still be in Iraq in substantial (though somewhat reduced) numbers at year's end.

  • Of the four leaders I mentioned last year, all will remain in power by year's end (Chavez by falsifying or ignoring the results of the upcoming referendum), barring death by natural or accidental causes.

  • This year the overpriced major American markets will experience a net decline (and this time, I mean it!). The US dollar will also fall, relative to foreign currencies. Inflation and interest rates will tick upward, in reaction to the falling dollar--but not by that much. Economic growth will slow substantially, but will not tip into recession until after the election.

  • Conflicts between the US and Europe will be overshadowed by conflicts between the US and China (over trade, exchange rates, weapons proliferation, North Korea, and human rights).

  • And now for a few more daring predictions:

  • As with "Soviet chic" in the early 1990's, "Iraqi chic" will prompt trendy Americans to don accessories bearing the image of Saddam Hussein.

  • The Atkins diet will be found to work best when combined with calorie-rich desserts, thus proving Woody Allen eerily prescient.

  • To boost the 2004 Olympics' sagging television ratings, the IOC will allow athletes from around the world to vote each other out of the Olympic village, awarding medals to the last remaining competitors in each sport.

  • Rioting will break out at the Academy Awards ceremony when the newly installed electronic voting system reports that "Gigli" has won the "Best Picture" Oscar.

  • The Bush re-election campaign will start a blog, in response to Howard Dean's, only to give it up after the president repeatedly refers in public to his "blob".

  • A terrorist will detonate a powerful chemical weapon in a French airliner restroom towards the end of a long transatlantic flight; nobody will notice.