Monday, November 27, 2006

The now-famous video of Michael Richards' racist tirade at some black hecklers has provoked a lot of shock, disgust and disappointment from people who wonder how such an entertaining comedian could express such ugly hatred. My reaction is very different: I'm not only not shocked--I'm not even convinced Richards has demonstrated himself to be a racist. Rather, his rant struck me as a totally normal explosion of the seething rage that exists inside many, perhaps most, stand-up comics.

A large fraction of comedians are deeply damaged people, filled with obsessive, solipsistic self-loathing (as one female comic explained it, "I'm a piece of crap that the world revolves around") and incapable of normal social interaction, let alone emotional intimacy. As a result, they find themselves so desperately lonely that they will gladly accept the humiliation of making fools of themselves in front of a large audience of strangers--just so long as those strangers are willing to listen to them. In a way, their comedy is a form of payment to the audience, with which they buy the attention and acceptance they crave, and cannot get otherwise.

Of course, such an intense need inevitably stokes equally intense bitterness and resentment towards that same audience, further fueled by a searing sense of rejection when their acts occasionally (or, at the beginning, frequently) bomb. So when a small group of hecklers, by talking during Richards' act, reminded him just how much he needed them to listen to him, and how little his need was reciprocated, they caused him more pain than they could possibly have imagined, and he naturally lashed out in the most vicious, hurtful way he could think of.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if Richards bears no hostility against blacks in general. (In the past, apparently, he's resorted to anti-Semitic slurs, as well, when heckled. Is he really likely to hate all the Jews involved with Seinfeld?) But for those particular blacks who on that one night exposed his greatest weakness and most shameful pathological need, his hatred knew no bounds, and no insult would have been too harsh.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Although I've made fun of international relations theorists in the past, there is one IR concept which, when properly applied, has its uses: the realist doctrine of "equilibrium", which can be interpreted in the Machiavellian sense of, "help my weaker enemy against my stronger enemy". This tactic can have several outcomes, all net positive: the stronger enemy could defeat the weaker enemy, but at a greater cost than had the weaker enemy not been helped; the weaker enemy could make use of the help to defeat the stronger enemy, effectively knocking the stronger enemy further down on the "enemies list"; or the conflict could drag on, preoccupying both enemies and thus reducing their opportunities to make trouble elsewhere. The most famous modern example of this strategy in action is the assistance that the US and Britain gave the Soviet Union once it was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941. Needless to say, that strategy worked brilliantly.

Of course, if the weaker enemy defeats the stronger one, then the weaker enemy can become a problem in itself, and it can seem superficially, in retrospect, as though the strategy has backfired. These days, the most commonly cited example of this "blowback" phenomenon is the assistance that the US provided to Islamic fundamentalists--including, apparently, one Osama bin Laden--in fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s. (For some reason, the Cold War is never described as blowback from "lend-lease".) Now, neocon Michael Rubin is describing Iraq's 1991 invasion of Kuwait as blowback from American aid to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war.

Both interpretations are sheer nonsense. Global Islamist terrorism is a serious threat, but it can't begin to compare to the threat previously posed by the Soviet Union. Assuming that American assistance to the Afghan rebels in the 1980s actually helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union--and its contribution seems in retrospect to have been substantial, if not decisive--the investment paid off spectacularly. In fact, had the Soviet Union not fallen, there's a good chance that Islamist terrorists would be an even greater threat to the US than they are today--thanks to the kind of assistance from the Soviet bloc that anti-Western terrorists received during the 1970s and 1980s.

Likewise, American support for Saddam Hussein during his long war with Iran was hardly a failure. On the contrary, it kept two deadly enemies of the US preoccupied for nearly a decade--a decade during which they made relatively little trouble for the rest of the world. Again, had the US withheld aid, and had Iran managed to defeat Iraq as a result, it would likely have been able to topple Saddam Hussein, and achieve political dominance over its neighbor. Its rebuilding of its military and financial resources--not to mention its nuclear program--would also have started sooner and taken less time. In short, had that assistance not been given to Iraq, Iran would likely be far richer, more powerful and more dangerous than it is today.

Of course, defenders of the first president Bush's decision not to help topple Saddam Hussein in 1991 use exactly the same logic: without Saddam Hussein as a counterweight, Iran would have had a freer hand than it did. The problem with this argument is that by 1991, Saddam Hussein had stopped being an effective counterweight to Iran. On the contrary, he was more of a burden to the US--which had to station tens of thousands of troops to guard the Saudi flank from him, while devoting a portion of its air force to protecting Iraqi Kurdistan--than a hindrance to Iran, which spent the 1990s building and arming Hezbollah, strengthening its ties with Syria, and revving up its nuclear program.

What does this history suggest about America's current situation in Iraq? Well, it would have been nice, of course, if Iraq could have been a peaceful, stable, pro-Western democracy, acting as a bulwark against the various anti-American radicalisms in the region. But given that that unrealistic goal has not been achieved, it seems unlikely that America's worst enemy in the world today is the collection of mutually antagonistic sectarian terrorist militias springing up there. On the contrary, since they all seem to have far more enthusiasm for slaughtering each other (or at least, each other's civilians) than for attacking American troops, it seems far more reasonable for the US to let them have at it than to try to stop them. As Daniel Pipes noted, civil war in Iraq "would be a humanitarian tragedy but not a strategic one". Indeed, it may provide interesting strategic opportunities: by supporting the more anti-Syrian/Iranian groups, the US might be able to draw those countries further into the conflict, forcing them to use more of their resources exerting their influence in Iraq than they would otherwise need to apply.

Now, it has been speculated lately that the Baker-Hamilton commission will recommend instead addressing the Iraq problem by attempting a rapprochement with Iran. Stupidity is never out of the question, of course, but I'm skeptical of that prediction. Whatever else may be said of James Baker--anti-Israel, Arabist, State Department-style schmoozer of dictators--his (and the State Department's) absolute number one favorite anti-Israel Arab dictator to schmooze has always been the reigning monarch of Saudi Arabia. And by siding with Israel, of all countries, against Hezbollah, the Saudis have made it crystal clear that their foremost concern these days is the threat of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis.

Assuming, then, that Baker stays true to his old loyalties, don't be surprised if American policy in Iraq, far from moving towards reconciliation with Iran, takes a sharp turn, as it were, towards the Sunni side of the street.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A recent study published in the British medical journal Lancet claims to have measured 650,000 "excess deaths" resulting from the US invasion of Iraq. (These include deaths indirectly attributed to the invasion, such as those resulting from the post-invasion weakness of Iraq's economy, basic services and infrastructure.) Opponents of the war are using this figure to bolster their argument that it was foolish and morally wrong; one commentator has even argued that America ought to pay reparations to Iraq in penance for invading.

Pro-US bloggers, most notably Megan McArdle, have been blasting the study's calculations, claiming that the final result is self-evidently grossly exaggerated. They may be right, but their quibbling over numbers, in my view, misses the point entirely. In fact, the number of "excess deaths" in Iraq since the invasion is probably quite high--presumably in the hundreds of thousands. But that that fact alone says very little about either the wisdom or the morality of the American action.

Consider the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The number of excess deaths it generated in Chechnya alone--to say nothing of the many other hotspots that have flared up within its erstwhile borders, the lethal effects of the economic catastrophe that befell the entire region once the command was removed from the command economy, and the associated surge in alcoholism, AIDS, and other health problems of the kind that invariably flourish when the social order breaks down--likely dwarfs the claimed total attributed to Iraq. And the prospects for democracy in Iraq today are arguably better than in the former Soviet Union, where most of the republics are currently experiencing a resurgence of Soviet-style government. Does it follow, then, that the end of the Soviet regime was a disaster, and that the countries of the West should have done their best to prop up, say, the 1991 coup plotters, to save the country from chaos?

Or consider post-Tito Yugoslavia. Again, Western countries had the choice of embracing Slovenian and Croatian independence, thus encouraging the breakup of the country, or of rejecting these secessions and encouraging the central government to exert its authority. They chose the former path--and hundreds of thousands died in the bitter, bloody civil war that followed. Can we conclude, then, that the West should instead have done what it could to shore up Yugoslavia as a unified state?

Now, one could in fact argue that the correct answer to the above questions is actually "yes"--that the fall of the Soviet and Yugoslavian regimes was a humanitarian disaster in the medium term, and should in retrospect have been impeded to the extent it was possible to do so. But to take such a position is to focus the blame for the post-collapse misery in a very strange direction. After all, the collapse itself may have made the misery more likely, but it's the assorted thugs, thieves, terrorists, apparatchiks, strongmen and so on who have made life miserable for their countrymen, instead of participating productively in the reconstruction of their respective nations, who have actually caused the misery. To blame those who permitted or assisted in the collapse of these nations' dictatorships for the subsequent chaos, rather than the perpetrators of the chaos themselves, is to assert in effect that that chaos was as direct a consequence of the disappearance of the previous dictatorship as of the actions of perpetrators--that is, that the peoples of those countries were doomed to fall into Hobbesian disarray when freed from the lash of an iron ruler.

Such assertions are not entirely unheard-of--especially out of the mouths of iron rulers themselves. (For example, it was the justification that General Jaruzelski used when declaring martial law in Poland in 1981: that it was necessary to stave off civil war. The then-Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Trudeau, infamously concurred.) But such confident determinism ignores history's long list of seemingly unprepared countries that nevertheless successfully managed the transition to democracy. It also implies a level of contempt for the nations in question that ought to give anyone pause. (Consider, for example, the assertion that the horrible decay of Zimbabwe following the end of white rule was inevitable, and should have been prevented by perpetuating the subjugation of blacks. How, exactly, is the corresponding statement about the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia--or Iraq, for that matter--less objectionable?)

Then again, let us even suppose that in some particular case it's actually true--that a particular country really is doomed to collapse into chaos if a given dictator is removed. (Some certainly made that claim about Iraq--and even I was none-too-optimistic about that country's prospects for the kind of democratic renaissance that the more starry-eyed supporters of the war had hoped for.) Suppose, furthermore, that the current dictator of the country in question is a run-of-the-mill absolute ruler--not a monster of the Saddam Hussein variety, but a grey Party stalwart in the Brezhnev-Tito mold. Might one argue that in that case, at least, the dictator is preferable to the post-dictatorship alternative?

The problem with that argument is that dictatorships never last forever. The eventual collapse of, say, the Soviet Union was inevitable, and if chaos was certain to be the aftermath of its collapse, then that, too, was inevitable. It follows that the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 rather than, say, half a century later had no net effect other than sparing the population an extra fifty years of oppression under Soviet rule. The misery we are seeing today would have occcurred regardless, but by coming sooner, it hastened whatever improvement is likely to follow. If what follows is to any degree better than what preceded it, then the people will have benefited.

The catch in this line of reasoning, mind you, is that it assumes that what follows the current dilapidated state of the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia will be an improvement on the Soviet/Titoist era. That seems quite likely, but I'll concede that a cynic might predict Soviet-like rule for those countries for decades or even centuries to come. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that what follows the current strife-torn state of affairs in Iraq will not be an improvement on Saddam Hussein, one of the most brutal dictators in Middle Eastern history.

To be sure, there is ample room for criticism of American handling of Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein (not that we'll ever know whether implementing any particular different strategy would have saved lives, of course). But the mere fact that the post-Saddam era in Iraq has been disturbingly violent in no way refutes the claim that the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein was every bit as justified on moral grounds (putting aside the enormous strategic benefits) as the US-supported political maneuvers that broke up the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Indeed, given the unusual brutality of the Iraqi regime, the moral argument for overthrowing it is even stronger than the case for encouraging the collapse of the old Communist regimes. And even after acknowledging the ugly condition of some parts of the old Communist realm, who today seriously wishes that the Soviets and Titoists had never lost power?