Archive for March, 2007

There are legitimate conservative arguments to be made, but David Brooks’ latest column does not make them.

In fact, the basic point of the column is that if Republicans need to jettison every value they’ve ever stood for in order to get in line behind Bush’s authoritarianism, then so be it:

Goldwater and Reagan were important leaders, but they’re not models for the future.

Just when you thought the right-wing in this country had really lost its mind …. Here’s Glenn Greenwald’s parsing:

Brooks’ central point: the dominant right-wing political movement in this country that has spawned and driven the Bush presidency has nothing to do with — it is in fact overtly hostile to — the ostensible principles of Goldwater/Reagan small-government conservatism.

As Greenwald notes, Brooks is now just explicitly admitting what we have suspected about the right for some time: that they have given up conservatism in favor of authoritarianism. Here is Brooks’ new slogan:

security leads to freedom

This is really, really disturbing and, as Greenwald points out, comically Orwellian. But by the way, Brooks tells us, this is a principle of “child psychology”. Hmmm … why do I see Nazi doctors in white coats observing children in cages and asking, “are you safe?”

Let’s see this slogan for what it is: a plea for authoritarianism. It’s a plea for the elevation of the threat of “Islamic extremism” to a level that justifies grotesque executive abuses of power (including torture and indefinite detention without evidence), abuses Americans once thought of as inconceivable and fascist betrayals of our constitution. And what do we get for that? Not even security, because we have seen, incompetently waged and murderous wars do not lead to security. How about a few luggage bomb detectors for our airports? No, the right wing tells us; we don’t need to worry about preventing attacks on the United States; we’d rather concentrate on revenge, even if that means a few thousand more American lives and many thousands more innocent Iraqi lives.

Speaking of “psychological” principles, the psychological version of authoritarianism afflicts people who are cruel and controlling towards themselves and others. Many great, poems, plays, and novels have been written about the disastrous effects of this principle, political and psychological. Many chapters in history support the observations contained in these works. Brooks should go read some of these. They hardly support the notion that authoritarianism leads to freedom, unless you are reading authoritarian propaganda, in which a kind of perverse pleasure is taken in trumpeting and forcing others to acquiesce to patent contradictions of fact — e.g., the description of a law that allow for more pollution as the “Clean Air Act.”

Today’s right wing (should I call them “Republicans” or “Conservatives”? — I doubt it) is a dangerous, dangerous crew. What makes Brooks particularly dangerous his his level of mercenary intellectual dishonesty, and his noisome claim to represent “normal, nonideological people” while throwing around pitifully partisan and stupid slogans like “security leads to freedom”, the kind of sentiment that has been used to do public relations for some of history’s dirtiest authoritarian work, including mass murder by dictators. Security does not lead to freedom if you’re Jose Padilla, against whom no evidence has been presented; or if you’re an Iraqi, in which case security doesn’t even lead to security.

And in fact the ambiguity of the meaning of “security” is the point. Why doesn’t Brooks tell us specifically what he means by “security”? To borrow from Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man: “I can’t tell you whether it’s safe or not unless I know specifically what you’re talking about.”

Andrew Sullivan has a blow-by-blow response here.


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The Seinfeld Strategy

Michael Fullilove on America’s ‘Seinfeld’ strategy in Iraq, which means doing the opposite of everything your instincts tell you to do, a tactic once tried by Seinfeld’s Costanza:

First, military and diplomatic resources are finite and should be directed towards your greatest priority. An example of the opposite approach would be for a country that has been attacked by a non-state terrorist group to retaliate by removing a state regime that had nothing to do with the attack.

Second, take care not to weaken your intimidatory powers through poor military performance. Aim for short, sharp victories (such as that in the 1991 Gulf war) that get your adversaries worrying about the extent of US power. The opposite would be to launch a war of choice involving the drawn-out occupation of an Arab country – the kind of thing that gets your allies worrying about the limits of US power.

Third, you get by with help from friends. Although the powerful are sometimes tempted to go it alone, international support helps determine the perceived legitimacy of an action, which affects its risk and costs. Building this support requires discussion and compromise. The opposite would be to spurn real negotiations, slough off your allies, bin multilateral agreements you do not like and declare that you are not bound by the rules that govern everyone else.

Fourth, state-building is hard. Few of the international efforts at state-building since the cold war’s end have succeeded. Luckily there are numberless reports identifying lessons learnt. The alternative would be to do the opposite of what those reports recommend, for example by deploying insufficient troops and dismantling any extant national institutions such as the army.

Fifth, democracy is a blessing that requires patient nurturing. The opposite approach would be to seek to impose democracy by force of arms on a population traumatised by decades of vicious and totalitarian rule.

Sixth, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If two dangerous states are struggling for dominance of a strategic region, maintaining a balance between them may be the least worst option. The opposite would be to emasculate one of them, thereby greatly increasing the relative power of the other.

Finally, historians often cite the need for prudence in international relations, quoting the physician’s dictum: “First, do no harm.” The opposite would be: “Don’t think too much, just chance your arm and see what happens!”

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Andrew Sullivan is right that passion and skepticism are by no means at odds. The point of skepticism is not that we should vacate (we can’t anway) our passions and the irrationality that grounds, at least in part, our most examined beliefs. It’s that when it comes to setting priorities, we ought to be reflectively aware of this irrationality and elevate the concept of our fallibility above the others. That way we don’t reach the point where it is imperative that others either share our beliefs and values, or be killed, because their “evil” ideas threaten to out-propagate the ideas that keep our culture psychically alive.

The supporters of war are quick to turn the ideas of others into existential threats, quickly shifting back and forth between the ways in which supposed enemies are a threat to us, or their own people, or to abstractions such as “freedom” and “democracy”.

We know today that “terrorists” are not much of a threat to the United States, because they cannot strike with the force and frequency of a standing army. Even terrorists armed with a nuke are not a threat to the existence of the United States in the way, for instance, that Russia still is.

9/11 was more damaging to American pride than infrastructure, and the supporters of war do everything to conflate humiliation and threat. In the meantime, they do not take seriously the gravity of killing tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians for the sake of ideas and abstractions — it is enough that we call these deaths an “accident” or the “collateral” of our good intentions. They do not get the irony that spreading “freedom” on a practical level means a massive imposition of misery on an entire populace. Because Saddam was a bad man and bad for Iraq, removing him must inevitably be better Iraq, a patent non sequitur.

Andrew Sullivan is one of those who did not take the concept of war seriously, and did not apply his skepticism when it counted. And despite his change of heart, there are still hints hints that he equates the failure of the Utopian adventure in Iraq with a case of mismanagement. That is not a conservative stance. History has not been kind to such schemes. We ought to learn from it.

The “Iraq experiment” of which Sullivan’s reader speaks is a phrase of ignorant, Mengelian callousness: did we ask Iraqis if they thought liberation and “democracy” weres worth dying in large numbers? Did we hold a democratic referendum? And do we really think that war can be an act of grace? Did we think to evaluate or own cultural maladies, including the murderous recent history of the United States, against those of the Muslims above whom we assumed we were so culturally elevated that we thought we could help them cure their “extremism” and “social development” and “political attitudes” — with bombs? This is like Ghenghis Khan describing his rampages as a kind of finishing school for those who could benefit from his brand of refinement.

To some this response will seem reactionary, America-hating, and naively pacifist. Some might detect the tinge of smug radicalism — of disheveled simple-minded hippies who frequent war protests and can’t make the tough decisions required for the safety of their nation. We’re meant to believe that these critics are the tough guys who love America enough to accept the inevitability of killing: they can handle the idea of war. And where this willingness to kill would normally be a sign of psychopathology, in international affairs one finds an acceptable outlet, and in these circles it is a badge of honor, and realism, a grave consciousness of what is necessary in the world. (Notwithstanding the fact that the TV appearances of such toughs often consist of of everything from puerile, insecure belligerence to coldly delivered enticements to contractual mischief (Bill Kristol)).

They are not swayed by their emotions, by the pictures of dead children with newly disorganized bodies (plentiful from Iraq). That’s just war, the realists say, and there are higher ideals, not to mention the safety of the country at stake.

Safer after the initiation of the blood feud? Safer when waging wars rather than establishing security at home? Higher, more realistic ideals than the lives of innocents?

(“Er, when I said “spreading freedom”, did I forget to mention that you’ll find your arms and legs have been freed from your torso?”)

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An accurate and in some places devastating critique of Andrew Sullivan’s career of fickle naiveté:

What is baffling is why such an ardent disciple of Oakeshott came to sign himself up for the Bush program in the first place—a decision that Sullivan now says he finds “more than a little worrying.” For, from the moment of its declaration, the “war on terror” (“this crusade,” as Bush then defined it), by committing the United States to an indefinite future of hostilities against a shadowy and shape-shifting enemy, had all the hallmarks of one of Oakeshott’s most deluded Rationalist projects. Yet even as Osama bin Laden morphed into Saddam Hussein, and Paul Wolfowitz unrolled his great plan for the democratization of the Middle East by force of arms, Sullivan was a raucous cheerleader for the administration.

I have to admit Sullivan’s blog is now my favorite — perhaps because I like the prolonged mea culpa of someone who (in Raban’s words) “shilled” so long for the right. Perhaps because he’s just such a personable fellow, willing to tell you what’s on his mind and change it, a quintessential blogger. I can’t, on the other hand, get through Sullivan’s book, in which “conservatism” is defined arbitrarily as skepticism and fallibilism. According to Raban, this skepticism is really just a rationalization of fickle passions:

This may explain Sullivan’s painful about-face on the liberal-imperialist conquest of Iraq, but hardly excuses it. It is a self-serving conceit to claim, as he does, that in the days leading up to the invasion, all decent people (excluding the aforementioned nihilists and traitors) were in the same boat, equally misled by what later proved to be defective intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction

Montaigne’s remarks on the infinite depth of human fallibility were not meant as a license to embrace the one-day inspiration only to reject it as “the dumbest thing on earth” when it turns out badly.

Petty consistency is not a hobgoblin that troubles Andrew Sullivan’s mind, and he likes to chalk up his inconsistency to his conservatism, because it is a hallmark of the pragmatic conservative to know himself to be frequently mistaken.

Ouch on all counts. And Sullivan’s inconsistencies are the Republican party’s, according to Raban:

Yet in its exposure of the contra-dictions entailed in being Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Soul rather brilliantly exposes the contradictions of the Republican Party as it is today. If two randomly selected voters who supported Bush in 2000 and 2004 were to be sat in a room and asked to unpack the contents of their heads, each would likely be appalled by the entrenched beliefs of the other. The worldviews of the Christian fundamentalist, the project-driven neoconservative theorist, and the small-government free-marketeer are, as Sullivan shows, dramatically incompatible on both religious and philosophical grounds.

These things may have more in common than they seem to at first blush.

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The Spanish Civil War

Edward Rothstein writes on the ambiguities of the Spanish Civil War.

The civil war, in fact, had more to do with Spain than with fascism. Hugh Thomas’s encyclopedic “Spanish Civil War” reveals stupefying patterns of legislative failure and manic enterprise in the years before the war. Spain had no strong democratic traditions or middle class. It was an anomaly: a European nation that even World War I had passed by, its agrarian, preindustrial stagnation accompanied by rigid social hierarchies and strong regional allegiances. When a republic was established in 1931, it proved as vulnerable to revolutionary extremism as conservative reaction: land reform could mean land seizure; church reform could mean violence. Anarchism, riots and rebellion were familiar companions of the Republic’s bumbling modernity.

By 1937, after the show trials in Moscow, it was apparent to many devoted idealists that the party’s high moral proclamations were not what they seemed. This is what George Orwell fitfully recognizes in his “Homage to Catalonia.” First he fights in an independent Marxist division that was apparently kept deliberately undersupplied. Later he fears for his life in Barcelona — Republican-held territory — as the party begins a planned purge, including killings and torture. Some recent research has suggested that even members of the Lincoln Brigade — some of whom “disappeared” — were not immune.

Something about the nature of war that both the right and left should keep in mind.

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For fun.

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An amazing flash timeline of Iraq coalition fatalities (it would be nice to see something similar for Iraqi casualties).

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