The Long View 2002-11-21: Mr. Magoo Goes to Baghdad

Since I have talked a lot about John's mistakes regarding the Iraq war, let's turn to current events. Iran's nuclear program, and the negotiations thereof are much in the news lately. I mostly find this tiresome, since I don't care if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, and I also don't think they are crazy enough to try something stupid with Israel.

I think the first because the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century proved that any country with a nuclear weapon could do pretty much as it pleased as long as the dreaded weapon wasn't used. Affirmative cases: Russia annexed Crimea, North Korea continued being North Korea, Israel continued being a right wing nationalist Jewish ethnostate, and the US continued to find shitty little countries and throw them up against a wall so the others know we mean business. Negative examples: all of the shitty little countries the US threw up against a wall, plus whomever pissed off the British, French, or Russians. Pakistan, India, and China also have nukes, but Pakistan is a basket case, and India and China are busy trying to get rich.

As for the second, that is kind of a gestalt judgment. People who know Islamic eschatology, like Timothy Furnish, like to point out that Iran is officially committed to Twelver Shia eschatology. Meaning they believe the al-Mahdi, the guided one, will return to earth from his hidden refuge to usher in a period of peace and prosperity. However, what seems to be missing here is the willingness to gamble everything on a potential Mahdi who may not pan out, which has characterized the past Mahdist movements that Furnish documented in his book on the subject. I just don't think the current rulers of Iran are that kind of sucker. They seem more like cynical political survivors to me, but I am admittedly not an expert here. It is just that if they really wanted to go all-in on Mahdism, they already would have.

Getting a nuclear weapon is a long game. You have to put in a lot of money and effort to pull it off. Then you need to get enough of them to be a credible threat. Few true millennial fanatics are capable of playing the long game; by definition, they don't think there is a long game.

John also rightly pointed out that international agencies like the IAEA don't really have power. They depend upon the goodwill of the treaty nations to function.

This is not to say that Mr. Blix is crooked, or even that he is incompetent. He and the international arms-control bureaucracy do what they do very well. What we have to keep in mind is that what they do not do is control the spread of arms. Rather, they are agents of "cooperation" among the participants to arms-control treaties. This is more than enough, 90% of the time. States sign these treaties because they really have no intention of acquiring the weapons in question. The treaties have the effect of taking the issue off the table by providing proxy inspections of neighboring countries. If it amuses their neighbors to squirrel away a few cannisters of poison gas, the violation is rarely important. The inspections themselves are almost ceremonial.

I suspect Iran doesn't want a nuclear weapon, but I would put that at about 60-70% probability. There are some pretty powerful incentives to want one, and many of them are provided by us.

John also made a prediction here that the expansion of NATO was part of the debellicization of Europe.

Consider NATO, for instance. Even as I write, President Bush is in Prague at a summit meeting of the leaders of NATO countries, who are about to welcome another seven Eastern European states into their midst. NATO was formed as an anti-Soviet alliance; it has now rolled up to the very border of the Russian Federation. This is deeply offensive to Russian pride, but the Russians clearly understand that NATO is not a strategic threat.
The new additions are not the expansion of a military alliance. Rather, they are part of the process of the "debellicization" of Europe. NATO has become an excuse not to have a serious military. NATO's policy now is that the smaller members of the alliance should not even try to maintain full military establishments, however small. Rather, they should each specialize in some "niche" beneficial to all of NATO; the Czechs will do chemical decontamination if the occasion arises, for instance, and the Spaniards will do minesweeping. This sounds like an admirably rational way to allocate resources. Still, one might reasonably fear that, should it be mobilized, such a mosaic military would discover that everything from its flashlight batteries to its office folders are incompatible.
Without becoming too speculative, I might suggest that we are almost in a position to appreciate the difference between a national empire of the colonial period and an empire of the sort that comparative historians call "universal states." The British Empire, or for that matter Alexander's, were defined by their substance. In contrast, the Roman Empire was defined by its absences. It was a Zen kind of thing, founded less on conquest than on apathy. That apathy is back with us today, but no one cares.

I think this may be half right. Russia clearly thinks that NATO expansion in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus, is a strategic threat. The mess in Ukraine is part of the Russian counter-strategy to this. As far as Western and Central Europe is concerned, I think John was on the right track. The West seems to be trundling towards Empire in a rather thoughtless way. A joint-NATO task force involving more than token presence from NATO members other than the US would probably make that clear.

Austrian Cultural Forum in NYC

Austrian Cultural Forum in NYC

The Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City is a strange one. I actually find it less offensive than some other modernist buildings. My personal favorite juxtaposition is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles [the Taj Mahony] across the 101 Freeway from the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. As Steve Sailer memorably said, it looks like a giant Japanese robot is going to burn down the cathedral with a flamethrower.

Mr. Magoo Goes to Baghdad


Why did I immediately think of Mr. Magoo when I heard that Hans Blix had arrived in Baghdad to begin the leisurely process of looking for weapons of mass destruction? You remember Mr. Magoo, surely. He was a cartoon character from the UPA studios. Best known in the 1950s, he was an old gentleman who mumbled cheerfully to himself as he walked through adventures that his extreme nearsightedness hid from him. I soon found what must have been half of the connection: it seems that Mr. Magoo featured in a film called 1001 Arabian Nights, which I must have seen as a child, and which was no doubt set in Baghdad.

The other half of the connection is that Mr. Blix does seem to have more than his share of Magoo-like qualities. He, too, is an amiable old gentleman whom it is easy to imagine stumbling into a doorpost and saying: "I beg your pardon, madam!" This is the man who gave Iraq in the late 1980s, and North Korea in the early 1990s, a clean bill of health with regard to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. In the latter case, he even tried to get the inspector who blew the whistle fired. Like Mr. Magoo. he is quite capable of walking through a minefield and declaring, when he reaches the other side, that he had never seen a finer rose garden.

This is not to say that Mr. Blix is crooked, or even that he is incompetent. He and the international arms-control bureaucracy do what they do very well. What we have to keep in mind is that what they do not do is control the spread of arms. Rather, they are agents of "cooperation" among the participants to arms-control treaties. This is more than enough, 90% of the time. States sign these treaties because they really have no intention of acquiring the weapons in question. The treaties have the effect of taking the issue off the table by providing proxy inspections of neighboring countries. If it amuses their neighbors to squirrel away a few cannisters of poison gas, the violation is rarely important. The inspections themselves are almost ceremonial.

The problems arise when a country signs a non-proliferation agreement in order to cover up a weapons program. In that case, the inspection regime will not only fail to uncover the program, it will actually serve to cover it up.


* * *

The true function of the arms inspection agencies is only a special case of something that is becoming generally true of the the chief institutions of the international system. These entities often dispose of surprisingly little power. They are not idle exercises, however, because they do serve by occupying spaces where power would otherwise be.

Consider NATO, for instance. Even as I write, President Bush is in Prague at a summit meeting of the leaders of NATO countries, who are about to welcome another seven Eastern European states into their midst. NATO was formed as an anti-Soviet alliance; it has now rolled up to the very border of the Russian Federation. This is deeply offensive to Russian pride, but the Russians clearly understand that NATO is not a strategic threat.

The new additions are not the expansion of a military alliance. Rather, they are part of the process of the "debellicization" of Europe. NATO has become an excuse not to have a serious military. NATO's policy now is that the smaller members of the alliance should not even try to maintain full military establishments, however small. Rather, they should each specialize in some "niche" beneficial to all of NATO; the Czechs will do chemical decontamination if the occasion arises, for instance, and the Spaniards will do minesweeping. This sounds like an admirably rational way to allocate resources. Still, one might reasonably fear that, should it be mobilized, such a mosaic military would discover that everything from its flashlight batteries to its office folders are incompatible.

Without becoming too speculative, I might suggest that we are almost in a position to appreciate the difference between a national empire of the colonial period and an empire of the sort that comparative historians call "universal states." The British Empire, or for that matter Alexander's, were defined by their substance. In contrast, the Roman Empire was defined by its absences. It was a Zen kind of thing, founded less on conquest than on apathy. That apathy is back with us today, but no one cares.


* * *

Finally, speaking of purblindness and spiritual exhaustion, I came across this outraged reaction by William Mitchell of MIT's architecture school to Princeton's plan to build its new dormitories in the Gothic style. According to the New York Times (November 20, 2002):


"Dean Mitchell described Princeton's choice as 'roughly the equivalent of requiring all e-mail to be written in Shakespearean English' and said it signals 'an astonishing lack of interest in architecture's capacity to respond innovatively and critically to the conditions of our own time and place.'"

Actually, it is the dean's remarks that are anachronistic. The International and Postmodern Styles that MIT favors are the establishment, and have been so for two generations. Using Gothic today critiques the fact that architects working in those 20th century styles too often did uniquely bad work.


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