The Long View 2006-11-25: A Dark Surmise; The Crazy Aunt; The Transnational Avatar

In retrospect, I absolutely prefer Bush 1’s approach to Iraq. My uncle came back from Desert Storm with nothing worse than a worry he might have been exposed to chemical weapons, but all of his limbs and with his mind intact.


A Dark Surmise; The Crazy Aunt; The Transnational Avatar

I can be terribly slow on the uptake about some things, one of which is the real motive behind the sort of diplomatic strategies that have entered public discourse in anticipation of the recommendations of James Baker's Iraq Study Group. The penny dropped, however, when I read this piece by Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, What would victory in Iraq look like?.

The challenge here is not to avert civil war, however. Iraq is already in a civil war—and has been for a long time. It is too late for prevention. The real challenge now is termination...This means we need to shift from a strategy designed for classical counter-insurgency to one designed for terminating an ongoing civil war.

The use of the strangely neutral word "termination" in this context reminds me of Garrison Keillor's quip that Unitarians don't want salvation, they want closure. In any case, most civil wars that got terminated and stayed that way did so because one side demolished the other. That is not what The Usual Suspects are contemplating for Iraq, however. Biddle continues:

James Dobbins of Rand has proposed a regional diplomatic campaign to induce Iraq’s neighbors to use their influence with their Iraqi clients to compel compromise on a power-sharing deal. Given the Sunnis’ dependence on outside backers for money and supplies, and the growing Shi‘a links with Iran, an agreement by neighboring states to sever this support unless their clients compromise could have real traction. Of course, this means offering neighbors such as Iran and Syria inducements that would make this worth their while;...

This is the kind of deeply weird proposal that had me wondering about the sanity of its proponents. It does start to make sense, however, if we note the neighbor of Iraq that is not mentioned here: Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were content to see the Baathist government in Baghdad removed, but they then implored the Bush II Administration to leave the personnel of the old government in place and simply appoint a new dictator.

That was pretty much what the Saudis had advised Bush I to do in 1991. Bush I took the advice, in the sense of trying to promote a coup in Baghdad rather than removing the regime once and for all. The results of that policy have not been happy, but James Baker, who was Bush I's Secretary of State, regards the "realist" close of the war of 1990-1991 as his finest hour.

This time around, Bush II refused the realist advice, and tried to actually solve the problem. He was the the Bush who was not principally concerned with the oil. However, a democratic Iraq, even a populist Iraq, would be a disaster for the House of Saud. We must imagine their horror at seeing the Bush family, which had always been so solicitous of its interests (not least through the ministrations of chief family retainer James Baker) taking steps that would probably lead to the downfall of the monarchy. Now, however, Bush II's policy has bogged down, and the older heads in the Bush family are again in the ascendant. Am I overreading the situation in suggesting that the subtext of the ISG report will be ensuring Saudi Arabia preemptive chaos and a bit of influence?

* * *

God has a lot to answer for, according to most of the participants at a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The principal writers of popular science were there, or at least the ones who make a career of using their popularizing work to make metaphysical points and then express outrage when metaphysical objections are raised against them:

With a rough consensus that the grand stories of evolution by natural selection and the blossoming of the universe from the Big Bang are losing out in the intellectual marketplace, most of the discussion came down to strategy. How can science fight back without appearing to be just one more ideology?...By the third day, the arguments had become so heated that Dr. Konner was reminded of “a den of vipers.” ...“With a few notable exceptions,” he said, “the viewpoints have run the gamut from A to B. Should we bash religion with a crowbar or only with a baseball bat?”...[P]erhaps the turning point occurred at a more solemn moment, when Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration, hushed the audience with heartbreaking photographs of newborns misshapen by birth defects — testimony, he suggested, that blind nature, not an intelligent overseer, is in control.

It's always tempting to mine stories like this for apologetic points. For instance, was the heartbreakingness an objective quality of those misshapen infants? If not, then the best course would be to desensitise yourself to human suffering. If real tragedy can occur anywhere in the universe, however, even locally for just a little while, then reality cannot be entirely impersonal.

Frankly, though, I don't like this kind of phenomenological argument: it has a sentimental quality that I find too tacky for theology. I also find that true of the sort of anti-theistic rhetoric at La Jolla, however. They do not disagree with religion: they are offended by it. They find it distasteful because they believe it to be dishonest. Honesty is a virtue. If you plant the tiniest virtue in an ontology, the most amazing tree will grow from it.

On a lighter note, however, we see that:

Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.

I could help but wonder whether this was the same crazy old aunt who played such a large role in the presidential election of 1996:

It was Ross Perot front and center who was talking about the budget deficit, crazy aunt in the attic, and he forced the other campaign staff to deal with something they didn't want to talk about.

That particular crazy old aunt badgered the political class into balancing the federal budget for a few years. But I digress.

* * *

Some prophets are more plausible than others, as we see in this disconcerting report:

ENCINITAS – There were lightsticks and earplugs. People danced and clapped. But this was no concert. This was church...Yesterday, as the sun went into its evening descent, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Encinitas joined a growing list of congregations around the world who are blending the music of the Irish rock band U2 with special Communion services. The result is something being called a “U2 Eucharist” – or “U2charist” for short...The mission of the U2 Eucharist movement is to help the United Nations achieve the eight Millennium Development Goals it adopted in 2000...U2's music is used because Bono, the band's lead singer and a Christian, is the global ambassador for the millennium campaign.

I am not surprised. Is it a secret that U2 is fundamentally a Christian band? The Alarm used to open for them. Of course, back then in the early 1980s, everyone in both bands looked like a poodle.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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