The Long View 2003-04-17: Bad Ideas

One of the fascinating things about American foreign policy is our simultaneous capacity for utter dominance and utter incompetence. Baathists were forbidden from participating in the Iraqi government after the Second Iraq War, by analogy to the Second World War policy of de-Nazification. Unfortunately, this excluded pretty much everyone who knew what they were doing, or who had a stake in what the US actually intended for Iraq, including many Chaldean Catholics.

Christians in Iraq supported the Baathists for the same reason Christians in Syria supported the other Baathists; they were the least worst option. The Baathists in both countries did protect religious minorities from persecution by the Muslim majorities (cf. Yazidis and Chaldeans now).

In 2003, John said that while the Syrian government was odious, there shouldn't be any need to destroy that regime too. I suppose this has come half-true. At least we didn't invade Syria.

On a stronger note, John also wished that President George W. Bush would have spent his post 9-11 popularity on a Nixon-goes-to-China move that would simplify the US tax code with the intent of increasing actual tax receipts, as opposed to rates per se. This still seems like a good idea.

Bad Ideas
Islamist taste in strategies seems to be quite as poor as the taste of the decor in Saddam Hussein's palaces. First they tried to beat a huge conventional invasion with a thousand "Mogadishus." Now the idea is to import the Palestinian Intifada into Iraq. That seems to be the reasoning behind the recent shooting at Mosul. According to this pro-Islamist source:
"The people moved toward the government building, the children threw stones, the Americans started firing,"
Most sources do not mention "the children," but perhaps that detail is more a matter of aspiration than description. In Palestinian propaganda, child-martyrs are far preferred, since any violence they commit is presumed to be simultaneously futile, spontaneous, and sincere. I am not aware that any of the civilian dead in the past few days are children, but these things take a little time to organize.
Intifada tactics are wholly irrelevant to Iraq. Strictly speaking, they were irrelevant in Palestine, at least in terms of serious opposition to the Israeli military. Their object was to relieve the Palestinian leadership of the duty to govern. They make no sense at all in the unblocked political situation in Iraq. Within broad limits, power there is available to anyone who can organize to take it. Presently, even the dimmest ex-Baathists will realize that there is no need to snipe at City Hall when the front door is open.
* * *
Speaking of stupidity, consider the government of Syria. That country is run by another Baathist Party. As is the way of totalitarian states, Syria was the enemy of the fraternal tyranny in Iraq. Nonetheless, Syria worked to undermine the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq. Now it seems to be facilitating the infiltration of Hizbollah into Iraq, the very people who have done so much to make Palestine what it is today.
The government of Syria is corrupt, incompetent, and oppressive. It is also deeply stupid. Nonetheless, it is not a Jonestown state, as Iraq was. The humanitarian arguments that supported an invasion of Iraq do not apply to Syria. Neither does Syria have anything like the territorial ambitions that Iraq once had. The Syrian Baathist regime no longer refers to Israel as "Southern Syria," a pretension of which history has cured it, (As Henry Kissenger once put it, the Syrian army would not have the logistical capability to drive to Tel Aviv even if all the Israelis disappeared.) A US invasion of Syria with the goal of regime change would put far more stress on the international system than the Iraq War did. For Irak, the Coalition could make a legally plausible case that it was acting to enforce Security Council resolutions dating back to 1990. Without some flagrant violation of international norms, no comparable justification is available for Syria.
Nonetheless, the policies of Damascus really are intolerable. There is nothing at all ambiguous about Syria's support for Islamist terrorist groups. Their reach extends far beyond Israel and Palestine into Europe and the United States. This cannot be allowed to go on: networks of this sort must be taken down before nuclear weapons become available on the international terrorist market.
Happily, it probably will not be necessary to go "On to Damascus," though there is no harm at all if Donald Rumsfeld continues to hint that he is planning for just that. Now that the US has access to a border with Syria, Special Forces raids against terrorist camps become far easier. So do smart-bomb attacks on selected leaders. Invisible robot drones in the sky can change the way you think about life. Syria will complain about precision strikes, but they are hardly in a position to complain too loudly: the targets will be too embarrassing to admit they were there in the first place.
* * *
President George W. Bush has it in his power, within the next few weeks, to make certain his reelection in 2004. All he has to do is make a statement like this:
"My fellow citizens: As you know, the Pole Star of my economic philosophy is the principle that the economy functions best when the private sector, and not the government, directs the largest possible fraction of the nation's resources. As I have often put it: 'It's your money.' However, as chief executive of the federal government, I cannot forget that the deficits in the federal budget become: 'Your Debt.' I continue to believe that, on the whole, the best way to ensure that the economy will remain strong is to keep taxes as low as possible. I promise to do that. However, 'as low as possible' means that taxes must not be so low that the national debt balloons out of control. For this reason, I will not seek any net tax reductions for the coming fiscal year, or for several years thereafter. Rather, my Administration will devote its energies to restructuring the existing tax code in order to make it fairer, simpler, and more easy to enforce.
"To put it another way: cough up those bucks, you stingy bastards."
Except for the last bit, we know that such a change in Administration policy would be popular, in fact extremely popular. According to a poll by the Associated Press, this would be true, not just with a majority of the total population, but even with a majority of Republicans. Most remarkably, it would be popular with a majority of the half of the country that believes it is overtaxed.
Nonetheless, the president continues to advocate very large tax cuts to move the economy out of the doldrums, even though it's pretty clear that the basket of cuts he is asking for would have a negligible stimulative effect. Why pursue a policy that is both bad economics and bad politics? Perhaps because it is not bad politics with the president's activists in the Republican Party. Although only four out of ten Americans support tax cuts, those are likely to be the four out of ten for whom lower taxes are a decisive issue. Few people will vote against a candidate for failing to raise taxes. President Bush's father lost in 1992 for many reasons, but one of them was that he broke an ill-considered pledge to never raise taxes under any circumstances. When he did raise taxes, most people thought the step was necessary. Among those who didn't, however, were those on whom his electoral coalition depended.
Might I suggest that this would be a good time to look for other backers? The current president, like the one before him, was elected by promising to focus on domestic issues. The coalition he put together was designed to promote that agenda. However, history has dealt GWB another hand. Contrary to his expectations, he is running a foreign-policy presidency. He needs fiscal policies to match. Particularly, he now has to assemble a "Coalition of the Willing" on the domestic front. He needs the support of groups, many of them traditionally Independent or Democratic, who are motivated by the new patriotism. A majority of the people are eager, even willing, to make sacrifices.
Frankly, at this point in history, a "War Sur-Tax" would be a winning issue.
* * *
Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic is trying to get the British government to sell him its fleet of Concorde supersonic passenger-jets. Both the British and the French flag carriers plan this year to end service of the beautiful but uneconomical machines. To my knowledge, no one is working on a new generation of commercial supersonic jets. It is just barely possible that private carriers will continue some token supersonic service, but it looks as if this kind of travel will go the way of the transatlantic Zeppelin.
I never looked forward to the prospect of flying cars, but I had always assumed that supersonic passenger-service would be standard by the beginning of the 21st century. There were many intimations of doom thirty years ago, when Congress refused to supply subsidies to develop an American supersonic transport. The plane's proponents said that the refusal to supply the money meant that the US was ceding a critical growth industry to Europe.
In the year 2000, people said that the unexpected advent of the Internet was more than enough compensation for the absence of Lunar bases and videophones. They said that before the dotcoms collapsed. Now what have we to console us?
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site