The Long View 2007-03-30: Human Nature, Human Rights, Iranian Motives, Goodbye Bees

This is a fun one: I hadn’t remember that John J. Reilly referenced Greg Cochran and John Hawks in 2007.

John also mentions a fairly standard criticism of any attempt to understand human behavior in terms of evolution, the Just So Stories of Kipling. It is sometimes true that such explanations are just ad hoc rationalizations in the mode of fiction, but the charge tends to get used regardless of the merits of the original argument.

A more interesting thing is that many of the most interesting arguments about understanding human behavior in light of evolution and genetics is that the best arguments are often taking advantage of final and formal causation to argue that we can understand something to be true without knowing a detailed mechanism, which then causes the truest of true believers in the supremacy of efficient causes to point and splutter.

Also, I find it a little sad that there have been rumors of war with Iran for the last twelve years at least. Give it up already.


Human Nature, Human Rights, Iranian Motives, Goodbye Bees

Conservatives can appropriate Darwinism in any of several ways. The least problematical is at the intersection of culture and demographics: certain cultural regimes seem to be inconsistent with maintaining the magic replacement-fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. In this sense, the conservative agenda will have succeeded in all essentials on the day when the phrase "The Darwin Award Agenda" principally calls to mind terms like "same-sex marriage" or "reproductive rights." However, there is also a Darwinian conservatism that aspires to make use of the full resources of sociobiology. Larry Arnhart's blog, Darwinian Conservatism, is an able presentation of this position.

There are two points that anyone interested in following this line of thought should consider. The first is one associated with most applications of "applied Darwinism": the explanations often look suspiciously like Just So Stories. There is also this point: maybe human nature ain't what it used to be:

Human evolution has been speeding up tremendously, a new study contends—so much, that the latest evolutionary changes seem to largely eclipse earlier ones that accompanied modern man’s “origin.” ....The authors are Cochran and anthropologist John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin Madison. “Holocene [from -10K years ago] changes were similar in pattern and... faster than those at the archaic-modern transition,” A “thing that should probably worry people is that brains have been getting smaller for 20,000 to 30,000 years,” said Cochran. But brain size and intelligence aren't tightly linked, he added. Also, growth in more advanced brain areas might have made up for the shrinkage, Cochran said; he speculated that an al­most breakneck evolution of higher foreheads in some peoples may reflect this. A study in the Jan. 14 British Dental Journal found such a trend visible in England in just the past millennium, he noted, a mere eye­blink in evolutionary time. ...[I]n a 2000 book The Riddled Chain..[b]ased on computer models, [John McKee] argued that evolution should speed up as a population grows...Many of the changes found in the genome or fossil record reflect metabolic alterations to adjust to agricultural life, Cochran said. Other changes simply make us weaker.

In the June 2003 issue of the research journal Current Anthropology, Helen Leach of the University of Otago, New Zealand wrote that skeletons from some populations in the human lineage have undergone a progressive shrinkage and weakening, and reduction in tooth size, similar to changes seen in domesticated animals. Humans seem to have domesticated themselves, she argued, causing physical as well as mental changes.

Never let anyone scare you with visions of the human race being replaced by artifacts. We are the artifacts.

* * *

"Human Rights" has become an Orwellian term, according to Joseph Bottum First Things:

“Peace is a communist plot,” Irving Kristol used to observe back during the Cold War...every organization with the word peace in its title was a communist front...the equation holds as true now as did then: Human rights are a communist plot, and international human rights are an international communist plot...Well, maybe not communist...Some amorphous radical leftism is clearly afloat in the world. Generally undefined in philosophy, economics, or eschatology, it seems nonetheless able to unite the most unlikely bedfellows: terrorists, and sexual-transgression artists, and agitators for radical Islam, and abortion activists, and third-world dictators—anybody, anywhere, who thinks there’s an advantage to be gained from claiming that the West is wrong. And they can always join under a banner emblazoned with that noble phrase “human rights.”

There is something to this, particularly at those United Nations agencies where the foxes are in firm possession of the chicken coops. Still, we should remember the insistence by the United States that the Helsinki Accords of 1975 contain a human-rights plank. The Soviet Union had wanted the Accords to set in stone the Cold War division of Europe, but the human-rights plank delegitimized the European Marxist regimes in a mere 15 years.

What's the difference between "human rights" as principles that protect freedom and "human rights" as an ideology that justifies enslavement and promotes extinction? About this, Dinesh D'Souza was perfectly correct: the civil liberties that the Founding Fathers understood are workable and almost universally attractive; the social engineering projects that come out of the transnational human rights industry are disliked and dysfunctional. Could the distinction be as simple as the one that Oliver Wendell Holmes proposed, that between procedural and substantive rights?

* * *

Speaking of catchy turns of phrase, was Vox Day the first to refer to the US presidency as The Cherry Blossom Throne?

* * *

About the Iranian seizure of British sailors in the Persian Gulf, Time Magazine has this to say in connection with the question, Is a U.S.-Iran War Inevitable?:

This week Iranian diplomats are telling interlocutors that, yes, they realize seizing the Brits could lead to a hot war. But, they point out, it wasn't Iran that started taking hostages — it was the U.S., when it arrested five members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Erbil in Northern Iraq on January 11. They are diplomats, the Iranians insist. They were in Erbil with the approval of the Kurds and therefore, they argue, are under the protection of the Vienna Convention.

Iranian grievances, real and perceived, don't stop there. Tehran is convinced the U.S. or one of its allies was behind the March 2006 separatist violence in Iranian Baluchistan, which ended up with 20 people killed, including an IRGC member executed. And the Iranians believe there is more to come, accusing the U.S. of training and arming Iranian Kurds and Azeris to go back home and cause problems. Needless to say the Iranians are not happy there are American soldiers on two of its borders, as well as two carriers and a dozen warships in the Gulf. You call this paranoia? they ask.

Actually, I would call the Iranians mendacious, and I would call the editors of Time that, too, were not honest stupidity a more economical explanation. Surely the only explanation the incident requires is that the recent votes in the US Congress to, in effect, lose the war in Iraq by a date certain show that US hegemony is evaporating; the Iranians took the sailors to demonstrate that Iran can now act with impunity, and the states of the region should restructure their foreign policies accordingly.

I suspect that that Iran will release the sailors in short order; the Iranians probably believe their point has been made. Of course, it is possible that Iran wants a war now, believing that, however much damage they suffer at first, the US and UK will be unable, for domestic reasons, to sustain it for more than a few days.

* * *

Any reader of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy can read these reports only with great distress:

Across the country, honey bees are disappearing by the thousands. ...

“This is unique in that bees are disappearing,” Hayes said. “The hives are empty. You don’t see dead bodies. The colony, over time, dwindles until you don’t see anything left in the colony.”

So long, thanks for all the gardens?

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The Long View 2007-01-02: Overdiagnosis; Literature Maps; Starship Jesus Conversion from Islam; Spengler's Deal; Shabby Hanging

I do agree with John here that our diagnostic tools often don’t improve health, and that the definitions of “disease” are often too broad, but I disagree about why healthcare doesn’t do much as you might think to improve our health. I definitely don’t blame administrative costs, although I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find something to cut there, it wouldn’t make healthcare in the US cost half as much. Universities are another matter.


Overdiagnosis; Literature Maps;
Starship Jesus Conversion from Islam; Spengler's Deal; Shabby Hanging

The smartest thing anyone has said in years about the US health-care system appears in an editorial in today's New York Times by members of the VA Outcomes Group of White River Junction, Vt.:

For most Americans, the biggest health threat is...our health-care system..more and more of us are being drawn into the system not because of an epidemic of disease, but because of an epidemic of diagnoses...First, advanced technology allows doctors to look really hard for things to be wrong. ...These technologies make it possible to give a diagnosis to just about everybody: arthritis in people without joint pain, stomach damage in people without heartburn and prostate cancer in over a million people who, but for testing, would have lived as long without being a cancer patient...Second, the rules are changing. Expert panels constantly expand what constitutes disease: thresholds for diagnosing diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and obesity have all fallen in the last few years. The criterion for normal cholesterol has dropped multiple times. With these changes, disease can now be diagnosed in more than half the population.

It's perfectly true: doctors will keep ordering tests no matter your physical condition until you tell them to stop. This practice is particularly pernicious in the case of the trusting and fragile elderly. That's half the explanation for the runaway insurance costs. The other half is bloated and duplicative (and triplicative) administration.

* * *

And if we must do tests, the best personality test I know of is to look at the books in the subject's home library. We soon learn that certain books belong in the same bookcase. Now comes Marek Gidney and his ingenious literature map, essentially a search engine where you input the name of an author and then see what other people who read that author are likely to read. (There are parallel engines for film and music). If this engine to be believed (and we should take it no more seriously than the "recommended books" feature at Amazon), communities of taste are not what we supposed. For instance, there is strangely little overlap between the readership of JRR Tolkien and that of CS Lewis. Tolkien fans favor high-concept science fiction; CS Lewis, to judge by this search engine, is read mostly as a devotional author. I also see that, if you read William Shakespeare, then quite likely you also read HP Lovecraft.

* * *

I don't believe it literally true that there are Millions of Muslims Converting to Christianity, but the reports to that effect multiply:

Around a million believed in Jesus over the past decade in Egypt. The Egyptian Bible Society used to sell about 3,000 copies of the JESUS film a year in the early 1990s. But last year they sold 600,000 copies, plus 750,000 copies of the Bible on tape (in Arabic) and about a half million copies of the Arabic New Testament. "Egyptians are increasingly hungry for God's Word," an Egyptian Christian leader told.

Does anyone have any hard information about this? And if so, why haven't you told me? What don't you want me to know?

* * *

Asia Times Spengler, seeking, no doubt, to annoy me in particular, suggests in his latest that President Bush's fortunes could be about to improve so dramatically that yet another Bush might successfully be elected to the White House in the near future:

[B]rother Jeb, about to step down as governor of the state of Florida, will be elected president of the United States in 2008, thanks in large measure to the rebound of the current president's standing.

For one thing, Spengler notes, the US position in the world is far better than the political class in advanced countries have reason to admit:

Asians cannot earn money to be saved without selling to the American consumer, and they cannot invest their savings except in United States. ...For all America's embarrassment in Iraq, none of its fundamental interests is impaired by Iraq's misery.

The real problem in that part of the world, as Spengler exhorts us every other Monday, is Iran:

There is no point negotiating with the present regime in Teheran...

This is because the current regime there knows its oil exporting period is nearly over, but has dealt with that fact by turning to apocalyptic fantasy. In contrast, we are told, China and Russia will pursue their real interests with sober good sense:

Securing Russian and Chinese cooperation with US strategic objectives, I believe, is a far simpler proposition than is portrayed in the myth of US imperial decline...

China must settle perhaps 15 million rural migrants in cities each year, while building infrastructure and employment in the interior and correcting urgent environmental problems. To do this, China requires stability and predictability in its foreign economic relations.

What does Russia want? Stability on its borders, often at the expense of the aspirations of peoples who have the misfortune to occupy the Russian near abroad, and a free hand in arranging the economic affairs of the Russian state.

According to Spengler, the US should and will drop its fancy notions about spreading democracy universally, but especially in the Russian Near Abroad. Similarly, the US should let it be known that it will stop pestering China about the yuan-dollar exchange rate. Then, Spengler assures us, the US would have all possible options for dealing with Iran, some of them much better than a speculative strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Henry Kissinger believed during the Vietnam War that the Soviet Union was offering to give the United States a free hand in Vietnam, even to invading and overthrowing the government in the North, if the US would acquiesce in a preemptive Soviet strike against China. Then Secretary of State Kissinger and President Nixon showed the proposal no favor.

In this they did wisely. Deals of this sort are like multilevel marketing schemes. They sound like good idea, but they aren't.

* * *

Speaking of impending atrocities, Anthony Sacramone at First Things has alerted an incredulous world to this project:

In this month’s Empire magazine Paul Verhoeven opened up about his upcoming project based, perhaps surprisingly, on the life of Jesus.

Verhoeven is a director with many films to his credit, but he holds a special place in the hearts of Heinlein fans for his 1997 adaptation of Starship Troopers. Anyone who is familiar with both the Heinlein story and the movie knows that we need not take Paul Verhoeven seriously about any book in the world.

* * *

Mark Steyn has some cutting things to say about the recent execution of Saddam Hussein, but not least about the official European reaction to it. We read:

According to a poll published in Le Monde, the majority of Spaniards, Germans, French and British were all in favor of executing Saddam. ...When Die Zeit and The Times and all the rest say that "Europe" condemns the death of Saddam, what they mean is that a narrow, remote, self-insulating politico-media elite condemns it....Whatever one's views on capital punishment, that's not what it's about. Hardcore dictatorships have to be not just politically but psychologically liberated. When one man is so murderously powerful, incarceration cannot suffice - because as long as he lives there will always be the possibility that he will return. ...

On the other hand, the hanging was not all we might have wished:

Unfortunately, when the US handed him over to the Iraqi authorities, the "authorities" did their best to look entirely unauthorized. Saddam was dispatched in some dingy low-ceilinged windowless room of one of his old secret-police torture joints by a handful of goons in ski masks and black leather jackets.

Steyn suggests that someone from the US embassy, or at least the military, should have been on hand to advise on the proper protocol. To that suggestion, I reply that the execution really was not supposed to be public. American executions these days are normally short on pomp and circumstance, too.

On the other hand, the addition of the ceremonial of public executions to the education of the diplomatic corps would add a whole new dimension to Foreign Service School.

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The Long View 2006-12-26: The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

One of the most fascinating things about P. D. James’ dystopia Children of Men is that so many people invest so much time and effort into trying to make it a reality.


The Children of Men; Geopolitical Broken Windows

Once upon a time there were two goats that were eating old movie-film from out of a trash bin behind MGM Studios. One goat said to the other:

"Hey, this is a good movie!"

The other goat replied:

"Yes, but it's not as good as the book."

We should keep that cautionary exchange in mind whenever we suspect that a film adaptation has missed the point of the book on which it is based. We should in any case be cautious in commenting about a film we have not seem yet. Nonetheless, the laudatory review that Manohla Dragis wrote for The New York Times regarding the film version of P.D. James's novel, The Children of Men, gives me grave misgivings:

Based in broad outline on the 1992 dystopian novel by P. D. James about a world suffering from global infertility — and written with a nod to Orwell by Mr. Cuarón and his writing partner Timothy J. Sexton along with David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — “Children of Men” pictures a world that looks a lot like our own, but darker, grimmer and more frighteningly, violently precarious. It imagines a world drained of hope and defined by terror in which bombs regularly explode in cafes crowded with men and women on their way to work. It imagines the unthinkable: What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?...heavily armed soldiers are ubiquitous. They flank the streets and train platforms, guarding the pervasive metal cages crammed with a veritable Babel of humanity, illegal immigrants who have fled to Britain from hot spots, becoming refugees or “fugees” for short...“Children of Men” has none of the hectoring qualities that tend to accompany good intentions in Hollywood.

Actually, to judge by that review, the film sounds pretty hectoring to me, but hectoring about the wrong things. The novel does mention the sorry state of guest workers in Britain in a world in which there had been no births for over 20 years, but they are barely an afterthought. In fact, violence (unless you count the semi-voluntary euthanasia program) is almost absent from the book. This is, after all, a world without young people. James was not writing science fiction, but she thought through very carefully the economic and cultural implications of a population in which the ratio of elderly consumers to relatively young producers grows ever larger.

James was more interested in making metaphysical than demographic points, as we see in the review of James's book by Alan Jacobs in First Things:

Does the Warden's apparently benevolent despotism give people even a modicum of genuine comfort? Not if they are anything like Theo Faron, who writes in his journal that "without the hope of posterity, for our race if not for ourselves, without the assurance that we being dead yet live, all pleasures of the mind and senses sometimes seem to me no more than pathetic and crumbling defences shored up against our ruins." But Faron is more honest and self-reflective than the majority, who prefer not to think hard thoughts or confront troubling facts.

Still, if you are looking for birth-dearth fiction, The Children of Men is a good place to start. (See also Brian Aldiss's Greybeard. This seems to be one case where, if you plan to see the movie, you should consider reading the book first:

I'm still cranky about David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, but don't get me started.

* * *

Meanwhile, Mark Steyn has more to worry about than cinematic adaptations of his ideas, as we see in this column:

Whatever the “realists” may say, nations talk to each other all the time. Unfortunately, when nation A opens its mouth, nation B doesn't always get the message, no matter how loud and clear it is. Syria and Iran, for example, have subverted post-Saddam Iraq for three years now. Rather quietly at first. But, like a kid playing gangsta rap in his bedroom, if there are no complaints, you might as well crank up the volume. So Iran began openly threatening genocide against a neighboring state. And Syria had one of its opponents in Lebanon, Pierre Gemayel, assassinated.

Syria and Iran are talking, but are we listening?

Likewise, Russia. These days, we talk to the Bear incessantly, to the point of holding the G8 photo-op on Vladimir Putin’s turf. The old KGB man’s pals are also back in the assassination game, not just in his backyard but in London, too...when it became obvious that there was no price to be paid for obstructing American aims, the world got the message. Yet at home too many Americans are wedded to an absurd proposition: that somehow the lone “superpower” can choose to lose yet another war and there will be no consequences, except for Bush and sundry discredited “neocons”; that no matter how America stumbles in the world it can stay rich and happy and technologically advanced even as it becomes a laughingstock in Tehran and Damascus and Pyongyang and Caracas and Moscow and on, and on, and on.

Not so. We are on the brink of a terrible tipping point.

Let me reiterate that I am not sure that Vladimir Putin has poisoned anyone. If you want to worry about Russia, worry about what they are doing to the customers for their natural gas. Still, Steyn's points are well taken, so much so that I am reminded of these words from Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties by Paul Johnson, pages 309-311:

During the 1920s, the civilized Western democracies had maintained some kind of shaky world order, through the League on the one hand, and through Anglo-American financial diplomacy on the other. At the beginning of the 1930s, the system -- if it could be called a system, broke down completely, opening an era of international banditry in which the totalitarian states behaved simply in accordance with their military means...In the 1920s the world had been run by the power of money. In the 1930s it was subject to the arbitration of the sword....A careful study of the period reveals the extent to which the totalitarian powers, though acting independently and sometimes in avowed hostility towards each other, took advantage of their numbers and growing strength to challenge and outface the pitifully stretched resources of democratic order.

(Incidentally, the book was first published in 1983, but the author revised it after 1989. Read the first edition.)

What we see here is not "re-balancing" against one power or alliance by other powers, but a situation in which it became clear that the rules no longer applied, so opportunistic behavior appeared. Call it a geopolitical version of the broken windows effect.

Don't worry, though. I'll try to have a solution by Monday.

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The Long View 2006-12-18: Class of the Year; Past the Apogee; The Latin Mass

This post by John J. Reilly was written about six months before the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum was published, giving universal permission to celebrate the Mass in the Latin Rite according to the pre-Vatican II rubrics. I have a pending review of the book A Bitter Trial, containing letters between Evelyn Waugh and other famous Catholics about the liturgical changes that came from Vatican II. It will be interesting to reflect on how things have changed in the last twelve years.


Class of the Year; Past the Apogee; The Latin Mass

I have won the Time Man of the Year award for the second time in my life, according to this report:

NEW YORK (AP) - Congratulations! You are the Time magazine "Person of the Year."...The annual honor for 2006 went to each and every one of us, as Time cited the shift from institutions to individuals - citizens of the new digital democracy, as the magazine put it. The winners this year were anyone using or creating content on the World Wide Web. ...It was not the first time the magazine went away from naming an actual person for its "Person of the Year." In 1966, the 25-and-under generation was cited; in 1975, American women were named; and in 1982, the computer was chosen.

The awarding of honors to classes of people was one of Ayn Rand's nightmares. On the other hand, I am also reminded of the time Norway awarded itself the Nobel Peace Prize in a show hosted by John Cleese. The show was entitled Norway, Land of Giants.
It was a joke. I think.

* * *

But speaking of nightmares, consider Past the Apogee: America Under Pressure, which Charles Krauthammer delivered at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's annual dinner last month:

When I wrote the article “The Unipolar Moment” (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1990/91), it achieved some renown because, remarkably, I was the only one saying at the time, that in fact, with the end of the Cold War, the United States would end up as the unipolar power, the dominant, hegemonic power in the world. There would be none even close to us in ranking. The old bipolar world would yield not to a multipolar world but to one with only one great influence, and that would be us. ...

Sept. 11 ushered in the second era of this unipolar era, which I would call the era of assertion, where the power that had been latent in America shows itself. I would date this era from 9/11 to the March 14, 2005, a date probably unfamiliar to you and not particularly renowned in our history today, but a date that I think will be remembered by historians as the apogee of American power, the peak of the arc of the unipolar era. ...

The Bush Doctrine held that besides attacking the immediate enemy who had perpetrated 9/11, it would have to engage in a larger enterprise of changing the underlying conditions which had given birth to this idea of Islamic radicalism, and to change the conditions that had allowed it to recruit and breed, particularly in the Arab world.

Let me interject that the Iraq War should be viewed as continuous with the Serbian War of a few years earlier: both were expressions of the original concept behind the United Nations, an organization grown too crooked to act even as a mask for serious efforts to carry out its original purpose.

After that, of course, was the swift initial victory in Iraq, in which the capital fell within three weeks. After that was a ripple effect in the region. Libya, seeing what we had done in Iraq, gave up its nuclear capacity; then the remarkable revolution in Lebanon in which Syria was essentially expelled. And that demarks the date that I spoke of. March 14 is the name of the movement in Lebanon of those who rose up against the Syrians and essentially created a new democracy—fragile, as we will see. You have all of these events happening at once: you have the glimmerings of democracy in the elections in Egypt, some changes even in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and of course what we had in January 2005 was the famous first election in Iraq, which had an electric effect on the region. That winter-spring of 2005, I think, is the apogee of this assertion of unipolarity and American power.

For a variety of reasons, however, the initial impulse dissipated:

Since this [is] an evening honoring Benjamin Franklin, I want to recall to you one of his most famous statements. When leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was asked what they had accomplished. His response was “A republic, if you can keep it.” What we have done in Iraq is given them a republic, but they appear unable to keep it.

This judgement could yet prove premature. Be that as it may, though, I am extremely skeptical of this assessment:

What is becoming clear is that the overall international strategic situation in which we had unchallenged hegemony for the first decade and half the unipolar moment is now over. We are seeing on the horizon the rise of something that is always expected in any unipolar era, which is an alliance of others who oppose us. ...What I think we are beginning to see now is Iran positioning itself at the center of a regional alliance against us, again with the—Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, Sadr—looking to overawe the entire region with the acquisition of nuclear weapons, which would make it the regional superpower. And Iran is receiving tacit backing for its regional and anti-American ambitions from two great powers: Russia and China. That, I think, is the structure of the adversary that we will be looking at for the decades to come.

Russia is supporting Iran, of course, but for commercial rather than strategic reasons. As for China, the remarkable thing is how little influence it attempts to exercise in the Middle East. The United States has, arguably, lost the Kantian Mandate of Heaven that perfect communion with the UN once afforded. We must wonder, though, whether the United States or the mandate has been discredited.

We have all been reading too much into the results of the recent congressional elections. They cannot signify the snapping of imperial over-stretch among an exhausted electorate, for the excellent reason that the electorate has been asked to sacrifice nothing. We also know for a fact that the country does not regard the loss of American lives in Iraq as intolerable: the military has been having no trouble meeting recruiting or reenlistment goals. George Bush was reelected in 2004 because he promised not to be Lyndon Johnson, a promise he broke. As for the behavior of the Republican Congress, the less said the better.

* * *

If we must over-interpret an election, this may be a good place to start:

Ultra-conservatives close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have failed to sweep twin Iranian elections with embattled moderate forces recording a respectable performance, initial results have showed. ...Centrist cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani appeared to have sprung a surprise by reaping by far the most votes and beating a hardline rival in the election for the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses the supreme leader.

The chief reason to discount models in which Iran becomes the linchpin of an anti-American coalition is that the Iranians don't really have the inclination or, one suspects, the capacity for the political cohesion that would be necessary for such a role.

* * *

As for events in Iraq itself, I am not overly comforted by this report:

Civil war or not, Iraq has an economy, and -- mother of all surprises -- it's doing remarkably well. Real estate is booming. Construction, retail and wholesale trade sectors are healthy, too, according to a report by Global Insight in London. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports 34,000 registered companies in Iraq, up from 8,000 three years ago. Sales of secondhand cars, televisions and mobile phones have all risen sharply. Estimates vary, but one from Global Insight puts GDP growth at 17 percent last year and projects 13 percent for 2006. The World Bank has it lower: at 4 percent this year. But, given all the attention paid to deteriorating security, the startling fact is that Iraq is growing at all.

This development is as morbid as what is happening in Venezuela: in both cases, a transitory pure-consumption economy is masking the disintegration of productive activity. The real news here is that oil production in Iraq is recovering, which is some evidence that the government there really can do things that engage its enthusiasm.

* * *

At First Things, meanwhile, Fr. Neuhaus has commented on the Affair of the Blue Mosque, the incident during Benedict XVI's recent visit to Istanbul in which the pontiff prayed, or perhaps simply engaged in a moment of reflection, at a noted place of Muslim worship. Fr. Neuhaus comments chiefly by quoting John Allen of The National Catholic Reporter on the matter. Allen, of course, noted it would be absurd to read syncretism or relativism into anything done by Joseph Ratzinger. Fr. Neuhaus then goes on to say:

But a gloss is really not necessary.

To that I can only reply, "Yes it is." What the pope did was understandable; it may even have been unavoidable. However, it would be a grave mistake to think that it was costless.

* * *

In happier Benedictine news, we see from the latest rumors that the general permission to celebrate the Tridentine Latin Mass may be just days away. Reporters in the New York area who would like to see what an established Tridentine revival can look like might visit Holy Rosary parish here in downtown Jersey City. After the Sunday Mass in Latin, which usually ends around 11:15 AM, there is coffee and munchies in the basement. I am not really the guy to talk to, but you can contact me or the parish to set up interviews with some people who are.

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The Long View 2006-12-13: Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016  Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi in 2016

Mostafameraji [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

I note that Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi did win election to the upper house in Iran in 2006, but that his party did not gain a majority in the legislature. The Wikipedia article is broadly consistent with Dr. Timothy Furnish’s description that John J. Reilly quotes here, but as this is pretty far outside my knowledge base, I don’t have much to add besides that.

I do like John’s use of Bayes’ Theorem in explaining millenarian decision making. In light of new information, what was previously crazy might not actually be crazy at all, if the new information is true.

John links here to a Youtube video of Julius Evola, and the years were not kind to the man. He actually looks a bit like Grandpa Munster in the film footage, whereas in his youth he was a rather dapper Dark Lord.

Finally, despite John’s caustic comment on the perennial Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, I think Niall Gooch has the best defense of the movie’s merits.


Waiting for the Mahdi; AH and Iraq; Christmas Kitsch


As if the US Congressional elections were not exciting enough, an impending vote in Iran could be even more important, if we are to believe Patrick Poole:

A showdown over the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran is underway as the December 15th election of the Assembly of Experts, the top political body, rapidly approaches. The election of the Assembly of Experts has been a particularly contentious issue in Iran, as the traditionalist hardliners have already invalidated many candidates representing both the moderating party led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani and the burgeoning extremist party led by President Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.

The burden of that piece is that a victory by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi would be unfortunate, because he is a millenarian of the first water in an eschatological tradition that views the eschaton as something one should help to bring about, not just to wait for. I cannot evaluate that assessment, since this is one of those areas I know only through secondary sources. However, Timothy R. Furnish of Mahdiwatch has a Ph.D in Islamic millenarianism, and he has this to say:

I think that his taking the helm there would virtually ensure eventual war with Israel and/or the U.S., for two reasons: Mesbah-Yazdi's geopolitical views – which include approval of first-use of nuclear weapons – make him perhaps the ultimate Shi`ite jihadist; and his eschatological fervor, which brings to mind previous historical examples of bloody Mahdist movements, such as Ibn Tumart of 12th century Morocco and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan.

For my part, I would say that only very rarely does millenarianism in power take the form of a man with a plan who makes a nuisance of himself while trying to carry out a step-by-step agenda that leads to the eschaton. Rather, it encourages risk-taking by denigrating the importance of the present state of things, which is seen as merely transitional. It's really an instance of Bayes' Rule: a policy that might seem too risky in ordinary time appears less hazardous because of the added information about a possible future provided by the millenarian model.

* * *

Niall Ferguson seems to have become interested in Alternative History because the First World War, whose economic history was his original concern as a scholar, cries out for such an analysis. That's because it was obviously a war of choice, at least of choice about how and when the war broke out. That is also true of the Iraq War, which has also occasioned a great deal of AH speculation, either about the war itself, or about alternative-historical parallels. David Warren here favors us with an example of the latter:

I was rewriting history, while walking along some cold lakeshore the other day. My thought was: if Churchill had only come to power in 1937, Chamberlain would have been installed to replace him in 1940.

Had Churchill been in power, and refused to sign Munich, he would have been blamed for the outbreak of war.

I can just hear the prattle in an English pub, circa 1950. "He pushed Hitler to it! Had it not been for Churchill, Hitler would have been satisfied with the Sudetenland, and England would never have had to surrender. Everything was Churchill's fault!"

Today, everything is Bush's fault.

Actually, Germany's strategic position was much worse in September 1938 than a year later, when the war in Europe actually began. Russia was still unfriendly, there would have been time to send Poland serious support, and an invasion of Czechoslovakia would not self-evidently have been an easy matter. A war begun in 1938 would have been confused and tentative, but it might have been the better solution. One suspects the same will turn out to have been true of the Iraq War. Would 2008 really have been a better year if a nuclear-armed and millenarian Iran were then demanding that Saddam Hussein's government come clean about its WMD programs?

* * *

But if Bush is not to blame, then how about this fellow? Yes, unless I am mistaken, that is no less a person than Julius Evola (compare his picture here) speaking about the metaphysical significance of Dada. Here he is speaking in French with Italian subtitles. I'm working on it.

* * *

You think America is forgetting the meaning of Christmas, do you? Well, according to Jeff Jacoby, matters are much worse across the Atlantic:

FROM THE land that produced "A Christmas Carol" and Handel's "Messiah," more evidence that Christianity is fading in Western Europe: Nearly 99 percent of Christmas cards sold in Great Britain contain no religious message or imagery...But some Britons, not all of them devout, are resisting the tide. Writing in the Telegraph, editor-at-large Jeff Randall -- who describes himself as "somewhere between an agnostic and a mild believer" -- announces that any Christmas card he receives that doesn't at least mention the word "Christmas" goes straight into the trash. "

May I suggest that "A Christmas Carol" was the top of the slippery slope of which the "Seasons Greetings" card is the bottom? "A Christmas Carol" is a sentimental ghost story, excellent of its kind, but in no way intended to reinforce the religious significance of Christmas: rather the opposite, I suspect. In this it resembles Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a nightmarish tale of existential dread.

And what have I done for Christmas art? I did this poster.

xmas2006a.jpg

Anybody have a problem with that?

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The Long View 2006-12-04: Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

John J. Reilly poo-poohs criticizing the high cousin marriage rate in the Middle East, but it really is bad…..

Genetics wasn’t really one of his interests, but I thought it was more widely known that cousin marriage makes your kids dumber and sicker than they would be otherwise.


Chaos, Social Darwinism, Patronage Socialism

Does that Other Spengler have the Middle East in a nutshell?

What formerly were civil wars (or prospective civil wars) in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine have become three fronts in a Sunni-Shi'ite war, in which the local contestants are mere proxies. This is obvious in Lebanon, and becoming so in Palestine ...[The new configuration for the region could be something like] the great German civil war, namely the 30 Years' War of 1618-48. The Catholic and Protestant Germans, with roughly equal strength, battered each other through two generations because France sneakily shifted resources to whichever side seemed likely to fold. I have contended for years that the United States ultimately will adopt the perpetual-warfare doctrine that so well served Cardinal Richelieu and made France the master of Europe for a century ...Iran, I warned on September 13, 2005, is running short of oil and soldiers...Its oil exports could fall to zero within only 10 years, according to new studies reviewed in the December 11 Business Week. Iran's circumstances appear far more pressing than I believed a year ago,

We tried very much the policy Spengler suggests, in the long war between Iraq and Iran. One side eventually won.

* * *

Chaos has other advocates. To loose mere anarchy upon the world, in fact, is one of the options that Paul Starobin explores in his National Journal piece, Beyond Hegemony:

As the science writer James Gleick reminds in "Chaos," his 1987 best-seller, "chaos and instability" are "not the same at all." The essence of a chaotic system is not an absence of balance but an inherent unpredictability. Thus, weather patterns and the stock market have a chaotic quality -- but they are not lacking in self-adjusting orderly principles. So it might be in a footloose world without any hegemon.

In this regard, Thomas L. Friedman -- a New York Times columnist, an inveterate optimist, and the advancer of the idea that, as the title of his best-selling book puts it, "The World Is Flat" -- offered an intriguing idea at a recent forum in Washington sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The world of the last half-century has been tracing an arc, Friedman said. The Cold War was the bipolar world, with the U.S. and the Soviet Union keeping things in check, and this stage, he continued, was followed by the unipolar world of American dominance -- which, in turn, is already starting to give way to a decentralized one in which the key force is not any one state or set of states but the technologically empowered individual.

All this is in aid of the latest recrudescence of Declinism, the thesis advanced in the late 1980s by Paul Kennedy to the effect the US would soon be joined by peer powers: Japan and Europe certainly, and perhaps more. Pretty much none of the forecasts that Kennedy made have been borne out by latter events, though the piece allows Kennedy some self-congratulatory quotes. In fact, in the list of prospective peer powers we are given, India is the only one without imploding demographics or a Potemkin financial system or both. Even with regard to Iraq, we should note that none of the supposed poles of a future multipolar world seem much interested in actually planting themselves in the region. The return of Declinism is really just part of a campaign by transnational institutions, and particularly the UN, to use the political embarrassment of the Bush Administration to reestablish their credibility. However, it is only after taking us through speculation about China World and Plurality World that the author takes us to the World World scenario:

It may be that the E.U. model -- more than the talkathon United Nations one -- could serve as the blueprint of a future World Government. Today the euro, tomorrow the universo -- with an image of Kant on the bill? (If you think the restaurant fare is good in Brussels now, wait until it becomes the capital of the planet.) But if the E.U. precedent holds, it could take not only the end of American hegemony but also some kind of global catastrophe -- akin to World War II but on an even larger scale -- to establish a World Government with the power to enforce its own "world security" policy.

The piece actually makes a reference to the way a world government is formed in the Left Behind books, but tactfully omits reference to the Rapture.

* * *

Here is a review of John Derbyshire's review of Mark Steyn's America Alone. (My own review, in length comparable to Derbyshire's, is here.) Derbyshire tells us:

A literary and stylistic gem like America Alone might be utterly wrong-headed; but one would be much more reluctant to think so than one would in the case of a dull, clumsily-written book on the same subject....

For someone so impressed by the book, Derbyshire seems oddly uninterested in Steyn's central argument about the unsustainability of below-replacement birthrates:

Birthrates are dropping everywhere, even in Muslim countries, even in non-Israeli Palestine. This is just a feature of our postindustrial age, and it’s unlikely there is anything we can do about it, or should want to...The earth’s surface is finite, after all...

Does Derbyshire dismiss the concept of social reform? We get a clue to that later. For now, let's see what he says when he's trying to be helpful:

[T]he reader who has traversed those 200 pages has been having different thoughts from the ones Steyn tries to guide him to. For example: Is that original list of options—submit to, destroy, or reform Islam—really exhaustive? How about we just fence it off...

I put the book down at last, though, wondering if it is pessimistic enough. For all his splendid conservative credentials, Mark Steyn has tendencies towards root-causes liberalism. [Quoting Steyn] "John Derbyshire began promoting the slogan 'Rubble doesn't Cause Trouble.' Cute, and I wish him well with the T-shirt sales. But in arguing for a 'realist' foreign policy of long-range bombing as necessary, he overlooks the very obvious point that rubble causes quite a lot of trouble..." Ah, but Mark, there is rubble, and there is rubble. ...I am, in fact, willing to confess myself a collateral-damage armchair warrior, who would be happy to see us trade in our inventory of smart laser-guided precision munitions for lots and lots and lots of old-style iron bombs

Well, maybe not very helpful. In any case, we eventually discover that his embrace of popular sociobiology probably has disabled his ability to think about social issues:

And there are, of course, as must always be pointed out nowadays, the Great Unmentionables...Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race. (Repeat 100 times.) It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite...Good, solid scientific studies are beginning to appear that altogether refute the “culture” paradigm. We are not a uniform species...What of those Muslim Middle-Eastern family trees? The ones labeled “Arab Shia,” “Iranian Shia,” “Mesopotamian Sunni,” “Saudi” (that’s the one with a 55 percent cousin-marriage rate), and so on? Can they, with a little help and encouragement, make harmonious, consensual modern societies out of themselves?

I am perfectly willing to believe that the reaction of early 20th-century cultural anthropologists to Social Darwinism occasioned quite a lot of bogus research. However, Social Darwinism was pretty bogus, too; it's still bogus if you recast it in genetic and neurobiological terminology. Just glance above at Spengler's allusion to the Thirty Years' War, when the Germans blew each other up at least as efficiently as the Sunni and Shia of today. Maybe the German genes have changed. More likely, the same genes have more than one mode of expression.

* * *

If you must recast conservatism in Darwinian terms, then start with this item at Right Reason:

[L]arry Arnhart, recently responded on his blog to [RR's] review of his book, Darwinian Conservatism. [RR's] review, which was published under the title, "Natural Law Without a Lawgiver," just appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of The Review of Politics (68.4, pp. 680-82). You can find a pdf of it on [RR's] website....

I'm a great fan of paleontology, and also of popular genetics, but the problem with Darwinism as a pure method is that it explains imaginary animals as readily as real ones. The same, I am afraid, goes for sociobiological accounts of human societies.

* * *

Some political systems are obviously doomed, of course, not least among them Hugo Chavez's patronage socialism:

The boom [in Venezuela] is evident in an economy that has put financial speculation and conspicuous consumption ahead of domestic manufacturing. For instance, foreign automobile companies Ford and General Motors will sell 300,000 cars in the country this year. Economists describe Venezuela as a “harbor economy” because of its lust for imported goods...

Some Chávez economic policies draw inspiration from formulas used with mixed results by countries in the developing and industrialized worlds the 1960s and 1970s. These include price controls for food and gasoline, strict limits on buying and selling foreign currency and caps on everything from lending rates at banks to hourly fees at parking lots....Despite boasting of some of South America’s most fertile land in an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined, Venezuela still imports more than half its food, largely from the United States and Colombia. An overvalued currency, meanwhile, has been disastrous for Venezuelan industry with the number of manufacturing companies falling to about 8,000 today from 17,000 in 1998, according to Mr. Guerra, the former economist at the central bank.

Castro promised his people blood, sweat, and tears: he stayed in power by meeting the low expectations he had created. Chavez promises ice cream and lollipops, which he can deliver, until the next collapse in oil prices.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-09-07: The Court Historian; The Creepy-Crawlies; The Abandoned City

   Mohammad Khatami  By Ali Rafiei - http://media.farsnews.com/Media/8603/ImageReports/8603310160/15_8603310160_L600.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66835805

 

Mohammad Khatami

By Ali Rafiei - http://media.farsnews.com/Media/8603/ImageReports/8603310160/15_8603310160_L600.jpg, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66835805

In retrospect, I think I agree with Mohammad Khatami that American policy in Iraq in the first half of the 2000s led to increased terrorism and instability. John Reilly was often harsh on Iran and Iranian politicians in his blog, and this post is no exception. To be fair to John, Iran was and is a patron of Hezbollah, a player in the bloody factional politics of the Middle East that is considered a terrorist organization by the US and EU. And of course there was the 1979 Tehran Embassy thing, and Iran really was working hard on a nuclear program.

On the other hand, important men in the Iranian version of Shia Islam tend to have philosophical educations heavy on Plato and Aristotle, much like Catholic priests. The first female Fields medalist, Maryam Mirzakhani, was from Iran. Before the embassy takeover and Iran sponsoring attacks on Israel via proxy after the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon, Iran was the traditional American ally in the region. Hell, pursuing a nuclear program in the hopes of either getting real military independence, like Israel, Pakistan, and India, or major concessions, like North Korea, seems like a winning geopolitical strategy to me.

Khatami, in particular, probably didn't deserve John's ire, but I also don't think we should pretend that the Twelver branch of Shia Islam that is predominant in Iran would be popular with the US public if they knew what it was or what it meant, or that Iran wants things that the US foreign policy establishment wants.

I do suspect that we could reach some kind of reasonable compromise with Iran, but to be honest I don't think much of the opinions of most US middle east foreign policy experts either. I want things my own countrymen [at least the ones who talk about it all the time] don't appear to want, like staying out of land wars in West Asia.


The Court Historian; The Creepy-Crawlies; The Abandoned City

 

Personnel Selections for the McCain Administration are perhaps premature. Nonetheless, correspondent DD sends this advisory from ABC News that Niall Ferguson has entered the circle of the senator's advisers. This is newsworthy, we are told, because Ferguson Compares America to British Empire:

Sept. 4, 2006 — - A recent New York Times article about John McCain's growing "kitchen cabinet," contained a piece of information that might have been meaningless to many American readers, but resonated strongly with most British ones.

According to a McCain aide, the article said, one of the senator's unofficial advisors as he ponders a possible run for the White House is the British-born Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. ... London-based columnist Johann Hari... wrote that Ferguson had been positioning himself to become "court historian to the imperial American hard right."

The New York Times article, by the way is from August 21: McCain Mines Elite of G.O.P. For 2008 Team.

Ferguson is most notable, at least to my mind, for his methodological use of alternative history, which he explains in Virtual History. His views on the relevance of the British imperial precedent are explained in his book, Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. As I remarked in that review, his chief analytical blindspot is that he does not distinguish between a national empire and a universal state.

Meanwhile, former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami is touring the United States and speaking at venues from the National Cathedral to the Kennedy School of Government. He is regaling the natives to this effect:

But the former president, a moderate who was succeeded last year by hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already made news since his Aug. 30 arrival, attacking the Bush administration's handling of the war on terrorism while hinting there was room for agreement with Tehran on recognizing Israel and stabilizing Iraq. "As America claims to be fighting terrorism, it implements policies that cause the intensification of terrorism and institutionalized violence," Mr. Khatami, an Islamic cleric, said in a speech to a North American Muslim convention in Chicago over the weekend.

I have thought about this kind of apologetics for years, and I finally have a suitable reply. It's based on the game-theory notion that you can force your opponent to take an action you want by convincing him that you cannot control your own actions. Thus, in a game of highway chicken, for instance, you can make your opponent swerve by ostentatiously tossing your own steering wheel out your driver's side window. Another way to do it is convince your opponent that you cannot be swayed by rational argument. Thus, a reply to President Khatami might go:

"Yes, we are very unreasonable. What will you do to mollify us?"

The Persian's principal stop, by the way, will be at a conference of the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN-sponsored body of which he is a founding member. In fact, he seems to be speaking before every creepy-crawly Islamist front-organization in America. Should the pro-Islamist network expand, will its progressive nodes have second thoughts when they realize just how implacable the Islamists are on culture-war issues? That has not happened in Europe.

This just in: it should make the next few weeks even more interesting:

Diplomats at the United Nations were sent into disarray yesterday when President Ahmadinejad of Iran declared that he intended to attend the General Assembly of the world body on September 19 and to debate his country's nuclear program with President Bush, who is due to address the Assembly that day.

* * *

Those readers hoping for civilizational collapse (and I know some of you are) should take a look at these images of an abandoned city in Russia. This sort of thing happens in the American Midwest, too, but rarely with so much waste of concrete. Note that there are none of the elements that routinely turn up in fictional treatments of this kind of thing. There is no "back to the land" efflorescence of neo-peasantry; neither is there any tendency to local control. The people just packed up and moved to other cities.

* * *

Yes, the Democrats are making overtures to the religious vote, as we see from the Faithful Democrats site. It's not a bad effort, though one must wonder who the audience is. In any case, the problem with asking "what would Jesus do" in a political context is that Jesus routinely responded to peace-and-justice questions with wisecracks.

* * *

You already knew I would link to this item:

NORWICH (Reuters) - Many people have experienced the phenomenon of receiving a telephone call from someone shortly after thinking about them -- now a scientist says he has proof of what he calls telephone telepathy.

Rupert Sheldrake, whose research is funded by the respected Trinity College, Cambridge, said on Tuesday he had conducted experiments that proved that such precognition existed for telephone calls and even e-mails.

Sheldrake seems to produce nice, testable claims, but does anybody ever test them?

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2006-02-14: Hoax, War, Anger, Appeasement, Separation

The Other Spengler [David P. Goldman]

The Other Spengler [David P. Goldman]

In late 2005 and early 2006, John Reilly often referenced or quoted the pseudonymous Spengler ["that Spengler"] who wrote for the Asia Times. John dropped hints that he knew his real identity, including that he was a former Lyndon LaRouche disciple. In retrospect, I feel like Goldman had the better argument many times that John cited him to argue against him, but this is one time that Goldman seems off. I'm glad we avoided war with Iran in the years since 9/11, because that would have been stupid. The Iranian government isn't our friend at present, for reasons that may be partly our fault, but at least they never did any of the stupid things columnists were always saying they would do.


Hoax, War, Anger, Appeasement, Separation

 

The Great Hoax of 2006? Yes, we did in fact have lots of snow over the weekend here in the New York area. Most of it is still on the ground, and shows no immediate inclination to go away. Here is the Party Line on the event:

Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- New Yorkers faced longer commutes, flight cancellations and train delays this morning after record weekend snowstorm that buried the East Coast from Virginia to Maine.

Yesterday's blizzard blanketed New York City with the heaviest snowfall in its history, following one of the warmest Januaries on record. About 26.9 inches (68.3 centimeters) of snow fell in New York Central Park, beating a December 1947 single-storm record of 26.4 inches, the National Weather Service said.

But how are we to reconcile that report with this account of the Blizzard of 1888?

The Great Blizzard of 1888 (March 11 – March 14, 1888) was one of the fiercest blizzards in United States recorded history, with snow drifts in excess of 50 feet (15 m). All across the eastern seaboard there were snow walls up to 50 inches (1.3 m) high.

The "Great White Hurricane," as it was called, paralyzed the East Coast of the United States from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Telegraph infrastructure was disabled, isolating New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. for days. Two hundred ships were grounded, and at least one hundred seamen died. Fire stations were immobilized, and property loss from fire alone was estimated at $25 million. One hundred people were killed in New York City alone and it is estimated 400 people died from the storm in all....The National Weather Service estimated that 50 inches (1.3 m) of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts and 40 inches (1 m) covered New York and New Jersey.

That storm stayed in popular memory. I remember in the 1960s that it was still used as a benchmark for bad weather. In any case, how could a 26.9-inch storm be greater than a 40-inch storm? The Weather Service had been up and running for almost 20 years when the earlier storm occurred, so an official measurement was taken. For New York City, perhaps it was just taken in an unrepresentative place? Central Park already existed, though I don't know whether the measurements would have been taken there, as they are today.

The weather is all hype, if you ask me.

* * *

Spengler has been declaring war on Iran again, as we see from his latest at Asia Times:

If Washington were to deliver a military ultimatum to Iran tomorrow, the results would be a painful jump in oil prices, civil violence in Iraq, low-intensity war on Israel's northern border, and a wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab world - not an inviting picture.

But if Washington waits another year to deliver an ultimatum to Iran, the results will be civil war to the death in Iraq, the direct engagement of Israel in a regional war through Hezbollah and Hamas, and extensive terrorist action throughout the West, with extensive loss of American life. There are no good outcomes, only less terrible ones. The West will attack Iran, but only when such an attack will do the least good and the most harm.

This is pretty much the argument that the German General Staff was making after 1910: if they did not begin the long-anticipated general European War soon then they would lose it when it did happen. The argument for the war in Iraq was actually a bit different: there was no way to prosecute the War on Terror if all Iraq's neighbors knew that eventually the UN sanctions would be lifted and they would have to deal with a vengeful Baathist regime again. Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq was at least colorable under international law, since the regime had long been in violation of the ceasefire of 1991.

In the likely absence of UN authorization, the US really would need a whole new theory of legitimacy, which is precisely what has failed to gel since the Iraq invasion of 2003.

* * *

The European Union has no present intention of paying a tax of children to the Sublime Porte. At least we have assurances along those lines from Vice President Franco Frattini, EU Commissioner responsible for Justice, Freedom and Security:

Finally, I have never suggested imposing a code of conduct on the press, it is up to the media themselves to self-regulate or not, and it is up to the media to formulate such a voluntary code of conduct if it is found necessary, appropriate and useful by them. There have never been, nor will there be any plans by the European Commission to have some sort of EU regulation, nor is there any legal basis for doing so.

The immediate occasion for these remarks was a report that the vice president had proposed creating a code of conduct for journalists to prevent anything like the Danish cartoon controversy from happening again. These issues are not unrelated, however.

* * *

Victor Davis Hanson is now bullish on Europe, or so one may gather from his latest at Real Clear Politics. He suggests that, in the immediate future, we may expect...

the same old public utopian rhetoric, but in the shadows a newfound desire to galvanize against the threat of Islamic fascism...First will come a radical departure from past immigration practices. Islam will be praised; the Middle East assured that Europe is tolerant—but very few newcomers from across the Mediterranean let in.

There will be continued public furor over the American efforts in Iraq, but far greater secret efforts to coordinate with the United States—in everything from isolating the Assad regime in Syria to rethinking missile defense...it may well be that many in private will now wish us to succeed, if only in the hopes that such Middle East democracies will be less likely in the future to turn loose their mobs to burn European embassies and threaten their citizens.

If nothing else, this suggests that the Cartoon Jihad has given NATO a new lease on life. That organization could provide the legitimacy needed to take out the Iranian nuke program, but perhaps at the cost of disengaging from the UN system.

* * *

Daniel Pipes is of similar mind at Frontpagemag. Like Tony Blankley in The West's Last Chance (read that book immediately, by the way), he now speaks not of a clash of civilizations, but of their disengagement:

What are the long-term consequences of the Muhammad cartoon furor? I predict it is helping bring on not a clash of civilizations but their mutual pulling apart. This separation, which has been building for years, has dreadful implications.

The areas of disengagement are these:

Trade (As in boycotts, mutual and proliferating)
Consumer items (I note that a bit of import substitution might do the Middle East good.)
Financial investments (Pipes sees oil money going to East Asia, but where, I wonder? India is less risky than China, but has its own issues with the Islamic world.)
Emigration (The Danes had already begun restricting immigration from the East before the current unpleasantness; we may expect the trend to spread.)
Tourism 
(I suppose anyone who visits the pyramids these days must really want to see them.
Embassies(Fewer of them)
Westerners providing services(Aid workers could become few and far between, if the treatment in the past few weeks of Western workers is any guide to the future.)

One may question whether real disengagement is possible, however.

* * *

Let me thank again all of you who have been buying things through this site and occasionally sending me money. This site now supports itself (though it does little in the way of supporting me). It's not so much the money as the feedback I appreciate.

Well, no, that's not true, but I like the feedback, too. Thanks!

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-01-01

The Long View

The Long View

Another year of John's blog down. In many ways, this is a journey of self-discovery, as well as remembrance. It is painful to read the things John wrote about Iraq in 2003, but if we are honest with ourselves, many of us said or thought the same things at the time. Forgetfulness does us no favors here. It is best to acknowledge our sins and move on.

Since this post in particular is all about predictions, let us see how John did in hindsight.

  • Shooting Wars — All wrong. We got in more wars in the Middle East, failed in our occupation of Iraq, and North Korea is still sticking it to everyone with abandon.
  • Culture War — Much better. The big swing of American politics over the next ten years was indeed a return to the Culture Wars. John guessed in July of 2002 that Newdow would be overturned at the Supreme Court. Then he modified his guess in October of 2002. He ended up being right, insofar as the Court punted on this one, to my non-legal eye. John also correctly noted that the Republican Party mostly pays lip service to Culture War ideas. He guessed wrong on how gay marriage would end though.
  • Election 2004 — John guessed that Howard Dean would face off against W, and lose. This was fairly close to what happened, until Dean self-destructed and Kerry was nominated. Fairly good.
  • The Economy — John guessed that the Euro would strain the EU considerably, and that turned out to be very right. However, Gordon Chang is still wrong.

Surmises for 2004

 

The perfect prediction was made many years ago by a fellow who called himself "The Great Kreskin." He said that, in the future, people would remember that he had once made a prediction. That forecast works a little like how the Ontological Proof of the existence of God is supposed to work; simply to state it is to verify it. Unfortunately, such perfection is far beyond my feeble powers. I will confine myself, therefore, to timid speculation:

Shooting Wars: We are universally assured that the Iraq War is going to be the last of the wars against the Axis of Evil, at least for some time to come. The argument is that the US military is already fully deployed, and its stocks of munitions are depleted. This is less true than is often asserted. If General Shinseki had had his way, of course, an army of half-a-million would have gone to Iraq, which was roughly what happened in the Gulf War. However, Donald Rumsfeld has used Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate that such huge deployments are unnecessary to win a conventional war.

They are not necessary for a successful occupation, either, as should be apparent by spring.

That said, of course, no other engagements on the scale of Iraq are in the hopper politically. (Iraq itself had been in the "sooner or later" category since at least 1998.) A type of maneuver for the next few years that seems obvious to me, if not to the Pentagon, might be called "Osiraq Plus." The name refers to the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osiraq by the Israelis over 20 years ago. What the world needs now is a way to not just blow up, but briefly seize suspected WMD sites. Locations in Syria are candidates. So are some in Iran, though the partially democratic nature of the political system there makes intervention more problematical. The big issue, however, is nuclear-armed Pakistan. The nominally pro-Western government lives in hourly peril of assassination and overthrow. The next time that happens, it would be irresponsible to simply hope that the nukes are safe and secure.

As for the People's Looney Bin of North Korea, I begin to suspect that it may be closed soon for lack of interest. Would this happen in 2004? I have no idea.

* * *

Culture War The big deal in American history for at least the next ten years will be the segue from the Terror War to the Cultural Reconquista. This is not to say that Americans will simply lose interest in foreign affairs and turn toward domestic ones: quite the opposite, in fact. Transnational progressives have, in recent years, opened many international channels to address what had traditionally been domestic questions. Eventually, they will receive blowback in the form of answers they will not welcome.

All well and good, but what about 2004 in particular?

Over the summer, I said that Newdow, the decision holding that the words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance are unconstitutional, would be overturned when it comes before the Supreme Court. By the fall I had begun to hedge, however, and now it seems likely to me that the Supreme Court will in fact agree that the words are unconstitutional, at least in a public-school context. Such a decision would be defensible, though hardly inevitable. It would be a blow to the Supreme Court's legitimacy, but the Court has withstood worse embarrassments in the past. The problem this time around will be the presence of the various incarnations of the gay issue. Polygamy; gays in the military; statutory rape: the list is quite extensive. Even when these questions are not on the Court's docket, there is a lively popular awareness that many of them are of the Court's manufacture. History shows that the political system routinely grants constitutional judicial review a great deal of deference. Still, there are limits, as the Court's collapse under the pressure from the Roosevelt Administration in the 1930s illustrates. "Under God" could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The Republican political establishment does not seem to have taken on board just how strongly its social-conservative base feels about these things. Of course they want a constitutional amendment to circumvent the courts on gay marriage, for instance. They want it today rather than tomorrow. The party leadership's dithering is alienating. They forget that theirs is the God & Mammon Party. God is quite capable of staying home on Election Day.

As for the gay thing in general: if it were a stock, you should sell it. Look for the beginning of a move to re-medicalize the whole subject. (I have no information about such a project, but it seems inevitable.)

* * *

The Election of 2004 William Safire has just gone on record to predict an October Surprise, in the form of a terror attack in the US just before the election. I suspect his prediction is just a surmise, so what you read here is a surmise about a surmise.

Would such an attack at that time discredit the Bush Administration? I rather doubt it. People are surprised that there has been no follow-up to 911. With what justice I cannot say, the Administration has received some popular credit for domestic security. Actually, since some people have begun to doubt that the danger persists, another attack might serve simply to persuade them of its reality. The greater danger of discredit, in my opinion, would be posed by an attack early in the year. That would allow time for any mistakes and gaps in the security system to come to light, thus creating an issue that could be used against the Administration in November.

Actually, the danger to the Administration might not be merely political. Suppose the president is assassinated, or gravely injured? Republicans who take delight in highlighting the many follies of the Democratic leadership don't notice how small their national team is. Too many people are running for the Democratic nomination, but five of them (Lieberman, Gephardt, Kerry, Dean, and Clark) are serious candidates. Aside from George W. Bush, the only plausible Republican alternative is John McCain, but the party establishment is quite capable of backing George's brother, Jeb. (Dick Cheney would make a comforting stand-in for the remainder of Bush's term, but he is old, he has a bad heart, and he has been tainted, unjustly in my estimation, by his stint as CEO of Haliburton.)

Barring these grotesque hypothetical disasters, however, I fully expect that race will be Bush versus Dean, and that Bush will win. George Bush often says things badly. Howard Dean says too much he has to unsay.

* * *

The Economy Northcote Parkinson once remarked that economists are equally at ease thinking about a thousand and a million dollars, because they have no personal experience of either sum. That does not quite apply to me, but then I am not an economist, either. I have just two points, mostly about exchange rates.

Regarding the euro, it is contrary to nature for a currency to maintain value indefinitely without a state attached to it. The European Constitutional process has adjourned in confusion. That might be just a temporary setback, were it not that the confusion showed that eastern and southern Europe have no intention of letting the French and Germans run the Union. Particularly the French. Paul Johnson has prophesied that France will break the EU as soon as the Union makes a decision that France regards as contrary to France's interests. He's probably right; if so, the money will fall apart first.

Gordon Chang has suggested that the Chinese economy will collapse around 2006, when its banking system implodes on contact with WTO rules. That's a bit of a stretch. Still, one can't help but notice that the value of the People's Republic's currency is politically distorted, just as the currencies of Japan and the East Asian tigers were before reality set in. Whether or not there is a general collapse, the time for making adjustments grows short.

* * *

Enough predictions have already collected on this site to make it possible to assess their quality. Oh my.

I merely note the piece about the prospects for 2001. The bit in it about "The Big Terrible Thing" happening in Lower Manhattan actually comes from Peggy Noonan. The item for 2003 has at least one plausible line:

The hard part in the Middle East would come after the occupation of Iraq.

However, that is in the context of a discussion of possible follow-on wars. They may occur yet occur, despite what I said above, but they showed no sign of happening last year. The rest of the item was too general to allow of disconfirmation. I did do a single-column column for 2002, by the way, but it appeared only in print, in the January 2002 issue of Business Travel Executive. It contains one of the very few references anywhere to the possibility of a baby-boom starting in that year.

Then there's Reilly's Folly. The section of Spengler's Future that covers the period 1992-2022 is called Imperial Populism. The book itself was written in 1992 and published in 1993. I find some of the prose really cringe-making at this point. I am not bothered that some sentences say things that are clearly wrong; that is only to be expected. The problem is that some don't say anything at all. Others do appear to say something significant, at least at first sight:

Note that this [decay of political institutions] occurs precisely at what seems to be the moment of maximum international security, because internal business need no longer be deferred in the face of a hostile world. In the next period, policies based on this misplaced confidence in the safety of the international system have predictable results.

If 911 is taken to be the Predictable Result, then that was a lucky shot-in-the-dark. However, the text can be read to imply that the Predictable Result would occur no earlier than the second decade of the 21st century. And what did I actually mean when I wrote it? Nothing in particular, or at least nothing more particular than what it says. The text is a medley of comparative historical possibilities.

Events interpret the text. John Cardinal Newman said that, and it's good enough for me.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2003-10-20: Real Reasons

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

This reminder of Pope John Paul II in his declining years makes for an interesting counterpoint to his successor, Benedict XVI. Each faced increasing age and debility; each selected a different way of responding to it. I think each way has its merits. 

The argument John makes here that the Papacy is best thought of as the still center around which the Church turns has something going for it.  I think is true in a long term sense, and perhaps less true in the short term sense. The reason for this is something John himself said in 1998

[...] the papacy has never existed in a vacuum. The mutations it has undergone in the past 2000 years are only partly the result of the logic of its own development. The short explanation for these changes is that the papacy was simply mirroring the political evolution of the societies in which it lived. The pope was once a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

The reigning Pope currently is an executive, even if he lacks a nuclear football. This seems to be the reason why Benedict chose resignation: to allow a more vigorous man to try to fix the many messes in the Vatican. Whether Pope Francis is successful at reigning in the power and influence of the curia is a matter yet to be settled.

As for the Iraq War, John mentions the five-year seven-country plan that widely circulated at the time. General Wesley Clark mentioned that plan too, in an interview in 2007.

So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, “Are we still going to war with Iraq?” And he said, “Oh, it’s worse than that.” He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” — meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office — “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” I said, “Is it classified?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “Well, don’t show it to me.” And I saw him a year or so ago, and I said, “You remember that?” He said, “Sir, I didn’t show you that memo! I didn’t show it to you!”

By now, we have managed to make a mess of Syria and Libya. We negotiated a deal with Iran, although Clark was right about the kind of influence Iran was and is wielding in Iraq. Sudan and Somalia are still hellholes. Lebanon has quieted down some. I suppose I should be grateful our reach exceeded our grasp here?


Real Reasons

John Paul II was clearly not well at yesterday's beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He confined himself to reading the brief Latin formula declaring her blessed; he delivered none of his own homily. He slumped in his seat in such a way that he seemed to disappear into his ceremonial robes. Seeing his obvious debility, many people are asking why the pope continues to appear regularly in public. For that matter, they ask, why does he not just abdicate? John Paul II knows his own reasons, but I would suggest two points.

The first is that, by showing himself in public, he demonstrates to a increasingly rumor-prone world that he is still alive. Moreover, he has enough good days to prove that he has his wits about him. Still, it is reasonably clear that his staff must be managing almost everything by now. Why does he stay in office? I suspect he does it to demonstrate that the papacy is not just an executive. The pope is not followed around by a Swiss Guard with a nuclear football; he does not have to be alert and fully briefed at every moment. Popes reign. They rule only incidentally.

Speaking of Mother Teresa, I recently heard a homily by a priest who knew her slightly. In his presence, he said, another priest patted her on her head and said, "Mother, you are getting shorter every year!" To that she is said to have replied, "I become smaller, Father, so that I can better fit into the heart of Jesus."

Given a straight-line like that, someone else might have said, "I'm not getting smaller, Father. I just look smaller to you because every time I see you you are more full of it." She said no such thing, however. That's why she is up for sainthood.

* * *

An opinion piece appeared in yesterday's New York Times by the president of Iraq's Governing Council, Ilad Alawi. (The first name is "Ilad" online, but "Iyad" in the print edition.) The article, entitled America Must Let Iraq Rebuild Itself, makes a reasonable argument that Iraq's regular army and pre-war police should be recalled to duty. The officer corps of both must be vetted for Baathist sympathies and human rights violations, of course, but the rank-and-file can be counted on to devote their attention to keeping the peace. Such a move would relieve Coalition troops of most ground-level security duties, and would greatly enhance the legitimacy of the coming Iraqi government in the Arab world.

The fact that this proposal has appeared at all is perhaps more important than its specifics. When the Governing Council was organized, it was said that no one would take it seriously unless it publicly opposed the US occupation authority on some major issues. It has been doing that frequently, so much so that one wonders whether some of the disputes may have been exaggerated simply to demonstrate the Council's independence. This proposal to revive the army and police is just the biggest initiative to come from the Council so far.

And what of the merits? The Coalition dissolved the army and police for the excellent reason that it would not have been able to trust them. Moreover, institutions like the Iraqi army often have a debilitating effect on the political life of developing countries. They are not really militaries, but a combination of police force and political party. Such armies become the single largest interest group. They offer a measure of stability, but often at the expense of occupying political space that ought to be filled by civilian associations. Certainly the Iraqi Governing Council would have been a negligible institution, if the Coalition had kept the army in being and worked through a committee of anti-Baathist generals.

These things are a matter of degree, however. The plan had always been to recruit police and military officers from the institutions of the old regime. The question remains how much use can safely be made of the old institutions themselves. One suspects that the Governing Council will eventually get at least part of its wish, now that there is a core of personnel committed to the new order of things.

* * *

On a different but not wholly unconnected topic, we should be giving some thought to the likelihood that laser weapons could soon make the recent revolution in military affairs obsolete. Writing in The Oakland Tribune, Ian Hoffman points out in an article entitled Warfare at the speed of light that even today's superduper smart weapons are still bound by the limits of Newtonian ballistics. Not so the laser weapons now under development, which have passed beyond gas lasers to chemical combustion and now to solid state. Once deployed and married with computer guidance, they could clear the skies of everything from ballistic missiles to mortar shells. Hitting a bullet with a bullet is problematical. Hitting a bullet with a beam of light is not.

There are problems, of course. Lasers are fair-weather weapons. The chemical lasers closest to deployment, as air-to-air canon, sound a little like the steam-driven computers in The Difference Engine. Nonetheless, it is likely that they will turn warfare into something new by midcentury. Note that the evolution continues away from unconscionable mass destruction, and toward precision and ubiquity.

* * *

Meanwhile, back at the current war, readers might want to compare two recent assessments of the next step.

I can't remember the last time I actually touched a copy of the The Village Voice. However, when I saw that its current issue had a picture of President Bush as a crusader on its cover, and not as a moron or a cowboy, I took the trouble to view the cover-story online. The piece is called Bush's War Plan Is Scarier Than He's Saying: The Widening Crusade, by Sydney H. Schanberg. He tells us in the first paragraph:

If some wishful Americans are still hoping President Bush will acknowledge that his imperial foreign policy has stumbled in Iraq and needs fixing or reining in, they should put aside those reveries. He's going all the way-and taking us with him.

Part of the reason I found this interesting was because it contrasted so strongly with a the opening paragraph of a recent analysis by Dr. George Friedman of Stratfor. His article, entitled "The Next Phase of the War," begins thus:

Washington is reformulating its war plans in Iraq -- something critics of the Bush administration might view as a sign of weakness. The real weakness lies not in that the United States is shifting strategies, but rather that it has taken so long to make adjustments. However, even with a new strategy, it is unclear whether the United States will succeed.

The important point is that these two views of what is going on are not essentially different. Friedman says that the Iraq War had two objectives:

1. Seizing the most strategic country in the region as a base of operations from which to mount follow-on operations against countries that collaborate or permit collaboration with al Qaeda.
2. Transforming the psychological perception of the United States in the Islamic world from a hated and impotent power to a hated but feared power.

Schanberg fleshes this out with the increasingly famous five-year, seven-nation to-do list that has supposedly been circulating in the Pentagon since 911, but his article makes the same point: It's All Part of a Big Plan. The difference is that he finds this shocking:

A five-year military campaign. Seven countries. How far has the White House taken this plan? And how long can the president keep the nation in the dark, emerging from his White House cocoon only to speak to us in slogans and the sterile language of pep rallies?

May I in turn express my surprise that people continue to say they have been surprised by the Bush Administration? The president has repeatedly said pretty much what he was going to do: just look at his State of the Union speech in 2002. For rhetorical purposes, the president's opponents have named him Liar. In fact, few presidents have been clearer about what they intend to do and why they intend to do it.

Please pay attention. 

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The Long View 2003-03-07: Speak Softly

No comment.

Speak Softly
Remember the old joke that you know things are really bad when Mr. Rogers is on television giving directions to evacuate the city? Sadly, Mr. Rogers has recently left us, but President Bush's demeanor at his press conference on Thursday, March 6, was nearly as soft spoken and non-threatening. It made him sound oddly implacable. It was like a confrontation when the shouting stops, and you know that the other guy is going to throw a punch.
The president handled the questions badly, which is to say he did not handle them the way I would have. I would have explained that the reason Jacques Chirac opposes the war is because he thinks he's Cardinal Richelieu, trying to maintain the balance of power by gingering up the Thirty Year's War. I would then have explained the mass demonstrations by pointing to the vile groups that sponsor them. To the question of why we have to do this now, I would have pointed out that we need to occupy Iraq to get at the Islamonutters (Mark Steyn's term) in Iran and Syria, before they go nuclear. All these things would have been true, but they might have occasioned alarm.
How much more tactful the president was: just keep repeating "My job is to defend America." Eventually, the press stopped asking questions with awkward answers.
* * *
I found today's session of the Security Council almost eerie. This is one of those historical periods when, to quote 2Thessalonians11,12:
"Therefore God sends them a misleading influence that they may be judged who have not believed the truth, but have preferred wickedness."
To look at the matter a little more prosaically, surely it was obvious that what the French and Germans and Hans Blix were saying was analytically incoherent. They said that increased Iraqi cooperation was due to "pressure from the international community." The pressure, of course, was the impending Anglo-American invasion. Nonetheless, they refuse to authorize the invasion, because it would interfere with the inspections.
There is more than wishful thinking here. Dr. Blix's oral report was the most hopeful he had yet delivered. It little resembled his written report, most of which has not been superseded by events, and which Secretary Powell pointed out is remarkably damning.
Here's an anonymous quote, from yesterday's New York Times of all places, that people of good will might keep in mind: "I expect the pope to pray for peace. I expect the U.S. Marines to implement it."
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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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The Long View 2002-08-01: War Plans

John has been definitely refuted here by the events that followed not only the downfall of the Baathist Iraqi state, but also Syria and Libya. Deposing Middle Eastern tyrants has shown us there are indeed worse evils. I suppose the one consolation we have is that while President George W. Bush was a true believer in the American gospel, spreading peace and democracy everywhere we go, whereas President Obama seems rather indifferent. This hasn't really affected our involvement in the Middle East since foreign policy is conducted by the same people under both Presidents, other than they do seem to have learned that Americans really don't want boots on the ground in the Middle East.

All of this might be less objectionable if our Deep State hawks were a little better at what they do. Instead, we get what Jerry Pournelle calls Incompetent Empire. We are exceptionally good at the breaking things and killing people part of Empire, what we are less good at is the political maneuvering afterwards. One needn't look far to find examples of competent Empire. Both the British and the Romans were quite adept at this kind of thing. The Deep State seems largely to be populated with folks who share whiggish understandings of human nature: democracy and liberty are culturally neutral goods sought by everyone at all times and in all places.

Something in John's favor is that he did understand that forms of government are culturally dependent, and that not all things are possible in all times and all places. John correctly notes that Iran is not liable to same weaknesses as many other Middle Eastern states. Some sort of state has existed in Persia for a very long time, the people there identify with their history and their nation. The last time we interfered in their internal affairs to any great effect, the Iranians rose up and threw us out. On the other hand, John felt that Iraq was a fictional country [it is], with a widely despised government [it was], such that you ought to able to depose one government and put another in its place without too much fuss [possible?].

If we were better at the game of Empire, perhaps we could have done this. As it turned out, we did not succeed.

War Plans

For the last week or two, we have been overwhelmed with plans for the war with Iraq. The invasion will happen next spring and involve a quarter-million regular Army troops, or it will happen almost immediately with just a few thousand members of the special forces. It will be a matter of all heavy armor or just air power, according to taste. The war will last some time between 72 hours and six months.

There really is a range of respectable opinions about strategy. Newspapers get an anonymous quote or two from someone associated with the military when they publish stories about these things, but I don't give special credence to these "leaks" from the Pentagon. In reality, the press has just been stating the obvious.

For me, at least, the obvious strategy has always been to shut down all intercity movement and communications in Iraq for a few days, install a provisional government based in the north and south, and then bring heavier forces to bear against the government's bunkers and other redoubts. From what I understand, the Iraqi military is largely irrelevant to the war it would have to fight. The heavy armor it favors simply cannot be used when the enemy has air supremacy. Small forces could defeat the large Iraqi military because that military would never be able to concentrate. The slow, massive, campaign favored by the US Army would obviate the advantages that Iraq offers.

A lightning campaign ought to foster or even create uprisings in the north and south of the country; the Iraqi government could be deprived of most of its territory at a blow. Additionally, the US should seek to eliminate the Iraqi government as a diplomatic actor within hours of beginning the assault. Ideally, that government should be unable even to communicate with its UN delegation. We might see not only most of Iraq's military quickly defecting, but also its diplomatic corps.

We have also recently seen another class of stories related to the war. These are assessments depicting the chaos that would follow the removal of the Baathist regime from Baghdad and the opprobrium in which the US would be held for doing such a thing. Unlike the matter of military strategy, such stories do not reflect a range of plausible opinions. They are uniformly tendentious. George Bernard Shaw, in his silly old age, opposed the British declaration of war against Germany in 1939. "What on earth would happen if we did defeat the Germans?" he would ask. "Is our policy to overthrow the governments of Germany and the Soviet Union, and replace them with the British constitution?" The difference between today's anti-war propaganda and that of 1939 is that Shaw was honestly stupid.

There is such a thing as overreaching, however. We see an example of this in Reuel Marc Gerecht's Weekly Standard article of August 5, "Regime Change in Iran?" The piece acutely points out that President Bush's approach to the war on terror is a species of "liberation theology." The article does not propose invading Iran while we are in the neighborhood, but simply that we should promote the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, not seek to engage it.

There are mysteries in this matter that do not apply to Iraq. One can plug and unplug the governments of most Middle Eastern countries because they are make-believe states to begin with. Their peoples barely tolerate them. This is particularly true of the Baathist government of Syria, the removal of which is the key to solving the Palestinian situation. Iran, in contrast, is a real country. It has a lively civil society and a notable cultural life, both rarities in the region. It even has an imperfect democracy. Gerecht's argument is that, with a little push, Iran could become a secular, democratic state like Turkey.

Maybe, but I have misgivings. For one thing, the Wilsonianism-with-teeth that the Weekly Standard promotes really is a "liberation theology," even if the people who favor it imagine that they are encouraging secular neutrality. Muslims often look on Western secular humanism as a kind of Protestant Christianity, and they have a point.

Islam is not a "medieval" civilization awaiting its Reformation. Mohammed was a sort of Luther, who brought simplicity and egalitarianism to the orthodoxies and heterodoxies of the Middle East. He even brought "sola scriptura," which would not enter Christianity for another 900 years. Islam is in fact a fossil Reformation. You can shatter a fossil, but you cannot get it to grow again.


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