The Long View 2004-01-28: New Hampshire; Mars; The Straits of Malacca; NGO Land

It is often the case that today's solutions are tomorrows problems. It is also often the case that yesterday's solutions are sometimes today's solutions too, although that implies we shall subsequently have yesterday's + 1 problems.

So, for your reflection, in the portrait gallery below are the first men who came to mind when considering John's final rhetorical question:

What this planet needs is NGOs with a sense of the fragility of civilization. Actually, what it really needs is conservatives whose conservatism embraces the need for a livable transnational system. Isn't this what we have foundations for?

Cecil Rhodes

Rudyard Kipling

T. S. Eliot

Otto von Hapsburg

New Hampshire; Mars; The Straits of Malacca; NGO Land

By far the most telling comment I have seen so far about the current Democratic presidential primaries was made by the Google ad software. The oracle spoke in connection with a column of Mark Steyn's that appeared online on January 25, entitled: Mad Dr. Dean jolts Kerry campaign to life. Among other worthy points, Steyn remarked:

Ever since last Monday's audition for ''An American Werewolf In Des Moines,'' the Vermonster has been in sleep mode.

The Google system chose these Related Advertising Links to go at the bottom of the column. One was to "Howard Dean for President." The other was to "Sleep Disorders."

There is wisdom here, and not just about Dr. Dean. I have nothing against John Kerry, who did very well in New Hampshire, but few people voted for him because of his long-nosed Brahmin drone, or the zero-vitamin content of his campaign speeches. He won yesterday because a plurality of the Democratic electorate thought he has the best chance of beating President Bush in November. That's as may be, but Kerry's campaign is always threatened by the danger that one of his opponents might say something interesting.

If there isn't a chatterbot already that does political commentary, someone should write one.

* * *

Through some inexplicable oversight, NASA has managed to send the rover Opportunity to a bit of Mars that is not as uniformly drab as Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. We read:

NASA released new images yesterday of a rock outcrop about 25 feet from where the Opportunity spacecraft landed Saturday night. Details in the new photographs suggest the outcrop may contain layers like those in sedimentary rocks on Earth, layers possibly created through the action of wind or water, which Opportunity and its twin, Spirit, were sent to Mars to find.

Any week now, NASA will make Opportunity travel to the outcrop and begin the long process of inconclusive robotic examination. It's entirely possible that the layers in question will turn out to be consistent with deposits of volcanic ash. Support for the hypothesis of aquatic sedimentation would be important, but we would still be grinding our teeth over the rover's inability to answer in 90 days the sort of questions that an on-site geologist could answer in half-an-hour. (I almost wrote "areologist" for "geologist," but I think that would be a bit of planetary correctness that we should avoid. "Geo" should be inclusive of whatever planet you're on.)

The most bio-friendly speculation I have seen about the evolution of Mars suggests that its biosphere, if it had one, would not have lasted long enough to get to the Cambrian Explosion, or even to multicellularity. Still, one can't help but wonder what would happen if a visual examination disclosed something spectacular, such as an obvious fossil. I don't think that such a discovery would move the man-to-Mars project to the status of a national priority, but I could see it being a catalyst for an international effort. The problem is that the precedent for this is the International Space Station; not a bad idea to begin with, but later redesigns ensured the station would do nothing.

Of course, maybe we have been wrong about the history of Mars, and about biospheres in general. Maybe biospheres move as quickly as they can to a point of maximum complexity, and then simply fall apart. Perhaps Mars went through the cycle much faster than did Earth. Maybe Spirit or Opportunity really will find the remains of a Martian gunboat on an ancient seabed. I would not bet on it, though.

* * *

Speaking of frustrating searches, one notes a certain uniformity in the reporting by the prestige press about former weapons-inspector David Kay's comments about his findings in Iraq. This headline from yesterday's New York Times tells the tale. Bush Backs Away From His Claims About Iraq Arms

In point of fact, what Kay actually said was that the Baathist government was in violation of the UN disarmament regime, and that it was preparing to resume production as soon as the international situation allowed. The erosion of the authority of the government there made the situation more dangerous, because terrorist groups were moving through the country and there was no way to tell what materials or information they were picking up. Kay really cannot be cited as someone who thought the Iraq war was ill-advised or unnecessary.

It's not unreasonable for Democrats to point out that the Iraqis did not have weapons stocks. If nothing else, the Coalition military's misguided belief that the Iraqis might use WMDs prevented the campaign from going even faster. What is lethally misleading, however, is the spin on the subject being given by Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, who said the "overwhelming question" surrounding the intelligence issue remained "was this a predetermined war or not?"

The overwhelming question is this, I think: If you knew that a band of neo-nazis had a camp in Idaho where they were planning to build truck bombs, would you wait until they acquired the trucks before raiding the camp? Conspiracy is a crime, too, for the excellent reason that you should not have to wait until a crime is actually underway before taking steps to stop it.

It's true that lots of people in the world want to do what the Baathists wanted to do. We have to get them all.

* * *

On the subject of collapsing domestic and international norms, see Joseph (aka Jody) Bottum's lead editorial in the February 2 of The Weekly Standard, No Abortion Left Behind. It deals with some internal memos of a lawyers' NGO called the Center for Reproductive Rights, which were mailed anonymously to Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. They have since been entered in the Congressional Record by Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, where they will be afforded some protection against the NGO's attempts to suppress their publication.

The memos prove nothing criminal; they just illustrate the business that many NGOs are in. They seek to create "soft international norms" by inserting vague language into international agreements, which then can be enforced as hard law by friendly judges. The strategy is to ensure that certain policies, particularly the promotion of abortion, are never decided upon by actual electorates. Bottum says:


* * *

International norms were invented to handle issues that cannot be managed by individual nations. Today's transnational society justifies its influence with the argument that there must be people and institutions that can act globally. That is actually true. The problem is that transnational society seems determined to devote itself to Higher Crank causes like population control and global warming, while the predicates of international order are being eroded. The biggest example of this is the rogue-state and WMD threat, but we also see it in the growth of chronic lawlessless.

Consider piracy, for instance, which is growing by leaps and bounds. Pirates are doing conspicuously well in the neighborhoods of Bangladesh and Nigeria, but there is a more acute problem:

Indonesian waters continue to be the most dangerous with 121 reported attacks in 2003. The Malacca Straits, between Indonesia and Malaysia and one of the world's most strategically important shipping lanes, saw a rise to 28 attacks in 2003. Thirty percent of the world's trade and 80 percent of Japan's crude oil is transported through the narrow waterway.

I have never met any pirates, but I suspect they respond badly to soft norms. Certainly Baathists, Jihadis, and Korean Stalinists respond badly.

What this planet needs is NGOs with a sense of the fragility of civilization. Actually, what it really needs is conservatives whose conservatism embraces the need for a livable transnational system. Isn't this what we have foundations for?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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