October 2 - A Czar by any other name?
It appears Vladimir Putin has found a way to stay in power despite Presidential term limits. He plans to run for parliament and be appointed Prime Minister by the new President. This could easily translate into Putin remaining the dominant figure in Russia's government for some time to come. And, unlike the President, the Prime Minister doesn't have to worry about term limits.
Most governments are either Presidential or parliamentary. In a parliamentary system the Prime Minister (sometimes called by other names, such as Premier or Chancellor) runs the executive functions of government and has a cabinet. In our terms, the legislative and executive branches are one, and do not check and balance each other. Great Britain, Germany and Italy have this form of government. They all have a symbolic leader (the Queen in Great Britain, symbolic Presidents in Germany and Italy) but the real power is in the hands of the Prime Minister.
The US, France and Russia have Presidential systems, but France and Russia do not have the stark separation of powers that the US has. In France, if the President's party holds the majority in the national assembly the President dominates politics. If power is split, the Prime Minister dominates domestic politics, while the President runs foreign policy. The President doesn't even have veto power in France. In Russia the President does have veto power, and until now has dominated all of politics. This was the way Boris Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin shaped the office of the Presidency, making the Prime Minister a secondary and expendable position. In fact after Viktor Chernomyrdin's stint from 1992-98, Prime Ministers have been changed frequently and not allowed the chance to challenge the Presidency. A fragmented party system and weak Duma traditions also helped the President maintain power.
It doesn't have to be that way. A President in Russia could slip into a more ceremonial role, yielding power to the Prime Minister. One could even imagine a future President of Russia sending his Prime Minister to G8 summits and the like, claiming that due to globalization the line between domestic politics and foreign policy is murky enough as to require the true head of government to participate.
However, the Russian President, like the French President, has foreign policy powers according to the constitution, has the capacity to dismiss Prime Ministers and has appointment powers involving many powerful positions. For Putin to truly dominate Russian politics, the President would have to informally cede these powers to the Prime Minister. There is precedent for this sort of thing; in China informal power is often much more important than formal hierarchies, Deng Xiopeng was never General Secretary of the Communist party nor President. If the people in government who hold real power (e.g., secret police, banking, connections to business and oil) are loyal to Putin, it will be very hard for a President to effectively challenge the oligarchy. The system would be dominated by elites.
Of course, it need not go that route. Putin could maintain influence without fully dominating, and perhaps a President would effectively challenge him. Also, Presidents do need to be elected, though so far Presidential elections have not been truly competitive. In a best case scenario, Putin would operate as a kind of custodian, trying to maintain stability as Russia develops a functioning democracy. In a worst case scenario all power would go to the cohort around Putin, with democracy only a fiction. Given the money flowing in due to oil sales, and the high level of corruption in the system, there is little hope for the best case. Indeed, considering Putin's popularity, many Russians might see the 'worst case' as actually being preferable, given the order and apparent economic improvements Putin's regime has brought (helped of course by oil revenues). Putin isn't a hard core nationalist or ideologue, and he does understand the global political economy. He seems a rational and reasonable world leader.
Still, Russia has never broken out of the authoritarian trap. With the Czars, even reformers and westernizers did so through authoritarian means, with their reforms usually taken back by those who came later, fearing where the reforms would lead. The Communist era was totalitarian, and so far Putin has given no sign of going back to that kind of system; he knows it would not work in this era. But one has to hope that Czar Vladimir understands that the long term prosperity of Russia ultimately requires individuals to have real rights, and government to be truly accountable in some sort of democratic fashion. Perhaps Russia isn't ready for that yet -- the wild and harmful Yeltsin years shows a system where openness led to corruption and excess. One hopes he wants to guide Russia to a truly stable democratic system and not one where a cabal of elite run things with government more a show than a tool of the people. Time will tell.
October 3 - German unification
17 years ago today East and West Germany unified to become one state. It was a move that a year before would have been virtually unimaginable. If someone predicted on October 3, 1989 that in a year there would be a ceremony to celebrate the two states becoming one, they would have been laughed at. Sure, East Germany was having some protests, but they weren't about to give up power. And if they did, well, the Soviets, French, British and Americans would have something to say about moving so fast to unification.
I don't have time to write much today, but I think that event crystallizes just how world politics has changed. What once was unthinkable has become possible. The world can change on a dime. In 1990 the total collapse of the USSR still seemed unthinkable (it would fall just over a year later), and look how quickly we slipped from 'irrational exuberance' in the 90s to fear and panic after 9-11. We live in exciting times, but it's a bit scary to realize that out of the blue the world could change yet again. It's also strange to think that Germans under 21 have virtually no memory of living in a divided country. Oh well, alles Gute, Deutschland!
October 5 - Chinese toys
On my desk I have a couple of toys. Both are trains from the "Thomas the Tank Engine" collection. One is James with his coal car (also called a 'tender') and one is Skarloey. They are red and share in common the fact they were made in China recalled due to concerns about lead paint. I can use them as props when I talk about globalization or trade with China. I'm not sure I quite understand all the hoopla about lead paint being found in toys, but given that in my day probably every toy I played with had lead paint it doesn't seem like it's all that likely these trains would do real damage to anyone, but that's the world we live in.
To my kids, China must seem like a magical land of toys. Almost all the hot wheels cars, tracks, and toys we have were made in China. You might get a 'made in Malaysia' or 'made in Thailand' now and then, but I can't recall any toy made in the USA. These toys are dirt cheap. We buy far too many of them, creating clutter and risking spoiling the kids, because they are so cheap. Yet somewhere in China there are people working hard at factories in likely deplorable conditions with little pay, so that kids across the US and Europe get cheap toys. The smile on Ryan's face when he's got a new car is mirrored somewhere by some weary worker wiping sweat from her brow as she keeps up with the assembly line. For all her labor, her kids probably don't even get samples of the toys produced. Our kids get buried in excess.
To the governments, it's fair. China's Communist party rationalizes exploiting the workers because it creates capital for investment and economic development. Take that, Marx! To the US it's free trade allowing us the benefit of our wealth and products produced by countries with cheap labor. Both would argue this is natural; early on in the US and Europe factories were similarly horrible to workers, and in fact British sweat shops in the early 19th century were likely much worse than most third world or Chinese sweat shops today. Yet, while one can debate economic theory until the cows come home, there is a part of me that feels I'm cheating someone when I enjoy such cheap goods.
It also is a bit irritating how much intrusion there is in how people raise kids these days (or in our personal decisions in general). Once in K-Mart a man came to show us that our car seat was too loose, and it was dangerous to the baby. Excuse me, you don't just go up to strangers and start adjusting their baby's car seat! Apparently he worked for the state and was involved in training on proper car seat use (this was about four years ago, I don't recall exactly what his story was). Not only had I purposely loosened it for going around in the store, but a slightly loose car seat isn't exactly child abuse. Maybe my mom was too lenient when she let me stand up in the back of her convertible, or my sister and I would play in the back of the station wagon on trips, but come on. Lead in paint, car seat strips, seat belts...
It seems to me that there is far more government intrusion on issues of safety and risk than there needs to be. Most of the time most people are competent to judge for themselves the proper level of risk. Yes, a car seat is safer than playing in the back of a station wagon, but not driving anywhere at all is safer than a car seat. Where do you draw the line? Why should the state draw that line for me? Why are government bureaucrats more capable of making such judgments than parents?
So I'll keep James and Skarloey in my office, and avoid the temptation to lick the paint. I'm sure we'll keep getting cheap Chinese toys. Somehow, I can't help but think that these mix of ceding more and more power to the government and living more and more off the labor of cheap foreign workers is going to catch up to us someday.
October 9 - America and the troglodytes
The French philosopher Montesquieu argued that Republics (what we now would call democracies) need to operate on virtue. If virtue is lost, the Republic is likely to fail. Montesquieu was an interesting figure. On the one hand, he was extremely relativistic. His novel The Persian Letters, showed how bizarre French institutions and customs would look to outsiders, and he argued that different governments are needed for different cultures, geographic conditions, and the like. On the other hand, he saw patterns in history and human nature, deep structures underlying the cultural variations. His compromise between cultural relativism and universal truth is probably as good a one as one can make. The line isn't clear, but neither extreme seems right.
The troglodytes were a fictional people Montesquieu created to demonstrate a pattern of governance. They were originally under the rule of a despot. At some point they rebelled and, after a period of unsustainable anarchy, put together a form of self-rule. This led, at first, to prosperity and stability. The system was run on virtue, they were concerned about the greater good and the rights of others as well as themselves. However, over time, greed, selfishness and avarice took over. People became lazy, apathetic, and thus lost their virtue. This led to corruption in government and ultimately the people asked someone to become king, set things straight and restore order. For Montesquieu this is the danger for democratic republics.
Since Montesquieu there have been obvious failures of democracy. The French first Republic never really left the anarchy stage, and gave way to Napoleon. Weimar Germany failed due to instability; the French Second Republic, and Italy and Japan's first efforts at democracy failed. However, they didn't go through the cycle Montesquieu described, their Republics never really took shape. Montesquieu was thinking more of ancient Rome, where a Republic became prosperous, and then yielded a lazy, selfish people, with militaristic politics. That was the cause of its undoing, as Rome embraced despotism and ultimately collapsed.
As we think about western democracies, are we going through the kind of cycle Montesquieu describes? All western democratic republics are in debt as governments spend more than they take in to try to fulfill the demands of an increasingly selfish public (no taxes, but give me government programs!) The US has embraced a more militarist policy, much like ancient Rome, even if we find ways to rationalize our behavior as defensive (so did Rome -- according to the Romans' own historical accounts, they never fought an offensive war). We give increasing power not only to the executive, but also to the government in general. Are we the troglodytes? Or is this cycle far more complex than Montesquieu might have suggested, with possible sustainable Republican (democratic) futures despite these changes?
Tough questions. But as we see corporate politics where parties sell images more than debate policy, where blogs and political discourse is more personal and insulting than reflective and engaging, where the public wants more but is willing to pay less, and when we can easily rationalize mass killing in wars that are both unnecessary and internally harmful, we could be on a path not that much different than that tred by Montesquieu's mythical troglodytes.
October 10 - Intelligent Design
The more I read about quantum mechanics and modern physics, the more bizarre the world seems. Particles are really ripples in fields, where probability replaces determinacy, and why "mass" exists -- why objects have weight -- remains a mystery. The theory is that a field called "the Higgs field" may be the cause, and CERN accelerator experiments should shed light on all this. But it seems to me that the more we try to understand the material world, the less obvious it is that there even is one.
In the early 18th century Bishop George Berkeley had a problem. Enlightenment thinking was fostering the rise of atheist thought. He blamed this on skepticism, and he blamed materialism for skepticism. Once one posits a material world, then inevitably there is something between experience and reality. What you experience is interpreted by your senses and your brain. You can always doubt the veracity of your senses, or whether there is much more that you cannot experience because you lack the sensory tools to do so. Thus, inevitably, skepticism can flourish, and no one can truly defeat a skeptic in a debate, one can only point out that practically absolute skepticism doesn't do much good. What bothered Berkeley is that if one can be skeptical of reality, one can also be skeptical of religion.
Berkeley took on skepticism by attacking materialism. There is no reason to think a material world is out there, it's just a persuasive illusion. All we really have (building on Locke) is the experience of the mind. There is no need to posit the existence of a material world, it is unnecessary. Applying Occam's razor, you dismiss assumptions, premises or entities not absolutely necessary for an argument. You can explain everything by simply seeing it as experience alone. Everything is a sense experience. You kick a rock and feel pain, and see the rock move down the path, those are all experiences of the mind. You can believe that you actually kicked a physical rock, but either way, your experience was the same, you don't need the rock to be material.
For Berkeley, this rendered all the epistemological debates of the enlightenment moot. There is certainty of one form of knowledge: you experience what you experience. That's all you have. Locke and others, however, used the existence of a material world as that thing which one experiences. You experience something in the world and reflect on it. After all, reality seems to impose itself on us, it can't all be from our own mind. But for Berkeley, there was an alternative. You experience your own thoughts and ideas, but you also experience thoughts and ideas imposed on you not by a material world, but by another mind -- the mind of God. The laws of gravity, physics, and everything else can be seen as examples of God's mind creating a wondrous world of order and complexity. Rather than see it as emerging from chance, the world was thought into existence by God, and exists as an idea of God, imposed on our minds.
But would that mean the world isn't real? No, it would only mean it isn't material. The stuff of such a world would be ideas and thoughts which form experience. We create such worlds ourselves when we dream. And our dreams can be so complex and surprising they can scare us or amaze us. I've done experiments in dreams when I know I'm dreaming, for instance, and the dream world can seem quite real.
But there are two things I have to disagree with Berkeley about. First, he still can't avoid skepticism. The skeptic can still say "how do you know there isn't a material reality," and Occam's razor is not a persuasive way to answer that. Second, while he posits a Christian God and the Gospels as the truth, there is nothing in his approach which says that any particular God is the mind that designed this world of experience. Indeed, given our power to design similar worlds in our dreams, perhaps (connecting with the blog entry of one month ago, September 10) we have a pantheistic world that appears deterministic. The world might be a collectively shared dream, intelligently designed by all of us, working together. This likely would include all reality, not just humans or even what we would call life forms. In such a case every moment would appear deterministic and absolute, but anywhere but the present would be probabilistic, depending on the will of the collective mind. And moving away from materialism might actually make modern physics seem a bit more commonsensical, in an odd way.
October 12 - Ethics
This week I hadn't intended to write about philosophy, but just as I get into moods where I'll write about Iraq three or four times in a week, my mind seems taken up by philosophical issues now. Yesterday in a meeting someone pointed out that college students can graduate without ever having to have written something about ethics -- that an important topic like ethics is being neglected in higher education. So I decided to write today about ethics, and continue my thinking about past philosophers, adding David Hume to the list of this week's subjects (Montesquieu and Berkeley).
Hume, like Berkeley, was an empiricist, though he didn't go the route of Berkeley's absolute idealism. Instead, he accepted that skepticism was inevitable if you take enlightenment thinking seriously, but found a way around it. Sure, logically you can be skeptical of everything, but practically why would you want to be? How could a strong skepticism affect your life? Would you drive your car differently wondering if the road ahead was going to cease to exist or somehow change form? Would you not be careful around a tall cliff because of the possibility it might not really be a cliff? Of course not. You have the world of experience, and you do what works. One seeks patterns and learn to navigate the reality of ones' experience.
Moderate skepticism is useful for avoiding dogmatism. For Hume, this was useful in terms of avoiding religious fanaticism -- fideism could survive, but the kind of extremism that causes terrorism today would be less likely. In modern parlance, moderate skepticism helps one avoid falling into the "ism" trap, a belief in an ideology that causes one to treat it as not merely a perspective about reality, but actual objective truth about the world. That trap has led to some of the most horrific crimes in history. Ideologies are secular religions. Pragmatic skepticism leads one to treat ideologies and perspectives as different ways to interpret reality, and one learns by reflecting on them and seeing what kinds of approaches work.
Ethics for Hume come from sentiment, and not rational thought. Trying to come up with ethics from some kind of rational process isn't possible, all you need do is change assumptions or principles and the whole system collapses. Moreover, people who are not very intelligent or rational may be very moral and kind, while some of the worst criminals in history had brilliant and exceedingly rational minds. In fact, to develop moral character Hume thought we should read novels, we need to learn that others have value like ourselves. After all, when you look at the atrocities of human history, the devaluing of others, either by dint of their ethnic group or through ideological rationalization, seems a necessary condition to get mass publics to engage in heinous crimes. Hume sets up a utilitarian form of ethics, noting that we seem to have strong negative sentiment about things detrimental to society, and positive sentiment about things beneficial. Ethics, after all, entail how we treat others, and how we act in society.
So let me connect back with yesterday's notion at the end of the blog entry: The world might be a collectively shared dream, intelligently designed by all of us, working together. This likely would include all reality, not just humans or even what we would call life forms. In such a case every moment would appear deterministic and absolute, but anywhere but the present would be probabilistic, depending on the will of the collective mind. If this is the case, if one connects this with absolute idealism, sentiment could be part of our collective experience, explaining why it seems universal that humans (or animals) can be either sad, happy, frightened, angry, shy, etc. Clearly our experiences and our own minds can warp or alter how these sentiments are experienced, thus we are not pushed inevitably to moral behavior. Though if Spinoza is right (September 10th blog) part of what we need to do is not get caught up in worries about our destiny or lack of control in life. Such worries may get in the way of our ability to better experience 'natural' sentiment. Perhaps the weight of past experiences and fears of future possibilities cloud our ability to experience the present, distorting sentiment. We then use reason to rationalize that distortion. While this gets far too complex to deal with on a Friday afternoon, there is something comforting to the thought that humans (or all life? all reality?) may indeed be united not just by common psychological tendencies, but something inside which connects and flows through us all.
October 15 - The end of unipolarity
The conflict in Iraq was described last weekend by Gen. Sanchez, who commanded the effort back in 2004, "a nightmare without end." Meanwhile, the US claims it has hurt al qaeda in Iraq so bad that some want to declare victory. Others, remembering talk about "last throes" of the insurgency and "mission accomplished" fear that this is pre-mature. In the old days you could defeat an enemy and declare victory, with terrorism you deal with shadowy figures who take their time and plot different ways to rise up and create havoc. Patience is something al qaeda has, and they'll be willing to hear rosey prognoses from the White House for a long time as they adjust their strategy.
Violence in Iraq continues, though luckily the pace of civilian death is down somewhat (though yesterday 69 Iraqis were killed). Still, I have to agree with Sanchez's assessment. It's already clear that the surge cannot last past April, and while this has created short term partnerships with Sunni groups in parts of Iraq, these Sunnis have not reconciled with the Shi'ites, nor is there one Shi'ite group to reconcile with. The Shi'ite militias, armed and ready, are holding themselves back. After all, as long as the US is going after al qaeda and pacifying Sunni areas, there is no need for them to raise a ruckus. The issue will be what happens after 2008, when a new administration takes over.
Ultimately, the US cannot win in Iraq. Short term gains are washed away; we remain an outside force with limited power and penetration into Iraqi life, and they know that our presence there is not supported by a majority of Americans. The government remains corrupt, ethnic disputes intent, and crises, such as the potential of a Turkish incursion into Kurdistan, common. To the American public, stories of car bombing, horrific abuses by private security firms such as Blackwater, and continued stories of innocent Iraqis being detained and killed -- with accusations of torture -- have become so common place as to not even be occupy the interest of the public. The public is more concerned about the cost of Hannah Montana tickets than the situation in Iraq. The Bush administration has essentially used a mix of veto and GOP loyalty to stop the Democrats from effectively countering White House policy, so we coast. Presidential candidates try to play it safe, sensing that the American public is worn out by the Iraq story, and not as engaged or interested.
Yet the cost of this fiasco is real, and we will be paying for it for a long time. What has been on display in Iraq is the relative impotence of the American military to truly shape political outcomes. Even massively winning a war led to a situation that was uncontrollable in a small country that had already been devastated by sanctions, war, and dictatorship. The fantasy that the rest of the world wants to join the free democracies like Japan and Germany did after World War II has been shown to be wrong. Sure, people in the abstract want to be free. But they might think their neighbors not deserving of the same right, or believe that different ethnic groups require punishment for past deeds. Corruption, culture, religion, and history all play a role, and Iraq is a case study of how ignoring such factors can lead to disaster.
While some want to cling to the notion that our tactics were wrong -- we could have 'done a better job,' and a few still hope somehow that all will turn out well, the reality is that Iraq is symbolic of two things: 1) the end of America's unipolar moment; and 2) the re-emergence of isolationism as a dominant foreign policy attitude. This will have a major impact on the coming years, both in terms of domestic politics and foreign policy. Americans will find themselves less able to control economic and political developments on the planet, and international institutions will increasingly ignore American demands. Our economy won't be able to sustain its current accounts surplus, and we'll find ourselves on every level losing the benefits of hegemony that the US has enjoyed for decades. If we can learn to work with others as partners, and form multilateral arrangements, this doesn't have to mean painful sacrifice. But if we blindly try to ignore the obvious and pretend we still are top of the heap and demand others play the game by our rules, we'll become increasingly isolated and the problems will intensify. We are entering a new era of world affairs, and the Iraq fiasco symbolizes what it means for the United States.
October 16 - The morality of war
One issue that often comes up when discussing Iraq, or war in general, is when it is moral or immoral. In just war theory terms, this includes the justice of going to war, and the justice of how one behaves on war. The 20th century was a time when war was often justified by ideology. Killing humans was OK if it advanced ones' own cause, or used to defeat another "ism." There is some prima facia validity to this argument; governments that enslave and oppress are morally worse than governments that promote freedom. But does that mean one should use war to change them?
Those who say "yes," often treat war very much as an abstraction. The actual human cost in lives lost and other destructive aspects (how growing up with war affects children, the impact on the economy, the impact on peoples' psychology) is dismissed as either a necessary aspect of war, or a small price to pay for the benefits of ridding the world of some kind of evil leader or regime. Ultimately, that argument is untenable.
First, historically, the track record for actually getting rid of an evil regime and having a good one rise in its place is pretty poor. Everyone talks about Japan and Germany after WWII, and uses them as the model of what can happen if you get rid of some kind of dictatorship. Germany, however, was part of the West, had experimented with democracy and, if not for the Great Depression, may have ultimately made the Weimar Republic work. Democratic ideals were already part of German society, and notions of freedom, markets, and individual rights were definitely a part of the German political culture. The fascists took advantage of a chaotic situation and economic depression, and how they fought WWII led to the holocaust and total destruction of the fascist edifice, one built on a very weak foundation anyway. Japan had also tried democracy, and had westernized its culture. Moreover, both Japan and Germany were unified societies, with an industrial base and the capacity to create a system that would yield prosperity for their people. Absent prosperity, a new system is unlikely to take hold easily. Their ability to prosper was shaped in very large part by the post-war system, and the need for reconstruction, with the US providing markets for those goods. This also helped later industrializing states like Taiwan and South Korea.
But in Japan and Germany the decision was not to use war to eliminate a dictatorship. Aggression against either state because of its form of government would have been out of the question. They were aggressors, and people fought a defensive war. When it became offensive, with use of the atomic bomb, moral questions arose. Couldn't we have blockaded, or negotiated a surrender? The idea we had to invade and take the entire island with a demand of 'unconditional surrender' itself raises moral questions.
Second, who is to judge whether life under a dictatorship is worse than being invaded and suffering the fate of warfare? Many in the West, driven by ideology, contend that of course it's better -- better for humankind, better for the next generation, better for the world -- to get rid of evil or immoral regimes. But that's an untenable position. First, it assumes that the result will be something good. Without a political culture conducive to creating a free and stable society, it could open fissures that lead to civil war, remove stability and the prospect of slow change. Second, it doesn't consider the costs of war itself, as noted above. War devastates societies, and can be self-perpetuating as a generation learns that war is the way to get things done. Third, it neglects that human history moves slowly, and vast injustices have always existed, the idea that we could somehow use force to make everything right is a utopian fantasy. As Iraq shows, even winning a war overwhelmingly does not shape what comes afterwards. Finally, it's a consequentialist ethic that ignores the morality of the means, mythologizing war and abstracting it into some 'noble cause against evil,' rather than noting the raw violence, the initiation of force, and moral relativism (he's killing his citizens so we'll do the same to get rid of him).
I'll go even further: interventionism in general with military means is wrong, including military aid to states not involved in self-defense against an aggressor. Trade, mutual agreement to act on common problems, and diplomacy to protect the national interest is fine. But military aggression or intervention is based on fundamentally misguided principles: consequentialism based on fantasies about what the consequence will actually be, abstracting and neglecting the moral cost of the action.
Finally -- and I'll only state this now, I'll have to develop an argument later on (this entry is running too long already), I would argue that a moral non-interventionist foreign policy would ultimately be in a states' long term national interest, as it would avoid the temptations of super power, avoid the costs of getting entangled in unnecessary conflicts, would not incite the anger of other states, and would create solidarity to do whatever is necessary at home for self-defense or, in the case of a good alliance structure, other-defense. But anything other than defensive warfare cannot be morally justified -- and defense should be direct, not rationalized in the way that the Roman Empire argued that all their wars were really defensive in nature. It must be a response to aggression to fend off that aggression. Because, despite the myths, the tales of glory, the romanticizing of war and violence done in film and culture, war is deadly, destructive, creates widows, steals childhoods, psychologically scars both the soldiers and the civilians, and warps a political culture in ways incalculable. It can only be defended by abstracting it into something it is not. Unfortunately, we humans are very good at such abstract rationalizations.
October 18 - The arrogance of power
I don't know how I missed this, but I just watched a clip on Youtube with Wesley Clark being interviewed in March 2007. Clark, who is a retired four star general and led the NATO mission in Kosovo, describes an incident where he is in the Pentagon in September of 2001. He has a discussion with another General who tells him that the Administration had already decided to attack Iraq. Clark asks if the Administration had any new information connecting Saddam to 9-11. Nope. The decision was made apparently because "We don't know what to do about terrorism," but we "can take out governments."
He then tells of how he returned to the Pentagon a couple weeks later, and ran into the same general. Clark asks "are we still going to war with Iraq?" The general responds that it's worse than that, and shows him a memo from Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that lists seven countries which we will "take out" in five years: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. I doubt very much that Clark would lie; sure, he was a Democratic candidate for President in 2004, but this kind of thing is not something a former General would lie about. This also would explain why so many former Generals have spoken out against the Administration and the Iraq war. If they believe they have a civilian leadership that plans numerous dangerous wars of aggression in a short period of time, that would scare the dickens out of the Pentagon. They would pull out al the stops to undercut the President and the Secretary of Defense's plans.
But think about what this plan entailed. It was an aggressive plot to conquer much of the Mideast and set up pro-American governments or puppet states. That would have been raw imperialism, rationalized by our claims of moral superiority along with fear of terrorism, but which at base would put us on a par with other aggressor states. Moreover, if Iraq had been relatively easy, we'd have been tempted to move on...Syria, Lebanon, etc. Sooner or later, we'd have found ourselves in a much more dangerous, broader war than we have now. And then Iraq would ultimately disintegrate as well, as Iran would be forced to try to destabilize it, recognizing America's aggressive intent. Iraq may be a fiasco, but that kind of 'war without end' would have been catastrophic. We can declare victory and leave Iraq, with a painful lesson learned. If we launched numerous wars we'd be finding the entire region aflame by now, with the world economy likely in tatters.
Back in 2006 the US apparently urged Israel to "take out" Hezbollah, arguing that this would weaken Syria and create a more stable Lebanon. Of course, that didn't work either. Now the President is saying that an Iran with a nuclear weapon would cause WWIII, suggesting a rationale for military strikes. Given the initial plans, one has to take a bit seriously the idea that they would follow through on some kind of military strike against Iran, something almost certain to do much more harm than good.
Perhaps we should be thankful that the Iraqi insurgents stymied the push through the Mideast, and perhaps prevented us from getting in so far over our heads that we'd be facing an even bigger set of problems than we do now in Iraq. If Iraq alone can overstretch the military and divide the country, what would happen if we were involved in a massive regional conflict with enemies on all sides? The ideology driving such plans is a naive belief in both power and the expectation that those we are attacking will see that we only want to go after their government and will thus greet us as liberators, and work with us to create nice western style democracies. Only arrogance -- arrogance backed by power -- could lead one to fall victim to such a misguided belief.
Of course, there are other possibilities, which I'll discuss in my blog tomorrow.
October 19 - Al Gore and the Nobel Peace Prize
(Note: yesterday I wrote that today I'd continue the discussion on Wesley Clark's comments. I'm putting that off until next week)
Dr. Susan Strange, a pre-eminent political scientist who specialized in comparative political economy, wrote a piece near the end of her life called The Westfailure system. Published in 1999, she argued that three problems were emerging that the current state system based on sovereignty cannot handle: a) control of credit markets, which absent effective regulation will lead to speculative bubbles and set of economic crises, perhaps even depression; b) the ability to sustain the environment which, given the unprecedented level of pollution and green house gas emissions, will likely cause major calamities in the next (this) century; and c) the growing gap between the wealthy and poor, which cannot be addressed because international institutions are focused on the needs of the elite, and the poor are not considered relevant.
What is interesting about Strange's analysis is not that she recognized these problems: indeed, the problems of environmental sustainability and global poverty are evident throughout the literature, and a number of scholars saw early on the dangers created by the internationalization of capital and lack of effective regulation of credit markets. The interesting and in some ways depressing analysis was that these problems could not be solved by the usual processes of the Westphalian state system. The Westphalian system, created originally by the treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (though that's more a convenient date to mark a point in the process where legal recognition of sovereignty began; in reality the creation of the modern state system was a long process), has defined world politics for centuries.
It arose in Europe, and was based on two principles: territoriality and sovereignty. Sovereigns were given control of territory, and no one else was to have the ability to interfere. Later, popular sovereignty gave that authority to the people in the form of Republics, and over time democracy and liberalism came to dominate in Europe. Europe also spread this notion of the Westphalian state across the globe through colonialism, and now every territory on the planet save Antarctica is defined by the Westphalian state.
However, as a system it has failed in ways beyond that described by Strange. In much of the world, especially Africa, it never really took. States there exist more as legal fictions than effective institutions, with governments more a path towards easy money via corruption than effective efforts to promote the public good. Strange's argument, however, is that failure is hitting even the core states of the Westphalian system, and it could be that this system won't last the next century.
The credit crisis she predicted is here, and it's not just causing turmoil in Asia or Latin America, but in the US. We're only at the beginning, and most people see it as a momentary weakness in the dollar, or a housing slump. But it's real -- without the housing bubble, there isn't available liquidity to pump up the American economy, especially with public debt at 70% of GDP. Foreign capital is fleeing our stock market due to the declining dollar which the IMF recently said is still overvalued (see my blog from September 27th). This suggests a contraction in the Capital Account, making the current accounts deficit unsustainable. Bottom line: this credit crisis could spiral into an international currency crisis and lead to something akin to the Great Depression. This is happening because globalization makes it impossible to exercise the kind of control over credit markets that existed back before the 80s, and thus we have a 'wild west' sort of capitalism on the global scene, one prone to crisis. The state system cannot handle it, it doesn't have the institutional resources.
In the case of the environment, efforts to halt something like global warming through state laws doesn't work. States reflect national interest, and thus short term economic interest will trump long term concerns, and states also fear that if they make regulations or changes, other states will not, giving other states relative advantages. Moreover, efforts at international agreements, like the Kyoto accords, are almost certain to either fail or give extremely watered down "solutions" because states make decisions in terms of short term national interest and difficulties cooperating. So we end up doing things like calling for more regulations or ratification of the Kyoto accords, something scientists know is almost inconsequential given the scope of the problem, but given the nature of the state system, that's all that can be done. In terms of global poverty, similar issues get in the way (maybe I'll delve into that next week too, this blog entry is getting long).
She sees no solution coming from the state system; indeed, the Westphalian system is if not failing, at least fading. She looks towards\ ideas from sociology, such as transnational social movements and cross-border connections as providing some hope, though unfortunately her untimely death didn't give her a chance to really develop these ideas. But perhaps an example of what can bring about change came last week when Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on awareness of global warming. Gore's efforts have created an international movement with a focus less on policy debate within a state (though it impacts that), but on creating awareness and even activism on global warming and environmental issues. That is precisely the kind of thing Strange was alluding to as a possible alternative to the inability of the state system to handle these problems. It's a daunting task to transcend the processes of centuries of politics and try to focus on a transnational problem through citizen action and partnerships that aren't in the form of traditional state authority. It's tempting to dismiss such efforts as at best being a minor factor in international decision making. But perhaps Gore's efforts are revolutionary, perhaps he's accomplishing more than he could have if he had won the Presidency of even the most powerful of the Westphalian sovereign states.
Perhaps Gore's award is not only deserved, but prescient of the need for a new direction in global politics to solve issues which could spell intense crisis for the planet if they are not addressed in time. Maybe, in history, this award will be seen as marking the start of a transition away from the Westphalian system to one where transnational movements start to trump state sovereignty. One can only hope so. Otherwise, we have a bleak century ahead. If you mix economic recession or depression with the problems associated with global warming, and then add in the anger of those suffering global poverty, perhaps now with access to WMD and terrorist tactics (again, thanks to globalization), one can see a chaotic century looming. Systemic change usually emerges from violence and chaos, and perhaps we're on the verge another such episode. Or, perhaps, we'll find a way to use the tools of globalization to solve these problems and peaceful bid adieu to the Westphalian system, at least in its present form.
October 22 - What an autumn!
It's October 22nd, the temperature today is in the 70s, and the leaves on the tree remain at peak or just past peak color. I cannot ever recall such good weather as we've experienced since early July -- and this fall has had one of the longest and most beautiful 'leaf peeping' season I've experienced since moving to Maine. It is delightful to take the side roads through the hills and enjoy the vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and variety of colors. So forgive me, but on a day like today, it's time to be outside enjoying the day rather than writing a blog entry. It is a joy to be surrounded by beauty!
October 23 - Doomsday scenario
Last night I had the joy of seeing one of my favorite musicians in concert in Portland - Loreena McKennitt, whose historically inspired music is beautiful, uplifting and interesting -- a different kind of sound than usual. We're driving back at near midnight, on dark mostly clear highways through rural Maine, twisting and turning past shops and small towns and my mind drifted to the question of whether or not this era in history is nearing an end, and what is likely to come next.
That's an odd thing to contemplate after a beautiful concert on an unbelievably gorgeous autumn day, but it was in part driven by the concert. McKennitt in inspired by Celtic traditions and history, and talked about the migrations of people over time, and the vast changes over the centuries, as she at times joins archeological digs or travels to Mongolia to see if traces of the past persist to the present. It would be foolish for us to think the present is any different, empires and civilizations wax and wane, and great changes occur usually at times when few expect it.
Yet events are pointing in ominous directions. The fiasco in Iraq has weakened the US and created a power vacuum in the region. The Bush Administration, seeing no good options, but recognizing that Iran stands to benefit the most from our policies over the last five years, increases the warnings about Iran, signal the potential of an expanded war. Oil prices soar to near $90 a barrel, and the US stands at the brink of recession, with the end of the housing bubble causing a credit crisis and a collapse in the value of the dollar. Politically, the US is rendered impotent by the nature of our political competition at home. The signs clearly point to a global rebalancing of the economy to put the US in a relatively weaker position, and the danger of expanded conflict in the Mideast threatens oil prices and regional stability, and could spark a major and costly confrontation, beyond the scope of what the Iraq war has entailed. There is almost no good news out there, even if the bad news is still at arms' length, able to be ignored by most of the public.
That brings me back to the scenario Wesley Clark described, whereby the Bush administration had planned an aggressive campaign to overturn the governments of seven countries in five years. Why would anyone even think of trying such a thing, how could anyone rationalize becoming an aggressor nation, driven apparently so much by the fear of one group of rag tag terrorists that we're willing to throw aside the moral constraints on policy and engage in raw conquest? The answer most often given is that this was a misguided effort to do good, to spread democracy and markets, and liberate the people from tyrannical regimes. In that case, the lesson we need to learn is that war is not a good means for doing such a thing, we turn more people against us, divide our own society, weaken our position in the world, and unleash unintended consequences we don't know how to deal with.
But what if this all is being driven by a deeper fear -- fear that oil production is peaking, the US economy weakening, global recession or even depression possible, and Russian and Chinese competition for resources growing. Add to that the rise of Islamic extremism -- which is really less about Islam than about the political conditions in the region -- and the growth of terrorism, and you could have a perfect storm that will bring down the system. If that's what they see, a kind of doomsday scenario, then conditions may be far more difficult to handle that most people realize. Grabbing at a military solution seems natural for a great power, but historically that usually just hastens demise, and certainly would here.
So are we at the end of an era, or just going through a typical cycle in the world political economy? As I gaze out at another beautiful fall day, albeit today with rain clouds gathering, I hope that the gloom and doom many see now turns out to be just as wrong as the euphoria by the "end of history" crowd after the collapse of communism. But there is something unsettling in the air these days, and the political discourse in the US seems so lost in trivialities that we aren't addressing it. Civilizations have risen and fallen before, and our point in time will someday be as distant and obscure as those Celtic traditions McKennitt researches for her music. And somehow that music also inspires a sense of acceptance -- no matter what the tumult of history brings, beauty, whether in nature like Maine's autumns, or from human art like McKennitt's music, is always a part of life.
October 26 - The Ottoman Legacy
I've always been somewhat fond of the writings of Edmund Burke, a British conservative philosopher who very early on recognized the danger of abstract ideologies as a basis for politics. For him, politics was more like a skill, government should be run pragmatically, and at the time of the French revolution he recognized where attempts to create universal abstract notions of rights and systems of governance can lead. Ideology, I would argue, is a secular religion, one that blinds its adherents to the fact that they are simply believing an interpretation of reality which cannot be proven, and likely has both errors and validity only in particular contexts.
Burke also recognized the power of tradition and custom. Though conservative, he was also a reformer -- just one that reformed slowly, careful not to try to overthrow the traditions and customs that provide societal stability. He believed in rights, but within the context of culture. This creates dangers -- it lends itself to cultural relativism (whatever a culture does is fine), skepticism of individual liberty (he considered individualism suspect), and a danger that one will feel less connection to person of another culture than ones' own, perhaps even creating racism. Burke himself didn't have that view -- he opposed how colonized peoples were treated (especially some of the brutality in India) and even was sympathetic to the Americans. His relativism is pragmatic; I would argue that he sees clearly that societies are held together by shared values and ideals, and that trying to impose one set of values onto another culture is dangerous, and trying to promote a universal set of values without regard to cultural "fit" is futile. As much as the western American in me wants to promote a kind of universal sense of freedom and liberty, I recognize that is my cultural and personal bias.
In most accounts, the countries least free in the world are those who were part of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey itself has been sparred that fate because perhaps as center of the Ottoman Empire, it had connections with Europe and western thought which saved it from falling into absolutist rule. Moreover, Ataturk was a remarkable leader, able to shift Turkey's direction, drawing on failed Ottoman reform ideas from the 19th century. Yet Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and much of northern Africa languish.
Some blame Islam, but even there it's not the religion, but the Ottomans. The Ottomans empowered and helped enforce a conservative and traditional doctrine of Islam, wherein the very conservative ulama are the final determiners of religious truth. They hold a belief that Medina at the time of Muhammad (about 630 AD) is the culture for which Muslims should aspire. This helped the Ottomans hold to claims of legitimate power, but it also kept out western modern ideas, and made the ulama strong enough to defeat reform efforts in the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th century. The ulama also accepts the Hadiths (stories about Muhammad by his companions) as valid, even though they contradict many Koranic teachings and brought back in old Arab customs, such as how women are to be treated -- Muhammad's teachings were very progressive for women.
It didn't have to be that way. Before the Ottomans there was a thriving rationalist movement, where Islamic scholars cited Aristotle and worked to combine faith and reason, much like Thomas Aquinas would later do in the Christian world. The Sufis had a very spiritual and tolerant form of Islam. But the Ottomans, fighting off the Mongols and the Crusaders, slowly created an autocratic, conservative and ultimately stagnant state where violence and ruthlessness became the norm. In the Mideast today, we see the result of that political culture. In Islam we see a backlash against change: as Muslims slowly move to modernize and embrace globalization, elements among them try to fight for an extremist view, still clinging to the idea that the region should be like Medina in the 7th century. The US went to war with Iraq with grand universal ideals of democracy, markets, and a belief Iraqis would quickly make the kind of choices we think we'd make. There was little or no effort to think about the culture and the fit of these solutions, the administration's plan was ideology-driven. After all, it worked with Germany and Japan.
One real lesson I hope people learn from this war is the danger of using
such an analogy to predict political results. The
analogy of Iraq to Germany and Japan after WWII was seductive, it got people to
think that if you overthrow a dictatorship and defeat it in war, then all you
need is the will to reconstruct and provide democracy to reshape the societies.
Instead, people should have thought about how different Iraq is than either
Japan or Germany. Both Japan and Germany had tried democracy, both were modern
and industrialized, both were relatively homogeneous, and each had an economic
capacity to achieve quick economic success. More importantly, each had a
tradition of rule of law and the mechanisms to avoid too high a level of
The post-Ottoman culture of the Arab world was built on much more difficult terrain. They lacked basic civil society structures necessary for democracy, corruption was immense, and violence as politics had continued through a bloody 20th century. The post-Ottoman world inherited the legacy of a conservative, brutal, dictatorship. The conservative ulama refused to allow much religious pluralism, or questioning of authority. Challenges to this interpretation and the power of the clerics (the ulama) would open ruptures in Islam between those willing to reform and change, and those wanting to hold on to the conservative, fundamentalist traditions. Add to that the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd split in Iraq, and no one should have ever thought for a second that the analogy to post-WWII reconstruction had any validity.
Burke was right. Idealism and ideology provide no solutions or right answers, just a different form of dogma. Pragmatism demands we recognize that cultures change slowly, cultures brutalized by rule like that of the Ottomans can't simply leap to democratic stability and markets over night, and a reformation of the sort Islam is about to go through will be lengthy and violent, with the focus of the violence internal to Islam rather than primarily Islam vs. the West.
October 30 - Material saturation
Perhaps symbolic of our age is how willing we are to simply discard things. Last year I bought an Onyx stereo receiver for $199. I could finally hook up my turntable, CD player, and two sets of speakers (one for the basement, one for upstairs) and fill the house with music. Alas, I didn't buy the warranty (usually those things aren't worth it) and after about a year it stopped working. I realized the "safety" had come on, which seems like must have been a minor repair. Circuit City, however, said that since it wasn't under warranty they couldn't even touch it. Repair estimates seemed to be around $100 at a minimum, with no guarantee that the problem wasn't systemic. Ultimately, I found a similar Sony at Best Buy on sale for $130, so I bought it. What to do with the Onyx -- throw it out?
I recently read of someone who said he wanted to buy battery replacements for a cordless drill, only to find a new drill with new bits were half the price of the replacement battery. In today's world of cheap textiles, how many people still mend clothing, darn socks (does the younger generation even know what it means to 'darn a sock'), or replace the soles on their shoes? With electronics so cheap, and repair so expensive, how many DVD players or small electronics will ever be repaired once something goes wrong? (And I wonder if anyone will be able to get my old Betamax working so I can watch my old betamax format VCRs?)
When I was visiting Russia I was impressed by the knowledge people had of how to improvise. No stereo in the car? No problem, wire up a portable radio to the car's battery. Something goes wrong, figure out a way to fix it, usually with speed and innovation. They had to do that, they didn't have the same access to cheap replacements and convenience. They learned to problem solve and improvise. Increasingly we don't have that skill. Something goes wrong, all we need to do is drive to the local big box store and buy a new one. Rip my pants at a conference and instead of getting out a sewing kit to mend them, I zip over to the clothing store and replace them. If and when times get tough, we'll have to relearn a lot of skills we've lost, thanks to the convenience of cheap products.
Add to that the waste. Immense amounts of stuff are either incinerated and put into landfills daily, even while much of the world lacks basic necessities. When our fast food gets a bit old before being sold it's discarded. Others don't have food. As I reflect on this, it occurs to me that this is a sign that we have reached a kind of material saturation. There are, at least for most of the industrialized West, no more material wants to satisfy. We can create more perceived wants through marketing and new technologies, disposing an old cell phone to one that takes pictures, or trading in a perfectly good car for one with a navigation system and more luxury. But after awhile there is no net material gain, once the newness wears off someone is no happier with a state of the art high definition plasma TV now than they would have been after purchasing a brand new color TV in 1968.
This isn't just the wealthy, but most in the West are materially saturated, even if they are yearning for the kind of stuff the wealthy have. That yearning is artificial, created by marketers and the human desire to get what someone else has. But most in the West have reached a point where more 'stuff' cannot translate into more happiness. That's material saturation. So we end up with anxieties, eating disorders, depression, neuroses, and other psychological difficulties, seeking some kind of fulfillment from something that no longer can add to our true well being. More stuff doesn't mean much of anything.
To be sure, this isn't necessarily a bad problem to have. If we can get a handle on the need for a multidimensional life and not to focus on the material (money, work, career, stuff) and instead aspire to higher ends (friendship, community, family, art, music, learning) that material saturation can be part of an immensely satisfying and fulfilling life. Increasingly people are discovering that, there is a reason why people love music, travel, read, and learn. In those areas we're not even close to "saturation," there is much happiness to be gained by sharing an evening with a drink and friend, visiting a museum, or learning about something new. Travel is especially rewarding, as one can learn new cultures and ways of seeing the world. Community gives a strong sense of satisfaction, something that those without all the material stuff recognize. Still, as a society we're often addicted to the material, and find it hard to break out, that's where the pressures are -- bills, career demands, television commercials, and a quick rush after shopping for something new. And if people can't break that addiction and truly embrace what can add happiness to their lives, all the material wealth we have can be more of a curse than a blessing.