Thursday, July 31, 2003

Liberia Again

In a previous post I tried to understand how we could intervene. I had an oversight in the analysis: It is all too easy to define a country's interests as those of some particular special interest, and those can be (and often have been) global and intrusive. I was assuming that we gave enough attention to the situation to spot and forestall such hijackings of foreign policy--but it is true that we haven't always been caught them.

It certainly looks as though the situation has deteriorated for Taylor et al, but I can't tell for sure since I don't know how LURD and Taylor are supplied. LURD might be running low on ammo and about ready to fall back. I hope the CIA knows, but I've my doubts about their competence in studying non-sexy countries. I have the feeling that Bush is hoping that Taylor's forces collapse, ending the official civil war (though maybe not the soldier vs civilian civil conflict).

But what then? If LURD won, they'd have a load of Taylor's soldiers on their hands. It wouldn't be smart to try to kill them all, however richly they may deserve it--you want them to surrender and be disarmed. (Just execute the officers?) So what will these soldiers do after the war? What will LURD's soldiers do, given that most won't be needed any more? I think the answer is pretty plain: freelancing.

And freelancing Liberian fighters is exactly what the region does not need.

So is our plan to wait till LURD wins and then lean on them hard to collect the leftover fighters for (supervised) retraining? Imagine guarded camps run by the US which hold the fighters, ID the fighters, trace their home towns (part of ID'ing them), train those we think trainable and imprison those obviously guilty of major crimes. The graduates get a chunk of farmland (I know, this doesn't fit well into the old village system, but I'm not sure how much of that is left anyway) or some tools for their new career, and a warning that if they're ever caught with a weapon again they die.

That would take care of some of the fighters, but not all by a long shot. It takes a relatively small commitment of money and forces once the fighters are rounded up--but we'd have to be ready right away. And the recidivists will still be a serious problem in and around Liberia. And without a lot of help rebuilding infrastructure Liberia will continue to be a mess, and someone else will start this foolishness again. And LURD will need to be leaned on hard to become and stay honest. It still doesn't sound expensive, but it takes a commitment and alert people.


I believe that we have both strategic interests and an ethical obligation to help Liberia. (We did not have such an ethical obligation to Somalia.) I am just not sure what the best thing to do is. If we weren't in the middle of a war I could support the grand intervention with more enthusiasm--it doesn't seem a very dangerous battlefield--but it does tie up a lot of troops. I don't want our troops sitting in between warring factions, which seems to be what Taylor wants (and the starving refugees too). Given the recent history of the country, we would need to demand a large say in how any aid we offer is used--essentially turning the country from a nation into a protectorate.

Perhaps the best solution is to let (or covertly help) LURD win, and then immediately send in aid, but condition all military and economic assistance on Liberia becoming a 10-year protectorate of the US. But this is incredibly tricky. We have to have agreements in place with rebel groups right now. It requires finding people able to supervise rebuilding right now. And I don't think there's a lot of political support for it either.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The priorities of the NY Times

It is 20:46 Central time. I'm reading the President's press conference transcript. There's a lot about foreign policy, about Iran, Korea, Israel. There are statements about Liberia, AIDS aid, terror, even some domestic questions. So which 1% of the story does the NY Times think is the most important?

"Bush Looking for Means to Prevent Gay Marriage in U.S."

More important than war, more important than the economy--the most important thing in the world... ?

Monday, July 28, 2003

Hmm. Using BlogThis standalone added a post. I added a post the usual way, and as usual it didn't show up (despite republishing the entire site). So I tried using BlogThis again to try to force the republication. It didn't work--neither the long post nor the new BlogThis showed up. I'm trying again (it won't let you edit unless you post first!).
Test of BlogThis

I'm having lots of trouble getting posts published from RedHat 9+ Mozilla 1.x, so maybe this will kick the silly thing in the pants.

Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman

Several people recommended this book, but it took a while for my hold at the library to come through. It was worth the wait.

Before I address the book and its arguments in detail, let me recommend The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer. In it he details the evolution (decay) of modern philosophy and its effect on our culture. His examples are a bit dated but the intervening years have brought even more dramatic illustrations, and his description of trends is even more apt now than it was then. Schaeffer's analysis of the West and Qutb's both look to a religious failure as the core of the decline they percieve in the West, but their interpretations and prescriptions are very different.

OK, why bring up Schaeffer and Qutb when talking about a book by Berman? Because Berman was able to lay hands on English translations of several of the volumes of In the Shade of the Qur'an, and part of his book explains what he found in Qutb--and I think that Schaeffer answers Qutb.

In a nutshell, Berman sees the great struggles of the 20'th century and the present day as mostly coming from a conflict between classical liberalism and the totalitarian cult of death as expressed in such various forms as Stalinism, Nazism, Phalangists, and Qutbists--for he discerns its influence on the nominally pure Muslim Qutb as well. He makes a pretty good case for this too.

Berman's credentials and Bush

He begins by asserting his credentials, describing an editorial he wrote for the Times in opposition to Nixon's "realpolitik" support of the 1991 Gulf War, in which Paul also supported the war, but did so on anti-facist grounds.

I didn't give a damn about the politics of oil, per se, nor about "vital interests"--though I'm sure it was naive of me not to take those things a little more seriously. I didn't spend my days fretting over America's ability to scare its enemies. The very word "credibility" gave me the willies. ... "Credibility" in Nixon's day brought nothing but calamity to America and Indochina alike.

Still, I did worry about Saddam Hussein. I thought that, in Saddam and his government, we were facing a totalitarian menace--something akin to facism. Saddam's regime was aggressive, dynamic, irrational, paranoid, murderous, grandiose, and demagogic. ... He had already fought a horrendous war with Iran, which features poison gas attacks by his own army. ... Saddam was terrifying. Here was credibility.


The entire situation had the look of Europe in 1939, updated to the post-Cold War Middle East.

Rebellion, obedience, and death

Berman sketches the history of rebellion in modern thought (frequently quoting Camus), and the eventual mixture of rebellion and a sinister obsession with murder and suicide. "Murder as rebellion, suicide as honor, murder and suicide as the joint emblem of human freedom--those were Hugo's themes" (in Hernani, a play about a Romantic hero conspiring to kill the king). Then Baudelaire goes a step further, with a fascination for murder and suicide not as side effects of an honest rebellion against tyranny, but "for the sake of crime." As Schaeffer pointed out, the change starts with the philosophers, then moves into the artists, and then into the general public. In Russia revolutionaries started "a fad for political assassination," at first with care to avoid unintended casualties and an eagerness to accept the consequences (dying for the cause, accepting punishment for the crime). Dying for the cause showed your commitment, and your nobility, and after a while the link (the cause) seemed to shrink, and dying and nobility were connected imaginatively (as in the Sorrows of Young Werther). It didn't take long before the anarchist revolutionaries moved on to things like the Wall Street bombing and "aesthetic act of terror--'aesthetic' was his {Galleani's} own word--in which the beauty or artistic quality consisted in murdering anonymously. Here the nihilism was unlimited, and the transgression total."

World War I was notoriously a tremendous shock to the West, utterly discrediting the popular notion of inevitable progress.

And now the deepest disaster of all got underway. The old Romantic literary fashion for muder and suicide, the dandy's fondness for the irrational and the irresponsible, the little nihilist groups of left-wing desperadoes with their dreams of poetic death--those several tendencies and impulses of the nineteenth century came together with a few additional tendencies that Camus had never bothered to discuss: the dark philosophies of the extreme right in Germany and other countries, with their violent loathing of progress and liberalism; the anti-Semites of Vienna with their mad proposal to cleanse Vienna of its most brilliant aspects; the demented scientists of racial theory. All this which had once been small and marginal, began to metastasize and spread. ... And the movements of a "new type" devoted themselves to a single, all-consuming obsession, which was a hatred of liberal civilization.

Lenin was the first, and "History with a capitol H was innocent. When Lenin acted, he acted in History's name. He ordered killing en masse; and everything he did was, by definition, as innocent as the lamb." The Facists seemed their opposites; dreaming of the local triumph rather than the universal, nationalists, champions of irrationality ... but Mussolini had been an ultra-leftist to start with.

By a strange change the urge to rebel had been channeled into an urge to submit --as you rebel against the old ways you must gather together with like-minded rebels and follow the example of the most strongminded and rebellious. And so it follows that there must be mass chants, and a uniform (red or black or brown shirts as you please), and an unquestionable theory of mankind.

And here Berman brings in Cohn as the discoverer of the ur-myth of the 20'th century; a "people of God" under attack from the wealthy and corrupt world without and treachery within, but sure to win in the end thanks to the power of the "man on horseback" with the power of life and death in the great battle of Armageddon. (This isn't quite the way I read Revelation, but ...)

Moving to the Mideast

In every country and sometimes in every province the Facist or facist-like movement wanted to show how parochial were its instincts, how deeply rooted in local traditions, how unique and idiosyncratic. A Facist inspiration from Europe that had spread to other places would make every effort not to look like a Facist inspiration that had spread from Europe

Nevertheless the Nazi and Facist roots of the Baathist parties are now well known. The Muslim Brotherhood formed at about the same time, and "The Baathi and the Islamists were two branches of a single impulse, which was Muslim totalitarianism--the Muslim variation on the European idea." The intellectual light of the Muslim Brotherhood was Qutb.


Qutb saw that modern culture had reached a crisis, with men alienated from their own nature and searching desperately in alcohol, pointless sex, dark and desperate "doctrines such as existentialism and its disastrous analogous ideologies." In the most materially affluent societies people lead miserable and purposeless lives. Any objections so far? I thought not.

Qutb saw three forces acting to destroy the secular society: Maldistribution of resources (with the usual socialist analysis); "weakening of moral values which leads, sooner or later, to the destruction of moral prosperity" (and eventually physical prosperity, for {though it isn't explicated here} the value of money is trust; and the less you can trust the more lawyers you need and the less you can risk--drying up the investment culture that drives capitalism); and a pervasive fear which hurts the mind and body. That "maldistribution of resources" is necessarily a dangerous thing is debateable--people don't seem to mind so much if they believe they can have a chance at the goodies, but it is obviously bad when people resent it. The rest of the forces he describes pretty well.

His analysis of why the West decayed says the reason was religious. Judaism (which as a Muslim he regarded as coming from a genuine revelation) called for the worship of God and not idols, and demanded that the Jews obey not just a ritual code for worship but also a moral code and a civil code as well. He held that they had degenerated into ritual-only, and Jesus was sent to reform the code and call everyone to a higher spiritual dimension of obedience. Many gentiles followed Jesus, but the Jews largely rejected him, and in the resulting disputes the Gospels were garbled and Paul, in battling the Jews, rejected the civil aspects of Jesus' message and drew instead from Greek philosophy. Thus Christianity began crippled, with authority only over the spiritual and not over the civil part of life. Then Constantine hypocritically "converted" the empire, and the horrified church invented asceticism and monasticism in reaction to the lawless lifestyles of the powerful--denying the nature of man and further crippling Christianity with a schizophrenic split between spirit and body, until the arrival of Mohammed.

There are several problems with this analysis: the synoptic Gospels show no signs of the controversies of the early church (which you'd expect if they were written later or corrupted to suit the times); Paul doesn't actually draw that much from the Greeks, though he does explain things to gentiles using their own language; Qutb's thumbnail description of monasticism doesn't agree very well with the history I read; and I gather he relies on the Qur'an rather than (much older!) histories to discover what Christians believe--the Qur'an is known to be in error on several points (such as what Christians say the Trinity is). In brief, Qutb is wrong.

Schaeffer much more accurately traced the origins of the West's malaise to the Renaissance: which is much more plausible since the philosophies of the West changed direction then.

Returning to Qutb, he held that the Muslim world lost its grip on Muslim principles sometime between the third and fifth Caliphate, even though the empire still spread. Berman doesn't describe what this loss of grip was, but I surmise from Qutb's bete noir that it had to do with the rise of civil power not completely united with spiritual power. The discovery of the inductive method (scientific method) in Muslim Andalusia (shades of the Soviet "we invented it first"ers!) spread to Europe where it caught on and caused the boom in Western power. That power spreading around the world carried the schizophrenic Western split between spirit and the physical world (what Schaeffer calls the "Line of Despair") with it to infect every culture, including the Muslim.

"But, though Qutb was evidently following some main trends of twentieth-centure social criticism and philosophy, he made a great show of referring to European or American thinkers as rarely as possible, except perjoratively or polemically." He rejected the racial parties (like Nazis) and warned against Arab chauvisism. "Marxism itself struck him as the ne plus ultra of every ghastly trait that had developed in Europe," reducing man to an economic animal with neither a human nature or a divine spirit. But his strongest attacks were against liberalism and the notion of the separation of church and state: "such a society denies or suspends Gods sovereignty on earth." He asserted that the foundation of such a society is that the human heart is the final arbiter of right and wrong, when plainly God is. Or is it founded in the more pragmatic worry that while God never misleads, His nominal representatives often do?

He also warned against the Jews.

He explicitly warned against emphasizing the Koran's tolerant expressions of forgiveness of the Jews. Nor did he want to look at the story of Medina as merely an event from the seventh century. In Qutb's interpretation, the sins of the Medina Jews in the seventh centure have a cosmic, eternal quality--rather like the sins and crimes of the Jerusalem Jews in some of the traditional interpretations of the Gospels. In his commentary on Surah 2, Qutb speculated that, during their time of slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt, oppression may have corrupted the Jews, with permanent effects on all Jews everywhere.

He held that the slogan "Culture is the human heritage" was merely a trick by Jews intended to eliminate all limits so that Jews could penetrate the body politic of the whole world to perpetrate their evil designs, chief among which was requiring usury. "Qutb's anti-Semitism was Islamic; but it was not just Islamic. It was classic."

Qutb has been accused of being prudish, but this is in the eye of the beholder. His actual argument was that the appearance of freedom in the liberal cultures really meant that women were "free" to be cogs in an economic machine rather than trainers of human beings, because the culture values money more than people. A society where God's values don't translate into the culture results in people being pressured to ruin themselves and others. He said the liberal society values "love" more than fidelity: the transient feelings of the human heart trump marriage vows. Accurate enough... And this shows ignorance of human nature and God's laws.

Qutb worried that the liberal doctrines about religion would infect the Muslim minds, and destroy Islam. "True Islam would become partial Islam, and partial Islam does not exist." Ataturk had abolished the caliphate, and showed that Islam was vulnerable. So what needed to be done?

First, sound the warning of the assult on the mind from without and the assult on Islam from within, from the false Muslims polluted by evil ideas.

Islam's champions seemed to be few, but numbers were nothing to worry about. ... The vanguard had to form a kind of Islamic counterculture--a mini-society where true Muslims could be themselves. ... The vanguard had to recognize that the false Muslims or "hypocrites" who ruled the Muslim world were no Muslims at all. ... The goal, in short, was to resurrect the pristine Islamic society, from before the period of decline--to resurrect the original model in such a way that everyone could see its success.

The Islamic society means sharia, which Qutb painted in rosy colors: but somehow the "freedom of conscience" he advertised seems less than appealing when the alternative is to be a dhimmi. Jihad had rules (don't kill women and children), but in the end jihad would win the world.

Qutb's doctrine was wonderfully original and deeply Muslim, looked at from one angle; and from another angle, merely one more version of the European totalitarian idea. And if his doctrine was recognizable, its consequences were certainly going to be predictable. Qutb's vanguard, if such a vanguard ever mobilized itself, was going to inaugurate a rebellion--this time, a rebellion in the name of Islam, against the liberal values of the West. (Totalitarian movements always, but always, rise up in rebellion against the liberal values of the West. That is their purpose.) And the rebellion was bound to end in a cult of death.

And so it proved in Afghanistan. To ensure a perfect society, every detail of sharia needs to be inforced, and sharia covers every detail of life--including which direction to urinate.

Back to history

Because the definitions of some of the terms like jihad were a little vague, the Islamists had some flexibility in portraying themselves and taking advantage of situations. Their anti-communism made them more acceptable in Washington, and in Israel (Arafat's first terrorist groups were funded from Moscow), and even in Paris. The two critical events in the rise of Islamism were the rise of Khomeini and the success of the Afghan fighters. Khomeini borrowed a lot of leftist rhetoric, but his revolution was essentially Islamic, and inspired a death cult of staggering proportions: thousands of men eagerly marching out to step on land mines to prepare the way for the regular forces to follow. Saddam's cruelty was also staggering, and strangely popular in the "Arab street." But Khomeini's influence was greater around the world, and one of those influences was the death cult.

Berman looks at Sudan as a "remarkable example of Islamism in practice" in its jihad against the Christian and pagan south, with over a million dead and huge numbers of slaves. This is, unfortunately, not remarkable, but was in fact standard operating procedure for Islam for a thousand years. Africa has always been a source of slaves for Arab Muslims. The Palestinians are the more horrible example: They began initially by more or less fighting the army, but with the second intifada they celebrate mass murder and suicide. More and more radical Islamists groups coalesced, with Al Qaeda being only the most famous. Sheikh Rahman, Abdullah Azzam, Ali Benhadj and many more; all calling for suicide warriors and blood.

The "pathological political movements" seem incomprehensible to the "good-hearted" people who believe in "universal rationality." To deny these movements is to ignore the entire 20'th century. And yet people did, and still do. Berman tells the grim story of the anti-war Socialist of France during World War II, who held so true to their anti-war instincts and distrust of the arms manufacturures that they ended up supporting Petain and his program "for strength and virility, a Europe ruled by a single party state instead of the corrupt cliques of bourgeois democracy, a Europe cleansed of the impurities of Judaism and of the Jews themselves." They ended as facists, though a chain of small adjustments.

Berman calls the 2000 offer to the Palestinians generous, and describes the triumph of Hamas that rejected it. Even uglier than the suicide murders was the reaction around the world: people around the world, from Bove in France to the academic chairs in the US to Latin America, were attracted to the terrorism, and supported it! Hamas did not want a Palestinian state, they wanted murder and death--and the violence attracted support. (When Israel cracked down, and the death rate went down, the support waned.) The measure of their violence was taken to be the measure of the injustice done to them, so the injustice done to the Palestinians is now taken to be unprecedentedly evil (despite the facts of the case). Around the world men believe that Israel is worse than the Nazis, and facts are ignored or twisted to fit this immutable doctrine.

Berman then goes on to ream out Chomsky, whose philosophy had no place for pathological mass movements or evil outside the US. Faced with the facts, Chomsky proceeded to use his considerable skills in the service of denial and lies. (I remember one of his peices written back around 72 or 73. It seemed so plausible, until you started asking questions.) Yet the self-deception wasn't limited to Chomsky. "Everyone, unto the chiefest of Indian chiefs, turned out to be a simpleminded rationalist, expecting the world to act in sensible ways, without mystery, self-contradiction, murk, or madness. In this country, we are all Noam Chomsky."

Chapter 7 (Mental War) critiques the "end of history" and asks why liberal democracy so often seems to be thought of as a "oh well, let's try this" option, rather than the revolutionary approach it is. He cites Lincoln who fought a war to keep a liberal democracy intact, and notes that the Gettysburg address was in a cemetery--not to celebrate death as good, but to celebrate the devotion of the dead and the goal. Berman has little sympathy for the countries that mouth lofty sentiments and do nothing--like Sweden and Switzerland in World War II, or Mitterand about Sarajevo.

Europe was a society that could not defend the weak, or its own religious minorities, or its own principles. Even in the 1990's The Balkan Wars were Europe's Lincolnian "test;" and Europe could not produce its Lincolns. Still, the French did make their move, and the Brittish soldiers were exceptionally brave, and the Europeans demonstrated an ability to play at least a lively supporting role, so long as the United States played the lead. ... Human rights, humanitarianism, international accords and treaties, the wispy thing called "Europe"-- this language was not entirely hopeless. The ambigous terms could take on specific meanings, if someone insisted.

Then came September 11, and a wave of support for the US--at least nominal support (other sources suggest French popular support was less than profound). Berman believes Bush injured the cause by speaking getting bin Laden "dead or alive;" invoking images of an irresponsible cowboy in some and failing to get across the wide scope of the developing war in others. "And, as the fog of peace rolled away, a huge panorama, the reality of our present moment, appeared across the breadth of Afghanistan. It was the landscape of modern totalitarianism, arrayed in layered seams, perceptible at last." I like the "fog of peace" phrase! And the war went well.

But all is not well

Berman judges that Bush has done a pretty fair job of managing the war so far, but complains that he

failed to take up the larger war of ideas. He did talk about such a war. He announced a war of ideas in his first, brave, spirited speech to Congress, a little more than a week after 9/11. But he himself had no ability of language to articulate the ideas of the modern age, and neither did any of the people around him.

Instead he launched a program to produce Hollywood TV ads about the virtues of America. ... That was laughable--mere ads to counter the most scholarly of doctrines, the most learned of religious authorities, the greatest of modern authors.

He says Bush spoke and even acted on the principles of overthrowing totalitarianism and bringing the benefits of a free society, but had hesitations and cautions that undercut his actions. He dislikes the "old Nixon hands," and thought the "preemptive war doctrine" was irrelevant and only caused trouble. Berman likes the strong emphasis on feminism in the Afghanistan war, as hitting the Jihadists in a weak spot, but he thinks Bush hypocritical for trying "to roll back the legal right to abortion" (as though that were a bad thing). Bush, he says, does not speak the modern "language of liberal democracy" (treaties, international law, and human rights), which make his pronouncements unwelcome even among those who actually agree with him in Europe.

Berman faults Bush for failing to talk about the need for reform in Saudi Arabia. Here I think Berman has brain freeze. We want to reform or destroy the House of Saud, but we can't say so out loud without stirring up a hurricane.

He faults Bush for failing to ask Americans to sacrifice for the war. My mother remembers World War II, and wonders the same thing. I agree, but I wonder if Americans are willing to sacrifice for a low level war that looks like it will last a good 20 years or so--or willing to sacrifice much at all for anything. (We have a brave volunteer Army/Navy/AirForce, but are they representative?) And I'm certain that if we start talking now about our long term aims we will have loyal Muslims around the world fighting us in "defence of the holy places;" no matter that we don't have any plans to capture them.

OK, are we agreed that Berman isn't a Bush partisan?

Philosophy matters

This following quote makes me think of Chesterton who said that the philosopher was the really practical man.

Foreign policy "realism," by my lights, is a specific doctrine, which is why I put it in quotation marks. It is a doctrine from the nineteenth centure. It is a kind of materialism, even if most of its adherents would swear otherwise. Karl Marx, the king of materialists in the field of politics, figured that world history was driven by a single tangible force, namely, the system of economic production. Hippolyte Taine, the king of materialism in the field of literary criticism, figured that world literature was driven by three tangible forces, which he identified as race, time, and geography. In the same vein, the "realists" of today--in my caricature--figure that world politics is likewise driven by three tangible forces. These are wealth, power, and geography. All of the nineteenth century materialist doctrines give off a confident air of hard-bitten sophistication, and that is true of foreign policy "realism" as well. A "realist," like a Marxist, is someone who, no matter what bizarre events may take place around the world, will profess not to be surprised. This is "realisms"s weakness, though. Wisdom consists of the ability to be shocked.

I remember (though I can't recall the source! I think it was in one of "Adam Smith's" books) an economist's bewildered complaint that revolutionary Iran was not behaving in economically rational ways.

And a little warning, taken out of context...

A thousand commentators have pointed out, in retrospect, that Ronald Reagan's policy in Afghanistan back in the 1980s did lead to difficulties in later years, which is indisputable. In Afghanistan, just as in Saudi Arabia, America's beneficiaries turned out to be America's worst enemies. The world is full of back-stabbing sons-of-bitches: such is the lesson of modern history. (It is not a new lesson.)

Sunday, July 27, 2003

72 Raisins?

A German scholar claims that the Koran wasn't originally written in Arabic, and has been mistranslated. I have to confess to a certain skepticism of the textual criticism field in general. The article claims that the 3rd caliph destroyed the original copies--I'd heard that as "collected the best copies and destroyed the bogus ones." If this is the reporter's take on it, fine--I know how far to trust reporters. But Luxenburg should know better.

And his thesis conflicts with common sense. The text in hand is claimed to be beautiful poetry. (I can't verify that--my efforts at learning Arabic have not advanced far.) It is known to be very obscure in places, but beautiful. I can't see a crufted-up semi-Aramaic version being considered beautiful. Of course, maybe the reporter has really loused up the story...

Saturday, July 26, 2003

I've been on vacation, which means of course that I've been working even harder than usual, and haven't had time to post. Regrets....

Some friends of ours have been very dubious about Harry Potter, and declined to let their children read the series. (We've encouraged the parents to read it for themselves.) Their children introduced mine to Anne Rice. Go figure.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

David Warren on Marriage in Canada

His post is typically articulate and succinct, and will serve as a preview for Gallagher's books (which I promise to post reviews of shortly).

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Tides of War by Steven Pressfield

You ask, Jason [the prisoner Palemides spoke], which aspect is most distasteful of the assassin's art. Knowing you as the paragon of probity you are, you no doubt anticipate some response involving bloodguilt or ritual pollution, perhaps some physical difficulty of the kill. It is neither. The hardest part is bringing back the head.

You have to, to get paid.

Athens and Sparta fought for dominion over what's now Greece and part of Turkey: Athens with its famous navy and Sparta with its famous army, and both with rosters of more or less reliable allies. Before its final defeat, Athens made a rather remarkable showing. At this distance in time it seems as though Athens defeated itself. In their fear of tyranny, the Athenians had made almost every office elective--including the military offices. What happens when a political faction succeeds in forcing the ouster and trial in absentia of the ambitious supreme commander of your armed forces--in the middle of a war?

Such is the setting for Tides of War: A novel of Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War, as seen by Palemides (and his defence attorny Jason), a soldier, mercenary, marine, slave, bodyguard, and eventually hired executioner. Alcibiades was, of course, the historical large-than-life commander whose vision and charisma drove the course of the war; and whose god was Necessity. Necessity seems to have always meant taking bold steps to expand the empire... no matter which side he was fighting for.

I found the book a page-turner, though I didn't like it as well as Gates of Fire--probably because the hero is rather a less pleasant character, and partly because the interrupted flashback approach breaks the flow. Alcibiades sometimes comes across as a bit too much larger than life, but that may just be because I've not run across people like him or like Rogers from Northwest Passage, (which this book reminds me of).

I've a rough-and-ready rule for measuring how good a book is: How often do I reread it? Lord of the Rings I've reread many times, for example. I suspect I'll come back to this again someday.

Three cheers for the Young Eagles!

We went to the Oshkosh EAA Museum and Pioneer Air Field this past week. Our 9-year old son was thrilled to ride in a little 2-seater plane, piloted by a Young Eagles volunteer. The program gives 8-17 year olds a chance for a personal plane ride, in the hopes of encouraging interest in aviation. Afterwards, he didn't want to try a simulator--he'd ridden in a real one.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Intervene in Liberia?


Many people in Liberia are begging us to intervene to stop their horrible civil war--by unspecified means. Even President-by-intimidation Taylor is asking for help. Liberia's neighbors would also undoubtedly love to see us clean up this infectious hell-hole. UN leaders are asking for a peacekeeping force as well.

Do we have any duty to Liberians? If we have no duty to interfere, is it advisable on other grounds? Do we have any right to interfere? If we did interfere, what should we do?

The formal answer to the first question has to be no. The first duty of our government is to our own people, and secondarily to those with whom we have agreements of alliance. Liberians fall into neither category. But the formal answer isn't the whole story, of course. Most Americans know nothing of Liberia and its history with the US; but it has been a friendly and cooperative partner, albeit a rather corrupt one, for its whole history. From allowing air bases during WWII to siting a huge VOA station during the Cold War it has worked as a minor military partner--not an ally, true; but a cooperative partner.

Arguments that we have a duty to help Liberians don't seem overwhelming, but they're not negligible either. It might be a hard sell to Americans who don't know much about our mutual history, but could be successfully argued.

Unfortunately Liberia's troubles make that whole section of West Africa unstable and ungovernable; and we know what happens when a section of the world becomes ungovernable--especially a section of the world with a lot of Muslems in it. Contrary to statements I've seen elsewhere, Liberia does have a substantial Muslem population, and the Ivory Coast is becoming polarized a la Nigeria. Humanitarian issues aside, we have a strategic interest in making sure the region doesn't contain lawless pits where our terrorist enemies can form enclaves.

Quite a number of unrelated groups outside Liberia are also asking us to intervene on humanitarian ground, intimating that we can get back in their good graces by doing so. However, since these same people (Kofi et al) will wail about "imperialism" after the first Liberian casualty, we can safely discount any implied goodwill.

The question of a right to interfere is a rather vexed question with a counter intuitive answer.

When a nation's survival is at stake (no matter what philosophers and theologians say), we accept it as given that that nation has the right to attack its active enemies, and even enemies that are not currently threatening them if this makes strategic sense. We invaded Iraq on these grounds, though the proximate cause was Iraq's non-compliance with disarmament rules made to enforce the peace agreements. We invaded France as a step toward rolling up the Nazi empire, though France was not a grave threat to us.

Life is more clear-cut when you limit wars to self-interest. Mugabe is a despicable villain who uses starvation as a political tool, but he does not threaten American interests, and so he knows he is safe from US attack. But if we allow "humanitarian reasons" as a trigger for war, he cannot think himself safe at all. You may think "Wonderful! The creep ought to worry." But think instead what an amazingly wide scope "humanitarian reasons" covers. Mugabe starves only a small fraction of Zimbabwe's population. You can trivially find terrible abuses in South Africa, or Libya, or Morocco, or France, or any prison anywhere in the world. Suppose a group of Gypsies in Hungary beg for relief from the abuse of their human rights from anybody willing to invade Hungary. Do you need a threshold for action that says people's lives have to be in danger? Here in the US we have a population that the EU considers oppressed, and whose lives are at stake: death row inmates. Nobody is safe, anybody is a target.

You can't safely rely on appeals for outside intervention, either: who do you listen to, and who do you trust? You can find a Quisling in any country, to say that they need the German army to come restore order. Don't complaint about the grammar in that sentence, it means what it says.

The cold-blooded rule of self-interest turns out to restrict war more than the more tender-hearted defense of human rights. I have to class "humanitarian reasons" together with "our country's honor" and "our country's destiny" as invitations to unnecessary wars.

And . . . it never hurts to remember that power corrupts. We are not holy angels. Even our intricate systems of accountability don't always work, as the Arthur Anderson and the brokerage scandals recently showed. This time the cries of "No blood for oil" were so much cow dung--the Iraq war worked against the oil industry's interests. Next time it might be an honest indictment. Want to bet who'll be president in 2009? Bush has been an honest man, as far as I can tell. But who comes after him?

I don't see that the words "humanitarian relief" automatically give us the right to do what needs to be done.

What do we want to be done?

For starters, the status quo is abominable. Even if the rebels magically vanished, Liberia under Taylor hardly resembles a country at all. Taylor was elected by a thoroughly intimidated population. In no significant way has he tried to improve the country. I've seen the regular news articles about "The First Lady gave" this or that, but the dollar amounts are small. The Presidential mansion has electricity; nothing else does in Monrovia unless the firm has its own generator. The armies (one hesitates to think of them as a single force) are corrupt and poorly controlled. Taylor seems to have pioneered the use of drugged children as foot-soldiers. Their loyalty is assured by making sure that they participate in atrocities that keep them from ever going home again.

The borders are a joke. The armies are so far from controlling areas they nominally cover that rebel forces regularly bypass them. The war is more a matter of the encounters of wandering bandits than the of Western tradition of armies trying to overrun the land. Checkpoints are where the money is for the ordinary soldier, although he will make do by stealing the cookpots of the poor villagers he terrorizes.

The President is a cannibal kleptocrat who is and has been doing his level best to overthrow all of the region's governments.

Are the rebels any better? It is hard to say. They seem to be somewhat less interested in committing atrocities than Taylor's gangs, but unfortunately that isn't saying much. They are not very communicative.

So, what we want is for the government and rebel gangs to be suppressed, the current regime to go away (to prison or to Hell, whichever), the borders to be sealed to prevent incursions of rebel groups and (more importantly) the excursions of mercenary bands of Liberians into neighboring countries, and political and economic infrastructure to be rebuilt. Nation-building, in short.

Note well though, that peacekeepers cannot do the job. The standard-issue UN peacekeeper stands in the gap between the combatants and doesn't take sides. To solve Liberia's problems the intervening force has to take a side: against essentially all the other armed forces in the country, including what is considered to be the government. By the way, relying on ECOMOG troops (neighboring nation peacekeeping forces) proved to be a bad idea earlier in Liberian history, and also in Sierra Leone. They proved (especially the Nigerians) to be quite adept at theft themselves, and not very interested in nation-building.

Some parts of this are not technically hard. The bulk of the armed forces are ill-equipped and very ill-trained, and would scatter on hearing that Americans forces were planning to shoot back. However good they are at terrorizing unarmed villagers, they are lousy at coordinated and sustained fighting.

An incident from the war of Taylor's victory over Doe: During the battle for Monrovia some of Taylor's fighters wrested control of a street corner in Monrovia from Doe's (American-trained) troops. It being a fairly strategic objective, they were delighted, and went off to celebrate by looting some beer. When they returned, Doe's men had retaken the street corner.

Sealing the border is quite difficult: at a minimum we'd want to bulldoze a wide strip and patrol it to stop all traffic and commerce except at tightly controlled access points. That sounds to me like a couple of soldiers every 200 yards for 3 shifts over the entire border: say about 50 soldiers per mile for over 500 miles, with some reserves here and there to deal with large excursions. I estimate over 25,000 soldiers. (I've never been in the army, and these numbers are just my best guesses.) Don't even think of using Liberian soldiers for this purpose. That is too bitter a joke to be funny--they are the biggest part of the problem.

Chucking out the current government would not be very hard, but it would certainly be problematic. If we went in on invitation and then turned on them, it would set a precedent that would make it pretty much impossible for any country to contemplate asking for our assistance again, or even allowing us to base troops there. Very very bad idea. The Iraq invasion would have been impossible without bases nearby. If Qatar and Kuwait had been unwilling to let us base forces, we'd have had to give up on Iraq, invade somewhere else and install bases by force, or go nuclear. These don't seem good options.

Going in on the understanding that the current government has to go might be doable, if Taylor agrees to go first. Even so, whoever else has a vested interest in keeping in power might object and "change the government's mind," leaving us back with the previous paragraph's problem. We'd have to root out essentially all the old guard, and they won't like it. Diplomats can only do so much--we don't want to give the old guard what they really want, which is continued power.

So, let's pretend we want to intervene. What options do we have?

  • We can toss in some US troops to serve with a UN/ECOMOG peacekeeping force. We'd get a lot of respect and nominal cooperation at first, but if we go in with the usual UN rules of engagement that will evaporate pretty quickly. Liberia is afflicted with many free-lance bandit gangs, loosely associated with warring factions. Unless we have the authority to chase after them when they show up nearby, we're pretty useless.
  • If we go in with the understanding that our soldiers get to patrol wherever they want and shoot anybody who annoys them, the roadblock checkpoints will go away and the refugee problem will start to be solved. However, the same keptocrats that are currently entrenched will still be there, and with somewhat less of an imperative to change. It does not matter much whether Taylor himself is still in the country or not. The people he surrounded himself with are of the same stripe as he.
  • We can do the above, and start importing guns and ammo and training village elders in their use. Of course Taylor's people would go ape, but if we could get around that problem the scheme might actually work. The idea relies on the fact that the bandit groups are not trained, and rely on superior firepower to terrorize and make up for their poor marksmanship. If your bandit group discovers that villages can fight back, they can either try to change tactics or look for easier prey. Bear in mind that an attacked village doesn't have a lot to hope for as it is, so fighting back can't hurt. This scheme takes far too long, though: months at least to supply and train, and many more months for bandits to start getting scared.
  • We can intervene as part of a UN peacekeeping force, and then turn on the government. I've said before I think this a terrible option--probably the worst thing we could do.
  • We can try to get agreement beforehand that Liberia as a government and a country no longer exists. On the basis of our historic ties with the land we are in a better position than Britain, France, or the UN to try to chase out the bandits and rebuild the nation. This would be very scary to a lot of kleptocratic governments out there, but I think we might be able to define non-existence tightly enough to keep focused on the real basket cases. Then we land Marines. Since that can't happen instantly, Taylor et al will have time to escape. And possibly go back to the bush and try for another revolution when we're gone. So somebody needs to take out Taylor too.

See the followup

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (JK Rowlings) is good. I have a few minor quibbles (Umbridge isn't very politically savvy, Hagrid ought to be deadlier when he's mad, the Death Eaters are wayyyy out of practice at fighting), but set these aside. Harry's reluctance to confide in adults is even more pronounced as his teenage years advance, which is both insanely stupid in his circumstances and annoyingly accurate (three teenagers so far, two in waiting). As usual, Harry is not a solitary hero, though for a while you wonder if he will manage to keep any friends. Go read it. (You have to have read the other 4 books first, of course.)

The best children's books can be enjoyed by adults: Alice in Wonderland, Goodnight Moon, The Wind in the Willows, Gulliver's Travels, the old folk/fairy tales, and so on. (In fact, some were written for adults.) If you haven't read these, by all means do: they are good fun. (Goodnight Moon is a short and very fine poem: I wish I could write like that.) Likewise Harry Potter: I'll take that over The Accidental Tourist any day. ~