My piece on the incoherence of US and Australian policy in the Middle East, suggesting that we should leave the people of the region to sort out their own problems, attracted a fair bit of interest, including a discussion on the BBC. You can listen to it here (about 31:55) for the next few days. I’ll try to replace this with a permanent podcast link.
When a militarily powerful country tries to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, we shouldn’t be surprised that chaos results …
That’s of the grab from my latest piece in Inside Story, commenting on the utter incoherence of US (and therefore Australian) policy in the Middle East. An extended version:
How could it be otherwise? A rich and militarily powerful country has taken it upon itself to govern the affairs of millions of people on the other side of the planet, of whom it knows nothing. Its emissaries routinely elevate particular individuals, ethnic groups, religious sects and political parties as favourites, then just as quickly dump them in favour of new friends. Its tools vary randomly from overwhelming force to plaintive exhortation, with no clear or consistent rationale.
The key observation is that, with the exception of slavish obedience to the whims of the Netanyahu government, the US has switched sides on almost every conflict in the Middle East in the space of a couple of years.
My policy recommendation to the US is
an announcement that, from now on, the people of the Middle East would be left to sort out their problems for themselves. In particular, it would be useful to state that the United States has no strategic concern with Middle Eastern oil, and that energy policy is a matter for individual countries to determine according to their own priorities.
Inside Story doesn’t appear to take comments so read there (lots of other interesting stuff) and comment here.
Judging by the comments on my “derp and denialism” post, we seem to be mostly agreed on the proposition, amply demonstrated by economic studies, that the global economy could be decarbonized at a very modest cost in terms of foregone growth. On the other hand, it is equally obvious that the commitments made so far are nowhere near enough to achieve this goal[^1], and that the reasons for this lie in the operation of political systems, most importantly in the US, China and India. This raises several questions
(a) Why have political systems failed to yield the responses we need
(b) Can climate stabilization be achieved without fundamental transformation of political systems
(c) If so, what transformation do we need
(d) If not, what kinds of more limited change do we need
In this context, it’s only really necessary to look at the US, China and India. The EU may drag its 27 pairs of feet a little (it is the EU, after all) but will certainly match anything the US does. And, if the US were fully committed to climate change, denialists elsewhere in the developed world, like Harper in Canada and Abbott in Australia, would have the ground cut from under them.
In the US (and other English-speaking countries), the primary obstacle is not the entrenched power of interests that would lose from climate stabilization such as fossil fuel companies. The big global energy companies, like Exxon and BP, are perfectly capable of shifting their focus from oil to gas and if the market gets large enough, to renewables. In any case, they are balanced by potential losers from climate change like the insurance and finance sectors. Rather, the problem is the climate change denial is a rightwing culture war issue, which has became (one of many) Republican shibboleths.
Sustained action against climate change requires that the Republican party either be marginalized or replaced by something quite different (though it would probably still be called the Republican party). That’s a big challenge, but not impossible. A two-term presidency for Hillary Clinton, even without full control of Congress, would probably be enough to get things done through a combination of regulation and international agreements, the model currently being pursued by Obama. And four losses in succession would probably be enough to force a shift within the Republican party.
The situation in China is more opaque (to me, at any rate) but also more promising. Having been the worst of the spoilers at Copenhagen, and suffered a fair bit of opprobrium as a result, the Chinese leadership now seems willing to take a constructive role. Moreover, the pollution crisis in Chinese cities has led to a dramatic shift in sentiment against coal. So, it seems likely that renewables will be given a fair chance, including effective pricing of coal externalities, which is all they need.
Finally, there’s India. For a long time, Indian rhetoric on the issue was dominated by Third World grievance politics: the rich countries had burned lots of coal to get rich, and India had the right to do the same. But that seems to be changing, in part because most of the losers from climate change are also in the Third World, and in part because India’s coal sector is a total mess, making renewables more attractive. The new PM, Modi (from the deeply unattractive BJP, but that’s another issue) seems strongly committed to renewables. The historical arguments have shifted to the more productive terrain of arguing about how to share an emissions budget constrained by a 2 degree/450 ppm target.
At some level, all this is academic, in the pejorative sense of the term. Either existing political structures, with the kinds of changes I’ve discussed above, will manage decarbonization of the economy, or they won’t. There’s no chance that any kind of fundamental transformation of the political systems of the US, India and China[^1] will take place within the next 10-15 years, which is the time in which the necessary decisions need to be made.
To sum up this post and the previous one: even though the global climate could be stabilized at a very modest cost, the political obstacles are formidable. It may not be possible to overcome them in time, but we have no alternative except to try.
[^1]: I’m a little less confident in making this judgement about China. The apparent solidity of a one-party state can crumble quite fast. But the initial result of such a collapse would almost certainly be chaotic, and the outcome unforeseeable.
[^1}; There used also to be a lot of concern over whether these commitments would be met. While a couple of countries, such as Japan and Canada, have reneged, and Australia seems likely to follow, most of the big players are meeting their targets quite easily, reflecting both the softness of the targets and the low cost of decarbonization.
So, it seems, we are signed up for our third Iraq war in 20-odd years. Obviously, this isn’t because the last two turned out brilliantly. So, what is the reasoning here? More precisely, given that Australia’s policy is just to follow the US without question, what is the reasoning of the world leaders, most importantly Obama, who are pushing this war? There seem to be two main points here
* ISIS/ISIL are barbaric terrorists who behead hostages. That’s a good reason for trying to capture and try those responsible, and perhaps for trying to kill them if that’s not possible. But there’s nothing special about this particular group. There are plenty of barbaric terrorists out there. And one of our leading allies in the fight, Saudi Arabia, routinely beheads people for such crimes as apostasy and “sorcery”. None of this justifies a war that is going to cost tens of billions of dollars (Australia alone looks to be up for several billion, assuming a long war) and an unknowable, but potentially large, number of lives.
* ISIS/ISIL threaten to take over large non-Sunni areas of Iraq and undertake ethnic/religious cleansing. That threat looked like a significant a month or two ago. But some limited air support for Kurdish and Shia militias appears to have turned the tide. As far as I can tell, ISIS/ISIL are now confined to Sunni areas where they have a fair degree of popular support. Changing that will be a costly and bloody business.
I expect most readers here will agree with me, and don’t plan to argue about with those who haven’t learned from the past. But I would like a pointer to any serious analysis making the case for a new war.
The latest controversy in the US about Rick Perlstein’s new book is an opportunity to post a couple of thoughts I’ve had for a long while.
First, the outsize Republican idolatry of Reagan is explained in part by the fact that there’s no one else in their history of whom they can really approve. The Bushes are a bad memory for most, Ford was a non-entity and Nixon was Nixon. Eisenhower looks pretty good on most historical rankings, but he’s anathema to movement conservatives: Eisenhower Republicans were what are now called RINOs. Going back a century, and skipping some failures/nonentities, Theodore Roosevelt is problematic for related but different reasons. Going right back to the beginning,and skipping more nonentities and disappointments, some Repubs still try to claim the mantle of the “party of Lincoln” but that doesn’t pass the laugh test. As many others have observed, the “party of Jefferson Davis” is closer to the mark. So, they have little choice but to present Reagan as the savior of the nation.
Something of the opposite problem is found on the left. I haven’t read Perlstein yet, but a lot of the discussion is based on an implicit or explicit assumption that the shift to the right in the US since the 1970s can be explained by the successful organizing efforts of movement conservatism, culminating in Reagan’s 1980 election victory. That’s an explanation with a lot of contingency attached. Suppose, for example, that the attempted rescue of the Iranian embassy hostages in April 1980 had been a success. That, along with some fortuitous good economic news, might have been enough to propel Carter to victory. By 1984, Reagan would have been too old to run as a challenger, and Bush senior would probably have been nominated.
I don’t think, however, that this would have had a huge effect on economic-political developments in the US. Other English-speaking countries, with very different political histories followed much the same route, ending up, by the late 1990s, with a hard-line rightwing conservative party driving policy debate and a “Third Way” centre-left alternative trying to smooth off some of the rough edges. The election of Carter, a conservative by the standards of the times, was a step towards that outcome.
I don’t want to overstate the determinism here. Individuals matter, and national circumstances differ. Still, I think we are talking about variations on a common theme, driven by global economic events, rather than a US-specific story beginning with Reagan’s 1964 address in support of Goldwater.
It’s a century since Australia entered the maelstrom of the Great War, not by deliberate choice but as an automatic consequence of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. I had a piece on this tragedy in the International New York Times last week. Quite a bit of editing between my draft and the final version but I was very pleased with how it came out.
Over the fold, a piece a posted in Crooked Timber on the miserable position of the “Reformicons” – conservative writers who are trying to put some intellectual lipstick on the pig that is the Republican Party.
This isn’t a problem in Australia – there are, as far as I can tell, no intellectually serious conservatives left at all. The dominant thinktank is the IPA, a mirror of the US Heartland Foundation, which is utterly discredited, even on the right for its embrace of delusionism on everything from economic policy to climate change. Quadrant, once a serious publication, is now a sad joke.
And then there’s the Oz. Enough said.
It’s 100 years since a political assassination in the Balkans set in motion the Great War which, in one form or another, has continued ever since. In destroying themselves, and millions of their subjects, the German, Austrian and Russian empires brought forth Nazism and Bolshevism, which killed in the tens of millions. After 1945, the killing mostly stopped in the developed world, replaced by the threat of instant nuclear annihilation, which remained ever-present for decades and has by no means disappeared. Instead, the War moved to the Third World, and a multitude of proxy conflicts. The fall of the Soviet Union saw the renewed outbreak of the War in Europe, most bloodily in Yugoslavia and more recently in Georgia and Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the British and French imperial War plans, embodied in the (secret) Sykes-Picot treaty and the contradictory assurances offered to Jews and Arabs in the Balfour declaration and the McMahon-Hussein correspondence[^1], continue to work their evil consequences long after all the original participants have gone to their graves. Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine are all products of the Great War, as is modern Iran (the product of a revolution against British and later American suzerainty imposed after 1918).
And, after 100 years, nothing has been learned. The architects of the most recent catastrophe in Iraq are still respected commentators, as are the many historians and others who defend the conduct of the British-French-Russian imperial alliance in the 1914-18 phase of the Great War (most British and French apologists ignore or explain away the alliance with the most oppressive European empire of the day, but I imagine there are now Putinist historians hard at work producing defences of Tsarist war policy).
More fundamentally, despite 100 years of brutal and bloody evidence to the contrary, the idea that war and revolution are effective ways to obtain political ends, rather than catastrophic last resorts, remains dominant on both the right and the left.
Perhaps in another 100 years, if we survive that long, the world will have learned better.
[^1]: In addition to these, there was the secret Constantinople agreement with the Tsarist empire, and the Treaty of London and Agreement of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with Italy, none of which came into effect. These secret deals (and similar agreements made by the Central Powers) make it clear that all the major participants in the Great War were committed to the pursuit of imperial expansion, even as they all pretended to be defending themselves against aggression and pointed to the crimes of their enemies as justification for their own.
Responding to the latest attempt to breathe some life into the zombie of “reform conservatism”, Matt Yglesias noted a revealing silence on climate change. As he observed
The thought process that ended with this approach is easy enough to understand. Whether climate change is a massive conspiracy orchestrated by Al Gore, 99 percent of scientists, and a dazzling array of foreign governments or a genuine problem is hotly debated inside the conservative movement. Whether or not fossil-fuel producers should be hampered in their activities by regulatory concern about pollution, by contrast, is not controversial. For smart, up-and-coming conservatives to mention climate change, they would have to pick a side on the controversial issue. Do they sound like rubes by siding with the conspiracy theorists, or do they alienate the rubes by acknowledging the basic facts and the coming up with some other reason to favor inaction?
The optimal choice is not to choose.
I made much the same point a year ago in response to Ramesh Ponnuru’s plaintive observation that “To be a good reformer [in liberal eyes] a conservative has to agree that the vast bulk of conservatives are insane.”
Along with the rest of the neocon crew, Andrew Bolt is blaming the collapse of the Iraqi state on Obama’s withdrawal of US troops in 2011. Exactly how Obama was supposed to repudiate an agreement signed by Bush, and maintain an occupation force against the wishes of the Iraqi government (he tried, but failed to negotiate an extension) is not explained. But, no matter.
At least Bolt and the rest warned us that Iraq was still too fragile to be left on its own, and that an indefinite occupation was needed. Well not exactly. Here he is in 2009, gloating over the fact that Obama was going slow on withdrawal and thereby disappointing his supporters. That could be read either way, I guess, but there’s no warning that Bush’s timetable needed changing.
More striking is this piece from 2007, claiming that “the war has been won“. Here’s what he has to say about future prospects
Violence is falling fast. Al Qaida has been crippled.
The Shiites, Kurds and Marsh Arabs no longer face genocide.
What’s more, the country has stayed unified. The majority now rules.
Despite that, minority Sunni leaders are co-operating in government with Shiite ones.
There is no civil war. The Kurds have not broken away. Iran has not turned Iraq into its puppet.
And the country’s institutions are getting stronger. The Iraqi army is now at full strength, at least in numbers.
The country has a vigorous media. A democratic constitution has been adopted and backed by a popular vote.
Election after election has Iraqis turning up in their millions.
Add it all up. Iraq not only remains a democracy, but shows no sign of collapse.
If I were an American reading that, I would have said it was time to bring the boys and girls home, as Bush agreed to do in October 2008.
I have a post up at The National Interest, arguing that embargoes imposed by commodity export countries in pursuit of geopolitical objectives rarely, if ever, work. Opening paras:
At the beginning of the Civil War, the leaders of the South were, as is normal at the outset of war, confident that their superior military prowess would yield a rapid victory. But the Confederates had another reason for confidence: their possession of a near-monopoly in the market for the most important commodity of the day: cotton.
Like oil in the twentieth century, cotton was vital to the industrial economies of the nineteenth, and particularly that of Britain, the preeminent naval and military power of the day. And the Southern United States was the world’s dominant producer of cotton, accounting for 77 percent of British imports in the 1850s.
Rhetoric about ‘King Cotton’ matched the most hyperbolic claims about ‘energy superpowers’ to be heard today. In 1858, South Carolina senator James Hammond said ‘old England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her…. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.’
The most immediate application, obviously, is to Russia and gas. Feel free to discuss the broader issues raised by the Ukraine crisis.
Andrew Bolt has a column (no link) in which he attacks a number of Marxist academics on the basis that they are morally responsible for all the crimes committed by Marxist regimes, regardless of their personal attitude to those regimes. Rather than explore the problems with this kind of cliam, I’ll point out that
* The Iraq war, launched on the basis of lies, resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions homeless
* Bolt eagerly supported the war and propagated the lies told to justify it
* Bolt derided and defamed those who correctly predicted its disastrous consequences
* Even when it was obvious that the death toll from the war was huge, and certain to grow further, Bolt continued to lie, and offered no apology to those he had defamed
* To this day, Bolt has continued to defend the war, and failed to acknowledge the falsehood of the claims he made in its support
Bolt is in exactly the same moral position as an unrepentant apologist for Stalinism or Maoism.
Ross Douthat is something of a punchline at Crooked Timber . But, as I’ve argued here, he’s just about the last member of the once-numerous class of committed Republican intellectuals, all the rest having either defected to the left (Bartlett, Frum, Lind, Ornstein, Sullivan and many others) or descended into hackery (Reynolds, Brooks, the whole of the AEI/Heritage/CEI thinktank network[^1]). And, every now and then he writes something that raises important issues, at the cost of pointing up how hopeless his own program for Republican reform has become.
In this piece responding to the election of Bill De Blasio, Douthat tries to make a case that the Democratic Party won’t be able to take even the minimal steps needed to address the problem growing inequality (in both outcomes and opportunity). He starts with the obvious point that Obama came to office with a tax policy that could not possibly make a serious dent in the problem (repealing the Bush tax cuts for those with incomes over $250k) and proceeded to weaken it still further.
By itself this is pretty unimpressive. The fact that Obama is not a wild-eyed socialist, or even a traditional US liberal, but rather a moderate conservative may be a revelation in some Republican circles, but it is scarcely news to the rest of us.
Douthat’s more substantive claim is that the weakness of Obama’s tax policy is not a reflection of Obama’s own preferences but is dictated by the demands of the Democratic Party base. In Douthat’s telling, the base is dominated by socially liberal high-income earners who are absolutely resistant to any increase the taxes they pay.
This is a caricature, but most caricatures have some validity. As I’ve argued here, most people in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution, but outside the top 1 per cent, have done reasonably well in terms of income growth over the past thirty years, but have not, unlike the 1 per cent, been able to insulate themselves from the degradation of public services and the consequences of growing inequality.
Although only a minority of this group votes for the Democrats, their wealth and propensity to vote make them an important constituency. To have a plausible chance of political success, the Democrats need to convince at least some of this group that the benefits of living in a better society outweigh the costs of higher taxes.
But it’s important not to overstate this. Even if a more progressive tax program cost the Democrats some votes at the top of the income distribution, they could more than offset that by attracting middle and working class voters away from the Republicans, or simply by motivating them to vote.
It’s true, as Douthat says, that there is plenty of resistance to this program within the Democratic Party. But the once-overwhelming dominance of Wall Street and its advocates has been greatly weakened, notably because the financial lobby overwhelmingly supported Romney and shared his contempt for ‘the 47 per cent’. Unlike the situation in 2008, Wall Street is now clearly aligned with the Repubs.
And this is where the failure of Douthat’s own program (and the weaker versions proposed by other ‘reformers’ such as Levin and Ponnuru) becomes obvious. Douthat wants the Republican party to beat the Dems to the punch by offering an economic program that appeals to middle and working class voters. It’s patently obvious, however, that there is zero support for this program in any of the leading factions of the Republican Party, either among the leadership or in the activist base. There isn’t a single program benefitting the working class, from Social Security to the Earned Income Tax Credit to unemployment benefits to food stamps that can command the support of more than a handful of Republicans in Congress, and those few are likely to be driven out before long.
It seems clear, reading between the lines, that Douthat has already recognised this. As the NYT official Republican columnist, he faces some pretty big costs if he jumps ship (not to mention his tribal affiliation with conservative Catholicism). Still, I can’t see how he can go on pretending much longer.
[^1]: Some of these were always hacks, but we didn’t notice so much back in the day.
Everyone does it and in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it (crosspost from Crooked Timber)
The general reaction to various revelations of spying by the US on its friends and allies, particularly in contexts such as trade negotiations has been “everyone does it” and “in any case, there’s nothing anyone can do about it”. And, as regards direct retaliation against the US, that’s pretty much right. The situation is a bit different for junior members of the Five Eyes[^1], such as Australia. A case now being heard at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague could set a precedent that will make such spying a high risk exercise.
The usually sensible Crikey team has gone off the deep end (in an editorial sent out as email, can’t find it on their site) on the Australian government’s response to the recent dispute between China and, among others, the US over a group of “tiny uninhabited islands” (even the name is disputed). The longstanding policy of Australian governments, very sensibly, has been to avoid getting between the US and China on issues like this, of which there are a huge number, involving many parties and incomprehensible claims. Crikey not only endorses Julie Bishop’s abandonment of this policy, but uses the loaded term “appeasement” to describe opponents. So, a refusal to get involved in a game of posturing and sabre-rattling that has gone on, in one form or another, since 1949, is equivalent to selling out the Czechs to Hitler.
Crikey draws a comparison with Kevin Rudd’s willingness to take the Chinese leadership to task over human rights abuses, a willingness criticised by Bishop at the time. To see how absurd this is, you need only ask whether Chinese dissidents, who mostly endorsed Rudd’s speech (some thought it did not go far enough) are going to welcome our support for the anti-China position in this territorial dispute. The answer is obvious: for the most part, Chinese democrats fully support the government position on these issues.
The idea that, having just ignored human rights issues in Sri Lanka, the Abbott government has suddenly developed a concern with these issues in China is equally absurd.
I’ve long maintained the view that spies never discover anything useful about a country’s foreign enemies, though they are very useful in suppressing domestic opponents. This is a straightforward implication of game theory, but my attempts to explain it haven’t worked in the past, and I don’t know how to do much better. So, I’m going to restate my arguments from 10 years ago, against the massive expansion of spying that was already under way, and make the observation that the evidence since then strongly supports my case.
Despite an espionage and surveillance effort unparalleled in history, the US NSA has been unable to produce any convincing evidence of stopping even one domestic terror plot. Its best case was someone alleged to have sent a few thousand dollars to Al Shabab in Somalia. The NSA not only missed actual terror plotters like those in Boston, but also performed poorly relative to ordinary police methods which have produced numerous convictions (many of them admittedly, by methods that verge on entrapment).
But if anti-terrorist espionage has proved ineffectual, spying on friendly governments is just plain stupid. This isn’t a zero-sum game, like espionage in warfare, it’s a negative sum game. Australia is now finding this out, but the reflex reactions of “everyone does it”, “we don’t comment on intelligence matters” and so on, remain as firmly embedded as ever.
Of course, while this is stupidity as regards the public interest, or even that of Australian political and business elites as a whole, it is massively beneficial to the security apparatus, and the complex of interests it supports. It’s striking that the only Indonesians who’ve given Abbott any support have been their own spies and secret police, who can expect more funding and greater powers. Doubtless our own spooks will return the favor in due course, if their Indonesian counterparts are caught doing something we don’t like.
I was going to write something about Abbott’s mishandling of the latest spy fiasco, but I don’t think I can improve on Tad Tietze at Left Flank. I’ll just stress a few points
(a) Indonesia is now a democracy which means that the kind of cosy deals between military/security apparatchiks we used to do are just as constrained by Indonesian public opinion as by Australian if not more. I don’t know who the Indonesian equivalents of Ray Hadley and Alan Jones might be, but I can imagine what they are saying
(b) The idea, still underlying a lot of the discussion, that we can and should dictate terms to the Indonesians is nonsense. The US can get away with this kind of thing (though Obama was wise enough to end the bugging of Merkel’s phone), but we need the goodwill of the Indonesians at least as much as they need ours. The fact that neither we nor they are paragons of human rights policy or the treatment of minority groups is a case of attending to our own problems before lecturing others.
The US Congress is rightly regarded as a dysfunctional mess, blocking vital legislation for trivial partisan reasons. But occasionally, things work out for the best. A variety of critics ranging from left and liberal Democrats to members of the Tea Party appear likely to derail ‘fast track’ authority for Obama to sign the appalling Trans-Pacific Partnership. By contrast, the Abbott government is keen to sign this secret deal and has dropped Labor’s objections to clauses that would allow foreign corporations to sue our government for policies inconsistent with the market liberal ideology that informs the treaty. Let’s hope the whole thing is slowed down until the 2016 election year. If that happens, the pressure to renegotiate the deal, or scrap it altogether, will become intense.
Coincidentally, Wikileaks has published a draft chapter from the agreement, hidden from us by our governments and making clear what everyone knows. This isn’t about trade but about imposing market liberal institutions, including strong intellectual property in pharmaceuticals, copyright and so on.
… is trending on Twitter, thanks to the appalling UK Daily Mail, which ran a full length attack on the late Ralph Miliband, socialist academic and father of Opposition Leader Ed Miliband. On the strength of a scathing diary entry Miliband wrote as a 17-year old refugee, and his opposition to the Falklands War, the Mail claimed that Miliband “hated Britain”. Illustrating the proverb about glass houses, the attack only served to draw attention to the fact that whereas Miliband served in the Navy in World War II, the Mail backed Hitler and the Blackshirts throughout the 1930s, and has continued to push racist hatred ever since (unsurprisingly, it has seized on the spurious notion of “political correctness.” 
The Mail’s attack on Miliband has divided the UK right into three groups (google x+Mail+miliband)
* Those who have condemned this appalling and dishonest slur, including Michael Heseltine and Nick Clegg
* Those who have stuck to a weaselly line scripted by Tory minders that “of course Miliband should defend his father” such as David Cameron, William Hague and Boris Johnson
* Those who have backed the Mail all the way, notably including James Delingpole, Rod Liddle and Michael Gove
It’s notable that all those I’ve listed in the third group are prominent climate delusionists. As we’ve seen again recently, the Mail is the source for many of the lies about climate change that are reproduced in the Murdoch press. This is, as they say, no coincidence. Climate delusionism isn’t a mistaken belief about the world, it’s an expression of tribal hatred, all the more effective because most of those who push it know, at some level, that their arguments are false. Putting forth such arguments is an expression of tribal solidarity, like asserting that Obama was born in Kenya. Naturally, the tribal haters love the kind of stuff that the Mail dishes out.
Hopes are often disappointed, but it does seem as if the global party of stupid is starting to reap the whirlwind it has sown. The continued publication of delusional nonsense has produced a rightwing base that embraces delusional strategies like the US shutdown, or attacks on a man’s dead father, in the belief that everyone else will share their positive reaction.
fn1. It’s also being claimed that the father of Mail editor Paul Dacre didn’t serve, but this (sauce for the gander) claim hasn’t been verified AFAIK. Another tidbit is that the Mail was the target of
Churchill’s Stanley Baldwin’s famous jibe that it sought “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.
fn2. Gove hasn’t stated this, but he has tried to stop schools teaching anything about climate change. He has the additional motive that his wife has a highly paid job with the Mail.
fn3. It’s a striking commentary on the weakness of people like Bolt and Oz “environment reporter” Graeme Lloyd that, as well as being incapable of telling the truth, they also seem to be unable to come up with original lies.
Now that the US government has shut down, I thought I would look back at a post from 2010, in which I predicted such an outcome, expecting it to come in 2010. As it turned out that was premature, but much of the analysis still stands up pretty well, notably including the final sentence
Even by left/liberal standards, I seem to have become an extreme pacifist. That’s surprising to me, because I was a mainstream liberal internationalist 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my views in any fundamental way. In particular, I don’t have any fundamental objection in principle to war, or even to constraints like the need for a UN resolution. I’ve just looked at the experience of those 20 years, and reconsidered earlier wars, and I’ve concluded that the consequences of war and revolution are nearly always bad. Even ‘successful’ wars cost more, in terms of lives and wasted resources, than the benefits they deliver.
I don’t particularly like being out on a limb, so I’m generally encouraged to find other people starting to think the same way. In particular, I was pleased to see this column by Matt Yglesias, making the point that Military strikes are an extremely expensive way to help foreigners with specific reference to Libya. I made exactly the same case at the time.
With a little more ambivalence, I read this piece by Tom “Suck. On. This” Friedman who observes that Middle East oil no longer matters, and concludes
Obama’s foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.
I don’t share the tone of regret (“Happy the land that has no history” is my view), but apart from that, Friedman is very close to the view I put in the National Interest a year ago, that there is no clearly defined U.S. national interest at stake in the Middle East and, more succinctly, in this comprehensive plan for US policy on the Middle East … [^1]
Even at the cost of lining up with Friedman, I’d be pleased if the idea that war is an expensive waste of money became conventional wisdom. Switching to utopian mode, wouldn’t it be amazing if the urge to “do something” could be channeled into, say, ending hunger in the world or universal literacy (both cheaper than even one Iraq-sized war)?
[^1]: The joke doesn’t quite work as a link. You have to imagine the [click to continue] fold after the first para.
The drip feed of revelations about spying by NSA, related agencies and international subsidiaries like ASIO/ASIS, is taking on a familiar pattern. Take some long-held suspicion about what they might be up to, and go through the following steps
1. “You’re being paranoid. That can never happen, thanks to our marvellous checks and balances”
2. “Well, actually it does happen, but hardly ever, so there’s no need to worry about it”
3. “OK, it happens all the time, but you shouldn’t be worried unless you have something to hide”
An example which must have occurred to quite a few of us is whether NSA employees can spy on current or former partners, potential love interests and so on. Until a few days ago, this was at stage 1. Now, it’s been admitted that this not only happens, but it has a name “LOVEINT“. Still, we are told by the great defender of our liberties Dianne Feinstein, this has only happened on a handful of occasions (Stage 2).
All very reassuring, until you read the following
Most of the incidents, officials said, were self-reported. Such admissions can arise, for example, when an employee takes a polygraph tests as part of a renewal of a security clearance.
In other words, while NSA monitors everything you and I do all the time, it relies on witchcraft to detect wrongdoing by its own employees. I guess we’ll just have to hope that NSA staff are too busy snooping on our emails to read any of the 194 000 Google hits on “how to cheat a polygraph”.
That’s the headline on my latest piece for The National Interest. It looks at the case of (retired) General James Cartwright, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under investigation for a leak relating to the Stuxnet worm, a US-Israeli cyberwarfare exercise directed against Iran. The key points
* Like most leaks, the one for which Cartwright is being investigated revealed nothing that wasn’t known to the Iranian targets of the exercise or easily inferred by anyone who had followed the story in public media
* Unlike the leaks for which whistleblowers like Manning and Snowden have been prosecuted/persecuted, this was an absolutely standard Washington leak, done for personal gain. Assuming the facts are as alleged, Cartwright, an insider, gave information (classified as secret, but actually well known) to a journalist, in return for favorable coverage. This is such standard practice that it would be hard to find anyone in government (in DC or elsewhere) who hasn’t done it
But, Cartwright had made lots of enemies and so appears excluded from the general immunity that covers such leaks. Moreover, thanks to Obama, the stakes are high. Based on the Manning precedent, he could be charged with aiding the enemy, a crime that carries the death penalty. The only comparable case of an insider prosecution is that of Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, who leaked the identity of an active CIA agent for political gain. He got a three-month slap on the wrist, which was immediately commuted. Even then he was prosecuted for perjury, not for the actual leak.
Having reached the point where the weapons of the security state are being turned against insiders, it will be interesting to see how things play out. Hopefully, those involved will look over the precipice and pull back.
One of the more tiresome points being made in relation to the revelations from Edward Snowden is that there is nothing really new here. And, of course, it’s true that, if you’ve been paying careful attention to all the news on this topic, disregarding both official assurances and the wilder conspiracy theories, and thinking through the implications, the material leaked by Snowden is more confirmation than revelation. But, sad to say, that’s not the case for most of us. I think I’ve been paying more attention than most, and I still learned a lot from the latest news.
That’s all a preamble for a repost of a piece I wrote in 2004, in relation to an earlier revelation along similar lines, with a link to an even earlier piece from 2001, making the general case that secret intelligence is useless.
The NY Times has an interesting, but unsatisfactory, article, on government attempts to promote urbanization in China, with a target of 70 per cent by 2025. The story is mostly about farmers whose land has been acquired by fiat, which fits into well-established journalistic frames. The bigger issue, buried right near the end, is the fact that, under the hukou system of registration, people classed as rural can’t legally live in the city. So, while about 35 per cent of the population is legally urban, the true figure is more like 53 per cent. That makes nonsense of the figures quoted at the beginning of the article, and the suggestion of forced urbanization on a historically unparalleled scale. In reality, the announced target implies a modest slowdown in rural-urban migration, which has occurred despite official disapproval.
The big question, at least from the viewpoint of rural Chinese, is whether China can shift to a universal social welfare and retirement income system to replace the workplace-based system of social welfare, of which hukou was part, and which made sense with comprehensive state ownership. This topic is touched on in the NYT article, but in a fragmentary and confusing way, and it’s one about which I know little. I’d be grateful if anyone could point to a more comprehensive treatment.
From an Australian point of view, the continued construction of high-rise apartment buildings, highlighted in the article, is a big deal, since it drives much of the demand for steel, and therefore iron ore and coking coal, that has underpinned our amazing run of good economic fortune, along with the willingness of both Australian and Chinese governments to implement large-scale fiscal stimulus at the time of the global financial crisis.
The House resolution calls on U.S. government officials to tell the ITU and other international organizations that it is the “consistent and unequivocal policy of the United States to promote a global Internet free from government control.”
I wonder if we will see more resolutions like this. It wouldn’t surprise me.
The term ‘reformers’ is misleading since it tends to imply a shift in the direction of liberalism, which is not what the members of this group are hoping to do. More importantly, it implies the existence of a body of orthodox conservative thought against which the reformers are reacting. In reality, US conservatism has returned to the state identified by Trilling ‘ a series of irritable mental gestures. The ‘reformer’ label covers all those self-identified conservatives who would like to present some sort of intellectually coherent policy platform. These days, that’s a surprisingly small set – the typical list includes Douthat, Salam, Ponnuru, Barro, Brooks, Levin, and Dreher.
There used to be many more people in this group. But one by one, they’ve either abandoned ship and moved to the left (Lind, Sullivan, Frum, Bartlett, Ornstein) or descended into outright hackery, an absolute requirement for employment at any of the main rightwing thinktanks (and it’s hard to recall, but there was a time when people like Glenn Reynolds and the Volokhs seemed like serious intellectuals).
Looking at the remaining group, it’s pretty clear that Barro and Dreher are well on the road to apostasy, while Brooks and Levin are now reliable hacks, if they weren’t always. So, that leaves three reformers (Douthat, Salam and Ponnuru) still on the island.
The reactions of the remaining three reveal the pressure they are under. Salam more or less openly shills for the party line from time to time, as in his (now-deleted) attack on the DREAM Act. It seems pretty clear that he will stick with the team, come what may.
Ponnuru responded with the plaintive observation that, to accept the positions being urged on him from the left, he would have to concede that the majority of US conservatives were crazy. But, if craziness is assessed on the basis of stated views, this is evidently true, as Ponnuru surely knows.
Pluralities of US conservatives believe, or at least claim to believe, that:
The President of the US is a socialist Muslim, born in Kenya
The earth is less than 10 000 years old
Mainstream science is a communist plot
Armed revolution will likely be necessary in the near future
Ponnuru hopes that he can engage in serious policy discussion with conservatives while treating such delusional statements as mere shibboleths – harmless assertions of tribal identity
Most interesting is this piece by Ross Douthat, setting out what he sees as the reform conservative policy program. As he observes, it’s not designed to appeal to (US) liberals, and its full of arguments that have been demolished repeatedly by the left.
OTOH, as Douthat admits, there’s no sign that the Republican party has any interest in a program of this kind. More importantly there’s nothing there that would seriously upset a moderate conservative like Obama, or either of the Clintons. It’s well to the left of the revealed preferences of someone like Rahm Emanuel.
Conservative reform of the Republican party is a project that has already failed. The only question is whether the remaining participants will choose hackery or heresy.
Thinking about Anzac Day, with the inevitable mixed emotions, I was struck by the resemblance of the Anzac legend to that of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War – the same incredible bravery of ordinary men commanded by bungling leaders to undertake a doomed and futile mission.
There’s another, even more tragic, echo here. Both the Crimean War and the Gallipoli campaign arose from the same cause – the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and the struggle over its partition. But in the Crimean War, the British and French were on the side of the Turks against the Russians. In the Great War, the imperial alliances had shifted, and the Russians formed part of the Triple Entente, while the Turks were on the side of the Germans.
Whatever the justice of the Allied cause in the Great War as a whole, the war with Turkey was nothing more than a struggle between rival imperialisms. The British and French governments signed secret treaties with each other, and with the Russian Czar, promising to divide the spoils of victory. At the same time, they made incompatible promises of independence for the Arabs and of a homeland in Palestine for the Jews.
There are no consolations to be had here. The Great War did not protect our freedom, or that of the world. Rather, it gave rise to the horrors of Nazism and Bolshevism, and, within Turkey, to the Armenian genocide. The carve-up of the Ottoman empire created the modern Middle East, haunted even a century later by bloodshed and misery.
As we reflect on the sacrifices made by those who went to war nearly 100 years ago, we should also remember, and condemn, the crimes of those, on all sides, who made and carried on that war.
Lest we forget.
At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell points out that it is now exactly a decade (24 times 5 months) since Charles Krauthammer told us that
Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.
Despite being utterly and repeatedly wrong about Iraq, and many other things, Krauthammer is now, as he was then, a prominent columnist at the Washington Post.
What about our own Krauthammers? The leading candidate is surely Andrew Bolt, and a search through the archives finds him denouncing the Left saying, triumphantly “they were wrong”. Those attacked include Carmen Lawrence, Bob Brown, Robert Manne, Andrew Vincent and Paul Dibb. Here’s a typical example of Bolt’s vitriol
NO one tried harder to save Saddam than Greens leader Bob Brown, a notorious scaremonger, who claimed more than 100,000 Iraqi children would die in this war. He also quoted from a leaked UN report which predicted 900,000 refugees. In fact, hardly one Iraqi refugee has fled in four weeks.
Of course, Brown was right.
Bolt is pretty big on demands for retractions. So, has he ever apologized for this appalling, and utterly wrong, attack on the reputations of those who correctly predicted the disastrous outcomes of the Iraq war?
fn1. The News archive doesn’t seem to go back 10 years, so I’ve been using the Factiva database. Google found Bolt’s spray reproduced on the Free Republic (I haven’t heard anything of the Freepers for years, but apparently they are still going). I’d welcome any help with data sources, and also any suggestions for more absurd wrongness from 10 years ago. If there are enough good links, I might make this a regular feature
fn2. From the days of the Iraq debate, I can just imagine someone quibbling about Brown’s reference to “children” and demanding a source that specifies the ages of those who died as a result of this tragedy. Such quibbles, and their authors, will be treated with the contempt they deserve.
There’s already plenty of commentary, here and elsewhere on Margaret Thatcher. Rather than add to it, I’d like to compare the situation when she assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party with the one we face now. As Corey Robin points out at Crooked Timber
In the early 1970s, Tory MP Edward Heath was facing high unemployment and massive trade union unrest. Despite having come into office on a vague promise to contest some elements of the postwar Keynesian consensus, he was forced to reverse course. Instead of austerity, he pumped money into the economy via increases in pensions and benefits and tax cuts. That shift in policy came to be called the “U-Turn.”
Crucially, Heath was defeated mainly as a result of strikes by the coal miners union.
From the viewpoint of conservatives, the postwar Keynesian/social democratic consensus had failed, producing chronic stagflation, but the system could not be changed because of the entrenched power of the trade unions, and particularly the National Union of Miners. In addition, the established structures of the state such as the civil service and the BBC were saturated with social democratic thinking.
Thatcher reversed all of these conditions, smashing the miners union and greatly weakening the movement in general, and promoting and implementing market liberal ideology as a response to the (actual and perceived) failures of social democracy. Her policies accelerated the decline of the manufacturing sector, and its replacement by an economy reliant mainly on the financial sector, exploiting the international role of the City of London.
Our current situation seems to me to be a mirror image of 1975. Once again the dominant ideology has led to economic crisis (now about 4 years old), but attempts to break away from it (such as the initial swing to Keynesian stimulus) have been rolled back in favour of even more vigorous pursuit of the policies that created the crisis. The financial sector now plays the role of the miners’ union (as seen in Thatcherite mythology) as the unelected and unaccountable power that prevents any positive change.
Is our own version of Thatcher waiting somewhere in the wings to take on the banks and mount an ideological counter-offensive against market liberalism? If so, it’s not obvious to me, but then, there wasn’t much in Thatcher’s pre-1975 career that would have led anyone to predict the character of her Prime Ministership.
fn1. I was too far from the scene to be able to assess the rights and wrongs of these strikes or the failed strike of the early 1980. It’s obvious that the final outcome was disastrous both for coal miners and for British workers in general, but not that there was a better alternative on offer at the time.
fn2. The popular series, Yes Minister, was essentially a full-length elaboration of this belief, informed by public choice theory