Blix and Bush

Blix’s critical report to the UN has certainly strengthened the case for war with Iraq. Unlike those of us commenting from afar, he is, after all, dealing with the Iraqis on a daily basis, and is obviously running into difficulties. At this point, Bush could clinch things if, as some have suggested, his State of the Union address is the occasion for producing the evidence of Iraq’s weapons that he has long claimed to possess.

If this doesn’t happen, Bush will still have a stronger bargaining position with the UNSC than seemed likely a few days ago. Assuming the alternative to war is a redefinition of ‘active co-operation’, it’s clear that this must include everything on Blix’s wishlist – unchaperoned interviews, surveillance flights, and more documentation of ‘missing’ weapons.

The incentive for Bush to take this route is strong. Despite the tough rhetoric of the past few days, a decision to bypass the UNSC poses immense risks of all kinds. If it went even moderately badly, both Blair and Howard would be finished, and Bush himself would suffer grave damage. And as I’ve noted, Blix’s report increases the likelihood that Bush will be able to get the UNSC on board with sufficient patience.

At the bottom of all this is the question, still unresolved as far as I am concerned, of whether the Iraqis actually have a weapons program. If so, I think the evidence of past successful inspections, cited in Blix’s report suggests that, if the inspectors have a sufficiently free hand, they will be found in the end. This in turn means that Saddam will probably defy any UNSC resolution that is sufficiently tightly worded. If not, then, however humiliating the demands may be, he will have no rational alternative but to comply.

Ignorance is strength

In my discussion of the Canberra bushfires, I observed that Paddy McGuinness had made some ‘typically nasty and ill-informed’ comments, before going on to note that the blogworld does this kind of thing much better (or rather, much worse). In the Comments thread Me No No wrote

the real purpose of a column like that is to generate letters to the editor, so reminding SMH carpet strollers of why they pay an exhorbitant amount for columns that don’t really say much.

When tomorrow’s letters page is chockers with outrage, Paddy will feel useful again.

Looking at today’s SMH it becomes clear that the timing of this particular piece was also intended to provoke a flood of outrage from the chattering classes when Paddy’s AO was announced, to which he could respond with devastating wit. Instead, Lleyton Hewitt got the brickbats and the only response to Paddy was a letter from frequent commentator on this blog, Ron Mead, praising the award.

As a result, Paddy’s piece today was a bit sad. No-one even remembered that he was once a republican opponent of all kinds of honours, so he had to remind us of his own hypocrisy before defending himself. And his subtle self-comparison to Orwell, fighting against the “smelly little orthodoxies” of the left, came adrift when the sub-editor gave his piece the title, When no means yes, principle’s the same. This is Orwellian, but not in the good sense.

The person who should really be nailed on all this is John Howard. While he was saying all the right things about his concern for the people of Canberra, McGuinness, with the AO award already in the bag, was giving vent to the government’s real feelings on the subject.

Update Always vigorous in defence of his intellectual heroes, Jason Soon argues that

Paddy’s output of late has not necessarily been of sterling quality but that placed in the context of his past work his AO was well-deserved.

While I’m less of an admirer than Jason, I agree that McGuinness was a serious and credible commentator in the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, looking at the rest of the Oz Day Honours list, I find it implausible that Paddy got his gong, even in part, for pieces like the one Jason mentioned where he argued that “Keating was a better pro-market reformer than Thatcher”.The AO is a reward for the partisan vitriol of the past seven years rather than for his earlier work.

Jason also didn’t like my suggestion that Paddy’s comments on Canberra reflected the government’s real feelings on the subject. Having lived in Canberra for a good part of my life, I think I’m pretty well attuned to these things, and stand by what I said.

Last word on Windschuttle

My final say on the Windschuttle controversy has been posted on the Evatt Foundation website. It’s here. The final para:

I am always puzzled by the ease with which some people can repudiate their own past views while maintaining a dogmatic conviction of the infallible correctness of their current beliefs. Keith Windschuttle is, regrettably, an extreme instance of this phenomenon.

Before closing on this topic, I’ll mention that Saturday’s Courier-Mail included lengthy extracts from the diary of a senior Queensland police officer detailing numerous massacres and “dispersals” (I’ll add a link if possible). These academic controversies are absorbing, but get tiring in the end. I may post a bit more on the general question of historical truth, but I’ll leave Windschuttle himself (and also John Lott) to history from now on.

Lott's of fun for everyone

As the world turns, the Lott soap opera goes on producing new plot twists on a more or less daily basis. The emergence of a witness, David Gross, supporting Lott’s story of a survey lost in 1997, and his acceptance by respected expert James Lindgren as a credible source, convinced many, including me, that the case of fabrication against Lott could not be sustained on the available evidence. The fact that Gross was a member of a pro-gun lobby group, which was known to Lindgren, wasn’t in itself a reason to doubt him. The NRA has 3.6 million members, so a survey of 2000 Americans ought to pick up twenty or thirty of them, and these are the people most likely to hear about the controversy and contact Lott.

Next came the news that Lott was posting all over the Internet in his own defence (including personal testimonials and book reviews) under the false name Mary Rosh. This was enough to convince me he was dishonest.

Now it appears Gross is not merely an opponent of gun control He’s Founding Director and Past Pres. of one of the most extreme pro-gun groups,. He condemns the NRA because it supports the enforcement of existing gun laws. Moreover, it’s been claimed (lost this link, sorry!) that , in a piece of sharp practice, he took over the registrations of a number of gun-control organizations when they were accidentally allowed to lapse, an impressive instance of either dishonesty or sharp practice, depending on your viewpoint.

The odds of Lott’s survey picking up a member of a pro-gun organisation are pretty favorable, but the odds of picking up someone as prominent and extreme as Gross are not. And the alternative hypothesis, that Gross is willing to engage in dishonesty for the cause and sharp enough to present himself as a credible witness, is looking better all the time.

Finally, Tim Lambert notes a piece in the Washington Times defending Lott. Tim is critical, but there’s a positive side to this. The Washington Times has a circulation of 100 000, making it about even money that at least one reader was involved in the putative survey. If the issue makes it into the mainstream press in a substantial way, we ought to get dozens of witnesses. Or not, as the case may be.

Update A mildly interesting fact I discovered is that the very first review of Lott’s book on Amazon (5 stars!) was by Glenn Reynolds, in the days before InstaPundit. You can read it. here – use the ‘oldest first’ option.

Update 1 Feb 02Thanks to Mark A. R. Kleiman, here’s the missing link on Gross dirty tricks from Atrios.

Never let a hold of nurse

Ken Parish has abandoned the brave attempt at a manual blog and returned to Blogspot. His new site is called Troppo Armadillo. I’m still thinking of making the break at least to MT, but as with everyone else, I’m finding the time pressure too much to do more then keep posting.

Ken has raised the prospect of a collective blog (we need a new piece of blog jargon for this – how about “Borg”). It’s an interesting paradox that most of the prominent collective blogs so far have been right-leaning while lefties such as myself have struggled on as sturdy individualists (or perhaps just bolshy recalcitrants).

Update My innocent jest on right-leaning collectives has provoked an entertaining, if occasionally ill-tempered, slanging match in the comments thread. Read, enjoy and join in! Comments threads are an alternative, minimalist, approach to collective blogging, and as I’ve often proudly claimed, this comments thread for this blog is as good as you’ll find anywhere.

Monday Message Board

It’s time for the Monday Message Board. Post your thoughts on any topic (civilised discussion and no coarse language please). Suggestion: your response to the Australia Day Honours.

I’ll just throw in a ‘touched by fame’ story about the Australian of the Year. The winner, Fiona Stanley, was an excellent choice, but I was hoping the NT nominee, introduced as Dr Edward Egan, would get up. He’s better known to thousands as Ted Egan, bush musician and balladist, and I once featured as the supporting act when he appeared at the ‘Three Weeds’ (Rose, Shamrock and Thistle) folk club.

Update “Fisking” has emerged as the topic du jour. Jason Soon and I, along with several interlocutors, had a discussion of this a few months back. In the comments thread, I suggest that the popularity of Fisking rested on the assumption of an audience which unanimously accepts the premises that the Fisker is on the right side and that the Fiskee is an idiot. As the blogosphere has become more diverse, Fisking has declined. Done well, Fisking can still be impressive. But the typical collection of putdowns and cheap shots that scored heaps of “Right on!” hyperlinks a year ago will no longer pass muster.

What I'm reading (and more)

The Invention of Tradition edited by Hobsbawm and Ranger. It’s about the process by which national and other ‘traditions’ were constructed, deliberately and otherwise, mainly in the 19th Century. Lots of interesting stuff. I knew, for example, that clan tartans were a C19 invention, postdating the destruction of the clan system by 70 years -the big stimulus was the first royal visit to Scotland by George IV in 1822. I was unaware, though, the the kilt was invented as a way of modernising Highland dress by an English manufacturer around 1720. I plan a big essay on this topic one day.

I’ve also acquired an iPod (I bet SDB won’t be surprised to discover I’m a Machead as well as a peacemonger). I’m enjoying listening to it, and I can justify the purchase on the basis that it makes a great portable hard drive as well.

A messy compromise

I previously promised to set out my ideas for a messy compromise (there’s no other kind) on Iraq. I start with the assumption that Blix’s report tomorrow will report Iraqi compliance with the demands that were explicit in 1441 and formed the basis of most discussion beforehand, such as unfettered access to palaces, government offices and so on, but that compliance has been less satisfactory in other respects. The other basis of my analysis is that Saddam poses no significant threat in the short-term (say one year) or at least no threat that could be reduced by an invasion (the risk that he will give WMDs to terrorists is enhanced, not reduced by an invasion).

On this basis, the compromise I favor and think likely is one that allows for continued inspections while raising the bar on Iraqi compliance. Obvious instances include requiring U2 flights and unchaperoned interviews with scientists, with or without their consent. As regards the gaps in the Iraqi declaration that WMDs have been destroyed, there is an obvious analogy with the recent fuss over John Lott and his supposed survey. The appropriate strategy is to identify specific types of records of the destruction process that should exist and demand their production.
The basic idea of the compromise is to continue applying pressure on Iraq until we reach one of the following clear-cut outcomes:
(a) A ‘smoking gun’
(b) Clear Iraqi non-compliance with a specific demand
(c) A clean bill of health

The other pressure that needs to be applied is on the US, to ‘put up or shut up’ regarding its evidence for war. If they have evidence that there are weapons in some specific location they should tip off the inspectors and watch the site to make sure nothing is moved. If they have more general evidence, they should publish it to the world. And if they want to assert that the inspectors are leaking material to the Iraqis, they should offer some proof of that.

Obviously, an outcome leading to war could arise at any time. A clean bill of health, leading to the removal of sanctions might take longer, say six to eight months. I don’t see a problem with this if the Americans are prepared to keep up the threat of military action. And if they don’t have the patience to keep an invasion force on hold for a few months they clearly lack the capacity for the years of occupation and nation-building that would be required after an invasion.

Conditional support

Steven Den Beste at USS Clueless writes.

If we fight, and if we win, and if we win rapidly, and if the rate of American casualties is low, and if the overall casualty rate is low, and if afterwards plenty of evidence is uncovered about Iraq’s WMDs and Iraqi involvement in terrorism – all of which I now think is quite likely to happen – then people will look back and see this as an example of leadership, and they’ll be right.

Well, yes, especially if as Den Beste also predicts, the invasion produces a democratic government in Iraq and if this is the beginning of full-scale democratic reform in the region. Granted these eight or nine “ifs”, I would support an invasion, and, should the invasion take place and produce these outcomes, I will admit that my opposition was based on an incorrect assessment.

I can’t see though, how the ultra-confidence of Den Beste and others in a quick, complete, nearly bloodless military victory squares with the insistence that the war has to start in the next couple of months before the weather gets too hot for fighting. The only obvious route to a quick and easy victory arises if Saddam’s armies mutiny and refuse to fight at all, and presumably hot weather will not reduce the chances of this. More generally, if we agree that a change in the weather will upset everything how can we rule out some other unforeseen contingency of the kind that wars have produced since time immemorial.

Although not strictly relevant to this post, I think it’s worth noting at this point that, even in purely military terms, a decision to go to war without letting the UN process reach a conclusion will have substantial costs, by curtailing any Turkish involvement and therefore foreclosing the “Northern option’.

Update My blogtwin, Tim Dunlop, quotes the identical para from SDB, then says “Well maybe, but I count six big ‘ifs’ in that paragraph…”. The BlogGeist strikes again, right down to turn of phrase!

Further update Steven Den Beste replies here, dismissing the northern option of an invasion from Turkey. I don’t have any basis to doubt his expertise on this, but this option certainly got plenty of apparently well-informed press. In the previous post he says, that he’s puzzled by the sharp swings in rhetoric coming out of Washington (me too!) and gives an exhaustive list of possible interpretations. He goes for misinformation, as he has in the past. I prefer the view I’ve been putting forward for some time, that Blair can’t persuade his Cabinet to dump the UNSC and join a US invasion. So there’s nothing new here that’s likely to change prior beliefs. Nevertheless, it’s well-worth reading Den Beste’s presentation of the alternatives.

Yet further update Kevin Batcho shares my analysis, pointing out the threat posed to Blair by Gordon Brown.

The peace camp and the challenge of international order

Jack Strocchi poses the challenge:

Now it is time for the peace bloggers to start doing their sums. If the US caves in, I issue this challenge to the most competent advocate in the peace camp: what will the long term consequence for international order be when the US is forced to backdown and relinquish global threat neutralisation responsibilty to the impotent and inept UN and the unwilling EU?

Given that Jack has adversely characterized the EU and UN, let me observe that the US is thoroughly ill-suited to the role of hegemon in which he wants to cast it. The US record in the Middle East proves this. The problem states in the region, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran (as well as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and OBL himself) are current or former US clients, and the problems we have now can be traced directly to past US policy. In addition, the US has excluded all other powers from intervening in the Israel-Palestine dispute, and the disastrous failure to achieve peace must be laid at the door of the successive US administrations who have asserted ownership of the problem.

The defects of past policy are entirely evident today. The first is a black-and-white notion of good and evil, which, when combined with realist power politics produces disastrous outcomes. One regime is demonised as uniquelyevil, with the result that all its enemies are regarded as good. In the 1980s, Khomeini’s Iran was the villain and Saddam was “a thug, but our thug”, using weapons of mass destruction with the tacit approval of the US. Today, Saddam is the villain and the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments are good guys.

The other, even more noteworthy defect is a short attention span. In five years time, Iraq will still be a mess but the Americans will have forgotten about it and moved on to some other concern. If anyone picks up the pieces it will be the EU and UN that Jack derides.

The alternative to US hegemony is a series of messy compromises, formulated on a case-by-case basis. I’ll post more on what this means in the case of Iraq soon.

It’s getting harder to read the tealeaves as the UNMOVIC report (Jan 27) and Bush’s State of the Union speech (Jan 28) draw closer, but the latest reports saying that the U.S. May Not Press U.N. for a Decision on Iraq Next Week seem to support the messy compromise scenario.