Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hanson puts his finger on it

The wonderfully intelligent and clear writer Victor Davis Hanson has another fine piece, entitled "Losing the Enlightenment," about the decline of will and conviction in the West. I suggest you read the whole thing.

One sentence in particular struck me as a good summation of a phenomenon I've noticed before, but haven't been able to put as succinctly:

...the technological explosion of the last 20 years has made life so long and so good, that many now believe our mastery of nature must extend to human nature as well...

Exactly. It's a sort of hubris and naivete, as well as a fervent hope, nurtured by the great advances the West has actually been able to make. For the most part our lives are indeed so much less fraught with the hardships of disease, or wrestling with the elements, or dealing with famines and other basic questions of survival, that many have come to think life itself could somehow be made nearly perfect, and that even stress and unpleasantness could be reduced to virtually nothing.

That goes, of course, for messy things such as war, people who hate, those who want to kill and who seem to get a certain amount of joy from doing so. Would that it were possible to off them as easily as we've conquered smallpox--not that that was easy, actually, but it was a relative piece of cake compared to changing human nature.

Hanson goes on to write about the savvy of al-Qaeda in taking the moral and spiritual temperature of the West:

By past definitions of relative power, al-Qaeda and its epigones were weak and could not defeat the West militarily. But their genius was knowing of our own self-loathing, of our inability to determine their evil from our good, of our mistaken belief that Islamists were confused about, rather than intent to destroy, the West, and most of all, of our own terror that we might lose, if even for a brief moment, the enjoyment of our good life to defeat the terrorists. In learning what the Islamists are, many of us, and for the first time, are also learning what we are not.

Hanson doesn't end his essay with pessimism, however. He ends it with the idea that this realization can create the opportunity to remember and regain our strengths. He quotes Churchill's "These are not dark days: these are great days--the greatest days our country has ever lived."

I wouldn't quite say that, although I appreciate Hanson's optimism. I'll add to it, though, with another Churchill quote, to wit:

For myself I am an optimist - it does not seem to be much use being anything else.

Now for a little comic relief (?): Michael Richards

I've ignored the idiotic brouhaha over actor Michael Richards' bigoted outbursts, but this story I just couldn't ignore.

It turns out that Richards's publicist said that Richards isn't anti-Semitic after all--he's Jewish! Leaving aside the question of whether one can be both Jewish and anti-Semitic (answer: absolutely), it turns out that Richards isn't even Jewish.

I must confess right now that I thought he was. Not that I really thought about it; but if I had thought about it, I would have thought he was (is that perfectly clear? Good.) His role on "Seinfeld" conveyed that notion, although it's always difficult (if not impossible) to explain what makes a person seem Jewish and what does not.

Anti-Semites the world over have myriad answers, of course. But we won't worry about what they think right now. For me, it's a certain sardonic and sharp sense of humor, usually of urban origin, but mostly a je ne sais quoi. And the perception of Jewishness can often be very, very incorrect, as in the case of Richards, who is most definitely not Jewish, whatever he says. Neither of his parents were, and he has not converted. That's pretty definitive.

Richards is laying low right now and keeping his mouth shut for a change--an excellent idea, I'd say (although apparently he's been talking to his psychiatrist--always a dangerous thing).

Remembering Friedman

I've written about economist Milton Friedman's life, here, but I wanted to add a link to a lovely reminiscence by Friedman's good friend Mark Skousen, complete with Mutt-and-Jeff photo of Friedman next to John Kenneth Galbraith (and the equally tall George Stigler).

[Via Pajamas Media.]

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The paradoxial dangers of "humane war"

Varifrank has written about our modern way of warfare and our attempt to wage it with greater respect for human life. Please take a look.

Respect for human life is a good thing, right? I would be the first to say so. War is an affront to that respect because it inevitably involves wholesale killing--not only of the military, but of civilians.

The history of warfare is of one horrific mess of slaughter and destruction. In ancient times whole cities were routinely razed, their inhabitants slain or sold into slavery. Those traditional Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death--rode together for a reason, because the deliberate killing of warfare was often accompanied by disease and starvation.

The First World War represented a new crescendo in terms of military casualties (take a look; it makes shocking reading even now). World War I could aptly be described as a carnage that destroyed a large percentage of the best and brightest of a whole generation of Western Europe, and all for a cause that remained murky. That war, in particular, represented a turning point in the whole idea of war as a glorious endeavor, and replaced it with the notion of war as a dreadful and in many cases pointless slaughter.

This new idea, of course, did not stop the world from entering into an even worse conflagration in just a few years. I say "worse" because of sheer numbers and scope, as well as the much higher number of deaths within the civilian population. During World War I most civilian deaths had been at the hands of the ancillary Horseman of Pestilance: specifically, influenza. During World War II most civilian deaths were from the widescale aerial bombardment of cities.

Pacifists like to say that war has never solved anything. But that is most manifestly untrue. Certain things have indeed been solved by war, such as the ambitions of Adolf Hitler, and/or the ownership of certain territory.

It depends, of course, on one's definition of the word "solved." Human nature is such that the lion permanently bedding down with the lamb seems highly unlikely. Conflicts continue and almost certainly always will. New tyrants rise up--and, strangely enough, those tyrants tend to resist efforts at talk and/or reason and/or compromise. The call of power and violence always beckons.

But we have become reluctant to respond by killing on the scale of previous wars. That seems a good thing, an example of progress in the way people look at each other--not as cannon fodder, but as fellow human beings. At the same time (and this is no coincidence) we have been able to develop weapons so smart that we can come much closer than ever before to realizing our humane goal of reducing casualties, especially civilian ones.

It's a one-sided development, however, and therein lies the rub. The enemy doesn't seem to share it; and, although they also don't yet share our possession of nuclear weapons, they are determined to acquire them and no doubt they will do so in fairly short order.

What's more, the enemy has learned how to use our reluctance to harm civilians to their advantage, by the use of human shields and the purposeful targeting of civilians on both sides. This enemy doesn't just not care how many of us they kill; they are positively delighted to do so, and revel in it; and they are not at all reluctant to kill a goodly number of their own civilians, either directly, or by letting us do them the favor as they carefully position those civilians in harm's way.

Good intentions are something, but they are not everything. As the proverb says, they often have a tendency to backfire and lead to their opposite. The enemy doesn't see our kindly attitude as an example of what nice guys we are; they see it as a weakness to be exploited. And exploit it they do.

So we are left with a dilemma. Our kindness will probably lead to widespread killing--if not now, then later; if not by us, then by others. So many make the argument that if we are to wage war, it must be waged with greater vigor and ruthlessness than we seem able to muster lately.

Varifrank points to how the Allies in World War II managed to "persuade" European civilians to cooperate and turn in insurgents hiding in their midst: by artillery barrage of the town itself. He also points out that our failure to do this sort of thing in the current situation of assymtrical warfare with the present enemy leaves civilians open to the tender mercies of those enemies. And that unfortunately, is no mercy at all.

If you haven't yet read Meade's essay on the Jacksonian tradition, please do. The Jacksonian strain in American culture is not eager to go to war. But it argues that if one does do so, it can't be done with halfway measures. And this is not because Jacksonians are especially bloodthirsty. Rather, they believe that, in the end, a polite and respectful war leads to more bloodshed, and fails to resolve even the limited number of problems that wars can resolve.

This doesn't mean that every war requires the no-holds barred use of every weapon in our arsenal. But the Gulf War is an excellent modern-day example. Our failure to topple Saddam did no favor to anyone, and some of the distrust sown in the civilian population of Iraq for our reneging on promises bore fruit in their reluctance to trust us in this later, and linked, war.

The official combat phase of the present Iraq war was so quick and inflicted so few casulaties on us that people often fail to realize that one of the reasons for this was not just our superior firepower, but the fact that the enemy had learned that conventional war was not the best way to engage us. So it laid low and made plans for an "insurgency" that would have absolutely no mercy on the civilian population. This would not only have the effect of terrorizing that unforunate group, but of sapping American will, already considered weak.

Speaking of that weakness, one would do well to ponder this statement by Joseph Stalin, made to Zhou Enlai in 1952 and quoted in the book Vietnam the Necessary War by Michael Lind (an author who, by the way, defies attempts at right-left categorization):

No, Americans don't know how to fight. After the Korean War, in particular, they have lost the capability to wage a large-scale war...They are fighting little Korea, and already people are weeping in the USA. What will happen if they start a large scale war? Then, perhaps, everyone will weep.

And so it still plays out. Whether the Jacksonian impulse will reassert itself in American life--what it might require to get to that point, what form the response will take, and how many will weep as a result--is anybody's guess. It won't be pretty--but then, war never is, despite our best efforts to make it so.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Chaos, tyranny, and fledgling democracies in the Middle East

Listening to part of President Bush's press conference in Estonia (see the middle section of the linked article for a small discussion), two things struck me.

The first was the support Bush still gets from a country such as Estonia, so recently emerged from its own long nightmare of Soviet domination, and undergoing the struggles all such nations experience in trying to implement the goal of becoming a democratic and functioning nation. Estonians and other post-Soviet Eastern Europeans understand the hardships involved better than most nations on earth do; certainly better than we in the United States.

The second was that Bush is not abandoning the Iraqis to the tender mercies of realpolitik--at least rhetorically speaking, at least not yet.

As I wrote not too long ago [I'm in a hurry so will supply the links later]--in dysfunctional nations, there are mostly two choices: chaos or tyranny. If the tyranny is neither too tyrannical nor too dangerous to the rest of the world, tyranny may sometimes be the best of a bad business. The Shah's Iran is a good example of that; it was replaced with a far worse tyranny.

As Bush pointed out in his press conference, not only Iraq but Lebanon is undergoing a chaotic passage right now. Both nations are struggling democracies attempting to resist both tyranny and chaos. Of course it's hard, slow, and exceedingly difficult going.

The forces of evil (yes, I will most definitely use that word) are determined to sow chaos in both countries, and in any country in the area that tries to wrest itself from the grip of tyranny. Those pernicious forces know that chaos suits their purposes--not only tempermentally, because they love its nihilistic violence, but strategically as well, because it frightens the populations of the countries involved into desiring the strong hand of a strong leader to make a semblance of order out of the chaos.

Another strategic aim of these forces (which hasn't been reached so far in the case of Iraq, but might be close to being reached) is to frighten and exhaust the US into abandoning the nation in question to either its chaos or its tyrant (who cares which? then the news will go off our front pages)--or, as the lamentable Jonathan Chait suggested recently in the LA Times, to restore an especially vicious tyrant (none other than Saddam Hussein himself) to power, in order to control the chaos. The truth is that in a place such as Iraq, the chaos was always underneath the surface, waiting to erupt.

And no matter what we do and which we choose: the support of a tyrant, or the attempt to pass through the chaos towards a better government for that country-- the chaos and/or the tyranny inherent in such places can always be blamed on the US. And we can run from that chaos, crying that it's too much for us.

I don't blame the US for either the tyranny or the chaos. I do blame us, however, for not committing fully to doing whatever needed to be done to subdue the chaos when it first erupted, and for not being ready enough for it. Looters should have been shot at the outset. Al Sadr should have been defanged before his movement had time to grow.

I understand why it wasn't done; we didn't want to seem to be a heavy-handed occupying force. But we were an occupying force, occupying a nation that had been defeated in war. We used to know how to do this sort of thing; the aftermath of World War II and the occupation of Germany and Japan are excellent examples. But we no longer seem to have the belief that such a thing is possible. And that belief is key. Without it, we will abandon these countries to their Hobson's choice of chaos or tyranny.

It's all French to me: the Lurçat trial on a technicality?

This is quite unofficial, but I got an email about the verdict in the Lurçat trial. It was in French, so I used Babelfish to decipher it; therefore the following information is extremely preliminary and rather suspect. However, from what I could discern, it appears he may have gotten off on a technicality that doesn't go to any of the important issues in the trial.

When I wrote this piece about the trial, I mentioned, "one of [Lurçat's] defenses appeared to be that he hadn't actually written the words in question on his website; someone else had."

And that appears to be the point on which he may have been successful. More later, as I learn it.

[See this and this for additional information about the trial and the more substantive issues it presented. The third trial, that of Gouze, is due to start right about this time.]

Monday, November 27, 2006

Vietnamization; Iraqization: (Part II)

[Part I here]

Whatever your opinion of President Nixon's politics and policies, I think most of us can agree he was a strange and duplicitous man. I was not a fan, to say the least.

I watched many of his televised speeches at the time. They were not memorable, except for a few catch-phrases--mostly ridiculed by college and grad students such as myself--for example, "the silent majority."

But in my quest to learn more about the Vietnamization phase of the Vietnam War, the part Nixon presided (literally) over, I read this speech of Nixon's from November of 1969, in which he introduced and elucidated the concept of Vietnamization (as well as mentioning that famous "silent majority"). And it struck me that---well, see for yourselves:

...let me begin by describing the situation I found when I was inaugurated on January 20.
-The war had been going on for 4 years.
-31,000 Americans had been killed in action.
-The training program for the South Vietnamese was behind schedule.
-540,000 Americans were in Vietnam with no plans to reduce the number.
-No progress had been made at the negotiations in Paris and the United States had not put forth a comprehensive peace proposal.
-The war was causing deep division at home and criticism from many of our friends as well as our enemies abroad.

In view of these circumstances there were some who urged that I end the war at once by ordering the immediate withdrawal of all American forces.

From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office. I could blame the defeat which would be the result of my action on him and come out as the peacemaker. Some put it to me quite bluntly: This was the only way to avoid allowing Johnson's war to become Nixon's war.

But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election. I had to think of the effect of my decision on the next generation and on the future of peace and freedom in America and in the world.

Well, it's always risky quoting Nixon, a deeply flawed President. He was paranoid about his enemies, and his paranoia was part of what did him in, via his illegal actions in Watergate. He initiated the notorious "secret bombing" of Cambodia. He was a man profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, as well. And, in the phrase he used in this speech, Johnson's war did indeed become Nixon's war.

But whatever I might think of Nixon, I have to say that his rhetoric in this speech seems unimpeachable (to coin a phrase). Because, in fact, the abandonment of Vietnam, which finally occurred post-Watergate, in 1975, led to a worldwide sense that America had lost the will to fight. We are still feeling its effects now in terms of international perception; the jihadists certainly have taken note, as they will if we withdraw too quickly and too precipitously from Iraq. The Democratic Congress would do well to ponder Nixon's words and his warnings:

...many others, I among them, have been strongly critical of the way the war has been conducted.

But the question facing us today is: Now that we are in the war, what is the best way to end it?

In January I could only conclude that the precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would be a disaster not only for South Vietnam but for the United States and for the cause of peace.

For the South Vietnamese, our precipitate withdrawal would inevitably allow the Communists to repeat the massacres which followed their takeover in the North 15 years before...

For the United States, this first defeat in our Nation's history would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia but through-out the world.

And try this on for size:

-A nation cannot remain great if it betrays its allies and lets down its friends.
-Our defeat and humiliation in South Vietnam without question would promote recklessness in the councils of those great powers who have not yet abandoned their goals of world conquest.
-This would spark violence wherever our commitments help maintain the peace in the Middle East, in Berlin, eventually even in the Western Hemisphere.
Ultimately, this would cost more lives.
It would not bring peace; it would bring more war.

Nixon went on to outline the principle that Vietnamese forces should be fighting for Vietnamese freedom. He outlined the goal of withdrawing American troops while training the South Vietnamese to take over, but he said:

I have not and do not intend to announce the timetable for our program. And there are obvious reasons for this decision which I am sure you will understand.

And then there's the following; if more prescient words were ever spoken about Vietnam, I'm not aware of them [emphasis mine]:

In speaking of the consequences of a precipitate withdrawal, I mentioned that our allies would lose confidence in America.

Far more dangerous, we would lose confidence in ourselves. Oh, the immediate reaction would be a sense of relief that our men were coming home. But as we saw the consequences of what we had done, inevitable remorse and divisive recrimination would scar our spirit as a people...Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.

Vietnamization was dismissed by many as a sham, and of course in the end our financial abandonment of the ARVN and the South Vietnamese meant we'll never know what would have happened if we had kept up the economic support at a decent level. This article posits a believable case that, by the time we pulled the plug on the South, a turning point had been reached that would have allowed them to repel the North if they had been given the financial resources to do so. We will never know for sure, of course.

At any rate, we do know that Nixon's Vietnamization policy did "work" in one respect: he withdrew US fighting forces from Vietnam. It occurred over a period of four years; here's a chart that shows the pace of reduction of US combat forces, which were all gone by 1973:

The goal of withdrawal was accomplished. But Nixon's greater fears--the loss of faith in the US, both abroad and at home--were realized. We stand on the brink of major decisions in Iraq which could cause an intensification of this realization, with far graver possible consequences.

Realism for our times*

Robert Kagan and William Kristol have something to say in the Weekly Standard about the new yen for realpolitik:

So let's add up the "realist" proposals: We must retreat from Iraq, and thus abandon all those Iraqis--Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, and others--who have depended on the United States for safety and the promise of a better future. We must abandon our allies in Lebanon and the very idea of an independent Lebanon in order to win Syria's support for our retreat from Iraq. We must abandon our opposition to Iran's nuclear program in order to convince Iran to help us abandon Iraq. And we must pressure our ally, Israel, to accommodate a violent Hamas in order to gain radical Arab support for our retreat from Iraq.

This is what passes for realism these days. But of course this is not realism. It is capitulation. Were the United States to adopt this approach every time we faced a difficult set of problems, were we to attempt to satisfy our adversaries' every whim in order to win their acquiescence, we would rapidly cease to play any significant role in the world. We would be neither feared nor respected--nor, of course, would we be any better liked. Our retreat would win us no friends and lose us no adversaries.

What our adversaries in the Middle East want from us is very simple: They want us out. Unless we are prepared to withdraw, not just from Iraq but from the entire region, and from elsewhere as well, we had better start figuring out how to pursue effectively--realistically--our interests and goals. This is true American realism. All the rest is a fancy way of justifying surrender.

And the Washington Post seems to me to be suffering from multiple personality--or it just that this editorial was written by a committee? For the most part, the author[s] explain why Iran and Syria can't be reasoned with, and do it rather well. They call for more than talks as a remedy; a "big stick" is needed. But there is a strange reliance on the supposed power of UN sanctions--not only a pipe dream at this point, but a worthless pipe dream, at that.

The Post seems relatively clear on what the problem is. But I'm afraid their solution more closely resembles a small toothpick than a big stick.

[* See this.]

Sunday, November 26, 2006

"Obsession"--the Left has theirs, as well

Fox News has been doing some interesting and rather gutsy things of late, not by blogosphere standards but by network standards. First, there was the Glenn Beck airing of "Exposed," and now a recent showing of a broadcast featuring the film "Obsession."

Some of the footage in the two works is similar or the same. Much or most of it is familiar to those who read blogs But apparently this sort of thing is news to many people.

Taking a look at it last night, I watched footage of radical jihadist Islamists ranting against the US, Israel, the Jews, and the West in the fashion I've come to consider typical of the genre, and it struck me that their message is the worst and most blatant example of imperialistic ambition I've ever seen.

Of course, I wasn't around when Alexander was setting about his conquests, nor even for Hitler, and both were determined to have the world fall under their dominion and sway. Nor, as far as I know, were they especially secretive about their ambitions.

But there are a few things about radical Islamist jihadists that make them potentially even more dangerous. As the program pointed out, the pool of willing jihadists is potentially larger--there are more countries and people involved available for recruitment. Nazism, although theoretically appealing to any person on earth, was in fact a more local German/Austrian phenomenon; the exceptions never constituted a real movement in other countries.

Islamist jihadists have been from the start a pan-Islamic movement, and Islam covers a lot of territory already. They also have a beachfront among the Muslim population of the Western world, and can attract a certain number of followers there for perpetrating inside jobs. In addition, of course, there is the fact that the movement is based on, and feeds off, a religion rather than a "mere" political movement, and therefore is not really of this world--which gives it a far more powerful draw, and far more powerful weapons to use: eternal reward, and war for the glory of God.

But its blatant and domineering imperialism, whose goal (among other things) it to destroy human freedom and all the wonders of the Enlightenment, is minimized or virtually ignored by the Left for the most part (or even tacitly supported, as a foil to Western imperialism, capitalism, whatever "ism" offends the Left) because of its third world origins. The Left follows the rules of the PC Commandments (and if you don't recall them, now would be a good time for a quick review).

Islamist jihadist imperialist ambitions don't fit into the Left's preconceived and rather rigid notions of what's dangerous or even what's possible. Nothing in the third world can threaten us, by definition, and everything bad about it is caused by us, by definition. And so the clear and forthright, unashamed, unrepetant threats, ambitions, and raw hatred being expressed on a daily basis in the world of the jihadi are not taken seriously, except as responses to Western crimes, both real and imaginary.

[CORRECTION: It's been pointed out to me that Glenn Beck's "Exposed" was aired on CNN, not Fox.}

Saturday, November 25, 2006

More fun with sitemeters: reading in Tehran

When I first started my blog one of the main attractions was to click on my sitemeter. It was astounding for me to see that anyone was reading here at all, and to watch the numbers climb was satisfying. There was a time when 100 visitors in a day seemed a richness beyond measure. Viewing the breakdown of countries from which they came was an occasion for more awe: someone in Japan, reading my blog? Australia, India, Kuwait?

Now, of course, I'm somewhat jaded. But never totally so; it still seems a wonderful and almost magical thing that people from all over the world can come to read the words I type (excuse me: keyboard) onto a computer in a little room on the second floor of a house in a moderate-sized town in northern New England. I'm often alone when I write and when I hit that "publish post" button. But I'm never really alone at all.

The other night I took a glance at the country distribution on my sitemeter. I hadn't done that in a long time. What I found was a typical late-night spread here:

I noticed the one from Iran especially. I've found in the past that this sort of visitor is usually--although certainly not always--the result of a Google search.

So, what had brought this particular visitor to my blog? Perhaps, I thought, it was my series on the Iranian revolution, a hefty three-parter? Or my post on Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran?

No, no, a thousand times no. It was a search for discussion of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," which had led to this post of mine.

So, not Lolita in Tehran, but the quintessential New England poet Robert Frost in Tehran. Somehow, that made me very happy. Call me a cultural imperialist if you wish (and I'm sure some of you will wish), but I like to think that people everywhere have the same basic underlying makeup, and the same response to beauty and the truths expressed in great literature.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Leftovers: the day after

For some it's Black Friday--biggest shopping day of the year. For me, though, it's the day of the leftovers. I'm taking the day off from blogging and just having fun with family, friends, and food. Not a bad combination. See you tomorrow!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving: and here's your pre- or post-prandial podcast

I hope everyone is now safely ensconced with the relatives and friends of your choice, with the turkey about to be eaten, or roasting away merrily in the oven, right on schedule.

In my family (I'm here in NY, by the way) we tend to have a late, leisurely, really fine meal. This year features a reunion of sorts with various distant and usually unseen familial elements; should be interesting.

Hope you have a lot to be thankful for. And hope that one of those things is the latest Sanity Squad podcast, one with a Thanksgiving theme. (How's that for a segue?)

Listen to it pre- or post-dinner (I would not suggest during). And a wonderful holiday to all--even to my friends around the globe who don't celebrate it!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Talking with the enemy: Syria and Iran

[The follow-up second part of yesterday's post on Vietnamization and Iraqization is coming soon. It was postponed for this one.]

Assassinations are a dime a dozen in the Middle East. Lebanon, in particular, has seen quite a spate of them within the last two years.

And now it's Industry Minister Pierre Gemayal's turn. His death is a whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie, most especially And Then There Were None:

Anti-Syrian Parliamentary leader Saad Hariri interrupted a press conference to accuse the Syrian regime of "trying to kill every free person" in Lebanon.

"The cycle (of killings) has resumed," he said.

The usual suspects? Syria. With Iran perhaps somewhere in the mix. With the resignation of Shiite Cabinet ministers about a week ago in a bid for power and control by Hezbollah (see this), the idea is to topple the fragile "Cedar Revolution" government.

It's the old Mideast dilemma: how can a democratic government stay in power, when murderous thugs who will stop at nothing to undermine that government see it (and all non-thug governments) as inherently weak? Beats me. But that's what realpolitik was all about; the propping up of a thug who was "our thug," but a thug nevertheless, because thuggery was seen as necessary to fight even worse thuggery.

One of the few silver linings in the dark Lebanese cloud is this: "Lebanese Murder May Weaken Push in US to Engage Syria in Iraq."

Was there ever really such a push, and how strong was it? I can't bring myself to believe that the Administration was ever that insane. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, seems to agree with me. He says that deeper U.S. engagement with Syria on Iraq ``was unlikely and is now even more unlikely." Sounds reasonable to me.

James Baker may think otherwise. But how did his Iraq Study Group suddenly get elevated to superstar status? It will be making recommendations, it's true. But we don't even know what those recommendations are yet, although Baker himself is on record as advocating (as a general principle, at least) talking with the enemy.

But all rumors of the recommendations the Iraq Study Group will make seem to be just that at the moment--unsourced rumor, reverberating in the echo chamber that is the MSM. And, even if the MSM turns out to be correct, and the ISG does end up making a recommendation to talk to Syria and Iran re Iraqi "stabilization," no one need act on those recommendations.

Mary Madigan thinks such talk would be like trying to negotiate with the Mob. I like the analogy, except that the mob had far more honor and far less power than these guys in Syria and Iran. Tony Blankly, in an article in RealClearPolitics, writes what appears to me basic common sense on the matter:

Iran has been our persistent enemy for 27 years -- Syria longer. They may well be glad to give us cover while we retreat, but that would merely be an exercise in slightly delayed gratification, not self-denial, let alone benignity.

What's up with this belief in the power of talk? Yes, sometimes, if there's something in it for them, one can talk with the enemy and convince them to cooperate in an endeavor that gives them some sort of secondary gain. Or, it can work if we couple it with a big enough threat; but our threats are getting a bit hollow these days.

I read this editorial, and especially the quoted paragraph that follows, over and over, trying to parse some sort of sense from its Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning. I failed; perhaps you can enlighten me:

There is little doubt that Iran and Syria, especially the former, can play a crucial role in bringing peace to Iraq. Teheran’s influence on Iraq’s Shia political alliance and their numerous militias is hardly a secret. Iran has skilfully used its friends in Iraq to send the message to Washington that it could add to its woes, if the US pressured it on the question of nuclear programme.

Let's see; I could paraphrase it something like this:

There is little doubt that the fox can play a crucial role in bringing peace to the henhouse. The fox's raids on the chickens are hardly a secret. The fox has skillfully sent a message to the chicken farmers that it could add to their woes, if the chicken farmers tried to shoot it.

Even for therapists--and therapists believe in talk--there's a time when talk is not appropriate--in dealing with relationships in which there are massive differentials of power, and ones that involve violence, for example. That's when the law steps in.

There's an almost unbelievably ridiculous and misplaced faith in talk across the land, a faith not-above-board players such as Syria and Iran do not share. They view our devotion to talk and to pacts and truths as a wonderful opportunity to exploit the naivete and weakness of the West. And they are right.

Munich was a wonderful talkfest, as well. And the ever-eloquent Churchill had something to say about it, too:

...[T]he terrible words have for the time being been pronounced against the Western democracies: "Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting". And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

Churchill didn't want a world war; he wanted to prevent one by taking a stand at the right time for the right thing. But he knew that trusting the words of an enemy such as Hitler was no way to go about avoiding one; au contraire.

[ADDENDUM: Victor Davis Hanson agrees.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Vietnamization; Iraqization (Part I)

Wars tend to be hard on Presidents as well as on nations. Lincoln barely survived the Civil War before he was assassinated. Wilson's health permanently deteriorated in the immediate aftermath of WWI, when he undertook a grueling speaking tour in a vain attempt to rally the country around support for the League of Nations. FDR died shortly before WWII ended, leaving the unseasoned Harry Truman to make vital decisions at its conclusion.

The Vietnam War was a bit different; no executive died (although my guess is that it may have hastened the death of Johnson, who already had a bad heart). But there's little doubt that it prematurely ended the political career of Johnson, who'd been elected in a huge landslide in 1964 but declined to run in 1968. And of course Richard Nixon, the proximate cause of whose political demise was Watergate rather than Vietnam, had to leave office before the war was over, leaving the unelected Gerald Ford to preside inneffectually over Congress's final financial abandonment of the South Vietnamese.

President Bush is still with us, despite the war (and those who wish he'd drop dead). This time, the casualty was Republican control of Congress. The Iraq War will have been started by a Republican executive paired with a Republican Congress, and will now be continued by a Republican President (at least for now) and a Democratic Congress.

Many people who have only a passing acquaintance with the history of the Vietnam War fail to realize that the first phase, escalation of American combat forces in the country, was engineered by two Democrat Presidents (Kennedy but then much more importantly Johnson) and a strongly Democratic Congress. The second part--Vietnamization, or the drawing down of US combat forces, ceding the actual fighting to the South Vietnamese--was undertaken by a Republican executive, Nixon, working with a profoundly Democratic Congress. The third stage, occurring when there were no more US combat troops in Vietnam, was presided over by a weak and unelected Republican President and a Democratic Congress, although it was the Democratic Congress that was the main player in the cutoff of funding to the South Vietnamese, sealing their fate; President Ford was active in that decision mainly by his failure to fight it, or to suggest alternatives. We can say that the Vietnam War was a bipartisan affair, but Democrats had the leading role, especially in stages one and three.

Why am I bringing this up now? We seem to be facing a decision somewhat similar to that faced by Nixon on his election: how to deal with a war that isn't going as anyone would have hoped. This commission or that commission or the other commission is studying the problem: realpolitik or not? more troops or fewer? big, long, or home?

Victor Davis Hanson, an expert on military history, has recently written a column in which he weighs current suggestions for Iraq policy, especially troop increases. He says--and I agree--that it's the second stage of the Vietnam War our present involvement should try to resemble (only we need to accomplish it more effectively, of course): that of Vietnamization.

In contrast to Vietnam, the US political parties involved in the Iraq War are somewhat reversed. The first stage of the Iraq War (if this election can be said to mark the end of the first stage, which I believe it does) was as much a Republication endeavor as the first stage of Vietnam was a Democratic one: Republican President, Republican Congress. And now, although the change of party power is different than it was in 1968 (change of legislature rather than executive) the Democrats get a chance to try their luck at the second stage, Iraqization, just as the Republican Nixon did back in early 1969 when he introduced Vietnamization. It can either be done slowly and carefully, or quickly and recklessly.

As with all parallels to Vietnam, this one is far from an exact comparison. For one thing, President Bush and the Defense Department have been trying for years to Iraqicize the conflict, although without enough success. Another difference is that the American presence in Iraq has never been close to what it was in Vietnam in terms of numbers or casualties. We deposed Saddam's regime at the outset of the war, and in record time; we never achieved that goal in Vietnam with the North Vietnamese (in fact, it doesn't really seem to have been one of our goals there). In Iraq, we're facing a conflict that's less clear geographically (although Vietnam was far from clearly demarcated), and involves far more sides, including ancient religious clashes as well as modern-day jockeying for secular power, and an enemy that's even more brutal than the North Vietnamese were (and that's saying something).

Vietnam became a war in which both Democrats and Republicans had a chance to make decisions. Peggy Noonan writes, reflecting on the change represented in the recent midterm election:

We are in a 30-year war. It is no good for it to be led by, identified with, one party. It is no good for half the nation to feel estranged from its government's decisions. It's no good for us to be broken up more than a nation normally would be. And straight down the middle is a bad break, the kind that snaps.

"Vietnamization" was a word that became a sort of joke to many liberals and those on the Left, representing the shoring up of a corrupt regime in South Vietnam, the secret bombings of Cambodia (and thus, more deception to the American people), and the final retreat and abandonment of the country. In Part II, I plan to take up a discussion of what Vietnamization actually was, and how it might relate to the decisions we face today.

Monday, November 20, 2006

You heard it here first: Charles Rangel, the draft, and the Hegelian dialectic

It seems to me that Representative Charles Rangel's suggestion to reintroduce the draft should get some sort of prize for cynical ploys in Congress. Granted, he's got a lot of competition, but this one is designed to offend almost everyone, including the vast majority of his fellow Democrats, and even Rangel doesn't think for a moment that his proposal has a chance of passing.

Whether or not he's serious about the actual institution of an actual draft, Rangel certainly has been serious about suggesting such a thing. He did it back in January of 2003, to a resounding defeat--and, interestingly enough, Rangel was one of the defeaters: he voted against his own bill.

Those Republicans and Independents who turned on the Republican Congress this past election and either stayed home from the polls or voted for Democrats in protest may be rethinking just a bit when they learn that Rangel is going to be chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee. But the moving finger has writ.

And now it's deja vu all over again, especially if Rangel has his way. Paraphrasing one of my personal heroes, Groucho Marx, Rangel said "you bet your life" when asked yesterday on "Face the Nation" if he would renew his call for a draft.

What's motivating Rangel, besides the desire for publicity? He says he thinks a draft would make future administrations more wary of going to war in the first place; no doubt he's studied the Vietnam years and knows that the war protests were at least partly fueled by the understandable self-interest of the youth of America, who were reluctant to be drafted into a far-off war that seemed both unwinnable and strategically unnecessary. But Rangel also says he wants the army to be more socioeconomically even-handed; he believes it's the poor who are exploited by the present system.

Of course, Rangel is ignoring the evidence that indicates the composition of today's armed forces do not at all correspond to his vision (see this, for example.) Perception is all, after all. Not to mention the fact that the highly specialized nature of today's military does not lend itself to a draft.

Even among his constituents, many seem to regard Rangel as a sort of buffoon or even the enemy:

Along 125th Street in New York City on Sunday, Rangel's draft plan was met mostly with derision.

"What, he was smoking pot or something?" said 58-year-old James Brown [
no; not this James Brown].

"He doesn't represent the people of Harlem if he's for the draft," Neil Davis, 48, said.

But I don't think Rangel is dumb. In fact, he may be extremely smart. Certainly, he's about to become a great deal more powerful when he ascends to his new chairmanship. And it occurs to me, attempting to drag some hazy facts from the dim reaches of my college memory (an era in my life that grows further and further away even as I write this), it seems to me that Rangel may be one of the few people on earth who understands the concept of the Hegelian dialectic.

Yes, you read me right: the Hegelian dialectic. As I recall, it's one of those things where you go in one direction in order to end up in the opposite one by causing some sort of outraged reaction and backlash--but, as I said, my recollection is a trifle dim (the dialectic hasn't come up too often in my daily life of the past few decades). So I decided to Google it.

And immediately fell into a deep morass of obfuscation. You take a look if you like; I'm weary. It reminds me of just why I decided not to become a philosophy major: impenetrability. Perhaps my interpretation of the dialectic is wrong; if so, I can count on you readers to set me straight.

But if--as I suspect--Charles Rangel understands and is operationalizing all of this, he's got some heavy-duty intellectual chops to go with his heavy-duty audacity.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

I'm just a Richard Thompson groupie

I went to a Richard Thompson concert the other night.

Who's he? Just one of those old guys (in his fities!) still churning out the music and touring round the world. He's never become a household word despite a career that's lasted over thirty years.

But here's my small effort to promote one of the most electrifying and intense performers of all time. And I'm not even getting a fee, although a meeting with the guy, if anyone could arrange one, might be awfully nice (in this latter endeavor I'm inspired by The Anchoress's call for a similar rendezvous with Bryn Terfel. Each to his [her] own).

I discovered Thompson about fifteen years ago and the minute I heard him I knew I was hooked. I was idly listening to one of those FM stations that specialize in what's known as "folk" music nowadays, a genre that bears little or no resemblance to the folk music of my youth (I'm not complaining). Yes, every now and then Thompson, a Brit, does compose a ballad (although never a conventional one; see this) that harks back to traditional folk roots. But most of his music is indefinable, except that it partakes of his caustic, often bitter and yet poetic sensibility, and sometimes a biting humor.

And, to those of you who call me anti-Muslim, let it be said here and now that years ago Thompson converted to Sufism (not exactly mainstream Islam, of course). Which is irrelevant, except to him; he's no Cat Stevens. The main thing is the music and the lyrics.

Thompson writes both, and it's hard to say which is better. His recordings are good (listen to some of the cuts here, for example). But it's live that he shines--although "shines" isn't exactly the right word--he smoulders, and then explodes in a very controlled burn.

Thompson is an astounding guitar player; aficionados consider him the best or one of the best in the world. In person, he emanates a deceptive stillness that contains within it a coiled tension. He moves hardly at all when he plays and sings; all that energy is focused on his hands, face, and mouth. Every now and then a leg kicks out in a small karate-like action, potential energy transformed to kinetic. But within his control is an emotionality that can break the heart and reach the soul, especially through the remarkably expressive instrument that is Thompson's voice (listen, for example, to the cut "Persuasion," here).

I've seen Thompson in concert five or six times, and all of them have been extraordinary. He never flags and never gives less than his all, which is far more than most people's all. Go see him if you can--and oh, yeah; give him my love.

Friday, November 17, 2006

That was a mighty short honeymoon: Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi may have gotten the kid-gloves treatment from the media during the election, but now the gloves are off. Her championing of Murtha for Majority leader (and her simultaneous abandonment of her former deputy, Hoyer) seems to have struck a nerve.

We expected her stand to offend Republicans; that's not news. But it offended Democrats as well, not to mention Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, previously labeled "...probably the most anti-Bush reporter currently assigned to the White House by a major news organization" by John J. Miller of National Review.

Milbank doesn't sound all that fond of Pelosi's track record so far, either; he seems to think this Speaker might do well to do less Speaking and just STFU.

And it's hard to blame him, or those Democrats who are angry that Pelosi's misguided boosting of Murtha put a damper on their victory party as well as their party unity. And then there are statements by Pelosi such as the following, made after Murtha's defeat; it's almost beyond parody:

Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with us. Let the healing begin."

It's a noble sentiment, but better suited to the pulpit than the Speaker's podium. Perhaps she was speaking ironically? At any rate, it appears that nobody's listening:

For Pelosi, who led Democrats back to a majority in the House after 12 years, yesterday should have been a coronation for the first woman to be speaker. Instead, her party had plunged into fratricide, and cable news was running nonstop clips of Murtha talking with FBI agents posing as sheiks in the Abscam sting.

Was this a great moment for Democrats, or "total crap"? "The latter," Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider had to admit as she surveyed the melee outside the caucus room

Personally, I don't really care if the Democrats unite or not--what I care about is what they accomplish, or fail to accomplish. If they somehow, despite Murtha et al, refuse to cut and run in Iraq, and manage to force the administration into formulating a better plan for dealing with the situation in Iraq here-and-now--that would be a consummation devoutly to be wished. I'm interested in results, not who gets us there.

[NOTE: Why did Pelosi abandon Hoyer, despite his great popularity among fellow Democrats? Perhaps it's because he's too much of a centrist? And see this--those Blue Dog Democrats seem to be up for another Pelosi challenge. I wish them well; Hastings is a lousy choice, but Pelosi appears determined to strong-arm her candidates into place over the objections of many, rather than having learned the lesson of the Murtha defeat. "Peace on earth" indeed.]

[ADDENDUM: I mentioned the Pelosi-bashing in the Post; Tigerhawk notices something similar at the Times.]

[ADDENDUM II: It occurs to me that this honeymoon was so short and unsweet that some Democrats might prefer an annulment.]

Glee may be premature, on both sides

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the largest newspaper in Iran during the 1970s. Ever since, he's been writing about the Middle East and Iran for a wide variety of Western papers, as well as the Arab News and the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawsat. You might say he's well-versed in the region.

Taheri sees the Islamist totalitarian jihadis as jubilant after last week's US election. In fact, as Taheri describes them, our enemies of that ilk from Baghdad to Tehran to Beirut--and everywhere in-between--are probably far more gleeful right now than even the Democrats in Congress. The former view the election as a sign of America's weakness, and are convinced the fix is in for Iraq: it's cut and run time. Showing those films of American helicopters on the roof in Saigon seems awfully prescient for Saddam, who even as he marches off to the gallows may get to shout a triumphant "I told you so!" to his former subjects.

Or maybe not.

Maybe one of the reasons the Democrats aren't feeling so sanguine is that they realize, as Taheri says; it's one of those "be careful what you wish for" things:

Some Democrats may have promised cut-and-run. But, once in power, the party as a whole may realize (to its horror) that, this time, those from whom Americans run away will come after them.

Leaving Iraq precipitously is by no means a foregone conclusion, even with the Democrats in power in Congress. The jihadis make an error if they automatically assume that it is. Although there's no denying that Taheri is correct--this election sends a very bad message regarding American resolve--as he also points out, the Democrats might surprise the Arab world by countermanding that message.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

More good news


RIP Milton Friedman

It seems as though it must have been an awfully good life: a long one filled with accomplishments, a happy marriage, and countless friends. Milton Friedman, who died today, was the economist nearly everyone's heard of, the architect of libertarian economic theories followed by Reagan and Thatcher, predictor of the inflationary problems of the 70s ("stagflation"), and hero of former Communist nations struggling to become capitalist.

Friedman believed that government should interfere as little as possible in the economy except for taking a hand in controlling the supply of money. His ideas were revolutionary at the time, since Keynes held sway, but they harked back to earlier thinkers such as Adam Smith.

I'm interested, as usual, in what factors about Friedman's life may have formed him. The shaping of a human being is always, at heart, a mystery, but here are a few clues:

Mr. Friedman’s father died in his son’s senior year at Rahway High School. Young Milton later waited on tables and clerked in stores to supplement a scholarship he had earned at Rutgers University. He entered Rutgers in 1929, the year the stock market crashed and the Depression began.

Mr. Friedman attributed his success to “accidents”: the immigration of his teenage parents from Czechoslovakia, enabling him to be an American and not the citizen of a Soviet-bloc state; the skill of a high-school geometry teacher who showed him a connection between Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and the Pythagorean theorem, allowing him to see the beauty in the mathematical truth that the square of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse; the receipt of a scholarship that enabled him to attend Rutgers and there have Arthur F. Burns and Homer Jones as teachers...

In his first economic-theory class at Chicago, he was the beneficiary of another accident — the fact that his last name began with an “F.” The class was seated alphabetically, and he was placed next to Rose Director, a master’s-degree candidate from Portland, Ore. That seating arrangement shaped his whole life, he said. He married Ms. Director six years later. And she, after becoming an important economist in her own right, helped Mr. Friedman form his ideas and maintain his intellectual rigor.

After he became something of a celebrity, Mr. Friedman said, many people became reluctant to challenge him directly. “They can’t come right out and say something stinks,” he said. “Rose can.”

In 1998, he and his wife published a memoir, “Two Lucky People” (University of Chicago Press.

His wife survives him...

Lucky people, indeed--but not blind luck. Friedman was obviously brilliant, but with a creative mind able to synthesize, some experience with the school of hard knocks as well as academia, and a heart that recognized a good potential spouse when he saw one plus the good sense to stick with her for what must have been something like seventy years.

Friedman had the ability to earn the grudging respect even of his opponents, and sometimes even their reluctant acquiescence in the end. That's the mark of a formidable thinker, one whose theories had predictive value. It's also the mark of an honest and open-minded opponent:

Mr. Samuelson...of M.I.T., [who often disagreed with Friedman], who was not above wisecracking himself, had a standard line in his economics classes that always brought down the house: “Just because Milton Friedman says it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily untrue.”

But Professor Samuelson said he never joked in class unless he was serious — that his friend and intellectual opponent was, in fact, often right when at first he sounded wrong.

Mr. Friedman’s opposition to rent control after World War II, for example, incurred the wrath of many colleagues. They took it as an unpatriotic criticism of economic policies that had been successful in helping the nation mobilize for war. Later, Mr. Sameulson said, “probably 98 percent of them would agree that he was right.”

Friedman's major achievement, the one for which he received the Nobel prize, was linking rising unemployment to rising inflation. He also suggested a remedy, one that's generally been followed: to have the Federal Reserve keep the money supply growing steadily.

Here are some visuals for the imagination (I've seen Galbraith in person, by the way, and though far be it from me to doubt the veracity of the Times, he appeared even taller than this, if possible):

In forums [Friedman] would spar over the role of government with his more liberal adversaries, including John Kenneth Galbraith, who was also a longtime friend (and who died in May 2006). The two would often share a stage, presenting a study in contrasts as much visual as intellectual: Mr. Friedman stood 5 feet 3; Mr. Galbraith, 6 feet 8.

But--in a metaphor that's almost inescapable--Friedman was a giant of a man.

[NOTE: Liberals and leftists have criticized Friedman for giving economic advice to the government of Pinochet in Chile. I wouldn't doubt it if some commenters here feel like doing the same (criticizing him, that is, not giving advice to Pinochet). Friedman's pragmatic answer was this:

...if he could help reestablish a free market in Chile, political freedom would eventually triumph there as well.

For a fuller explanation by Friedman, see this as well.]

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

And now for some good news: repealing sharia rape law in Pakistan

Pakistan has taken a step forward after taking several steps backward. Yesterday Pakistan's legislature voted to end the sway of sharia in dealing with the crime of rape.

Ah, sharia. That famous Muslim legal system, steeped in a religion that's so very respectful of women and human rights. But it's not, you say? Ah, but we need to respect a different culture, as the British imperialist warmongers so famously did not regarding the quaint and ancient Hindu practice of suttee:

When General George Napier was governor of Sind province in India in the 1840s, he vigorously enforced the ban on suttee, the practice of throwing a Hindu widow on to the funeral pyre of her husband. A delegation of Brahmins came to him to explain that he must not prohibit the practice at the funeral of a particular maharaja, as it was an important cultural custom.

“If it is your custom to burn a widow alive, please go on,” Napier responded.

“We have a custom in our country that whoever burns a person alive shall be hanged. While you prepare the funeral pyre, my carpenters will be making the gallows to hang all of you. Let us all act according to our customs” The Brahmins thought better of it, and the widow lived.

Old-fashioned imperialism is dead--at least, of the Western variety--despite leftist claims that we are the worst imperialists ever. So Napier's solution is not available to us.

But even Leftists and feminists ought to be privately rejoicing in their publicly multi-cultural hearts at the news from Pakistan. No longer does a raped woman require the corroborative testimony of four Muslim men to confirm her account of a sexual assault. And, praise be, judges are now able to consider forensic and circumstantial evidence of rape, as well. Not only that, but flogging and stoning to death will no longer be on the books for consensual sex outside marriage.

But all is not well in Pakistan for those who want to mess around; far from it. All extramarital sex is still punishable by five years in prison and fines. And we only got a tongue-lashing from our parents, and fear of pregnancy (although I seem to recall that, when I was in college, the crime of fornication was still on the books in several states).

Members of Parliament from Islamist parties boycotted the vote, but it still passed. And President Musharraf, who has pushed for this change for years but always backed off in the past when Islamist groups threatened protests, seems to have gotten his way this time.

Why success now? Perhaps the key was international embarrassment:

Pakistan's rape laws came under international scrutiny when last year when a high court overturned the convictions of five men accused of gang-raping villager Mukhtar Mai, as a form of punishment for an adulterous act by her brother and another woman. She had to flee the country because of the backlash against her.

I'm not sure whether pressures like that would work in a country less Westernized than Pakistan. It's also interesting to note that sharia has not held sway there for very long; these laws were part of a legal "reform" movement that was introduced in 1979. It was a very good year--for turning back the clock to a medieval version of civil rights: 1979 was also, of course, the year of the Iranian revolution.

Post-election blues? Try the Sanity Squad

For those of you with post-election letdown (and everyone else, as well) here's a dose of the Sanity Squad. It may not be the talking cure, but it sure is a lot of talking.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Government lies, press lies: finding the truthtellers on that island

Since last week's election, I've been thinking about Vietnam. Again.

Back in earlier installments of my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series (and no, readers, I've not given up on composing new installments; they're just so lengthy that I have to find a huge chunk of free time in which to tackle them), I wrote at least four pieces on the subject: here, here, here, and especially here.

A deja vu feeling engendered by this post-election week harks back to the early seventies, the time of Vietnamization and the phased withdrawal of US troops, and then the final pulling of the financial plug on the South Vietnamese in 1975. That war ended, for most Americans, not with a bang but a whimper, as well as a sigh of relief.

Back then, my thoughts about Vietnam--and therefore many of my opinions and feelings--were formed mainly by reading what we now call the MSM but what at the time was simply the press, the newspapers, the papers of record, all the news fit to print. Part of my revisiting of the Vietnam story has been to re-evaluate some of the information and impressions I and many others swallowed at the time, and to look at them in the harsh light of a new day.

There's nothing easy about that process. How does one evaluate what is truth, what is lies, and what is the bias and subtle shading in between? On the island of the truth tellers and the liars, how can you tell the difference, when knowing the answer could be a matter of life and death?

One way, of course, is to look at the track record for accuracy and the known biases of the presenter of such "truths" Another, and my favorite, is to read on both sides and then try to decide. But in the end, the reader is faced with the fact that truth is an elusive beast to stalk.

But it's not a unicorn. I'm not one to throw up my hands in despair and decide that all truths are equally equal and equally unknowable, so why bother. I believe we can--and must--try to learn history as best we can, or be condemned to repeat it. Sometimes I fear that even if we do learn it, we'll still be condemned to repeat it, simply because human nature doesn't change.

Which brings us (in laborious fashion; I know, I know!) back to Vietnam.

One of the constant themes of many critics of the US role in Vietnam was that our government lied. There's no question this was a watershed experience for many Americans who lived through it; for them, ever afterwards, a deep and bitter skepticism towards our government replaced an earlier too-naive trust. For many such people, there was a concomitant attitude change towards members of the press, who were now seen as heroic giant-slayers and (pardon the word) crusaders, bravely exposing those government lies.

I was never one who saw it in such very stark terms. But yes, early on, it became evident that Vietnam was one of the most complex endeavors in American history, one in which the government did appear to lie (or at least bend the truth) about some key issues, such as, for example, the possibilities of actually ever "winning" the conflict. But it's also become clear that the press also had a horse in that race, and wasn't adverse to some shady doings of its own.

Anyone who's read my "change" series knows that a goodly part of my post-9/11 thinking has been a process of evaluating press lies, truth-shadings, and biases. One reason the press can get away with this so easily is because of human laziness: how many people are going to make it their business to become the MSM's fact-checkers? That would be far more than a full time job, although it's become a bit easier with advent of the internet.

Take the Pentagon Papers. We all know the drill: fearless Daniel Ellsberg, at the risk of prosecution, spirits away classified information (not in his pants a la Sandy Berger--the Papers were originally 7,000 pages long, and Ellsberg was a skinny guy) and gives it to the press, who publish it in brave defiance of government efforts and a Supreme Court case trying to enjoin them from doing so. But Ellsberg's--and the Times and Post's--devotion to truth won out, the American people were informed of the government's deceptions, and we finally disengaged from an unwinnable battle.

We can forever debate the Vietnam war itself--its morality, justification, execution, and results; I'm trying not to do that in this post. This is about the sorting through of information.

So, what about the press lies about the government lies? Who will tell that story, and who has the patience to listen? It's a marathon, not a sprint; to tell it requires a laborious wade through a mind-numbing number of documents, and to even read about it requires a bit of work, as well, and a troubling rethinking of old perceptions.

For example, just for the Pentagon Papers alone, the task of evaluation would require actually reading the original Papers, and then reading all the major press stories about them, sorting through the excerpts from the Papers that were published in newspapers at the time, and seeing how they compare to the Papers as a whole. It's something I must confess I've never done, and probably never will do. But others have, and they report some curious goings-on.

A fascinating piece on the subject of war coverage by the MSM--both then and now--was written by James Q. Wilson and appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. Take a look at this, on the Papers:

Journalist Edward Jay Epstein has shown that in crucial respects, the Times coverage was at odds with what the documents actually said. The lead of the Times story was that in 1964 the Johnson administration reached a consensus to bomb North Vietnam at a time when the president was publicly saying that he would not bomb the north. In fact, the Pentagon papers actually said that, in 1964, the White House had rejected the idea of bombing the north. The Times went on to assert that American forces had deliberately provoked the alleged attacks on its ships in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify a congressional resolution supporting our war efforts. In fact, the Pentagon papers said the opposite: there was no evidence that we had provoked whatever attacks may have occurred.

In short, a key newspaper said that politicians had manipulated us into a war by means of deception. This claim, wrong as it was, was part of a chain of reporting and editorializing that helped convince upper-middle-class Americans that the government could not be trusted.

We're not on that island of the truth-tellers and the liars, where a single cleverly-worded question can discern the truth. Would that we were; our task would be a great deal easier. But it's plain that there were enough lies to go around, and that the MSM's lies must lead every thinking person to question the earlier version of history that was learned back when events were happening, and when newspaper and television coverage combined to give us our primary perception of the blooming buzzing confusion around us.

In writing this post, I went back and read a few of the comments to my earlier Vietnam essays. I happened across this one, that deals with the very subject at hand: media coverage of the Pentagon Papers:

The NYT and WaPo reporters (Neil Sheehan, et al) who provided a highly abridged (paraphrased and quoted) version [of the Pentagon Papers] to the public of that era ('71) distorted the originals in sundry and fundamental ways in order to imply or more directly state that Pres. Johnson and others employed deceptions at critical junctures in the conflict when in fact (as stated in the original document as well as the scaled down version) they did not. A specific example (and a critical one in that era) taken from Michael Lind's Vietnam: The Necessary War:

The June 14, '71 NYT edition of their edited version of the Pentagon Papers indicates Pres. Johnson had virtually concluded his decision to initiate a bombing campaign against the North by Nov. 3, 1964. (If true this would have made Johnson out to be deceitful toward the American public at an early and critical stage in the conflict.) However the Pentagon Papers itself states: "... the President was not ready to approve a program of air strikes against North Vietnam, at least until the available alternatives could be carefully and thoroughly re-examined." That quote, reflecting November, 1964 circumstances, can be located via a search in this section of the Pentagon Papers.

This single distortion may not appear to be dramatic in and of itself, but there were other overt and more subtle distortions in the NYT's and WaPo's paraphrased versions of this document. In sum they always and consistently distorted the picture in a manner which eroded Pres. Johnson's (and others) reputation, broadly characterizing him as being willfully deceitful; that general mischaracterization is what proved to be critical at the time rather than any single aspect of the paraphrased report.

I'm not trying to absolve Johnson of all wrongdoing; there's enough blame to go around. And some of it most definitely goes to our old friends, those dragon slayers in the MSM.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Homeward bound

She sits on her bed in a room empty of all else save a modest suitcase and a wicker nightstand with a note taped to it that reads, "Give to Paula the hairdresser." The bed's going to Pam, one of her caregivers.

In the closet rests a single pair of empty sneakers, for tomorrow; a few stark wire hangers dangle above. The living room holds another suitcase, larger, next to a wheelchair and two walkers instead of the usual sofa. Otherwise, just an expanse of wall-to-wall beige carpet, holes in the walls where the pictures used to hang, and the large windows that gave her a view of the trees in all seasons.

My mother's going home. What can "home" mean, at the age of nearly nine-three?

Not the home where she grew up as the only child surrounded by four adults, the large Victorian by the harbor with the rose garden that her grandfather lovingly tended. They dressed every evening for dinner there; he wore spats on his shoes and a carnation in his buttonhole.

Not the home she lived in for forty years while she raised her children and had parties where thirty sharply-dressed couples danced in the basement, and where she was widowed still young enough to be vigorous and healthy.

Not the apartment where she lived for eight happy years with my stepfather, whom she'd met when she was eighty and he eighty-five. He'd taken one look at her at a Florida get-together and said, "That's for me," and they were together till shortly before he died a few weeks after 9/11.

Nor is it the home she's lived in for the last five years, an independent living facility for the elderly in this northern New England town where I reside. It's far away from the New York City borough where her family settled a hundred and sixty years ago, and where she'd lived her whole life prior to coming here. No, this place has never been--could never be--home to her, despite its familiarity and elegant comfort.

This town isn't even home to me, although I thought it might become one when I moved here six years ago during one of those "times of transition" (translated: upheaval and heartbreak) in life. I thought it would most likely be a resting place for some small time before I'd move on. But instead my stepfather died, my mother couldn't live alone, and there was no place that suited her needs close to home.

So she came here, and I became the person who saw to it that things went relatively smoothly; who found the doctors for her (although she kept switching them without telling me), who took her out for dinner every Sunday night (her residence didn't serve dinner on Sundays), who raced over in a crisis and tried to make things better.

A year and a half ago my mother had a stroke, a crisis beyond my power to soothe. And though she's made all sorts of "progress" since then, she's reached a shaky equilibrium where she still needs a certain amount of help, and still has a great deal of fear.

Two months ago a friend of hers from New York told her that an assisted living facility was being built in the community where my mother had lived most of her life. My mother made inquiries, my brother visited the model room and talked to the management, and a few weeks later she announced that in early November, when the place opened, she was moving.

And now that day has come, and my nephew is driving her down to her new room in a new building filled (or soon to be filled) with new people. She's anxious; that much is clear. But a powerful urge to go home is driving her, as well.

At ninety-two, even though she once knew thousands of people, a far greater number of them are now dead than are alive. But since she knew so very many, there's still a surprising number left. They're not necessarily the people she would have chosen if she'd had her pick; but she didn't, and none of us do. The survivors are a random bunch, but they call her on the phone and they swear they'll come visit her now that she'll be nearby. I hope they remember their promises.

I place her pills in plastic compartments as I talk to her. I could almost do this in my sleep by now: the beta blockers in the ones marked "morning" and "evening," the coated aspirin in the "lunch" slots, the vitamins everywhere, the Lipitor and the this and the that in their allotted places. I've got enough containers for one month's worth; after that a nurse or nurse's aide will be doing this.

She already relies on the kindness (and competence) of strangers. In her new place there'll be a new bunch of strangers who will become, if not friends, at least trusted and familiar helpers. She's said goodbye to the crew who've been taking care of her for the past year and a half, wonderful women all. She's said goodbye to her fellow residents, too, but she never made good friends here and is focused on the ones to whom she'll soon be saying hello.

And I? It may be time for me to move on, as well. If she hadn't been here, tying me to this place, I might have moved years ago. Probably to a larger city, one with more action and more choices--or the illusion of more action and more choices. Soon I'll be writing more about this, and maybe have some sort of contest, with a list of desired characteristics: choose the perfect city for neo.

But that's another post for another time. Right now I'm thinking about my mother, hoping she finds what she's looking for in her new place--if she doesn't, I imagine I'll hear about it soon enough.

But in one way she's blessed: she knows where home is. How many of us can say that, any more?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Garden, late fall

Those of you who follow this blog know that when I bought my house I bought the responsibility of gardening, and I've tried to step up to the plate and do right by it.

I've posted photos of the garden bed in the front, the sunny one--in spring, in summer (can't find those, so no link), and in fall. It's always beautiful.

And here it is now, in very late fall, before being cut down and put to sleep for the winter. Although you might say it's dead, it's really not; it's just resting.

Even in this brown and faded state, it seems quite beautiful nonetheless, in a sad and subtle way. At least, I think so. And strangely enough, the roses are still in bloom.

Last year I published this same poem around this same time. It's Robert Frost's "Reluctance," very appropriate to the season:

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch-hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Recommended reading: Bill Whittle

I just got around to the new Bill Whittle essay, and all I can say is: read it.

Well, that's not all I can say. Whittle is one of those thinkers rather than linkers, and he publishes very seldom, so when he does it's an event. And it's looong.

So I won't add too much to it, except to say that Whittle has a way of getting to the heart of a number of matters (chickenhawks, US imperialism, "no blood for oil," Bush's intelligence or lack thereof, pacifism, and the "Bush lied" meme, to name just a few). Plus a colorful way of writing that keeps it all interesting.

In case you're not up to The Whole Thing--and I sincerely hope you are--here are a couple of excerpts that don't even begin to do justice to Whittle's opus:

Doves think the choice is between fighting or not fighting. Hawks think the choice is between fighting now or fighting later.

If you understand this, you understand everything that follows. You don’t need to think the other side is insane, or evil. Both hawks and doves are convinced they are doing the right thing. But it seems to me there is a choice between peace at any price and a peace worth having.

We cannot undo the invasion and compare that timeline to the one we have. The only data we can use to compare these philosophies is embedded in the pages of history. What does history show?

I cannot think of a single example where appeasement – giving in to an aggressive adversary in the hope that it will convince them to become peaceful themselves – has provided any lasting peace or security. I can say in complete honesty that I look forward to hearing of any historical example that shows it does....

So, contrary to doomsayers throughout history, the destruction of the Barbary Pirates did not result in the recruitment of more Pirates. The destruction of the Barbary Pirates resulted in the destruction of the Barbary Pirates.

And it is just so with terrorism. When the results of terrorism do the terrorist more harm than good, terrorism will go away.

Friday, November 10, 2006

On withdrawal from Iraq: heed the Law of Thirds

Here's another demonstration of the Law of Thirds (via Pajamas Media)

It's a post by Bill Roggio that analyzes what the midterm election might mean in terms of future policy on the Iraq War. He cites STRATFOR analyst Fred Burton, who mentions polls suggesting that, whereas two-thirds of US citizens "disapprove" of the war in Iraq, only one-third seems to favor a full withdrawal of troops.

Polls are polls, of course, and subject to all sorts of criticism. In my training and experience as a social science researcher, I learned just how easy it is to find flaws in all such studies. However, I've also noticed--over and over--the Law of Thirds operating. And here it is again; only a third seem to advocate the most radical solution, while two-thirds are more moderate. Which group will be heeded by our new Congress?

For myself, I can't quite imagine answering "approve" to a question about the war. One can agree with the decision to go to war given the facts we had at our disposal and the alternatives. One can think things are going better there than the MSM regularly reports. I fall into both these categories, and yet even I would not have answered "approve" if polled--war is too terrible, and there are too many ways in which the war could have been executed better (or at least we think so, with the benefits of 50/50 hindsight and the knowledge that, since we have no authority to implement our suggestions, our thoughts on the matter will never be subjected to the harsh light of reality. )

Like most of the two-thirds who answered "disapprove" to that poll, I've had quarrels with the conduct of the aftermath. It started with a terrible disquiet I felt at the outset, when widespread looting occurred and was allowed to continue. It set a tone of anarchy and lawlessness when a crackdown would have sent a different message. Yes, I understand the troops were busy fighting a war and wanted to ingratiate themselves with a population that they thought was only giving vent to anger at Saddam. Yes, they wanted to avoid the appearance of an occupation. But it seemed to give the wrong message, which was that anything goes.

As I've said many times before, I never expected this war to be easy or short. Actually, I fully expected it to be much worse than it has been; both in terms of initial casualties, and the subsequent battle. Whether you want to call that subsequent battle an insurgency, guerilla war, civil war, or terrorist war, I expected it to go on for a long time and to cause a great deal of suffering, as all such conflicts do.

As for mistakes in planning, failure to anticipate future events, and whether the administration expected the war and its aftermath to be easy or difficult, I've written at some length, here and here, about these questions, including the "cakewalk" issue. Please read both pieces; I have no wish to reiterate what I said then. Suffice to say that it's impossible to anticipate these things fully, and of course the administration did not.

What I never expected, however (and should have expected) was the way the media--and some Democrats and Republicans, just to be bipartisan--demonstrated a lack of knowledge of the nature of war and wars. We've been spoiled, both by our ideals (who doesn't want a cleaner war, one in which hardly anyone gets hurt? Count me in on that one) and our recent history (the Gulf War as the template, rather than World War II).

There is no question that if we expect perfection and give up if the going gets hard, we will become unable to fight any war. Some would say that's wonderful. If we give up on war, all will be peace and light. I say: tell it to the jihadis.

In a piece found at The Corner, a reader sounds a warning:

It seems to me that Americans believe wars end when we say they end. Whether we win (WWII), lose (Vietnam), or draw (Korea), our wars have ended when we said they ended. The defeated Germans, victorious North Vietnamese, or stalemated North Koreans never came after America when hostilities ended. But the jihadists are coming, no matter what happens in Iraq. Make no mistake..

Have we lost the will for any fight that's difficult or at all uncertain, that takes longer than a few weeks, that involves ambiguities and unknowns? I think we have. I hope we have not.

I hope the words of David Warren aren't true: trying to build a secular democracy over the ruin of Saddam’s regime, the Americans tried something they had not the stomach for. From the outset, they imposed upon themselves restrictions that would make that fight unwinnable. As in Vietnam, they adopted a purely defensive posture.

So far as President Bush can be blamed, it should be for showing insufficient ruthlessness in a task that could not be accomplished by half-measures. Alternatively, for failing to grasp that America was psychologically unprepared for real war, not only by the memory of Vietnam, but by the grim advance of "liberal" decadence in domestic life over the generation since.

Read the whole thing. Read the whole thing. And then read it again. And then hope and pray that Warren is a lousy prognosticator:

If Iraq is abandoned, the credibility of America and the West is lost. Iran's hopes of regional hegemony are assured. The Americans will have cut and run after enduring less than one-twentieth of the casualties they suffered in Vietnam; and from a battle more consequential, for it is against an Islamist enemy that is rising, instead of a Communist enemy in decline...

...the consequences of abandoning Iraq will come home to the United States and the West, in a way Vietnam never touched us.

[ADDENDUM: I don't mean to imply that decisions in war ought to be made by reading polls. However, since the majority of Americans don't appear to want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, if the Democratic leadership thinks they do and acts on that supposition, they may find themselves out of office next time round.

Many people (even among those who don't want an immediate pullout) seem to have lost touch with the difficulties and uncertainties, as well as the inevitable mistakes, that are part and parcel of any war, and demand that wars be easier and faster than they ever are. This means that many wars--and the Iraq war is among them--are fought with half measures, and with the knowledge that public opinion is fickle and that people don't have the stamina for the long haul. This can lead to decisions that are not strategically sound, because of knowledge of the impatience of the public. And our enemies know that, and count on it, and act accordingly.]

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