Wednesday, January 31, 2007

It's that time again: Sanity Squad podcast

This week the Sanity Squad discusses the phenomenon of equal opportunity victimhood: demands (by the Muslim Council of Britain, for example) for the replacement of Holocaust Memorial Day with the more inclusive "Genocide Day." Along the way we discuss a few other items such as Kerry at Davos, the Holocaust against animals, and Jimmy Carter and his "too many Jews."

Listen to myself, Shrinkwrapped, and Dr. Sanity; and hear Siggy get even more fired up than usual.

Do cry for Venezuela: the vulnerability of an easily amended Constitution

Castro's not really dead, although most likely dying, despite his TV cameo appearance.

Chavez's star, however, is in the ascendance, and expanding fast. He's the new Castro, with a bigger field to play on than Castro ever had: Venezuela.

Chavez has set the stage by taking on greatly expanded powers to nationalize Venezuela's industries as part of his campaign to "maximize socialism" in Venezuela. He plans to use his newly acquired powers to nationalize and/or control telecommunications, electricity, the oil and gas industry, and:

....dictate unspecified measures to transform state institutions; reform banking, tax, insurance and financial regulations; decide on security and defense matters such as gun regulations and military organization; and "adapt" legislation to ensure "the equal distribution of wealth" as part of a new "social and economic model."

Okey dokey; that's democracy, I guess. After all, as his supporters say [italics mine], "Socialism is democracy," and, "We want to impose the dictatorship of a true democracy and 'power to the people'" (now, just where have we heard that last phrase before?)

I haven't followed every in and out of Chavez's rise to power and his successful grab at more power, but I am under the distinct impression it was done with the appearance of following the rules of democracy.

You might think that, as a neocon, I champion democracy in all its guises. But the type of democracy I support (and I actually prefer a republic, but we'll leave that aside for the moment) is one that includes a constitution that explicitly protects freedoms and individual rights, and features a system by which it is extremely hard to change that constitution and expand a leader's powers as Chavez has done.

If you read the Reuters article carefully, you'll note that Chavez gained his expanded powers through a vote by Venezuela's Congress, which is at present overwhelmingly composed of his supporters. This unanimity was gained because the opposition boycotted the last election, held in 2005.

Why? Why would the opposition boycott the election of a man they knew was bent on becoming a socialist dictator? This seems so counterproductive that it's obvious there's much more behind it. The often-criticized Wikipedia has a lot to say on the matter. The opposition was initially afraid that fingerprint scanners would be used to match voters with results, and even though the scanners were removed the boycott proceeded. Chavez's supporters say that the boycott reflected the fact that the opposition knew it was sunk; others say the opposition distrusted and greatly feared Chavez and his crew.

At any rate, the boycott enabled Chavez to attain--between his own party and allied parties--virtually 100% control of Congress, far more than the 2/3 it would need to amend the Constitution. One thing appears true: the election was controlled by a National Election Council totally sympathetic to Chavez, and the opposition perceived that, even if they participated, the voting would be rigged.

The entire process points out the utmost--and I mean utmost--importance of guarantees against such usurption of powers (which, by the way, Hitler used, as well, in his ascendance to becoming Fuehrer; Germany had a similar clause that allowed dictatorial powers to be given a leader by a 2/3 vote of the Reichstag, which Hitler then proceeded to abolish).

The United States, by the way, does not allow this dangerous and pernicious route to amending the Constitution (see this for our far more restrictive method). But that's not going to help Venezuela.

The AP adds some interesting facts about Chavez's plans:

Chavez...also has formed a commission to rewrite the constitution and expects to hold a referendum on the changes by the end of the year. Among the changes, Chavez has proposed doing away with presidential term limits to allow for indefinite re-election. Term limits currently bar him from running again in 2012.

No surprise, that. He's on his way to becoming President for Life, despite claims that it will all be oh-so-democratic. With the opposition silenced and frightened, the entire legislature in his pocket, and the path cleared for an indefinite reign, the picture seems very ominous indeed.

I've often thought about our own FDR's propensity to grab power by bending the rules, or at least tradition: the attempt to pack the Supreme Court, and his four Presidential terms. But he never changed the Constitution, he merely took advantage of its silence on certain subjects. Congress deflected his first effort, and the US Constitutional amendment process was used to change the law to fill in the gap on the second, by making the two-term limit explicit after FDR.

But back to Chavez. One possible limitation for his plans involves the fact that, paradoxically, most economies based primarily on oil don't seem to do all that well; they are very vulnerable, and in good times have no incentive to diversify, and at the moment oil prices are "softening." And, of course, socialist economies in general don't have a great track record.

Even if the Venezuelan economy ends up tanking, it's hard to see how these trends toward dictatorship can be easily reversed. Once such powers are given--especially when war is not the ostensible excuse--they are rarely taken away, except by the force of arms. That's why, traditionally, the military has been feared by dictators as rivals in such countries--they are often the only ones who can accomplish the removal of a dictator. Unfortunately, they sometimes replace one with another.

Venezuela is a country with a built-in weakness in addition to its social and economic problems: a Constitution that allows for the easy usurpation of basic checks and balances. How many other democracies are vulnerable in this way I don't know, although it would be an interesting thing to research. My guess is that it's quite a few.

[For some fascinating background and eloquent commentary on the Venezuelan situation, Daniel in Venezuela has been watching the downward spiral for quite some time. Take a look at his archives: see this, for example. And here's his description of the 2005 election; here he offers some background to it, and here is his take on how the public lost faith in the voting process in the buildup to the 2005 election.

Daniel's summary statement:

I have written the diary of Venezuela slow descent into authoritarianism, the slow erosion of our liberties, the takeover of the country by a military caste, the surrendering of our soul to our inner demons.]

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cold hubris: like Father (or Big Brother), the Left knows best

The Left likes to position itself as the champion of the underdog, the third world, the downtrodden, the oppressed.

Until, that is, someone from one of those countries has the temerity to disagree with the party line.

Just as the Left like to think every African-American in America automatically ought to be a Democrat--and, if not, that person is obviously to be ridiculed as a fawning tool of the Right (or, if you like, in less PC terms, an Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima)--so it believes it has the answers for all the suffering people of color round the world.

That, by the way, is one of the reasons the Left hates--positively hates--neocons. Neocons actually have a competing theory about what to do about the third world, and it runs highly counter to that of the Left: it actually involves freedom, liberty, and protection of their rights within a democracy.

Whether the neocon dream is any more achievable than the dream of the Left (and I happen to think it is, because it is more attuned with the strivings of human nature) or any better morally (and I happen to think it is, because it is more respectful of individual and human rights) I'm not going to discuss here. That's another topic for another time. My point is that it's a vision for the third world that competes with that of the Left, and therefore cannot be countenanced by that Left.

To the Left, there's almost nothing worse than an apostate. Neocons are viewed as apostates (some of them actually are; I personally, was never on the Left but always a mere Democrat of the liberal persuasion). Apostates who originate, or even still live, in third-world countries are a tricky proposition for the Left, as well. One would think that their membership in a minority group or race would get instant approval. But the contrarian nature of their viewpoints trumps race any day, and must be fought against with vigor. The gloves tend to come off.

Witness the following exchange the other day in the comments section, between Leftist commenter and troll DonkeyKong and commenter Huan, a Vietnamese-American. It was lengthy, so I won't reproduce most of it here, but if you want to read the whole thing yourself go to the comments of this post on the State of the Union address.

Huan wrote:

As a Vietnamese expat and refugee from the US betrayal and abandonment of South Viet Nam, and knowing how the press misrepresented the progress of the war, i would say that Neo-Neocon is among the growing number of Americans who actually are coming to understand what really did happened to South Viet Nam 30 years ago.

But DK does not. I would recommend he starts by reading Vo Nguyen Giap.

"Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory."
If Americans understood, America would weep in shame.

DonkeyKong (DK) responded thusly:

Haun, after the US fought for 10 years, expended 275 billion, and 58,000 of it's countrymen, why did your government fall in 4 months (January 1975-April 1975.)

We did'nt betray you.

Oh I know, if we had only stayed another six months we would have won.

I think DK's comment above encapsulates in a rather dense and representative packet ("dense" in more ways than one) the combination of ignorance and overwhelming arrogance exhibited by many (not all) on the Left.

DK trashes the feelings of a Vietnamese refugee about the American betrayal of Vietnam in 1974-5 (whatever happened to the Left's tender regard for feelings?), as well as Huan's take on history. It's not so much the disagreement--it's certainly possible to disagree with a Vietnamese-American about Vietnam, merely on the merits of the case, and to argue facts.

But do it in a respectful way. The element of juvenile taunting is unmistakable here, and especially reprehensible because--any way you look at it, any side you favor--the subject involves a tragedy of major proportions for the people of Vietnam as well as the US. In fact, more of a tragedy for the former than the latter.

The story of why the South Vietnamese government fell in four months is the point. I've written about it often (also see this for some background). But DK and his ilk aren't interested in looking at that sort of thing. They know, they just know; better than articles by officers who were there, and most definitely better than Huan, an actual Vietnamese refugee but one who--like so many others--isn't cooperating by parroting what DK wants to hear.

DK writes, dripping with sarcasm:

Oh I know, if we had only stayed another six months we would have won.

That's not only a taunt directed at Huan, but at all those very threatening (and deluded, according to Leftist thinking) Vietnam "revisionist" historians--myself, of course, included (please read this post for a fuller discussion of Vietnam revisionist history). The idea that Vietnam might not have been a hopelessly lost cause at the end, worthy only of abandonment, threatens the Leftist "narrative" (love that word!) so strongly that it must be fought off at all costs, no matter where it originates, even from a Vietnamese-American. Or, rather, especially from a Vietnamese-American.

And what's that "we" all about in Donkey Kong's comment, anyway, when he writes "if we had stayed only another six months?" It seems that DK is unaware that the important "we"--our fighting forces--had left Vietnam years earlier (see this post that features a chart illustrating the pace of Vietnamization and the withdrawal of US fighting forces). What precipitated the downfall of South Vietnam was the withdrawal of our money, not ourselves.

After all that time, it really did come down just to money. Filthy lucre. And not a whole lot of it, either. As President Ford wrote at the time:

In South Vietnam, we have consistently sought to assure the right of the Vietnamese people to determine their own futures free from enemy interference. It would be tragic indeed if we endangered, or even lost, the progress we have achieved by failing to provide the relatively modest but crucial aid which is so badly needed there.

"Relatively modest but crucial aid"--that's what it was all about, DK. Money. Money, weariness, and propaganda from the likes of you.

And people like me to listen to it, and to be taken in by it, to my sorrow. Like Huan says, at least I have the decency to weep in shame. What's your excuse? Too young to remember?

This time, I'm not weeping. I'm writing.

I'll leave the final words here to Huan, however, who addresses Donkey Kong in this way:

...but apparently you are incapable of learning from mistake, rather sticking with cold hubris, as you and your ilk are about to repeat the same mistake, abandoning the millions of iraqi to islamofascism and emboldening others to act against the US.

doesn't matter how many suffers, as long as their skin is different, as long as they don't meet your desired standards, as long as it is not in the news.

there is no shame to being ignorant, but it is shameful to cling to blind ignorance and let other suffer instead of you.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Passive-aggressive Blogger on the warpath (important announcement here)

Twice in the last few days Blogger--the not-so-gracious host of this and all the other "blogspot" blogs--has been playing some games I can only describe as passive-aggressive.

Several times, when I've logged in to post, Blogger directs me to register for another version of Blogger that they've been trying to push for months--called, quite creatively, "New Blogger." And this isn't just a passing thing; when it does this, I can't post on my old blog at all for several hours.

So far it's reverted back spontaneously and allowed me to post at last. But this privilege will not last for long. Blogger has apparently decreed that I and others will be forced make the change.

Till now I'd been perfectly happy with Old Blogger (well, maybe not perfectly, but perfectly enough). And till now Old Blogger had been perfectly happy with me being perfectly happy with Old Blogger.

But since the unnamed, un-emailable, unphonable, basically unreachable Hal-like powers behind Blogger, They Who Must Be Obeyed, have decreed that I must switch to the New, I'm not happy. Why? The bulletin board there is full of complaints about New Blogger, and the bugs haven't been worked out yet. Despite the fact that the service is free, I don't want to be their reluctant guinea pig; I don't want to switch (whether I'd rather fight than switch is another question; I'm a chickenhawk, you know).

As regular readers here know, I've been working on the reorganization of the blog and its move to another server, but that's not quite ready yet.

In the meantime, I can't disable Blogger like the astronauts did Hal (and to do so would cause the immediate demise of this blog anyway, since the two are inextricably entwined). So I thought I'd post this message while I can; I seem to still have access to Old Blogger.


If I'm forced to make the change before I'm ready to leave Blogger and start up with the new non-Blogger-based server, it's very possible the switch to New Blogger will go so smoothly you won't notice. But if there are any problems, I'll go to a default blog I've set up on New Blogger just for the purpose of posting until the real new one is ready.

Here's the URL of the new temporary blog, neoneoneocon (catchy, isn't it?). Make note of it (and, if for some reason all of Blogger gives up the ghost, tune into Shrinkwrapped's blog; he's not on Blogger and has kindly offered to post a message from me in a crisis).

Remember, I'll only use that new temporary "neoneoneocon" one if anything goes wrong with this one, and only for a little while till the permanent new one is ready. Hopefully, I'll never need to use the temporary one.

Then, when I move to my more permanent site, I'll post the new URL for it--on this blog if it's still functional; on the temporary one if this one goes kaput, on Shrinks' blog if they both are unreachable for some unknown reason. And that will be that (I hope.)

I'm not sure yet of the URL for the new permanent blog. But one thing I do know: the new permanent blog will not be here at Blogger, and therefore will not have "blogspot" in its URL. But all the old posts and archives for the present blog ought to remain undisturbed and readable, even after the new permanent blog opens.

There. Was that complex enough?

Congress: don't blame us, we pass resolutions!

New bumper sticker: Don't blame us: we're from Congress, and we pass resolutions!

It's reminiscent of the post-Watergate 1974 message that used to be plastered all over the cars in Boston, where I lived at the time: "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts!" That state--you may remember--had been the only one to vote for McGovern rather than Nixon in 1972.

Of course, the bumper sticker was mum on what you might have blamed McGovern for, had he been elected instead. But no matter; it certainly wouldn't have been Watergate.

The current hue and cry in Congress accompanying the race to pass resolution after resolution is an effort that can only give aid and comfort to an implacable and evil (yes, evil) enemy bent on our destruction (yes, destruction). It's inexplicable when looked at with any sort of logic, except the logic of self-preservation--Congressional self-preservation, that is.

For example, Congress thinks the world of General Petraeus; no problem with his confirmation. It's just that everything he says must be bunk, because Congress is trying to undercut his recommendations even as he speaks.

As Robert Kagan points out, why is blocking these 20,000 new troops so important, when there are already so many troops there that will remain for a while, no matter what Congress says? Haven't some of these very opponents been clamoring for more troops anyway, not less? How does Congress choose what Kagan refers to as "the magic number" of troops that should be there right now? Isn't that for that sterling commander they all know and love, General Petraeus, to decide?

And, of course, there's the question of alternatives; opponents to the surge have none. "Just go away, close our eyes, and everything will be okay--or, at least, okay enough" seems to be the gist of it. And, by the way, such stupidity and shortsidedness is an equal-opportunity trait: it's mostly Democrats speaking, but quite a few Republicans have succumbed.

It seems clear that the main force driving this is politics--the politics of short-sighted self-interest. And the "self" involved, I'm afraid, are the members of Congress themselves. Once they've gone down the path of turning on Bush and on this war, they have no other way out (unless coming up with workable alternatives would be a way out--but that, of course, would take work, and thought, and new ideas).

Members of Congress opposing the surge have positioned themselves so that our loss in Iraq would be a "win-win if we lose-lose" situation--for them. This is the way it works:

(1) If they can stop the surge before it has even a chance of succeeding, Congressional opponents of the war will win for sure. Their constituents will like them. Few will blame any ensuing carnage in Iraq on them--even if they manage to force a pullout--and they know it.

If those members of Congress have studied the history of Vietnam, they know that after some initial upsetting "helicopter on the roof" photos (that can be blamed on Bush, no doubt) they'll be pretty much home free. Only some diehards on the Right will assign blame to them for that, or for the deaths resulting from the abandonment of the Iraqis. And what if there are more terror attacks afterwards, here, there, or everywhere? Blame Bush for inflaming Muslim world, and get re-elected.

(2) There's even a possible win for them if the surge does manage to go forward against Congressional opposition, and it doesn't immediately turn the whole thing around. Then those members who are on record as having passed resolutions to oppose it will end up looking prescient. That may indeed be the real thrust behind resolutions, which, after all, are non-binding and Bush isn't going to listen to: getting their names down as opposing it.

This is especially and vitally important for those such as Hillary Clinton--and they are many--who originally voted for the war. The resolutions are meant to undo that error, even if they have no real effect in the real world--except, of course, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out, to "embolden the enemy."

One reason it's important for Democrats on the Left in particular to make sure the surge doesn't succeed is that any such success might even cause people to look back at Vietnam and question what happened there in the mid-70s. Maybe those helicopters on the roof would come home to roost in the laps (sorry for the tripley-mixed metaphor) of the Left itself. Maybe (oh, heresy! revisionism!) the Vietnam withdrawal wasn't the Left's finest hour, after all.

(3) But what if the resolution passes but the surge goes forward, and is successful in improving the situation in Iraq? What then? This is the only possible "lose" situation for war opponents at this point.

Well, one possible solution is to count on the MSM to downplay any successes, or even negate them. But it's still a dilemma. Members of Congress who vote for such a resolution will have staked their reputation on a loss in Iraq; a win there, and they're sunk. So the only answer is to stop it before it has even a chance of succeeding.

For proponents of the resolution, the die will have been cast. The biggest risk to them, paradoxically, would be a win in Iraq.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Churchill as orator: I Can Hear It Now

I got an email the other day asking me why I think Churchill's speeches are more remembered and quoted than FDR's.

The answer isn't immediately apparent. After all, both of them were incomparably better than most politicians today at public speaking. Both of them were wartime Presidents who faced extraordinarily dramatic situations requiring the need to inspire their people, and both had the rhetorical skills to do so.

I've had some personal experience of Churchill's oratorical powers as compared to FDR's. No, I'm not that old--but as a child, I spent many hours listening to a set of records we owned, the "I Can Hear It Now" series by Edward R. Murrow. I'm not much of an auditory learner (see this), but I just couldn't get enough of these records.

There was Harry Truman, imitating H.V. Kaltenborn's premature declaration that Truman had lost the election of 1948. The almost hysterical radio announcer describing the Hindenburg catching fire and burning in Lakehurst New Jersey. Fiorello la Guardia reading the comics to NY children during a newspaper strike.

FDR saying in his resonant, uplifting, slightly British-sounding (at least to my ears) tones, "The only thing we have to fear is..." (and then a wonderful, pregnant pause) "fear itself."

They all entranced me; I'm not sure why. Maybe it was Murrow's voice too, tying the whole thing together with his narration: serious and sonorous, it fairly dripped with History.

But it was Churchill who was the very best of all. His voice may not have been the deepest, but it resonated with power and hard-won wisdom mixed with more than a touch of the weariness of one who has seen horror and yet refuses to give in. Despite his slightly lispy "s's," his moral clarity came through in the clipped tones of his clearly enunciated words, simple enough for a child to understand and yet complex in their resonance and implications.

Churchill was a writer, after all, before he was a politician, and a very successful one at that. He had the writer's appreciation for the turn of phrase, but the actor's knowledge of how to deliver it. If you've ever read William Manchester's riveting two-volume biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, you probably know that Churchill planned and rehearsed the pauses in his speeches--even, if I recall correctly from the book, adding notes to himself such as "slight stammer and hesitation" for dramatic effect.

Churchill knew exactly what he was doing when he gave speeches; he was the perfect combination of intellect, will, vision, writer, and orator. His rule "Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all" was one he followed; he preferred the basic Anglo-Saxon phrases (and I don't mean curses) to the Latinate whenever possible. As he said:

All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honour, duty, mercy, hope.

Listening to Churchill was more like listening to the plays of Shakespeare than anything else, but a Shakespeare who was easier to understand, and in a way even more dramatic--because this was real; this was history itself, and not an imitation of it.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Fun with Blogger--and mountain lions

I had some trouble earlier today getting onto Blogger. Finally got it straightened out (for now, anyway). I hope to do a more substantive post later today, but for now I'll just say happy fiftieth anniversary to this stalwart couple.

"Stalwart" not only for the wife beating off the mountain lion, and the husband for staying alive--but also for having been married fifty years when they got together at the ages of fifteen and twenty. An unusual duo in more ways than one.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Defeatism feels so good--for now

This WSJ editorial by Daniel Hettinger clear-sightedly, and with some puzzlement, describes the remarkable defeatism that seems to be spreading throughout the American Congress and public like some easily transmitted virus. Defeatism is the new feel-good emotion; it allows us to lay down the heavy burden we took up on 9/11.

Why is so much of Congress intent on a "you say tomato, I say tomahto" attitude towards President Bush and the surge, even though they have offered no viable alternatives to his plan? Even though the stakes are remarkably high if we abandon Iraq and it falls to greater chaos, and/or more closely into the orbit of Iran?

Well, as Hettinger writes: As a political strategy, unremitting opposition has worked.

Most of today's politicians are pragmatic, rather than principled (perhaps it was ever thus); and their pragmatism tends to focus on a single goal: getting re-elected.

Unremitting opposition--with no need to come up with a better alternative--has defeated the Republicans, put the Democrats in power, and contributed to the lowest approval ratings for Bush of his Presidency (he's done his bit in that endeavor, as well). So it's not surprising that so many Republicans (especially those in somewhat liberal states) are jumping on the oppositional bandwagon as well.

Hettinger's frustration is almost palpable. But the current military leadership has even greater cause for frustration. As Hettinger writes:

On the "Charlie Rose Show" this month, former Army vice chief of staff Gen. Jack Keane, who supports the counterinsurgency plan being undertaken by Gen. David Petraeus, said in exasperation: "My God, this is the United States. We are the world's No. 1 superpower. This isn't about arrogance. This is about capability and applying ourselves to a problem that is at its essence a human problem."

...The mood of mass resignation spreading through the body politic is toxic. It is uncharacteristic of Americans under stress. Some might call it realism, but it looks closer to the fatalism of elderly Europe, overwhelmed and exhausted by its burdens, than to the American tradition.

As I wrote the other day, it's as though we were intent on repeating Dunkirk before there's any need to. Our weariness this time has come when the sacrifice has been relatively light, and the consequences of loss are great.

In relation to this loss of will, commenter "Unknown Blogger" asked an interesting question on another thread. He (or she?) first quoted my statement:

I wonder whether the unrelentingly gloomy prognostications in the press, the short attention span of modern life, the lack of knowledge of history, and the frivolity reflected in the overheard comments with which I began this piece don't make it impossible to sustain anything like the sort of mindset we are going to need for this battle.

Then he asked:

I think what you describe above may be play a role in why the President is having trouble sustaining political support for this war, have you also considered the following?:

1. The changing nature of the mission - from removing a "grave" WMD threat to nation-building.

2. The Administration's relentless public insistence for years that everything was going fine even when it obviously wasn't, the endless "turning of corners" that just led to more blind alleys (the "gloomy prognostications" haven't been coming only from the press - the DOD's own reports have been showing it for years, among other sources), the implicit (and even explicit) assumptions before the war that it wouldn't *really* be so hard, and wouldn't take *too* long.

3. The acknowleged unpreparedness for and mishandling of the occupation and insurgency: Why should the public be convinced that *now* they'll get things right?

4. The uncertainty of the consequences for US security after even the most positive of outcomes: Given all the other actors (and potential actors) in the world, how exactly a free and democratic Iraq, even after a guerilla war lasting many years and costing tens of thousands of lives and billons of dollars, will decisively reduce the likelihood of another major terrorist attack on the US remains unclear.

Excellent questions all, each perhaps worthy of a separate post. But I'll take them briefly here:

(1) I've been thinking about my next couple of "change" posts (yeah, yeah, right, they say; we'll believe it when we see them), which will cover--among other things--the buildup to the Iraq War.

I recall that I always assumed some form of nation-building would be part of the task. If you go back and look at the speeches Bush gave, one of our goals was the freeing of the people of Iraq from Saddam's clutches. I don't have the time right now to do the research and look at what he actually said on the subject of nation-building itself--my recollection, however, is that he didn't say anything like "we will need to fight an insurgency for years."

The original hope of the administration seemed to be that, somehow, the Iraqi people--with the help of former expat Iraqis who would return--would get their act together more quickly. I remember hearing that and not really believing it to be so--hoping that it would be so, certainly, but assuming the way would be much longer and harder.

Perhaps that's just a sort of natural pessimism on my part--or realism--but I assumed that it was clear that the aftermath of the war could be a lot harder than that, and that our intervention meant we might have to stay there for a long while. In fact, I believed the "hot" part of the war itself would probably go on for years, with street and guerilla fighting far worse than it has been, both for American troops and even for the Iraqi people.

But that's just me, perhaps. And I'm not saying it to show my prescience; I wish I had been more wrong, as it turns out. But I do not understand those who thought otherwise--and that includes the Bush administration, if they really did think otherwise. I would have hoped they had been more ready for the sort of thing we are facing than they apparently were, and this was a big disappointment to me from the start--beginning with my profound unease about the way they handled the looting.

I understand, however, why the war wasn't presented in that light at the outset, and why the WMDs and the "flaunting the UN inspections" arguments became paramount. After all, the latter was true, the former was thought to be true, and they both were solid arguments that would appeal to supposed "allies" whose help we wanted to get. Why not emphasize them, then, rather than some lengthy and difficult occupation that might or might not be necessary in the process of rebuilding the country?

What's more difficult to understand--and to forgive--is the lack of preparedness of the administration for the very real possibility of a lengthy and difficult occupation.

But UB's first question was a different one, and the answer is this: I do think the perceived changing nature of the mission (at least in emphasis) was part of the reason the public has lost faith in this war.

Which brings us to:

(2) Once again, perceptions are strange. I never really heard a simple message of "everything is fine" from the administration. What I heard was that things were improving there--and for quite some time they seemed to be. The turning point was more recent; the bombing of the Shiite shrine and the increase in sectarian violence. I do believe this has been a turning point, as well, in public perception of the way the war is going, and in the spread of the idea that the situation is hopelessly chaotic.

Although I agree that this trajectory and direction in Iraq is a bad one, I don't see it as hopelessly chaotic. I see is (as General Keane said) as a problem we can apply ourselves to.

That's really the heart of the difference, not the events themselves. As I've written many times before, virtually all wars have setbacks when it would be easy to give up. Until Vietnam (or perhaps, arguably, until Korea), Americans didn't give up so easily. And that (at the risk of being repetitive) is a matter of will, not of these particular facts on the ground. There is nothing about these events that says "all is lost."

(3) I've given my answer in (1), and it is this: yes, our unpreparedness for the occupation was definitely a factor. So, why should the public think we'll get it right now? Because, once again, the history of almost all wars represents just such a learning curve. The public today wants instant gratification, even in war. Not possible, except in the first Gulf War--whose unfinished nature, paradoxically (although it pleased the public--easy in, easy out) was a significant part of what led to the need for this one.

(4) This is not a factor for me at all. I think those who would have expected a successful resolution of the Iraq War to have decisively reduced our terror risk are living in a dream world, and are underestimating this enemy to an almost fatal degree. Such wishful thinking is misplaced and dangerous; Islamist totalitarians will not be so easily deterred, I'm afraid. They take the long view of history, and see their rewards as taking place not just in this world, but in the next. They have more than enough of the patience we lack.

For me, one of the major reasons for this war was to set a standard for what would result when nations repeatedly defy weapons inspections. If one is to be serious about not letting WMDs fall into the hands of regimes such as Saddam's (or Iran's, or North Korea's), and if there was to have been any hope for the UN at all in that role (I now believe there is none), then the Iraq War was a pivotal moment in firmly declaring to all who would do as Saddam did that they'd have to answer for it. I believe that the power vacuum and confusion in Iraq today has not only empowered Iran to have greater influence locally, in Iraq itself; but that our losing heart with Iraq has signaled to Iran to go right ahead and develop WMDs, because we (and of course the UN) won't do a thing about it. Same for North Korea.

Defeatism is painless, I guess. For now. The only thing is--it might end up being suicide.

Oh, no: could he flip again?

I didn't think of this one. But Jules Crittenden did.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

State of the State of the Union 2007: late and getting later

Overheard in the locker room last night before the President's speech, from some twentysomethings:

I'm not going to watch Bush tonight. It offends me to hear him. I'll just listen to Al Franken tomorrow and he'll tell me all I need to know.

Okay, moving right along--

Maybe Bush should give a State of the Union speech once a month; this seems rather surprising, a positive reaction from viewers. My guess is that this initial public response will probably fade, if it exists at all. And perhaps the people polled--who, after all, were the ones already watching Bush's speech, unlike the young woman quoted above--were predisposed towards Bush in the first place (even though they consisted of equal numbers of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents).

As for the speech itself--I'm not a big fan of State of the Union speeches as a whole. They tend to be laundry lists. But this one showed that Bush still has some fight in him--and, if not Churchillian eloquence, at least some ability to state the sobering facts of our current situation, and the consequences of a pullout (consequences barely mentioned by his opponents).

Jules Crittendon is impressed by what he sees as a sort of eloquence in Bush, at least about the all-important topic of the war. He writes of Bush:

But let’s let this great American orator, finally coming into his own, with quiet confidence and determination even in lonely leadership so deep into this war, tell it himself.

And then he quotes words which, if not exactly Churchillian, could--if America would listen, really listen and take them in--inspire the absolutely vital and necessary will to see this battle through:

This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we’re in. Every one of us wishes this war were over and won. Yet it would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned, and our own security at risk. Ladies and gentlemen: On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle. Let us find our resolve, and turn events toward victory. Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq, because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching.

Many understand that; many do not. Many act as though they do not care. I was listening to Bush's speech for the most part rather than watching, only glancing up every now and then, so I didn't notice this myself (although Crittenden disagrees and says even the Dems applauded):

As the president asked for a chance to make his Iraq policy work, Republicans leaped to applaud. Pelosi and the Democrats remained seated.

Speaking of leaping, some previously quoted words of Bush's leapt out at me, and I repeat them for emphasis: would not be like us to leave our promises unkept, our friends abandoned...

Unfortunately, one of the reasons we are facing the situation we're in today is that, in recent decades, too often it has been exactly "like us" to do just that. Vietnam, for example. The aftermath of the first Gulf War. And now the constant drumbeat in Congress about Iraq. Our enemies are neither blind, deaf, nor dumb. That's why Saddam played footage of those helicopters on the Saigon roof before our recent invasion of Iraq. He knew that America lacked patience, and he wanted his people to know it. And he was correct.

Can Bush's rhetoric infuse the country with the requisite will? I don't think so; the will itself has to be there in the first place, even for Churchill and the British. I wonder whether the unrelentingly gloomy prognostications in the press, the short attention span of modern life, the lack of knowledge of history, and the frivolity reflected in the overheard comments with which I began this piece don't make it impossible to sustain anything like the sort of mindset we are going to need for this battle.

And need it we will, no matter who is in charge next time, Democrats or Republicans. Because, as Bush said last night:

We know with certainty that the horrors of that September [11th] morning were just a glimpse of what the terrorists intend for us--unless we stop them.

Reflections on being in the stretch of a two-term Presidency

Seeing Bush's face last night and hearing his voice, I got the feeling that he's fighting, not only the Islamic totalitarians or his opponents on the Hill, but an exhaustion that comes with the fact that he's spent almost all of his six years as President under a degree of stress and attack (foreign and domestic) that is unusual even for that pressured office. It's often remarked how much Presidents age during their terms, and although it doesn't come across as lines in the face for Bush (at least, I don't see them), it comes across as a diminishment of energy and more than a trace of bitterness that wasn't there at the beginning.

This makes sense. Perhaps it's almost normal for Presidents in the last two years of their second terms--but, funny thing, I haven't seen too many Presidents in the last two years of their second terms in my lifetime. The only Presidents who fit that bill were Eisenhower (barely remembered by me) and Reagan (well, he always looked good--he was a movie star, after all). Clinton qualifies, I suppose, with his last two years taken up by Monicagate--which had a certain stress of its own, but it wasn't the usual stresses of office. Nixon and Johnson didn't quite make it, and the others were all one-termers.

I cannot truly imagine the pressures of being President, but they are formidable, to say the least. To be a successful President and not buckle under that stress, one must have intense confidence in one's own decisions. And yet it's best not to be a narcissist, a character trait that often goes along with both politicians and surface (although not true) confidence in decisions.

And speaking of narcissists--this is one of the best news items of the day. Too bad we won't have Kerry to kick around anymore in the 2008 Presidential race.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sanity Squad Podcast: let's carry a toothpick

The latest Sanity Squad podcast is up. We discuss gloomy prognostications on Iran and what might be done about the situation there, paranoia vs. denial, Congress and its message to the Arab world, and the West in general as the enabler of its own enemies.

As always, we have Dr. Sanity, Shrinkwrapped, and Siggy.

Will and vision: where is our Churchill?

Here's a hard-hitting article to mull over before listening to tonight's State of the Union address. The author, J. Peter Mulhern, may be unduly pessimistic, but he's certainly profoundly skeptical about both sides of the fence in American politics today, and I believe his skepticism is mostly warranted, unfortunately.

About the Democrats, Mulhern writes:

Democrats are gearing up to make a lot of noise in support of ignominious withdrawal from Iraq before gracelessly accepting the inevitable reality that the Commander in Chief calls the shots in wartime. This way they hope to appease their defeatist constituency without having to take the fall for yet another surrender and the blood bath that would certainly ensue.

And Republicans fare hardly any better; Mulhern points out that they are ignoring the wider scope of the enemy we are fighting (Iran, Syria) and pretending that we can fight Iraq successfully without facing the huge role other countries play in the region. He writes:

The surreal debate about Iraq is a thin veil covering the real political preoccupation of our time - the competition to assign blame for the next terrorist attack to somebody else. Democrats are setting themselves up to argue that the Republican administration is at fault because it hasn't been diligent enough about homeland security and because it has fanned the flames of Islamofascism by fighting in Iraq. Republicans are setting themselves up to argue that Democrats are at fault for refusing to take militant Islam seriously and working to frustrate our every effort to confront it....[O]ur entire political class has been indulging itself in meaningless partisan disputes when it should have been teaching our Arab and Persian enemies a bitter lesson about the consequences of messing with the eagle.

I disagree with him somewhat in that I think that if we had fought the post-Iraq War occupation(and been unashamed to call it that, by the way) with greater clarity and firmness--shooting looters, stopping Sadr, securing borders--we already would have sent the requisite message to "our Arab and Persian enemies" about the consequences of "messing" with the US

But that opportunity is gone. We can't go back to those days, we can only go forward. That's why I think the current stance of almost all Democrats in Congress (and, yes indeed, some Republicans) sends a terrible message to our enemies.

What is that message? That we lack the will to see anything difficult through. Just wait it out. After Bush, the deluge.

And "after Bush" will arrive in only two rather hamstrung and seemingly short years. The enemy is banking on his successor being less determined to fight them. The mullahs don't lack determination, however; they've been waiting since 1979 for their opportunity to fatally undermine the US and the West, probably longer. Some have waited since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922--whether or not they were actually alive at that time.

Mulhern ends his essay with a question: Where is our Churchill?

He's not just expressing the desire for a leader of more eloquence. He's referring to the fact that Churchill spent the decade of the 30s (the era that seems to most resemble our present one) warning his country against the scope and nature of the peril they faced and ultimately could not avoid. He was ridiculed at the time, but when subsequent events proved him right, he was the obvious choice for Britain's leader.

We don't seem to have a similar political figure. I can't think of anyone in government who's been warning us to prepare on a big enough scale. Perhaps such a person will arise to fit the occasion, if the occasion does arise (and I sincerely hope it does not). Or perhaps that person is here already, and just hasn't gotten the publicity and coverage enough for us to know who he/she might be.

Churchill was eloquent, yes, and he saw the nature of the enemy clearly and early. But to me perhaps his most important and consistent message to the British people was one of patience, fortitude, and will in the face of the terrible and lengthy struggle ahead. In speaking to them, he spoke to the world, and let it--enemies and allies alike--know that Britain's will was indominable, its people unified, its patience almost infinite. And it was so in part because Churchill willed it to be so, and set the example in his own person.

Read, for example, this speech of Churchill's after Dunkirk in 1940, one of the lowest times for the Allies in the war, a year and a half before the US even entered it. The situation was far, far more grim than any we face today (including the possibility of the capitulation of most of Europe, and an imminent Nazi invasion of Britain itself). Of course, in a way, the extreme direness of the situation made things clear; Churchill no longer had to try to persuade the people about the dreadfulness of the enemy, as he had for so many years. No one was mocking him now; Germany itself had made believers out of them.

In his post-Dunkirk speech, Churchill did not whitewash the picture. Perhaps if you read it today things don't seem quite so dreadful because, after all, we have the supreme advantage of knowing how it all turned out. But at the time the future was unknown--as it always is--and Churchill led a nation that could easily have given up, considering what it faced.

This is the genius of Churchill [emphasis mine]:

[W]e shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty's Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation. The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

Note the end of the speech--the reliance on the help of the United States, and the sure knowledge that it would be forthcoming because we would inevitably be drawn into the battle.

Today we face no Dunkirk; no need to evacuate against a superior enemy bent on conquering us. And yet we are acting as though a Dunkirk-like evacuation is the only option left. The situation, as I said, is more analogous to the 30s, when Europe faced a threat that it could have more easily deflected if if had heeded Churchill's Cassandra-like warnings.

Nor is the threat itself analogous; Iran and Syria don't have the military or economic strengths of Nazi Germany. But they have certain things Nazi Germany lacked. One is the capacity to develop and use nuclear weapons, either against Israel, or to threaten their neighbors, or to give to surrogate terrorists to use against any nation they wish--including, of course, the Great Satan (that's us). They also have more potential allies worldwide in the populous Muslim community than Germany ever did in the case of Nazism, or than the Japanese had for their war aims (both movements, after all, were phenomena more national than international in their appeal, although not in their power of conquest). It would require only a relatively small percentage of Muslims to be adherents of the cause of Islamist totalitarian supremacy to achieve a greater number of supporters than the population of Nazi Germany.

Patience and will were Churchill's strong suits. Patience and will are the strong suit of this particular enemy, as well, although in different ways, and for different reasons. Patience and will are most definitely not our strong suits, and this enemy knows it--because we ourselves have made that fact crystal clear.

Churchill understood the overwhelming importance of these traits. Do we? I wonder.

If we don't, another Churchill quote may help us remember (and, lest trolls accuse me of paranoid fearmongering--although I know they will anyway--let me just say that I believe we are more or less in Churchill's first stage regarding Iran, the one in which we can win without bloodshed, although probably not "easily"):

If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.


Talk about supporting the troops!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Scientists are political people too: changing minds about climate change?

I'm taking a break from writing about research on the personality traits of liberals vs. conservatives. I need a rest after this magnum opus, although one of these days I may take one more swipe at the topic.

No, this time it's global warming that's sparked a few thoughts on science and bias in general.

You may have noticed that global warming is a subject I ordinarily don't get into. There's a reason for that,and it's not lack of interest. I've actually read about global warming in some depth--on both sides, as usual (and in this case the Joni Mitchell song with its lyric "I've looked at clouds from both sides now..." is unusually apropos).

My conclusion is that it's a very technical and specialized subject about which I'm unfortunately unable to come to any firm conclusion at the moment, despite having tried, because I lack the specific in-depth scientific background that would enable me to come down on one side or another.

That doesn't stop most people from having a firm opinion. And it's true that, if the global warming alarmists are correct, we need to have opinions--to decide, take a stand, and act. But that "if" is the problem. Because another truth is that the scientists are hardly immune to bias, and this colors their work, despite disclaimers to the contrary.

It's not surprising--after all, scientists are people, too. The "harder" the science the more protection there is against bias (that's why the social sciences are notoriously--and perhaps fatally--susceptible to it). Climate change, although a "harder" science than the social sciences, is still relatively "soft"--a new and poorly understood discipline, complex and fraught with unknowns, especially in the all-important area of computer simulations of climate models. Here's a quote from a recent discussion of some of the problems (hat tip: Pajamas Media):

...for predicting the future climate, scientists must rely upon sophisticated — but not perfect — computer models.

"The public generally underappreciates that climate models are not meant for reducing our uncertainty about future climate, which they really cannot, but rather they are for increasing our confidence that we understand the climate system in general," says Michael Bauer, a climate modeler at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York.

In general, the simpler a system is, and the fewer the variables, the more confidence we can have in the applicability of the results of scientific studies. But climate (like humanity) is a notoriously complex and poorly-understood system, and models for either are inherently unreliable. Therefore predictions are exceedingly suspect in both areas.

And yet policy must be made. So, how to decide? Are sites such as this or this reputable? Without specialized knowledge, how can we know?

One can go by the majority opinion, and it certainly appears that the majority of scientists believe not only that global warming is real (the less controversial part of the equation), but also that it is caused at least in good part by human-generated CO2 emissions (the far more controversial part). But, historically and conceptually speaking, science is not a democracy in which the majority opinion ends up being correct in the end. And what are the political biases of these scientists? And does it matter--how much is their research affected by those biases, especially in an area such as climate change with profound political repercussions and implications? How openminded are scientists to data that threatens their point of view, the hypotheses and theories on which their reputations have been based?

The danger of bias--in science and elsewhere--is present on both sides of the political spectrum, by the way. There's a reason my "change" series (and one of these days I plan to get back to it, by the way!) is entitled, "A mind is a difficult thing to change." It's not easy to reverse one's opinion, and most people resist and defend against data that challenges it, even scientists.

The history of science is replete with theories that have had their day in the sun and then departed, to be heard of no more (except in History of Science courses). As evidence amasses and knowledge grows, old theories are discarded and new ones take their place. We don't know when that tipping point will occur in any particular scientific discipline, but I do know that almost every theory in its earlier stages (especially in the "softer" areas of science) has areas of confusion and data that don't fit into the big picture. As time passes, either the theory is able to explain that data, or it collapses in the face of it. Global warming is an area replete with these anomalies at the moment.

In other branches of science that aren't so tied into policy recommendations, it's fine to wait until more data comes in. The problem with global warming is that, if the alarmists are correct, we need to act soon. And the actions required aren't minor, they are major and involve a certain amount of sacrifice. People are naturally resistant to that sort of thing, as well, and want the danger to be clear and present before they are willing to give up certain pleasant aspects of modern life to which they're become accustomed.

And that's one of the reasons that proponents of the point of view that global warming is dangerous, imminent, and manmade might be tempted to sound the alarm more vociferously than they should based on the evidence at hand, as this article claims. The idea is to get with the program and sound the clarion call.

So beware, those who might want to give a more "nuanced" message, even if they agree with the general thrust. Sometimes the pressure on them isn't so subtle:

Shaman says some junior scientists may feel uncomfortable when they see older scientists making claims about the future climate, but he's not sure how widespread that sentiment may be. This kind of tension always has existed in academia, he adds, a system in which senior scientists hold some sway over the grants and research interests of graduate students and junior faculty members.

"I can understand how a scientist without tenure can feel the community pressures," says environmental scientist Roger Pielke Jr., a colleague of Vranes' at the University of Colorado.

Pielke says he has felt pressure from his peers: A prominent scientist angrily accused him of being a skeptic, and a scientific journal editor asked him to "dampen" the message of a peer-reviewed paper to derail skeptics and business interests.

And remember, Pielke isn't a climate-change skeptic, he's just not a true enough and strident enough believer. This state of affairs ought to give everyone pause.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The psychology of Psychology Today (about those liberals and conservatives)

I want to say more about that Psychology Today article on fearful conservatives vs. rational liberals, the one the Sanity Squad discussed in its latest podcast.

But oh, where to begin, where to begin?

I'll start by disclosing my personal association with the article. Back in July, I got an email from an intern at the magazine, inviting me to be interviewed for a piece on political conversions. According to the email, the article was be entirely even-handed and nonpartisan, and would incorporate stories from both sides of the political spectrum about people whose viewpoints had changed. It sounded like fun, and definitely right up my alley.

But if you read the finished product, it turns out that the "change" stories have boiled down to just one, that of journalist and blogger Cinnamon Stillwell, plus four short and superficial blurbs containing a couple of sentences apiece about four famous "changers" (yes, this part was an attempt at even-handedness, at least by the numbers: there were two righty-to-lefties and two lefty-to-righties: Brock, Huffington, Reagan, and Hitchens).

During my rather lengthy telephone interview with author Jay Dixit, he asked me many times whether my post-9/11 political change had been motivated by fear. I repeatedly explained that it had not, referring to my blog articles on change, and describing the process involved in some detail.

Certainly, I said, there had been brief moments of fear, but they were not predominant, and didn't last very long. Instead, it seemed to me that 9/11 had acted initially as a sort of shock to the system, a signal to me that there was a lot that I didn't understand about the world, and that learning more would be of vital importance and would help me know what actions to support as a response to the attack.

I said that reading had been a huge part of the process for me--and in due course I'd encountered books and articles from the conservative side, a point of view I hadn't studied in any depth up to that point (I was already familiar, of course, with the liberal point of view). I emphasized that for me the process of change was not sudden at all; it took several years, and was far more cognitive than emotional.

Looking back, it's clear to me that the questions Jay Dixit asked were designed to get me to focus on fear as a motivator. That's fine, since it turns out to be the main topic of the article. But it hardly seems unbiased or balanced to leave out a story (mine) that challenges the article's conclusions.

I can't know for certain what motivated the author to leave me out of the article entirely. Nor do I know whether there were others who were similarly left on the cutting room floor. But I can't help but wonder whether my interview was eliminated from the final product because I repeatedly gave answers that didn't fit in with the message the author wanted to deliver: that those who became more conservative were motivated by fear rather than rational thinking.

In addition, are fear and rationality mutually exclusive, anyway? As the Squad said on the podcast, fear is often adaptive and functional. After all, it evolved to warn us of dangers, so that we can respond appropriately. The real question is this: even if most post-9/11 "changers" were motivated by fear (and the article presents no data on that particular question; I don't think anyone's done the research), was the danger realistic? If so, fear would be a rational initial response, and could lead to taking appropriate action to eliminate the danger. Denying the existence of a real danger is not only irrational, it can lead to the destruction of the denier.

Nowhere in the article are any of these issues dealt with, even on a superficial basis. And yet they are absolutely vital.

But the bulk of the article had nothing to do with this. The article as published was predominantly a summary of research studies purporting to study the differences between conservatives and liberals; to associate fearfulness and other (mostly negative) character traits with the former, and openness and flexibility (and, ultimately, rationality) with the latter; and to show that fear motivates people to become slightly more conservative in their responses.

I might have written that the finished piece represented an analysis rather than a summary of such research, but that didn't seem to be the proper word. In fact, the Psychology Today article made no real attempt either to evaluate the research or critique it, nor to mention any research that might counter or negate it.

As I went through the article, flaws in the reasoning behind every piece of research cited came to mind. But to really understand the quality of a piece of research and to effectively critique its flaws, it's necessary to go to the source, the original paper itself. To do this for all the research cited in the article would be enough work for a small Ph.D. thesis. So, even though I'm known for my long posts, I'm not about going to be doing that today (sighs of relief all around).

Fortunately, the internet has come to my rescue, as it has so many times before. Someone known as IronShrink has done some of the work for me, and for us.

IronShrink critiques one of the main pieces of research relied on in the article: Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway's review of some 88 previous studies on conservatism. Finding fault with their study seems to have been a bit like shooting fish in a barrel for those well-versed in research methodology (here's another take-down of the same Jost, et. al. article, this one written by Colorado State professor C. Richard Jansen--who, by the way, is a research chemist and nutritionist rather than a social scientist).

Read both pieces, if you're interested in the details. Even in the slippery world of social science research, the Jost review's methodology seems particularly elusive (or perhaps the proper word would be "illusive"). Among other things, as both articles point out, the Jost researchers fail abysmally in their most elementary task, the basic definition of the terms they are studying--conservatism and liberalism.

Just to get a bit of the flavor of what we're talking about here, the Jost review apparently says that Stalin, although on the left, could be considered as a figure on the right because he wanted to defend and preserve the Soviet system. "Conservative," get it?

Other methodological flaws are enumerated in some detail in both articles. Here's Jansen on the subject:

Jost and his colleagues carried out a meta-analysis of 88 studies involving 22,818 individual subjects in which approximately 27 discrete psychological variables were examined, according to the authors, in terms of the political orientation of the subjects...The methodology and software employed were not described, indeed in this paper there is not even a section entitled methodology or methods. Meta-analysis to be even valid much less successful should be based on a systematic review of the available literature, definition of terms, and a complete unbiased collection of original high quality studies that examine the same, not 27 variables in terms of 12 other variables.

This clearly was not done...[A] hodgepodge of variables were examined in studies involving mostly undergraduate students. The subjects, other than undergraduates were not adequately described, either qualitatively or quantitatively. Gender, age, race or ethnicity were not addressed. The authors describe no efforts to attest to the quality of the studies examined, or the biases potentially involved in the studies themselves or by the investigators, not to mention their own biases. Many of the studies quoted apparently were not peer reviewed since they were in monographs book chapters and conference papers.. The impression of statistical rigor is more apparent than real...

I'm no expert on research; I haven't got a Ph.D. in the field. But I had to take courses at the graduate level in statistics and in designing and critiquing research, and I worked for a while as a research associate on a large project under some fairly well-known social science researchers. So I know enough to know that you shouldn't leave out important data--and if you do, it usually means you're covering up some more basic flaw in that data itself.

IronShrink goes into even greater detail than Jansen in his piece about the Jost review article. I didn't read the original Jost research (it doesn't appear to be available online), but IronShrink has, and he's not impressed.

I did, however, read another piece of research discussed at length in the Psychology Today article, the Block and Block study. You can find it online here.

I've mentioned that I'm familiar with reading psychology research. I'm also well aware that it's almost spectacularly difficult to design it well, and easy to find fault with most such studies that are done. But even give that caveat, the Block research is almost shockingly poorly designed, especially in terms of sample.

This is the basic design: taking nursery school students in Berkeley and Oakland, California; testing them at the age of three (1969-1971) for certain personality traits; and then comparing the personalities of those judged to be liberal against those judged to be conservative years later, (around 1989), at the age of twenty-three.

So, what's wrong with this picture? Quite a bit, I'm afraid. The most serious problem is the nonrepresentativeness of the sample population. Then, as now, conservatives in Berkeley and Oakland were and are scarcer than hen's teeth. And these were twenty-three-year-old conservatives in Berkeley and Oakland, growing up in the late 60s and 70s--an especially unusual bunch, I'd imagine. There is absolutely no reason to imagine that any conservatives found by this study would be typical or representative of conservatives as a whole; on the contrary. So the generalizability of the study would be highly suspect, to say the least, even if it were otherwise impeccably designed.

But it's actually much worse than that. When I looked at the figures, I encountered what I'll call the mysteriously missing data problem. There were 95 subjects, and when I looked to find one of the most elementary facts about them--how many had been defined as conservatives and how many as liberals--I discovered that Block and Block had failed to report the answer.

How odd. Because the authors had written in the body of their article that, "The LIB/CON [Liberal/Conservative] score distribution in this sample leans toward liberalism, with relatively few participants tilting toward conservatism."

Get that, folks? In this supposedly seminal study on the personality traits of conservatives, not only can we conclude that any youthful conservatives found in Berkeley and Oakland might be atypical in terms of the conservative population as a whole, but it appears possible that the authors found hardly any conservatives at all. At any rate, they're not telling.

Note the authors' careful wording: there were "relatively few participants tilting [my emphasis] towards conservatism." If you read the rest of the paper, it continually speaks of "relatively liberal" and "relatively conservative" [my emphasis again] subjects. Every now and then the authors slip into use of the terms "liberal" and "conservative" without the modifier, but for the most part the authors use the term "relatively." That fact, coupled with the glaring absence of the relevant data involved, leads me to conclude that it is entirely possible that the study featured no conservatives at all.

There's no way to know, of course. But the authors' careful hedginess about terminology such as "relatively," their mentioning the paucity of conservatives in the study, and, above all, the missing figures, make me very suspicious indeed. And, if there were few or no conservatives in their population, then what were the Blocks actually studying and comparing? The liberal and the less liberal, perhaps? The Left and the liberal? A worthy task, no doubt, but one that cannot possibly shed much light on conservatives. Because a relatively less Leftist liberal does not a conservative make--even in Berkeley.

But the point is not to attack Block. The point is that Psychology Today, which should know better, breathes not a word of any of these problems or criticisms.

Social science research about politics needs to be especially rigorous because of its potential to reflect the bias of the researchers, whatever side they may be on. Such research is especially amenable to being used (and misused) to score political points, as propaganda. And that's something Psychology Today ought to have been well aware of, and to have guarded assiduously against. Unfortunately, the editors appear to have failed abysmally at that task.

[NOTE: Here's a great email another blogger, Asher Abrams, sent to Dixit. And here's Cinnamon Stillwell's own take on the article. Others speaking out are Fausta, Shrink, and Dr. Sanity. And here's a discussion at Eugene Volokh's by a researcher named Jim Lindgren, who agrees with me on the problem of sample representativeness in the Block study.]

Friday, January 19, 2007

The surge and the Sadrists and the Sunnis (and the AP)

When I read this article, entitled "Iraqi rebel army expressing siege mentality," I found myself doing a double-take: this is the AP?

The piece seemed relatively upbeat about, of all things, the "surge," the new commanders of US forces in Iraq, and their plan.

Far more important than the AP and its editorial politices, of course, is the actual information contained in the article. It touches on a concern of mine about whether the announcement of our plan might possibly give the enemy enough warning to be able to evade the net more easily (see here and here).

According to Steven R. Hurst, author of the article, the Sadrists are running scared. Something about this one's got them worried--that is, if we can believe what they are saying:

[Sadrist commanders'] account of an organization now fighting for its very existence could represent a tactical and propaganda feint, but there was mounting evidence the militia is increasingly off balance and has ordered its gunmen to melt back into the population. To avoid capture, commanders report no longer using cell phones and fighters are removing their black uniforms and hiding their weapons during the day.

The key to the new notion the Sadrists have of the potential seriousness of this particular campaign? President Maliki sounds as though he might be on board this time against them, instead of providing them protection.

And why? According to the article, Maliki told Bush at a meeting in November that he would no longer stand in the way of our going against Sadr. And what's behind that change of heart? Well, one begins to wonder whether Psychology Today might be correct after all, at least about certain political conversions to conservatism being motivated by fear--someone seems to have put the fear into Maliki, at least.

And whom might that be? Here's the money quote:

Jordan's King Abdullah II was said by al-Maliki confidants to have conveyed the increasing anger of fellow Sunni leaders in the Middle East over the continuing slaughter of Sunni Muslims at the hands of Shiite death squads.

That just may be the most important sentence in the entire article. It's becoming increasingly apparent that the surrounding Arab nations with their largely Sunni populations are not at all cheered by the possibility of a Shiite (read: Iranian-allied) ascendance in Iraq.

Jordan has always been an interesting nation among the group--the most clearly moderate and Western-friendly of all (or what passes for moderation in that neck of the woods). What's more, Jordan has not been at all shy in the past about using power against other Arab states or peoples when its own survival warrants (see Black September).

As noted before, what the Sadrists are telling the AP might be the equivalent of a psych-op. Hard to tell. But here is some more:

The third commander, who also spoke anonymously to protect his identity, said U.S.-led raiding parties were now also engaged in massive sweeps, having rounded up what he said was every male old enough to carry a gun in south Baghdad's Um al-Maalef neighborhood Tuesday night.

As for the US, the military seems to be aware of the potential for running and hiding on the part of the enemy, and to have prepared for this eventuality:

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the security strategy and the additional American forces would allow the crackdown to be sufficiently broad to sweep up those who try to escape Baghdad and operate elsewhere.

"On the militia, the Baghdad plan itself is integrated to a holistic, countrywide plan that the multinational corps is developing. And security for Baghdad won't just come from securing the inside of Baghdad," Casey said at a briefing on Monday.

"It comes from the support zones around the outside as far away, as you suggest, Baqouba and Ramadi and Fallujah. It goes all the way out to the borders to stop the flow of foreign fighters and support coming in there."

Again, one wonders about the motivation for the Sadrist commanders in divulging the following news to the AP, but here it is:

The Mahdi Army commanders said they were increasingly concerned about improved U.S. intelligence that has allowed the Americans to successfully target key figures in the militia.

With this as background, I say "give the surge a chance." But just tell that to Congress. Many of its members seem determined to stop a program that represents the only present hope we have to get these people.

But I suppose some of them consider it more important to "get" Bush, and to get themselves re-elected. And if I sound a bit cynical about that, it's because I am.

[NOTE: Tigerhawk has some further thoughts about Maliki's motivations.]

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Sleeping with Saddam, the lesser enemy?: realpolitik vs. the neocon agenda

Leftists often criticize our present intervention in Iraq by bringing up the point that the US supported Saddam back in the 80s against Iran in the ill-fated--and ultimately stalemated--war that cost many Iraqi and Iranian lives. For example, see this comment in a recent thread:

Are you [Neo} arguing that it's ok if the US practically created Saddam and supported him throughout much of his reign of terror, and eventually had to spend billions and sacrifice thousands to undo the damage, because we are, after all, but mere "imperfect players in an imperfect world."

First of all, I wonder at the logic of the point being made--obviously, if we really did create and support the monster Saddam, then we certainly have a deep obligation to take him out, and even to sacrifice thousands to undo the damage, regrettable though that would be. What's the alternative? Say "Oops, sorry!" and let his regime fester, uncorrected, forever?

Of course not. If the critics were sincere about their argument, it would be used to justify our more recent intervention, not to blast it. But somehow, I've never seen it used that way--odd, isn't it? It does me make wonder whether their argument might just be sophistry.

However, I'll assume this commenter's motivations were sincere, and respond to his/her argument on its merits.

The United States has choices about its actions in the world. The first choice is whether to act at all--not that total inaction is really possible, but relative inaction is. That's the course isolationists have advocated for years, if not centuries. It used to be more possible back when the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans represented huge gulfs of space and time, but it wasn't really possible even then.

And in the last century and this, it most certainly has become less possible. One of the reasons, of course, is that both action and inaction have consequences, although we are able to see the consequences of action more clearly. So, the US cannot help but act--even by refraining from action.

Initially, our attitude towards Saddam was largely shaped by the Cold War, and rightly so. Back then all third-world countries had a choice themselves--and that was, essentially, whether to ally with us, with the USSR (and/or China), or whether to play both sides against each other. In the real world--and that is the one in which we live (after all, we're talking about "realpolitik" here, are we not?) those alliances mattered greatly, and third-world countries were somewhat like chess pieces in the power play of the large states that were struggling with each other for dominance.

The Soviet Union was rightly seen as an evil empire, not only cruel and repressive, but openly interested in amassing as many "satellites" (remember that word?) as it could. Rumor from those old retired CIA agents with the loose lips has it that Saddam was originally supported by the US in 1959 in attempting the assassination of Iraqi ruler Qassim, who was allying with the Soviets at the time.

Whether or not it's true that the CIA recruited Saddam for such a plot--and again, let's assume for the sake of argument that it is--it was the way of the world in 1959. I don't like it at all, to tell you the truth. I wish the world were different. I wish we had found more of an Ataturk to support, someone who would reform and modernize the country with a strong but not an overwhelmingly harsh hand.

But would it have been better to have kept our hands clean, isolated ourselves from the world, and left the field to the Soviets? As I said, both inaction and action have consequences, and some of the consequences of either or both are always going to be bad. And nations must choose, given incomplete information.

What was the incomplete information here? Well, if you read that Wikipedia article on Saddam (and here it is again, in case you missed it the first time) you'll see who Saddam appeared to be back in the early 70s, when he first amassed power in Iraq as right-hand-man to his cousin al Bakr, the President. Not unusual for that time and area of the world, they already had a repressive security apparatus in place to deal with their enemies.

But there seemed to be quite a bit of good, as well. During the 70s, the amount of repressive violence there wasn't anywhere near the reign of terror it became under Saddam, who officially came to power in 1979. Saddam was Vice-President under al Bakr, whose regime in the 70s:

...was providing social services that were unprecedented among Middle Eastern countries. Saddam established and controlled the "National Campaign for the Eradication of Illiteracy" and the campaign for "Compulsory Free Education in Iraq," and largely under his auspices, the government established universal free schooling up to the highest education levels...The government also supported families of soldiers, granted free hospitalization to everyone, and gave subsidies to farmers. Iraq created one of the most modernized public-health systems in the Middle East, earning Saddam an award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

To diversify the largely oil-based economy, Saddam implemented a national infrastructure campaign that made great progress in building roads, promoting mining, and developing other industries. The campaign revolutionized Iraq's energy industries. Electricity was brought to nearly every city in Iraq, and many outlying areas.

On the basis of this, I don't think the US can be faulted for not having seen what was to come later, under Saddam's own watch as head of the country. Yes indeed, the Baath Party under al Bakr silenced many opponents in various harsh ways, including killings at times. But it was, unfortunately, nothing so out of the ordinary for the time and place.

Saddam began to show his true colors and to stand out in this regard only after he became President himself in 1979. I've referred before to the video he made of his early chilling and Stalinesque move to nakedly stamp out anyone who threatened his power.

But shortly after Saddam was flexing his newly-acquired muscles, we had a much greater problem on our hands: Iran. In fact, we still have that great problem on our hands, over a quarter of a century later, and the problem has only grown.

From their ascendance to power in 1979, the mullahs made it clear that their goal was to war against us in any way they could, and to dominate the Muslim world with a new type of totalitarian regime, one based on religious fundamentalism rather than a secular worldview such as Communism. But the goal was the same: "We will bury you.

Iraq's war against Iran started shortly thereafter, in 1980. At first we stayed out of it, but a few years later, when it seemed that Iran was actually going to win, we secretly helped Saddam with intelligence and facilitated Iraq's acquisition of arms from other countries. And yes, we even winked at his use of chemical weapons against the Iranians, and later against the Kurds (one of our very darkest hours):

Washington was strongly opposed to chemical warfare, a practice outlawed by the 1925 Geneva Protocol. In practice, U.S. condemnation of Iraqi use of chemical weapons ranked relatively low on the scale of administration priorities, particularly compared with the all-important goal of preventing an Iranian victory.

It seemed a no-brainer at the time to back Saddam. Not only did he appear to lack designs on us (unlike the Iranians), but it seemed back then that his regime--bad though it was in many ways--was one of the better (or at least the less dreadful) ones in a region not known for its enlightened rulers.

Everybody was wrong in their assessment of Saddam," said Joe Wilson, Glaspie's former deputy at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and the last U.S. official to meet with Hussein. "Everybody in the Arab world told us that the best way to deal with Saddam was to develop a set of economic and commercial relationships that would have the effect of moderating his behavior. History will demonstrate that this was a miscalculation."


We dumped Saddam when he invaded Kuwait; dumped him for good. The rest of the history is more familiar than the earlier years; I won't bother to reiterate it here.

So what are we are left with? A messy business, the choices a country must make in the real world.

I'm not whitewashing how bad it was. But those who require moral perfection in our actions on the world stage are either hopelessly idealistic and out of touch with the consequences of what acting on that idealism would have wrought (in this case, the triumph of the Soviets, and later the Iranians), or they are cynically mouthing arguments they don't even believe.

I wish the world were otherwise. But it's not, and pretending the lion has already lain down with the lamb is an absurdity, or worse. There are plenty of lions out here, about to devour huge herds of lambs, and sometimes all we can do is back the lion who seems less voracious.

The funny thing about the whole thing (and I mean funny-strange, not funny ha-ha) is that it is the neocon philosophy that represents one of the only strategies offering a possible way out of the realpolitik dilemma. And yet those who criticize our realpolitik decisions to back dictators also criticize our neonconnish decisions to overthrow them and try to institute a better and more democratic form of government. Odd, isn't it?

Make no mistake about it, however: the neocon notion that we should attempt actions designed to transform these countries into something better is not an easy one to execute, as Iraq has demonstrated (and, by the way, it does not always involve our waging war--sometimes it involves our supporting internal forces within the country itself, as suggested presently for Iran).

I'm disappointed in the missteps of the Bush administration while occupying Iraq (examples: not stopping the looters, not taking Sadr out, way back when). But I don't believe any of these to be insurmountable even now--if we had the political will in this country to understand how important it is to succeed at the task.

This is the stark choice we face: (1) realpolitik business as usual, "he's a thug but at least he's our thug;" (2) inaction, allowing totalitarian Islamism (or Communism before it) to take over most of the world; or (3) trying to transform these regions into functioning democracies that protect human rights.

The latter is the neocon agenda, and I'm all for it. I consider it the best alternative of the lot. But I don't consider myself naive about how difficult it is to do this and how much of an investment in time, energy, money, blood, and will it would cost to succeed. But the alternatives would ultimately demand a greater human sacrifice, and entail even more suffering.

Take your choice.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sanity Squad psychs Psych Today

The lastest Sanity Squad podcast is up at Pajamas. The Squad takes aim at a recent issue of Psychology Today purporting to analyze the difference between liberals and conservatives. Well, Dr. Sanity, Shrinkwrapped, and Siggy analyze the analysis.

And even though I don't do links all that often, the aformentioned blogs of my Squad colleagues are always well worth visiting.

[ADDENDUM: I'm planning a further post on the subject of the Psychology Today article.]

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