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July 26, 2006

Retaining the high ground

Nicholas Kristof (sub req) says what I was saying, except better, shorter, and with historical examples:

Israel believes that it is improving its long-term security by attacking Lebanon. And once again, I believe, that will prove counterproductive. Israel is likely to kill enough Lebanese to outrage the world, increase anti-Israeli and anti-American attitudes, nurture a new generation of anti-Israeli guerrillas, and help hard-liners throughout the region and beyond. (Sudan’s cynical rulers, for example, will manipulate Arab outrage to gain cover to continue their genocide in Darfur.) But Israel is unlikely to kill more terrorists than it creates.


[T]here are two democracies that endured constant and brutal terrorism and eventually defeated it. Neither Spain nor Britain was in a situation quite like Israel’s (Palestinian terrorists have been more brutal in attacking civilians), but they still offer useful lessons. And both the Northern Ireland and Basque problems were often considered insoluble a couple of decades ago, perhaps even more than those in the Middle East today.

Spain could have responded to terror attacks by sending troops into the Basque country, or by bombing the sanctuaries that ETA guerrillas used just across the border in France. (France was blasé about being used as a terrorist base.) Instead, Spain gave autonomy to the Basque country and restrained itself through gritted teeth, over the objections of those who thought this was appeasement.

Likewise, Britain endured constant bombings by the I.R.A., which enjoyed support in both Ireland and the U.S. and obtained weapons and Semtex plastic explosive from Libya. Yet Margaret Thatcher didn’t bomb Dublin (or Boston), nor even the offices of the I.R.A.’s political wing in Northern Ireland. When she saw that Britain’s harsh tactics were strengthening support for the I.R.A., the Iron Lady moderated her approach and negotiated the landmark Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985. At the time, that agreement was widely denounced as rewarding terrorists and showing weakness.

Frankly, neither British nor Spanish restraint was a huge or immediate success. Spain had hoped that democracy would end Basque terrorism; instead, it increased. And Mrs. Thatcher acknowledges in her memoirs that her results were “disappointing.”

Yet in retrospect, the softer approach gave London and Madrid the moral high ground and slowly--far too slowly--isolated terrorists and made a negotiated outcome more feasible. That’s why Britain and Spain are today peaceful, against all odds.

That admirable restraint should be the model for Israel, with the aim of making a comprehensive peace agreement more likely--in 2010 or 2020 if not in 2007. The record of Spain and Britain suggests that restraint and conciliation can seem maddeningly ineffective--but they are still the last, best hope for peace.

A lot better hope than killing hundreds of civilians and bombing a fledgling democracy into rubble. World War II is bathed in glory, but to me it begins to seem like an anomaly from which we've learned a lot of bad lessons. In most of history, war has never brought peace. Brief lulls and cease-fires, maybe, but the only thing that brings real, secure, lasting peace is justice.

Restraint and forbearance aren't just noble virtues to be invoked but never employed: They're actually pragmatic and effective over the long term. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon, the path of collective punishment will only bring more and deeper aggrievement. Again, you can choose whether your casualties come to civilians or soldiers, at home or on foreign soil, but one kind of loss is at least not destructive, while the other almost always is. Killing hundreds of civilians because eight soldiers were killed and two kidnapped is destructive to your own goals. Killing tens of thousands of civilians because three thousand of your own were killed is destructive to your own goals.

But make no mistake: It is a long-term strategy that offers little to slake the thirst for revenge or shocking and awesome displays of power. But Iraq isn't exactly looking like the quick fix we were sold; wisdom should have suggested that a more long-term strategy was in order, anyway. But wisdom has been in short supply.

I'm not saying this only works when your opponent is rational and civilized, which terrorists are definitively not. I'm saying that, regardless of your enemy, your choice is either restraint, through gritted teeth if need be, or total war, endless war, annihilation, and, frankly, genocide. No one in Lebanon whose child was killed by Israeli bombs will mistake Hizbullah for the killers; and if you kill the parents, then you must kill the child, for he will, with only a few rare and heroic exceptions, be your enemy forever.

Human nature is what it is; it's supposed to be the nature of societies, of nations, to lift us above ourselves, into a community. When a society is functioning, it works. Absent such crimes against them, most people just want to live and raise their children in peace. We accept constraints upon our own desires in order to be protected from the desires of others. Functioning societies have a collective authority that rewards good actors (or at least leaves them alone) and punishes bad ones.

Of course, there has to be an authority to which one can appeal. Sixty years ago, the nations of the world themselves created a society to provide that same collective authority and security on a global scale. It's not perfect; no society is. But America, which has been arguably the closest thing to a perfect society in history, has a ruling party that has decided that we don't have to accept constraints from that community of nations. As a result, no other nation feels bound to honor it in any meaningful, which is to say, occasionally uncomfortable way, either.

The United Nations, and the very concept of a community of nations and the authority and restraint it might have imposed on both state and non-state actors, has atrophied. America's supposed conservatives are delighted, but can't understand why nations are running amok, driven by the anarchy of human nature. But anarchy tends to favor the powerful, and if it doesn't, then America's supposed conservatives believe they know what the answer is: World War III. Because even if the worst happens, America's supposed conservatives believe they are all going to Heaven.

Posted by pk at 8:26 AM

July 21, 2006

All over but the shouting

"Tens of thousands have already fled homes on either side. 'Iraq as a political project is finished,' one senior Iraqi government official said."

Posted by pk at 11:02 AM

July 20, 2006

Paranoia, part II

I suppose that last post just sounds like a bunch of name-calling unless I point out that the Republicans' inflating and exploiting of their base's paranoia is all style, no substance. It's laughable to watch the president surround himself with "snowflake babies" and praise our nation's culture of life while tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis have died, and continue to daily, in a war we started and the chaos that has ensued. Sure, Saddam has blood on his hands--now we do, too. And for what?

We pulled out of Afghanistan too soon and now the Taliban are creeping back into control. Our mission in Iraq, such as it was, has failed in almost every particular--we keep catching bad guys, but nothing helps. We seem powerless to prevent its shattering into civil war and providing new jihadist campgrounds. And now we stand idly by while Israel, in her madness, bombs not just Hezbollah but all of Lebanon into anarchy, sending Lebanese refugees into Syria, of all places, from whose influence they just freed themselves.

Islamist terror keeps presenting us with fresh crimes from which to recoil. They're really, really bad people. Why is it so hard for America and Israel to maintain the moral high ground? Because the paranoid style demands revenge, aggression, overkill. We want to FEEL SAFE. We want to KILL DANGER. We've declared war on a tactic to conquer a feeling. The loss of one American embryo, one frozen, potential person (whose person-hood, in the vast majority of cases, will never be realized) is a moral crime, an affront to our decency. But the loss of tens of thousands of innocent, living human beings--"ours," "theirs"--in any action we call the War on Terror is acceptable collateral damage. We must defeat the Enemy, for he has made us AFRAID.

Whether any of it is working or not is beside the point; in fact, if it isn't working, it only reinforces the paranoia: There is still an enemy who lurks. At least we're doing something. At least we're showing resolve. At least we're supporting the troops by believing that the mission they were sent on is wise and just. To do otherwise would be to dishonor their sacrifice. We must honor the mission, and they must continue to die honorably--these fully realized human beings, killing and dying for our culture of life.

Here's where I make a few caveats about being a regular American myself, loving my wife, my kids, the street where I live--all that. Don't hate my country, mind you; don't want the terrorists to win. "Freedom Isn't Free" is a bumpersticker sentiment meant, as I take it, to be either a noble expression of willing sacrifice or an accusing finger pointed at cowards like me who won't go die in just any old war. To the extent that it makes a valid point, I'd express it like this: "Conflicts Have Costs."

Only a fool believes all conflicts are avoidable, or expects to win one without cost and sacrifice. The point is to use your resources wisely, effectively, and imaginatively. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. didn't utilize nonviolent confrontation because they were starry-eyed peaceniks who just didn't like violence. They were shrewd, tough pragmatists who chose the strategy they thought would win, and they did win[md]even though they themselves were killed. Conflicts have costs, and heroes and innocents die in equal measure. What matters is whether the just cause prevails.

What if Gandhi and King had chosen guerilla war or terrorism? Their causes would have been no less just, their bravery and sacrifice no less great--although all that would be arguable, because they would have lost. They would have lost to the stronger powers they fought; their costs would have been incurred for nothing; and they would have lost the moral high ground upon which all just victories are built. Their names would be infamous today, instead of revered.

Obviously it's a stretch it to find strategic parallels, but the point is this: We're in a conflict with Islamist terrorists. It will have costs. We need to win it. To win it, we need to reduce the number of Islamist terrorists, not drive more citizens into their ideology with ignorant brute force. For five years we've absorbed the costs of this conflict that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have chosen to incur. The idea that we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here is, at least as it relates to Iraq, absurd on its face (we're creating them over there and probably ensuring that they'll attack us here)--but its basic premise has gone largely unquestioned: It is unthinkable that more innocent Americans should die in America, so we have chosen to incur our costs in this conflict in the form of dead soldiers on foreign ground--where they cause, either directly or by their presence, the deaths of innocent civilians. Which causes the all-consuming, eternally aggrieved hatred that terrorism feeds and thrives upon.

I believe our military approach to the war on terror is misguided and counterproductive. I don't think the evidence shows that we're even trying, particularly, to "defend the homeland." I believe our cause is just, but I don't believe our costs in this conflict are being wisely incurred, no matter how brave our soldiers or how honored their flag-draped coffins.

Although it is argued that our military approach has prevented another attack at home, I personally think that's due mostly to dumb luck and the fact that, although al Qaeda et al have some nasty sharp teeth, they're not the massive, pervasive threat they've been made out to be. If they could pull off another 9/11, they would; failing that, they'd rather have 9/11 be our last vivid memory of them. Even an attack that killed hundreds would fail as an event meant to reinforce their power.

That's not to say that they won't, eventually, kill hundreds or thousands again. The fact is that more innocent Americans are going to die in this conflict, both in and out of uniform. Nobody wants it--I don't want it--but conflicts have costs. It is simplistic, sentimental folly to say "Freedom Isn't Free" and believe that because American soldiers are dying, American lives and freedom are being defended. It feels right: we're at war, and in a war, soldiers fight and die. But the American military isn't fighting the war we're in, and most Americans don't have to think about the war the military is in. We've even gotten a tax cut! America has been happily walled off from whatever, if anything, is ennobling about war, about conflict in the name of a just cause. But look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, Lebanon. That's the war we're in, and who is doing most of the dying? Civilians. Our soldiers, through no fault of their own, aren't doing anything except damaging our cause. And dying. They're dying for our bumpersticker beliefs.

We need to stop our military adventuring and address Islamist terror in a hundred ways at once less dramatic and more effective--ways that the Bush/Cheney administration have humiliated, hampered, and hamstrung at every turn: intelligence, infiltration, diplomacy, law enforcement, human aid and human rights, domestic security, emergency response. In a different world, it's the way we would've handled it, if the party in power didn't think every function of government should be either eliminated, ignored, or handed over to private enterprise to make a profit on.

Is it naive to think this is any way to win a war on terror? I don't know. Isn't it naive to think that people--whole nations--won't hate us if our military destroys their homes and loved ones? Isn't it naive to think the way we've been doing it is working?

Sure it is. But the paranoid style loves a man in uniform.

Posted by pk at 10:18 AM

Paranoia: Always in style

Sidney Blumenthal (sub req) on John Dean's new book, Conservatives Without Conscience:

Conservatism, as Dean sees it, has been transformed into authoritarianism. In his book, he revives an analysis of the social psychology of the right that its ideologues spent decades trying to deflect and discourage. [...]

"During the past half century," he writes, "our understanding of authoritarianism has been significantly refined and advanced." In particular, he cites the work of Bob Altemeyer, a social psychologist at the University of Manitoba, whose studies have plumbed the depths of those he calls "right-wing authoritarians." They are submissive toward authority, fundamentalist in orientation, dogmatic, socially isolated and insular, fearful of people different from themselves, hostile to minorities, uncritical toward dominating authority figures, prone to a constant sense of besiegement and panic, and punitive and self-righteous. Altemeyer estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of Americans might be categorized as right-wing authoritarians.

According to Dean's assessment, "Nixon, for all his faults, had more of a conscience than Bush and Cheney ... Our government has become largely authoritarian ... run by an array of authoritarian personalities," who flourish "because the growth of contemporary conservatism has generated countless millions of authoritarian followers, people who will not question such actions."

But it is Bush's own actions that have produced a political crisis for Republican one-party rule. In their campaign to retain Congress, Republicans are staking their chips on the fear generated by the war on terror and the culture war, doubling and tripling their bets on the paranoid style.

To that end, House Republicans have unveiled what they call the "American Values Agenda." Despite the defeat of key parts of the program--constitutional amendments against gay marriage and flag burning--and the congressional approval of embryonic stem cell research, the Republicans hope that these expected setbacks will only inflame the conservative base. Their strategy is to remind their followers that enemies surround them and that the president is always right.

Funny how Dean and Cheney came out of the Nixon administration with such different notions.

Posted by pk at 7:09 AM

July 14, 2006

The dismal science

Left Behind Economics, by Paul Krugman:

I’d like to say that there’s a real dialogue taking place about the state of the U.S. economy, but the discussion leaves a lot to be desired. In general, the conversation sounds like this:

Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.”

Informed economist: “But it’s not a great economy for most Americans. Many families are actually losing ground, and only a very few affluent people are doing really well.”

Bush supporter: “Why doesn’t President Bush get credit for a great economy? I blame liberal media bias.”

To a large extent, this dialogue of the deaf reflects Upton Sinclair’s principle: it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. But there’s also an element of genuine incredulity. Many observers, even if they acknowledge the growing concentration of income in the hands of the few, find it hard to believe that this concentration could be proceeding so rapidly as to deny most Americans any gains from economic growth.

Yet newly available data show that that’s exactly what happened in 2004. Why talk about 2004, rather than more recent experience? Unfortunately, data on the distribution of income arrive with a substantial lag; the full story of what happened in 2004 has only just become available, and we won’t be able to tell the full story of what’s happening right now until the last year of the Bush administration. But it’s reasonably clear that what’s happening now is the same as what happened then: growth in the economy as a whole is mainly benefiting a small elite, while bypassing most families.

Here’s what happened in 2004. The U.S. economy grew 4.2 percent, a very good number. Yet last August the Census Bureau reported that real median family income--the purchasing power of the typical family--actually fell. Meanwhile, poverty increased, as did the number of Americans without health insurance. So where did the growth go?

The answer comes from the economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, whose long-term estimates of income equality have become the gold standard for research on this topic, and who have recently updated their estimates to include 2004. They show that even if you exclude capital gains from a rising stock market, in 2004 the real income of the richest 1 percent of Americans surged by almost 12.5 percent. Meanwhile, the average real income of the bottom 99 percent of the population rose only 1.5 percent. In other words, a relative handful of people received most of the benefits of growth.

There are a couple of additional revelations in the 2004 data. One is that growth didn’t just bypass the poor and the lower middle class, it bypassed the upper middle class too. Even people at the 95th percentile of the income distribution--that is, people richer than 19 out of 20 Americans--gained only modestly. The big increases went only to people who were already in the economic stratosphere.


In short, it’s a great economy if you’re a high-level corporate executive or someone who owns a lot of stock. For most other Americans, economic growth is a spectator sport.

Can anything be done to spread the benefits of a growing economy more widely? Of course. A good start would be to increase the minimum wage, which in real terms is at its lowest level in half a century.

But don’t expect this administration or this Congress to do anything to limit the growing concentration of income. Sometimes I even feel sorry for these people and their apologists, who are prevented from acknowledging that inequality is a problem by both their political philosophy and their dependence on financial support from the wealthy. That leaves them no choice but to keep insisting that ordinary Americans--who have, in fact, been bypassed by economic growth--just don’t understand how well they’re doing.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

The economy may be doing great, but the government is failing the working people.

Posted by pk at 8:53 AM

July 10, 2006

The last day of the first half of my life

I guess I was on a de facto hiatus there, although I didn't go anywhere or anything. You know how it is at PuddingTime!--I'm in, I'm out. But you'll notice the LinkLog is bursting today--and, by the way, if you ever have a comment on a LinkLog entry, you can always click the LinkLog head and be taken to the page itself, where you can comment on entries as you would any blog post. And please do--it's so demoralizing to have a comments feature that attracts only rxpe-pxrn spam.

So, the header means I turn 40 tomorrow, and I guess I'm thinking more about endings than beginnings. I'm not really bummed about it, but it doesn't feel as fun as turning 30 did. I'm not doing anything much to observe it. Cindy wanted to have a party, but we've been too busy to plan it, and I'm not really in the mood, anyway. I'll have a martini and watch the All-Star Game. It's nice to always have the All-Star Game on or near my birthday. (Max, unfortunately, gets the State of the Union address. I watched the "Axis of Evil" speech in the hospital when he was a day old.)

Anyway, for no reason other than a desire to think more about beginnings--and the fact that I was thwarted from posting this on a certain corporate music site after going to the trouble of creating it--here's my list of the 30 Greatest Debut Albums in Rock History. They're numbered, but they're not really in any order, except "Sorry Ma" is most fucking definitely Number 1. Your complaints and additions are most welcome. Anyone with an oversight that makes me slap my forehead wins a gumball.

  1. The Replacements, “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash”
  2. Ramones
  3. New York Dolls
  4. The Clash
  5. X, “Los Angeles”
  6. “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”
  7. Gang of Four, “Entertainment!”
  8. The Velvet Underground & Nico
  9. Richard Hell and the Voidoids, “Blank Generation”
  10. Television, “Marquee Moon”
  11. R.E.M., “Murmur”
  12. Wire, “Pink Flag”
  13. The Heartbreakers, “L.A.M.F.”
  14. The Dead Boys, “Young, Loud & Snotty”
  15. The Specials
  16. Elvis Costello, “My Aim Is True”
  17. Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You)”
  18. Pretenders
  19. fIREHOSE, “Ragin’, Full-On”
  20. The Stooges
  21. The Cars
  22. Dire Straits
  23. Led Zeppelin
  24. Jimi Hendrix, “Are You Experienced?”
  25. Guns ‘n Roses, “Appetite for Destruction”
  26. Pearl Jam, “Ten”
  27. Violent Femmes
  28. The English Beat, “I Just Can’t Stop It”
  29. Jane’s Addiction
  30. Naked Raygun, “Throb Throb”

Posted by pk at 11:25 AM