Hipster Doofus
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Now That's a Foreign Policy

This is an interesting profile of Thomas P.M. Barnett, a Pentagon analyst who lays out what looks from the article to be a striking alternative to the Bush administration's foreign policy.

At first blush, "alternative" seems like a strong word. After all, he strongly supported military action in Iraq, and the overall architecture of his policies certainly looks aggressive enough. But it's substantially different in a critical way.

The key passage follows:

"At the Pentagon, Barnett laid out his view of the post-Cold War world: The biggest threats against the United States come from developing countries left behind by globalization — which he calls the Gap.

In the Gap, Barnett says, dictators like Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups like al-Qaida are trying to keep people disconnected from the rest of the world so they can be dominated and repressed. The Gap’s villains strike at the United States and itglobalizationng partners — countries Barnett calls the Core —to try to enforce that separation, Barnett says."

Barnett, correctly, ties the project of spreading liberalism with the process of globalization. This is a far cry from the Administration, with its disdain for all policies global and its nativist rhetoric. As this oldie-but-goodie from The New Republic points out, Bush has consistently framed his foreign policy in terms of stark national interest -- this not only cynically trades away America's, well, "national interest" for domestic political gain (see also here), but it also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terror.

As Josh Marshall has pointed out more than once, it's tough to fight a war for liberal democracy when the people running the war are some of the most illiberal members of our society. But the war against terrorism is also a struggle for globalization, against those who righteously disdain the concept. And it's hard to fight that fight when the people in charge are, themselves, disdainful of the concept.

I haven't even gotten around to properly starting this this up, and I've already disappeared for, what, a month? My apologies.
Saturday, May 08, 2004
The Ashes of the Empire

Back to the Book Club, and Niall Ferguson.

As you may know, Ferguson contends that the United States constitutes an empire, and he's rather happy about this fact -- or, at least, he thinks that America should be, and embrace its imperial status.

(Whether or not we're an empire is a semantic issue I won't engage here. The title of this post shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of one side or the other -- I just think it'd be a cool title for Episode VII.)

But Ferguson is pessimistic:

"The American empire has a big problem. Not only do Americans not recognize the true character of their own predicament—that un-splendid isolation against which Lord Salisbury warned the Victorian imperialists. The rest of the world now regards the United States as not just an empire but now an evil empire.

I have long suspected that this empire would be a short-lived one. But the present combination of economic, manpower, and attention deficits, in the context of a collapse of international legitimacy, suggests that its decline and fall have been proceeding, at precipitate speed, even as you and I have corresponded."

(my emphasis)

David Brooks, another friend of American hegemony, also takes a dark view:

"It's pretty clear we're passing through another pivot point in American foreign policy. A year ago, we were the dominant nation in a unipolar world. Today, we're a shellshocked hegemon.

We still face a world of threats, but we're much less confident about our own power. We still know we can roll over hostile armies, but we cannot roll over problems. We get dragged down into them. We can topple tyrants, but we don't seem to be very good at administering nations. Our intelligence agencies have made horrible mistakes. Our diplomacy vis-à-vis Western Europe has been inept. We have a military filled with heroes, but the atrocities of a few have eclipsed the nobility of the many.

In short, we are on the verge of a crisis of confidence."

Say what you will about this Administration's vision of the world and America's place within it. The execution has been awful. As someone once said, it's not about ideology... it's about competence.

One of the great tragedies of what has happened over the past year is that the Administration's vision for how America ought to interact with the world isn't that far off the mark -- or, to put it another way, in substance, it's not to far from liberal internationalism. But in tone, and in execution, it has been, as someone else once said, wildly off the mark.

As Brooks points, out, this is going to give a lot of aid and comfort to isolationists on both sides of the political spectrum. And, as Ferguson writes, it's damaged our legitimacy abroad severely. In doing both these things, it has severely impaired America's ability to robustly engage the world -- at a time when America, and the world, desperately need such engagement.

In a word, tragic.

Globalization and Cooperation

This entry from last week's "Book Club" in Slate contains the following, from Niall Ferguson:

"By contrast, [Walter Russel] Mead sees the entire 1980s as an economic turning point. American dominance today, he suggests, originated in the shift from Keynesian, corporatist policies -- which had failed in the 1970s -- back to laissez faire liberalism. (In Mead's terms, this was a shift from "Fordism" to "millennial capitalism.") Successive presidents from Reagan through Bush I and Clinton to Bush II gave globalization their backing, and the result was a dramatic spurt forward in growth, not only for the United States but for those countries who adopted similar policies. Forget about NATO, Mead seems to be telling us; focus on the WTO. And that might help explain the breakdown of multilateralism in the non-economic sphere. For free trade is not (despite what Richard Cobden believed) synonymous with international harmony."

I'm not so sure about this conclusion. I suspect that free trade and economic integration increase "international harmony" by reducing the chances of armed conflict between states. War between the United States and any Western European nation is all but unthinkable, for several reasons. One such reason, though, is that both sides simply have too much invested in the other side. When you add conflict-resolution systems such as the WTO to the equation, the possibility of warfare becomes even more remote. In the long term, the expansion of economic integtration will almost certainly increase harmony -- at least as far as traditional, state-on-state wars go; non-state actors are a whole other story, as we've so painfully learned.

However, this sort of economic integration does probably have the potential to decrease harmony between states in addressing "third party" problems, especially in the short term. Thus, while the United States and France are unlikely to go to war anytime soon, they're also unlikely to agree on Iraq. Part of the reason is because actual war is so unlikely -- as globalization makes interstate war unthinkable, it creates a sense of security in which countries can posture and preen without worrying that the name calling will devolve into a destructive military confrontation. But I think that another reason is that, in an era of globalization, it pays particularly well to take pot shots at the locus of global power. I suspect that many people abroad see the United States not merely as another country, and not merely as the most powerful other country, but as an uncontrollable force of nature that permeates their lives more thoroughly than past hegemons. Secure in a web of economic interconnection, people take their frustrations out, just as Americans happily complain about the federal government, Wall Street, and Hollywood.

In other words, politicians around the world are discovering was Americapoliticiansns long ago realized: it pays to run against Washington, D.C.

Update: There's a good quote in this piece from the New York Times that gets at what I see to be the frustrations of non-Americans in a globalized world:

"'People say, 'I'm very frustrated that I can't vote in the U.S. elections, because these are the ones that affect my way of life more than anything else,' ' Ken Dubin, a political scientist at Carlos III University in Madrid, said in an interview."

Friday, May 07, 2004
Honor and Dignity...

If this is, indeed, true, then it's shocking. Maybe not suprising, but shocking -- and truly scandalous:

"We can contribute a second hand anecdote to newspaper stories on rising concern, last year, from Secretary of State Powell and Deputy Secretary Armitage about Administration attitudes and the risks they might entail: according to eye witnesses to debate at the highest levels of the Administration...the highest levels...whenever Powell or Armitage sought to question prisoner treatment issues, they were forced to endure what our source characterizes as 'around the table, coarse, vulgar, frat-boy bully remarks about what these tough guys would do if THEY ever got their hands on prisoners....'

"-- let's be clear: our source is not alleging 'orders' from the White House. Our source is pointing out that, as we said in the Summary, a fish rots from its head. The atmosphere created by Rumsfeld's controversial decisions was apparently aided and abetted by his colleagues in their callous disregard for the implications of the then-developing situation, and by their ridicule of the only combat veterans at the top of this Administration."

(from The Nelson Report, via TPM).

I certainly hope that the wide-exposure media fishes this story out. If this is true, it is -- or ought to be -- staggering.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004
Andrew Sullivan's Challenge

Andrew Sullivan has been challenging liberal bloggers and commentators to comment on the Ted Rall Pat Tillman cartoon.

I hadn't posted on this because, frankly, I haven't posted on very much lately. But his points are fair. The cartoon -- which I had some trouble tracking down, as I didn't see it when the controversy first broke -- is utterly condemnable.

First of all, it's simply wrongheaded. The war in Afghanistan was about as just a war as possible. Iraq was a closer call -- on balance, I thought it a good idea, but there were plenty of good arguments on the other side. But to simply denigrate it as Rall does is to wallow in the kind of simple-mindedness that liberals ought to deplore.

Of course, if the cartoon was merely wrong, it would not have caused the firestorm it did. But, of course, it was much more than "wrong." Amongst its transgressions against decency, it imputed noxious motives to both Tillman and, by extension, the other young men and women who have enlisted in the Armed Forces since September 11. Have some people enlisted for the wrong reasons? Almost certainly. But people have also enlisted for some of the best reasons imaginable -- and I would venture that there are far, far more people in the latter category than the former. To assume that a given individual joined up for the wrong reason is a loathsome insult to that individual, but it also suggests that, hey, that's the reason people sign up these days, and that's loathsome, too.

And then there's the fact that the cartoon ran when it did. It's offensive to caustically or glibly criticize the dead until well past their passing. This is as true in politics as in all other areas of life -- it is rightly considered shameful to use the occasion of an opponent's death to condemn that opponent. Here, Rall determined Tillman to be an opponent, even though there's no reason to think that Tillman meant his service to be the pole of a dialectic; he imputed sinister motives to this "opponent"; and expressed them at the last time that such sentiments might ever be appropriately expressed. Condemnable, and rightly condemned.
Simply Wrong

I'll try not to say anything too mean about this stem-winder from Steven Den Beste, except to note that it's so completely wrongheaded that it's probably not even worth my responding to.

Also, I'll leave the philosophical and historical debunking to others.

Den Beste's contention is that we are engaged in a three-way war, between Islamicists, P-idealists, and empiricists. P-Idealists are philosophical idealists, influenced by teleology, defined thusly:

"a basic assumption that there's a fundamental elegance of design to the universe, a deep sense in which things are related so that outcomes are intellectually and esthetically pleasing. When things happen, it's not just the result of localized cause-and-effect; there's also a 'final cause', a deeper meaning and source of it. And because of that, it all relates; everything is of a piece, and it's all part of an elegant overall pattern."

Empricism, on the other hand, it just what you would expect it to be, an outlook based on the philosophical concept of materialism:

"[Materialism] started with the question, 'What is the universe like?' and came up with the answer, 'I dunno; let's go look and see.' It posits that there actually is an objective universe, and doesn't automatically assume that it has any kind of underlying purpose. If such a thing is present, it will become clear in due course, and in the mean time let's all look around to see what kind of place we're living in."

He then goes on to assert that America is the great bastion of empiricism, and Europe -- particularly "Old Europe" -- is the locus of P-idealism. The not-so-thinly-veiled suggestion is that President Bush is leading a twilight struggle on behalf of empiricism against the p-idealist menace.

Unfortunately, this simply flies in the face of, well, empirical reality. First of all, there's religion, which is much more widespread in the United States than amongst the Axis of Weasels. I haven't read Den Beste in a while, so, as I started his piece, I wasn't sure where he was coming from. When he got to his desciption of teleology, which sounds awfully like a religious mindset, I figured he was heading for a defense of American religiosity against European decadence. Boy, was I suprised!

Den Beste makes some breezy connections between empiricism and Protestantism. I won't get into whether or not he's historically correct on this point, but I bet I know what he's thinking -- a historical relationship between Protestantism and empricism would somehow suggest that American religion isn't p-idealist, which would be convenient for Den Beste's grand theory because religion is, well, fairly p-idealist. But while Reformation-era Protestantism may have been more open to empirical inquiry than the period's Catholic Church (once again, a historical assumption on which I plead ignorance), the idea that America's widespread religiosity is somehow "less teleological" than Europe's secularism is, frankly, preposterous. Look again at Den Beste's definition of teleology: it's like he's saying that religion is less religious than non-religion.

He tries to get around this problem by associating p-idealism with Marxism, and setting it in opposition to religion:

"When the economic theory of communism was developed, it was embraced by p-idealists. As a theory, it has the kind of esthetic elegance which meant that it had to be true, teleologically speaking.

To a great extent it was also embraced by p-idealists as an alternative to Christianity. In a real sense, Marxism has become a secular religion for many p-idealists. Which is why up until the 18th century, p-idealism in Europe was pretty closely associated with Catholicism, whereas most modern p-idealists tend to view any theistic religious belief with contempt."

But the struggle between Communism and confessional religion is not a struggle between "p-idealists" and "empiricists" -- it's a struggle within "p-idealism." Den Beste writes that "Marxism has become a secular religion for many p-idealists." If this means anything, it means that there's a pretty tight relationship between p-idealism and religion.

Now, I don't take this to be an indictment of religion. I fail to see that "teleology" and "empricism" need necessarily be at each other's throats: many religious traditions have reconciled their teachings with scientific inquiry, and many level-headed fact-oriented individuals maintain religious devotion. The United States is a bastion of both religious participation and technological progress, with millions of theological conservatives participating succesfully in liberal political institutions. And it's Den Beste himself who traces the roots of empricism to a religious movement. Not all teleologies are created equal.

That's not to say that ideology is not a danger, or a threat to the war against terrorism -- one would have to have slept through history to have avoided the fact that teleologies can be dangerous. But Den Beste is erecting "post-modernist" straw men to explain opposition to this president's policies. Has some of that opposition stemmed from ideology and anti-Americanism? Yes, of course. And much of it has been reflexive -- many in the middle powers of Europe would be bound to oppose a superpower's actions be they empiricist, p-idealist, or abstract impressionist. But a great deal of the opposition, both here and abroad, has stemmed from the fear -- well grounded in fact -- that this White House has abandoned the world it faces for the world that it believes to be.

The p-idealist mindset that Den Beste describes sounds like a manual for decision-making in this Administration: from climate change to WMD to the federal budget, this White House never seems to let a stubborn fact get in the way of ideological pretense. And this tendency is hardly isolated, on the right, to the Administration.

Den Beste does confess that "it's nearly impossible to make any statement about any of these forces which is universally true without also being trivial and uninteresting." I would have settled for a lot less than universal truth.

Update: Funny... I believe Den Beste mentioned Lysenkoism in his piece.
Monday, May 03, 2004
The Deception Continues

First of all, my apologies for my absence.

Now, onto the rant....

It seems that there are two defenses of the President's pre-war "inaccuracies" regarding WMD and the threat of Saddam Hussein that you hear a lot of these days.

One is that, well, maybe there weren't any WMD, but the people of Iraq are still better off without Saddam, and America's long term interests in the Middle East were served by his ouster -- both because of the removal of a long-term threat to those interests, and because of the (sadly fading) possibility that we could construct a liberal society in the Baathists' wake.

This is a perfectly good defense of the war itself. But it's a lousy defense of the President. Yes, he paid lip service to the idea of spreading democracy via Saddam's ouster -- but the Administration's case for war rested four-square on the idea that the regime had WMD and was actively seeking to expand its arsenal.

The other thing you seem to hear a lot of is, well, maybe the lead up to the war was not as, shall we say, "factual" as it could have been. But it's time to let bygones be bygones and look to the future.

Only, the deception continues, and it continues in large part because the Administration can't bring itself to make the first defense. Josh Marshall has a great point near the end of this post about the "passive deception" that Bush practices. One of the best examples of this is the way that he refers to the decision to go to war in Iraq as a decision to "defend America," as in this campaign ad.

Look, if the war was a forward-looking "make the world a better place" foreign policy initiative, and if this counts as "defending America," then pretty much everything worthwhile that we do overseas counts as "defense." Now, I strongly believe that there are plenty of things that can be done abroad that serve our long-term interests in a way that could plausibly be called the "defense" of those interests. In fact, one of my biggest beefs with today's GOP foreign policy zeitgeist is that, bouts of rhetorical idealism aside, it still has too pinched and narrow a view of our national interest. But neither I, nor, frankly, anyone I can think of, would claim that a politician was "soft on defense" for opposing HIV funding for Africa -- or, if we did, we wouldn't get traction. Likewise, you don't hear people saying that, say, President Clinton was "strong on defense" for his work on the Middle East peace process. In short, when President Bush says that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a decision to "defend America," he's strongly implying that it was something other than a mere visionary act of benevolence. He's making the same implication he was making in the Winter of 2002-2003. In other words, he's still misleading America.

What's perhaps most galling is that this is the same President who ran in 2000 on a campaign of "restoring the honor and dignity of the Oval Office"; someone who was going to "change the tone"; someone who knew the definition of "is" by heart. And today, while his supporters Unite the Country by obsessively cataloguing every inconsistency in his opponent's voting record, he engages in this meta-flip-flop of the most corrupt order. While his media machine snickers over whether or not John Kerry leveled with the electorate on the Crucial National Issue of whether he owns an SUV, the President continues to systematically -- if passively -- mislead.

Honor and dignity, indeed.
Monday, April 26, 2004
Bank Shot

Matthew Yglesias has a lot of good stuff to say at Tapped about the differences between democracy promotion in Eastern Europe during the late Cold War and in the Middle East today. But there's another difference that I don't think gets enough attention. During the Cold War, things were pretty straightforward: we supported dissidents in their struggles against despotic regimes because those regimes posed a threat to us. Things in today's Middle East are different -- the greatest threat to America is not the despots, although some of them are plenty threatening. Rather, the greatest threat is that the despotism of the region creates angry, frustrated people who turn their rage against us. Ironically, this puts us on the "same side" as our most bitter enemies, in that we both seek to change the status quo in, say, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- although, of course, the changes we seek are starkly different.

Thus, we can't look at democratizing the Middle East the same way we looked at democratizing Poland. Rather, we have to imagine that Poland never fell to Communism, but withered throughout the Cold War under a decrepit, undemocratic allied regime, a regime that in turn gave rise to a left wing radical movement that threatened America's security. Or else we can dispense with the Cold War alternate histories and look squarely at the situation we're facing. It's a lot more complicated than what we faced in Eastern Europe.
Seeing Evil

David Brooks has some good points in his column on the evil of the Columbine killers and Al Qaeda terrorists. But the overall thrust of the piece is misguided.

Brooks decries the post-Columbine analysis that dwelled on the purported victimization of the killers: they were bullied, they were socially marginalized, they must have come from bad homes, etc. Instead, he cites to last week's excellent Slate piece for the theory that at least Harris was purely and simply a psychopath, given to megalomaniac, blood-drenched grandiosity.

But then he goes a step further, implying that the lesson in all of this is that we shouldn't try to figure out why people do evil things:

"Now, in 2004, we have more experience with suicidal murderers. Yet it is striking how resilient this perpetrator-as-victim narrative remains. We still sometimes assume that the people who flew planes into buildings and those who blew up synagogues in Turkey, trains in Spain, discos in Tel Aviv and schoolchildren this week in Basra are driven by feelings of weakness, resentment and inferiority. We cling to the egotistical notion that it is our economic and political dominance that drives terrorists insane."

But Brooks is creating a strawman. I don't think too many liberals want the psychological healing of individual terrorists to be a central component of the war on terror. For all we know, Mohammed Atta and his crew were, to a man, clinical psychopaths of the Harris ilk; Osama Bin Laden himself may well be, too. But there's a very real question as to why their penchant for evil, whatever its psychological dynamics, sent them on a quest to commit mass murder against Americans. Why was their bloodlust directed towards such political aims?

And the far more compelling question is, why does their bloodlust hold such appeal to others in the Muslim world? I'm sure that Kleibold and Harris have their (sick) admirers, and, sadly, they may even have their copycats. But it can hardly be said that they have a movement. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, does. While the vast majority of the Muslim world has rejected its works, the group managed to rally thousands to its camps before September 11; since then, the impairment of its leadership has apparently spawned numerous successor organizations.

Perhaps many of the young men who went to those training camps were psychopaths like Harris; perhaps the same can be said for those who have taken up the cause over the past few years. But that's not the end of the conversation, as Brooks seems to imply that it should be. Politics is not something to be exercised when all the evil people are out of the way. Rather, it serves to manage the phenomenon of evil: to keep it from emerging, to manage it when it does, and, yes, to punish it. Thus, after World War II, America did not simply decide that Stalinism was evil and announce to Europe that, of course, it ought to reject it. Rather, we coupled our containment of its power with a generous benevolence towards those societies that might fall prey to its temptations. Similarly, today, we cannot allow the evil of our enemy to distract us from the political nature of our struggle.

Of course, our political situation in the Middle East is far more complex than simply, "they resent us." But the resentment is there, and we simply can't stick our collective head in the sand about it if we are to confront the political issues that bedevil us. And, in the long run, we can't win the war without successfully addressing those political issues.
Friday, April 23, 2004
More Body and Soul

After this sad story broke, I was waiting all day for Jeanne to comment -- and she doesn't disappoint.
I don't much care for the foreign policy instincts found in Bruce Bartlett's latest, but his analysis of the Bush White House strikes me as spot-on, and brave. For my money, here's the key quote:

"I am not yet convinced that President Bush manufactured evidence for their existence as a pretext for war. But I do believe that he has fostered a White House culture that contributes to error with a stifled internal debate, a decision-making process that seems to short circuit research and analysis, and an obsession with loyalty and secrecy that makes the Nixon White House appear as a model of openness and transparency."

It's hard not to see this dysfunctionality as being all tied up with the preposterous "anti-elitism" of the Administration (link via Body and Soul, which has some great points on the subject also.) This President really seems to buy his schtick: everything he does must of course be right, and there's no need to question what he does, because the only people who would ever question anything he does are fancy-pants intellectuals.

If that last sentence didn't make any sense to you, it's because it doesn't.

Obviously just another left-wing partisan hack with an axe to grind....

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