Saturday, March 29, 2003

Shock and Awe? No. Stupidity and Arrogance
I have a deadline for a paper I've been asked to write, and I won't have time for blogging in the next few days. BUT...taking a break and surfing the web I came across this, which really put the finishing touches on the stuff Digby discusses today (see link in the post below).

Can anybody out there tell me what the bleeding hell are these people doing? Spending $250 million to make what is basically the equivalent of a Spielberg movie is bad enough. Disregarding the advice of their experienced battlefield commanders is bad enough. BUT RIGGING A WAR GAME?

Many years ago, I was playing a videogame with my best friend's six-year-old son. He loved to play and he was, even then, damn good. Good enough to beat me, a non-video-game sort of person. I had lost six games, but finally was getting the hang of it. When he realized I was going to win the seventh game, he waited until I was really concentrating, then reached down and pulled the plug.

The Pentagon is behaving like a six-year-old. God help us.

What Are You Doing Here?
Go read Julia. If this doesn't make you stand up and shout "Right on!" nothing in the Universe will.

Check Digby too, while you're at it. His links seem to be kerflooie, so look for Future Shock and Awe. If this doesn't scare you witless, nothing in the Universe will!

Thursday, March 27, 2003

A Commentary on Tacitus
Tacitus posts a long answer to a question I posed in the comments to one of his posts. He starts like this: Emma at Skyedreams asked a while back what good it would do to install democracy in Islamic lands if all they did was immediately vote Islamists into power.

I agree completely with Tacitus's assessment. In fact, I would go further and say modern democracy is a Western construct that rests on a set of philosophical and religious assumptions that do not exist outside the judeo-greek intellectual continuum, and whether it can be grafted onto others is a matter of luck and history. Japan and India could be said to fall into the success column; the sad litany of failures is too long to tackle here. I most strongly agree with Tacitus's conclusion, and I'd like to quote it here:

The answer, I think, is this: it's the risk we run, and the price we pay. All the alternatives have already failed. A democratic Saudi Arabia electing Wahhabist firebrands to office would be a terrible sight and a menace to the rest of us. But we must ask: are we safe now? Do the Wahhabist firebrands not exist now? Time to be bold. Time to let the people of the Middle East learn their own lessons, as the people of Iran seem to be. Time to let them learn by making mistakes -- with the novel recourse of an electoral corrective when they do.

However, although my answer is essentially the same as Tacitus's, my question was phrased slightly different: what happens if we bring democracy to Iraq and they use it to elect themselves a government we don't like--for example, a islamic fundamentalist one? It springs from a perception of the United States' partially formed by my own background.

Latin America has had several experiences in what happens when a democratically elected government comes up against the United States' interests. To Latin Americans, as well as many others around the world, the United States' idea of " a democracy" seems to be "a country that does what the United States wants".The result is a deep distrust of our motives and policies, and many a demagogue has ridden to power on an anti-US platform. Those people love the idea of America; but while America is the ideal, the United States is the reality--and the two do not often reflect each other.

Often, the United States' talk of democracy seems only a socially acceptable cover for unfettered capitalism. That is why so many people believe that it's about the oil. Many a time it has been about the oil--of whatever other mercantile interest was under siege at the time. Or course, we are not the only country who aggresively protects its economic interests; you will find that the suspicions extend to other developed nations. But the United States holds iself up as an example to others, and when we fail to live up to our own ideals, we fall further and faster in their eyes.

The United States behaves like a salesman with a fantastic product who tries to force people to buy it at gunpoint. If democracy is to flourish elsewhere, we have to keep our hands off. If a government we do not like is elected, we have to live with it, unless that government represents an immediate threat to our safety, defining "immediate threat" as "they are pointing the nukes at us". We must, as Tacitus says, let people learn their own lessons, as Iran seems to be doing. At best, we should actively support new democracies by offering good trade terms and whatever else helps them to stay the course as democracies, not necessarily as capitalist societies. And we have to stop supporting dictators; the short term advantages we might gain are totally eclipsed by the long-term liabilities (vide Saddam Hussein).

We need to do better. Tacitus is right, the greatest failure is the failure to try.

Can we?

UPDATE: Well, thank God better minds than mine are grappling with this issue. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website, there's an article that discusses Islamism's role in Middle East democracies:

In addition to these unfavorable political and economic preconditions, the Middle East faces the issue of Islamism. It would be wrong to suggest that Islam and democracy are incompatible; the majority of the world's Muslims are citizens of electoral democracies. However, Arab regimes must find a way to deal with political movements that use illiberal interpretations of Islam to mobilize their followers. Islamist movements enjoy considerable grassroots support throughout the region. In many Middle Eastern countries Islamist parties would likely win a substantial share of the vote in a truly free and fair elections. Islamists did well for example in last year's elections in Morocco and Bahrain.

Rapid democratization ironically raises the possibility of empowering groups that are ideologically opposed to democracy and might seek to abrogate democratic structures and citizens' rights. However, continued repression of Islamist political participation dooms democracy by marginalizing groups that enjoy genuine public support, and providing governments with an excuse to maintain tight controls over all types of political activity. The vexing dilemma of how to include Islamists of dubious democratic fidelity in a process of democratization is another reason positive political change in the Middle East will not be a rapid and easy process.

The United States should promote democracy in the Middle East. But it must recognize that rapid transformation is unlikely. U.S. goals must be initially modest, and our commitment to change must be long term. The core elements of a democracy-oriented policy are not hard to identify. The U.S. government should exert sustained, high-level pressure on Arab states to respect political and civil rights, to create or expand the space for political debate and to carry out pro-democratic institutional, legal and constitutional changes. This pressure should be coupled with increased aid to bolster democracy activists and reform advocates, political parties, rule of law reforms and civil society groups, including moderate Islamists.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Two People Separated By A Common Language
Not us and the Brits. Us and....well, us.

I was over at Tacitus this afternoon (as an aside, if you have never visited Tacitus, I urge you to do so; he's a rightie, but he's darn near brilliant, keeps a neat house, and likes Trek), when I came across a discussion. Tacitus had asked, very seriously, what Administration official(s) predicted this war would be easy or cheap, in lives or treasure?.

In the comments, Kos posted the following exchange between Tim Russert and Dick Cheney:

MR. RUSSERT: If your analysis is not correct, and we’re not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?

VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House. The president and I have met with them, various groups and individuals, people who have devoted their lives from the outside to trying to change things inside Iraq. And like Kanan Makiya who’s a professor at Brandeis, but an Iraqi, he’s written great books about the subject, knows the country intimately, and is a part of the democratic opposition and resistance. The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.

Kos said that Cheney flat out said that we wouldn't face a "long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties". Sure he then hedges later on in the interview, but his intent was clear. To allay fears that this would not be a costly war, NOT to prepare the American people for the dangers of war.

A few posts later, another commenter answers him: Cheney didn't say that it wouldn't be long, costly and bloody. He actually didn't address that point at all. You completely manufactured what you thought he said out of thin air.

It took me aback; maybe, I thought for one unbelieving moment, I don't know English as well as I thought I did. It seemed clear to me that the first sentence of Cheney's response links directly back to the question asked. Even if he had not repeated the actual words, surely he had answered their substance. What had I missed?

After a few seconds I realized what I had seen was an example of a new language: Political English.

A bi-partisan phenomenon, Political English differs from the common speech in several ways. First, every word is fed through an ideological prism. Political English is actually more sophisticated than doublespeak, in that there are no absolute opposites, only a wearisome parsing of sentences until, by dint of superhuman effort, they mean what we want them to mean; in the example above, the argument seems to be that because Cheney did not actually use the words "long, costly, and bloody" he had not addressed the question. Second, the parsing is immediately followed by an attempt to accuse the other person of parsing; in this case Kos is accused of manufacturing the evidence by reading a non-existent meaning into Cheney's answer . Finally, the whole construction is capped by an ad hominem attack: the parting shot of Kos's respondent was And so far, it's been relatively unbloody. I can only imagine your disappointment.

The problem with Political English is that, for those who do not look through the same prism, it seems at best disingenous, on par with the notorious "it depends what the meaning of is is". At worst, it comes across as supercilious mockery, and it's likely to get the speaker a thick ear from those who do do not share his biases. It guarantees that the political discourse will remain a series of conflicts with no compromise in sight.

That's a hell of a way to run a democracy.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Bumpy Ride Ahead
The Committee for Economic Development, a think-tank describing itself as "non-profit, non-partisan, and non-political", has just released a new report, Exploding Deficits, Declining Growth: the Federal Budget and the Aging of America. They are calling for no tax cuts, a major revamp of Medicare and Social Security, redirecting the defense budget towards national security, reforming education, increasing funding for basic research, and clamping down on discretionary spending.

CED research shows that the Administration's current budget projections seriously understate the nation's fiscal problems. The CED foresees a ten-year deficit of $2 trillion not including war costs (which at the time of the writing of the report, was only a possibility), and the President's new tax proposals. The deficit problem will be compounded by the aging population: The onset of baby boom retirements in the next decade and the nation's low fertility rate will gradually produce an economy with many more retirees and proportionately far fewer workers, even after accounting for immigration. This means that future Americans will divide a slower-growing "income pie" into smaller pieces. The aging population is also expected to live longer: live expectancy for a 65-year-old male is projected to grow by 28%.

According to the CED, if we continue on the path which we are currently traveling, there are going to be deficits as far as the eye can see. For the years 2004-2013, they project that if the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 is made permanent, as proposed in the Administration's 2004 budget, it will raise the cumulative deficit by $1.4 trillion (including interest); the expected reform to the Alternative Minimum Tax will add another $411 billion (including interest); and discretionary spending deling with national defense, homeland security, and war and reconstruction costs could add another $1.5 trillion (including interest).

The report stresses the need to do no harm:

The first step in climbing out of a hole is to stop digging. Given the great contingent dangers as well as the enormous predictable costs that lie ahead, our current fiscal course of "business as usual" is indefensible. Since the 2001 tax cut was enacted, the trajectory of federal expenditures over this decade, excluding proposed additions to the defense and homeland security budgets and the possible costs of war, has risen by about 2.2 percent of GDP ($340 billion in 2010)...Recent and pending proposals by the Administration and decisions by the Congress should be reexamined in this long-term context. We believe it is simply not responsible (for example) to adopt agricultural subsidy and relief legislation that is largely divorced from need or damages incurred; to continue military systems addressed to the Cold War rather than to our new national security needs; to add prescription drugs to Medicare without adopting changes to improve the overall efficiency of the program; or to enact additional tax cuts, even if they have some economic merit, without taking into account our fiscal problem.

Considering our Administration's devotion to providing tax relief for the deserving rich, all I can say is: fasten your seat belts.