February 2004

2004 02 29
A retraction, of sorts

I haven’t written on Haiti much, because I simply haven’t known what to say about it. But I did say this a little while ago:

Aristide has simply no legitimacy and has – against the odds – run Haiti into even worse shape than Venezuela is in the minds of the most ardent anti-Chavez crowd. The 2000 elections in Haiti were a sham, and to say that Aristide isn’t a populist anymore would be putting it mildly.

If the US government wants to signal that it is no friend of Aristide it has my full blessing.

The main target there was actually a reporter who compared U.S. interference in Venezuela with some mild statements declining support for Aristide. And I don’t back off of that.

But it was irresponsible of me to be so cavalier about the U.S.’s attitude to Haiti without thinking through exactly who was supposed to replace Aristide if he took the hint and left. And now, it seems, he’s done exactly that. Aristide, I am convinced, was an absolute disaster for Haiti. But if the armed thugs who just helped to force him from power are any indication, some of the alternatives may be even worse.

Since I expressed approval for the U.S.’s refusal to support Aristide, the admin’s position seems to have flip-flopped a few times. The front page of today’s Times seems to suggest that the final push was the President’s call, made after a meeting with all his advisors. I wonder what they said at the meeting. In particular, I wonder if they bothered to think through what would happen once Aristide left, and whether – having gotten involved to this extent – they would be willing to fill the power vacuum they just helped to create.

I really hope someone has a plan. I know I didn’t when I shot my mouth off in that earlier post.

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2004 02 28
And another thing . . .

Here’s another way of making a point I’ve made in my remarks about Normblog’s position on the Iraq war.

Everyone agrees that North Korea is ruled by a vile regime, as vile at Saddam’s Ba’ath party was. But as far as I can tell neither Norm nor anyone on the pro-war left has advocated just going in and attacking North Korea.

And rightly so: For one, the human costs of such a plan rule it out immediately.

But they do not accuse themselves of failing to “resist evil” when they fail to advocate a war against North Korea, as they do accuse the anti-war left for failing to advocate a war against Iraq.

Now, I think that the obvious and immediate risks of attacking North Korea are considerably more daunting than the obvious and immediate risks of attacking Iraq were prior to the war. But I think that if you take a hard look at the likely long term consequences of the war in Iraq, there’s a good case to be made for the view that the cases are considerably closer than a first glance might suggest.

So here’s one thing worth noting: That last observation is a non-moral claim, in the sense that it’s a predictive claim about how things are likely to turn out, not about how they ought to turn out. And here’s the next thing: If Norm and other had accepted this non-moral claim, their position on the war against Iraq might well have been the same as their position on North Korea, i.e., don’t do it.

And that despite the fact that they – and we – are all anxious to resist evil.

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2004 02 27

A footnote to my recent discussion of Norm, the pro-war left, and other things . . . : I just want to say that the pessimistic forecast of Iraq’s future I made before the war (and which underlay some of my opposition to it) was almost entirely focused on the period after a transition to self-government.

I was, it turns out, wildly optimistic about the period following “major combat operations” and self-government. I gave altogether too much credit to Rumsfeld and assumed that he wouldn’t allow looting, chaos, etc. And I assumed that if Rumsfeld was going to scrap a year’s worth of planning by the State Dept at the last minute it would be because he actually had something to replace it with. The real worry, it seemed to me at the time, was how the US would respond to the powerful tensions within the new state, and whether it could prevent – or resist being sucked into – a civil war several years down the road.

Which is to say: The current mess, and the limited progress being made in clearing it up, are not really relevant to that argument.

I’m very glad to hear about day to day improvements in the new Iraq. But many of them are returns to a baseline I assumed as part of my pessimistic forecast. And my basic concern remains the same: that they will all be wiped away in a wave of violence two years from now.

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2004 02 26

Michael Young has the right reaction to the news that Richard Perle has resigned from the Defense Policy Board:

Is Perle so selfless as to resign on Bush’s behalf? Now say that again without howling with laughter. Either someone told Perle to walk, I’m guessing, or he wants to leverage his position while this administration is still in office.

I’ve got my money on the former possibility too. What’s nice about Perle’s announcement is the explicit recognition that the position Perle occupied does reflect on the administration – from which there is little to prevent the inference that up till now Perle’s bosses have been comfortable with the way he reflects on the administration. This is not to say that Perle’s attitudes are the attitudes of the administration, full stop. But it does confirm very nicely the point that that the admin – or elements in the admin – think his attitudes are valuable and serious.

Now, I think this makes some trouble for what has now become a standard line among some defenders of the Bush admin’s diplomacy. It goes like this: “Of course Bush isn’t a unilaterialist. He went to the UN; he tries to work with allies; he says conciliatory things at every opportunity.”

The obvious objection to this is that unilaterialism is a matter of degree, and that Bush can be far more unilateral than either precedent or prudence permit without being wholly unilateral. I’m happy to admit that many of the critiques of the admin which push the “unilaterial” criticism push it altogether too far, and in annoyingly simplistic directions. But even after we’ve discarded the nonsense, we’re left with a very serious criticism of the admin.

But there is another objection, too, which is that if you’re serious about working with allies, you don’t necessarily want someone in a position of prominence – with the implicit sanction of the admin – mouthing off all over the world about how feckless your allies are and how great it is that the U.N. is dying, since that is a fate it richly deserves. What one hand extends in diplomacy, the other truculently snatches away. When Perle writes a piece called “Thank God for the Death of the U.N.” (Friday, March 31st, 2003, in the Guardian) and receives no formal rebuke from the administration, he is correctly assumed to be representing at least one line of thinking about the matter within the admin. For my part, I always figured that Perle was a convenient proxy for Rumsfeld to make his attitudes towards adversaries and allies felt when decorum interfered with fuller expressions of irritation. (And while Rummy is awfully frank, I also doubt that he has said publicly all he has to say about the French, for example.)

I suppose Perle’s recent book (co-authored with former Bush speechwriter, David Frum) brought the basic tension here out so clearly that it could no longer be ignored. And that’s when Rummy’s excellent two-for-one deal on cakes finally collapsed.

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2004 02 25
[Riverbend on bias]

Among other things, some of them quite sensible and welcome, Riverbend says this in a recent post:

I get really tired of the emails deriding Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya for their news coverage, telling me they’re too biased towards Arabs, etc. Why is it ok for CNN to be completely biased towards Americans and BBC to be biased towards the British but Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya have to objective and unprejudiced and, preferably, pander to American public opinion? They are Arab news networks- they SHOULD be biased towards Arabs. I agree that there is quite a bit of anti-America propaganda in some Arabic media, but there is an equal, if not more potent, amount of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim propaganda in American media.

But this is precisely the point. It’s not OK for CNN to be completely biased towards Americans or the BBC towards the British, nor does Riverbend herself think so. She regularly trashes the biases of the Western media – and thank goodness she does.

There’s a fairly obvious point here which seems to snare a lot of people in practice. Your opponent is committed to X and Y. You point out that if X is really true, as your opponent falsely claims, then she is not entitled to Y. All of this is perfectly fair, but you cannot reject Y on this basis. For your grounds for rejecting Y were dialectical: They depended on premises you don’t accept. American officials want an absurdly biased Western media in their favour, and fail utterly to examine the thousands of ways that bias creeps into reporting on their own activities. But at the same time they want the Arab media to hew to a different set of standards – which they’re not in consistency entitled to press for, given their own standards. Therefore there is nothing wrong with pointing that out. But since you rightly reject bias in reporting in the first place, you can’t defend it elsewhere without yanking the carpet from under yourself.

I suspect that Riverbend’s considered view might be different from the one she’s written. And I suppose it’s easy for me to trash one paragraph taken from a long post. After all, I’m not the one who has to answer all those damn emails about why don’t you Arabs love us, look how much we do for you, and so on and so forth.

But the post set me off because I see a lot of people – and sometimes myself – thinking about political issues in this way. It’s most common, I would guess, when it’s most tempting, and most tempting when your opponents are both loud and very confused. And then you can spend all day swatting down their positions by simply exposing the internal contradictions. You are not entitled, you can say quite accurately to your opponent, to anything you say on this issue, given these other things you say. And you can do that all day without ever emerging to give a full substantive defense of your own position starting from premises you are willing to defend, rather than ones you simply accept for the sake of argument.

This is a very risky position to be in – an intellectually dangerous one, in my view – and it underscores the importance of always ensuring that you have someone on hand to argue against you intelligently. So I wish on Riverbend the same thing I always wish for myself: really smart and well-informed people who think you’re dead wrong and who are willing to explain in detail why that’s so.

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2004 02 25
[Kerry on same-sex marriage]

Busy, sick, traveling. Probably won’t be posting much this week.

I would like to say, however, that Kerry’s response to Bush’s Federal Marriage Amendment is really lame. From the point of view of principle, I think Kerry’s position is bankrupt.

As a political matter, I’ve gone from thinking that this issue is a loser for Democrats to thinking that this is actually something that might on the whole be a winner for them. Yes, I understand the potential that this issue has to mobilize Bush’s base, something he badly needs with the economy and the war the way they are. But if Kerry had a bit of imagination, he might frame the issue in a way that makes Bush look very bad.

This is one line of attack, for example: “Bush isn’t just opposed to gay-marriage – by proposing to amend the constitution he wants to take the most extreme legal measure to oppose it. And yet, it obviously has no hope of passing. And he knows that. So it’s a cynical move to pander to a group who isn’t going to get what they want anyway.”

If Kerry pushed that line hard, taking every opportunity to rub it in the noses of Bush’s base that they aren’t going to get what they want anyway, and Bush knows it, he might do very well for himself on balance.

As it is, Kerry’s position is just a big damn disappointment.

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2004 02 22
[Effects of the war]

What are the long term political/cultural implications of the war in Iraq? Well, here’s one way to think about it, though I admit it’s just a guess. Wherever they fell on the political spectrum, most people recently had the unnerving experience of finding someone to their left whose judgment about the war – at least with respect to the prudential questions – has turned out to be more sound than their own: more sound about the evidence, about the motives of the players, about the delusional quality of much of the pro-war camp’s grand plans, and so on. (Of course, the extremely low quality of much of the anti-war commentary counts against this to a certain extent. But even people who looked like wingnuts got some stuff right, and anyway the point I’m making is mainly a sociological one. And the sociological point really turns more on general impressions than strict standards of evidence and rationality.)

I don’t mean that it’s all over. If things drammatically improve in Iraq over the next few years, then this will certainly change. But right now (and probably permanently), that’s the way things look.

It’s not often that you get that kind of clarity on a single issue which is at the absolute centre of political debate for an extended period of time. Probably the last time this happened was Vietnam, an issue which helped to gell together a whole set of instinctive reactions about the appropriate uses of US foreign policy for years, at least in the minds of a great many people.

So my guess is that the long term result of the war will be a shift – in ways both obvious and subtle – to the left in thinking about US foreign policy. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the State Department will be wearing Chomsky t-shirts, or that the grand neo-con dreams will just vanish from the scene without a trace. But it may mean that leftwing critiques which weren’t previously acceptable in the mainstream will get a more receptive hearing. Certainly it will be harder for years to come for hardliners to push the condescending line that their political opponents, they are sad to say, simply don’t understand power or the way the world works, and so on. And this will be morale sapping for defenders of “muscular” approaches to American power. This sort of thing really does seem to have the power to induce broad shifts across the political spectrum.

Just a guess.

If I’m right, then one worry might be (as Kenneth Roth recently pointed out) the long-term discrediting of humanitarian intervention. And although I think humanitarian interventions ought to be very carefully scrutinized, there are circumstances in which they are not simply acceptable, but, I think, obligatory. Rwanda falls into this category I think.

(It is true that parts of the right opposed the war, especially the libertarian right – the Cato Institute, for example, struck hard at the plans for war early and often. Still, the left dominated the dissenting party, which then gradually filled with centrists as time went on, and is now swelling to include more and more right wingers. And, again, I’m making a sociological point here, which is that a lot of people had to have noticed this. I certainly did.)

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2004 02 21

I wasn’t sure when it happened how significant the Bush administration’s recent breakthrough with Libya was. After all, Libya was, as everyone knows, not exactly on the verge of a bomb. Still, I think it’s now quite clear that the breakthrough was huge, since it blew the cover off a significant part of the global underground trade in nuclear technology and fissile material. New details about this trade seem leak every other day – this piece in the NYT is a nice example, as is this piece in the WaPo – confirming that Pakistan was the key player in this whole mess, but also spreading rippling circles of blame ever wider.

This is not, by the way, a commendation for the Bush admin. It’s absurd to say that Bush needed to invade Iraq to get these results. In fact, the whole thing confirms my impression once again that Pakistan is the key not only to problem of the terrorist groups the US faces, but also the problem of proliferation. I think historians will look back and wonder at the good fortune of the US to have found the key its two major foreign policy challenges concentrated in a single state (less complicated than two states!) – and feel deep astonishment that the US responded to this good fortune by promptly invading a completely different country.

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2004 02 20
Norm, the Anti-War Left, and a whole lot of other things . . .

Reading Norm Geras’ site hasn’t led me to change my mind about the war. That’s because, as I’ll argue in a second, I think he dodges the hard questions for his position. But I have changed my mind on another matter as a result of reading him. Let me explain.

Norm’s “beat”, if you like, seems to be collecting stupid or insensitive things that people on the anti-war left have said, exhibiting them, and then adding a general comment or two about the deplorable state of the left. Generic Lefty Commentator remarks that “nothing of value” was accomplished by the war, and Norm huffs and puffs about the claim for a while, pointing out (perfectly reasonably) that apparently deposing a brutal dictator isn’t “of value” for Generic Lefty Commentator, and what do you suppose that says about the left with which Generic Lefty Commentator identifies? Then he waxes lyrical about a time when Generic Lefty Commentators were all opposed to oppression, instead of apologists for it.

All of this used to enrage me, not because I disagreed with Norm about his targets, but rather because I usually agreed with him so strongly that I thought he was picking on straw men, and that’s just a waste of time. I also thought that it was unfair to impugn the integrity of anyone on the left who disagreed with him by associating them with the stupid positions.

Well, I still think that Norm ought to be more careful to distinguish between what stupid lefty commentators say and what an intelligent and sensitive lefty commentator might say in response to the issue. It’s often unclear reading Norm whether he thinks that the stupidity and insensitivity noted in his targets is intrinsic to any attempt to argue against the war or not. I strongly suspect his settled view is that it is not intrinsic at all, but when he polemicizes that’s not always especially clear. And it’s not as though it would take a great work of imagination to figure out what an intelligent and morally serious anti-war position would look like. There are plenty around; for example, my own.

Still, the more I read Norm’s site, the more I see that he’s not just picking at the margins here. Like any good collector, his collection has real diversity and breadth. He’s managed to capture a lot of prominent people on the left saying some extraordinarily insensitive and stupid things. And I no longer think it’s fair for me to dismiss this as simply picking on straw men. For one, part of public commentary involves attempting to shame commentators for saying stupid things: without this public discourse would not be self-policing. And of course you can’t do that without picking on straw men. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with collecting evidence of a trend, and that includes stupid ones.

So in one sense, my straw man complaint was unfair: there are perfectly good reasons to spend time on stupid opinions. (God knows, I do on my own site.) But I think my objection can be sharpened in a way that leaves it with a considerable sting: While it’s not objectionable to thrash a straw man for the reasons outlined above, what is objectionable is thrashing him and then claiming you’ve won the brawl with his side. Now I confess that I have not read every post Norm has written on Iraq. If someone can point me to where he has met the case I make below, I’ll take this back. But I suspect that Norm joins Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman and many others on the pro-war left in doing exactly that.

I have the feeling that we’re not getting anywhere in the debate over Iraq, since both sides have dug pretty much in. At least, this seems true for those who took the humanitarian argument seriously. (The prudential argument was shot a long time ago, I think.) Well, if we’re not making progress, perhaps it’s time to get meta on the issue. Here are two ways we might do that: First, I think we should spend more time thinking about what plausible arguments on either side ought to look like, that is, what the main burden of argument is for each position. Second, I think we ought to distinguish as clearly as we can between the moral differences which apparently divide us and the factual assumptions we’re making. It’s worth doing this, because I think a great deal of the time what look like moral differences are actually differences produced by a difference about the facts of the case. I’ll explain more clearly in a moment.

As far as the the main burden of the argument for each position goes, I think that the anti-war position needs to deal honestly with the sorts of things that move Norm. Although there was no ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq at the time of invasion (strictly defined – but how strictly to define it is a serious question itself), life in Iraq was still pretty hellish, and might well have gotten worse had the regime remained in power. The regime was on the verge of destroying for good the Southern marshlands, wiping out the homeland of the Marsh Arabs who had lived there for over a millenium. The Kurds in the North were threatened in the long term. And torture, disappearance and fear were features of daily life.

(I’ve not only read this; I’ve also heard first-hand reports. For what it’s worth I dated an Iraqi exile for 3 years, and heard my full share of how utterly degrading and nightmarish Saddam Hussein’s rule has been for the people of Iraq. (The experience also allowed me to listen to what someone thinks of a CNN commentator crowing that a building in your hometown just went up “like a Christmas tree” and what they think of a culture in which it is unexceptional to say something like that.))

As Norm repeatedly points out, to argue against the war is to argue in favour of a state of affairs in which this is allowed to continue. It is not, as Norm sometimes seems to imply when he’s especially heated, to desire these things for their own sake. But it is to affirm a preference for a world in which these states of affairs obtain whatever else obtains. All of this means that anyone who takes human suffering seriously and hates oppression would want to take a very hard look at all the ways in which the situation of Iraqis might have been improved, up to and including a war of liberation. I don’t think there’s any point in denying any of this.

This is a heavy burden, but, as I’ve suggested, I think the burden is even heavier on the pro-war side. It is this: It’s not enough – not nearly enough – to say “If Iraqis are freed by this war, then the war will be justified.” Suppose that all other complications and questions are cast aside and we accept the conditional. We are still left with with the very sticky question of that dubious antecedent. And you need to explain why it was reasonable to think that the US would be able to actually free Iraqis. For this war may have deposed Saddam Hussein, but it does not deserve to be called a war of liberation until Iraqis are actually free. And they will not be free until they live under some plausibly respresentative government which does not also torture them. They will not be free if a civil war results from the post-war chaos. They will not be free if another strong man takes Saddam Hussein’s place. And what intelligent and sensitive critics of the left wanted – and never received – was some explanation of how the US was going to manage all of this, given its track record and given the quality of its current government. It did not escape us that the US has been either unable or unwilling to bring democracy to Egypt despite massive infusions of aid for decades, and so surely we can be forgiven for doubting whether the US would be able or willing to bring democracy to Iraq in unbearably more difficult circumstances. (Please don’t give me a song and dance here about Bush’s conversion in the aftermath of 9/11. There is an extraordinary amount of evidence that Bush never underwent any such conversion, or that if he did, he never took it seriously.)

There is much more, but let me just allude to it: You must also remember not to consider Iraq in isolation, apart from any other issue. Energy and resources devoted to Iraq are energy and resources diverted from other worthy causes. It cost 15 billion dollars just to get the troops to the theatre of war. The total cost of the war may end up around a half a trillion dollars (just for the US), plus, of course, a great deal of political damage to the US. It’s not heartless to ask whether we could have gotten a better humanitarian bang for our buck elsewhere: the other lives saved and improved also count, just as much as the lives saved and improved in Iraq. And so on.

I don’t want to give the impression that my entire case depends on this one point. But it is certainly enough to get us started, and I think it gives the general picture of the sort of worry a pro-war argument ought to address. The fact is, no amount of stupid comment collecting relieves Norm (and the others) from addressing this, especially if they’re consistently questioning the moral seriousness of the war’s critics.

Now, the way I’ve framed the burden of argument for the pro-war side makes a number of assumptions about the facts, and this will eventually bring me to the second of the two ways I suggested we might get “meta” here. First, though a bit more about the assumptions: Prior to the war, I assumed that a civil war in Iraq was probable absent an extraordinary effort and show of wisdom on the part of the occupying powers. That’s not because I’m pessimistic about Arabs and their cultural capacity for stable democracies, nor was it because I doubted that a great many individual Iraqi’s thirsted for a stable democracy, nor was it because I thought Iraq especially riven by sectarian divisions (if anything, I think I rather underestimated that). My impression was based on a particular understanding of how ethnic bloodletting and civil conflict tends to arise: not from seething ethnic tension or the aggregation of many individual resentments, but for structural reasons having to do with poverty and instability, the struggle over valuable resources, little or no democratic tradition, the presence of historical grievances which can be exploited, and no tradition of an independent media.

Iraq has all these in spades. That is not to say that civil conflict is inevitable, or that everyone should just throw up their hands, or that a war of liberation is absolutely ruled out of order under any circumstances. (On the contrary, we’re now on the hook for a great deal of work.) But it is to say that the conditions in Iraq were obviously explosive and that only a very sure, and a very steady hand could defuse them. It is to say most emphatically that unless you plan to do this properly, you had best not do it at all. You had best turn your attention and resources to the vast number of opportunities for spreading democracy and freedom elsewhere in the world – to those projects which have been passed over because of the war in Iraq.

So these are the empirical assumptions I’m working with, or at least some of them. This is already a long post, and I’m leaving out a great many other points and qualifications I would make if I had the time (and if I thought you did). Let me distinguish at this point two different sorts of moral disagreements. I don’t want to call them “deep” and “shallow” because they’re both serious, so let me call them “deep” and “deeper”. A deep moral disagreement is simply a disagreement about a moral issue, for example, whether the war in Iraq was justified. But two people can have identical positions on morality and still differ about a moral issue if they differ on the non-moral facts. E.g., suppose Norm and I both think that wars ought to be waged in such and such conditions. We still might disagree about a particular war if we disagreed about whether the conditions obtain. A deeper moral disagreement is one in which two people disagree about the specifically moral premises in their positions, so that even if they agreed about all the facts, they would still disagree about the specific issue.

Now, I think that a very large number of people share roughly my assessment of the facts. And although I have no doubt that Norm has successfully identified many stupid and insensitive people, I do wonder if he’s missing the fact that some people share these factual assumptions without making them explicit, and so sound worse to his ears than they should. In other words, they find the antecedent I mentioned above so absurd that they won’t entertain the conditional. Implicit, perhaps, in (some of!) their thinking is the view that of course they would have welcomed the freedom of Iraqis, if freedom had actually been on offer, but it wasn’t, so the war was totally unjustified. And in that case, we have a result which might surprise Norm: The disagreement he has with (some of) these apparently stupid and insensitive people isn’t even a deeper moral disagreement – it’s just a deep one.

Let me finish by making two pleas to Norm and other pro-war lefties. First, without disparaging your work collecting stupid and insensitive comments on the left, I’d like to suggest that (as far as I’ve noticed! – correct me if I’m wrong) you really are dodging the difficult questions. So please either answer the main objections to your position, as I understand them above, or suggest what you think the main burden for your side actually is. Second, I think we all need to be clearer about the factual assumptions we’re making. I’ve very briefly sketched mine. What are yours? Are you less pessimistic than me about the outcomes? Or are you just as pessimistic but you think that there was nothing to do but try? (Christopher Hitchens once confirmed for me that he falls into the latter camp.) That way, at least we’ll be able to figure out how deep our moral disagreement goes.

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2004 02 19
Who invented “gravitas”?

Every once in a while I read about something really stupid or evil that Cheney has said or done, and I wonder who helped to spread the inane idea that Cheney added “gravitas” to Bush’s campaign.

Well, I’m sort of incompetent with lexis-nexis, and lazy to boot, but I did a bit of digging. As far as I can tell from a half-assed and cursory look at the evidence (hey, I’ve got a thesis to write – leave me alone!), this whole idea of gravitas surfaced first as a diagnosis of what the Bush campaign was lacking. As early as June 15th, 2000, for example, Richard Cohen, writing in the WaPo, wrote about bridging Bush’s “Gravitas Gap”, but his recommendation was that Bush tap Ridge, despite his pro-choice position. A few days before Cheney’s selection, Richard L. Burke noted in a July 23nd piece in the Times that Representative John Kasich of Ohio seemed sadly lacking in “gravitas” despite the fact that on the ticket he “would bring vitality and a knowledge of Congress”.

So that’s sort of interesting: Gravitas came to life first as a criterion, and only second as an attribute attaching to Cheney himself.

Bush officially tapped Cheney on July 25th, 2000 (though Cheney had set off a flurry of speculation a few days before by switching his voting registration from Texas to Wyoming), and the choice was widely perceived as a very strong one.

We know now (or perhaps I should say: anyone who cares to know knows) that Cheney has been absolutely awful as a Vice President, and that his awfulness is magnified precisely because the President lacks the good sense to know that Cheney lacks good sense. And so a very good question is: How much of this could we have known in advance? The basic answer is that Cheney has exceeded even fairly pessimistic forecasts in his performance, but that there was a great deal of evidence in his record to support a robust pessimism long before the press corp clued into the fact that something was not quite right with the man.

Here is one example, especially striking in view of the fact that Bush campaigned on the issue of integrity. Very few reports from the time mention that Cheney had stumped for Oliver North’s earlier congressional campaign. That is, at this time Cheney ran on the VP spot his position on lying to congress was fairly easy to infer. It was: It’s just fine. And, while the extent of Cheney’s radicalism wasn’t clear at the time, he had quite a right wing voting record from his time in Congress, and was notoriously secretive as Secretary of Defense under the elder Bush.

In other words, there was plenty of evidence that this was exactly the wrong sort of man you would want to pair with an intellectually weak President, let alone trust in a position of power.

I think the award for worst judgment about Cheney will have to go to George F. Will who couldn’t get enough of the choice. The day after his selection Will gushed:

Two years ago, probably at least a plurality among thoughtful Republicans believed that Dick Cheney would be the best president the party could produce in this cycle. But you cannot steal first base, and you cannot become president without the political strengths, including family assets, that Bush brought in crushing abundance to the nomination contest.

Stupid Dick for not being born rich and connected. Anyway, the brilliance of the move, according to Will was that

Bush has done something simultaneously reassuring and radical. The choice of Cheney reassuringly confirms the impression that Bush (like Reagan) is someone who recognizes quality, and is comfortable around people more experienced and, in their areas of expertise, more able than he. The choice of Cheney is radical because of the rarity–can you think of a comparable one?–of a vice presidential selection based so much on merit.

Insert mindless Gore-bashing lies here, blah, blah, blah. Will ends his column thus:

so perhaps we will be spared attempts to portray Bush as other than what his choice of Cheney confirms that he is–a competent, decisive executive who has risen in the family trade (politics), and who has a gift for finding good help.

So that’s George F. Will. What about the New York Times? It’s editorial page on July 25th seemed reasonably pleased with Bush’s decision to tap Cheney, though it was mostly taken up with listing the pros and cons of the decision. Among the pros, the editorial noted that Cheney would give a “gravitas injection” to Bush’s campaign. The Times editorial did not find any space to mention Cheney’s position on the ANC during the 80s, or his apparent position on lying to congress. Note the phrase the editorial uses. It confirms (again, contrary to my first impression) that “gravitas” was already an old cliché by the time it was attached to Cheney, and this explains the desparate attempt to freshen it up with the “injection” metaphor. Evidently, the editorial writers had forgotten that David Brooks had penned a long, boring article a few days earlier (July 21st) (in which he complained about how boring and grownup the Bush campaign was) which described the “gravitas implants” that the candidate was getting from GOP elders. The Times, it seems, was very taken with the idea of combining medical metaphors with the “gravitas” theme.

And so it goes. In piece after piece Cheney is praised as safe and solid. Voters are repeatedly assured that Cheney has gravitas without delving much into his actual record.

In general, then, the media demonstrated an exceptional lack of curiosity. In fact, the main worry about Cheney seemed to be his heart – which has proven defective in the meantime, but not (for the most part) in the medical sense originally intended by the doubters. Attributing “gravitas” to Cheney functioned as a substitute for hard thinking about Cheney’s record and character and whether they really suited him for the role. Once the “gravitas” label which had been floating around as a criterion got stuck to Cheney, few journalists bothered to reexamine the assumptions built into it. Few journalists bothered to ask in the first place why the GOP would be so unserious about the Presidency – the most powerful political position on the planet – that it would select a candidate for the job widely acknowledged even by his supporters to be desperately needing someone with “gravitas”. Few journalists bothered to wonder how a gravitas-challenged President might interact with his artificial gravitas support once he was president. And that’s because few journalists – precious few – were doing their damn jobs.

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2004 02 14
[Another letter to the Times]

A letter to the NYTimes:
Chance of publication: 0.000001%

Jeffrey Gettleman writes that “[i]nternational isolation and sanctions imposed after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 had already shattered a public health care system that was once the jewel of the Middle East”. That is quite correct, but it leaves out the third major cause of the collapse of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure: the deliberate destruction caused by the Allied bombing campaign during the first Gulf War (see, for example, this piece by Barton Gellman: http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/history/0623strategy.htm). Gettleman’s piece is about the current state of the public health care system in Iraq, so he needn’t have dwelt on this point. But to leave it out entirely while naming the other causes is to play a small part in wiping this campaign from the public’s memory.

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2004 02 13

Jonathan Rauch writes:

So it is time to admit that the war was premised on a mistake. Had I known then what I know now, I would have opposed it. Next question: Does that mean the war itself was a mistake? Yes. But it was a special kind of mistake: a justified mistake.

A policeman shoots a robber who has killed in the past and who brandishes what seems to be a gun. The gun turns out to be a cellphone. The policeman expects a thorough investigation (and ought to cooperate). In the end, if he is exonerated, it is not because he made no mistake but because his mistake was justified. Reasonable people, facing uncertainty, would have thought they saw a gun.

. . .

The truth he hid, however, was not his weapons but his weakness. Or perhaps his minions were hiding his weakness from him. In either case, his power and prestige depended upon his fearsome reputation at home and his defiant posture abroad. He was contained but could not afford to let anyone know it, for fear of being invaded or overthrown. So he waved what looked like a gun and got shot.

From the start, I have argued that it was a) rational to think that he had WMD programs; b) not rational to think that he had any actual nuclear capability; c) rational to think that he would pose a long term threat to US interests in the Gulf if allowed to develop his programs; d) totally irrational (from a prudential point of view) to invade, even given a) and c).

If Rauch wants a satisfactory defence of his claim that the war was a (prudentially) justified mistake, he needs to deal with my (very powerful) arguments in favour of d). Otherwise, he should feel even more silly than he allows. To quote my advice to someone who wants to make a serious pro-war argument:

Remember, do not be satisfied with establishing that Iraq would have been dangerous. Alas, you have a tougher roe to hoe than that, my warmongering friend. You need to establish that Iraq would have been more dangerous than all the other dangerous dangers out there, so dangerous that it was worth diverting resources and attention away from all these other dangers. Remember, Iraq was only ever one part of a much larger worry about the proliferation of nuclear technology and fissile material. (Tip: Remember to say something about Pakistan.) Your argument needs to explain why it made sense to focus so much time and energy dealing with this one aspect of this larger problem.

I find this point so obvious and basic that I’m continually astonished that so many apparently intelligent people manage to get through their entire lives without ever so much as glancing up against it.

The general pattern here is: Don’t evaluate X by itself; evaluate X in context, including the counterfactual context. Here are a few examples:

i) Don’t say “Policy X was sensible; everything turned out fine.” It’s nice that everything turned out fine, but to know whether X was sensible we need to know whether there were alternatives to X which might reasonably have been expected to turn out even better than X. It might be that X’s turning out well was a lucky break. (If I take you for a very dangerous car ride against your will, it’s no excuse for me to point out that we got home safe. This misses the point. You’re angry because of the risk I took, not the outcome I brought about.)

ii) Don’t say “Things are better off now in respect A since we’ve adopted policy X”. It’s nice that things are better off now – if they are – but they might have been a whole lot better if we’d adopted policy Y. (Suppose I spend 1000 dollars buying my wife a new pair of shoes. She’s better off in the sense that she now has a pair of shoes she didn’t have before. But she’ll rightly roast me for getting such a crappy value for my dollar and for all the other lost opportunities that my dogged pursuit of the shoes has cost us.)

iii) Don’t say “We must do X, since doing X would address policy priority Y.” Even if we all like policy priority Y, we don’t have a complete argument in favour of X until we know how Y fits into all our other policy priorities.

Now i) always puts me in mind of the loony Cold War hawks. Please don’t look back and tell me that prudence was the name of the game since everything turned out all right. We got out of that by the hairs of our collective chinny-chin-chins. ii) pins the humanitarian case for war to the mat, since the humanitarian argument usually compares the current outcome of the war against the outcome in which we had done nothing at all. But surely the relevant comparision is between the current outcome and an outcome in which a comparable amount of economic and diplomatic capital had been spent on some other humanitarian mission. And – as the ref counts to three – let me note that I could have gotten you a whole lot more humanitarian bang for your buck elsewhere. iii) is the error that Rauch appears to be making.

Sorry to rant. Just trying to get this out of my system.

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2004 02 12

Wow. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq really couldn’t get anything right.

It’s sort of interesting to reflect on the tendency to overestimate Stalinist societies. During the Cold War, many hawks tended to overestimate the strength, resolve and capabilities of the USSR. Now, that’s not to deny that the USSR was a very serious danger. All those nukes pointing at the US were real, and they came alarmingly close to being actually deployed. And the USSR was able to do an extraordinary amount of damage to its victims (Afghanistan being perhaps the most gruesome example). Still, the broad tendency in estimates of Soviet strength and capability was to overrate it, and the tendency was more pronounced the further to the right you got. I suppose it’s neither here nor there, but I’ve always thought I detected a note of wistfulness in the real hardliner’s descriptions of Soviet capabilities during the Cold War. If I’m right, that wistfulness entered into their accounts of the relative strengths of the societies partly because they saw openness as a real liability for their own side, without ever really understanding the damage that a closed society can do to itself without anyone noticing.

I suspect the same thing happened with Iraq. Everyone knew, of course, that part of what made Saddam Hussein so worrying was the sheer impossibility of his ever getting good advice. The hawks said that repeatedly. And yet, and yet, people never followed this through to its logical conclusion: that although Iraq might well be able to do extraordinary amounts of damage (e.g., Kuwait) in this spite of this liability, it was a state enormously handicapped by its lack of openness. One wonders how much of Iraq’s perceived strength on the part of many (not all, of course, or even most) hawks was due to a half-conscious (to be charitable) jealousy stemming from the fact that at least Saddam Hussein didn’t have to put up with all those damn protesters getting in his way, and that in their eyes this represented some kind of real net gain for him.

Now, two cases does not a pattern make. But these reflections make it natural to speculate about North Korea. The state, which has the power to wipe out most of my wife’s extended family, scares the bejeesus out of me. It doesn’t need nuclear weapons to do this. It has enough concentrated conventional artillery fire staged along the border to destroy a great many souls within the space of half an hour. This much I believe. The options for dealing with North Korea are all of them deeply unpalatable. Buy off North Korea’s nukes program? Perhaps – perhaps – necessary, but a truly revolting thought, since the price would be very steep, and would essentially go to propping up the regime. Ignore it? Not a happy thought either, if it sparks an arms race in the region, or raises the risks of war further, or North Korea essentially becomes the next Pakistan of nuclear proliferators.

One wonders, though, exactly how far along North Korea actually is. Might there even be doubledealing among North Korea’s nuclear scientists? This country is not exactly a meritocracy: How much of the strange noises we hear coming from the government are the result of sheer incompetence and how much the result of a cunning strategy to throw the US off balance? And although there’s no evidence whatsoever that the state is on the verge of a breakdown, one can’t help wondering how much internal strength is actually does have.

None of this is to say that it would be prudent to assume the best about the country. But it might lead us to downgrade our estimate of its sheer offensive capabilities, and our estimate of its aggressive intentions. North Korea has nothing whatsoever to gain from actually initiating a war. Unlike the Iraq of August 1990, it has no vulnerable neighbour, and unlike that same Iraq, its leadership can have no doubt about the US’s view of such any aggression. A closed, paranoid society like North Korea’s often has its hands full clamping down on dissent, and brutalizing its citizens. So although we ought to regard North Korea as a serious threat as a potential nuclear proliferator, and a very serious threat if its existence is threatened, and a horrible burden to its citizens, I doubt it now represents the aggressive threat that it once clearly was.

So what to do? This is, I think, the hardest policy question there is today, bar none. (The case of Iraq was much easier. An invasion was unjustified. Now that they’ve invaded, a early pullout would be unjustifiable.) In Bush’s shoes, I’m not sure I could bring myself to offer aid to North Korea, even at existing levels. If I did offer North Korea an aid package, it would be with strict conditions attached to its disbursment, conditions strict enough that North Korea would probably reject it. If I was going to bribe any country in the region, it wouldn’t be North Korea, it would be China, since that is really the state with the most leverage over it. I suppose I would try to work with China to press very hard for internal reforms in North Korea, pointing out that it would do little longterm good to China to see North Korea slip into further poverty and risk of complete collapse. And I would try to contain the proliferation threat with increased surveillance, and interdiction efforts. I would also sign a non-aggression pact (consistent with interdiction efforts), recognizing that while the state is going to be paranoid and detached from reality for a long time to come, constantly threatening it with war probably isn’t the best way to stop it from spurring an arms race. But while I would be much less threatening militarily, I would attempt to draw as much attention as possible to North Korean human rights abuses, and I would put pressure on every government with serious dealings with North Korea to do the same. This does have an effect, though it takes real effort, consistency and a willingness to subbordinate other policy priorities to it when you’re forced to choose.

All of this leaves North Korea with a serious ongoing humanitarian crisis and risks leaving it a serious proliferator. But if you can figure out how to actually improve the lot of North Koreans, please do let me know. Right now they’re being held hostage by a nut job, and any attempt to rescue them – as things are now – would lead to enough widespread suffering to nullify the results of the effort. And although there’s a very real risk to refusing to buy off North Korea’s nuclear program, it’s probably containable.

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2004 02 12
[The Times on Haiti]

This story in the Times on Haiti is offensively bad. The first paragraph gets things off to a rocky start:

As the Haitian crisis deepens, with violence flaring and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide locked in an impasse with his opponents, the Bush administration has placed itself in the unusual position of saying it may accept the ouster of a democratic government.

Alas, it’s not unusual at all. This is the writer’s way of expressing disapproval (and it speaks volumes that it is) for the policy. After I read this, I had a sinking feeling about where the story was going to end up. And yes, the sinking feeling was right. The author was setting us up for a Venezuela comparison.

The stance recalls the administration’s initial response to the April 2002 coup attempt against another elected, populist leader in the hemisphere, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. American officials touched off an outcry by appearing to blame Mr. Chávez for the uprising and consulting with his would-be successors.

Oh jeez. I suppose a foolish but ambitious reporter might get it into his head that if the admin took it on the nose for monkey business on Venezuela, why not be the first to hit it again for failing to support democracy in Haiti? Except, of course, that the two cases are very different. I don’t have a very high opinion of Chavez: The guy seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging out with Saddam Hussein and Castro, and his former prediliction for coups isn’t exactly endearing. Still, my understanding is that he was elected in a real election, and that the coup attempt against him was an extremely rotten business. The U.S. richly deserved taking it on the nose for supporting it after the fact, and deserved rather more than that if – as may have been the case – it supported it before the fact.

Haiti by contrast is just absolutely fucked. Aristide has simply no legitimacy and has – against the odds – run Haiti into even worse shape than Venezuela is in the minds of the most ardent anti-Chavez crowd. The 2000 elections in Haiti were a sham, and to say that Aristide isn’t a populist anymore would be putting it mildly.

If the US government wants to signal that it is no friend of Aristide it has my full blessing.

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2004 02 11
Advice to the pro-war camp

Still looking to justify the war? Tired of looking stupid in front of your friends? I’ve assembled a few handy tips to bear in mind as you compose your pro-war arguments. They won’t save you, since your position is wrong. But they will at least guarantee that you’re worth the trouble to refute.

First, please, please, please don’t base your argument on a link between AQ and Iraq. If you absolutely must then remember that you need to do more than demonstrate a link. You need to demonstrate that it was a priority to deal with this particular aspect of the war against AQ, such a priority that it was worth diverting resources and attention away from countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you want to make the prudential case for war, don’t focus on what we now know Iraq had (zilcho, baby). You’ll just look silly. You need to point out that, although the intelligence was contradictory, there was a serious case to be made for Saddam Hussein’s intention to dominate the Persian Gulf someday. Point out that Iraq was extremely hard to monitor after the inspection process broke down in 1998, that Saddam Hussein clearly did have nuclear ambitions in the past, and that it would have been downright imprudent to assume that he had just dropped them. You may point out that although the U.S. outspent Iraq 400 to 1 on their respective militaries, a few nuclear armed missiles in Iraq’s pocket would have been a serious force multiplier, since Iraq would have been able to threaten Saudi oil fields with them.

Do not – I repeat, do not – argue that it was reasonable to assume that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. It just wasn’t. Rather, argue that if the sanctions had completely crumbled, S.H. would have had considerable oil revenues at his disposal, and these would have made it much easier for him to circumvent the import restrictions which we now know put such a crimp in his style.

(Note: Before you cite the Hussein Kamel defection as part of the Scary Iraqi Story, be sure to actually read the debriefing notes. They don’t actually say what you probably thought they said, if your impression of what they said was based on what you remembered other hawks saying they said prior to the war.)

Remember, do not be satisfied with establishing that Iraq would have been dangerous. Alas, you have a tougher roe to hoe than that, my warmongering friend. You need to establish that Iraq would have been more dangerous than all the other dangerous dangers out there, so dangerous that it was worth diverting resources and attention away from all these other dangers. Remember, Iraq was only ever one part of a much larger worry about the proliferation of nuclear technology and fissile material. (Tip: Remember to say something about Pakistan.) Your argument needs to explain why it made sense to focus so much time and energy dealing with this one aspect of this larger problem.

Finally, when you’re making the prudential argument, focus your energy on nuclear weapons. Casual talk about WMDs which slip-slide from chemical weapons to nuclear ones and back is not a way to impress an informed audience. In fact, there are good dialectical reasons for you to stress the differences between such weapons, since the Pentagon used chemical weapons during the fighting in Iraq (napalm).

There was also a humanitarian case for war, and here you have a much better shot at plausibility. Point out that the U.S. stopped the devastation of the marshes in the South of Iraq just in the nick of time, thus reversing one of the great environmental catastrophes of the 20th Century and saving the homeland of the Marsh Arabs. Raise the perfectly reasonable question of why people like Ken Roth insist that a humanitarian intervention could never be justified by serious repression. You have my blessing if you want to say, once or twice, “never? no matter what?”. Point out that Iraq lived under the near certainty of a bleak future, whereas now it at least has a chance for something better.

(You might – you just might – get away with claiming that you had no idea before the war how badly Rumsfeld would fuck up the early days of the occupation. This is risky, however. No one, to be fair, foresaw the extent of the fuckup. Still, you did have the example of Afghanistan, its nearly total neglect, and you did have extensive background information about the characters of the principals involved in this sordid farce. Anyhow, use this line of defence sparingly, humbly, and cautiously, if you use it at all.)

As I said, in the humanitarian argument you have a stronger case, because the suffering in Iraq was so serious and widespread that it justified the contemplation of very serious remedies. But for the love of Pete, don’t think that being morally serious is as simple as putting on your sad face when you hear stories of repression and then pushing as hard as you can for any old war. Being morally serious requires more than the simple thought, “By golly, someone ought to do something about that.” Being morally serious requires that you give a convincing account connecting the war you advocate to the alleviation of the suffering which is supposed to justify it. So here is your task: You must explain why it is likely that Iraq will avoid a serious sectarian struggle which turns it, over the next 5 or 10 years, into another Lebanon. No points here for taunting your opponents for lacking faith in Arab culture. You weren’t exaggerating when you spoke of Iraq’s brutalization at S.H.’s hands, so don’t hesitate now to think through what the lingering effects of that brutalization are likely to be, and how much effort and time will be required to undo them. Don’t flinch from asking, in this connection, how likely Bush is to actually do what is necessary, especially when many of the crucial tests come during an election year. The mere chance for something better than Saddam is not sufficient to justify his overthrow. You need to establish that it was reasonable to think that that something better would come about. Otherwise you just threw the dice on the fate of 25 million souls.

You’re right to be defensive, since things are going badly. But take heart. The regime in Iraq was so awful that it ought to have provoked a visceral response in every decent person prompting them to think seriously about its removal. There was a serious issue here, which is now being clouded by a great deal of unhelpful rhetoric. If you take my advice, you probably still won’t have a successful argument for war, but what you will have is a position worth debating.

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