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The Jehoshua Novels


A Birthday Wish

I’m not American. I’m Canadian.

So it’s odd then that I write so much about America and I care so much about what happens in America. Part of it is practicality – Canada is a US client state and American politics affect Canadians. When you throw away your freedoms, ours will soon follow (our government just launched its own “no-fly list”, for example and after you put out the Patriot Act we put out our own version.)

But part of it is just that I care about America and the American experiment.

Those of us who didn’t grow up in America, but under the sway of America’s media, imbibed a very pure form of the American mythos and civic religion. The American Civil Religion, with its secular saints such as Jefferson, Hamilton and Washington and its written Constitutional scripture is also a source of wonderment. Canada has no equivalent, no deep sense of history, no touchstone that is written back to to justify the present. Those words of your founders, those words that resound through history are words that inspire men and women who have never seen America and never will.

The Declaration of Independence spoke to all humans, with its assertion that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights. The US system of government, with its checks and balances, seemed unique and able to take shocks that might topple other democratic forms of government.

More…

The Statue of Liberty, holding its torch aloft in New York’s harbor, proclaimed that in America the wretched masses of the world might find a home, hope, liberty and opportunity.

And, of course, there was the US’s role in both World War II and the Cold War. When Europe was in chains, America freed it. It may be true that the German army died in the plains of Russia, but without the US, all of Europe would have fallen into the gray pit of Russian rule and despair.

Truly, in the Cold War, America stood astride the word facing off against an evil empire. Reagan was right when he called the USSR evil – it was a totalitarian nightmare, and opposing it; keeping it in check, was the moral thing to do.

None of this is to say that America was always “the good” – there was Vietnam, there was complicity in various dictatorships; there was a distressing tendency to meddle, especially in Latin America – there were, in short, many places where America fell short of its own ideals.

Yet, in all, America was still the shining city on the hill. Even those who disliked it, when asked “well, what hegemonic nation, past or present, would be preferable to America”, were stilled. In truth, as superpowers go, America was about the best one could hope for – power corrupted, but it had not corrupted absolutely.

And when the Berlin Wall went down, and the USSR with it, and the US stood astride the world, the sole unchallenged superpower, at first absolutely powerful, it was not corrupted absolutely. In the Cold War there had been no question the US needed allies and friends and there had been an acknowledgment that nations pushed too far might slip into the other camp. Perhaps the USSR wasn’t an ideal patron – but the possibility was always there if the US abused its position too much. And certainly the thought of pre-emptive US use of nukes against non-nuclear nations wasn’t even considered – the USSR stood ready, with missiles aimed at America, to ensure that would not happen.

In the 90′s America mostly either used its power responsibly, or at worst, didn’t use it when some hoped it would, as in the Rwandan genocide, or the slowness in dealing with the Balkans. If the new fascination with “globalization” and the fetishization of “free trade”, which mostly meant “free flow of money and investments” dismayed many, still it wasn’t outwardly violent and continued the American habit of binding its empire together less with troops than with alliances and economic ties that often amounted to dependency.

And then the Bush years happened. George Bush, with the acquiescence of Congress and the consent of the majority of voters, who elected him in 2004, made the US a unilateral actor on the world stage, a country that engaged in pre-emptive war and threatens to use nuclear weapons in a first strike. A nation, moreover, which has repudiated the freedoms that the rest of the world admired it for, has engaged in torture, struck down habeas corpus and openly mocked the Geneva Conventions.

America had become, in the eyes of the world, un-American.

The America we loved – the America which, if it did not always match words to ideals, still seemed to move more in jerks and starts towards those ideals, died, choking, gasping, in front of our very eyes.

What is so sad about this, to me, is that if America had lived up to its own ideals, America would be safer.

No Pre-Emptive War

Americans hung a lot of Nazis for the crime of pre-emptive war. Men who were in no way involved in the Holocaust swung high at Nuremberg because they attacked other countries that hadn’t attacked them first.

The Iraq war, a war which was based on lies, and sold on classic Big Lie techniques, with 70% of Americans believing Iraq was behind 9/11, has made the US less safe, not more, by giving millions of Muslims reason to hate America. The next generation of terrorists are being terrorized right now, and as with most violent criminals, they will do unto others as was done unto them.

And the current surge in nuclear proliferation can be laid in large part at the feet of the Iraq War, the lesson of which was not “if you have nukes we’ll take you out”, but “if you don’t have nukes we can take you out. And if you do have nukes like North Korea we’ll talk and make impotent and meaningless threats.” (The second reason, of course, is that the US continually violates the non-proliferation treaty itself, making non-nuclear powers wonder why they should obey it either.)

If the US had not invaded Iraq there would be less terrorists in the world today and in the future. There would be less proliferation of nuclear weapons. By doing the right thing morally, the right thing in the American tradition, the US would be safer and richer.

American Generosity

Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in the 90′s in large part because the US abandoned it. When Afghanis were fighting the USSR, US aid and money flowed in. When the USSR fell, Afghanis thought that they would receive significant aid from America. None came and the country fell to the Taliban. When Afghanistan falls again to the Taliban, as it almost certainly will, it will be because America and its NATO allies couldn’t be bothered to make Afghanistan work for Afghanis. For years the Afghanis were patient, sidelined the Taliban and from all indications hoped that the Coalition would make things better in Afghanistan. That didn’t happen (because all the effort was in Iraq, and because NATO is resentful at being forced to clean up Afghanistan and thus unwilling to put in the money) and slowly the worm is turning. The Taliban, for years marginalized, is making new inroads, and Afghanis themselves are showing that they are tired of being occupied without anything getting better.

Oddly enough, the same is true in Iraq. During the early period after the invasion there wasn’t much resistance to the occupation. During that time a Marshall Plan variant might well have turned the ill-thought invasion into a success. But instead of letting money get into the hands of Iraqis, instead of making it so Iraqis were better off under the coalition, the Bush administration insisted on rewarding its cronies with jobs, and Republican associated companies with huge contracts they mostly couldn’t fulfill. (My favourite being hiring an American company to rebuild a bridge at 20 times the cost an Iraqi engineering firm, which had built the bridge in the first place, offered to fix it for.)

In both cases being American – which is to say, generous, would have served the US better than trying to be stingy and engage in domestic pork barrel politics. And, oddly, being generous to the Iraqis and the Afghanis would have cost less as well, because butter is cheaper than guns, and Iraqis and Afghanis work for a lot less than Americans on the military-industrial dole.

Doing the right thing morally would have made the US safer and cost less money.

American Respect for Human and Civil Rights

In America, all men have unalienable rights. The way this is written isn’t “all citizens” either – it implies all of humanity. If you are human, you have these rights, they are granted solely because you are human and thus cannot be taken away. Primary among these rights is the right to a fair trial before punishment; to habeas corpus; to not be subject to cruel and unusual punishment (which surely includes water boarding and being raped) and to freedom from arbitrary search and seizure (which includes being wiretapped without a judge issuing a warrant).

Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, where “suspects” have been held without trial; have been tortured, and where there have been repeated attempts to end Habeas rights, are exhibit A. These prison camps have tarnished America’s image abroad as it hasn’t been smeared since the Philippines war of occupation. For billions around the world, the indelible image of America today may not be the Statue of Liberty, as it was to my generation – but a hooded man with electrodes attached to him.

This destruction of America’s image has destroyed much of America’s soft power. Neocons may sneer, but when you aren’t the good guy you don’t get as many people willing to spy for you (nor are they the best spies, since the ones who remain are those motivated mostly by greed.) You don’t get as many informants (and informants are the best way to deal with terrorists). Many governments see no reason to cooperate with you, so to get anything you must use force or the threat of force.

As with people who are distrusted or despised, nations who are distrusted or despised find it much harder to get their way.

American Respect for Free Speech

It may seem odd, but few things incense me more than “free speech zones” (which, for the record, started under Clinton, not Bush, though Bush has extended them greatly.) And I think that shuffling dissent off where it can’t be seen by people in power has done great damage to the health of American democracy. Those of us who watch politics regularly are constantly amazed by how “out of touch” Americas elites are. The Washington bubble isn’t made of soap-suds, it’s made of blast hardened concrete and Congressmen vote against the majority of Americans preferred interests all the time (the majority want the war ended, the majority want universal health care, the majority don’t think oil companies need subsidies, and so on.)

Part of why they do it is that they are insulated from the real world, from the world that the rest of America lives in. George Bush, the most extreme case, is so isolated that even showing a negative sign along his motorcade’s passage is forbidden. In both the Democratic and Republican conventions, protesters were shut so far away from the conventions that convention-goers might never have known they were even there.

I grew up thinking all of America was a free speech zone, not just special little areas chosen so as to make sure that the elites would never have to witness someone who was angry at the decisions they had made. And if America really was a free speech zone, America might be better off, because there is nothing worse for any nation than for its elites to live in a bubble.

A Hatred for Aristocracy, Inherited Wealth and Power

America was founded in explicit rejection of aristocracy and inherited power. An American, I was taught, bowed to no one. And for most of two centuries, America tended to have less disparities of income and wealth than other western nations. Oh aye, during the gilded age, there were great disparities within America, but they were still less than in Britain, or France, or most of Europe. And America had the most social mobility – you really did have the most chance to make it to the top from the bottom (though this remained rare, despite the ideal.)

That’s no longer the case – America is the Western nation with the most inequality of any. And social mobility is dropping through the floor – a generation ago it was higher than almost anywhere, but the evidence coming in now is that if you aren’t born well off, your odds of moving up in the world are worse than they have been in generations. Meanwhile the tax code has been jiggered to remove much of the Estate Tax and to benefit unearned money over that earned by an honest day’s work. America is becoming a nation where power and money are inherited, where the rich get richer and where the working and middle classes are expected to borrow from their betters at usurious interest rates to make ends meet.

As this has occurred, and not coincidentally, Americas trade, balance of payment and government deficits have soared. Its savings rate has crumbled to the point where it is less than zero; to where the rest of the world is sending most of its savings to the US, and all those savings can barely keep the US economy above water.

The right thing to do, the American thing to do – to fight against entrenched wealth and power, especially multi-generational money, would have left the US stronger economically. The collapse of demand caused by sending profits preferentially to the rich and corporations was the prime cause of the last Great Depression.

Be American

Those of us who grew up in other countries; those of use who are America’s real friends, want what all good friends want for those they care for – that you live up to your own ideals. That you be the nation we know you can be. A bastion of freedom; a nation with the highest respect for civil rights; a country that never gives up “a little freedom for a little safety” and finding neither. A country that doesn’t torture, that believes that pre-emptive war is never excusable.

And we want it for you not just because it’d be best for the rest of the world, though it would be, but because it would be best for you. You would be safer, more prosperous, less fearful and have a more assured future if you lived up to the best of what it means to be America – to be American.

So, on July 4th, on your birthday, this is my wish for America and for Americans – that you remember that the right thing to do morally is almost always the right thing to do pragmatically. There is no choice between “freedom and safety”; there is no choice between prosperity and massive inequality; there is no choice between generosity and fiscal prudence and there is no such thing as “managed free speech”.

Be the America the world loved. Be the America you can be proudest of – the one that does not torture, that treats all men as equal and with unalienable rights. Be the America that rebuilt Europe and that lends a helping hand to countries like Afghanistan. Be the America that would never invade a country that had not attacked you first. Be the America that is about lifting all boats and not just a few.

Be that America, and we will all be Americans.

33 comments to A Birthday Wish

  • dasht

    So, you’re looking at some game tree, about which you have imperfect knowledge. You can see a few moves ahead, but not perfectly. What is sane play?

    In iterated versions of that game, pre-emption as doctrine, under some circumstances, is the inevitable consequence of any consistant dedication of aim in a reasonably complex imperfectly known game. That is, if, on balance of best guesses, you have no chance of not losing absent pre-emption, but some chance of not losing otherwise, then the move is forced. And such circumstance is virtually assured as soon as the game becomes non-trivial.

    That’s how I see it, anyway. Some may object: “but please, won’t someone think of the children?!?!?” To which this one would say: “we are, god help us.”

    -t

  • Doug Richardson

    A view from outside the American box is a significant help in curing myopia. I’d like to email this to every congressman, senator and presidential candidate; if what you wrote here was a formal mandate by the majority of Americans, we might have a prayer of inching closer to what we ought to be.

  • pihwht

    Of course, you are supposing that the “player” choosing preemption is capable of playing whatever game it is, and hasn’t chosen that course because he doesn’t understand the game or because he has an unannounced agenda which preemption serves.

  • canuck

    We will watch the televised fireworks display from Boston tonight as many families do. Have a great day and we probably will crank up the BBQ before the concert starts, because the sound from the Boston Pops orchestra with all those instruments is compelling. We invited a couple from Ann Arbor to be on our boat and watch the Canada Day fireworks with us and they enjoyed them. There weren’t nearly the number of fireworks as are launched over the Charles River, but enough that the evening was enjoyed by all.

    We do have many American friends and extend our best wishes to all. As Ian wrote, your forefathers wrote magnificent words that echo in the ears and light up the eyes of all who hear and see them. May you soon return to your Liberal roots and embrace the freedoms once again that your wondrous documents cherish so highly.

  • nymole

    Beverly Sills 1929-2007, who died Monday evening, was America’s idea of a prima donna.

    Her plain-spoken manner and telegenic vitality made her a genuine celebrity and an invaluable advocate for the fine arts. Her life embodied an archetypal American story of humble origins, years of struggle, family tragedy and artistic triumph.

    In a conversation with a Times reporter in 2005, reflecting on her challenging life and triumphant career, Ms. Sills said, “Man plans and God laughs.”

    Louis Armstrong 1901-1971, who believed he was born on the 4th of July 1900 (though later evidence showed it to be August 4, 1901), is being remembered today (and August 4th), with 24 hours of his music on WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station.

    Studs Terkel speaks of a late interview with him:

    ‘He was tired. In fact, I suggested we postpone the interview, because I was worried. You know, his upper lip had blistered the size of a dime. That’s from pressing the embouchure of the trumpet. So, and he had just come from Ghana, and he spoke of the music of West Africa as being where his stuff came from. It was great, but then you realize how tired he is, how worn he is.

    “He said, ‘They all knew me. I was never invited to the house, but they knew me.’ So, behind that grin was something else. And that’s that deep feeling. I remember, I was so self-conscious as he took that handkerchief out and had the towel around him. He was so tired. I said let’s — He says, “No, let’s keep on.” ‘


    “George Washington did not cross the Delaware for Capitalism,” Shmuley Boteach

  • dasht

    Of course, you are supposing that the “player” choosing preemption is capable of playing whatever game it is, and hasn’t chosen that course because he doesn’t understand the game or because he has an unannounced agenda which preemption serves.

    I’m assuming no such thing. Why would I have to?

    -t

  • JustPlainDave

    A couple of thoughts occur to me:

    1) America is not in a situation where it has no chance of not losing, absent pre-emption. Whatever political leader is sitting in the hotseat when America takes the next hit may be in that situation, but even the gravest unconventional threat isn’t existential. That said, it will become existential – and I would submit that that the probability of it becoming so is hastened by too much reliance on pre-emption.

    2) Pre-emption can take many forms, including the non-kinetic. That should be explored and pursued further.

    3) Pre-emption as currently practiced has pernicious effects, in that it increases the volatility of the other actors and the imperfection of the knowledge possessed by the players. Given that, in situations like the one faced by the US where there is one very powerful player with limited knowledge faced by many weaker players with better knowledge, the dominant player should very seriously think about not going down the pre-emption road.

    “When intelligence producers realize that there is no sense in forwarding to a consumer knowledge which does not correspond to his preconceptions, then intelligence is through.” ~ Sherman Kent

  • canuck

    Studs Terkel

    AMY GOODMAN: What gives you hope?

    STUDS TERKEL: Well, just hope itself. See, without hope — remember the book called Hope Dies Last, the book previous to this one about music, it was Jessie De La Cruz, who was retired as a farm worker in a mobile home in Fresno, and she worked with Cesar Chavez. She would have a saying in Spanish, when things go bleak: “La esperanza muere al ultimo.” Hope dies last. Without hope, you become just a cynic, and that’s a dime a dozen. There has to be that. And I’m not going to be a Pollyanna now. If I don’t have that —

    AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds —

    STUDS TERKEL: Five seconds are, I have faith in the innate decency and the innate intelligence of the American people that is under unprecedented assault today. That’s the biggest assault I know.

    ——

    What a giant American! Thanks for the link to it Nymole.

  • Steve 2.0

    …that we’re not that different from any other country. We will be whatever kind of country the people want us to be. To tell you the truth, that frightens me.

  • canuck

    They have the capacity to be ‘great’ people and a nation that others aspire to be. The principles encouraging Americans to reach for the stars were written by very wise men.

  • dasht

    1) America is not in a situation where it has no chance of not losing, absent pre-emption. Whatever political leader is sitting in the hotseat when America takes the next hit may be in that situation, but even the gravest unconventional threat isn’t existential. That said, it will become existential – and I would submit that that the probability of it becoming so is hastened by too much reliance on pre-emption.

    Well, it’s partial knowledge. Is the threat a real and present existential threat or not? It is hard to prove one way or the other. As an engineer with a pretty broad-spectrum background, I don’t think there’s a serious argument here: it absolutely, unequivically is an existential threat (how many ways can I say “no uncertain terms”?). In every engineering discipline that is applied to analyzing the military situation the result is the same: serious, serious threat. Basically, bang-for-buck-wise, the price of effective dissruptions of states is crashing, exponentially, kind of like Moore’s law for CPUs in computers. This is amply demonstrated in theory and, daily, we get more and more empirical confirmations from around the globe. This really is a historic milestone — it wasn’t this dangerous, in these ways, 50 years ago (by a very wide margin). There is something new under the sun.

    You fret, sanely, that pre-emption may be causing more problems than it cures. I happen to be far less sure of that and tend to believe the opposite for many reasons but most notably the simple engineering conclusion that, presented with a self-declared enemy with motive, intent, and opportunity, absent active interference, the existential threat will be realized suddenly, brutally, and irresitably. Yet, that leaves open the question of the form of pre-emption, which you wisely take up next:

    2) Pre-emption can take many forms, including the non-kinetic. That should be explored and pursued further.

    That is phrased so precisely. I concur. I would even add that, in my impression, our collective efforts at non-kinetic pre-emption have been substantially pathetic and that that is an urgent crisis. Under the view of that impression, I think that some of the better cures can not and ought not come through our government. We need a civilian, crash program in implementing the tools of regionally robust civil society as commodities.

    3) Pre-emption as currently practiced has pernicious effects, in that it increases the volatility of the other actors and the imperfection of the knowledge possessed by the players. Given that, in situations like the one faced by the US where there is one very powerful player with limited knowledge faced by many weaker players with better knowledge, the dominant player should very seriously think about not going down the pre-emption road.

    In my view, the nominally dominant play deliberated pre-emption for about 35 or 40 years but, that aside:

    Pre-emption absolutely does increase the volatility of other actors. Can we shape the direction of the likely explosion? Can we set it off before more combustables are added to the mix?

    Sometimes the best way to prevent an inevitable forest fire is to light the forest fire you’d rather have, if you must have one.

    -t

  • nymole


    “George Washington did not cross the Delaware for Capitalism,” Shmuley Boteach

  • Steve 2.0

    ..that won’t get you out of Hell.

    All countries will be what they will be. Jefferson knew that well, so did Toqueville, so did Sinclair Lewis.

    ALL countries have this danger. Every government has some popular support. Amin, Mao, Duvalier, Bonaparte, Cromwell all met some thirst in their populace.

    Our American flaw is we put too much stock in image. He looks good in A suit, make him preident. He seems like a guy you could drink with, give him access to the button. I see this in other countries too. This year, France had a choice of two telegenic nobodies for president. i wish them luck. And I pray for us.

  • JustPlainDave

    …where’s the mechanism? Currently America’s gravest unconventional threat is that one or a small number of nuclear devices will be detonated on its soil. That isn’t an existential threat. If five 30 kT nuclear devices detonated in the centres of America’s five largest cities tomorrow morning bright and cheerful at 9:00 am America would still be there at nightfall, and the next morning ad infinitum. No argument that there are serious unconventional threats out there, but they aren’t existential. In my view what one really should be worried about is treats like the biologicals over the next several decades. The main determinant in stopping those threats is going to be not making any more new enemies while trying to defang existing ones – having a grand strategy that doesn’t rely so exclusively on pre-emption would help this aim.

    In my view the analogy of shaping a likely explosion is flawed in two ways:

    1) It presumes that there is a finite threat that once “detonated” is expended. In my view, if one falls too far into the pre-emption cycle, the threat becomes for practical purposes infinite, with the outcome being not a mitigated explosion but rather a self-sustaining conflagration.

    2) It does not take sufficient account of the notion that combustibles can also be removed from the mix.

    Pre-emption makes sense if the explosion is inevitable or highly likely and pre-emption mitigates the effects of the explosion. In my view, however, neither of those things is true.

    “When intelligence producers realize that there is no sense in forwarding to a consumer knowledge which does not correspond to his preconceptions, then intelligence is through.” ~ Sherman Kent

  • dasht

    Currently America’s gravest unconventional threat is that one or a small number of nuclear devices will be detonated on its soil.

    Bullshit, I think. Collapsing trade and the provisioning of essentials is the gravest unconventional threat. We don’t have enough distributed production. We don’t have nearly enough redundancies or regional security. We have tons and tons of “cut points” that can disrupt systems of centralized production and mass distribution. The threat is a relentance storm of small insults to vulnerable points in our networks much more than it is a threat of one or few big explosions. While we have possible responses to such a series of loosely coordinated attacks, I don’t personally bank on them any more than I have to.

    Nevertheless, you still have more to say that’s worth saying:

    1) It presumes that there is a finite threat that once “detonated” is expended. In my view, if one falls too far into the pre-emption cycle, the threat becomes for practical purposes infinite, with the outcome being not a mitigated explosion but rather a self-sustaining conflagration.

    Clarity might be obtained by distinguishing threats coming from people with motive, undisputed intent, and opportunity vs. theoretical threats based on nothing other than technological potential. That is, that someone “could” cause you harm is no justification for pre-emption, but that some “could, wants to, and means to” is another matter.

    So, I think there are pretty bright-line boundaries around cases where pre-emption is a good idea. (Willfully staying within those boundaries, as Hussein did for no realistic reason, adds to the case for pre-emption.)

    2) It does not take sufficient account of the notion that combustibles can also be removed from the mix.

    How do you propose to do that?

    Pre-emption makes sense if the explosion is inevitable or highly likely and pre-emption mitigates the effects of the explosion. In my view, however, neither of those things is true.

    A lot of us believe the explosion is inevitable or highly likely and that per-emption has and will continue to mitigate the effects — but you are certainly right that it’s basically a guess. So I’m interested in arguments to the contrary — but good arguments, please.

    Regards,
    -t

  • renideo

    I too wish America a happy celebration of its independence day. As a british citizen who lives in the US nine months in the year currently, I am also a ‘foreign friend’.

    Regarding the post itself, I can only say it is tactful and would play well, but in reality feeds into the extremely common public myth of America’s unique role. There isn’t one set aside, just waiting for america to ‘be american again’. Whatever the American constitution and people produce, that is America, whether or not we feel it lives up to their best moments, or our finest hopes for them.

    You make it sound wonderful, but to truly do it a favour, don’t just ask it to come back to itself. It wasn’t born perfect, and it can’t go back to some mythical past perfection. The constitution was a historic event, but if that is it, if there is one idea of what it means to be American that you can define, that george bush can define, that anyone can define at their convenience for the sake of playing on patriotism, then that I cannot agree with.

    America has to question itself, and what it is becoming. Although I agree with many or even most of the things you say, the kindly approach you take supports the stagnation of the American political discourse, in the simple sense that it lends itself to the deification of the constitution. A country has many founders, and it finds itself anew many times, and though the US is young, it cannot forever look back fondly across the centuries.

    Trust me, it isn’t the first country to go down to the manifest destiny / whig history etc road. But that road ends sometime.

    I realise I have probably taken this out of proportion, but that’s what the ensuing three thousand replies are for, continuing that until it’s sickening. As I say, I enjoyed and agreed with the majority of your sentiment.

  • Ian Welsh

    I spend most of the year being rather more harsh. On July 4th it seems wise to appeal to “the better angels” of American nature.

    The vast majority of us have a better side – times we’re generous, brave, kind, etc…

    And when you have a friend who has walked some ways down the wrong path, one thing you do (or that I do, in any case) is remind them of what’s good in them. Most people want to be good, not bad, and holding out the hope that they can be often does a lot of good in terms of motivation. I think it’s a big part of how you can turn people around.

    Nations aren’t people, but they are made up of people, and they want to feel proud of their country. And there are things America has done; traditions in America, that Americans can be really proud of. There are also things America has done; traditions, if you will, that are shameful (as there are in all countries.) When looking forward, when attempting change, the memory of the good and the striving to emulate it is as important as remembering the bad and trying to avoid repeating it.

    Hope and aye, praise, is as important, or more, than criticism, in changing behaviour. Both are needed, but often the balance is far too far towards criticism as a pragmatic matter.

    And so – the reminders that America has beliefs, traditions, institutions that can and have done great and good things – and can again, if Americans work to be that America.

  • GordonMcMillan

    Willfully staying within those boundaries, as Hussein did for no realistic reason, adds to the case for pre-emption.

    Got that JPD? The “better” Canada behaves, the more likely we are to take you out!

  • dasht

    Gordon, I think there is a problem of basic english usage between us.

    I said:

    So, I think there are pretty bright-line boundaries around cases where pre-emption is a good idea. (Willfully staying within those boundaries, as Hussein did for no realistic reason, adds to the case for pre-emption.)

    and you very strangely replied:

    Got that JPD? The “better” Canada behaves, the more likely we are to take you out!

    Don’t you see what a complete non-sequitor that is? You seem to have, for no good reason, inverted the sense of “within boundaries”.

    -t

  • GordonMcMillan

    You inverted the meaning. That’s the joke. And it’s bookmarked, so I won’t forget where you said it.

  • dasht

    You inverted the meaning.

    Oh yeah? How’s that?

    And it’s bookmarked, so I won’t forget where you said it.

    Ok, then. Good for you! Keep up the good work!

    -t

  • pihwht

    It just seemed to me that we demonstrated pretty well that we did not understand how to play the game in our most recent large scale instance of preemption in Iraq. The checker player getting upset at the funny looking pieces on the chess board doesn’t win the game by dumping the board.

  • GordonMcMillan

    …there was no imminent threat (US, UN inspectors).

    That takes “pre-emptive” to “preventative”.

    Then Bush claimed it was all justified because Saddam had the intention of reestablishing his WMD program.

    That takes “preventative” to “wishful thinking”.

    So why not take it all the way? Canadians are an obvious threat – they have socialized medicine, and they eat poutine!

  • dasht

    Well, first we know… …there was no imminent threat (US, UN inspectors).

    We might be able to agree that what we know, per those inspectors, is that we did not know “then” because Hussein chose to make sure we could not know.

    In some sense, Hussein chose to pose the question to the United States of what we would do if there was plausible evidence of his massing to attack while he was succcessful in thwarting attempts to examine that evidence. I don’t see how the answer given was unreasonable, on those grounds alone, nevermind all of the other positive reasons to knock down that regime.

    Then Bush claimed it was all justified because Saddam had the intention of reestablishing his WMD program.

    Intention, opportunity and motive.

    So why not take it all the way? Canadians are an obvious threat – they have socialized medicine, and they eat poutine!

    I don’t see any reason to make such equivocations.

    -t

  • GordonMcMillan

    It was not Hussein who wouldn’t let inspectors back into the country. It was not Hussein who ordered them to leave. Sorry. Hussein’s pretenses were for an internal audience. I doubt that many were gullible enough to believe it. Ironic that Baghdad Bob found an audience elsewhere. As Tony Snow does.

    Intention, opportunity and motive.” Really? Where was the opportunity? And you think motive is enough to convict? You read the polls lately?

    I don’t see any reason to make such equivocations.” Canada – you’ve been warned! Take immediate precautions against invading hordes of rabid Hamiltonians from Berkeley! Your poutine is threatened! Politeness will not protect you!


    “Willfully staying within those boundaries, as Hussein did for no realistic reason, adds to the case for pre-emption.” – dascht

  • JustPlainDave

    …however, those are not threats in and of themselves. How one might achieve that is the threat and it seems clear that no matter how much they might desire that endstate, the oppo does not have the manpower in place to inflict it and they are not going to be able to develop that manpower. In order to carry off something like that you’re talking about hundreds of very highly trained operators running a sustained counter-infrastructure campaign – they don’t have those people.

    It’s commonly said that there are all these chokepoints that can bring America to its knees. My take on that is that a) it’s commonly said by the guys trying to sell a solution, and b) those chokepoints if hit still don’t represent an existential threat. One of the classics would be the railway bridges across the Mississippi – they’re extremely important in your rail transport system and would require a very significant timeframe [years] for replacement. However, if every single one got popped it still wouldn’t bring America to its knees – it would kick America in the nuts, cost a mind numbing amount of money and be a colossal pain in the ass, but it’s a long way from an existential threat. The only way it becomes a threat is if America is no longer a populace bound in the common good by a set of ideas, but is instead an accepted standard of consumption.

    I would point out in your response to my point 1) that yes, intent is important. However, your country isn’t so hot on reading intent – the int services are getting better but the political echelon and the population that ostensibly controls them still pretty much suck at it. More to the point, pre-emption as a grand strategy greatly increases the number of folks with hostile intent. The confluence of those two things then means that one relies purely on the technological capabilities in cases where folks aren’t clearly allies. Lather, rinse, repeat and things get progressively worse – particularly in an increasingly multi-polar world.

    As to point 2) there’s myriad ways of removing the combustibles. The Arab world feels itself faced with implacable opposition and daily humiliation at the hands of America. Seeking to change that feeling is a huge task, but even being seen to attempt to change it would begin the process of removing combustibles. If there’s one thing that y’all need to get through your heads, for the majority of the Arab world it’s not that they hate you for who you are – they hate you for your policies. However, the more entrenched and long-running the policies are, the more reflexively they will hate – over time a window will progressively close and larger segments of the population will start to hate you for who you are. Right now these guys are still receptive – they want better policies and more than anything they want actual open dialogue.

    How is it that you see pre-emption has mitigated the effects of an explosion? I look at the outcome of Iraq and I see a far, far graver set of threats than had previously existed. The guy that’s most devoted to the idea of an unconventional mass casualty attack on the United States has not been weakened all that much, for the vast resources expended. As well, focussing on kinetic pre-emption has diverted significant attention away from vital initiatives that could also greatly aid things – particularly in the area of counterproliferation. Perhaps most alarmingly, the effects of that attempted mitigation has made subsequent explosions far more likely – those explosions may not end up being on the scale of a WTC attack, but the net effect of them on your homeland is likely to be comparable.

    “When intelligence producers realize that there is no sense in forwarding to a consumer knowledge which does not correspond to his preconceptions, then intelligence is through.” ~ Sherman Kent

  • adrena

    Well said, JPD. EOM

  • greensmile

    Love that attitude Ian…and I’d like to think we yanks have your back though it may mostly be us liberals who keep an eye on the state of liberties in the anglophone world. We could set better examples for each other, that is for sure.

  • dasht

    I agree with the poster who commented “nicely said.” I would like to reply to a few points:

    it seems clear that no matter how much they might desire that endstate, the oppo does not have the manpower in place to inflict it and they are not going to be able to develop that manpower. In order to carry off something like that you’re talking about hundreds of very highly trained operators running a sustained counter-infrastructure campaign – they don’t have those people.

    You say the opposition “will not be able to develop that manpower.” Well, I hope you are right on balance but I observe that, in Iraq and Nigeria (for example) they do have that manpower and, in 2001, they came uncomfortably close in the US (and in 04 in Madrid and 05 in France and in 07 in London). “Hundreds” is a small number in our day and age. Communications to coordinate and implements of destruction are getting cheaper and cheaper.

    It’s commonly said that there are all these chokepoints that can bring America to its knees. My take on that is that a) it’s commonly said by the guys trying to sell a solution, and b) those chokepoints if hit still don’t represent an existential threat. One of the classics would be the railway bridges across the Mississippi – they’re extremely important in your rail transport system and would require a very significant timeframe [years] for replacement. However, if every single one got popped it still wouldn’t bring America to its knees – it would kick America in the nuts, cost a mind numbing amount of money and be a colossal pain in the ass, but it’s a long way from an existential threat. The only way it becomes a threat is if America is no longer a populace bound in the common good by a set of ideas, but is instead an accepted standard of consumption.

    I think it is just a fact of human nature that with sufficient, sustained, “pain in the ass” insults — the center will not hold. I like your turn of phrase: The only way it becomes a threat is if America is no longer a populace bound in the common good by a set of ideas, but is instead an accepted standard of consumption. but you neglect an important reality:

    The ideas which frame a conception of common good in the US are and always have been largely an accepted standard not for consumption, per se, but for free access to markets. It sounds corny but “land of opportunity” is a big deal. Big infrastruture failures basically take out market makers and at some point people switch over from investing in the promise of the U.S. to investing in whatever still works in their immediate environment.

    If I interpret you “loosely” I think you are saying that the U.S. is plenty tough enough to take a few kicks and lifestyle readjustments and still be the U.S. Well, I strongly agree with that and I think we’re going to find out for sure over the next 6m or couple of years as currencies and financial markets go seriously non-linear. But our capacity to organize and remain a state and make those adjustments is, in our current arrangements, pretty darn vulnerable.

    I would point out in your response to my point 1) that yes, intent is important. However, your country isn’t so hot on reading intent – the int services are getting better but the political echelon and the population that ostensibly controls them still pretty much suck at it. More to the point, pre-emption as a grand strategy greatly increases the number of folks with hostile intent. The confluence of those two things then means that one relies purely on the technological capabilities in cases where folks aren’t clearly allies. Lather, rinse, repeat and things get progressively worse – particularly in an increasingly multi-polar world.

    Oddly enough, and please take this in the right light, I find that position plausible at first glance but, upon inspection, racist. It is an example of what some call “Orientalism.” We are blessed to be in a long-term circumstance in which courses of pre-emption against an existential threat to our state coincide with opportunities to strike blows for freedom and opportunity beyond our state. That is to say that when parts of these populations choose to respond to our pre-emptive actions as enemies or as allies, they find themselves in what economists call a “prisoner’s dillema” with “alliance” being win-win choice in the matrix (in a game played, iteratively, for a long time, with their peers). Misapprehension of that circumstance is the critical enabler of poor play in the game at hand. Just as you and I can understand “what would be the best choice for that population to make” the individuals of these populations can, in theory, eventually see that for themselves — unless we make racist assumptions.

    I think it is not racist to observe that in these subject populations the conditions make alliance psychologically difficult. Alliance requires a re-evaluation of secularism, of gender and sexual behavior, of the day-to-day habits of trade, employment, and so forth. We should not act so surprised about a “short term” (measured in years and perhaps a generation) failures to choose alliance in spite of all rational recommendations for such. But we should not presume alliance will not come. What would you do? Really? Not at first, perhaps, but, as you began to see what was at stake? People are people.

    As to point 2) there’s myriad ways of removing the combustibles. The Arab world feels itself faced with implacable opposition and daily humiliation at the hands of America. Seeking to change that feeling is a huge task, but even being seen to attempt to change it would begin the process of removing combustibles. If there’s one thing that y’all need to get through your heads, for the majority of the Arab world it’s not that they hate you for who you are – they hate you for your policies. However, the more entrenched and long-running the policies are, the more reflexively they will hate – over time a window will progressively close and larger segments of the population will start to hate you for who you are. Right now these guys are still receptive – they want better policies and more than anything they want actual open dialogue.

    I don’t happen to believe that the cultural concepts of “humiliation” that drive that dynamics to which you refer are either sane or robust. That is, I do not respect them in the name of multiculturalism because they are batshit crazy (aka not sane). And I do not think the popularity of these conceptions of humiliation are a permanent feature of the world because they are specifically constructed by a pedagogy and reinforced by a common practice that self-reproduces only within tightly controlled, highly inefficient social arrangements.

    To say “they” want “open dialog” is to overlook what attempts at such have consistently yielded for decades. The political leaders who call for such mostly want no such thing — they are simply trying (crudely) to triangulate the ghosts of voices they hear in the press.

    How is it that you see pre-emption has mitigated the effects of an explosion?

    Regional pigeons came home to roost.

    I look at the outcome of Iraq and I see a far, far graver set of threats than had previously existed.

    Growth in threats was certain, no matter the course of action. You have to compare relative rates of growth.

    The guy that’s most devoted to the idea of an unconventional mass casualty attack on the United States has not been weakened all that much, for the vast resources expended.

    You mean Ossama? I disagree.

    As well, focussing on kinetic pre-emption has diverted significant attention away from vital initiatives that could also greatly aid things – particularly in the area of counterproliferation.

    Could you be more specific? My first guess would be that you refer to the delicacy of our relation to Pakistan and second guess that you mean something about the very roundabout course work with DPRK has taken but I’m not sure just what you refer to.

    Perhaps most alarmingly, the effects of that attempted mitigation has made subsequent explosions far more likely – those explosions may not end up being on the scale of a WTC attack, but the net effect of them on your homeland is likely to be comparable.

    Further attacks were going to become more likely no matter what we did. Again, you have to guess and try to compare the actual rate of growth with what you think would have happened under some other course of action.

    -t

  • Bolo

    In every engineering discipline that is applied to analyzing the military situation the result is the same: serious, serious threat. Basically, bang-for-buck-wise, the price of effective dissruptions of states is crashing, exponentially,

    True, the price for disrupting states is crashing. But, from the point of view of a state, the price of maintaining order in the regions of former or weak states is increasing at the same time. In fact, these two trends are tied together–its harder for many states to maintain order in their territory and, as a result, its easier to disrupt and destroy them.

    Now, a state that pre-emptively “crashes” another is doing nothing but hastening along this process. Smashing an already-weak state to bits removes what little force was in place and maintaining order. New groups arise that don’t behave according to the generally accepted rules of the state community.

    In the current environment, building up a new state-sanctioned order tends to be harder than maintaining an old one. Obviously every case is slightly different, but I think the overall trend is for fragmentation. So I would say that–at this time–pre-emptive war tends to be a net loss for any state wishing to create stability by destroying another state. It opens up many new opportunities for non-state actors to rise in power, and they are not bound by the same rules as states themselves.

    Sometimes the best way to prevent an inevitable forest fire is to light the forest fire you’d rather have, if you must have one.

    Yes, but a controlled burn is a relatively well-understood system with only so many degrees of freedom. Of course things can get out of hand, but the complexity of such an undertaking pales in comparison to the complexity of global geopolitics, economics, culture, and technological trends. This isn’t shaping the direction of an explosion. It’s predicting the outcome of a highly nonlinear, chaotic process. Possible, but really, really difficult.

  • JustPlainDave

    1. With regards to manpower. The issue isn’t whether the opposition has the manpower to launch attacks – the issue is whether they have sufficient manpower to launch the kind of sustained counter-infrastructure attacks that would be necessary for them to pose an existential threat. In none of the countries that you mentioned is that the case. Even in Iraq, the al-Qa`eda core has its greatest effectiveness hitting ideology-rich targets and inflicting mass casualty attacks in the low hundreds. That’s the situation in which al-Qa`eda has had the most room to run, and they still aren’t capable of that type of sustained counter-infrastructure attack. What they’d be capable of in CONUS is orders of magnitude lower.

    As to your comments re. Orientalism, I would suggest that your thinking is flawed. You seem to believe that in saying that pre-emption makes alliance more difficult I believe that alliance is not possible, apparently due to characteristics racially inherent in Arabs. You further seem to believe that this type of alliance is only possible via pre-emption. In point of fact, I believe that alliance is very possible, but not via pre-emption. It will not occur via imposition – it can only occur if it has its own genesis, one rooted in its own cultural and political landscape not the landscape that those who seek to impose alliance believes exist. I find the notion that the conditions for alliance must be imposed externally to be a truer manifestation of Orientalism.

    In my view, reliance on pre-emption greatly strengthens adversaries that work against the type of alliance we seek – we’ve seen this again and again of late, even beyond the confines of Iraq. The Muslim Brotherhood had been fought to a standstill by the Egyptian government and had consciously decided to return to working through the political arena – now their thinking is shifting again to violence. Hamas has been empowered by failed pre-emption backing a Fatah that continues to be out of touch with the populace, particularly in Gaza. Hezbollah has been empowered by failed pre-emption. The list goes on well beyond what I’ve mentioned here.

    You may choose to deny the central importance of feelings of humiliation, but that is not a sound basis for policy. Study after study after study highlights the central importance of this notion as a motivator for behaviour and political belief. From a purely practical standpoint it is of absolutely no relevance whether the notion be sane or robust – the fact is the feeling exists and it is both widespread and potent.

    Yes, political leaders in the region in the main pay only lip service to the notion of dialogue that would lessen anti-Americanism – but denying the centrality of humiliation and relying on pre-emption only increases their ability to get away with this. Take the example of Egypt – a grand strategy of pre-emption increases the degree to which America is loathed for its actions in Iraq, in turn empowering radical elements Egypt undercutting popular support for America among moderates that support civil society notions, America is forced to allow the Egyptian government more room to run, for fear that they’ll be weakened and/or cease to co-operate in operations against al-Qa`eda. In turn this increases the degree to which Egyptians of all stripes loathe America for not living up to its ideals and backing repression. This increases the degree to which the government can avoid that dialogue.

    I’m baffled as to how it is that you can view pre-emption as regional pigeons coming home to roost. Look at Iraq. Okay, so Saddam’s dead – couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. However, events in Iraq have greatly empowered America’s primary regional state opponent (and particularly the elements within that government most resolutely opposed to America’s interests), they’ve greatly increased the capabilities of unconventional nonstate actors both within and beyond the region, they’ve weakened America’s regional alliance structure and they’ve even undermined the global alliance structure, as well as put America’s closest allies at increased risk of unconventional attacks in their respective homelands. Please, God, may no larger birds come home to roost.

    It is not possible to compare the relative rates of growth because we don’t know what would have happened absent pre-emption. That said, we do know that the rate of growth in terrorism we have experienced since the rise of pre-emption as a grand strategy is absolutely unprecedented. We further know that a very great deal of that increase is specifically ascribed by the players themselves to that pre-emption.

    The counterproliferation attention that’s been diverted is in the area of securing fissile materials. Cirincione’s Bomb Scare has a quite good book on this.

    As to the notion that further attacks were more likely “no matter what [America] did”, if that were really true there would be no point in pre-emption – further attacks would remain more likely even in the face of pre-emption. In order to hold that pre-emption is a viable grand strategy, one must necessarily believe that it is possible to reduce likelihood of attack. The question is whether pre-emption is the correct strategy to accomplish that and I would suggest that it is not.

    “When intelligence producers realize that there is no sense in forwarding to a consumer knowledge which does not correspond to his preconceptions, then intelligence is through.” ~ Sherman Kent

  • Lasthorseman

    I really think the great American experiement is over.
    Time and the final method of collapse have yet to be agreed upon.

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