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Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Brief Response

Welcome back from vacation, Bret. I'm too busy these recent days to put much effort into the blog, but I wanted to make a couple quick comments about your recent posts.

Regarding your "Knowledge" post, while I agree that knowledge is very important to progress, I'm not sure you've hit on the primary issue for development and progress. Precisely because knowledge is so readily accessible (through the Web, etc.), I think the primary issue, as suggested in your subsequent post quoting Huntington, is the institutional infrastructure, i.e., rule of law, evolved regulatory environment (where regulations, e.g., for starting a business, are not bureaucratic), efficient financial mechanisms (stock exchanges, banking system, etc.).

Here is one link which questions the costs of the Iraq war. Here's another article from the Brookings Institute which points out the great political challenges facing the U.S. as it tries to repair its reputation and effectiveness in influencing the future direction of things in the Middle East.

The questions about recent history that I find most compelling are:
- Was the Iraq war the right priority? I think not. Many analysts (though, of course, not all) believe that the threat of terrorism is increased, and that the ranks of terrorists are expanded. I sympathize with this position.
- Was the Iraq war the right way to go about trying to transform nations to the "mobile" society model proposed by Huntington? I think not. Working to rehabilitate Afghanistan properly would have been a better priority. (It's still a horrible mess.) Establishing incentives and providing assistance (in the form of consultants and pilot programs) to nations to help them evolve their institutions would have been a better priority. Leadership by the U.S., in the form of aid and words, to eradicate diseases, to supply clean water, etc., would have been a better priority. And, after all that, we still would have spent a lot less many than we have in Iraq, and have had many fewer deaths of our soldiers in Iraq.

I am not a complete passivist. There is a time for military action. But, I think this time was a very poor use of it from a cost/benefit perspective. As much as possible, it's better to marginalize dictators like Saddam than to topple them.

Finally, I recommend "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- even for you non-fans of Michael Moore. Of course, it's not without some emotional grandstanding by Moore, but much of the footage is gripping to say the least, and the story-line, whether you wish to believe it or not, is damn compelling. Even those who find fault with Moore's logic or refute some of the underlying data will find it difficult to deny the existence of many uncomfortable truths. No wonder the right has tried to block this movie.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Mobile Versus Immobile Societies

Samual Huntington and Bernard Lewis have described the current conflict with Al Qaeda as a Clash of Civilizations. An interesting perspective along those lines that I hadn't seen before is being put forth by Reuven Brenner in the Asia Times in an article titled Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq. He describes the clash as being between an immobile civilization and a mobile civilization. An immobile civilization is generally agrarian or evolved from an agrarian society:
The main feature of agrarian societies has been their immobility. In these societies - as in almost all societies until the Industrial Revolution, and in much of the world still today - wealth was derived from the land. Farmers learned the minute details of cultivating their lands, of adjusting to changes in weather conditions and of the soil. This knowledge is so place-specific that it is no surprise that farmers were severely taxed by a maze of institutions, whose role centered around the idea of defending "one's land". It's always the least mobile who bear such burdens. [...]

In a world where wealth is derived from agriculture and natural resources (whether forests, coal, gold, diamonds, oil), the control of the territory must be insured. Controlling them means protecting, administering, exploiting and occasionally capturing lands. Without such controls, another land or resource-based country's army would capture the place. The institutions, values, culture, indeed the whole outlook of these societies, is shaped by being wedded to the territory. And though there are variations across such cultures, they give birth to one type of civilization - call it the "immobile" one.

Feudal lords, aristocracies and landed gentry, armed forces and police, government ministries, priesthood and bureaucracies provided protection to a place and, at times, imposed threats on neighboring, similarly immobile societies. A weak king or a weak ruler left his subjects at the mercy of his rivals. That's why people paid taxes - call it protection money, if you wish. The amount people willingly pay for such protection bears relationship to the costs of moving to a different area, out of both the plunderer's and the tax authorities' reaches. When people could not thus escape, and taxes became exorbitant, the immobile people occasionally rebelled.

Kings, feudal lords and dictators of various persuasion understood these features of immobile civilization. They saw the relationship between the areas they controlled and those controlled by others as hostile. One's gain of territory was another's loss. It was a zero-sum game world. Anything that would allow people to move more easily from one place to another was perceived as clear and present danger. It weakened one's power - and the tax base. Over time, people specialized in the myriad institutions of "immobile" civilizations and had a large stake in its survival. Whether their belief that this civilization continued to be "the best" when population grew was sincere or not, is irrelevant: delusions can be powerful when they serve one's interests. And deeds matter more than words.

It is not surprising, therefore, to observe throughout history and up to now that many rulers and governments have done everything in their power to condemn any trade or any group that drew its power from mobility. They were suspicious of merchants, traders, bankers and financiers, even people dabbling in technology, unless these technologies addressed solving the immediate problems of the immobile population. Some or all of these occupations had inferior status - usury laws being an early means of rationalizing such status. And although initially traders did not have such inferior status in Islam - Mohammed after all was a merchant before becoming a prophet - by the 10th century business become marginalized. This happened with the closing "of the gates of Ijtihad" (independent reasoning as applied to the sharia) in the 10th century, with some sects taking the Koran far more literally than others.

The priesthood helped conserve the status quo by teaching mythologies in the Middle East and later in Europe. India's caste system reflected a similar frame of mind. The bania, or businessman, is placed third in the four caste hierarchy, behind the brahmins (priests, teachers, intellectuals - the myth-justifying and preserving group) and the kshatryias (landholders, warriors, rulers), and one step ahead of the shudras (untouchables).
People in mobile societies, on the otherhand, have access to market capital and institutions that enforce contract law outside of government fiat. And it is this freedom to enter contracts that is the problem:
However, there is nothing more threatening to the institutions of immobile societies - based on the idea that contracts are a matter of status and hierarchy, and that everything is prohibited unless explicitly permitted - than a move toward contractual law. It takes time to escape perceptions shaped over centuries by institutions fitting an immobile world, and move from "status" to "contract". [...]

The mismatch between customs, traditions, institutions, skills and language - all still fitting a smaller, relatively immobile population - and the institutions needed to give an increasing number of young people hope and a stake in the future brings about instability, much as it happened in Europe for centuries. A fraction of these societies' members understand what's at stake, are ready to make the necessary adjustment and establish the institutions that would allow making the transition toward a "mobile civilization". This group looks to the US for guidance and support, political, military and financial. In contrast, members of the "immobile civilization" within Islamic countries consider that without the US's support, the "mobile" groups would lose power. With traditional leaders at the helm, traditional institutions would be sustained, and the glory of Islam could be revived. [...]

And much of the dangerous European torturing of language notwithstanding, there is no reconciliation between the two values. There cannot be. In this sense, the Osama bin Ladins of this world are right too: one of these societies must give up their fundamental values - or fight.
Based on this categorization of the civilizations, the author walks out on a limb and makes recommendations:
If the lasting remedy for preventing terror is then to speed up the move toward establishing institutions conducive to a "mobile" civilization within Islamic countries, what can the US do? First, as can be inferred from the above, the US had little choice but use power: the chances of domestic forces getting rid of a ruthless despot sitting on billions of gallons of oil are slim, if not nil. But what should the US do now? As the historical evidence summarized here suggests, expecting that one can create democratic institutions in countries where large segments of the population are still mired in mazes of institutions fitting an immobile civilization, is a dangerous delusion. Of course one can write beautiful constitutions, set up courts, institute voting. But remember, all Latin American countries, and some Middle Eastern, did that, without bringing about much real change. Who will enforce the spirit of these laws and institutions? Ataturk, remember, did it with the backing of the army, which followed him, having been the hero of the Dardanelles during World War I, defeating the allies at Gallipoli and being the only undefeated Ottoman commander when the empire collapsed at the end of World War I.

Iraq does not have either such a hero at present, an army, or even a reliable police force, and it is not clear how long it would take to build them. Without the presence of a force capable and willing to act, institutions promising "democracy", "rule of law", and "right to property" are no more than facades, giving rise to another "cargo cult". This term emerged on an isolated island in New Guinea. During World War II, airplanes would regularly arrive full of cargo, part of which was distributed to the natives. After the war, the planes stopped coming. Distressed, the natives built thatched-roof hangers, a beacon tower made of bamboo, and an airplane made of sticks and leaves. Priests prayed for the cargoes to return. And they waited. Many countries around the world, in the Middle East and Latin America in particular, became such cargo cults. Yes, the terms and institutions sound familiar: they have constitutions, promise equality before laws, have courts, and people vote. These societies have adopted the facade of a mobile civilization, but for the moment, leaving out its content. There cannot be such a thing as "democracy" where there are no "democrats". There may be a few in Iraq, but it does not seem that there are too many.

There seems to be little choice but for the United States and its allies to do two things: leave no doubts among Iraqis that the army is there to stay to back the emerging institutions. However, in order to bring about a speedier transition toward long-term stability, the US can encourage the move toward institutions that are the backbone of mobile civilizations: those that diminish corruption and encourage trade.

To achieve this goal more quickly, the US could suggest creating an international public trust fund, which would offer each and every Iraqi a fraction of oil-revenues, drawing on the Alaska model (as explained in my previous article for Asia Times, Oiling the wheels of a tribal society November 20, 2003). The other portion would be transferred to central and local governments, through institutions held accountable for the spending. This arrangement would ensure that people have an immediate stake in the new Iraqi system (pretty much as the giving of land and apartments had in post-communist countries), and incentives to cooperate and prevent sabotage, and offer collateral to up-start small commercial entities. The act would also offer a clear signal that the US is there not as an army plundering the country's resources, but to enforce the establishment of the type of institutions that an oil-rich, ruthless dictator would not do, imposing heavy costs on the rest of the world. It would give Iraqis collateral and something to start a new life with. Also, with less money flowing through a central government's hands, there could be less corruption. [...]

With revenues from oil being widely dispersed, the chances of much funding going for rebuilding centralized military and police powers are diminished. "Power" is dispersed and brought closer to the people.
Yup, that's all there is to it. Hang about for a few decades until they evolve into a mobile society. Works for me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

In the Knowledge Lies the Wealth

Jim summarizes various aspects of the state of the world and other than expanding a little on terrorism, there is nothing else I would change in his summary. Based on the summary, Jim asks what I (or anyone else on this blog) think the president should do for the next four years.

That's a tough, multi-faceted question. However, I'll start by going out on a limb on the domestic economic front. I think the President should pursue policies that maximize growth over the short term without being too concerned about the long term.

While this may seem reckless, I think there's substantially less risk to this approach than meets the eye. The reason I think this lies in asking why we are so much more productive than we were 100 years ago.

Economic texts often describe four factors of production: labor, capital (equipment, previously produced goods, etc.), land (natural resources), and entrepreneurship. The reason we are able to produce far more today than 100 years ago is that we have more knowledge. The labor force has more information available, we have more knowledge about how to optimize capital equipment, we have more knowledge about how to find and then minimize the use of expensive resources, and we have better understanding of business processes, motivational management, marketing, and finance.

Knowledge dwarfs capital in importance when it comes to wealth creation. Imagine that there were two parallel universes. In universe A, one day all capital disappeared, but the inhabitants retained all their knowledge. In universe B, the inhabitants retained all capital but forgot most of their knowledge. I'm certain that in a few years time universe A would be far wealthier.

Germany had almost all of its capital destroyed in WWII. This is almost a perfect example of Universe A. Yes, the Marshall plan replaced some capital, but it was actually a fairly small investment. Within two decades Gernany had accumulated a lot of wealth.

Afghanistan under the Taliban is an example of universe B. They chose to suppress knowledge (other than knowledge of Islam) and even with international aid, they were living in complete poverty. They were basically choosing to live in the stone age.

So more knowledge about production and services means more wealth. And the beauty about knowledge is that it's indestructible and lasts a very long time. Sure, there's not a lot of use for the body of knowledge regarding buggy whip production any more. However, no matter what happens in the financial realm, we still have our knowledge and can recover quickly.

So where does knowledge regarding production and services come from? I think it comes from two sources: people with a need for the knowledge create it out of thin air (necessity is the mother of invention) and from people sitting around thinking with interest in some topic but with no particular need.

The first type of knowledge creation I call "pull knowledge" because I think it's similar to "pull content" on the Internet. Pull content is content that someone goes searching for on the web and they "pull" information from the sites that contain the knowledge that is interesting to them. As that person is searching, they encounter advertisements and other "push content" that's "pushed" on them. The person who sits around and thinks new thoughts needs to then push the new knowledge out into the world for it to have any effect. As a result I call that sort of knowledge creation "push knowledge."

Product development requires pull knowledge creation. Basic research is push knowledge creation. I think both types of knowledge are required for economic growth, though I'm not absolutely certain that push knowledge creation is strictly required. However, I am pretty sure that some mix of the two is optimal. A necessary condition for both types of knowledge creation is that the populace is adequately educated. Once that condition is met, pull knowledge happens spontaneously as part of a self organizing economic system. Pull knowledge is stimulated by potential demand and as a result is maximized both by minimizing the resources extracted from the economic system and keeping inhibitory factors such as regulation to a minimum. I believe economic growth strongly stimulates pull knowledge creation which then strongly stimulates economic growth.

Push knowledge doesn't happen spontaneously, and how to make it happen and pay for it has been, and will continue to be, a subject of great debate. I don't have anything to add to this debate except to say that from my narrow robotics entrepreneur perspective, it seems to be working pretty well. The research coming out the universities meets my needs and I have no complaints about the quality or quantity of work. The funding for robotics seems to come mostly from defense and defense related agencies, with some money from corporations and the NSF. The research seems to be well balanced between what is useful in the near term and what I think will be useful after ten years and more. While on paper the Universities seem to have extremely high overhead, I think that the extremely low pay for faculty just makes the overhead rates look high. I think that in the field of robotics, the system for creating push knowledge works quite well and I don't think it could be made significantly better.

So if we grow as fast as possible, we create knowledge which in turn leads to the creation of yet more knowledge and more growth. What a wonderful virtuous circle.

What if we grow too fast? What if we grow so fast that things get out of balance? What if we create some financial bubble or some other potentially catastrophic problem?

It's certainly possible. But please consider a couple of things. First, I'm not aware of any time that growth and the policies that help stimulate it ever causing any catastrophic economic problems, at least not by themselves. The Great Depression followed a period of rapid economic growth that helped create a stock market bubble and crash, but it was Hoover's tight monetary and fiscal policy that caused the depression, not the rapid growth of the 1920's. The 1987 crash hardly caused an economic blip because it was handled well from a fiscal and monetary standpoint.

The other thing to consider is that potentially catastrophic problems are always in the making and have little to do with growth. For example, the Social Security and Medicare liability issues will be even worse if there is no growth. Growth wasn't a particularly significant factor during the 16th century Dutch Tulip-Bulb bubble, but it happened nonetheless, and was followed by a long and severe depression.

Indeed, growth tends to blunt catastrophes because that catastrophe ends up being a smaller percentage of the now larger wealth of the country. So, on the growth front, I say "Let's Roll!"

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Bret's Definition of Terrorism

Jim wrote an insightful post that I will respond to piecemeal. Unfortunately (well, maybe fortunately), I'm leaving on vacation for a week and a half starting Thursday, so there will be a bit of a break in the action.

Jim wrote:
Terrorism is an extreme form of intolerance combined with a fanatical desire for retribution of perceived wrongs.
I would say that terrorism is sometimes used by those with extreme intolerance and fanaticism, but I would like to propose a more general definition:

Terrorism is a military tactic, generally utilitized by organizations having no possibility of victory in a conventional or nuclear military conflict. As with all military tactics, the goal is to "defeat" the enemy, in other words to cause the enemy so much pain/cost that they become willing to take some action deemed important by the organization utilizing terrorism.

Terrorism usually (but not necessarily) contains a component consisting of violence directed at civilians. As such, it can generally only be used against populations that consider it highly immoral to intentionally kill civilians, even in military conflicts. If this were not the case, the attacked population, with its superior conventional military strength, would simply exterminate the population (civilian, military, and terrorists alike) partaking in, and supporting, the terrorist tactics.

I personally have difficulty distinguishing between terrorism and guerilla warfare. Since I have personally worked on weapons systems that have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I consider myself a perfectly legitimate military target, even though I've always been a civilian. In addition, the United States has intentionally attacked civilian populations several times (Hiroshima, Dresden, etc.), so clearly, it's a common conventional military tactic as well.

Osama's goal in using this military tactic called terrorism, is to destroy the West. And indeed, he considers that retribution of perceived wrongs. Those perceived wrongs extend all the way back to the crusades of the 12th century (he's mentioned those several times in his rambling video tapes). If he has his way, we will either all be dead or be muslims ruled by a caliphate headed up by Osama. As an interim step, he would probably accept that we completely leave all muslim countries and allow Israel to be destroyed. I don't see any realistic way to placate him, so we will have to kill him and his followers. Unfortunately, as Jim points out, military response to terrorism often seems worse than the disease, as it "tends to spread more intolerance even within the society that responds as well as within the receiving faction." So Osama may be able to bring down western civilization: if we don't respond, we're sitting ducks (for example, 9/11); if we do, we fan the flames of hatred and intolerance (for example, Madrid). Bummer!

Looking Forward

Bret, the jobs numbers are indeed good news. A U.S. economy that consistently adds 200,000 jobs per month for an extended period of time would be a very good thing for the country.

With all the disagreements we've had, I think that we (and the articles we've submitted) have given us a reasonable feel for the way things are, even though we disagree about motives and risks. Perhaps the next important question is what the best things to do are from now forward. But, as a final step in our assessment, I offer the following list of facts and ideas to which I think we agree:

- The U.S. invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein and his government. The U.S. and an interim council of Iraqis, with the help of the U.N., has appointed a government of prominent Iraqis to begin governing the country. Security is still a problem, with armed militias and malcontents, some so zealous in their hatred of the U.S. presence that they come from neighboring countries to try to kill U.S. soldiers and destory anything the forces of the U.S. create. Future scenarios include: blossoming of democracy as the interim government transitions to an elected government; civil war; a military figure asserts himself and becomes de facto head of state; a religious figure asserts himself and becomes de facto head of state. The policy of the state toward other countries, esp. the U.S., is unknown in all of these scenarios.

- The U.S. economy is showing steady signs of GDP growth, and productivity growth, and there are early signs of consistent job creation. The annual deficit is around 4%, but the tax base is expected to grow as the economy grows. Government spending has escalated dramatically, including large sums for outlays related to military campaigns. As a percentage of personal income, taxes are at or near a 50-year low. Long term obligations, primarily to healthcare, are hard to reconcile with a projected future tax base. (A Rosy Editorial: Since the long-term shortfalls are only projections, and rather long distance ones at that, it is customary to not worry too much about them since the whole arrangement of things can change so much within a two decade timeframe. For example, those who are currently projected to be retired may, in fact, be working far into old age, all the time paying much of their own way. Or perhaps the whole delivery model for healthcare will be radically transformed so that it becomes relatively inexpensive for people to take care of themselves. Or any number of other scenarios which will make the issue moot before it becomes a problem.)

- Some regions of the world remain at war. It is not unusual each year for more than one million people around the world to be violently killed by another human being with mal-intent. Tens of millions are sadly oppressed or miserable from want of food, clean water, medicine, or humane conditions.

- Although long-term effects are hard to estimate, the presence of six billion humans on the planet at this time appears to considerably affect many aspects of the Earth at both local and global levels, including its fisheries, its air, its water, its atmosphere, its organic coverage, its biodiversity, and its food chain.

- A capitalist economy has proven the predominant model for effective national and international wealth creation.

- A gradual liberalizing dynamic, in which greater and greater power is devolved to individuals, is underway across the globe, driven by the innate human desire to control one's own destiny and to make life better for oneself. Fed by ethnic, tribal and group affiliations, territorial claims, and religious and cultural beliefs - intolerance acts as a brake on liberalization, freedom, and empowerment of the individual. Terrorism is an extreme form of intolerance combined with a fanatical desire for retribution of perceived wrongs. Conveyed like a virus, response to terrorism tends to spread more intolerance even within the society that responds as well as within the receiving faction.

- Terrorists use powerful weapons of destruction. We wonder whether they will utilize even more powerful ones that we hear about frequently - chemical, biological, nuclear. We hope not and we take measures to prevent it being so, but we don't know how effective we are because we only need to misjudge the size of the problem by one person or a small organization.

In what ways, if any, would you modify the above high-level assessment? Whether you'd change anything about the assessment, or add to it to provide greater context for our present situation, what should the President of the United States do for the next four years?

Friday, June 04, 2004

More Jobs

More good economic news, this time reported in the The Guardian:
Another 284,000 jobs were created by the US economy in May as signs that the country's "jobless recovery" was over grew, Labour Department statistics showed today.

The number of new non-agricultural jobs exceeded Wall Street expectations of 200,000, strengthening expectations that the Federal Reserve would start raising interest rates from their current 46-year low of 1%.

Further evidence that strong economic growth was finally feeding into the job market was provided when jobs growth in April and March was revised upwards by a total of 74,000.

Over the past three months, the US economy created 947,000 jobs, the best three-month gain since the summer of 2000. [...]

Many economists now expect the economy to generate around 200,000 jobs a month for the remainder of this year - a pace that would meet the White House's once-derided forecast of a 2.6 million increase in job numbers this year.

Iraq Analysis

While it is clear that there are points of disagreement among us on the situation in Iraq, I think you will appreciate this longish article from The Economist. It does a nice job of synthesizing many arguments that each of us have made. Note that The Economist all along has been in favor of the war in Iraq, but critical of the way it and the peace following have been handled. I still disagree with the conclusion that it was a good idea, and believe there's no way that we would have gone in had the CIA done a good job of assessing the real threat from Saddam. I suspect, however, that they produced what was tacitly expected of them. In any case, I hope you find the analysis as insightful as I did. Sorry it's so long, but I thought it was worth it. (Unless you have a subscription, you wouldn't have been able to go to a link.)

America and the Middle East

Fumbling the moment

May 27th 2004
From The Economist print edition

How big a mess is America in, and how did it get there?

JUST over 40 years ago, Elizabeth Monroe, an historian (and Economist journalist), wrote a book called “Britain's Moment in the Middle East”. The work is out of print and hard to find, but it has been enjoying a revival. It explains how Britain tried between 1914 and 1956 to secure access to the Middle East's oil, reform the region's politics and reconcile the competing aspirations of Arabs and Jews in Palestine. Over the past year assorted pundits, from the Washington Post to London's Guardian, have leapt on Monroe's book to tease out the similarities between Britain's aims then and America's now.

The comparison is irresistible because it is full of ironies. Britain's “moment” ended in ignominy in 1956, when America forced Britain, France and Israel to withdraw from Egypt, which they had invaded in order to unseat an Arab dictator who seemed to threaten their vital interests. Dwight Eisenhower saw this as illegal aggression by an old Europe which refused to accept that the days of empire had passed. Britain itself was deeply divided by the Suez adventure. But those who supported it felt betrayed by an America which, they felt, should have known better than to appease a dictator such as Gamal Abdel Nasser. In just this way, many Americans felt betrayed last year by an old Europe apparently willing to appease Saddam Hussein.

Though just a “moment”, the British interlude in the Middle East lasted 40 years, from Britain's displacement of the Ottomans in the first world war until the ungainly exit from Suez. America's moment is arguably just beginning. Some might say that it started in the 1930s, when the United States laid the foundations for a lucrative alliance with the house of Saud and its Arabian oilfields. And, of course, America was deeply enmeshed in the region during the cold war. But it did not emerge as the single dominant power there until the collapse of the Soviet Union. A future Elizabeth Monroe might argue that the American moment did not really begin until 1991, when the Soviet Union let George Bush senior drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and when Saudi Arabia broke a taboo by letting America's “infidel” forces into the land of the two holy places.

Round and round they go
After that first Gulf war, that first President Bush spoke of a fresh beginning in the Middle East, part of what his administration hoped would be a “new world order”. He made a start by breaking the logjam between Israel and the Arabs, forcing both to a peace conference in Madrid that was later to evolve into secret negotiations in Oslo between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. This was accompanied by much excitement in the Arab world at the prospect of political reform. The end in pretty short order of the Iran-Iraq war, the cold war and—it was hoped—the cycle of Arab-Israeli wars seemed to offer hope that the Arabs would swiftly join the global march of democracy.

It did not turn out that way. Four years ago the summit at Camp David, which Bill Clinton hoped would crown the Oslo process with a final peace in Palestine, collapsed in failure. The Palestinian intifada of the 1980s returned in a more lethal form. Saddam did not, as the first President Bush had expected, fall from power in Iraq. On the contrary, the sanctions tightened his grip on power at the same time as they pauperised his people. Instead of proving that he had dismantled his weapons of mass destruction (WMD), he forced the UN's inspectors to quit in 1998 with their mission unaccomplished. The Arabs enjoyed neither the democracy nor the prosperity that spread elsewhere in the 1990s. And, of course, George Bush senior never reaped the benefits of victory. Within months of celebrating his triumph in the desert, he was turfed out of office.

Now the circle is turning again. A new George Bush has fought a new war against Iraq, completing the job his father did not finish. Now again comes talk of a new era in the Middle East. There is a new peace plan for Palestine. America is once again explaining the virtues of democracy to the Arab regimes, which are once again pretending to agree with it. But, already, the new dawn is beginning to darken. The liberated Iraq is coming to resemble the quagmire opponents of the invasion said it would be. Many of the Shias whom Saddam oppressed have joined the resistance against their liberators. The Americans turn out to have been torturing Iraqis in Saddam's own jail. The killing continues in Palestine. And another American president is facing the possibility of being thrown out of office even as he finishes celebrating a military victory.

One disaster after another
So many reverses, in such short order: a skimmer of headlines can be forgiven for thinking that the American moment in the Middle East is ending, in failure, almost before it has begun. Though Mr Bush and Tony Blair, the war's chief architects, keep saying that they will not cut and run from Iraq, it is taken for granted by shrewd opinion that they are scrambling behind the scenes for an early exit. Among many aficionados of the Middle East, the interesting question is no longer whether the Americans will fail—of course they will, says the received wisdom—but whatever induced them to make such a monumental blunder in the first place.

Needless to say, many of those who pose this question have an answer to hand. Iraq was the wrong war: a distraction from the more urgent business of dealing with al-Qaeda and sorting out the conflict in Palestine. One of the most damaging critics has been Richard Clarke, who on September 11th was still America's counter-terrorism co-ordinator. He claims to have felt “almost a sharp physical pain” when he realised on that day that Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and Paul Wolfowitz, his deputy, intended to “take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq”, even though Iraq had nothing to do with the twin towers.

The “wrong war” thesis has many components. Item one is the non-discovery of the famous weapons of mass destruction. A poll conducted on the invasion's anniversary in March by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that solid majorities of people in nine countries surveyed—including more than eight out of ten in France and seven out of ten in Germany—think that Mr Bush and Mr Blair lied about WMD to trump up a pretext for the invasion. Most, incidentally, do not think these leaders merely exaggerated or “sexed up” the intelligence. They think they knew for certain before the war that they would find no forbidden weapons.

Item two is the “resistance”: 660 Americans and perhaps 1,300 Iraqis killed since May 1st last year, when Mr Bush declared from the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln that major combat operations had ended. If the war was fought in part for humanitarian reasons, to free Iraqis from an odious dictatorship, why are so many Iraqis willing to take up arms against occupying powers that promise anyway to leave the moment the job of implanting a representative government is done?

Item three is the non-breakthrough in Palestine. Part of the pre-war sales pitch held that the removal of Saddam would make progress on Palestine easier. This made sense, of a sort. In a Saddamless Middle East the Israelis could no longer use the threat from the east as a pretext for holding on to the West Bank, and Palestinian rejectionists would be deprived of a cheerleader and paymaster. The road to Jerusalem, said many in Washington to doubting Arabs, led through Baghdad. But was all that just talk? Although Baghdad was conquered a year ago, peace in Palestine looks as remote as ever.

Item four is the sum of the first three: the Iraqi war has added to Muslim resentment of America and thus, it is argued, deepened the reservoir of recruits for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Though March's Pew survey of Muslim opinion showed a slight softening of anti-American opinion over the course of the year, that finding came before the images of female American soldiers dragging naked Iraqis around prison floors on leashes or grinning over the corpses of prisoners who had died in their custody.

There you have it, the case for the prosecution. America fought the wrong war, on false pretences, without thinking through how to put Iraq back together, and against the background of a continuing bias in favour of Israel that has already cost it dear in the Muslim world. It stands accused both of hypocrisy (in that the reasons it gave for going to war were not the true reasons) and of naivety (in that the superpower should have been able to foresee that an attempt to turn post-Saddam Iraq into an exemplary Arab democracy was doomed to fail). Wittingly or unwittingly, argues Rashid Khalidi of New York's Columbia University, the United States is stepping into the boots of earlier imperial powers. This, he says, cannot under any circumstances be a good thing, and cannot possibly be “done right”.

Knowing the unknown
It is a formidable indictment. But there is a case for the defence.

Right or wrong, was this war fought under false pretences? Despite what so many people tell the pollsters from Pew, there is no evidence that the war's architects knew beforehand that Iraq had no WMD: David Kay, the former UN inspector who led the post-war search, expected to find them and was amazed not to. “We were almost all wrong,” was his memorable confession to America's Congress when he returned empty-handed. In his own book after the war, Hans Blix, the inspector who pleaded vainly before it for a bit more time, accuses Mr Bush and Mr Blair of “a lack of critical thinking”, not of bad faith.

Still, was the question of WMD—the given reason for going to war—different from the true reasons? This part of the indictment demands a longer answer.

At different times Mr Bush and Mr Blair gave many reasons for going to war: enforcing UN resolutions, dealing with weapons of mass destruction, securing oil supplies, saving Iraqis from a dictator, promoting democracy and stopping terrorism. The war's critics see in this miscellany of reasons proof that its champions were casting around for any excuse. There is, however, another explanation, which is that the war was launched because September 11th made the Bush administration review America's fundamental interests in the Middle East.

What are those interests? Above all, access to energy. In 1991, George Bush senior would not necessarily have rescued Kuwait if the region did not happen to contain most of the world's reserves of oil. To ensure safe access to that oil, the United States has worked for decades to see off potential threats: from the Soviet Union during the cold war, from Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian revolution, from Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and, in the present, from al-Qaeda and other anti-western groups with the potential to disrupt supply or even seize control of the producer states.

A second longstanding American interest has been to resolve, or at least to dampen, the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. During the early decades of this conflict, America's ties to Israel were not close. France was Israel's chief armourer and protector. But Israel and America have grown steadily more intimate. During the cold war, some American administrations, especially Ronald Reagan's, came to think that a friendly democracy with a competent army might be a strategic asset. And even administrations that took a different view (such as Jimmy Carter's) saw the point of giving Israel the wherewithal to defend itself. A strong Israel, goes the theory, deters its neighbours; a weak one might one day be forced to turn to America to rescue it from invasion.

However, the events of September 11th gave the United States a third and quite new set of aims and interests in the Middle East. One was self-defence against a new kind of terrorism, the sort that could reach out to strike not only at America's energy interests but also at America itself, and at Americans wherever they might be. The felling of the twin towers suggested that it was no longer enough to ask friendly Arab regimes to snuff out terrorism on America's behalf. Most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a close Arab ally. September 11th also made Americans less willing to accept other potential threats to the homeland. One of these was the danger of a “rogue” regime such as North Korea, Iran or Iraq acquiring WMD which they might either use to threaten the United States or pass on to terrorists.

Enter the neo-cons
By chance, September 11th fell upon a new and impressionable administration that was already listening with interest to the group of journalists, intellectuals and policymakers known loosely as the neo-conservatives. This group—including Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Douglas Feith inside the administration, Richard Perle on its fringes, and influential journalists such as William Kristol of the Weekly Standard on the outside—share views on many subjects. Among these are a belief in the need and ability of America sometimes to use its overwhelming military power, even against the wishes of the UN, and in the exportability of American values.

On top of this, many of the neo-cons had a special interest in the Middle East (because so many are Jewish, say their detractors) and a particular view of why the new dawn of the 1990s had failed to materialise. Cultivating friendly Arab regimes, on their analysis, was no way to keep America safe. Since most of these regimes (including Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority) were corrupt dictatorships of one sort or another, America's habit of propping them up had turned the so-called “Arab system” into a factory for anti-American terrorism. In the long run, fighting terrorism would therefore require creating a democratic Arab world at peace with American values.

These notions may be simple-minded but, to return to the indictment, they are not “hypocritical”. They were discussed openly long before September 11th seemed to validate them. The neo-con prospectus also chimed neatly with the aims of the “realists” in the Bush administration who wanted after September 11th to attack Iraq. The realists were keen to remove whatever threat Saddam might pose with his putative WMD. They also, argues John Lewis Gaddis, a distinguished historian at Yale University, hoped to “scare the pants off of anybody—any tyrant anywhere who might in the future be harbouring terrorists, or thinking about harbouring terrorists.” If shock and awe in Iraq was followed by the emergence there of a secular democracy that other Arabs would be keen to copy, so much the better.

In his speech this week, Mr Bush stuck to the line that Iraqis wanted democracy and that, when they acquired it, their example would inspire and change the rest of the region. But the neo-cons themselves are growing queasy. On their view of the Arab world, the Iraqis were expected to greet America's army with flowers, not launch a guerrilla war against it. Perhaps Arabs are not, after all, ready to receive the gift of western values, especially when this is delivered by bayonet. Or perhaps—the opposite of Rashid Khalidi's opinion—the invasion of Iraq was like communism: a brilliant idea which its inventors say could have worked had it only been “done right”.

America's handling of this war has indeed been maladroit. The war itself was swift enough, but both the preparation for it and the handling of the aftermath could scarcely have been more incompetent. America went into the war with duff intelligence on WMD, few serious allies and a feud between the Defence and State Departments about how the post-war occupation should be handled. The occupation has seen endless confusing changes in the plans for political transition, an army too small to provide basic security and the shocking saga of Abu Ghraib. Yale's Mr Gaddis, who had considerable sympathy with the grand strategy, says the implementation of it has been so “wretched” that instead of scaring the pants off its enemies, America had ended up scaring the pants off itself.

Failed? Or just harder than expected?
Even brilliant pre-war planning would not have made it possible to turn Saddam's Iraq overnight into an Arab Camelot. Anthony Zinni, the former head of America's central command, predicted beforehand that a post-war transition in Iraq would be fraught with difficulty. “If we think there is a fast solution to changing the governance of Iraq, then we don't understand history, the nature of the country, the divisions, or the underneath passions that could rise up.” If Mr Bush thought otherwise, he is guilty as charged of naivety. But do all the difficulties prove that the war has “failed”?

As recently as March, Iraqis themselves were still reasonably optimistic. More than half said in polls that their lives had become better since the invasion, and seven out of ten thought things would be better still a year hence. The mood darkened in April, with the twin uprisings of Sunnis in Fallujah and some of the Shias in cities farther south. Since then, however, the Americans have calmed passions in Fallujah by co-opting former officers from Saddam's army. A similar deal may yet be possible with Muqtada al-Sadr, the youthful cleric who has put himself at the head of violent Shia opposition.

Not all the present violence is straightforward “resistance” to the Americans or the work of jihadis. Part of it is positioning for the power struggle to come when the Americans leave: standing up to America earns credibility for an aspiring politician in the new Iraq. Conceivably, Iraq could degenerate into the long-feared civil war between Sunnis and Shias or Arabs and Kurds. But there has been precious little such fighting so far.

Hearts and minds, far and wide
What if, in two years or so, Iraqis prove to be better off than they were under Saddam Hussein? Could this still have been “the wrong war”? That depends on how history will measure the collateral damage: not only in money and lives but also in the harm done strategically to relations between America and its allies and especially, given al-Qaeda's jihad, on relations between the western and the Muslim worlds.

The powerful way for America to restore its reputation in Muslim eyes would be to redeem Mr Bush's promise of an independent Palestine. In 2002, as the Iraq war loomed, he made a downpayment by agreeing to the creation of the “quartet”, a forum in which America would join the European Union, the UN and Russia in promoting a Palestinian peace. This produced the “road map”. After the Iraq war, Mr Bush rolled up his sleeves to deliver. He held a summit with Ariel Sharon and the (then) Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, to urge progress.

A year on, there has been none, and the appearance of failure on both flanks of the Middle East has become self-reinforcing. In just the way that many Americans see no distinction between the terrorism of al-Qaeda and the terrorism of the Palestinian intifada, so many Arabs see no distinction between Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and America's occupation of Iraq. Both conflicts are portrayed on Arabic satellite channels as similar dramas of national or Islamic resistance. In April, Mr Bush made matters worse. When he endorsed Mr Sharon's plans for a unilateral Israeli exit from the Gaza strip, he said that in any broader peace the Palestinian refugees would have to “return” to the new Palestine rather than Israel proper, and that it would be “unrealistic” to expect Israel to return right to its pre-1967 borders.

This statement was construed far and wide as yet another gratuitous tilt in Israel's favour. Retired diplomats in America and Britain wrote enraged letters to Mr Bush and Mr Blair. The British ones urged Mr Blair to dissociate himself from a pro-Israeli stance “at a time when, rightly or wrongly, we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.”

The world wants the Americans to push Israel along the road map. Why do they seem to demur? The usual answer is to blame the Jewish lobby, especially in an election year. Another explanation is the growing affinity between the superpower and the minnow, one that has grown stronger since, as Mr Bush put it in a recent speech about Israel, Americans too have “experienced the horror of being attacked in our homeland, on our streets, and in places of work.” Beyond the sentiment, however, lies some hard analysis. In Palestine, Mr Bush has worked much less hard than Mr Clinton because he inherited the violent aftermath of Mr Clinton's Camp David failure and did not relish the idea of repeating it.

In Washington in January 2001, Mr Clinton's top Middle East negotiator, Dennis Ross, implored Ahmed Qurei, now Palestine's prime minister, to accept the president's peace plan. If the incoming Bushites saw Mr Clinton being “stiffed” by Mr Arafat, he said, they would want nothing to do with the Palestinian leader and would disengage from the peacemaking.

And so it was. By the time Mr Bush took office, the Israelis and Palestinians were locked in a war of terror and counter-terror. All attempts to arrange a ceasefire have failed. The chief reason for this is a collapse of authority on the Palestinian side. The very first requirement of the road map is for the Palestinian Authority to impose a ceasefire and disarm the terrorists. But this is something Palestinians say they cannot do without provoking a civil war.

No trust, no ceasefire, no meeting of minds on a final agreement. In these circumstances, Mr Bush may well consider that his chances of securing a comprehensive peace in a conflict that confounded his father at the start of the 1990s and tripped up Mr Clinton at the end are negligible. By contrast, precisely because it is unilateral, Mr Sharon's plan for a withdrawal from Gaza might actually come to fruition. That pro-Israeli tilt on refugees and borders has hurt America's standing with the Arabs. America is pro-Israeli. But Mr Bush's encouragement of Mr Sharon was an attempt to help the Gaza withdrawal come about. Mr Clinton had already said that a two-state solution based on the ethnic division of Palestine is not consistent with the return to the Jewish half of millions of Palestinian refugees. The Palestinian leadership has long assumed—even if it has not had the courage to tell its people—that reaching a final deal might require a slight adjustment of the pre-1967 border.

Still the necessary superpower
America could do more in Palestine. After Iraq, it needs to more than ever. Note, though, how many of the people who believe that it is impotent in Iraq also assume that it is all-powerful when it comes to ending a conflict that has perplexed the great powers for a century. It is likelier that America's ability to influence events lies somewhere between these poles: it can shape the history of the Middle East, but it cannot do so just as it pleases.

After the shame of Suez, says Elizabeth Monroe in “Britain's Moment”, Britain's hold on events ceased, “and remained at zero while the free world gasped at so radical a departure from British principle and practice”. And though, later, a modicum of British influence was restored in the Middle East, the nature of that influence was altered “because the power behind it was permanently impaired”. This is the big difference. The world today is full of people willing to pass no less censorious a judgment on America's adventure in Iraq. They will argue about it for decades. But even if the setbacks in Iraq have crimped the style of its new imperialists, America's objective power is not yet waning. For good or ill, it will remain the dominant outsider for years to come.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Bret Still Feels Safer, Here's Why

It's funny (to me), but reading the Globe and Mail article referred to by Jim's post, made me assume that Chipman's comments were overwhelmingly negative. For example, the Globe and Mail uses adjectives like "dire" and says that the occupation and invasion of Iraq "proved" to be "powerful recruiting" points.

I then went and read Chipman's press release and it reads (to me) completely differently. To be sure, Chipman lists many criticisms (and I don't disagree with them), but it's much more balanced, with some room left for optimism, and little "proven" or "dire".

I've never argued that the Iraq war didn't have the potential to increase terrorism in the short term. I don't think even Bush claimed that there would be no short term increase. The long term is more important.

Even more important to me than the amount of terrorism in the long term, is the likelihood of the terrorist acts causing the downfall of western (and maybe all) civilization. The West can probably withstand suicide bombers and snipers and the like. After all, Israel does it, and we can probably get used to it too. And I think we'll have to. We can most probably even withstand a 9/11 size attack every few years and I think we'll have to learn to deal with that as well. I think we can most likely recover from chemical and biological attacks as well.

But what we may not be able to withstand is a nuclear attack. If terrorists manage to set an atomic bomb off some major U.S. city, that may well start a rapid progression towards the end of civilization. And then billions die.

I think it is unlikely that the terrorists can put together a nuclear weapon on their own. They will need a state sponsor for that. I think that Iraq was a potential state sponsor. Maybe not, but to me it's not worth taking the chance. I'm certainly willing to put up with more small scale attacks to potentially avoid the big one.

So yes, I feel safer.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Bret Feels Safer, Others Wonder Why

Bret, please excuse my cheesy blog title - I couldn't resist. Attached is an article which quotes John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies:

"Over all, risks of terrorism to Westerners and Western assets in Arab countries appeared to increase after the Iraq war began."

In an earlier comments section, Bret said:

"As for Europeans and Saudis, I couldn't care less what they think. I think we should be working toward regime change in Saudi Arabia as well."

Well, Bret may get his wish -- regime change is looking more likely in Saudi, but not necessarily to an alternative we prefer. Are you ready for $100 per barrel oil? All the stimulative debt-financed spending and tax cuts would be rendered meaningless as the economy would plunge into recession. Is this the regime change you had in mind?