Only A Lad…

Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin condemns the recent fighting in Najaf.

But what possible moral justification can there be for the two bloody campaigns against Moqtada al-Sadr?

If the figures reported by the US military are true, nearly 2000 of Sadr’s supporters have been killed by US forces (1500 in the first campaign launched by Bremer just before his departure and another 300 in the last couple of days). This is comparable with plausible estimates of the number of people killed by Saddam’s police state annually in its final years.

Boy, there is so much that I think is wrong about this post.

One interesting thing about modern thought – and I won’t necessarily characterize it as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ but instead ‘modern’ – is that the only calculus you can legitimately use is a very crude one. How many alive or dead? The ultimate measure of any policy becomes did it save lives?

There are at least two colossal problems with this.The first is that it ignores the question of whether there are values worth dying – and killing – for. Poland, France, and the UK could have avoided all those deaths in WW II, if only they had simply surrendered. If only President Lincoln had commanded the forces holding Ft. Sumter to simply strike the flag and come home.

You get the point.

It is clear, on one hand, that people often kill for trivial and shameful reasons. It is equally clear, to me at least, that we must sometimes kill for honorable ones.

The second problem, and sad fact, is that we can never know whether we saved lives or not – because events in the world of politics and warfare are ‘wicked problems,’ and so can’t be rerun like computer models with different assumptions.

Doonsbury today has a strip in which Mike has a daydream. He dreams:

“George Bush never became President!

“Not only that, we never invaded Iraq, killing thousands of civilians and turning it into a vast, new staging ground for terrorism!”

“And get this – it says we didn’t torture and kill prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo!”

“And look! We’re not hated around the world!”

“Nope! The American people are far more secure! And haven’t been polarized by a war that has cost nearly 900 U.S. lives!”

As a sidenote, it may be the case that it would be worth re-electing Bush for the simple reason that it might force Trudeau into retirement. On the other hand, if he were to promise to retire if Kerry were elected, he might sway my vote that way…

But back to my point. How does Trudeau know? How does one estimate what the world would look like in an alternate present? And, more important, when one runs his alternate present forward into alternate futures, what do they look like?

We’re dealing in a world where we can count our costs, but have no idea how to measure the benefits. And that’s one of the biggest failures, I believe, of the Bush Administration. They haven’t made it clear what we’re getting for the costs we’re bearing (as they haven’t been as clear as they should of what the true likely costs are).

Quiggin goes on:

These people weren’t Al Qaeda or Baathists, they were (apart from the inevitable innocent bystanders) young Iraqi men who objected to foreign occupation. Sadr’s militia is one of a dozen or so similar outfits in Iraq, and there are hundreds more around the world, quite a few of which have received US support despite having a worse record than Sadr’s. Moreover, there was no cause at stake that justified a war – the first started when Bremer shut down Sadr’s newspaper and the Sadrists retaliated by taking control of some police stations and mosques. The current fighting seems to have had even more trivial causes. It’s the willingness of the US government to send in the Marines that’s turned what would normally be noisy disturbances into bloodbaths.

You know, it’s always us causing the mess. But let’s skip that and point out that one of the primary criticisms of the occupation by war opponents such as Quiggin has been that we have not established order; that we have taken a country that was oppressed – but stable! – and knocked it backward into chaos and horror. Well defeating chaos and horror sometimes involves defeating – which means capturing, killing or otherwise rendering ineffective – those forces that would promote it. Sadr could have chosen a political route; instead he built a militia, and with it, took territory.

That territory is being retaken. One would think that if a pacified, orderly Iraq – and just possibly a free one – is the goal, this would be seen as a good thing. But instead, let’s blame the Marines for creating a bloodbath.

Let’s blame Lincoln and Churchill, too.

Friday Kid-Blogging

I was talking to a good friend this week who was giving me the what-for on why my house is so (relatively) small and my bank account so (relatively) light. He meant it in the best way possible, and he may be right that I should take a little while and focus on making more. But I replied that the last few years had given me the best asset of all – my sons.

And as I’ve been trying to think about what I can contribute to Good News Fridays, it occurs to me that the thing I need to do is start kid-blogging. My kids in part, because I’m stupidly happy with the people they’re becoming, but I’ll look around for neat or cute things that kids of all kinds have done and hold them up for your examination.When you worry that the world is going to hell in a handbasket (or, as a good friend puts it, “…when you wake up wondering ‘Why is it so warm, and what am I doing in this handbasket?’ “), it helps to look at the kids and the fact that they will outrun us.

And when you wonder what’s worth fighting for when things look bleak, the answer’s simple – their future.

So he’s the inaugural kid-blog, straight off my refrigerator.


Blue is the sky
Blue is the sea
Blue is kindness
between you & me.
Blue is water,
blue is tears,
blue comforts you when
all hope is nowhere near.
You can hear things
that are blue if you use
your ears.

-Littlest Guy, age 7

Six Degrees To A Sex Offense

All over the news today is the release of teacher Mary Kay LeTourneau, who may be reunited with the now-of-age former student whose children she had.

I have my own six-degrees story about her – having met and dined with her late father, insanely conservative California State Senator John Schmitz.

He graced me with an insightful observation about modern partisanship I’ve carried around for a long time

When Moscone ran the Senate, he and I used to fight hammer and tongs all day, then go out and have drinks over dinner and laugh about it. We differed on where we wanted the boat to go, but we recognized that we were in the same boat. These new guys would gladly sink the boat rather then compromise.

but he was certainly a guy with issues of his own.

But the man who saw conspiracies everywhere, who was an equal opportunity bigot, and who decried America’s moral decrepitude, had, himself, a skeleton in the closet. It came to light in a curious way. An Orange County child abuse case in 1982 concerned a thirteen-month-old infant who was discovered with hair so tightly wound around his penis that the organ had nearly been severed. The baby was placed in protective custody, and the court demanded that the father step forward. It turned out to be none other than John G. Schmitz, now again a state Senator, paterfamilias of five children and, er, two others with his German mistress, once his student at Santa Ana.

One of the reasons I’m so resistant to calls for public enforcement of morality is that sad fact that so many of those who do so are moral failures on their own terms.

In my post at Armed Liberal, I suggest that “I’ll take as a given that the family had…issues….” Well, that appears to be true as well (from the same article as above):

…the Schmitz household was revealed to have been a chilly place, often under siege due to John’s latest atrocious remark. Mary Kay and her brother would sometimes play German marching music out the window to drown out angry demonstrators. Schmitz’s wife Mary was said by Mary Kay to be an unaffectionate mother who stressed personal appearance, counseling her daughter to always wear lipstick and even toenail polish. Mary was a vocal ally of Phyllis Schlafly, and appeared on TV to denounce the ERA. She stuck with her man to the end.

Eugene Volokh has an interesting essay on the different thinking about sex between an older woman and a boy as opposed to an older man and a girl. As a parent of three boys, it’s something I’m chewing on a bit. Our emotional reaction is somewhat different; but I know that I’d be mighty pissed off if my twelve year old were seduced by his teacher.

And I’ll also note that if – nine years later – he were to go off and build a real life with her, and be genuinely happy, I’d eat my words on toast.

More Energy

So in the comments to my post below, encouraging energy efficiency, Trent and Joe are jumping up and down and suggesting that I’m somewhere between foolish and stoned.

Which may be true.

But which doesn’t change the validity of my core policy argument, which rests on three legs:

# the most secure energy we can create is the energy we don’t use, and it’s possible – through some modest changes in lifestyle and in better engineering on what we consume – to enjoy pretty much the life we lead now while using substantially less energy per person and dollar of GDP. I tossed out 20 – 25% as a good target for that.# this is a good thing to do, for three basic reasons: a) it will shelter our economy – relative to the rest of the world’s economies – from interruptions in supply or spikes in price, both of which are likely as the Middle East works out it’s problems with or without our help and guidance; b) it will allow us to pick and choose where we buy our energy from – which may not help when it comes to price spikes (see above) but will make us relatively invulnerable to interruptions caused by shutting off the ME oil spigot; c) it will lessen the damage to the world economy from interruptions in supply, as there will be more ‘headroom’ in the markets; d) it will give us more of the moral high ground in discussion about the future of the Middle East, as we take concrete (and expensive) steps to demonstrate that we’re not killing Arabs to ensure that we have cheap gas to burn in our SUV’s.

# that the “don’t conserve” alternative has to be examined and priced out as well. As many of the same commenters who dinged me noted, increases in demand from a consumer society in China and India will wipe out the markets anyway.

Well, let’s go to the numbers again. Again, from www.eia.doe.gov, we get this Excel file that shows annual energy budgets by country.

In 2002, the US used 97.6 * 10^15 BTU. China used 43.2, and India 14.3.

Assume for a moment that China and India – each of whose populations in increasing at slightly more than 1%/year – start using 5% more energy each year. That suggests that in eight years, they’ll go from using a total of 57.2 (*10^15) BTU, to 84.4, for an increase of 27.3.

If the US consumption increases at about 1% per year, we’ll go from 97.6 to 105.7 – an increase of 8.1. But if, instead, we were to cut our consumption by 2% per year, we’d end up using 83.1 – for a swing of 22.7, almost enough to make up for the monstrous growth in consumption in China and India. And certainly enough to have a significant impact on the markets for energy worldwide.

As before, disagreements are fun, but they’re even more fun when based in facts (and occasionally arithmetic).

Do I think that we can conserve out way out of the Middle East crisis? Of course not, and I’ve never said so. I do believe that we’ll have far more freedom to act in the Middle East when we’re not worried that the Saudi’s will shut off the Middle East tap and lop 10% or so off our annual petroleum energy budget.

Well, Sometimes “No” Means “Maybe”

As Joe notes below, Den Beste lays the smack down on those who suggest that we can conserve our way to energy independence.


If we went all-out, I imagine that we could (over twenty years or so) cut our energy needs by at least 25% and 50% isn’t out of the question. In the long run it would save us money and it wouldn’t hurt the environment any, either.

I’m afraid not. It is impossible to achieve that much gain solely through technological changes like that.

I don’t mean “infeasible” or “impractical”, I mean it is physically impossible. To get a 50% gain solely through technology improvements we’d have to revoke the laws of thermodynamics and figure out how to change the universal electrical constant. I don’t expect to see that happen in my lifetime.

He makes a good case, which is kind of depressing.

Fortunately, off the debating floor – in the real world – he’s wrong.If you define the question narrowly, to say that the sole change is fixing the technology underlying our economy, he may have a point (although I might be motivated enough to argue it at some point). But on my planet – Planet Reality – people change their technology and their behavior in response to scarcity. Have you noticed any new Excursions on your local Ford dealer’s lot lately? Notice the signs on the Expeditions? You know, those big SUV’s – they’re so 90’s.

Let look at some economic facts for fun. The folks at DOE have a wonderful site – www.eia.doe.gov – that’s just chock-full of buttery good data. One piece, an Excel file, has the gross energy consumption by country by year per dollar of GDP. Let’s go to the numbers…

In 1980, the US consumed 16,297 BTU per dollar of GDP. In 2002, we consumed 10,575.

In 1980, Sweden consumed 10,839, and in 2002 7,405.

The average energy consumption per dollar of GDP in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Japan is 5,593. Japan is an outlier, at 3,876 BTU per dollar, so let’s just look at the UK, Germany, and Italy – their average is 6,165.

Now, clearly, there are issues that make us different – our pattern of sprawl versus their more urbanized, transit-dependent lifestyle.

But we cut 35.1% out of our energy budget in 22 years. Our major industrial competitors are 47% more efficient than we are; the European Big 3 are 42% more efficient than we are.

Do you think that if paid some attention, we could have a significant impact here? And do you think it would change the nature of our relationship with the Middle East?

IS THE WAR ON TERROR THE WAR ON BAD PHILOSOPHY?

OK, a belated final wrapup and then we’ll (in geological time) work into some constructive suggestions.
I’m proposing a theory that has three parts, each of which has some basis which we should be able to discuss or test.
First, that there is a form of political violence which I will label “terrorism”, which is by its nature different from guerilla warfare and mass murder, which are its neighbors on the continuum of violence.
The defining features of terrorism are: 1) attacks on opposing civilians and military with the sole intent of demoralizing them, and the wider media audience who views the attacks and their consequences, and with little or no thought to traditional military effectiveness (i.e. degrading the capability of the enemy to fight you); 2) an ideological base in the self-perceived powerlessness of the attacking side; 3) reliance on the restraint and civility of the opposing force to allow terrorist operatives to stay concealed in a civilian population relatively free from reprisal.

Next that while terrorism has roots in traditional political conflicts, its nature as a different method of conflict has implications for the sponsoring political entity, as well as those targeted. There is something about terrorism as a tactic that both attracts and entraps the participants. In other words, there is something about terrorism which redefines the participants and makes it hard for them to move out of committing terrorist acts and into constructive military and political activity.
Much like the legendary pirates who committed cannibalism because, having eaten human flesh, they could not return to civil life, it seems that the participants in terrorism do not have a great track record at abandoning terror and moving to more traditional military and political activities. This traps the terrorists and their sponsors, and makes it more difficult for them to step across the line to which I will call “civic” politics. Not that it isn’t impossible, as recent developments in Ulster and Sri Lanka suggest.

Finally, that the roots of terrorism, or rather the roots of the political decision to assume terrorism as a tactic, have to do as much with the desire to have an impact on people’s awareness as on their behavior. When I accuse the Palestinians of adopting tactics aimed at dramatic TV coverage as much as at damaging the Israelis, I’m pointing out that in terrorism the desire to psychologically defeat the opponent may outweigh the desire to defeat them in practical terms.
Now what is unique about terrorism is that it stands alone as a kind of “media war” in which the rhetoric and media images matter more than the actual balance of power “on the ground”. Terrorists almost never attack targets that would have substantive impact; they attack airport waiting areas, and not the radar or air-traffic control facilities that would shut down the airport. Even when they do attempt attacks against infrastructure (the Pi Glilot refinery), one wonders if it was for the effect on fuel supplies of the size of the explosion that mattered.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Commenter Ziska writes:

I think that Osama’s methods are rational. He wanted to provoke the United States, destabilize the Middle east and especially Saudi Arabia, and rouse his sympathizers. (I don’t think that his attack on the WTC was symbolic in a futile sense. The symbolism was appealing to the people he was trying to rouse; and in fact the WTC is very substantially meaningful, since it was a communication and control center and what he was fighting against was an international order dominated by the US from places like the WTC, rather than a flesh and blood nation.)

First, she acknowledges the symbolic, as opposed to practical import of the action…although as a ‘symbolic’ attack on the U.S., I’d suggest that the White House, U.S. Capitol, or even the Statue of Liberty would have been of greater impact…then she suggests that it is a ‘communication and control center’; no, it’s an office building. MAE-WEST, which is in an office building here in Los Angeles, is a communications and control center, and it’s destruction would have had a far greater impact on our ability to actually function than an attack on the WTC. What the WTC was is a symbol of Western economic power and (and to skirt the Freudian) potency. Again, I keep coming back to the ineffectiveness of the attacks, both on 9/11 and overall in Israel (this is not to demean the real tragedy that both represent) to suggest that the attackers are not using the same calculus as us to measure success and failure, and that their motivations are not what they appear to us to be…or possibly what they themselves articulate.
I obviously have not yet gotten the Baudrillard book noted by Junius below, but I’ll repeat the publisher’s quote, because it is so damn telling:

Continuing an analysis developed over many years, Baudrillard sees the power of the terrorists as lying in the symbolism of this slaughter. Not merely the reality of death, but a sacrificial death that challenges the whole system. Where the past revolutionary sought to conduct a struggle of real forces in the context of ideology and politics, the new terrorist mounts a powerful symbolic challenge, which, when combined with high-tech resources, constitutes an unprecedented assault on an over-sophisticated, vulnerable West.

and add to it a quote from V.S. Naipul (thanks to Roublen Vessau):

I don’t think it was because of American foreign policy. There is a passage in one of the Conrad short stories of the East Indies where the savage finds himself with his hands bare in the world, and he lets out a howl of anger. I think that, in its essence, is what is happening. The world is getting more and more out of reach of simple people who have only religion. And the more they depend on religion, which of course solves nothing, the more the world gets out of reach.

This suggests to me that it is not any one issue that triggers terrorism (although Ziska is right that it has centered on ‘national liberation’, but typically in concert with more traditional military and guerilla tactics), but infinitely many. And that the problem with this is that whatever we concede, there will be another group, another faction…if not the PLO, than Hamas, if not Hamas, than Fatah, if not Fatah, than Al-Aqusa Martyr’s Brigade, ad infinitum…who will find issues, because I am arguing that the real issue is modernity.
There are internal and external critiques of Western modernity. The internal critiques have philosophical roots going clearly back to the 19th century, and which I will argue, have been picked up by many making the external critiques, until there is a roughly common philosophical and political ‘umbrella’ under which both operate.
And one of the concerns I will raise is that given that there are folks internal to the West who share these views, what is the barrier to more widespread terrorism?
We are seeing it now, in a loose way…in the armored-car robberies of the Aryan groups, mirroring the deadly armored-car robberies intended to finance the Weather Underground in the 70’s; in the acts of animal liberationists, anti-abortionists, of Earth First! and Columbine.
The cost of defending ourselves, in the long run, will bankrupt us physically, psychically, and morally. So we have to defeat this. And by virtue of its nature, terrorist violence can (and must) be held at bay, but within the limits of modern Western tolerance, cannot be defeated by violence alone. We have to find a way to stop growing the people who do it.
And so yes, I’ll suggest that we have a War On Bad Philosophy, and that the places to look are the churches, mosques, temples, and lecture halls … at the people who need to create and then spread some philosophical antibodies.
In the next few days, I’ll make some concrete short-term and longer term suggestions.
Originally published August 29, 2002.

Srebenica on the Tigris

Juan Cole lays out his notion of how the ‘Kerry Policy’ in Iraq might work. Go read the whole thing.

No, really.

OK, in case you didn’t. Let me summarize:

* Iraq holds elections, gets UN legitimacy.

* Asks for UN peacekeeping force.

* The UN agrees, because force is under UN command, not US command, and because the Iraqis asked.

Here’s the result he hopes for:

This UN force, with vastly reduced US participation under a UN general, would give the new, elected Iraqi government time to rebuild its own armed forces and national guard. As effective Iraqi divisions were trained and equipped, they could begin relieving UN troops, allowing all the multinational forces, including those of the US, gradually to rotate out of the country as they were no longer needed. At the end of this process, Iraq would have an army of 60,000 men, able to maintain order in the country but posing no threat to neighbors. It would be an independent country, midwifed by the United Nations. The US would have finally gracefully exited the country, since it is unlikely that an elected Iraqi government would want foreign troops on its soil any longer than necessary.

But wait……there may be problems with this idea. He continues:

I would be the first to admit that the plan is not perfect. Sometimes UN troops have not performed very well. Iraq is a complex and highly armed society, and would be the biggest challenge ever faced by the UN. But I think the plan has at least a chance of working. And, it is hard to see how it could produce results worse than those produced by the Bush administration in the past miserable 16 months.

(emphasis mine – AL)

No shit, Juan.

Just because I know that I have known unknowns, let me start by tossing a question out to the crowd: Can any of you think of any single case where UN peacekeeping forces have prevailed in an environment where the participants really wanted to fight, rather than have the UN provide a fig leaf for armistice? I can’t. I’m hoping there is one…

Because I have one reply to Juan’s suggestion. Srebenica. Srebenica. SrebenicaSrebenicaSrebenicaSrebenicaSrebenicaSrebenicaSrebenica.

…of course if there are facts that suggest I’m wrong, I’m wide open to changing my mind and apologizing.

And I’ll point out that it keeps looking like the key issue, to Juan, and the other Democratic foreign policy experts is simply that it’s Bush’s policy. And so it cannot stand. We’ve gotta do better than this, team.

I really want to vote Democratic this fall. But someone, somewhere, has to show me a foreign policy that makes some modicum of sense for me to do it. Help me out, will you…