Andrew Bacevich’s odd claim about the Iraq war
In an otherwise fine New York Times review of two books about the Iraq war—The Endgame, by Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, and My Share of the Task, by Stanley McChrystal—Andrew Bacevich makes an odd logical error. Bacevich criticizes both books for downplaying the costs of the war and portraying a modest turnaround as a mission accomplished. Fair enough. But then he takes Gordon and Trainor to task for not linking the Iraq war to American economic decline, writing, “That ‘The Endgame’ includes no graphs tallying cumulative war costs and casualties or correlating recent American economic woes with the Iraq war’s duration qualifies as somehow fitting.”
True, the Iraq war was expensive—insanely, more-than-a-trillion-dollars expensive. But that doesn’t mean it or the war in Afghanistan should be blamed for the sluggish economy. As Richard Haass and Roger Altman wrote in a 2010 Foreign Affairs article, “The combined cost of the two wars accounts for only 10-15 percent of the country’s annual deficit and much less than that of its cumulative debt, and the principal reasons for questioning the Iraq war several years ago and for questioning the war in Afghanistan today are more strategic than economic.”
There are many good reasons to oppose the Iraq war. The idea that it caused the recession isn’t one of them.
Are all rights created equal?
Over at The New Republic, Andrew J. Nathan has a terrific review of Aryeh Neier’s book The International Human Rights Movement: A History. At one point, Nathan refers to a rift within the international law community over the scope of what is and what is not a human right. One might think it odd, for example, that just down the page from a ban on slavery, the UN Declaration of Human Rights lists “the right to security in the event of unemployment.” But where do you draw the line? Nathan summarizes Neier’s answer:
Neier … has always argued that only civil and political rights can be considered real human rights, while two other categories—conventionally called economic, social, and cultural rights and collective rights—cannot. As he acknowledges, his is a minority view in the movement. He argues controversially that civil and political rights say what the government cannot do (torture, restrict speech, control religion); that they are absolute; and that for these two reasons you can take them to court and win. …
So-called second- and third-generation rights, by contrast, describe things that the government should do (provide work, health, education, leisure, promote the vitality of minority cultures, and so on). But since the government has to do many such things, Neier argues, and since they all cost money, only the political process can legitimately determine how much of one good thing is worth how much tradeoff of another good thing. Hence such rights are not—or at least should not be—justiciable.
Seems like a defensible distinction, though I suspect there are less clear-cut cases.
Anyways, that’s just a taste of the review. Read the whole thing. It also works as a good primer on the recent history and current state of human rights.
No, Charles Krauthammer, Iran is Not a Suicidal State
Boosting the case for a preemptive strike on Iran, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer argues that unlike the Soviet Union, the country cannot be contained through nuclear deterrence. The nature of the Iranian regime, he contends, is fundamentally different—suicidal, in fact. He writes:
For all its global aspirations, the Soviet Union was intensely nationalist. The Islamic Republic sees itself as an instrument of its own brand of Shiite millenarianism — the messianic return of the “hidden Imam.”
It’s one thing to live in a state of mutual assured destruction with Stalin or Brezhnev, leaders of a philosophically materialist, historically grounded, deeply here-and-now regime. It’s quite another to be in a situation of mutual destruction with apocalyptic clerics who believe in the imminent advent of the Mahdi, the supremacy of the afterlife and holy war as the ultimate avenue to achieving it.
Nonsense. The available evidence suggests that Iran, too, is “deeply here-and-now”; indeed, the country’s nuclear aspirations are practical more than anything else. (Possessing nukes is about regime survival first, and nothing deters an invasion like an atomic arsenal.) The idea that the regime is an Islamic suicide cult is hogwash, a conclusion that one can arrive at only when reading too much into religious rhetoric. The best debunking of the martyr-state view can be found in a 2009 article by Andrew Grotto that appeared in The Brown Journal of World Affairs. As he pointed out,
… there is compelling circumstantial evidence that [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei rejects radical Mahdiism just as Shiite apocalyptic literature does and Ayatollah Khomeini did. In his speeches, for example, he depicts the Hidden Imam “as a source of future hope that will eventually end the world’s injustice,” not a harbinger of apocalypse whose return can be hastened by waging war. His speeches are also devoid of any references to hastening the Mahdi’s return under apocalyptic circumstances.
To be sure, there is no question that the Islamic Republic’s ideology considers the export of its Islamic revolution a fundamental tenet. But even Ayatollah Khomeini considered this tenet ever and always subordinate to regime survival.
Krauthammer is wrong to call any similarities between the Soviet Union and Iran “a fantasy.” Indeed, his arguments about the undeterrability of Iran sound an awful lot like those made about another supposedly irrational and ideologically driven regime of the past: the Soviet Union, of course.
Keeping Zak Galifianakis out of the Situation Room
Peter Bergen, in his new book, Manhunt, describes the extraordinary efforts the Obama administration took to prevent the public from getting wind of the unfolding bin Laden raid:
The White House had canceled all tours so that tourists wouldn’t see all the unusual comings and goings. Katie Johnson, the president’s personal secretary, had scheduled a White House tour for the stars of the movie The Hangover, who were in town for the Correspondents’ Dinner, and she asked Ben Rhodes if he could grant an exception. Rhodes told her it wouldn’t be possible.
Pablo Escobar: what could have been
Robert Shiller, in his new book, Finance and the Good Society, makes an interesting case for a financial system that redirects human conflict into a manageable arena:
Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord, had hundreds of public figures, including a presidential candidate, assassinated, and he even had a commercial passenger airliner bombed, killing 110 people. When he was finally hunted down and killed by Colombian security forces in 1993, his mother, Hermilda Gaviria, demonstrated a strong conviction that her son, however brutal, was a good man because of what he had done for his family and the poor people in his community. At his funeral, amidst adoring throngs of his supporters, she said, “Pablo, you’re in heaven, and the people acclaim you. The people love you. You have triumphed, Pablo.” Escobar probably did have a generous side. Had his business been legal and run within a system of financial capitalism, his aggressive instincts might have been channeled into mostly productive directions.
"In a car, you are finally nowhere."
Laura Secor’s latest dispatch from Iran contains many expressive passages. Here is one:
In Tehran, cars are the intermediate space where much of life is lived. It takes an hour to get virtually anywhere in the traffic-choked capital, a skein of alleyways and dead ends. Public places are monitored; inviting a foreigner into your home arouses suspicion. In a car, you are finally nowhere, which is sometimes where you truly want to be.
(flickr / kamshots)
Kennan on U.S. nation building in the Middle East
This 1944 passage on U.S. nation building in the Middle East from George F. Kennan’s Memoirs: 1925–1950, literate and prescient as ever, was brought to my attention today:
Those few Americans who remember something of the pioneer life of their own country will find it hard to view these deserts without a pang of interest and excitement at the possibilities for reclamation and economic development. If trees once grew here, could they not grow again? If rains once fell, could they not again be attracted from the inexhaustible resources of nature? Could not climate be altered, disease eradicated?
If they are seeking an escape from reality, such Americans may even pursue these dreams and enter upon the long and stony road which could lead to their fruition. But if they are willing to recall the sad state of soil conservation in their own country, the vast amount of social improvement to be accomplished at home, and the inevitable limitations on the efficacy of our type of democracy in the field of foreign affairs—then they will restrain their excitement at the silent, expectant possibilities in the Middle Eastern deserts, and will return, like disappointed but dutiful children, to the sad deficiencies and problems of their native land.
A dysfunctional relationship
Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder write about Pakistani cooperation and deceit in their 9,000-plus-word Atlantic article, “The Ally from Hell.” A telling tidbit:
In perhaps the most bizarre expression of this dysfunctional relationship, Osama bin Laden’s body was flown out of Pakistan by the American invasion force, which did not seek Pakistani permission and was prepared to take Pakistani anti-aircraft fire—but then, hours later, bin Laden’s body was flown back over Pakistan on a regularly routed American military flight between Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, in the Arabian Sea.
P.G. Wodehouse, on running into old classmates
In The Code of the Woosters (1938):
'Long time since we met.'
'It is a bit, isn't it?' …
There was a pause, and I suppose I would have gone on to ask him if he had seen anything of old So-and-so lately or knew what had become of old What’s-his-name, as one does when the conversation shows a tendency to drag on these occasions of ancient College chums meeting again after long separation.
What the tape recorder has revealed about human speech
Janet Malcolm, writing in The Journalist and the Murderer:
What the tape recorder has revealed about human speech—that Molière’s M. Jourdain was mistaken: we do not, after all, speak in prose—is something like what the nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies revealed about animal locomotion. Muybridge’s fast camera caught and froze positions never before seen, and demonstrated that artists throughout art history had beeen “wrong” in their renderings of horses (among other animals) in motion. Contemporary artists, at first upset by Muybridge’s discoveries, soon regained their equanimity, and continued to render what the eye, rather than the camera, sees. Similarly, novelists of our tape-recorder era have continued to write dialogue in English rather than in tape-recorderese, and most journalists who work with a tape recorder use the transcript of an extended interview merely as an aid to memory—as a sort of second chance at note-taking—rather than as a text for quotation.