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Archive for May, 2006

And The New Pipelines Will Carry Ponies From Iran To Tennessee

[ 0 ] May 3, 2006 |

Shorter Verbatim Glenn Reynolds: “Of course, if we seized the Saudi and Iranian oil fields and ran the pumps full speed, oil prices would plummet, dictators would be broke, and poor nations would benefit from cheap energy. But we’d be called imperialist oppressors, then.” (via Lambert.)

There’s the most obvious level of idiocy here, which Tim notes–the idea that we can just use troops we don’t have to invade a country and seize their oilfields, and we could get them running at full capacity lickety-split because there certainly wouldn’t be any sabotage or terrorist attacks on pumps and pipeline during a war–would have to become considerably more rational to be described as “nutty.” In addition to that, there’s the idea that dictators would be “broke” (with the implication that they wouldn’t be able to stay in power) if oil prices dropped. Hmm, lessee, to find really low oil prices we’d have to go all the way back to…1998, when the average inflation-adjusted price was less than $15 a barrel. What a democratic paradise the oil-producing countries must have been! And finally, you have to enjoy his sneering at the fact that people would call invading countries to seize their material assets “imperialist.” I can’t imagine why! Next thing you know they’ll be calling governments that don’t respect legal limits on state power and don’t have fully competitive elections “authoritarian.” (As Jim Henley notes, this is also a fascinating innovation in “libertarian” theory; I can only assume that Reynolds supports the Bolivian nationalization as long as it will increase capacity and reduce marginal prices…)

And yet, there are people who will take anything Reynolds writes about foreign policy seriously.

…and Matt answers the other question I was wondering about; Iranian and Saudi oilfields aren’t being pumped at intentionally reduced capacity the way they were in the 70s…

The Question of Will

[ 1 ] May 2, 2006 |

One element of Goldstein’s argument deserves some more attention. The focus on Will is common to conservative analysis of the Iraq War, and of war in general. Will, it is believed, is the key to victory. If we lack Will, as we (in the sense that the media, a certain percentage of the Democratic Party, and a certain percentage of the electorate consistute “we”) did in Vietnam, then we will suffer defeat. If we demonstrate that we have Will by attacking Iraq, or attacking Iran, or dropping some bombs on places where Iraqi civilians live, or torturing people, or disposing of international law, then our enemies will understand that we are not to be trifled with, and will slowly back away.

Why this focus on Will? I can think of three reasons. First, Will provides a simple, easy to understand, and utterly non-quantifiable explanation for outcomes. Lazy arguments will always be more popular than complex arguments. Second, the idea that Will is determinative of outcomes fits easily into a set of pop culture notions about success and victory. Finally, Will is compatible with a masculinist notions of conflict, combat, and victory that have roots in fascist thought.

It is common to hear the refrain, especially in wingnutty circles, that no war has ever been won by a country that lacked Will. Why did the French lose? Not because of insufficient doctrine or poor organization or poor intelligence, but because they lacked Will. Why did the Athenians lose? Because they lacked the Will to do what was necessary on Sicily. What must we do to win in Iraq? Demonstrate our Will. It’s fair to say that this is an explanation for victory and defeat that is wholly immune to any evidentiary evaluation. There is, simply put, no way to measure national Will. The explanation ends up being circular, as defeat demonstrates that a country lacks Will. It is simple, easy, unverifiable, and unfalsifiable. Contrary cases are rarely mobilized; could it be honestly argued that Japan and Germany in World War II had less Will than the Allies? Perhaps less than Russia, but the Western Allies? Moreover, the Will explanation leads to a clear policy prescription. We win by being tougher. This is an emotionally satisfying, if empirically uncompelling, argument.

The argument is echoed in popular culture. Recall this wonderful speech from The Usual Suspects:

One story the guys told me, the story I believe, was from his days in Turkey. There was a gang of Hungarians that wanted their own mob. They realized that to be in power, you didn’t need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t. After a while, they come into power and then they come after Soze. He was small-time then, just running dope, they say. They come to his home in the afternoon, looking for his business. They find his wife and kids in the house and decide to wait for Soze. He comes home to find his wife raped and children screaming. The Hungarians knew Soze was tough, not to be trifled with, so they let him know they meant business.

They tell him they want his territory, all his business. Soze looks over the faces of his family. Then he showed these men of will what will really was.

Recall also Michael Corleone’s comment at the end of Godfather II, about how history has shown that anyone can be killed. In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kurtz demonstrates that only a Will to commit atrocity is necessary to defeat the Viet Cong. The Will explanation extends to athletics, as well. How often does a commentator explain a team’s victory through their commitment, courage, and Will rather than through the fact that it plays better and is more talented? As noted above, this explanation is attractive precisely because it is so lazy; the Yankees win games because they have talented players, not because they have Will. Nevertheless, pop culture evocations of the importance of Will are extremely common. Will plays better as a story than a sober analysis of things like capability, skill, or talent. Will is dramatic and surprising in a way that capability is not.

Finally, and I think that this is the most important element of the attractiveness of Will to warbloggers, the idea of Will is extremely appealing to a particular construction of masculinity. Toughness, understood as a male characteristic, is more important than skill, capability, technology, etc. The French lose because they are effeminate. The Democrats lose because they are effeminate (and shot through with feminists in any case). The individual warblogger may not have been trained for war, or have any particular physical talents, or have done much more to study war than read and re-read Victor Davis Hanson, but he knows that he is tough, and he knows that this toughness must matter in some way. As Goldstein displays so clearly, he is willing to think about difficult and awful things, like bombing Iraqi civilians, in a tough and manly way. He understands that horrible things must often be done in war because he is a Man, and knows that he cannot afford to have the illusions that women and children are allowed to have. He remembers Don Vito Corleone’s words,

Women and children can be careless. But not men.

and vows not to be the careless sort who would allow humanitarian considerations to get in the way of victory. The impulse is obviously a fascist one, familiar from the speeches of Mussolini and the films of Leni Riefenstahl, although it would not be fair to say that all those that entertain fascist impulses are, indeed, fascists. Nevertheless, the combination of virile masculinity, nationalism, war, the “decision”, Will, and disdain for weak-kneed intellectuals is a frightening one.

So, the reason for US difficulty in Iraq becomes a lack of Will. Had the United States the Will to ignore humanitarian considerations and just carpet-bomb Baghdad, we would have few difficulties. The Iranians, respecting our Will, would back down from their nuclear boasts. A contest of Will shall determine defeat or victory; nevermind that the Iraqi insurgents are willing to accept far higher casualties, a much longer struggle, and far greater physical insecurity than US forces would ever be willing to endure. This, indeed, is what makes the Will argument absurd in the context of Iraq; an insurgency, by its nature, ALWAYS displays more Will than an occupying power. This doesn’t mean that the insurgents always win, but it does mean that skill, capability, and technology have to be used in an effective and measured way, and that pointless invocations of Will are hardly constructive.

UPDATE: In comments, SteveG adds:

The notion of will is intended to eliminate all discussions of the cost of war, failures in the stretegy and execution of the war, the legality and legitimacy of the war,… The scope of consideration is limited as soon as will becomes an issue. When things are going poorly, the blame simply can be laid at the feet of those who lack the will — no mucking about with that pesky reality.

Greenwald on Steele

[ 0 ] May 2, 2006 |

Damn, Glenn Greenwald is a good blogger. Referring to the laurels being laid upon Shelby Steele by Jeff Goldstein, among others:

To sit and listen to people who have spent the last three years piously lecturing us on the need to stand with “the Iraqi people,” who justified our invasion of that country on the ground that we want to give them a better system of government because we must make Muslims like us more, now insist that what we need to do is bomb them with greater force and less precision is really rather vile — but highly instructive. The masks are coming off. No more poetic tributes to democracy or all that sentimental whining about “hearts and minds.” It’s time to shed our unwarranted white guilt, really stretch our legs and let our hair down, and just keep bombing and bombing until we kill enough of them and win. Shelby Steele deserves some sort of award for triggering that refreshingly honest outburst.

As Greenwald points out, we’ve moved beyond the solidarity with the Iraqi people, beyond the purple fingers, and beyond the demand for democracy in the Middle East. Now, all we have left is the angry frustration of warbloggers who really, really want to win and just can’t figure out why they’re not. Jeff:

Which is why there are times when we really should turn off the “smart” bombs and show our seriousness by putting the world on notice that, when we believe the situation calls for it, we are willing to ignore the inevitable bad press and the howls of protest from human rights groups, and exhibit a show of strength and military professionalism that is politically disinterested and tactically thorough and lethal.

In other words, we should massacre more people. This would indicate our seriousness to the world, and would keep them from fucking with us. Jeff and his cronies defend this in the comments in the most odious ways possible; only read if you have a strong stomach. Jeff also demonstrates an understanding of the US military that would be most appropriate for a video game. Believe it or not, the United States military does not consider mass murder to be an element of professionalism.

The most basic fallacy behind all of this is that, if we were just a little bit tougher, things would work out. Success, for Goldstein, Steele, and the rest is tied to toughness and masculinity, rather than to skill or capability. What determines victory is will, the will to be more brutal than the other side. It’s fair to say that a survey of military history does not support Jeff’s conclusions. When we did incinerate cities, the result was not enemy surrender, but rather increased support for the target governments. Brutal, heavy-handed tactics also have a piss poor history in counter-insurgency operations. Murderous brutality didn’t help the Nazis put down resistance movements in Western Europe or the Soviet Union, didn’t help the Soviets win in Afghanistan, and didn’t help Saddam Hussein defeat the Kurds.

I leave you with Jeff’s conclusion:

It is a fight for the soul of classical liberalism, which is being undercut (in my estimation) by nearly 40 years of a concerted effort by those whose goal is power and control to relativize meaning and deconstruct, through incoherent linguistic assertions that have unfortunately been widely adopted out of self-satisfied feel-goodism (specifically, an ostensible deference to the Other that allows us to convince ourselves we are “tolerant” and “diverse,” when in fact we have created the conditions to turn those ideas into something approximating their exact opposites).

Taking back the grounds for meaning—and being willing to fight for those grounds against those who try to shame us out of reasserting them—is the first step toward the recovery of our belief in our strong and generous national character. To that end, we should draw a lesson from the charges of Bill Bennett’s “racism”—cast by those who don’t believe Bennett intended to say anything racist, but who insist, rather, that his words themselves were racist (an idea that grants that public perception is the locus of meaning, and that the utterer can be held accountable for the public perception). Such a dismissal of the importance of intent has led, predictably, to a rhetorical condition wherein those who protest the loudest (and can play to our emotions) will have effectively seized control of “history” as it is constructed and disseminated through language.

This is the will to power—and it is only possible in the vaccuum left by the marginalization of a truly coherent interpretative paradigm.

… which reads like an undergraduate paper written by someone who really, really thinks that stringing together lots of big words produces coherent meaning, without having the benefit of actually understanding what any of those words mean. The shorter version is this: Postmodernist lefties are trying to take over classical liberalism through linguistic trickery, and the only way to stop them is to become fascists and kill plenty of brown people.

He’s right about one thing; we’re in a fight for the soul of classical liberalism.

…another thought; I wonder how long it would take for Hitch to come out in favor of “carpet bombing for democracy” and “mass executions for freedom”?

…yet another thought; does this represent the move to the second stage of wingnut grief? The first is denial; the war in Iraq isn’t a disaster, it’s all just media lies! Now we’re to anger; Exterminate the bastards!

…David Neiwert is indispensible on this, and every other, topic.

It’s Still All About the Heritage

[ 1 ] May 2, 2006 |

Walking the Plank, as it were, reminds me what a magnificent resources the blogosphere has in Tapped, a group of excellent writers with serious things to say about policy. The Plank is by no means as bad as The Corner, but lord, it’s not good. Today, Jason Zengerle allows that while John McCain may be beset by both sides of the evil blogosphere, at least he has the mainstream media in his corner, and that counts for something. We then find that those who thought Stephen Colbert was funny on Saturday night hold to a Stalinist aesthetic. Adam Kushner suggests that liberals were willing to tolerate Saddam Hussein, without pointing out that, before 1990, conservatives were so tolerant of him that they were willing to sell him weapons, give him advice on how to use his chemical munitions, and ignore his attack on the USS Stark. All fine and committed wankery, but I’d like to turn your attention to this post by Jason Zengerle.

I actually have a fair amount of sympathy for some Southerners who love the Confederate flag. I even once wrote a piece about them. For these people, the flag really is a representation of their heritage; perhaps more importantly, it may be the only thing in their lives that actually transcends their daily existence. Put it this way: if you’re a guy whiling away your days in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, the fact that your great-great-grandfather fought at Gettysburg–the only thing connected to your life that you ever actually read about in a history book–is a real source of pride. Therefore, it’s perfectly understandable that you’d express that pride by flying a Confederate flag, or putting a sticker of it on your car. And there’s nothing more unfair than being branded a racist for doing so.

Right.

I mean, it’s not as if anyone from the South fought in the Revolutionary War, or that there were any critical battles fought against the British in, say, Virginia. No Southerners fought in the War of 1812, or the Mexican American War, or really participated in any other event of historical consequence prior to 1861. The Spanish-American War was conducted entirely with troops from New England, and Southerners were banned from participation in the Army in World War I. And the school year always ends before you get to World War II, so it’s not as if anyone can be blamed for not feeling a connection to it. Was there a Southerner in Saving Private Ryan? I don’t recall…

So, while the South has been a part of the United States for 230 years, the only time worthy of historical note is the period between 1861 and 1865, where the slaveholding elite dragged the rest of the South into a war of treason in defense of slavery. If you wish to have pride in the South, it’s rather too troublesome to think of the Battle of Yorktown, or the Battle of New Orleans, or of the Southerners that fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood, or in the Battle of the Bulge, or at the Chosin Reservoir, or at Khe San. This is not even to mention the tremendous difficulty of developing a regional identity based around cultural and artistic contribution, rather than around war. How could pride in William Faulkner ever hold a candle to pride in your great-great-granddaddy’s experience at Gettysburg?

No, really the only option for Southern pride is attachment to the Confederate flag and its unfortunate connections with treason, rebellion, slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Pity the Ohio native whose great-great-grandfather fought on the Union side at Gettysburg; the only flag he can fly is the Stars and Stripes, and this clearly isn’t good enough.

Finally, while I allow the possibility that the fetishization of the Civil War in the South has meant that our hypothetical North Carolinian may know more about Gettysburg than any other event in US history, this is rather part of the problem, and not an excuse.

On the Uselessness of "Authenticity"

[ 0 ] May 1, 2006 |

As many people have pointed out, Tom Frank’s review of Joe Klein is in fact pure gold from beginning to end. I think this is the key to understanding his worldview, and the core of Millionaire Pundit Values more generally:

Eventually, though, a discernible order emerges. But it’s less a coherent thesis about consultancy than a handful of prejudices that, for Mr. Klein and certain other writers still enthralled by the creaking swingerisms of the 60’s, stand solid amid the swirling oceans of history. The first of these is authenticity, or, I should say, the transcendent aesthetic and philosophical value of authenticity. This is something of a theme in Mr. Klein’s oeuvre: Years ago, he wrote a biography of Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl songwriter who came to personify proletarian trueness for the 60’s, so surely Mr. Klein knows the authentic when he sees it. And he claims that people used to see it often enough in the political realm.

[...]

This aesthetic quality, then, is what politics is all about. It’s authenticity that separates winners from losers, good politics from bad, and he-man leader types from consultant-directed puppet boys. Real politicians say honest and heartfelt and down-home things like “Turnip Day”; candidates who listen to consultants mouth shameful clichés and “banana-peel words.” (Of course, if authenticity is what’s required to win, and if what consultants do is strip away authenticity, then one wonders why anyone hires consultants in the first place, a mystery that the book never really resolves.)

The first problem here, of course, is that Klein’s concept of “authenticity” is just a feeble tautology; as even the sympathetic Times review points out it’s always retrospective. Winning candidates somehow always have “authenticity” and those that lose don’t. A few more hundred votes in Florida and Klein would be saying that Gore finally let his true self shine at the convention, and who is a scion of the East Coast elite like Bush trying to fool with his fake-cowboyisms and Potemkin ranch? And when a candidate is sometimes authentic but loses, then suddenly it’s no longer a good thing; then it’s a case of “Negative Turnip Days” or something.

But leaving that aside, there’s a bigger problem, which is that trying to discern “authenticity” is an utterly idiotic way of evaluating candidates. In this, DLCers like Klein are very much like Naderites like Michael Totten, who whined about mean Democrats who didn’t like it when you tell them “that Al Gore is a blowhard and a phony.” But the answer to this, of course, is that even if it’s true, who cares? Whether he’s a phony or a blowhard or was once mean to a girl in the fourth grade, what’s rather more important is that he wouldn’t pass massive upper-class tax cuts or pack the federal courts with neoconfederate cranks or launch disastrous wars etc. etc. etc. (And, of course, there’s the additional humor involved in someone voting for Ralph Nader because his opponent is a “blowhard.” Had Totten been alive in 1912, he would have voted for Taft because his opponents were too portly.) Klein and Totten circa 2000, for all their differences, believe in evaluating candidates with standards that might be appropriate–or at least harmless–for an elementary school student council election. To make Presidential politics about trying to replicate the moment in which Bobby Kennedy made you all starry-eyed is, in a fundamental sense, to not be interested in politics at all. And, of course, making politics about these silly personality issues, like passing notes about the pretty girl in the front row, is a luxury most obviously available to affluent white guys largely isolated from the consequences of bad government policies.

And for that matter, it should be noted that “authenticity” is completely meaningless in all contexts. There is a taco chain in Seattle with horrendously bland food; when we were arguing about going there, a friend of ours argued that “but real Baja food is supposed to be bland.” Well, fine, but again who cares? Bad food is bad food whether it’s made according to traditional recipes or not. Authenticity is only good if it involves faithful replication of good recipes–and even then, what matters is that it’s good, not that it’s authentic. Faithful replication of bad traditions is no virtue. Authenticity is always beside the point.

Laura has more.

Letting al-Zarqawi Walk

[ 0 ] May 1, 2006 |

Mahablog summarizes the evidence. But, obviously, when it comes to being Tough in the War on Terra (TM) actually stopping terrorists is so much less important than your willingness to violate the Constitution (with, needless to say, the collaboration of your friends in the other institutions unwilling to provide necessary checks) your opponent’s propensity for windsurfing, and stuff like that there.

And "Alabama" Was Such A Lovely Tribute To George Wallace

[ 0 ] May 1, 2006 |

Shorter Verbatim John J. Miller: “The last time Young grabbed my attention was shortly after 9/11, when he come out with a song called “Let’s Roll.” I really, really wanted to like it. But it’s hard to get around the fact that it’s a plodding number. He could have written another “Rockin’ in the Free World”–a song that captured the spirit of 1989, as the Iron Curtain was falling, and a song that really rocked–but he stumbled badly with “Let’s Roll.”"

Yes, who can forget that song’s great celebration of the Iron Curtain falling. I believe this is this verse they originally planned to sing during 7th inning stretches after 9/11:

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away,
and she’s gone to get a hit
She hates her life,
and what she’s done to it
There’s one more kid
that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love,
never get to be cool.

Keep on rockin’ in the free world…

Yeah, I think that must have been co-written with Lee Greenwood…anyway, I’m not sure if this is as egregious as George Will turning “Born In The U.S.A.” into a love letter to Reagan, but it’s up there…

(Via Edroso.)

UPDATE BY ROB: I don’t think that this discussion could possibly be complete without John Gibson’s contribution.

UPDATE BY SCOTT: I see from comments that the Derb needs a history lesson aboit the Neil Young/Van Zant “feud.” I’ll turn it over to Patterson Hood:

And out in California, a rock star from Canada writes a couple of great songs about the
Bad shit that went down
“Southern Man” and “Alabama” certainly told some truth
But there were a lot of good folks down here and Neil Young wasn’t around

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound
And they met some real good people, not racist pieces of shit
And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit

Ronnie and Neil Ronnie and Neil
Rock stars today ain’t half as real
Speaking there minds on how they feel
Let them guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil

Now Ronnie and Neil became good friends their feud was just in song
Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans and Neil he loved that song
So He wrote “Powderfinger” for Skynyrd to record
But Ronnie ended up singing “Sweet Home Alabama” to the lord

And Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground
And to my way of thinking, us southern men need both of them around

The other thing is that the Derb’s correspondent really seems to thing that Bush and the war remain so enormously popular that “the rest of the country” will be outraged. Talk about a dreamer of pictures…

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