9/27/2006

Quote of the Day

Officials of the [Iranian] regime have admitted that most Iranian clerics have always taken a wary view of Khomeinism. It is important to realize that the religious references which Khomeini used to justify his rule were literally the same as those invoked a century earlier by an eminent ayatollah who was arguing for the legitimacy of parliamentarianism and popular sovereignty on Islamic grounds.
—Ladan Boroumand and Roya Boroumand, Terror, Islam, and Democracy, published in the Journal of Democracy, Spring 2002

9/26/2006

If All You Have is a Hammer...

One of the constant critiques by soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq is that they are having to carry out diplomatic and civil affairs duties that are, strictly speaking, outside of their core competency. Robert Kaplan noted that "they say where is the State Department. We want desperately to hand over responsibility to USAID, the State Department." Yet the State Department has been slow to get involved in efforts on the ground, spending its energies on high politics instead; after all, that is the core competency of State.

We have two organizations, the military and the diplomatic corps, each of which has its own idea of what its purpose is, and neither of which is explicitly tasked with low-level development work. That the job ends up being done by the military is merely a concession to necessity; soldiers are not trained to be city planners, or sewer engineers, or diplomats. (Though as Kaplan wrote, they often do a much better job of it than more qualified specialists.)

This dichotomy between diplomacy and military force dates back to a time in which politics were largely between royal European courts, in which statecraft was a grand game and was played by clearly defined rules. War was war, peace was peace, and institutions were developed in light of that. In particular, the notions of international development, low-level diplomacy, or nation-building were completely foreign to the structure of these institutions, which dealt with unitary states for the most part.

Even under such circumstances, to divide warfighting from diplomacy is problematic. Clausewitz wrote that "War is the continuation of politics by other means," and that warfighting needed to be strictly subordinated to political goals. Similarly, diplomacy is ineffectual when not backed up by the threat of force. As Ace noted a few times, diplomats can only negotiate; they have nothing to fall back on when they are faced with the word "No."

Worse, by having two institutions, each fundamentally built around a different way of relating to the outside world, each of them will have a distorted picture of the outside world: the diplomat will see all problems as amenable to jaw-jaw, and the soldier will see all problems as needing war-war. National policy will be influenced as much by which of the cabinet officials is more powerful that month, as it will by the facts on the ground.

And in the event of a conflict, the military will be backed up by a diplomatic corps that is, by nature, oriented away from the use of force. Friction develops, effort is wasted, opportunities are lost. And bureaucratic turf battles will stand in the way of applying the right skills to the situation.

Now, let us look at the modern battlefield. The distinction between warfighting and diplomacy has vanished entirely. Our soldiers must deal with civilian populations constantly, negotiating with clashing power centers and building alliances to support American interests. Our diplomats are often acting in support of military objectives such as the arrest of foreign terrorists. More importantly, battlespaces are chaotic; the unitary government is often nonexistent, and diplomacy must often be conducted on-the-fly by the men in theater, whoever they work for.

That being the case, why should we have two separate organizations at all?

The fundamental task is to interact with the outside world. Our representatives should have access to the entire continuum of behaviors and assets, from bandages to bullets, without having to navigate political mazes and dangerous turf battles. They should also be trained in both the sword and the olive branch, so that there is no inherent bias towards one or the other in their understanding of the world.

The Defense Department and the State Department should both be abolished. In their place should be a new organization, better suited to defend our interests abroad and to do the crucial work of nation-building which seems to be our great challenge. It should bring the full resources of the United States -- military, financial, educational, and diplomatic -- to bear on obstacles. The sergeant at the front line should be able to negotiate treaties and disburse foreign aid, and the diplomat in a foreign capital should be able to pick up a phone and order an airstrike.

In short, I propose a new organization: the Department of Statecraft.

9/13/2006

Quote of the Day

In societies such as ours, it is unusual for anyone describable as an intellectual to feel a very deep attachment to his own country. Public opinion — that is , the section of public opinion of which he as an intellectual is aware — will not allow him to do so. Most of the people surrounding him are sceptical and disaffected, and he may adopt the same attitude from imitativeness or sheer cowardice: in that case he will have abandoned the form of nationalism that lies nearest to hand without getting any closer to a genuinely internationalist outlook. He still feels the need for a Fatherland, and it is natural to look for one somewhere abroad. Having found it, he can wallow unrestrainedly in exactly those emotions from which he believes that he has emancipated himself. God, the King, the Empire, the Union Jack — all the overthrown idols can reappear under different names, and because they are not recognized for what they are they can be worshipped with a good conscience. Transferred nationalism, like the use of scapegoats, is a way of attaining salvation without altering one's conduct.
—George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (1945)

9/12/2006

The Role of the People

The Sept. 9-10 Wall Street Journal published an interview with President Bush that is well worth reading, if only for the insight it provides into the mind of the most powerful man on Earth. I would like to focus on one particular point. Discussing the old policy of Middle-East "stability" at the price of liberty and justice, the President said:
The problem with that philosophy, or that foreign policy, was that beneath the surface boiled resentment and hatred, and that resentment and hatred helped fuel this radical Islam… [I]n the long run, the only way to make sure your grandchildren are protected, Paul, is to win the battle of ideas, is to defeat the ideology of hatred and resentment.
And later, he said:
In the long run, the United States is going to have to make a decision as to whether or not it will support moderates against extremists, reformers against tyrants. And Iraq is the first real test of the nation's commitment to this ideological struggle…
Mr. Bush displays admirable clarity on what constitutes the heart of this struggle, not weapons or armies but ideas. This only makes more remarkable the strange passivity from the White House, and the government in general, on the subject of the ideas in question.

The President has spent the last several weeks doing the kind of public explication of our philosophy that many supporters of the war have been begging him to do for the past five years. Many have explained this spurt of activity by pointing to the upcoming midterm elections, which seems correct to me. Yet why the galling silence in the long days before now, especially if the President considers the war of ideas so important? Why was there no attempt to pull an FDR, and continuously rally philosophical support to the war with the repeated invocation of our principles?

Until recently, when the White House did justify the war, the ideas of freedom and democracy were employed so casually as to make them clich├ęs. It was as though the government did not think it important to make its own formal case, only to provide the key words and let a subset of the people fight a desperate holding action against the rising tide of oppposition. Why?

Similarly, there has been no attempt to directly discredit the ideas of the enemy. In a true "war of ideas," you seek to demonstrate the flaws in the opposing philosophy, and show that your own is superior. (Admittedly, it is difficult to do that when the pseudo-intelligensia is on the lookout for any sign of "cultural arrogance"…) Instead, the participation of the Afghani and Iraqi peoples in their new democracies is presented as clear proof that democracy is superior to the alternative. But for one who already believes in jihadi Islamism, this "proof" is no proof at all. His ideas remain intact.

In both cases, it seems that the important part is for the United States to carry out its idea and put it into practice. Once democracy is established, so goes the implicit theory, it will perpetuate itself regardless of the initial mentality of the Arab world. So there is no need to actually convince anyone of democracy's superiority, merely to demonstrate it. Similarly, there is no need to truly unite the American people around an idea, merely to retain enough of an electoral edge to carry out your policies.

There is some truth to this theory, as a fallback position. But it does not adequately explain why the White House has never seriously attempted a true war of ideas in the first place.

Let us look back into the mists of time to the long-ago days of the 2000 election. Back then, Mr. Bush ran as a "compassionate conservative." This epithet was mocked by liberals as contradictory; but small-government conservatives knew better. What Mr. Bush meant by "compassionate conservative" was "big-government conservative," meaning that he would use the power of government as an instrument to achieve his policy goals. This in sharp contrast to the supposedly unfeeling "Goldwater conservative," who sees government as dangerous and in need of curtailment.

So, what goals has the President pursued? Aside from his war aims, what has most characterized this administration has been the Ownership Society. That is, the President has sought to modify existing government programs in ways that promote individual savings and responsibility. Though most people remember the famous tax cuts, and the White House's failure to enact Social Security reform, few notice such reforms as Health Savings Accounts, expanded vehicles for retirement savings, and new rules for pension plans. (The recently passed Pension Protection Act of 2006 is the most thorough pension reform in three decades, and was scarcely noticed by most people.)

But while the President was making all of these reforms, he was not laying out a philosophical foundation for them to the people. Also, many of the reforms amount to actuarial adjustments (for example, raising IRA limits to $4000 from $2000) rather than true changes of approach. By making prudent habits such as saving for retirement more attractive, Mr. Bush seeks to change people's behavior without changing their minds. And he does so through the framework of government, not by setting the government aside. Action is initiated by government; the people simply respond to a new set of incentives.

Six months ago, I noted a speech the President gave in which he was asked:
From the grassroots level, how can we help you promote the cause of freedom and liberty for all peoples throughout the world?
He responded:
[T]he best way you can help is to support our troops. You find a family who's got a child in the United States military, tell them you appreciate them. Ask them if you can help them. You see somebody wearing a uniform, you walk up and say, thanks for serving the country.
In other words, the role of individuals is to acquiesce to government action, not to initiate action of their own.

I believe, based on the foregoing and especially the President's economic policies, that he bases his policies on the idea that most people only act by responding to incentives. It is the role of government, therefore, to shape the incentives available. Thus, to reduce terrorism, you need only set up a democracy and allow a new social dynamic to come into being. You needn't worry about an actual war of ideas, since the idea of terrorism will vanish as soon as the societal pressures that created it change.

You will not find a Democrat to explicitly criticize this worryingly incomplete philosophy, as most Democrats believe the same thing (albeit they seek to promote different incentives). But as in the "support the troops" quote above, Mr. Bush is wasting a tremendous source of power: the independent efforts of his countrymen, which he does not seem to believe truly exist as a force to be used. And he is similarly underestimating the power of jihadi Islamism, which has proven most corrosive not under dictatorships, but within seemingly Westernized communities across Europe and (to a lesser degree) the United States.

We may win out anyway; America has always been good at muddling through. But our cause is not helped by this sort of cynical statism. Our leaders need to stop thinking of government as the cure for all of our problems. Government is simply a concentration of the power of the citizenry; if an occasion arises when we can employ that power to greater effect ourselves, then we should be given the chance.

9/11/2006

Castles in the Air (A 9/11 Jeremiad)

In Roman times, roads meant trade, so new villages were built beside roads. In Anglo-Saxon times, roads meant marauders, so new villages were built far from roads. Tells you most of what you need to know, I reckon.
—dearieme, commenting at Samizdata.

As the West wages desultory war against its enemies, we have too often taken our eventual victory for granted. Those among us who hope that we lose, the acolytes of Noam Chomsky and his ilk, likewise do not really believe that the West can actually be overthrown; they suppose that our imperial ambitions will be thwarted, and we will withdraw from the international scene smarting with humiliation but otherwise whole. Western society would remain largely as it is, perhaps with fundamentally minor changes in economic or political policy, in one direction or another.

This assurance is born in large part from our tremendous material wealth, which translates into military power. Just as importantly, our wealth comes less from our (admittedly prodigious) natural resources than from our entreprenurial and technological prowess. Our superiority is made self-evident, so we imagine, just by comparing our own technology to that of our foes. Our technology is seen not only as a measure of power, but of creative ability and the mental agility to live in such a technological world. Our enemies, the backward peoples of the Muslim world, surely cannot hope to match such wonders!

This is in truth a thin reed on which to base such complacency. Two points are neglected in this triumphal narrative:

First, one man may use a tool crafted by another. That we created the atomic bomb ex nihilo, as it were, only makes it that much easier for Iran and other malevolent powers to imitate us. That we did it first will soon become a point of historical curiosity.

Second, our matchless technologies are driving tremendous change thoughout the world. Much of this change is good, lifting millions from poverty and threatening to destabilize tyrannies across the globe. But this technology is also laying bare our own existential nullities as never before.

Yesterday, I came across two older pieces by David Wong, proprietor of the website A Pointless Waste of Time (warning: sporadic profanity). In 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable, Wong argues that our increasing reliance on the Internet for communication and social interaction is turning us into alienated, maladjusted, small human beings. Read the whole thing if you have 15 minutes or so, but here are some key paragraphs:
Studies show that for almost everybody, the number of people we really trust is shrinking. About a quarter of the people they talked to said they had NO ONE to confide in. Walk down the street, one out of four people you pass have nobody…

The problem is we've built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid [being annoyed]… And that would be awesome, if it were actually possible to keep all of the irritating s--- out of your life. But it's not. It never will be. As long as you have needs, you'll have to deal with people you can't stand from time to time. But that skill, the one that lets us deal with strangers and tolerate their shrill voices and clunky senses of humor and body odor and squeaky shoes, is being burned right out of us. Our Annoyance Immune System is being weakened. So what encounters you do have with the outside world, the world you can't control, make you want to go on a screaming crotch-punching spree…

Half of what sucks about not having close friends has nothing to do with missing birthday parties or not having a second person to play basketball with. No, what sucks is the lack of real criticism… I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized — and I mean the way a wife or a best friend can criticize you — very little. And I've been made worse because of it. The difference is of course that insults are just someone who hates me making a noise to indicate they hate me. It's them telling me how they feel. Criticism, on the other hand, is someone telling me something about myself that I myself didn't know.

And as much as we hate to admit it, most of what we know about ourselves we've learned from other people…

There's one advantage to having mostly online friends, and it's one that nobody ever talks about: They demand less from you… But here's the thing. You are hard-wired by evolution to need to do things for people. Everybody for the last five thousand years seemed to realize this and then we suddenly forgot it in the last few decades. We get suicidal teens and scramble to teach them self-esteem. Well, unfortunately, self-esteem and the ability to like yourself only come after you've done something that makes you likable.
Previously, the sheer imperative to function in society carried with it innumerable opportunities for minor and major kindnesses. It is certainly possible to go out into the real world and be an absolute jackass, but it takes a lot of effort. But now, an internet user can easily go long stretches without doing kindnesses for another, simply because there is much less face-to-face interaction. Moreover, people are becoming less able to communicate in general, and there is a powerful incentive to close yourself off in your own private world, with your own private amusements (which are getting more sophisticated all the time).

(In Japan, this tendency has manifested to a pathological degree in the hikikomori, adolescents and young adults who confine themselves to a single room of their house for months or years, never emerging even to speak to their own parents. Some estimates number the hikikomori at up to a fifth of Japan's adolescent population.)

In short, people are becoming more spiritually stunted. Because of our lessening human contact, empathy is rarer, inner contentment is waning, and people are losing the mental strength necessary to do hard deeds, rather than simply disengaging from the world and its pain. And they know that something is wrong. A creeping discontent with life, a sense that some vital component is missing, becomes ever-stronger.

In desperation, many are turning to the Fahrenheit-451option of endless amusement, endless games, endless thrill-seeking. And this choice is about to become easier than ever. In Wong's other piece, A World of Warcraft World, Wong anticipates a time when online roleplaying will have all but displaced the real world, for growing numbers of people. (The article was written some time ago, and his numbers are out of date. My brother, an employee of Blizzard, tells me that "World of Warcraft" now has over 7 million subscribers.) Read it, but here are some key paragraphs:
If you don't understand the gravitational pull of an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), I'm going to enlighten you with just a dozen words: you get to pick what you look like and what your talents are… And this idea is what's going to push the expansion of MMORPG technology in the way that porn pushed the expansion of the internet, the desperate-but-untapped desire to interact with others without the bothersome interference of genetic flaws and poor diet and exercise habits…

Total immersion, the kind that could really fool you, won't happen tomorrow. But as time goes on it is absolutely inevitable that the graphics will become life quality, that visual displays light years beyond monitors or cumbersome headsets will hit the market. The keyboard and mouse will be long gone, everything done by thought and voice. It is the logical end of everything game developers and console makers are trying to do today and they will not stop until they have it.

And that, my friends, will be a watershed moment in human history. The point where we can trick the senses into thinking a piece of software is real, thinking a real supermodel is in our bed or a dragon is in our front yard or our dead mother has come back to give us advice, that's when everything changes. The metaverse will still be less important in many fundamental ways. Goods won't be produced there, food won't be grown there, babies won't be born there. But in the minds of a whole lot o' people, visits to the physical world will be just brief interruptions to the "real" world as they live it, the world where all of their friends and hobbies and ambitions are.
Why is all of this significant? Because this is happening at a time when we need to be more aware of the harsh realities of the real world, not less. If it were a simple matter of marshalling the will for a long war I would not be as worried; it will be trivial to have military robots controlled by internet users, who would see the carnage as just another game. No, the problem is that the Long War is fundamentally a war of warring epistemologies; in particular, the long-reviled idea of religion is coming back to the forefront of history, with a vengeance.

An all-encompassing belief in a Supreme Being, who has specific mandates for the true believer, shows all of the signs of being a Darwinian survival trait on a societal level. The believer has strong reasons to engage in social behavior with other believers; he has powerful incentives to carry out a shared societal program with his coreligionists; part of that program is usually to spread the belief system to others; and — most importantly — the true believer cannot compromise his fundamental beliefs without adulterating his certainty in the Supreme Being. This sort of foundational stability is lacking in the secular West, in which societal institutions are based on nothing more durable than human reason. Indeed, of late it has become the practice to tear down all societal institutions, without replacing them in turn. In such an environment of philosophic void, a spreading religious system can find much nourishment.

But what happens when the aforementioned Darwinian traits are joined to a religious system that is fundamentally evil? Then you are faced with what amounts to a viral epidemic. You can slow such an epidemic by quarantine, or cauterizing infections, but to truly vanquish it you must develop a robust epistemological immune system. And it is precisely this faculty, philosophical robustness, that is attacked by the widespread descent into fantasy worlds. There is no need for a philosophy when one is slaying notional dragons, in a world with specific rules coded by a team of programmers laboring in a corporate campus. You know what the score is. You face few, if any, moral dilemmas. The world is predictable, without unpleasant surprises.

And your spiritual fortitude, your strength of character, wanes away.

At the last, you will lack the mental steadfastness to fight against the oncoming rush of religious warriors. Because you will have trouble understanding why they are wrong. If you doubt this, consider the growing ranks of people today, even at this early hour in the Long War, who make excuses for the Islamist faction or who actively encourage it in order to further their own petty goals.

The idea of the secular state, as a guiding principle of nations, is less than three hundred years old — a historical novelty. Many naively assume that secularism is the next stage in a unidirectional arrow of human development. But there is nothing to prevent the tides of religious war from swamping the weakening philosophical dikes of the Enlightenment, and scouring secularism from the sodden earth. Unless we of the West have the strength to man the dikes. Unless we believe the dikes to be worth manning.