» 2009 » February

Belmont Club

Monthly Archives: February 2009

“A crisis of globalization”

February 27th, 2009 - 5:38 pm

“There will be blood” — Niall Ferguson, speaks in Ottawa. Does the crisis mean a new American century? Video at the link. “We are getting the deficits of a World War without a war.”

Ferguson observes that much of US consumption — indeed much of the Obama administration’s deficit — will be financed from overseas. And why do foreigners lend America money? Because crisis isn’t American. It’s global. And despite it’s weaknesses, the United States, was due its institutional strengths, the best bet in a storm.  That combination of characteristics made it a safe(r) haven in the the coming upheavals. As Ferguson puts it, the current crisis “hits others harder than the United States”.

However this is exactly the reverse of the tale which is currently being peddled by some liberal ideologues. According to their point of view it is the world which is in good working order and the United States which is broken. It is America which needs to catch up. We are the anomaly; we are the problem. It is not a “crisis of globalization” that we are experiencing; but a Bush-Halliburton-Cheney depression. Under that theory, the solution to the current crisis is to deconstruct America; to turn it into a progressive socialist state — the kind that today are putting their money into the United States. It is supremely ironical that the response of some liberal ideologues is to simply to take the axe to what others regard as the safest tree in the forest.

But I think Ferguson has it wrong. At some level, the world isn’t simply betting on American stability in the sense of stasis. It is betting on its dynamic stability; in other words on the controlled instability of the US political and economic process; the unrest within civility, the unum in the pluribus, to find a non-destructive way through the thicket into the new world. What the Russians, the Chinese and the rest of the world are ultimately relying on isn’t Obama. It is American political and economic “Minutemen”, who of all the slender hopes in this forlorn world, still represent the best chance of figuring out how to square the circle. The Tea Parties, the culture wars, the debates — this is what the USA has that they don’t. Ultimately, much of the world knows how a big a hole we’re in, but lack the framework of freedom with which to explore solutions.

It’s quite a vote of confidence. I wonder if this generation is up to it.

The way we used to be

February 27th, 2009 - 12:21 am

What are some of the things we take for granted today which would have seemed nearly miraculous when we were kids? Share your memories.

The last of Beirut

February 26th, 2009 - 4:24 am

I have a trip report up at PJ Media’s main page entitled, “On the Streets of Beirut”. Its subject is the political situation there as I saw it, and my own personal hopes for the region. The basic takeaway is this: a large number of Lebanese want to govern their own affairs. Whether they will succeed depends in large part upon what the great powers do next in their quest for a comprehensive solution to the tensions of the Middle East. There will be horsetrading in that quest to be sure; who will be traded — that is the question.

The problem with describing a recent and vivid experience is to separate the impressions from the dry facts. And while there’s nothing in my article that is factually new; and at one level it could have been written entirely from secondary sources, those can never convey the human and emotional context of a time and place. And that’s important because ultimately it is people who act on people to implement policy; it is not a question of gears turning gears.


Looking back in surprise

February 26th, 2009 - 3:04 am

Martin Peretz, professor, philanthrophist, long-time supporter of Al Gore and publisher of the New Republic is apopletic at the selection of Chas Freeman as prospective chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Foreign Policy summarizes the controversy over Freeman.

The Cable reported last week that former U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman was up for the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council. Since confirmed, the story has set off something of a media firestorm.

Reports from Politico and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, along with commentary and blog posts from The New Republic’s Marty Peretz, the Witherspoon Institute’s Gabriel Schoenfeld (in the Wall Street Journal), and former AIPAC official Steve Rosen have conveyed the charge that, in the judgment of some pro-Israel activists in the United States, Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is too sympathetic to Riyadh’s worldview and has frequently spoken outside the traditional Washington discourse on Israel.

But this bland, matter-of-fact recital by Foreign Policy hardly does justice to the vividness and choice vocabulary of Peretz’s denunciation of Freeman, who he practically characterizes as a footman and flunky of the Saudi Royal House. Peretz writes:

Freeman is a bought man, having been ambassador to Saudi Arabia and then having supped at its tables for almost two decades, supped quite literally, and supped also at home, courtesy of Prince Bandar, confidante of the Bushes who as everybody knows became extremely wealthy through the intimacy with the royal house, a story that has not been done adequately ever. …

Chas Freeman is actually a new psychological type for a Democratic administration. He has never displayed a liberal instinct and wants the United States to kow-tow to authoritarians and tyrants, in some measure just because they may seem able to keep the streets quiet. And frankly, Chas brings a bitter rancor to how he looks at Israel. No Arab country and no Arab movement–basically including Hezbollah and Hamas–poses a challenge to the kind of world order we Americans want to see. He is now very big on Hamas as the key to bringing peace to Gaza, when in fact it is the key to uproar and bloodletting, not just against Israel but against the Palestinian Authority that is the only group of Palestinians that has even given lip-service (and, to be fair, a bit more) to a settlement with Israel.

In the paragraph above, one might object the phrase “a new psychological type” and indeed, Foreign Policy hints that the controversy over Freeman goes beyond the ambassador himself. FP says:

In conversations with The Cable, some Washington foreign-policy types have argued that the controversy may be more about the president than about Freeman himself.

A source close to Freeman said that among the critics taking shots at the would-be appointee, several “opposed Obama on the spurious ground that he wanted to do in Israel. He doesn’t.” The source noted that some critics of Obama’s appointments had also targeted national security advisor James L. Jones, who previously served as a U.S. envoy charged with strengthening the Palestinian Authority and its security forces, as being too even-handed. “It seems to be the president these guys are after,” the source said.


The Last Valley

February 26th, 2009 - 1:17 am

The Times Online reports: “US thinks the unthinkable: asking Iran for help with supply routes” into Afghanistan. The reasons for this move are the loss of alternative routes into the landlocked country after the closure of facilities in Kyrgyzstan and the increasing chokehold of Taliban units over land corridors through Pakistan.

It has been a grim couple of weeks for the snack lovers of Camp Phoenix. First Doritos, then Snickers, now Coca-Cola: all have disappeared from the usually packed shelves of the camp store. They were among the more expendable supplies lost when the Pakistani Taleban set fire to containers bound for US bases in Afghanistan close to the Khyber Pass.

The denuded shelves underline a far more serious problem for the US: how to fuel the military effort in Afghanistan in the face of diminishing regional leverage and growing opposition from neighbours.

Weeks of attacks by the Taleban on convoys from Karachi to the Khyber Pass and the decision by Kyrgyzstan to close the only US airbase in the region have left the US scrambling to find new routes at the very moment it is planning an influx of 17,000 troops. …

That is why, for the first time, people are thinking the unthinkable: Iran. Last week a US Nato commander said that individual member countries could seek supply routes through Iran. The US, when it went into Afghanistan, did not predict the turn of events in Pakistan. The search for new roads may force it to entertain alliances every bit as unexpected.

As readers of this site will know from previous posts, I thought that the Obama administration policy in Afghanistan seemed at odds with basic military precepts. I wrote:

The logistical consequences of the shift to the “good war” now have to be faced. Amateurs it is said, think of war in terms of tactics, but professionals see it in terms of logistics. Nowhere may this be truer than in the question of supplying Afghanistan. But the logistical burdens occasioned by greater troop strength may be only the beginning of the true requirements of the Southwest Asian theater. The real center of gravity of Taliban/al-Qaeda strength is in Pakistan, which can only be indirectly pressured from its neighbor to the West and only at the cost of feeding the fire in Pakistan itself. It is an absurd situation in conventional military terms. US supplies must pass through the enemy heartland in order to do a 180 degree to turn to fight that same foe. If the true theater of conflict is Pakistan then the US faces a possible escalation of effort in the theater depending on contingent events. In which case the real load will be the requirements of supporting an effort, direct or indirect, within Pakistan. But that’s our supply line …

If the US actually does succeed in acquiring a supply route through Iran, or with Iranian help, in order to supply NATO troops across the border from the Taliban in Pakistan, then it is axiomatic that an automatic linkage will be set up between Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan and the fate of Iraq, Lebanon and Israel in the Middle East. It it is almost impossible to imagine that Teheran would accede to such a request without extracting a heavy price from the US for the privilege of feeding its increasing garrison in Afghanistan. What price that is and who would pay it seem unavoidable if such an “engagement” actually becomes reality. If any of these actions makes sense in terms of US national interest, please let me know. I am puzzled.

Open thread.

Tip Jar

Avoiding the End of The World

February 24th, 2009 - 11:53 pm

If possible.

David Brooks hopes to find comfort in Barack Obama’s premise that “we cannot successfully address any of our problems without addressing all of them,” but can’t. The reason is that Brooks long ago learned to distrust people who thought they had all the answers. “The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly.” And Obama sounds like he’s got a big project for us all.

These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

Brooks’ view is not inconsistent with the idea that the world economic and political system is facing a comprehensive crisis. It is a not a denial of the necessity of overhauling the way we do business. It is not an argument for piecemeal responses, nor for the exclusion of a government role in managing affairs. However, it is a skeptical view of the possibility that poorly understood complex systems can be successfully managed by rigid timetables and points of view. Brooks continues:

I worry that we’re operating far beyond our economic knowledge. Every time the administration releases an initiative, I read 20 different economists with 20 different opinions. I worry that we lack the political structures to regain fiscal control. Deficits are exploding, and the president clearly wants to restrain them. But there’s no evidence that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have the courage or the mutual trust required to share the blame when taxes have to rise and benefits have to be cut.

In short we don’t have any idea of what to do except to get back to the place we were before. But what if we can’t? What if the old ways have ended permanently and we’re on our way to someplace new?  Fabius Maximus has described the recent crisis as “the end of the post-WWII geopolitical regime”. He argues it must end but without quite saying what will replace it. Gregor MacDonald believes that the US must inevitably repudiate its public debt; very well, but what do we do for a encore? The long and the short of the debate on the crisis is that while an increasing number of commentators now understand that we ain’t in Kansas anymore nobody knows where exactly we are now and what we should do. We can’t stay where we are. Which way is the Yellow Brick Road?

For example David A. Rosenberg of the Bank of America/Merill Lynch research unit says that despite all the huffing and puffing of government, the financial sector is still very, very sick.


Other stuff

February 24th, 2009 - 1:58 pm

I finished the draft of an 80,000 word work of fiction about two months ago and distributed the MS to a few friends, some of them professional writers.  It’s in edit and hope to get it going somehow though the publishing market for books is thin right now. About all I can rightfully say is that it is structurally in the form of a thriller and the tagline is probably going to be “Freedom is the most dangerous addiction of all.”

Here are some comments from readers who have seen the MS.

My overall reaction is that it’s an unusually intelligent book for a page-turner. No surprises there. But I was a little suprised by the extent to which I also found it genuinely moving. This is war story and a love story and both those sides are well done. We turn the pages not only to find out what happens next but because we care about the characters.

“As far as plausibility, much of the action and the sequences, along with the gear and weapons you describe seemed very reasonably realistic to me.”

It’s undergoing cleanup and a revision or two; some characters will be amplified upon. But essentially it is finished and I’m glad of it. Whatever fate it meets, the story — or at least a story — will lie waiting to be heard, if not as it happened, then at least in the spirit of things.

Tip Jar

Hamra Street

February 23rd, 2009 - 4:41 am

I’m not going to add anything to the narrative describing how Christopher Hitchens and two other journalists were assaulted on Hamra Street, West Beirut. The persons who were there on the occasion can describe it themselves. But since words often fail to give a sense of what the scene looked like, and since it involved a short foot pursuit, I’ve posted a trio of pictures after the Read More to give readers a flavor of the street and its environs. The first image is a panorama of Hamra Street with the site of the infamous “Syrian Nazi” poster highlighted in full color while the rest of has been blued. The sign that Hitchens wrote on — what he wrote I will leave to him to say — is not really a poster, but a commemorative sign marking the spot where members of that organization — the SSNP — once killed two IDF soldiers at a place called the Wimpy Cafe. As the NationMaster site says:

One of the best-known early actions of the resistance was the killing of two Israeli soldiers in the Wimpy Cafe on west Beirut’s central Rue Hamra by party member Khalid Alwan. The party continues to commemorate this date. A party member, Habib Shartouni, was also responsible for the assassination of Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel in a bomb attack on 14 September 1982.

Whatever the SSNP may lack these days, ferocity is probably not one of them. The Wimpy Cafe is gone, but the site of the killings is commemorated by signs. In addition to the panorama of the street are two zooms showing the poster itself. You can the see the stylized swastika on the sign which had been cleaned up in the interval. Please click on the pictures to enlarge them to full size.

Tip Jar


Road trip

February 22nd, 2009 - 10:00 am

By the time you read this, I should be somewhere over the Indian Ocean after eleven fascinating and wonderful days in Lebanon, in the company of Christopher Hitchens  and whole other cast of distinguished characters. It was a trip in two acts about one subject: Lebanese Democracy. Sunnis, Shia, Christians and Druze turned out in force in Martyr’s Square to commemorate the 4th anniversary of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which brought on an unprecedented backlash against Syria. We saw the principal speakers from a distance from the midst of a vast crowd. That was the first act. In the subsequent days, we would meet them personally. Walid Jumblatt in his castle, Samir Geagea in his mountaintop eyrie, and the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora. As often happens in plays, the most fascinating action took place offstage.

I should say that the New Opinion Group which is associated with the Lebanon Rennaissance Foundation, sponsored my trip. At least they paid for the airfare and the hotel room. But in a larger sense I went courtesy of you readers.  I didn’t go in my day job capacity; it was the Belmont Club they wanted along. Thanks guys.


Helplessly hoping

February 20th, 2009 - 9:59 pm

Following on news that the Obama Administration is going to participate in preparations for the Durban Conference comes a report from AFP quoting Hillary Clinton as saying that human rights concerns won’t hinder relations with China.

Paying her first visit to Asia as the top US diplomat, Clinton said the United States would continue to press China on long-standing US concerns over human rights such as its rule over Tibet.

“But our pressing on those issues can’t interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis,” Clinton told reporters in Seoul just before leaving for Beijing.

So why are the Chinese dissidents worth less than the Gazans? We guess the answer and it saddens us. Left to themselves politicians have the tendency to take up causes which can produce money flows. Reparations for slavery, oil money, Chinese investments — these are good leads. What have they to do with human rights in principle? Everything and nothing. To the extent that “human rights” are a claim on political attention and clout, they follow the sad and predictable pattern of human history. The people with the most rights are those whose plight can create the most lucrative political play. What distinguishes Middle Passage slavery from all other forms is there’s money in it. That Tibet is beautiful, ancient and exalted don’t matter none. What matters is mazooma; cash on the barrel — and it ain’t got none of that.