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Libya: The Genesis of a Bad Idea

March 30th, 2011 - 7:18 pm

The president spoke Monday night to clarify our intervention in Libya. Instead he made things worse, and could not explain the mission (are we/are we not after Qaddafi?), the methodology to achieve it (are we in a no-fly-zone or are we bombing ground targets essential to save the rebels?), and the desired outcome (who are the “rebels,” what do we wish from them, and are they better than Qaddafi?). Indeed, after almost two weeks, these questions still have not been asked much less answered.

So the omissions pose the question: how did Obama, the archetype war critic, find himself bombing—in optional and preemptive fashion, and without congressional authority — an Arab Muslim oil-exporting country, and one that posed no immediate threat to American national security, despite being governed by a monster who, nevertheless, had been recently courted by Western intellectuals, academics, universities, and diplomats?

Unfortunately, Obama has no principled or strategically logical foreign policy. So it is mostly loud declarations that he is not George Bush and making things up ad hoc as he goes along. Here, I think, is what happened with Libya.

Nearly the entire Middle East (save the bugaboo democracies in Iraq and Israel) erupts three months ago against a potpourri of oligarchy, theocracy, dictatorship, monarchy, and military juntas — the common thread being anger against corrupt, kleptocratic dynasties that have ruined the economies of what should be otherwise rich countries and denied basic freedoms.

Obama is confused and has no typology of these uprisings, except a crude binary. On the one hand, some of the demonstrations are against pro-American strongmen and thus can be channeled into “the hope and change,” “we are the change we’ve been waiting for” left rhetoric. He thus piggy-backed (albeit belatedly as is his “vote-present” style) onto Tunisia and Egypt. We endorsed the reformers only when we knew they were going to win and they seemed to reflect liberal “change” against Cold War-like, American client SOBs.

Some others rebellions, however, were clearly aimed at anti-American pseudo-revolutionary regimes and so they have prompted a very different response from Obama. In the case of Iran, he apologized for 1953 and promised not to “meddle”; initially with Qaddafi he was silent. And he still practices “outreach” with the Syrian “reformer” Assad.

We should, then, have expected Obama to stay out of Libya, the way he has Iran and Syria, and concentrated largely in expressing support for rebellions against pro-American juntas — albeit only once he was assured they might win. But a perfect storm of events sucked him instead into Libya in a way he never imagined:

1) The Europeans (mostly the British and French) suddenly wanted to intervene in Libya, in a manner they had not amid protests elsewhere. Why? Oil, for one reason. Europe imports 10% of their oil and gas from Libya at very little transportation cost, and so it was deemed wise to be on the right side of the most likely government to be. Proximity, of course. Libya is a Mediterranean country with a tiny population of 6.5 million, as easy to operate militarily against, as Afghanistan and Iraq are difficult — and one that by such proximity might in extremis pose problems for Europe. More importantly, the “rebels” seemed like they would capture Tripoli within just a few days. So the French and British sensed an opportunity to accomplish a number of things at very little cost by declaring an intent to intervene militarily: they could ensure continued oil contracts with the likely winners under the guise of humanitarian anguish; they could avoid a drawn-out war by nudging the rebels over the top; and they could put the U.S. in an untenable position. By declaring their humanitarian fides and getting ahead of America in public concern over “genocide,” the Europeans would force the U.S. hand: if Obama did not act, he would look weak and de facto cede traditional American moral leadership to an ascendant Europe; if Obama did, he would do so in response to European initiatives, and end up with the worst of both worlds: shamed into providing 90% of the muscle while ceding the credit of a “sure” win to Sarkozy and Cameron. Europe, then, read Obama perfectly.

2) The “rebels.” No one in either the U.S. or Europe had much idea who or what the “rebels” were. But they assumed that because similar protestors had won easily in Egypt and Tunisia, and had appealed to the “Facebook” and “Twitter” crowd, these rebels likewise were surely ascendant Westernized Banisadr-like socialists. If Obama had been tardy in expressing support for protestors in Egypt and Tunisia, he was now feeling the heat a third time in Libya — especially as Qaddafi turned his guns against those who spoke impassioned English on CNN and the BBC.

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President Obama’s Ten Libyan Paradoxes

March 27th, 2011 - 10:24 am

The president speaks tomorrow on Libya. Expect him to assure us of success, thousands of lives saved, and a mission now “toned down” and “handed over” to NATO. Let us hope that is all true. But there are existential problems with Libya that will have to be addressed, whether Obama chooses to or not.

1) A no-fly zone will not remove Gaddafi. That is why our cruise-missile attacks and European bombing have already gone beyond the Arab League/UN mandate. Gaddafi, like Milosevic, can win without a helicopter or jet in the sky. To see the rebellion succeed, Obama (or his European allies) must violate the UN and Arab League sanctions that we now boast about following — and destroy his ruling cadre in Tripoli through bombing ground targets, not chasing non-existent jet formations. And that would be “war,” not “kinetic” operations.

2) Borrowing for Tomahawks. We are six to seven trillion dollars more in debt than when we went into Iraq, when the 2003 budget deficit was well under $400 billion, not over $1.6 trillion. The country is now in far more dire economic straits than eight years ago. And the length and expense of this present mission will be calibrated as few missions have been in the past (hence the administration’s understandable insistence on “days,” rather than “weeks” or “months” of fighting). We spent over a $100 million on day one in launching Tomahawk missiles (lots of unemployment checks and shovel-ready stimulus projects that went up in smoke). Even if everything goes well, the cost will be in the billions of dollars, especially rebuilding the infrastructure that we are now blowing up. Perhaps we can ask the strapped Japanese to buy more rather than sell off our Treasury notes—to help fund the Tomahawks and the rebuilding of the bombed-out Gaddafi infrastructure: we need your money to rebuild Tripoli; you can work out your nuclear thing later. (Sort of like telling 400 million Chinese who have not seen a Western doctor to loan us another trillion dollars to implement ObamaCare).

3) Minutemen? I believe there is a Western veneer of rebels and these are good-hearted and brave reformers. And I believe most don’t know an RPG from an IED. Those that do are not pro-Western and not about to remove Gaddafi and his odious bunch in order to foster republican government. The truth is that in the Arab Middle East constitutional government works mostly 1) in Israel; or 2) when the U.S. (in Germany, Italy, Japan fashion) removes a tyrant, destroys his government, occupies the country, writes the Constitution, and puts tens of thousands of troops on the ground to rebuild the society and shoot those who would hijack the reform — as in Iraq. Oddly, these are the two countries Obama has most criticized. So the chance of a lasting Libyan consensual state arising from the ashes of Gaddafi are rather slim without such Western tutelage and expense. I fear the removal of tyrants is not the end of the Middle East war, but merely stage I, in Iranian 1979-1981 fashion, followed by stage II when the Islamists either liquidate the Google executives or co-opt the military.

4) Monster in Recovery? To destroy Gaddafi we must demonize him as a terrorist monster. He is. But there are a few recent problems with that. In the last five years, he had convinced many Westerners — mostly liberals — that he is now OK and should not be judged by the old Bush Manichean “with us or against us” standards. He gave up his WMD in fear of a Saddam-like fate. One of his Western educated kids has bought a reputable PhD from the London School of Economics with a cash-on-the-barrel £ 1.5 million “gift.” The British government released the Lockerbie bomber, got some good oil concessions, and declared the matter over. The so-called Monitor Group, staffed by Harvard professors and other Ivy League idealists, hires scholars for dollars to write encomia about the now good Gaddafi. And Beyoncé and Mariah Carey made a proverbial oil-funded killing performing for the now retrained Gaddafis. Major Western statesmen regularly visit Gaddafi’s tent. So while you and I think that he is a monster, the multicultural left, and the corporate right, think, well, that he either should not be judged by our arbitrary ethnocentric standards, or has lots of oil and money — or both. Bottom line: the reset Gaddafi is a little harder sell as a monstrosity than the body-shredding and Kurd-gassing Saddam Hussein.

5) Who’s Them? The two worst dictatorships in the Middle East are Iran and Syria — just those which the president declared we would not “meddle” in and would seek “outreach” to. The two least bad dictatorships were the Mubarak and Ben Ali juntas — just those we ordered to dissolve. We don’t need absolute consistency from Obama, but we need a tiny bit of it: so please, is our intervention good in Libya to help reformers, and Saudi Arabia’s bad in Bahrain to hurt them? Are there more Libyans dying from tyrannical government and chaos than Congolese or those of the Ivory Coast? And because Yemenis and Jordanians do not vote, should we support them in their efforts to topple their pro-Western monarchs? And are Middle Eastern plebiscites that one time usher in illiberals preferable to no plebiscites that keep in power autocrats more liberal than their people? At least Bush had 23 unique reasons, as put forth by Congress in October 2002 (e.g., from genocide of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to trying to kill a former U.S. president to harboring the 1993 World Trade Center bomber, etc.), to take out Saddam — most of them would not apply to a Libya or Tunisia or Egypt. Is Libya, then, the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end of the U.S. bombing of oil-producing Arab countries?

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America Through the Looking Glass

March 20th, 2011 - 10:13 pm

President Obama yesterday praised Brazil for its new offshore oil industry and said he wants to buy as much oil as possible in this new win-win partnership — although we have piled up $5 trillion in new debt, curtailed new petroleum exploration off shore and in the West, as well as kept Alaska off-limits. Our near-term energy future apparently lies in borrowing money to buy oil from those we praise for drilling where we never would ourselves.

In the face of $4 a gallon gas, President Obama claimed that domestic oil and gas production was at a record level — failing to note that such expansion was due entirely to prior leases granted during the Clinton and Bush administrations of the sort that he has so far mostly denied. During the 2008 campaign, the president promised that under his leadership electricity prices would skyrocket and those who produced power through coal plants would be “bankrupted.” His secretary of energy, Steven Chu, in 2008 advocated ratcheting American gasoline prices up to European levels and, a year earlier, had complained that we had too much fossil fuels in America, enough, in fact, to “cook us.” So are we supposed to strive for astronomical gas prices to ensure fewer carbon emissions, the success of the government subsidized Chevy Volt, and actualization of the green dreams of a Van Jones as outlined by Chu and Obama in 2007-8 — or will they imperil recovery and must be postponed until after the reelection of Barack Obama?

For two weeks, the administration was largely quiet about the unrest in Libya until the insurgents began taking entire cities and seemed on the verge of closing in on Gaddafi’s Tripoli. Then President Obama called on Gaddafi to step down and stop the “unacceptable” level of violence. But things then got worse, not better, once Gaddafi began to employ a level of violence that his ilk counts on to stay in power (cf. Assad in Syria or Ahmadinejad in Iran). So at last we announced a funny sort of no-fly-zone, inasmuch as Gaddafi can put down the rebellion without use of his planes and gunships. We vowed to have an international commander soon; we promised to restrict our activity to patrolling the air only (after sending missiles into quite a lot of initial targets on the ground). We are not going after Gaddafi himself (although the tyrant has nowhere to go, must be taken out for the rebels to succeed, and seems to be already targeted by the Europeans, without our “knowledge”). In the new Middle East multilateralism, America supplies the firepower, Europeans the policy and high profile, Arabs the public cover, and the international community the legitimacy — as long as the campaigning is brief, the losses small, and the rebels supposedly somewhat Western in outlook. But no one yet has told us why we must not “meddle” in Iran, must ignore the Saudis going into Bahrain, should continue “outreach” with Assad, must support the ouster of Mubarak and Ben Ali, but are so far mum about further challenges to pro-American authoritarians in the Gulf and Jordan.

Obama has scheduled $5 trillion in new debt since he took office, in part as Keynesian stimulus to snap us out of a slowdown that seemed instead to get worse. The massive debt was incurred in service to new redistributive entitlements that, we are told, will level the playing field. And to implement a new government absorption of health care, the administration has so far granted over 1,000 exemptions from its own landmark legislation. Many of the labor unions that were the most vocal supporters of the president’s agenda are the most eager to be freed from the consequences of his health care mandates.

There is no longer a “war on terror,” and we are to understand that its former components — tribunals, renditions, preventative detention, Guantanamo, Predator assassinations, Iraq, the Patriot Act, wiretapping, and intercepts — were as subversive to the Constitution under Bush as they are essential to our security under Obama. Whatever happened to the impending civilian trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

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The Fragility of Complex Societies

March 15th, 2011 - 9:15 am

Thoughts on Japan

There is no more ordered, successful and humane urban society than found in Japan. Like most Americans, these last few days I have been moved as never before by the courage and calm of the Japanese people amid such horrific conditions, as one of the most sophisticated and complex urbanized cultures on the planet in a split second is nearly paralyzed. I confess I do not quite fathom the constant American news blitzes about all sorts of China Syndrome scenarios. Radiation pollution is a serious worry, but right now no one has died from exposure and perhaps 10,000 have perished from the tsunami and earthquake. It seems to me the greater worry right now is not yet a meltdown, but the vast dangers resulting from disruptions in food, water, power, and sewage.

Odder still, it was almost crass to watch American TV heads lead in with shrill, hyped-up mini-dramas about possible radiation clouds descending here on the West Coast, even as their backdrop screens showed biblical disasters of earthquake, flood and human wreckage. Whether we are exposed to a chest-X-ray dose of radiation seems insignificant in comparison to the horrific conditions that millions of Japanese are now enduring.

The Efficiency of Complexity Versus the Flexibility of De-centralization

Japan’s high density, central planning, mass transit, demographic uniformity, and a culture of mutual dependence allow millions to live humanely and successfully in quite crowded conditions (in areas of Tokyo at 6,000 persons and more per square kilometer). And compared to other Asian and African cities (Mumbai or Lagos) even Tokyo is relatively not so dense, though far more successful. Yet such urban societies are extremely vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, “man-caused disasters” and other assorted catastrophes, analogous in nature perhaps to tightly knit bee colonies that have lost their queens.

I don’t know quite why many of our environmentalists and urban planners wish to emulate such patterns of settlement (OK, I do know), since for us in America it would be a matter of choice, rather than, as in a highly congested Japan, one of necessity. Putting us in apartments and high rises, reliant on buses and trains, and dependent on huge centralized power, water, and sewage grids are recipes not for ecological utopia, but for a level of dependence and vulnerability that could only lead to disaster. Again, I understand that in terms of efficiency of resource utilization, such densities make sense and I grant that culture sparks where people are, but in times of calamity these regimens prove enormously fragile and a fool’s bargain.

The Individualist American

I once wrote about the value of decentralization and local autonomy in The Other Greeks, Fields without Dreams, and The Land Was Everything — the shared theme being that the self-employed, the rural living (or even the suburbanite), and those who, in extremis, are able to produce their own food and shelter are far more autonomous, and far better able to react to adversity.

I know that there are two issues here — politically planned centralization and a more natural centralization that arises organically due to demography and a dearth of land. But both phenomena share affinities, and politics often in history simply reflects demographic realities.

Jefferson warned about Americans being piled on top on one another in cities of anonymity; and I am reminded of that difference from occasional trips to Manhattan versus a month each year in Hillsdale, Michigan. (Snow paralyzes New York as the mayor pontificates on transfats and second-hand smoke rather than plowing; snow seems not to bother rural and small-town residents of Michigan.)

History is a guide here. Perhaps a few thousand “Sea Peoples” toppled the highly complex, redistributive Mycenaean citadels, in a way that would have been impossible with the later decentralized and far less hierarchical city-states that grew up after the Dark Ages on very different premises from the pyramidal culture of Mycenaean Greece. The former had a palatial script, Linear B, used by a tiny scribal elite to monitor the redistributive economy; the latter developed a very different, far more flexible Greek alphabet, one that led to widespread literacy and true literature. There is no Mycenaean Antigone.

The hydraulic dynasties of the Near East and the pharaohs’ Egypt, despite their centuries of existence, were likewise vulnerable in a way that both Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt was not. Less than 3,000 hidalgos under Cortés decapitated the Aztec Empire in less than three years. In our time, we have seen, with the implosion of the Soviet system, the wages of central planning and a redistributive economy.

Apartment America?

While a disaster comparable to Tokyo is certainly possible here in California, Americans are by nature less prone to rely on centrally provided resources, and are still uneasy with high urban densities. We forget that the suburbanite — ranch house, three cars in the garage, and distance from the urban center — is not just an energy waster in comparison with his Euro apartment-dwelling, single Smart-car-driving, train-commuting counterpart, but a far more independent-minded, free, and self-reliant citizen as well. Again, I hope our technological future is not in grand mass transit projects thought up and operated by a huge federal government, but in cleaner, more fuel-efficient, private cars; not in massive power plants, but smaller, more dispersed local generators, be they powered by nuclear, solar, wind, or fossil fuels; and not in vast agricultural hydraulic regimes, but in family-operated, more intensively worked farms that are the anchors of rural communities — as idealistic and naive as that may sound.

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Some Very Bad American Habits

March 6th, 2011 - 10:08 am

The wealthier and more leisured American society has become, the more it has developed some terrible habits that will have to end if we are going to return to fiscal sobriety and a unified culture. I am pessimistic on that count, but here are a few examples:

1) The Administrative Fig Leaf of Cosmic Justice

I was always curious when teaching in the California State University system why self-important administrators sent us weekly memos about their diversity goals and accomplishments, but were silent that under their watches the number of students in the freshman class who needed remedial courses hit 50% — or why, after even six years, less than half those students who entered CSU graduated. Have you experienced this phenomenon, a sort of politically correct Neroian fiddling amid burning Rome?

NASA head Charles Bolden not long ago announced that his agency’s chief mission was Muslim outreach. I wish instead that his chief worry was getting rockets into space, since last week yet another one, under NASA auspices, failed to send a satellite into orbit, a mere $424 million mistake. Perhaps with his newfound contacts, Gen. Bolden could enlist some of the brilliant scientists from the Middle East who have tapped into the Islamic scientific tradition as outlined in the president’s Cairo speech.

Why did Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik lecture the country about the social-political-economic-cultural — and cosmic — implications of the unhinged Tucson killer, Jared Loughner? Might not the sheriff have worried less about a supposed conservative “climate of violence,” and more that he did not have any of his 500 sheriffs at Rep. Giffords’ rally, or that his department was well aware of Loughner’s prior serial run-ins with law enforcement? Did Rush Limbaugh prohibit him from putting Loughner under surveillance or patrolling the perimeter of the congresswoman’s event?

Mayor Bloomberg by now can offer a polished lecture on dietary fat, second-hand smoke, and the status of Islam in the United States, but not guarantee his own streets will be passable after a storm. Were his municipal workers too fat, out of breath, or Islamophobic to remove snow?

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pontificated about green energy for years and other cosmic crises, but he left the state with a $25 billion shortfall and upped our long-term debt obligations by tens of billions of dollars. Was the idea that the income from the leasing of land for solar panels and wind machines would pay down the debt?

In short, we live in a medieval age of politically correct penance — as the brilliant Al Gore grasped when he made millions hawking carbon footprint offsets — in which loud abstractions can mask concrete incompetence. I suppose when my plumber starts lecturing me about the secular nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, I should assume he did not find the leak under the house.

2) The Angst of the Liberal Mind

I was politely pointing out to an acquaintance not long ago that many of California’s problems — soaring Medicare and Medicaid costs, near-bottom in national school rankings, flight of the affluent out of state, soaring prison populations, hyper-expensive law enforcement costs, high taxes, and swamped public bureaucracies — had at least something to do with the fact California has more illegal aliens than any other state, meaning that social services spike, tax revenue per capita plummets, and billions of dollars leave the state to Mexico in remittances. I did not locate the assessment in an ethnic context, but simply pointed out that it is hard (and costly for others) for millions en masse to integrate into a sophisticated society without legality (when the first thing that an arriving immigrant does is to break the law of his host, then the violation of subsequent laws is logical rather than aberrant), English, or a high school diploma, and that such disadvantages both ripple into a second generation and require a humane society to make enormous investments to ensure parities — or else.

I added to statistical evidence a few anecdotes from what I saw cycling in rural central California — especially my most recent (and probably last) bicycle ride 10 days ago. A huge concrete irrigation standpipe was knocked off its base by a hit-and-run driver. Two men were tossing out from a pick-up a built-in dishwasher onto the side of the road. A no-dumping sign at a rural pond had three fresh garbage bags at its base. And, oh yes, there was my own modest first-hand bit of research. I rode by a small house, or should say “houses,” since it seemed about 30 people lived in various garages, sheds, and Winnebagos at a single address. Eight unleashed, unfenced Chihuahuas and Pekingese dogs ran out (Don’t laugh, I concede at the outset that they were not pit bulls). All chased me (riders can attest that the tiny dog under the wheel is as dangerous as the bigger dog by the pedal.) Note I don’t wear bike “garb,” but old sweat pants, flannel shirt, and work gloves.

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