Belmont Club

Our 21st Century World

It was one of those days that remind forcefully remind you it’s the 21st century, when the world seems high definition in the way it never did in the last century.  Maybe it’s the clean air, the lack of clutter,  the gleaming brick and glass low rise buildings on both sides of the street peeking through the network of trees.  Or the people walking absently down the street consulting their smart phones or driving past guided by GPS beams.  The last time I got the feeling was walking through downtown Chevy Chase. But I guess suburban Sydney has caught up.

There was at all events a nice Japanese restaurant where I was going to meet a friend.  It was a little place with a stylishly worn wooden door,  full of Australians who 20 years ago would never have dreamed of eating raw fish and yet who were now if anything, eager to get it, along with the kikkoman soy sauce and wasabe. My friend had yakitori and a Sapporo, and I had a tempura set with a bottle of Three Monkeys.

“Do you think China’s going to start a war?” he asked.

“Nobody is going to start any such thing on purpose,” I said.  “But these things typically happen by misadventure, not design.  The Great War began like that.” We live in a time of great opportunity, why would anyone mess it up?

Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the Fresno Bee, thinks that a large war is looming.  “The world is changing and becoming even more dangerous — in a way we’ve seen before.”

The ancient ingredients of war are all on the horizon. An old postwar order crumbles amid American indifference. Hopes for true democracy in post-Soviet Russia, newly capitalist China or ascendant Turkey long ago were dashed. Tribalism, fundamentalism and terrorism are the norms in the Middle East as the nation-state disappears.

Under such conditions, history’s wars usually start when some opportunistic — but often relatively weaker — power does something unwise on the gamble that the perceived benefits outweigh the risks. That belligerence is only prevented when more powerful countries collectively make it clear to the aggressor that it would be suicidal to start a war that would end in the aggressor’s sure defeat.

It seems a preposterous idea, mad even. Why would anyone endanger our world of wonders? But the key thing to remember is that while everyone on he planet lives in the 21st century its development has not been even.  Everyone can buy a GoPro but in America these POV HD cameras are mounted on rock climber’s helmets capturing artificial thrills while in Syria they are mounted on T-72 tanks recording excitements the users would gladly do without.

We live in the worst of times and the best of times. In many parts of the world people exist in an incongruous mix of both. As the Japanese dinner progressed, I remarked, “the world is in a race between astonishing innovation and the stupidity of our leaders.”  The mix creates peculiar problems, like devout Muslims flying wide body airplanes into skyscrapers.

Jose Rodriguez, a 31 year veteran of the CIA touched on this subject. He bitterly argues in the Washington Post that political leaders from both parties have been hypocritically using the alphabet agencies to keep voters from seeing the bad side of the 21st century.

In anticipation of the release of a report on widely expected to blame the CIA for torture Rodriguez writes that both sides of the political aisle were eager for the agency to take out the trash; never mind how, just do it and don’t tell us the details.

The report’s leaked conclusion, which has been reported on widely, that the interrogation program brought no intelligence value is an egregious falsehood; it’s a dishonest attempt to rewrite history. …

When Blitzer asked about how KSM would be interrogated, Rockefeller assured him that “there are presidential memorandums that prescribe and allow certain measures to be taken, but we have to be careful.” Then he added: “On the other hand, he does have the information. Getting that information will save American lives. We have no business not getting that information.”

And that’s not all. Blitzer asked if the United States should turn over KSM to a friendly country with no restrictions against torture. Rockefeller, laughing, said he wouldn’t rule it out: “I wouldn’t take anything off the table where he is concerned, because this is the man who has killed hundreds and hundreds of Americans over the last 10 years.”

If Feinstein, Rockefeller and other politicians were saying such things in print and on national TV, imagine what they were saying to us in private. We did what we were asked to do, we did what we were assured was legal, and we know our actions were effective. Our reward, a decade later, is to hear some of these same politicians expressing outrage for what was done and, even worse, mischaracterizing the actions taken and understating the successes achieved.

The watchword is “take care of it”. Rodriguez should invite Jonathan Gruber to a Japanese dinner. Gruber, like the agency, was once everybody’s pal until suddenly he wasn’t. The Great and the Good want their 21st century wagyu steak, but they want the cow slaughtered out of sight. David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times describes how Sunnis are being ethnically cleansed from a Euphrates valley farming town. The tribes of the Middle East believe it’s the only sure way to win, short of nuking the site from orbit.

JURF AL-SAKHAR, Iraq — Capturing the Euphrates Valley farming town of Jurf al-Sakhar was arguably the Iraqi government’s first big success in reclaiming territory from Islamic State militants.

But when they expelled the militants in late October, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces and their allied militias also drove out the last of the town’s civilian residents — about 70,000 Sunnis. The town’s representative on the provincial council was its lone Sunni member, and he was found dead with a bullet through his forehead not long after the battle.

Now the all-Shiite provincial council has barred any of the displaced Sunni residents from returning for at least eight to 10 months and possibly longer. The council says security forces need time to clear explosives left behind. But some former Sunni residents do not believe it.

“There are concerns this could be ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Jurf al-Sakhar and the Baghdad belt,” said Maysoon al-Damluji, a lawmaker from a secular-Sunni political bloc.

Sure it’s ethnic cleansing; and maybe the administration secretly wants that.  Surely the West wants Baghdad to take out the ISIS trash and since they can’t think of another way, well … “take care of it”.  Tony Blair argue in the New York Times that Western governments can’t manage change any more. At a time when the world is undergoing unprecedented shifts, “the gene pool of political leaders has shrunk” and they are trapped in a self-referential little system, where all the solutions to problems are incomplete or the problems themselves are undecidable.

“How many leaders and, for that matter, followers in a parliament or congress have real-life experience in responsible positions outside of politics? Today it is very common for a young person interested in politics to graduate from university, go to work for a politician as a researcher or political analyst, and then transition straight into an elected position.”

They can only think in terms of politically correct platitudes now. They can only watch China, an economic giant, purging thousands of its leading citizens in a style no different from Stalin’s;  look on as the Middle East rushes headlong for the 8th century as fast as cellphones, missiles and chemical weapons can carry them; only stand paralyzed as Russia, a country of mad and brilliant people are beggared by the unexpected burgeoning of American oil, looking for greatness in 20th century ways and not finding it.

What if any effect has the State Department had on any of these developments? Not much beyond crossing their institutional fingers. The world may survive, with the best of things eventually migrating gradually into the worst of places.  Maybe one day rural Siberia will look like Beverly Hills. But if it happens, it will be due mostly to luck and private initiative. Due to diffusion.  If it ever happens the politicians will take credit for it, though it is doubtful they will have had anything to do with it.

Our public leaders are just as much bystanders as anyone. Their only idea is to hope people like Rodriguez can hold the ring until things settle out. Hope and Change means they hope they will survive the change. In terms of governance, the clock stopped in 1917.  Perhaps governance, except in performing the most elementary public services, was never meant to achieve  much.  Advances in our common culture, like technological innovation, were the work of that diffuse yet potent entity we call mankind.

In the past when there was less faith in the perfectibility of man through government, hope in humanity was kept alive by the conscious memento vivere — “remember that you live” — which expressed itself in observances like Christmas or Hanukkah.    It was born of the need to keep alive a light that would illuminate the dark places of  man’s soul; so that as often as we said “take care of it” we might as frequently repent and say: “no there must be another way”, even if we failed to find it.

We do less of that now, the memento vivire, and we neglect it to our peril.  The best we can do is Merry Xmas.  That, and managing the Narrative.

If our 21st century cities of glass are to survive they must like the City on a Hill possess some inner quality that is more than electric lightning; for our tools are too easily turned against us by the forces of envy and hate unless we consciously set against these the shield of charity and love.  Governments cannot effect survival.  That was the great scam of the 20th century. Only civilizations can achieve that.

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