Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Bush: Idealism Down the Tubes

George W. Bush's second inaugural was lauded by his (ever dwindling) fan base. This is what he really stands for, they cried, this is his legacy, on these principles shall history vindicate his maligned and misunderstood presidency. And indeed, some of the rhetoric sounds good (at least on paper-- Bush himself never sounds good):

"We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world. America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth.... Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation."
Of course, Bush's conversion to the cause has a very road-to-Damascus feel to it. He campaigned in 2000 by casting scorn on nation building and humanitarian intervention, and his "human rights" justification for his Iraqi misadventure was only dragged out of the closet at the last minute when his earlier excuses (WMDs, Al Qaeda connections) turned out to have been fabricated. So, it's no surprise to learn that he didn't really mean what he said all along. As noted today in the Washington Post, Bush's new best friend is none other than President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. This guy is not the invention of Sasha Baron Cohen's feverish mind, but he could be. Nazarbayev had banned opposition parties, and muzzled the press. Also, he has a reputation for corruption, and stands accused by U.S. prosecutors of pocketing $78 million in bribes from one businessman alone. What's reward? A warm embrace by Bush, and even a visit to his compound in Maine! Oh, there's one thing I forgot to mention: Kazakhstan has lots and lots of oil.

Oh, and let's not forget Bush's other best friend in the region, Islam Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, who not only stamps out all opposition, but is is also a notorious torturer, his favorite technique being boiling people to death. I guess he agrees with Bush that the Geneva convention protections do not apply terrorists.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Lebanese Civil War for Dummies

During the recent Israeli-Lebanese war, it became clear that many pundits (including the president of the United States) seemed not at all familiar with Lebanon's recent troubled history. Many seemed to implicitly assume that Hezbollah fell from the sky, and started causing mischief, abetted by the Lebanese government in Beirut. Hence a military solution would wipe out Hezbollah and everyone could go home happy.

But even a cursory review of the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) should have brought such thinking to a grinding halt. One clear lesson from the civil war is that violence not only begets further violence, but does so in unpredictable (almost random) ways. Lebanon's delicate confessional balance is always a powder keg, and the last thing it needs is an external actor setting it alight. The civil war has shown this again, again, and again.

What I would like to do here is present a very brief history of the civil war, showing that the latest conflagration is really a continuation of an unresolved longer-term struggle. It is intended, as the title says, to be very simple and brief: readers are directed to a detailed version here, and a very short version here. Even better, try to get your hands on the 15-hour Al-Jazeera documentary that is so balanced that all sides criticized it! If nothing else, the civil war was a fascinating period that makes for compelling reading. It has it all: passion, intrigue, betrayal, sharp plot twists and turns, and a stunning array of colorful characters. It is also incredibly complicated, and at time, difficult to understand. The summary below is not meant to capture all the nuances.

But, of course, this was not a movie. There was a dark side to the war, one which should be borne heavily in mind before cheerleading for a “military solution” (on all sides). The results were devastating for Lebanon: 144,000 dead, nearly 200,000 wounded, 3,641 car bombs, 800,000 displaced, and 950,000 leaving the country.

OK, so here is the story.

Cast of characters

The main players, a short and incomplete list.

Lebanese Forces (Christian): Bashir Gemayel, Samir Geagea, Elie Hobeika
Progressive Socialist Party (Druze): Kamal Jumblatt, Walid Jumblatt
Amal (Shia): Musa al-Sadr, Nabih Berri
Palestinian Liberation Organization: Yasir Arafat
Syria: Hafez al-Assad, Bashar al-Assad
Israel: Menachim Begin, Ariel Sharon


Throughout the postwar period, there was increasing tension between the Maronites, who dominated the political scene and sought close ties with the west, and a growing Arab nationalist sentiment that attracted Muslims and secular leftists. When the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was added to the mix, everything exploded. The PLO was already ensconced in Lebanon in the 1960s and tensions increased. A compromise was reached with the Cairo agreement of 1969, granting Palestinian militants the right to keep weapons in their camps and attack Israel in the south, provided they respect Lebanese law and sovereignty. In 1970, the PLO was expelled from Jordan after failing to topple King Hussein and established their main base in Lebanon. This changed everything. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians entered the country, and the PLO, with about 23,000 troops, was now larger than the Lebanese army. Arafat grew bolder and began to misbehave, flouting Lebanese laws, setting up roadblocks and engaging in extortion, and harassing local populations.

As tensions mounted, other groups started to build up militias. The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) was founded by Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, and was a secular left-wing umbrella group that was pro-PLO and opposed to what it perceived as excessive Maronite power. On the Christian side, Pierre Gemayel's Phalange party also built up its own militia, as did other groups. And the Lebanese army remained weak and divided.

Phase 1: Christians vs. PLO and Leftist Alliance

In 1975, as the political struggle between Jumblatt and Gemayel intensified, things turned in a more violent direction, as the PLO and Phalangists began to confront each other. Fighting broke out in the Northern towns of Tripoli and Zgharta, as conflicts between the PLO and local Maronite boss Suleiman Franjieh's militia escalated into kidnapping and violence. The LNM then joined the PLO and sacked downtown Beirut, and the Phalangists counterattacked. The hopelessly divided Lebanese army refused to intervene. Random killing became rampant, especially at illegal checkpoints. Around this time, Beirut became increasingly segregated between the (Christian) east and Muslim (west). In 1976, the Maronite militias over-ran the PLO's Karantina camp, killing many non-combatants. In retaliation, the PLO decimated the Christian town of Damour, where everybody who surrendered was executed. The country was in flames.

At this point, Syria stepped into the fray. The LNM appealed to Syrian president Assad for help. Syria's initial intervention was limited, mainly through Palestinian fighters under its control. Arafat then formed a key alliance with the main Sunni militia, al-Murabitun. As the Palestinian-Sunni-leftist alliance became stronger, Jumblatt began pushing more and more for a military solution. Assad felt that Jumblatt was more concerned with settling century’s old Druze-Christian scores than bringing stability to Lebanon. Moreover, he feared that a leftist-PLO victory would undermine Syria's role in the region, and bring on the wrath of Israel. Syrian troops then entered Lebanon, and were warmly welcomed by President Franjieh and the embattled Christians. Even Pierre Gemayel praised Assad at this point. Syrian intervention turned the tables, as the Maronites won a decisive victory over the PLO at the Tel al-Zaatar camp in East Beirut, which had long been seen as a major thorn in their side. An Arab League summit in Riyadh legitimized Syria's intervention in Lebanon, on the grounds of restoring peace. In 1977, Kamal Jumblatt was assassinated, most likely by the Syrians. He was replaced as leader of the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) by his son Walid, although the LNM withered after his death. An uneasy peace ensued, but it did not last, as both the Christians and the Israelis grew increasingly concerned about the Syrian role in Lebanon.

Phase 2: Christians vs. Syrians

Maronite-Syrian relations grew increasingly hostile. President Sadat's detente with Israel in 1977 scared Assad, and he shifted sides yet again, backing the PLO. By this stage, the Christian militias had joined together to force the Lebanese Forces (LF), under the leadership of Bashir Gemayel, Pierre's son. To consolidate power, the LF attacked Franjieh's rival militia in the north, killing Tony Franjieh and his family. It became increasingly clear that Syria did not plan on leaving. Also, Bashir Gemayel reached out to the new Israeli Likud government led by Menachim Begin, which was more open to supporting the Christians. Conflict between the LF and the Syrian army escalated, and all-out war broke out again. The Syrians besieged the Phalangist stronghold of Ashrafiyah in East Beirut. President Sarkis called on Gemayel to stop the escalation, but to no avail. Beirut was laid waste yet again. Throughout this phase of the war, Gemayel relied on Israeli threats to restrain Syria. Another vicious major battle took pace at Zahle in the Bekaa valley, which the Syrians failed to take, boosting Gemayel's standing. But Israel had taken a small step toward intervention by shooting down some Syrian helicopters. The Israelis warned Syria not to install missiles in the Bekaa valley.

Phase 3: Israel vs. PLO

While the Syrians took the lead role in fighting the Christian militias, the PLO started making mischief again in southern Lebanon, prompting an Israeli invasion in 1978 ("Operation Litani"). Israel was supported by a break-away group of the Lebanese army led by Saad Haddad, which would become the South Lebanese Army (SLA), composed of Christians and Shias. Israel withdrew in 1978, but left the SLA in charge of its security zone.

The war quickly moved into its next phase, marked by full-scale Israeli invasion in 1982. The excuse was the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK by the Abu Nidal organization, although the planned offensive was long in the works. The intention was to completely destroy the PLO and its infrastructure in Lebanon. The US supported Israeli actions by vetoing a UN resolution calling for Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Given the tension between the PLO and the Shia in the south, the Israeli invasion, led by Ariel Sharon, was initially welcomed by the Shia, and the Amal militia offered no resistance. The Israelis easily destroyed the Syrian air defense system. Israel reached Beirut and began a 70-day siege, bombarding the city in an attempt to wipe out the PLO. Despite promises to Begin, Bashir Gemayel refused to join the Israeli offensive, figuring it would destroy his chances of ever becoming president (his ultimate ambition). After much diplomatic wrangling, Arafat agreed to withdraw from Beirut, and took 11,000 of his guerillas with him. Despite an abortive attempt to sneak back into the country through Tripoli, Arafat’s days in Lebanon were over. A multinational peacekeeping force then arrived in Beirut, which included some 800 US marines. Bashir Gemayel was finally elected president, but was assassinated only a few weeks later by a Syrian agent. His brother Amin became president instead.

Israeli claimed that PLO militants continued to hide in the Beirut-based Palestinian refugee camps. Sharon then entered Beirut, violating the agreement. The LF, under the command of Elie Hobeika, with the complicity of Sharon, broke into the Sabra and Shatilla camps and a major massacre of civilians ensued. The world was outraged.

Phase 4: Christians vs. Druze and Shia (and other Syrian allies)

With the multinational force in Beirut, Amin Gemayel declared the war to be over, and demolished the barricades that separated east and west Beirut. But, despite the presence of the multinational force, stability remained illusive. At this point in the war, the Shia rose to greater prominence. The Shia militia Amal largely stayed on the sidelines during the war. Its founder, Musa al-Sadr was a moderating influence during the early stages of the war, but he disappeared in Libya and nobody knows what happened to him (likeliest explanation: the Libyans killed him). The Iranian revolution changed things, and more militant groups (including what would eventually become Hezbollah) split from Nabih Berri's Amal around this time. One of these groups, Islamic Jihad, blew up the US embassy in Beirut in 1983.

Also at this time, the May 17 agreement called for peace between the Israel and Lebanon, with Israeli withdrawal condition on Syrian withdrawal. Syria simply refused to play along. In response to being sidelined, Syria put together the National Salvation Front (NSF), comprising Berri's Amal (Shia), Jumblatt's PSP (Druze), Rashid Karami's Sunnis, and the Christians who were loyal to Franjieh. The multinational force was now placed in the position of propping with a weakened Gemayel government. Israel was also reduced to keeping the peace between Christians and Druze in the Chouf mountains, and between Palestinians and Shia in the south.

Fighting then broke out, in 1983, between the Christian LF and the Druze PSP in the Chouf mountains, which became more ferocious as the Israelis withdrew. Walid Jumblatt declared his intention to ethnically cleanse the Chouf of Christians, and he was aided by the Syrians, Shia, Palestinians and secular leftists. In October 2003, Shia militants used suicide bombers to destroy both the US and French military compounds in Beirut, killing over 300 soldiers. Fingers pointed to Iran, Syria, and the PLO as co-conspirators. After an outbreak of fighting between Amal and the Lebanese army, the green line (dividing east and west Beirut) was re-established. Meanwhile, Jumblatt kept pushing to the sea. At the same time, the US and Israel told Gemayel to stick to the May 17 agreement.

The multinational force finally withdrew in early 1984. Berri (Amal) and Jumblatt (Druze PSP), now controlled west Beirut, not the Sunnis and Palestinians as before. Both supported Syria. Following Syrian pressure, a weakened Amin Gemayel abrogated the May 17 agreement. Syria was not leaving. Syria tried to install a "national unity government" under prime minister Rashid Karami, and created a new security accord (the Bikfaya accord). In September 1984, the US embassy annex in Beirut was attacked again, most likely by Hezbollah.

Phase 5: Shia vs. Palestinians

Meanwhile, the Palestinians were starting to stir again, especially in camps in Tyre and Sidon once Israel withdrew. By this stage, Amal (who controlled west Beirut) was hostile to the Palestinians, and joined with the Druze PSP to destroy the major Sunni militia, al-Murabitun, the last friend of the Palestinians in Lebanon. Then came the phase in the war known as the "war of the camps" between Amal (backed by Syria) and the Palestinians. Many of the camps (including Sabra and Shatilla) were decimated, but the Palestinians remained in control. This time the Druze joined the Palestinians against Amal. Meanwhile in the south, the Shia began to make life difficult for the Israelis, despite their common cause against the Palestinians. Israel withdrew to a narrow security zone, and started raiding Shia villages.

In 1986, the Syrian army re-entered west Beirut to curb the power of the militias. But a new round of vicious fighting now broke out between Syria's allies, Amal and the Druze. Syria sent in a huge deployment of troops to restore order. Syria now declared that its stay was "open-ended".

Phase 6: Christians vs. Christians

Meanwhile, the LF was dismayed by what the regarded as Gemayel's treachery over the Bikfaya accord. Tensions grew between Gemayel and the LF, as the president pressed for them to disarm and hand over the Port of Beirut in 1985, their major cash cow. One militia leader, Samir Geagea, refused to budge and took over the LF, sundering it from the Phalange party. Gemayel was weakened further. And after Israel left Sidon, a new round of fighting began between the LF on one hand, and a de facto Palestinian-Druze-Shia coalition on the other. A defeat by the LF forced Geagea to step down and Hobeika (of Sabra-Shatilla fame) took over.

Hobeika immediately decided to join Berri and Jumblatt-- as the leaders of the three key militias-- and do a deal with Syria (the "Tripartite Accord"). This agreement called for a ceasefire, a disarming of the militias, and a deeper integration between Lebanon and Syria. The Sunnis, with no remaining militia, protested their exclusion. Hobeika's actions drove the LF to split and fighting broke out between the partisans of Hobeika and Geagea, now backed by Gemayel who also rejected the accord. Geagea won, and became leader of the LF again. Hobeika sought Syrian protection.

Phase 7: Christians vs. Syria and allies

When Gemayel’s term of office ended in 1988, there was no agreement on a possible successor. So he appointed army commander Gen. Michel Aoun as interim prime minister pending elections. Although there was precedent, the appointment of a Maronite to a Sunni post was seen as provocative. Salim al-Hoss, with Syrian backing, set himself up as alternative prime minister in west Beirut (Rashid Karami had been assassinated). But Aoun, an incredibly stubborn man, refused to resign. In 1989, he used the Lebanese army to shut down the LF-run outfits, including the lucrative Port of Beirut. The LF acknowledged Aoun's leadership. Aoun then called for all illegal ports to be closed, many of which were controlled by the Syrian-backed militias. In response, Syria shelled east Beirut. Aoun then stepped up the ante, declaring a full-scale "war of liberation" against the Syrians. This led to an intense seven-month period of shelling between east and west Beirut. Geagea's LF joined Aoun. In return, the Syrian army was joined by Jumblatt's PSP and an assortment of Palestinians and leftists. After the Sunni mufti expressed some support for Aoun's position, he was assassinated.

Phase 8: Aoun vs. Everybody

Under the auspices of the Arab League, a meeting of parliamentarians in Taif, Saudi Arabia, led to an agreement to end the conflict. The agreement reduced the power of Maronites to some degree, but institutionalized the confessional structure, and ensured an equal number of Christian-Muslim parliamentary seats. But the agreement also seemed to cement Syria's role in Lebanon, giving no timetable for withdrawal, and for that reason it was rejected by Aoun. But the Taif supporters soldiered on and elected Rene Mouwad as president. But Mouwad refused to replace Aoun as army commander, and opposed any Syrian attempt to do so with force. In a replay of what happened to Bashir Gemayel, Mouwad was assassinated a couple of weeks later, and Elias Hrawi became president, with Selim al-Hoss as prime minister. Hrawi (having learned the lesson) dismissed Aoun.

However, Aoun was highly popular at this stage, and large demonstrations came to the presidential palace to support him: not only Christians, but Sunnis and Shias. Sunni leaders in west Beirut sent a "Muslim Solidarity Delegation" to support the increasing isolated Aoun. Meanwhile Geagea was being tempted by a government position under Taif, and dithered in his support for Aoun. Aoun then upped the ante (as usual!) and attempted to absorb the LF into the army. In 1990, war broke out between the Lebanese army and the LF. Both sides were heavily armed, thanks to Saddam Hussein's largesse. Syria stood back and watched its two major enemies destroy each other. By this stage, the LF was backing Taif.

Other events on the global stage turned the tide against Aoun. Seeking Syrian support in the Gulf War, the US turned against Aoun, and gave assurances that Israel would not interfere if Syria moved in to take him out. Aoun was now completely besieged in the presidential palace. The Syrian assault began in earnest in October 1990. Realizing he could not hold out, Aoun surrendered and sought refuge in the French embassy, eventually going into exile. Maronite leader Dany Chamoun, an Aoun supporter, was assassinated in east Beirut.

By this stage, the fighting was over. The militias were dissolved, with the exception of Hezbollah (on the grounds that it was fighting the continued Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon). Rafik Hariri became prime minister in 1992, and initiated a massive reconstruction program. Samir Geagea turned against the Syrians, and was sentenced to life imprisonment, the only civil war militia leader to be tried. Elie Hobeika was assassinated in 2002. Aoun remained in exile until his triumphant return in 2005. Berri and Jumblatt remained as active political leaders, and Hezbollah increased its power, as the only remaining armed militia.

Phase 9: Hezbollah vs. Israel

The final stage of the war revolved around an escalating Hezbollah-Israeli conflict. Hezbollah continued to cause mischief on Israel’s northern border. In 1993, Israel attacked southern Lebanon. A US-brokered agreement stated that both sides would refrain from attacking civilians. This broke down in 1996, and Israel attacked again, displacing large numbers of civilians. Another ceasefire agreement ended that round. But low intensity cross-border fighting continued. Ehud Barak finally withdrew troops from Lebanon after his election in 2000. The SLA disintegrated. Hezbollah kept up low-intensity operations against Israel, and Israel blamed Syria. In 2002, Hezbollah kidnapped a number of Israeli soldiers, an action it would repeat (with disastrous consequences) in 2006. In 2002, it supported the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel, launching missiles over the border in solidarity with the old Shia nemesis, Yasir Arafat, now holed up in his West Bank headquarters.

This phase of the war escalated dramatically in July 2006, as in response to continued provocation, Israel invaded again, and launched a huge attack on Lebanon’s infrastructure. The apparent victory of Hezbollah has raised its stature in Lebanon and the region, and strained the Siniora coalition. For, at the same time as this ongoing conflict, there were other developments in Lebanon, developments which gave hope that the long war was finally over. Hezbollah’s actions threatened this hope.

Phase 10: Everybody vs. Syria and Shia allies (bloodless)

A new crisis in Lebanon began in 2004. Syria insisted that Lebanon amend its constitution to extend the term of office of president Emile Lahoud. Prime minister Hariri refused to go along. Hariri was summoned to Damascus and threatened. In alliance with Jumblatt, Hariri worked with the UN to bring about Resolution 1559, calling for Syrian withdrawal. Syria ignored the UN, and pressed ahead with its plan to amend the Lebanese constitution. Under duress, parliament granted Syria its request. A number of ministers resigned in protest and one of them, Marwan Hamade, was blown up with a car bomb (he survived).

Hariri then resigned as prime minister and planned on leading the anti-Syrian coalition in the next election. In February 2005, Hariri was assassinated. Jumblatt feared he would be next. In response, there was a huge outpouring of anti-Syrian and pro-Hariri feeling that crossed the confessional divide. This prompted the Cedar Revolution, an anti-Syrian alliance of Christians, Sunnis, and Druze that agitated, through massive demonstrations, for Syrian withdrawal. Ominously, Hezbollah organized a massive pro-Syrian demonstration, largely made up of Shias. But a week later, an even larger anti-Syrian demonstration, with up to 1 million people took place. Syria now faced an untenable position, completely isolated by the world. Syria's guilt in Hariri's assassination was now evident, as they (alongside Lebanese security services) were implicated in a UN report. It finally withdrew from Lebanon, after almost 30 years, in April 2005. Still, a number of bombs are set off in largely Christian neighborhoods, and a prominent anti-Syrian journalist was assassinated, as Syria tried to stoke the flames of civil war. Demonstrators also called for the resignation of president Lahoud, but to no avail.

The elections of May 2005 were decisive. The Saad Hariri group (the alliance formed under Hariri's son) won 72 of the 128 seats. Hezbollah and Amal won 35, with 21 going to Aoun's group (Aoun, still highly popular, had just returned from exile). The new government released Samir Geagea, who was reconciled with Aoun. Fouad Siniora became prime minister. Hezbollah joined the government, and received (for the first time) a couple of ministries.


The assassination of Hariri backfired on Syria, and gave Lebanon the chance to achieve a unity that had eluded it for more than 30 years. But the simultaneous struggle between Hezbollah and Israel threatened to derail this development. Israel clearly did not learn the lessons of history. Neither did the US. But this is not to let Hezbollah off the hook, for this organization refuses to let the civil war die, and continues to act as a surrogate for foreign powers, when all other groups have forsaken such a strategy.

So, what are the main lessons of the civil war, aside from the fact that it is unbelievably complicated?

First, large scale military actions typically backfire, and do not bring about solutions. This lesson was learned more than once by Syria, and by Israel, and by Aoun. In fact, military actions in Lebanon can have almost random, unpredictable effects given constantly shifting alliances. Only diplomatic solutions work. This means that all parties must be given a stake in the process, and none should have an incentive to renege.

Second, countries should not fight proxy wars in Lebanon. Everybody except Hezbollah seems to have learned that lesson by now. And diplomatic solutions only work when foreign countries stop trying to force their own agendas in Lebanon, or fight proxy wars. I’m talking mainly about Syria here, the chief mischief-maker in Lebanon for 30 years.

Third, achieving peace may mean holding ones nose and overlooking past atrocities. There were no innocent parties in the war (and by that I mean those entities that fought in it, not civilians). All sides are guilty of war crimes: the LF as well as the Druze, the Syrians and well as the PLO, Hezbollah as well as the Israelis. To single out Hezbollah for special attention, and to call for its elimination, overlooks the fact that many of the worst warlords are still in positions of authority. The key is to disarm them, to level the playing field, not to obliterate them, especially since they have such high support from their Shia base.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Great Bush Quote

Via Kevin Drum:
"There must be consequences if people thumb their nose at the United Nations Security Council, and we will work with people in the Security Council to achieve that objective."

No comment necessary!

Great Stephen Colbert Quote

From an interview in Time Out New York:
"I love my Church, and I'm a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That's totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ. His kingdom is not of this earth."


The Middle East, Through Bush's Eyes

As we all know by now, one of the key problems with Bush's Iraq adventure was an apparent ignorance surrounding the culture, politics, and history of that country. Sure, able analysts were trying to penetrate the Bush bubble with pertinent facts, but no avail. And Bush seems genuinely puzzled by how events transpired in Iraq.

History repeats itself. Bush is now scratching his head over Lebanon, and preaching the same tired simplistic platitudes. Fred Kaplan unloads on him in Slate, noting that Bush said in his press conference:

"What's very interesting about the violence in Lebanon and the violence in Iraq and the violence in Gaza is this: These are all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy."
Does he have any inkling about the 15-year Lebanese civil war? Clearly not. Kaplan is unimpressed:

"This, after all, is the president who invaded Iraq without the slightest understanding of the country's ethnic composition or of the volcanic tensions that toppling its dictator might unleash. Complexity has no place in his schemes. Choices are never cloudy. The world is divided into the forces of terror and the forces of freedom: The one's defeat means the other's victory.


What is he talking about? Hamas, which has been responsible for much of the violence in Gaza, won the Palestinian territory's parliamentary elections. Hezbollah, which started its recent war with Israel, holds a substantial minority of seats in Lebanon's parliament and would probably win many more seats if a new election were held tomorrow. Many of the militants waging sectarian battle in Iraq have representation in Baghdad's popularly elected parliament."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Global Warming: the Ultimate Moral Issue?

There is very little doubt left that global warming is happening, is accelerating, and can be traced to greenhouse gas emissions from humans, chiefly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. As Gregg Easterbrook notes, the debate about global warming is over, and "the consensus of the scientific community has shifted from skepticism to near-unanimous acceptance of an artificial greenhouse effect." Right up to the mid-1990s or thereabouts the evidence was sketchy and incomplete. No more. In 2004, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (in the journal Science) declared that there was "no longer any substantive disagreement in the scientific community" that artificial global warming is real, and of great concern. And the world agrees. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared unequivocally that the scientific consensus was that climate is being altered by human activities.

How much real disagreement is out there? Well, none. Of the 928 technical peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, zero disagreed with the consensus. But you won't know this from the popular debate. As Al Gore points out in An Inconvenient Truth, in its zeal for "balance", the media always drags out some contrarian to debunk global warming, creating the illusion that the issue is still up in the air. And who are these debunkers? Mostly shills for the oil companies. For example, much of the attack on Gore's work has been produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received millions from Exxon-Mobil in the last few years.

Elements of the right-wing still vehemently deny the existence of global warming. For some, denying global warming is a badge of honor. The New Republic exposes some of the more shameful attempts to swift-boat the issue by appealing to pseudo-science: see here and here. Senator James Inhofe famously called global warming a hoax. And the flat earth brigade can be found at the usual places: the National Review and the editorial page of the Wall Street journal. As noted by the New Republic, Iain Murray from the National Review merely "recycles industry talking points on National Review's website from his perch at the Exxon-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute". And Robert Pollock from the Journal spins the science upside down and tries to argue (erroneously) that most of the temperature increase took place prior to 1940.

Why does the right-wing persist in this stubbornness? Selfishness? Narcissism? A cult of materialism? A view of American exceptionalism that gives it license to ignore the rest of the world? A postmodernist form of moral relativism that denies truly independent reporting or even a set of mutually agreed upon facts? Disdain for Al Gore, and a refusal to accept that he was right all along? Probably all of the above.

But what does this mean for the future? Here Jim Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute, provides come clues. Reflecting the scientific consensus, he argues that the baseline view is for an increase in temperatures by 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the century. In his alternative scenario, predicated on strong Kyoto-style action to curb carbon dioxide emissions, it would rise by only 2 degrees. To put it bluntly, five degrees would be catastrophic. This increase would certainly bring about the disintegration of the ice sheets, with all the attendant consequences that Al Gore discussed so eloquently. The last time the earth was this warm (three million years ago), the oceans were 80 feet higher. This would displace 50 million in the United States (including all the major east coast cities), 250 million in China, 150 million in India, and 120 million in Bangladesh. Staggering. In fact, scientists agree that Gore gets it right. The only issue they quibble with is one of timing, as it may take a couple of centuries for the ice sheets to melt. But as Gore shows as well, the effects of global warming are accelerating in recent years, outstripping the predictions of climate change models, from Greenland to Antarctica.

Hansen notes that it is not too late to reverse course, but that we are approaching a tipping point. His 2 degree alternative scenario would still cause the sea level to rise, but it would be more manageable. But getting on this more sustainable trajectory requires action now. When the US imposed tough fuel efficiency standards in the 1970s, global carbon dioxide emissions fell from 4 percent to 1-2 percent a year. But, partly due to the SUV craze, the US still only half as energy-efficient as Europe, because Europe relies on fossil fuel taxes that seem anathema in the US. And yet the Bush administration refuses to get tough on the emissions front, either through taxation or minimum fuel efficiency standards. Carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 2 percent a year over the past decade. If this continues for another decade, the alternative scenario is off limits, and all bets are off. The US is responsible for 30 percent of all emissions from fossil fuels to date (China and Russia are the next largest, each with 8 percent). So it is a largely US problem. California now requires a 30 percent reduction in automobile greenhouse gas emissions by 2016. What does the Bush administration do? Joins the auto makers to fight it in court.

Hansen makes a clear moral point about the US role, asking: "When nations must abandon large parts of their land because of rising sea levels, what will our liability be? And will our children, as adults in the world, carry a burden of guilt, as Germans carried after World War II, however unfair inherited blame may be". Indeed. This is at the end of the day a moral issue, possibly the defining moral issue of our time. And yet you rarely hear about it from the denizens of morality. It doesn't make any "non-negotiable" list. The way to justify this complacency is (i) deny the problem exists; (ii) discount the welfare of future generations. The first option is unacceptable (and becoming more so) in light of the prevailing scientific consensus. The much-abused concept of "prudential judgment" is all about applying morality to new facts and circumstances. It is not an excuse to dismiss something that bumps up against secular ideology. Just because the Church has not pronounced definitively on global warming does not give us license to ignore it. And the second option is also not palatable, as it adopts a utilitarian calculus that values future generations less than those alive today. That too is immoral.

Americans Hindering British Investigation

Kevin Drum links an an Observer article drawing attention to the fact that British authorities are quite annoyed by the sloppy approach of the Americans in dealing with the latest terrorism plot. Basically, they are calling on the American authorities to "stop leaking details of this month's suspected bomb plot over fears that it could jeopardise the chances of a successful prosecution and hamper the gathering of evidence." Why are we not surprised? The Bushites have always been more concerned with using terrorism for political purposes, instead of actually doing something that would curb terrorism. We already know that the Americans persuaded their British counterparts to move prematurely.

Drum also shows that the British are more comfortable living in the reality-based community, as 72 percent believe Bush-Blair policies have increased the risk of terrorism. Americans seem more stuck in the Bush bubble, as the Decider still achieves a solid 55 percent approval rating on terrorism.

Liberal Media? Yeah, Right!

Rewind back to 2004, when the media was dutifully reporting the latest GOP talking points about Kerry. Remember the one-sided "flip flop" spin, even though Bush flipped as frequently as he flopped? Remember the calumnous swift boat allegations that received top billing across the media spectrum, even though the evidence firmly supported Kerry's position.

At the same time, the media was deliberately holding back stories that could embarrass Bush. Eric Boehlert recounts at least five incidents. First, the infamous decision by the New York Times to sit on the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program story, one that would eventually earn a Pulitzer prize. Second, Time did not want Matthew Cooper to testify before the Valerie Plame grand jury because it was so close to the election. Cooper ended up securing the necessary waiver and testifying in 2005, but could have done so earlier. Third, the media knew for some time that the assault on Fallujah was deliberately postponed until after the election, but opted not to share this information with the public. Fourth, CBS pulled a story on the Bush administration's dubious claims about Iraq's nuclear weapons programs before the election, even though the reporting was solid. Fifth, the New York Times refused to even discuss the mysterious bulge that appeared on Bush's back during the first presidential debate, despite scientific evidence that something was there (it was most likely a bulletproof vest).

The media completely abrogated its public service responsibilities during the last election. What kind of hold does the Bush administration have over these people?

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Phoniness of the Georges

Michelle Cottle is on fire in the New Republic, in her excellent expose of the fake boorishness that surrounds George Bush and George Allen (the latter still smarting from his macaca quip). She notes that Allen, the rich California kid, has been playing at being a rednceck for years, and that his choice of the word "macaca" shows that he can't even get his racial insults right. But she has a broader point to make:
"And what never ceases to amaze me is how pretenders like Bush (eternally aiming for good ole boy status) and Allen (with even grander pretensions of redneckdom)
always seem to latch on to the less admirable aspects of the breed."
With Allens, it's faux-confederacy, and that all goes with it. With Bush, it's even worse:
"Less overtly offensive but equally obnoxious is Bush's I-never-put-much-stock-in-book-learnin' shtick: Doesn't follow the news. Doesn't pay attention to so-called experts and other pointy-headed types. Doesn't bother himself with policy details. Goes with his gut. Blah blah blah. This sort of reverse snobbery may have been the most common and least admirable trait among the true good ole boys I knew. These were the type of men who would sink thousands upon thousands of dollars into the piece of crap truck they took mud-bogging every Saturday but claim poverty when it came time to pay for their kids' college education. These people weren't just ignorant; they were proud of their ignorance--snickering about how going to a good college just made folks uppity."
She concludes:
"Unfortunately, you make a lousy role model for the vast majority of Americans, who, sadly, don't have a rich, well-connected, exceedingly forgiving daddy to bail their butts out every time they get busted for drunk driving, need a safe place to sit out a war, or manage to drive an oil company into the ground."
Kind of sums it up, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The curiouser and curiouser world of higher math, or Poincare vindicated

And now for a scheduled break from Lebabnon, Leiberman, and US foreign policy.

The Poincare Conjecture has been proved! Although I only learned about this yesterday, via a long overdue Times editorial, the proof has been circulating since 2003. Except that “proof” may be too strong a term; “sketch of proof by enigmatic genius leading to feverish gap-filling by eminent mathematicians” is a better description. And therein lies a tale.

The precise formulation and significance of the Poincare conjecture is inaccessible to those without a considerable mathematical background. Suffice to say that it is the major outstanding problem in topology, and one of the most storied challenges in mathematics, having resisted attempts at proof (or a counterexample) for over a century. It is also one of the Millennium Problems: a set of seven mathematical problems each carrying a million dollar prize for its resolution, courtesy of the Clay Institute.

The Conjecture states, roughly, that if all loops in a bounded three-dimensional space can be shrunk to points through deformations of the space, then the space must be topologically equivalent to a three-sphere (note that a three-sphere is not what we normally think of as a sphere; topology deals with surfaces, and the surface of an everyday sphere has only two dimensions, not three). The analogue conjecture for all higher dimensions was proved over twenty years ago, but the three-dimensional problem has been a much harder nut to crack.

Enter a Russian, an unworldly genius who is the spitting image of Rasputin. Until recently Grisha Perelman was a forgotten man, a mathematician who hadn’t published in eight years, a ghost whose colleagues were unaware even of what field he was working in. He first showed promise as a teen, winning the 1982 International Mathematical Olympiad with a perfect score. After earning his PhD at the St. Petersburg State University, he was a post-doctoral student at the Courant Institute, SUNY, and at UC Berkeley. Colleagues from that era recall his brilliance, his inability or unwillingness to talk about anything other than math, and his many-inch long fingernails, which he claimed to grow so that he could open a book at the exact page he wanted. In 1996 he returned to Russia—spurning positions at various American Universities—to join the Steklov Institute of Mathematics in St. Petersburg. Once there, he effectively fell off the academic map.

In early 2003 Perelman posted two papers on arXiv, a website popularly used by scientists and mathematicians to disseminate their research (usually as a precursor to submitting the work to a peer-reviewed journal). Neither paper mentioned the Poincare conjecture by name, but they claimed to provide “a sketch of a proof” of a more general conjecture—the Thurston Conjecture—of which the Poincare Conjecture is a special case. Both papers were concise in the extreme, often outlining arguments while omitting the details, full of statements such as “the proof of [this lemma] can be extracted from the proof of [an earlier lemma]”, which are fine in a Calculus 100 textbook, but a bit difficult to swallow in an extraordinarily original and difficult exegesis at the frontier of mathematics. Nonetheless, the cognoscenti soon sensed that something big was afoot. In May Perelman accepted an invitation to tour America, lecturing for weeks on end to packed audiences at Princeton and the Courant Institute, and fielding questions on his approach from the best mathematicians in the world. By all accounts he was clear and convincing in every detail. At the end of the tour, he had satisfied everybody who was anybody that he had at the very least achieved a seminal advance in mathematics, even if the jury was still out on Poincare’s Conjecture.

And then he returned to St. Petersburg, apparently smarting from the unwelcome attention of the media, and eager to return to his hermetic existence. He showed zero interest in pursuing publication or moving up the academic totem pole. It seemed that from his point of view he had solved the problem, and that was all that mattered. Others could fill in the gaps if they wished—and indeed, since 2003 there has been a flurry of papers devoted to explicating his proof in detail—but he was done. His role would be confined to answering e-mails from a select group of mathematical colleagues requesting help at tricky junctures of the proof.

Gradually a consensus has gathered that Perelman’s proof is indeed valid, and that Poincare’s Conjecture can be laid to rest, to rise again phoenix-like as a theorem. None of the researchers in the field have detected any significant flaw in his approach, and slowly and painfully all the gaps in his papers have been filled. This summer saw the arrival of two book-length manuscripts (one of them is available here) that purport to formally prove the Poincare Conjecture on the basis of Perelman’s approach. It is expected that the forthcoming International Congress of Mathematics will impress its official seal of approval on the proof.

Three twists or variations in the plot deserve comment.

First, it would appear that Perelman is a shoo-in for this year’s Fields Medal. This is mathematics’ equivalent of a Nobel Prize, except that it is much more difficult to earn, being awarded only every four years, and only to candidates under the age of forty. But, as is always the case with Perelman, there are problems. In order of intractability these are: Perelman is unlikely to accept the medal, and, indeed, is not even attending the Congress at which the medal will be announced and where he will play the role of invisible superstar; and nobody seems to know if he is under the age of forty and thus eligible for the medal. The blogosphere is rife with conflicting reports of his age. The most promising theory is that he was probably 16 years old when he won the Math Olympiad, which would put his current age at exactly 40!

Second, there is the little matter of the Clay Institute’s million dollar prize for solving one of the Millennium Problems. If Perelman were to be awarded the money, it would probably be shared with Richard Hamilton, who developed the central technique refined and employed by Perelman. But the Institute requires that a proof be published in a peer-reviewed journal and subjected to public scrutiny for at least two years before it receives consideration for the prize. Perelman has not, and will not, publish his proof. As noted, others have published extensively on the subject, and Perelman’s arXiv papers have already been subjected to scrutiny that can only be described with considerable understatement as intense. This may suffice to qualify Perelman for the prize, although it would be disctinctly odd for a mathematician to receive an award on the basis of his colleagues’ publications. In fact, officials from the Clay Institute have stated that they may be willing to change the prize criteria to accommodate Perelman. The real stumbling block, as you might have guessed, is that Perelman does not seem to be remotely interested in either the money or the glamour of being the first recipient of the prize.

Third, there is a mystery bordering on tragedy at this story’s end. On returning from his American tour in 2003, Perelman sporadically answered e-mails from mathematical colleagues, but over time, his responses grew more and more infrequent, and then stopped altogether. According to Russian colleagues, he has resigned his position at the Steklov Institute. His current whereabouts are unknown to the mathematical world.

Torture Update

There have been some significant new developments since I last posted on this topic. Despite the Hamden case, the Bush administration's zeal for torturing people is undiminished. As usual, Marty Lederman is on top of the story.

The issue pertains to proposed amendments to the War Crime Act, which imposes penalties for violating Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The Bushites thought they were in the clear by declaring that Common Article 3 never applied to AlQaeda. The Hamden decision said otherwise. A number of theories have been put forward to explain the amendments, including the need to immunize government officials for war crimes that took place prior to Hamden. It is also designed to water down the law, by eliminating the Common Article 3 violations based on "outrages upon personal dignity" and "humiliating and degrading treatment." But Lederman thinks the intent is even more sinister than this. In his words:
"The real importance of the amendment has little or nothing to do with the military, or with past conduct, and very little to do with "humiliating and degrading treatment." It is, instead, that this amendment is part of an effort to authorize the CIA to continue to use interrogation techniques that violate Common Article 3's prohibition on "cruel treatment and torture" -- including hypothermia, threats of violence to the detainee and his family, stress positions, "long-time standing," prolonged sleep deprivation, and possibly even waterboarding."
He gets to this position by noting that the proposed amendment restricts the definition of torture to that under the federal torture statute, which is substantially weaker than under Common Article 3. The administration claims that the "enhanced CIA techniques" are not torture under the federal torture statute.

Just remember, Bush is a "Christian" president who "shares our values"...

A Brief Liturgical Detour

There is much debate in the Church these days pertaining to the appropriate translation of the Latin texts of the Mass. I'm not getting embroiled in the whole debate here. Suffice it to say that the current English translation tends to be rather pedestrian and banal. Changes will be coming shortly, and this is (generally speaking) a good thing. For example, I'm all in favor of translating "Et cum spiritu tuo" with "And with your spirit" instead of "And also with you". For an overview of the issues, see the address by Bishop Roche of Leeds (Chair of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, the ICEL) to the US bishops a few months ago.

Generally, liturgical conservatives approve these changes, and the argument used is that the English mass is merely a translation of the Latin text, and hence we need the best and most accurate translation possible. Fair enough. I buy it. But there is one big stumbling block for them, and that is in the Creed. In the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed (laid down by two successive councils of the undivided church in 325 and 381), the current English translation says "for us men and for our salvation.." and "By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man". Now, I would contend that the word "man" in these instances is badly translated. Deriving from anthropos in Greek, and homo in Latin, the word that underpins this text is gender-neutral, and really means "human". English does not have such a term, and "man" was used traditionally to denote an encompassing vision of "humanity". But many reading this will not get this subtlety, especially today, and will think that the Creed is saying something that it is not. So, in the interest of the best and most accurate translation, shouldn't we say "for us and for our salvation" and "he ... was made human"? But no, this drives conservatives crazy, the very same people who strive for accurate translations of the Latin texts into English. They seem more wedded to their view that "man" means "humanity", and begin arguing in favor of what the English words should mean, instead of whether or not they accurately reflect the Latin. And this, I think, reflects an element of bias and inconsistency.

Everything That is Wrong With the Pro-Life Movement

Bishop Doran of Rockford Illinois penned a recent screed attacking what he thinks is wrong with American culture and public life (via Amy Welborn). He doesn't hold back:
"The seven “sacraments” of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation."
Interesting list. A cynic might so it was chosen to present the Republicans in the best possible light. I could easily think of another seven "secular sacraments" that also cheapen the culture of life: the death penalty, unjust war, poverty, disdain for the environment, lack of health care, racism, and torture. By that list, the Republicans don't look so good, do they?

But this is precisely the problem with the pro-life movement. By aligning themselves with one particular party and one secular philosophy, they lose integrity and seriousness. Bishop Doran's list is a case in point. Many will look at my list and argue that abortion is far more serious than anything on this list. But the same could be said of the candidates on Bishop Doran's original list!

Ultimately, it's not about getting into a pissing contest over lists and priorities. No, if the pro-life movement wants to garner broader support and respect, it must twin its opposition to abortion with respect for life in a broader sense. It must return to Cardinal Bernardin's concept of the seamless garment (see my earlier post on abortion). What seamless garment opponents fail to appreciate is that it is not an either-or choice. A consistent position brings respect, and respect can create the preconditions for political success. Bishop Doran's list will bring nothing but derision. We cannot let this group turn the Church into an affiliate of the Republican party.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Operation Litani

Picture this scenario: southern Lebanon comes under the control of a powerful and popular militia committed to the destruction of Israel. The area is flooded with well-trained well-financed guerrillas, and border tensions increase. Finally, a few members of the terrorist organization crosses into Israel to provoke a response. Israel responds by invading Lebanon and seizing the area below the Litani river, to create a buffer zone. Large numbers of Lebanese deaths follow.

The year? 1978
The militia? The PLO.
The outcome? No decline in the power of the PLO in the south, many more years of disastrous civil war in Lebanon, and a very angry local population.

Some lessons are never learned...

The UK Terror plot: Be skeptical. Be very, very skeptical.

This is an excellent piece by Craig Murray, who was the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004:


At the very least, it provides much needed motivation for calm stock-taking from the UK terror plot story.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The latest terrorist arrests in the UK show that John Kerry was right. John Kerry has been vindicated. George Will makes the case today in this context:

"Cooperation between Pakistani and British law enforcement (the British draw upon useful experience combating IRA terrorism) has validated John Kerry's belief (as paraphrased by the New York Times Magazine of Oct. 10, 2004) that "many of the interdiction tactics that cripple drug lords, including governments working jointly to share intelligence, patrol borders and force banks to identify suspicious customers, can also be some of the most useful tools in the war on terror." In a candidates' debate in South Carolina (Jan. 29, 2004), Kerry said that although the war on terror will be "occasionally military," it is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world."Immediately after the London plot was disrupted, a "senior administration official," insisting on anonymity for his or her splenetic words, denied the obvious, that Kerry had a point."
This was the great tragedy of the 2004 election, that people bought into the nonsense that voting for Bush made them safer, and mocked people like Kerry who proposed solutions that did not involve dividing the world into the "good guys" and the "evildoers" and bombing the latter back to the Stone Age (as Seymour Hersh showed, this way of thinking is alive and well in the Bushite bubble). And Bush had the gall to say:

"We disrupted a terror plot, a plot where people were willing to kill innocent life to achieve political objectives,"
No, Dubya, you didn't disrupt anything. Your reckless middle eastern adventures have made the world a more dangerous place. And instead of taking intelligence seriously, the Bush administration has actively undermined it. By exposing the identity of Valerie Plame to embarrass her husband when he criticized the faulty logic that underpinned the Iraq war. By using terror alerts for political gain. As Josh Marshall noted:

"The 18 months prior to the 2004 presidential election witnessed a barrage of those ridiculous color-coded terror alerts, quashed-plot headlines and breathless press conferences from Administration officials. Warnings of terror attacks over the Christmas 2003 holidays, warnings over summer terror attacks at the 2004 political conventions, then a whole slew of warnings of terror attacks to disrupt the election itself. Even the timing of the alerts seemed to fall with odd regularity right on the heels of major political events. One of Department of Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge's terror warnings came two days after John Kerry picked John Edwards as his running mate; another came three days after the end of the Democratic convention.

So it went right through the 2004 election. And then not long after the champagne corks stopped popping at Bush campaign headquarters, terror alerts seemed to go out of style. The color codes became yesterday's news. With the exception of one warning about mass-transit facilities in response to the London bombing on July 7, 2005, that was pretty much it until this summer. "
The problem with detailing the faults of the Bush administration in a zero-oversight environment is that there are so many of them, and as the next disaster arrives, the last one is quickly forgotten. But Paul Krugman is right to bring our attention to an important little fact that we should not so conveniently forget:

"Suspicions that the Bush administration might have had political motives in wanting the arrests made prematurely are fed by memories of events two years ago: the Department of Homeland Security declared a terror alert just after the Democratic National Convention, shifting the spotlight away from John Kerry and, according to Pakistani intelligence officials, blowing the cover of a mole inside Al Qaeda."
More here. Yes, with the Bush administration, politics is everything. And since the corporate donors won't exactly line up behind the appropriate safety measures to secure cargo on plane and nuclear and chemical facilities, well, we are still in the danger zone, despite the aggressive rhetoric. Here's something to bear in mind:

"About one quarter of all U.S. air cargo is transported by U.S. passenger planes. Based on the best current estimates, between 10% and 15% of the more than six billion pounds of cargo that flies that way each year ends up actually inspected."
So yes, John Kerry was right. Right on the use of intelligence and law enforcement as a means to defeat terrorism. Right on the need for a multilateral approach and nurturing allies. Right on the need to go after Al Qaeda, not got mired in a diversion like Iraq. Right to hone in on implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. But no, people believed the drivel about the pansy boy on the windsurf that was no match for big bad Bush. And now we are paying the price. Say it loudly: THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Was the Bush Administration Complicit in the Attacks on Lebanon?

I expect, rather hope, that the Seymour Hersh article in this week’s New Yorker will create a major ripple, first in the blog world, and then in the mainstream media. Hersh, who was at the forefront of investigative reporting on the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse case, as usual, has written a well-researched piece. The thesis of this article is one of major concern—the Bush Administration was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s attacks on Lebanon. Indeed, Israel had shared its plan for attacking Hezbollah with Bush Administration officials well before the July 12th kidnappings.

There are many reasons, most of them foolhardy, why the Bush administration would go along with the Israelis in planning to attack Hezbollah, and Hersh’s even-handed article discusses them at length. However, what I find most striking is that the Israeli campaign was encouraged by the U.S. because it was deemed as a dress rehearsal for forthcoming actions on Iran. So, the bloodshed and devastation inflicted on Lebanon, in the eyes of Bush Administration officials, was just a part of a greater game.

The callousness with which this administration continues to operate is astonishing. Lebanon, which anyway has now proved to be a much harder battleground than the slick war planners from Israel and the U.S. had though it would be, is a mere dot next to Iran’s dimensions, especially with respect to military, personnel, and economic might. Did no one think of these basic points before engaging in such murderous planning?

If a military college student tried to make an argument along these lines (attack Lebanon; weaken Hezbullah; gain pointers for Iran) in a war games class, I suspect he or she would be chastised by the instructor for an overly simplistic, ill-informed, and poorly judged piece of analysis. Shockingly, in real life, ideas that would get an F in the classroom are now the best that can be offered by the most powerful nation on earth.

Will the Israelis and Americans learn nothing from the failed campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Lebanon? Military might, which invariably leads to unintended consequences as seen over and over again, is a vastly inferior second to prudent diplomacy. Achieving a lasting peace is seldom borne out of outright military campaigns. The history book of international conflagrations is littered with instances of leaders who arrogantly believed that everything would work out if only they could have the enemy on his knees. What each successive generation of military campaigners seems to ignore is that wars end when ideas, not a people, are defeated. To fight ideas, there is no substitute for goodwill, smart and long-term strategic thinking underlying diplomacy, and respect for humanity.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

First Thoughts on the Latest Terrorist Plot

As details of this horrendous plot emerges, it seems that the terrorists can be traced to the UK and Pakistan, and that Al Qaeda is behind it. Not Iraq, not Hamas, not Hezbollah. No, the guy that Bush let escape in a stunning display of ineptitude, and then confessed he didn't really care much about-Osama Bin Laden. From his press conference on March 13, 2002:
"Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. "
Why are the Democrats not hammering home this line? You can be sure that the right-wing noise machine would be all over this had Gore been president. When will be Democrats learn that they need to deflate the bubble surrounding Bush's "war on terror" mystique?

Vintage Galloway


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

So what does Leiberman's loss mean?

The netroots crowd - daily kos and co., without whom Lamont's victory would have been impossible - are over the moon. On their view, Leiberman's loss shows that people-power has returned to American politics, and a man who exemplified cross-party cheerleading for a war that most Americans no longer support (most especially not in Connecticut) has received his just desserts - a generous helping of humble pie.

On the other hand, I'm sure that the centrist DLC is privately desolated by last night's primary. Why? Because they think that the only way to win back Congress and, more importantly, the Presidency, is to appeal to the moderate middle of the electorate. They fear that the Cindy Sheehans and Marcos Moulistases will drag their party leftwards over a cliff.

Which view is correct? Here's an interesting take from an unexpected source, Joe Scarborough, conservative TV pundit, and former Gingrich acolyte, who ran for and won a seat in Congress in 1994. Key excerpt:

George Bush's loss to Bill Clinton in 1992 had put Republican operatives
and strategists in a panic. They feared that Bush had been beaten like a drum
because radical conservatives like Pat Buchanan, Phyllis Shaffley and Pat
Robertson had hijacked the GOP Convention. So while Bill Clinton spent the next
two years moving left, the Republican National Committee desperately sought
moderate candidates that would talk, walk and vote like, say, Joe Lieberman. The
goal was to blur all differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Because of that logic, I spent most of 1994 fighting Republican
bureaucrats on the local, state and federal level who did everything in their
power to elect my very moderate opponent in the GOP primary. A week before the
primary, the Republican Congressional Committee campaign director let me know
that I might as well give up. 1994 would be the year of the Moderate.

Yeah, right.

Within a few months of that conversation, scores of right-wing,
knuckle-dragging, spear-carrying conservative barbarians like myself ran through
our moderate Democratic opponents like Barry Bonds through a bottle of roids. It
was ugly. Darting to the base was the ticket to victory for the Party of Reagan.

Fast forward twelve years and now we find many making the same
misguided arguments, except this time they are giving their stupid advice to
Democrats generally and Connecticut voters specifically.

Ned Lamont may be a pencil-necked geek, as Imus claims, but he is the
type of candidate that will bring out the Democratic base in an off-year
election. That is especially true this year because George W. Bush is even more
unpopular than Clinton was when the GOP swept into power.

My advice to Democratic voters this year is "Go left, young man!"

There's much in this. But it fails to address the million dollar question: is the liberal base really as big as the (in retrospect) conservative base? I don't think it is. So certainly the Democrats should turn baseward, but judiciously, in baby steps. If that sounds difficult, it is.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Catholic League Watch

The Catholic League, headed by William Donohue, purports to defend Catholicism against "defamation and discrimination". As there is much anti-Catholicism in our culture, an organization such as this can play a useful role. But not in its present form. Donohue is more keen on turning the organization into an arm of the "culture war" which is code for aligning the Catholic church with the interests of the Republican party (indeed, one of his best friends is James Dobson, whose evangelical group seems to regard Bush as the second coming...).

Anyway, I will try to expose a fair amount of Catholic League hypocrisy in these pages. For now, let's address the Mel Gibson issue. Gibson is something of a hero to the Catholic League, and their press release of February 26, 2004 says it all:
"Already, left-wing censors in Hollywood are out to get Mel. They think they can stop him. But it's too late for the blacklisters to win. Nothing can stop the public from rallying around Saint Mel."
That's right. Because his movie, The Passion of the Christ, is being used as a weapon in the "culture war" by Donohue to bludgeon his opponents, he becomes "Saint Mel". Now here's the catch: Gibson is not even Catholic! While famously reticent about what he actually believes, he has a habit of building his own churches (including one for his famously anti-semitic father). Cardinal Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, asserted that the church he attends in Malibu is not in communion with the Catholic church. Tim Rutten in the LA Times noted that Gibson bought a church in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, for $750,000, and that his infamous father is overseeing the project, for a group of so-called "traditional Catholics". These are an interesting bunch of schismatics. They detest Vatican II, mainly because of the Declaration on Religious Liberty and the new approach to Judaism. Many of them are avid sedevacantists too, believing there is no valid pope. And yes, they can also be a pretty anti-semitic bunch.

But, to William Donohue, he is Saint Mel. And Bill, to be fair, stands by his saints, claiming that "There's a lot of people who have made comments which are bigoted who are not necessarily bigots." Funny how he never says that when he is attacking Democrats, isn't it? The outpouring of love continues: "Mel Gibson's apology is a model of contrition, and it reflects the genuineness of his faith." And what faith might that be, Bill?

On Notice-- The Second Wave

I've created a monster....

Monday, August 07, 2006

And Here is My List!

Stephen Colbert Thinks Like Me!

Look what he has put "on notice"! Actually, go to the website listed, and Stephen can also put your very own pet peeves "on notice". Yeah!

Postmodernism and the Bushite Ascendancy

What prompted this post was the results of a recent poll stating that about 50 percent of the population believes that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that the number is increasing over time, not falling. Also, 64 percent continue to believe that Saddam had strong ties to Al Qaeda.

What the hell is going on? Well, an AP report notes (via the Carpetbagger Report):
"...experts see a raft of reasons why: a drumbeat of voices from talk radio to die-hard bloggers to the Oval Office, a surprise headline here or there, a rallying around a partisan flag, and a growing need for people, in their own minds, to justify the war in Iraq."
This gets us back to a fundamental philosophy underpinning the Bush administration: if you say it enough times, people will believe it. And if people believe it, it becomes true. We were given an inkling of this in Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, in which coined term "reality-based community". From Suskind (quoting a Bush loyalist):
"The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.""
Well, this is nothing more and nothing less than a cynical form of postmodernism, the denial of all objective truth, which can easily veer into a jaded moral relativism. [And Bush is the "Christian" president, because....??].

In an insightful essay earlier this year, Michiko Kakutani (in the New York Times) noted that such ways of thinking are becoming endemic in our culture:
"We live in a relativistic culture where television "reality shows" are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics, where academics argue that history depends on who is writing the history, where an aide to President Bush, dismissing reporters who live in the "reality-based community," can assert that "we're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Phrases like "virtual reality" and "creative nonfiction" have become part of our language. Hype and hyperbole are an accepted part of marketing and public relations. And reinvention and repositioning are regarded as useful career moves in the worlds of entertainment and politics. The conspiracy-minded, fact-warping movies of Oliver Stone are regarded by those who don't know better as genuine history, as are the most sensationalistic of television docudramas."
Indeed. Our culture is saturated with this kind of relativistic thinking. Saddam had weapons of mass destruction because we said he did. Global warming is not a problem, and evolution can be mocked, because there is no such thing as objective truth in science. And the Bush administration is a postmodern cheerleader, that asserts that there is, (in the words of Kakutani) "no such thing as truly independent reporting or even a set of mutually agreed upon facts". In such a world, Mel Gibson's father's views on the Holocaust are not entirely out of place...

Kakutani is writing mainly about literature. She fails to use the most glaring example however: that the world is enthralled by the claims of the Da Vinci Code, which rewrites history in a perfect Bushite template, and, instead of being roundly denounced by the "reality-based community", people's (subjective) disdain for Catholicism leads them to an (objective) disdain for truth, as they note "well, it raises some interesting questions.."

It's all part of the same story. A society that disdains the notion of objective truth is a society in trouble. And the right keeps pointing to Europe? Weigel needs to take a long hard look at his own country before lobbing mortars across the Atlantic...

More on the Justness (Or Not) of the Israeli War

Let's go back to the Catechism, which looks at the precise conditions under which a war can be just:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must
be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily
in evaluating this condition.These are the traditional elements enumerated in
what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

And now let's go step by step in the context of the current conflict, focusing on the different principles enunciated in the Catechism.

(1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

Score one for Israel. Hezbollah's actions against civilians were and are unjustifiable, and should be considered war crimes. Even Juan Cole, whose sympathies lean in the Arab direction, argued that Nasrallah should be dragged before the Hague for ordering attacks on non-combatants.

(2) All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

For a start, Israel did not even bother to seek a diplomatic solution. But a counter argument would be that the very nature of Hezbollah-- including its glorification of violence and so-called martyrdom, its fundamentalist eschatology, its disdain for life (especially Israeli life), and its general lack of respect for Lebanese civil life and democracy-- renders a diplomatic solution useless, given that it would merely postpone and not solve the problem. But remember the point made by moralist Germain Grizes (see earlier post) that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone. You must address the root cause of the problem. Bush and Cheney seem to have learned this lesson the hard way (actually, whether they have learned anything at all after six disastrous years is very much open to question). The cowboy mentality is destined to fail.

(3) There must be serious prospects of success.

What is the aim of Israel in this war? Israel seems intent on eliminating Hezbollah, a political party supported by half the Lebanese population. Given this support, and deeply embedded Hezbollah is with the Shia population, the elimination seems pretty impossible. Again, you cannot defeat terrorism by military means alone.

(4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Now we come to the crux of the matter, the proportionality condition. Straight away, the Catechism cautions us that the decks are already stacked against the pro-war position when it comes to modern weaponry. What is the evil to be eliminated? It is not just the threat from Hezbollah rockets today, but as Michael Walzer noted in the New Republic, "also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do." Proportionality is not just stacking up bodies on either side. We need to look at the totality of "evils and disorders" created by Israel's response. I think there are at least four.

First, the bombing of civilian areas. The words of Israel's military strategists are quite damning in this regard. General Dan Halutz basically said that retaliation is the name of the game, giving "the order to the air force destroy 10 multi-storey buildings in the Dahaya district (of Beirut) in response to every rocket fired on Haifa". He also declared that since the aim is to win, "nothing is safe." And don't forget the threat made during the early stages of the war to turn the clock back to the days of the civil war. And remember that the southern suburbs of Beirut, basically densely-populated Shia slums, have reduced to rubble.

Second, Israel has destroyed the Lebanese economy and infrastructure, punishing an entire nation for the crimes of one militia. Note also that Israeli sources threatened that "if Tel Aviv is attacked, Lebanese national infrastructure will be destroyed." More recently, the Israeli army announced it would "hit strategic civilian infrastructure". Here, the war party seem to indict the Lebanese government for allowing Hezbollah such a free reign. In fact, The cedar coalition (Christian-Sunni-Druze) would like nothing better than to disarm Hezbollah, especially after their cynical backing of Syria after Hariri's murder. But they are also fully aware that Hezbollah has the support of the Shia (remember their huge pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut last year), and any move to disarm them could re-ignite the civil war. Indeed, all sides recognized that the way forward was to "normalize" Hezbollah by integrating them into Lebanese government and civil life. Even Maronite politician Michel Aoun, the author of the extremely costly "war of liberation" against Syria in the last phases of the civil war, did a deal with Hezbollah.

Third, Israel has threatened a democracy that has finally thrown out the Syrian occupiers (after almost 30 years), and is creating the conditions for a return to full-scale civil war. What often gets lots in the equation is that Lebanon is a full democracy, no longer under occupation. Sure, it has some confessional quirks, and lots of gerrymandering, but it is a democracy nonetheless. And, like it or not, Hezbollah plays a major role in that democracy. The nature of a long civil war means that many current players have less-than-perfect histories. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, regarded as a brave statesman for facing down Syrian death threats, was trying to ethnically cleanse the Chouf mountains in the 1980s. And the Christians were also no stranger to atrocities: the extremely popular Samir Geagea was recently released from prison for killing numerous rivals (plus their entire families) during the war. Compared with this cast of characters, Nasrallah does not seem so out of place!

Fourth, Israel's actions have boosted the popularity and strength of Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran and Syria) at a time when were being integrated into the normal political process (not not doing too well, for that matter). This has implications not only for Lebanon, bit the entire Middle East, and beyond.

But where is the Catholic voice in the United States? Week after week, Pope Benedict calls for a ceasefire, and it gets basically ignored by the Bush-worshipping Catholics on the American right, the same group who were driven into a frenzy by the death of Terry Schiavo (were the issues were every bit as complicated and nuanced as they are in the current conditions), but seem unmoved by the suffering of the Lebanese people.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Klimt Exhibition at the Neue Galerie

At the risk of really diluting this blog’s political tint, today I will write a bit about my recent visit to the Neue Galerie at New York City. This tiny museum, prominently located at Fifth Avenue and 86th street, boasts excellent Austrian and German modern art in its collection. The elegant Louis XIII-style mansion that houses the museum has been restored very successfully for its operation as a complex consisting of galleries, shops, and restaurants.

The museum is currently enjoying great popularity thanks to its latest exhibition, “Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer.” It is a curious and technically inaccurate title, as just a couple of months ago, one of those five paintings was purchased by none other than the owner of Neue Galerie, Ronald S. Lauder. Mr. Lauder’s purchase was significant for two reasons: first, the Bloch-Bauer estate fought the Austrian government for many decades before having these paintings returned to them earlier this year (see the July 24 New Yorker for details on the story). Second, the purchase price of the painting, Adele Bloch Bauer I, at 135 million dolalrs, is the most on record for a work of art.

I don’t recall ever going to a special exhibition comprising of just five paintings, but this was actually remarkably satisfying. These are large, imposing, magnificent oil paintings, each representing distinct and significant parts of Klimt’s career. The contrast between Klimt’s portraits and paintings of forests and towns is stunning. His rendering of Houses at Unterach on the Attersee is a living, shimmering piece of Bavarian scenery, as vibrant as a Cézanne. The portraits, Adele I and Adele II, on the other hand, are idiosyncratic works from an ultra-modern perspective.

Now, about that most expensive painting in the world: the first thing that went through my mind was that Adele looks like Frida Kahlo! Both ladies, in my eyes, have the same dark hair and strikingly expressive eyes. Am I the only one who sees the resemblance? Anyway, the painting is unlike any other for sure; the exquisite use of gold elements on the work is quite unforgettable (apparently, Klimt was influenced toward this direction during his visit to the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna, Italy in 1903). Is it better than Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe, which previously held the world record as the most expensive painting? Not to me, but clearly to Mr. Lauder!

In addition to the ongoing Klimt exhibition, the Neue Galerie has a fantastic permanent collection. There are terrific early works of Kandinsky, as well as haunting sketches by Egon Schiele. Also, a whole room is devoted to very cool objects of modern art from the early 1900s: furniture, silverware, flower vases, etc. This museum is a great example of the virtues of a small, but carefully chosen collection.

P.S. No visit to the Neue Galerie is complete without a stop at Café Sabarski, which transports one instantly to the elegant coffee houses of Vienna. There is often a long wait to get in, however, and the service can be slow. Nevertheless, the excellent pastries, coffees, and respectable entrees have the signature of the highly accomplished chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, making the wait worthwhile.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Are SUVs Really Evil?

This post is based on a couple of reviews of an excellent book published in 2002, Keith Bradsher's High and Mighty-- The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. The reviews are by Gregg Easterbrook in the New Republic and Stephanie Mencimer in the Washington Monthly. This is clearly the best and most comprehensive book written on the SUV phenomenon.

First, the notion that SUVs are gas-guzzling monstrosities that contribute to global warming is true. By law, SUVs are allowed to emit more pollutants than ordinary cars. In the 1990s, when the SUV boom really took off, the official average "fleet" standard (the average of all new models by each manufacturer) was 20.7 miles per gallon for SUVs and 27.5 miles per gallon for cars. And some of the worst offenders get only 10-12 miles per gallon. And even here, there are loopholes for SUVs: declare that they can run on ethanol and you are exempt. Bush promised to raise efficiency standards to a piddling 22.2 miles per gallon by 2007. It's not that the technology is not there. It is. It's just that car manufacturers would rather focus on power and acceleration, making SUVs even more dangerous (more on that later). Consider also that SUVs spew 30 percent more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75 percent more nitrogen oxides in the air than passenger cars. It also adds to the well-known oil addiction, a boon to Saudi Arabia and Iran. Indeed, Arianna Huffington claimed SUV drivers supported terrorism. A provocative claim with a kernal of truth. And some evangelicals asked: what would Jesus drive? Indeed.

Second, SUVs are dangerous. Incredibly dangerous. This is indeed the crux of Bradsher's book. He notes that vehicles on truck frames tend to handle poorly, and the body and frame may separate in an accident, something that would not happen in an ordinary car (all that metal does not make you safer). And occupant deaths are higher in SUVs than cars. Also, the notion that front-wheel drive systems make SUVS safer is fallacious. Since practically no SUVs are actually driven off-road (despite the vapid commercials), all this adds is weight and lowered fuel economy. The main reason why SUVs are so dangerous is the rollover risk, arising from the high center of gravity, the overloaded tires, and truck-like steering. Rollover deaths are about 1000 a year. In 2004, after the book was written, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that SUV drivers were 11% more likely to die in an accident than people in cars. Many who buy SUVS think sitting high makes them safer, whereas it fact it magnifies the danger. This got so bad that members of Congress (from both parties) put pressure on the NHTSA not even to test for rollover risk, and the manufacturers refuse to list the safe load.

What's even worse is the risk SUVs pose to other drivers and pedestrians. In an accident with a car, SUVs are likely to mount the car and crush the occupants. Bradsher believes SUVs cause about 2000 deaths a year from accidents with ordinary cars. He also shows that, despite lower drunk driving incidence and the development of new safety features, the reduction in automobile deaths came to a standstill because of SUVs. Here's a chilling fact: if a car hits another car in the side, the driver of the hit car is 6.6 times more likely to die than the hitting driver. If the hitter is an SUV, it rises to 30 to 1. Also, a pedestrian is twice as likely to die when hit by an SUV than a car.

If SUVs are so polluting, and so dangerous, why are they so popular? Well, one thing is the safety myth. But it's much more than that. According to market research by the manufacturers, SUV drivers tend to be "insecure and vain.... self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities". They also don't care about anybody's kids but their own, and are very concerned with their image. They are noted by their "willingness to endanger other motorists so as to achieve small improvements in their personal safety."

Who could these people possibly be? Well, how about baby-boomers, the most selfish and narcissistic generation of all time? And these are indeed the biggest customers for SUVs. It's no coincidence that road rage incidents tracked the SUV boom. SUVs take up 1.4 parking spots. If they are behind you, they will blind you with huge headlights. If they are on front of you, they will obscure your vision. Because they feel so high above the road, and so safe, they drive menacingly and cut people off at a whim.

With the SUV, image is key. Marketed as outdoors vehicles, they rarely leave the confines of middle-class suburbs. Many models are engineered to look as threatening as possible-- the manufacturers know their market! After all, it's easier to cut somebody off when you are big and threatening! One example quoted by Bradsher is the "grill guard" which has no purpose in an urban environment. The worst offender here, of course, is the Hummer, which is all the bad traits of the SUV combined and put on steroids steroids.

It reminds me of something Cardinal George of Chicago once said: American culture is fundamentally Calvinist, lauding individualism and disdaining the notion community. SUVs are the worst embodiment of such a tendency.