Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Oh great, now we hurt Iran's feelings. Happy?

I'm always mildly amused when the citizens of totalitarian governments--particularly those in the Middle East--criticize our bad manners. It's true, Westerners can be rude and disrespectful on occasions like Ahmadinejad's visit (and many others), but that's one of the privileges of living in a society where freedom of speech and expression are protected and not proscribed. I'm sure the Western hostages of the Iranian Revolution were charmed and delighted by their hosts' impeccable manners, to say nothing of those who have been treated to the "hospitality" of Hamas and Hezbollah over the years.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

U.S. plans big arms sale to Saudi Arabia

Yes, that's right, because God knows the one thing the Middle East needs most right now is more weapons--particularly the one country that provides more money to Islamic terrorism than any other, and provided 18 of the 20 men who perpetrated 9/11. If our rationale is to counter the growing influence of Iran, as the State Department official in this article claims, then we sure got off to a piss-poor start by creating a gigantic power vacuum in Iraq that older, smarter Republicans--like George H.W. Bush and his advisors--knew Iran would fill if we ever knocked out Iraq's central government.
One of many ironies is that proponents of this decision will inevitably argue that Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan might fall to Islamic radicals without our support. But that claim runs directly counter to two other claims prominent Republicans have been making since 9/11: 1) that the Middle East is just ripe for liberal democracy, and 2) that the old policy of propping up corrupt, authoritarian regimes in the Middle East was wrong. So again, which is it? And while we're at it, can anyone explain how we make Israel safer by arming its neighbors, any of whom (we are told) might become a radical Islamic state at any moment?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Schwarzenegger on the limits of ideology

While waiting for a haircut the other day, I picked up a recent issue of Men's Health magazine (the one with Steve Irwin on the cover) and perused an interview the magazine did with "The Governator." One comment in particular stood out: in talking about his experiences as governor, Arnold said there were times when his conservative philosophy "fell apart" in front of his eyes; for example, in realizing there were no free-market solutions to after-school programs for kids. It was a remarkably candid and refreshing comment for an elected official to make. Too many politicians of both parties, in my opinion, are prisoners to ideology. Like the president, they tend to ignore facts that don't conveniently fit their ideological preconceptions. Liberals were guilty of this for many years when it came to government welfare programs that were obviously not only failing, but were creating new (and often worse) problems in the process.
Conservative philosopher Russell Kirk believed that conservatism was the antithesis of ideology; that it was, in essence, a more practical orientation that viewed the world as it is, before prejudging how it should be. Of course, what passes for conservatism today is often quite the opposite: deeply ideological, with many articles of dogma that aren't even traditionally conservative at all, like its Wilsonian enthusiasm for military intervention and its casual acceptance (even defense) of massive deficit spending.
No doubt many of today's "conservatives" might argue that ideology can be a good thing if it's the right ideology, but I think such statements are the result of confusing ideology with beliefs, convictions and values. One can have these things without being ideological--a distinction that is sorely lacking today.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Quote of the Week

"How long are we going to allow a person — from any country in the world — to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it?" -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who said Sunday that foreigners who publicly criticize him or his government while visiting Venezuela will be expelled from the country.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

"The Eloquent President"

This morning I finished reading "The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words" by Ronald White, Jr. After painstakingly dissecting Lincoln's most powerful speeches and letters, White concludes with an obvservation that I wholeheartedly second: that words really do matter, and that the ability to speak eloquently and persuasively is a vital ingredient of great presidencies.
It has become fashionable for some modern presidents, presidential candidates and their cheerleaders to downplay this fact, to pretend that self-deprecating humor can compensate for intellectual laziness and lack of speaking ability; certainly we can all agree that speaking ability alone--in the absence of other admirable abilities and character traits--should not be the ultimate measure by which we judge our presidents and presidential candidates. But neither should we dismiss it so readily. Ronald Reagan was no intellectual giant, and he could use self-deprecating humor to good effect, but he was also a gifted communicator who understood the value of words and could use them to good effect (see post below).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Victor Hanson on "the truth of Islam"

I agree with much of Hanson's assessment of Islam, but articles like this tend to beg the question: why are conservatives who are so openly (and rightly) critical of the illiberal, anti-modernist beliefs that Islam engenders, otherwise such optimists when it comes to establishing secular democracies in the heart of the Moslem Middle East? Something doesn't add up here. Either Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority are fertile grounds for liberal democracy--as we have been repeatedly told--or they are not. Which is it?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

U.S. intelligence says Al-Qaeda getting stronger

Of all the news I've heard this year, this is by far the most depressing, and also the least surprising. Fortunately, the president has denied it.
Critics often said of Bill Clinton that he absolutely believed what he said at the moment he said it. After six and a half years, you have to wonder the same about his successor. First, there was the stubborn insistence that there were WMDs in Iraq, even as evidence mounted that there were not. Second, there was the stubborn insistence--primarily from Rumsfeld and echoed by the White House--that there was no insurgency, followed by a trend of continually downplaying its numbers until facts finally overwhelmed fantasy. Third, there was the patently ridiculous statement by the VP that the insurgency was in its "last throes." Fourth, there were a long series of denials that there was any civil war brewing in Iraq, until that too could no longer be denied.
The sad thing is, one of these days the president may actually be right, but his "credibility gap" is so wide now that a majority of the American people--and the Democratic Congress they elected in disgust--will almost certainly not believe him.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

More Middle Eastern-style democracy at work

The "march of democracy" continues in the Middle East, where the Palestinian President had to dissolve his government in the midst of a Hamas-Fatah civil war in which the bad guys (Hamas) have the momentum and significant support from the people. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, violence continues and tensions between Sunni and Shiites are growing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Remembering Ronald Reagan

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Reagan's speech at the Brandenberg Gate, in which he famously urged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Two years later, the Germans themselves tore it down. While Reagan had his flaws and made his share of mistakes, the Brandenberg speech deserves to go down in history as one of the high points in American presidential rhetoric.
Also, Reagan's presidential diary is now available on bookshelves. I saw the book's editor, historian Douglas Brinkley, interviewed on C-SPAN recently. Some of the passages he read out loud might surprise people today. Among other things, Reagan reacted to the murder of more than 200 Marines in Beirut not with a reckless desire to send more ground forces in; instead, he saw it as a sobering reminder that the Middle East was a dangerous morass to be avoided. He also viewed the death of any innocent civilian caused by American bombs as a failure, not as an acceptable loss. Many so-called conservatives today would likely take exception with those two points--and perhaps in the fullness of time they will be proven right--but it's refreshing to remember that at least one Republican president in the not-so-distant past viewed military intervention as an option of last resort, and took great pains to avoid entangling the U.S. in the Middle East.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Don't bother running, Chuck

Meanwhile, another guy who shouldn't bother running for president is Senator Chuck Hagel. While I appreciate his service in Vietnam and the fact that he has not blindly toed the GOP party line on Iraq, his principal criticism of the war is worse than stupid: that it has damaged our standing in the Middle East.
I hate to break it to you Senator, but:
1 - Our standing there was never great to begin with.
2 - If there is any place on earth whose opinion should mean the least to us, it's the Middle East. The values of Arab society are so utterly antithetical to our own and to modern civilization in general, that Arabs should be much more worried about how the rest of the world views them than should we.
You can hear Senator Hagel's full speech to the Council on Foreign Relations by downloading the podcast from the iTunes store.

Richardson a disappointment

Bill Richardson's appearance on Meet the Press last Sunday was the worst performance I've ever witnessed of a major candidate for the presidency. If you didn't catch the interview, you can view it online at the Meet the Press website or download the podcast from the iTunes store. His pathological tendency to take both sides of an issue at once and to avoid giving direct "yes or no" answers must make even Bill Clinton blush. Much as I hate to say it, I've officially scratched him off my list of candidates I could in good conscience vote for.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Oh for the love of...

It's inevitable, isn't it? Every election this asinine issue of "who's a real hunter, and who's not" comes up. You know what? If I ran for president, I'd have no hesitation admitting that I've never hunted. Not only that, but--gasp!--I've never golfed either, and I'd have no hesitation admitting that too.

It's sad how predictably shallow this presidential race has become, almost before it even began. Witness the media's obsession with
who's raising more money than who, and their decision to reduce the Democratic field to just Obama and Clinton, ignoring far more qualified and compelling candidates like Bill Richardson. I've had all I can stands, I can't stands no more!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Senator Kennedy still doesn't get it

This morning I turned on "Meet the Press" just in time to hear Senator Ted Kennedy say, once again, that it's the Senate's job to "do the will of the people." Is it really? Then why do we need a Senate at all, Mr. Senator? Why not dispense with the institutions of representative democracy and go to direct popular votes on every issue?
It's amazing to me--and quite frightening, when you really think about it--that someone can spend his entire adult life in the Senate and still not understand the basic constitutional role of that body. It makes you wonder how many other senators fail to understand their constitutional duties, as well. Quite a few, I'm guessing.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Hillary is "in to win"

It comes as no surprise to anyone: Senator Clinton has finally thrown her hat in to the ring. Didn't she promise the voters of New York she wouldn't run? Ah well, even if she did, such vows are meaningless in the fork-tongued world of politics. I have nothing personal against the woman, but I think it says a lot about our shallow electorate that she is considered the presumptive front-runner. Why? Because she was First Lady to an adulterous president? Hmph, makes sense to me.
Yes, I know, she's a very bright and capable woman. I don't doubt it for a moment. And as far as experience goes, she's no less qualified than most of the other senators running; actually, more qualified, when compared to Obama and Edwards.
So far, the only Democrat in the race who impresses me is Bill Richardson, who has exactly the kind of resume voters should look for in a potential president. But the sad reality is, he doesn't have a snowball's chance for three shallow reasons: he doesn't have a lot of name recognition, he doesn't have the generic "good looks" that voters look for in a president (because, you know, that's so important), and he doesn't have the personality of a smooth-talking used car salesman.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

34,452 Iraq civilians said killed in '06

But hey, at least Saddam is dead! That kind of makes it worth it, right? Right?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The uncertain future of Afghanistan

This morning, on Foreign Exchange, Fareed Zakaria interviewed the Afghan ambassador to the U.S. about the uncertain future of Afghanistan. Although neither of them said it, the sad fact is that the worsening situation in that country is a direct result of our invasion and indefinite occupation of Iraq. Although the neo-cons adamantly denied it at the time, any sane military planner could have foreseen (and many did) that taking on another, ever larger, nation-building occupation when the mission in Afghanistan was far from complete was a terrible idea. I would go so far as to say it was one of the worst American foreign policy blunders in my lifetime. It's strange to me that so many Republicans, who spent years attributing our loss in Vietnam to the half-measures of the LBJ administration, turned around and wholeheartedly embraced the half-measures of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am no fan of idealistic, interventionist foreign policies, and I believe--as many conservatives used to believe--that wars should be fought by necessity, not choice, and then only with the maximum amount of resources and military might possible. And it should go without saying that you fight only one war at a time, unless presented with no other choice. The future of Afghanistan is uncertain because this timeless wisdom was carelessly brushed aside by a collection of overly idealistic fools in the highest levels of power.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Plan B for Iraq

The politicos are starting to talk about what happens if the president's new plan fails. I've given that some thought myself, and here's my multi-part solution:
  1. Give up on the idea of creating a peaceful, democratic Middle East. If the people of that region really want peace and democracy, they can fight for it themselves. No externally imposed solution is ever going to last until Sunnis and Shia stop hating each other, Israel, and the West, and that ain't gonna happen any time soon.
  2. Take half of what we're currently spending on the War in Iraq and push it into developing alternative sources of energy; a far-sighted strategy that will help wean Americans off of oil, diminish the Middle East's importance to our national interests, and get us back in the business of being bold innovators and pioneers rather than bloated, dependent addicts.
  3. Take the other half of what we're currently spending on the War in Iraq and push it into radically increasing our Special Operations forces and putting far more Human Intelligence (HUMINT) assets on the ground in the Middle East. Wherever terrorist groups set up camp, take the fight to them with the troops who do it best, rather than through gigantic, conventional, occupational forces that are merely sitting targets, sources of resentment, and magnets for violence.
  4. While we're at it, throw in the more than four billion we spend annually on Israel and Egypt. Israel is a successful democracy that can easily defend itself against every Arab nation combined, and Egypt is an unconscionable waste of money all around (unless you count 80%+ anti-American sentiment, pro-Sunni insurgent television shows, and 25 years of Hosni Mubarek money well spent). That four billion could be much better spent on items 2 and 3.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Where do we go from here?

A powerful and depressing realization struck me last night after watching the president and then his critics speak about our "new direction" in Iraq. It was the realization that most of our elected leaders are suffering from one of two fatal delusions about Iraq, and in some cases from both: the first delusion is that 21,000 extra troops can actually help restore order there, and the second is that a "political" solution is possible for Iraq. The first betrays a criminal naivete about military operations and the nature of the conflict we're fighting, and the second betrays a profound ignorance of how deep and violent the divisions in Iraqi society really are. We continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Sunni insurgents and Shia militias--driven by hatred of the West and distorted religious faiths that deny the humanity of each other and Infidels alike--are capable of and willing to behave like civilized democrats. They're not.
Thus, we are caught in a horrible dilemma: hoping for a political solution that will never come, and unwilling to commit anywhere near enough troops and resources to decisively quell the violence.
Furthermore, the "clear and hold" strategy our president wants to pursue begs the question, for how long? When you clear and hold any area in Iraq, the enemy combatants know the Americans won't be there forever. Long after we're gone, there will still be Sunnis and Shia who hate each other, with Iran and Syria meddling from across the border. Unless someone can fabricate the strategy and means to resolve all of those problems at once, the violence in Iraq will continue to worsen.
At least the president is sending a naval carrier group and antiaircraft guns to the region. We're going to need them for the bloodbath ahead.

Monday, January 08, 2007

To surge or not to surge...

This is a tough issue for Democrats. If indeed they deny funds for a troop surge as appears likely, then Republicans for years to come will place the blame on them for the disaster that is Iraq. I can hear it already: "If only we had made that one last troop surge," they will say, "we could have quelled the sectarian violence and democracy would have flourished. But no, the Democrats had to pull the rug out from under the military's feet, just like they did in Vietnam." I know, I know, it's ludicrous, but this is politics.
My own reluctant conclusion about a troop surge is this: too little, too late. It would take a lot more than an extra 2o to 40 thousand troops at this point to quell the sectarian violence. The time for overwhelming strength was at the beginning of this conflict, when it might have helped prevent the violence from erupting in the first place. I am frankly skeptical that any amount of force the U.S. could have mustered would have kept the lid on all the ethnic, tribal, and religious schisms that Saddam kept in check through brute force and terror.
Egypt, incidentally, is the 3rd highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Iraq and Israel. Money well spent on making the Middle East more democratic? Well hey, at least it's kept Mubarek in office for 25 years.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Top 5 books I read in 2006

5. American Guerrilla: My War Behind Japanese Lines, Roger Hillsman
4. In Our Image: America's Empire in the Phillippines, Stanley Karnow
3. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945, Max Hastings
2. John Adams, David McCullough
1. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin

Numbers 3 to 5 are excellent books that help put current conflicts like the war in Iraq in a healthier historical context than most people, both for and against the war, frankly have. Numbers 1 and 2 I would commend for their warm and moving accounts of two great (if unappreciated, in the case of Adams) presidents and their relationships with other famous men (Jefferson, in the case of Adams, and William Seward, in the case of Lincoln).

Honorable mentions that didn't make my Top 5 are Freedom & Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate by George Carey and The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria. The latter, in particular, I would commend to anyone who believes that democracy is an unqualified good that can work anywhere.
One book I found a little disappointing was Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael Oren. It was informative and worth reading for anyone who needs more proof about how utterly dysfunctional Arab states really are, but not as gripping an account of combat as I had hoped.
The rest of the non-fiction books I recall reading in 2006 were:
1776, David McCullough
In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat, Rick Atkinson
Martin Luther, Martin Marty
Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward
The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II, Stephen Ambrose