Archives for August, 2005


So this Foreign Affairs article everyone’s talking about? The one that lays out the “oil spot” strategy for spreading security and winning the war in Iraq? Turns out it requires “a protracted commitment of U.S. resources, a willingness to risk more casualties in the short term, and an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq,” as well as various wishes of the “and a pony” variety, like “stitching this coalition together would require a good understanding of Iraqi tribal politics.” Increased US casualties and more money aren’t fatal objections, if the added increments of blood and treasure aren’t wasted. But with statements like “Even if successful, this strategy will require at least a decade of commitment and hundreds of billions of dollars and will result in longer U.S. casualty rolls,” I’m not all that confident. “Even if.”

Posted on Aug 31, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off


The US News ranking system has its flaws, no doubt–chief among them its annoying tendency to downgrade institutions I went to with each passing year. But the subtitle to the Washington Monthly’s college guide tells you all you need to know about how useful it’s going to be to most people trying to figure out where they ought to spend four years and over $150K:

Other guides ask what colleges can do for you.
We ask what colleges are doing for the country.

Posted on Aug 25, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

“Other Side” Back Then

Oh, and here’s one from Herring’s book for you “on the other side” guys:

“Protesters marched daily around the White House, chanting… ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh/NLF is going to win.’ Antiwar forces attempted ‘lie ins’ in front of troop trains [and] collected blood for the Vietcong.”

I don’t even think it’s fair to tar all the anti-Vietnam-War forces with the actions of the fringe, but show me something comparable from the Iraq debate, and I’ll be impressed.

Posted on Aug 25, 2005 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Book of the Week: America’s Longest War

No, not the one about the drug war. I picked up George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, which I hadn’t read since freshman year of college, to refresh my memory about the other big muddy and the other big fool. It’s a good basic primer, but too short and too dry to be terribly enjoyable. However, I learned a few things from it, some of which apply to our current mess. I’ll post a few of them here, with more posts to come, if I feel like it.

I’d forgotten how close Eisenhower was to direct intervention in Vietnam. Two sticking points for Ike, which help preserve his reputation for not being as dumb as he looked: congressional authorization and multinational cooperation. “Sensitive to Truman’s fate in Korea [Ike and Dulles] were unwilling to act without backing from Congress.” Not getting much from the feelers they sent out, when the Brits refused to cooperate, that sealed the deal on direct intervention.

The book also confirmed my impression that in the ’50s and ’60s, the US military leadership was nuttier than the civilians. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Arthur Radford, wanted to use tactical nukes to relieve the French at Dienbienphu (rock around the clock). In ’54 the “Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up detailed contingency plans for deploying US forces, one provision of which was that nuclear weapons would be used if it was militarily advantageous.” Post-Vietnam, the situation has been reversed, with the uniformed leadership more cautious and more realistic than the civilians.

Of course, the administration lied its way into war, misleading Congress about the circumstances surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and securing a broad resolution (with very little debate) from Congress that, as LBJ put it, was like “grandma’s nightshirt–it covered everything.”

I don’t think Vietnam is a perfect parallel to Iraq, but there are common themes. Chief among them the fresh-faced can-do optimism and historical naivete that is our birthright. We mean well, most of us, we really do. But we don’t know what we’re doing, and we break things.

“Dammit,” [Johnson] exploded on one occasion, “we need to exhibit more compassion for the Vietnamese plain people… We’ve got to see that the South Vietnamese government wins the battle… of crops and hearts and caring.”

Crops and hearts and caring–and massive civilian loss of life, as well as unintended consequences at which the mind reels:

“In Cambodia itself, U.S. actions contributed to one of the great tragedies of recent history…. the American invasion forced the North Vietnamese to move out of their sanctuaries and into the heartland of Cambodia. Whether as a direct or indirect consequence of the American invasion, North Vietnam initiated large-scale support for the Khmer Rouge insurgents fighting Lon Nol. In the particularly brutal civil war that followed, the United States … unleashed thousands of tons of bombs on Cambodia. The ultimate tragedy was that from beginning to end, the Nixon administration viewed its ally as little more than a pawn to be used to help salvage the U.S. position in Vietnam, showing scant regard for the consequences for Cambodia and its people.”

Walter McDougall, in his terrific book Promised Land, Crusader State, really had Vietnam nailed, as the “Great Society War.” As with LBJ’s approach on the home front–solve complex social problems by setting loose the social workers, planners, and social scientists–so too with nation-building in South Vietnam:

McNamara put more than a hundred sociologists, ethnologists, and psychologists to work ‘modeling’ South Vietnamese society and seeking data sufficient ‘to describe it quantitatively and and simulate its behavior on a computer.

And he quotes Col. Harry Summers:

“[Vietnam was] the international version of our domestic Great Society programs where we presumed that we knew what was best for the world in terms of social, political and economic development and saw it as our duty to force the world into the American mold–to act not so much as the World’s Policeman as the World’s Nanny.”

If Vietnam was the “Great Society War,” perhaps Iraq is the “Compassionate Conservative War.”

Posted on Aug 24, 2005 in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Favorite Fallacies

The comment thread below makes me realize that debate would be pretty antiseptic without some resort to what are, technically, logical fallacies. You should never rely on them to carry much weight in your argument, but they’re useful to provide atmosphere. So you guys can keep your “on the other side” guilt-by-association, if I can keep the “chickenhawk slur.” Because it’s just too much fun to give up.

With that: happy day! Neolibertarian Max Borders has a new piece up on Cyber-PortAuthority.

It seems that where Bush went wrong was in how he pitched the war. Instead of emphasizing the purported threat to US national security, he should have sold it as the Arbusto-style investment opportunity it was: a costly, bloody, unnecessary attempt to forcibly remake a part of the world we know nothing about. But, you know, war is–what is it that people say?–it’s, it’s–uh, help me out here:

war is hell and can be a protracted struggle. In the history of wars, less [sic] than 2000 dead in two plus years of conflict is an unprecedented low. And while the loss of human life is always grave [thonk!], those sacrifices were made for a future of freedom at home and abroad.

Yeah, well, they also serve who only sit and type.

Posted on Aug 23, 2005 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Bad Faith

In the comments to a post below, James Markels writes:

many people who opposed the war in Iraq have subsequently prayed that the United States should lose or suffer merely to “prove” themselves right or to teach the other side a lesson or whatnot.

He also notes that “People who opposed the invasion on mere policy grounds shouldn’t be praying that we lose or that American soldiers be killed.”

Now, I wonder how James knows that “many people who opposed the war” have been praying that the US lose and American soldiers be killed. Perhaps he’s been to one of these Unitarian services where lefties are known, in between renditions of “Kumbaya,” to let loose with The Prayer for the Death of the Occupier:

Earth mother, star mother, you who are called by a thousand names, may all remember we are cells in your body and dance together. O Abiding One who sees us for who we are and knows us as a mother knows a child, we pray this day for the victory of your roadside bombs, for the glorious blasts of your IEDs and for the death of a thousand more American soldiers–anything, O Lord, that would make us less embarassed by the faded Howard Dean bumper stickers on our Volvos.

Or perhaps James has come into the possession of one of those coveted Moral Geiger Counters that many of the lefties I went to college and law school with seemed to have. Great little devices that if brought close enough to an interlocutor will click frantically, identifying him as a person who hates (the poor, black people, women–you fill in the blank). Devices that will let you know that person is a vile toad, unworthy of taking seriously.

If James has one of these devices, I’d like to borrow it. I’d like to be able to identify the evil people in public debate. Otherwise, not being gifted with the ability to look into men’s souls, I guess I’ll have to rely on the evidence provided by what they actually say and do. And that’s no fun.

Posted on Aug 19, 2005 in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

Take That, Trek Fans!

I’m entirely convinced. But then, I always hated Star Trek. Hypothesis: healthy science fiction is dystopian, and it doesn’t have aliens.

Link via Kausfiles.

Posted on Aug 19, 2005 in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

No One Here Gets Out Alive

Useless and weird fact: George Greer, the trial court judge who ruled that Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube could be removed, roomed with the Lizard King in college.

He moved to a house about a mile from the FSU campus with a friend and some students he didn’t know. Greer described the house this way: “Jim Morrison and five normal people.”

One Halloween, Greer recalled, Morrison greeted children out trick-or-treating at the front door completely naked. Morrison had lighter fluid in his mouth. He spit it out, touching a match to the fluid to create a roaring flame.

“The poor little kids ran screaming to their parents,” Greer said.

I’m surprised this didn’t get more play during the Schiavo madness. “They say Greer is a ‘conservative Republican’ judge. Well, how many ‘conservative Republicans’ do you know who roomed with Jim Morrison in college?”

Posted on Aug 19, 2005 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In the Long Run

Willie Nelson was on Stern on the way into work this AM. A guy calls in, identifies himself as a doctor, and asks Willie, “Have you had a chest X-ray? Aren’t you worried about the long term effects of [smoking five joints a day]?” First of all, I hate that sort of Knight of Public Health attitude that some doctors cop. I bet this guy’s the sort of officious little busybody who asks you, per the AMA suggestion, whether you have any handguns in the house. But that aside, Nelson, who’s 73, had a terrific response:

“Son, this is the long-term.”

Posted on Aug 17, 2005 in Uncategorized | 17 Comments

“On the Other Side”

I am unimpressed with the list the Volokh Conspiracy has come up with of “Westerners who support the Iraqi ‘resistance.'” Off the top of my head, I think I could come up with a more prominent list of ‘wingers who support “nuking Mecca” and the like.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t noticed a lot of prominent antiwar types singing the praises of Baathist health care or pining for a Qaedist “peoples’ revolution” based on decapitating people and treating women like dogs. One of the things that used to annoy me about the Left growing up was the reflexive implication of bad faith: if you’re against (the welfare state, affirmative action, etc.), it must be because you’re a rotten, malicious person who wants bad things for (the poor, minorities, etc.)

This focus on “anti-Americanism” is the right wing’s equivalent of that sort of left-wing smear. That the charge of “rooting for the other side” in some prominent cases comes from people like David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens who did root for the other side in Vietnam makes it especially poor sport.

Posted on Aug 17, 2005 in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

The Golden Winger


I haven’t read the PoorMan much, but (his? their?) decision to award a “Golden Winger” to the craziest rightwinger of the week is just sublime. That’s Kip Winger of hairband Winger, for those of you who didn’t come of age in the late ’80s.

Posted on Aug 17, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Title Inflation

“Starbucks restrooms are for customers only. Please see a Starbucks Partner for the restroom key.”

Partner? Do they start as “Associates”? Is there an up-or-out dynamic? Or do they just start as “Partners”?

And does this kind of phony symbolism really ease the pain of listening to the Alanis Morisette acoustic album on a tape loop all day?

Posted on Aug 16, 2005 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

This Week’s Book: A Conflict of Visions

Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions was my self-assigned reading for this week. Says Sowell:

“One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues. The issues themselves may have no intrinsic connection with each other… [Yet] the same familiar faces can be found glaring at each other from opposite sides of the political fence, again and again.”

The root of the struggle, per Sowell, can be found in two competing, almost pre-rational visions of how the world works. The Constrained Vision, and the Unconstrained Vision.

In the Constrained Vision, human nature is fixed; man, flawed
In the Unconstrained Vision, human nature is malleable; man, perfectible. As Sowell puts it:

“Running through the tradition of the unconstrained
vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the
evils of the world – and that wiser or more moral and humane
policies are the solution. By contrast, the constrained vision sees
the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy
choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual
limitations of human beings.”

The Constrained Vision favors tacit knowledge and tradition as, not so much the democracy, but the accumulated wisdom of the dead.
the Unconstrained Vision favors “articulated rationality.” Social customs and economic arrangements that can’t stand up to the reasoned scrutiny of any given smart person are suspect.

The Constrained Vision stresses trade-offs; it posits, as the LP’s David Bergland used to say, that “utopia is not an option.” The Unconstrained Vision, in its purest forms holds that utopia is so an option, given enlightened leadership.

In the CV, freedom is freedom from coercion. In the UV, freedom is the freedom actually to achieve specific results. Justice in the CV is Nozick’s: justice as process; in the UV, it’s Rawls’s justice as pattern–a particular just distribution. In economics, the CV is laissez faire; in law, formalistic, and rules-based. The UV is in economics, dirigiste; in law, results oriented, favoring standards, not rules.

CV heavyweights: Adam Smith, Burke, Friedric Hayek, Madison, Hamilton, Malthus, Hobbes. UV heavies: William Godwin, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, Rawls, Ronald Dworkin. Though he doesn’t use these examples, Constrained Vision: Aristotle; Unconstrained: Plato. in foreign policy: constrained = realist; unconstrained = Wilsonian.

I love the taxonomy, I think it’s instructive. But some of the explication is dated. The book was written in 1987, so there’s probably more focus on central planning than the modern reader needs, that fight having largely been won, and the unconstrained vision mugged by reality.

I’d also have preferred less of the (sometimes repetitive) drawn out discussion of the two visions (by chapter three, the reader has “got it” and doesn’t need much more) and more, I don’t know what. Discussion of which vision comports with observable reality? I suppose that would undermine Sowell’s non-polemical approach in this book, and much of this can’t be proven. Discussion of the extent to which these visions are hard-wired? Probably speculative and beyond the scope of the book.

Like Sowell, I’m a Constrained Vision guy. But I’m also a libertarian, and as Sowell recognizes, libertarianism is a “mixed theory” in CV/UV terms. Leading figures like Rand and Rothbard had a tetch of UV poisoning and the lure of the unconstrained vision sometimes leads libertarians (like Tom Paine) to say silly things like “we have it in our power to begin the world again.”

And since everything is about Iraq these days, here’s Sowell on January 6, 2003:

Those neoconservatives, especially, who were pushing an activist “national greatness” foreign policy, even before September 11th, have seized upon that event as a reason for the United States to “use American might to promote American ideals” around the world.

That phrase, by Max Boot of the Counsel on Foreign Relations and The Weekly Standard, is breathtaking in its implications. When he places himself and fellow neoconservatives in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, it is truly chilling.

Many of the countries we are having big trouble with today were created by the Woodrow Wilson policies of nation-building by breaking up empires, under the principle of “self-determination of nations.” Such trouble spots as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon were all parts of the Ottoman Empire that was dismembered after its defeat in the First World War.

The Balkan cauldron of nations was created by dismembering the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. That dismemberment also facilitated Adolph Hitler’s picking off small nations like Czechoslovakia and Austria in the 1930s, without firing a shot, because they were no longer part of a defensible empire.

The track record of nation-building and Wilsonian grandiosity ought to give anyone pause. The very idea that young Americans are once again to be sent out to be shot at and killed, in order to carry out the bright ideas of editorial office heroes, is sickening.

He’s since made some pro-war noises, but I think he had it right from the start.

Posted on Aug 15, 2005 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

HBO Sunday Night

I’m glad Nate’s dead. It’s one thing to be a third-rate human being, but coating it in an aura of New Agey Left-Coast faux-spiritual enlightenment adds insult to injury. And, is it odd that one of the few well-adjusted characters is Claire’s moronically pro-Bush yet fundamentally decent lawyer boyfriend? Or is that just what passes for transgressive for Alan Ball?

As for “Entourage,” it’s Maxim to SATC’s Cosmo, and thus, far more enjoyable. It seems to me that most women think they’re Carrie, when they’re really Miranda. If that’s so, I wonder if most guys think they’re Eric, when they’re really Johnny Drama.

Posted on Aug 15, 2005 in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Hiroshima, Belatedly

It’s a little late to comment on the Hiroshima anniversary, but some days ago I noticed that Glenn Reynolds excerpted this:

CLIVE DAVIS: “At some point in the next few days, I suppose, someone in the moral equivalence industry will try to argue that the dropping of the atomic bomb was an act of terrorism.”

Well, yes. You don’t have to be a self-flagellating American to note that it comes pretty close to the standard definitions. OED says terrorism is “a policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; the employment of methods of intimidation; the fact of terrorizing or condition of being terrorized.” In US law it’s: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” In the latter definition, Hiroshima and Nagasaki fail only because they weren’t carried out by “subnational groups.” Not much of an ethical defense, it seems to me: “Sure, it’s killing civilians to instill terror in the hopes of changing government policy, but, you see, we’re a state, so it can’t be terrorism.” (To paraphrase Mel Brooks, “it’s good to be the state.”)

Well then call the bombings “state terrorism,” a for-some-reason controversial term, though I believe we got the word terrorism via the Reign of Terror, which was, you’ll remember, carried out by a state. Either way, defenses of the bombings rarely address the terrorism charge. In fact, if you look at the very next item Reynolds links as a “refutation” of the Hiroshima-as-terrorism view, it’s a nonsequitur, as most putative refutations are:

Max Boot: “It is hard to imagine how many more GIs and Tommies would have perished in 1944-45 had Anglo-American leaders flinched from using all the means at their disposal to hasten the end of the war. Indeed, if the U.S. had staged a blood-drenched invasion of Japan while holding back its atomic arsenal, President Truman would have been indicted for that decision too.”

All this says is that it was, in Boot’s and Reynolds’ eyes, justifiable terrorism. We could have a debate about that, about whether unconditional surrender was the right war aim, and under what conditions a land invasion of Japan would have been necessary, but I’m neither prepped nor interested. And if, like Paul Fussell, an author I admire a great deal, I’d been poised to lose my life in that invasion, I’d be saying “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” too. But calling a spade a spade doesn’t mean you “hate America.”

Update: in comments, Matt Hogan points to a passage from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” that (obviously) better expresses my point:

Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Posted on Aug 11, 2005 in Uncategorized | 19 Comments