Friday, May 07, 2004


LI recently wrote a review of Niall Ferguson’s latest book, Colossus, for the National Post. In the review, I gingerly tiptoed around one of the obvious flaws in the book – Ferguson knows little and cares less about American history. This is fine with me. Let each do the work he loves.

Ferguson has never made any bones about the fact that he wants to be the AJP Taylor of the Right. Unfortunately, he seems headed for being the Toynbee of the Right -- hot, donnish air spread over big and vacuous ideas. He is exploiting his serious status as a historian (a man who knows things) to build a shaky and unworthy career for himself as a pundit (a man who quotes men who know things). He should really try to refrain from drawing conclusions from American history until he has an undergraduate level familiarity with it. But there he is, again, in Slate, blithely going on about, of all things he doesn’t know about, John Quincy Adams.

Here, astonishingly, is what he says about JQA:

“The lineal antecedent of the Bush administration's current policy is revealed here to be John Quincy Adams, "the most influential American grand strategist of the nineteenth century." (Although Americans are generally wary of the hereditary principle, they do like it to apply in the realm of foreign policy.)
According to Gaddis, Adams' strategy—partly inspired by one of the first nasty "surprises" in American history, the torching of the White House by the British in 1814—had three distinctive components. It allowed for pre-emption, on which basis South Florida and Texas were annexed; unilateralism, hence the Monroe Doctrine instead of an Anglo-American condominium in Latin America; and American hegemony, which came a lot later, but which Adams and his contemporaries fondly imagined.”

This is, well, whacky, and only a man who draws his American history through the very narrow straw provided by books by foreign policy scholars would have written something that is both so weird (South Florida? Does Ferguson know where Florida is? He had the same problem in his book) and that so misstates Adams contribution to American’s expansionist policy. The misstatemeht is symptomatic of Ferguson's real disinterest with American history. Ferguson has never had much time for race as a historical category. Sure, he mentions it in Empire, but he much prefers to talk about markets. That, plus Ferguson's tendency to make lawyer like arguments -- he loves to weed through his facts -- show through in the way he does American history.

Historians get a feel for facts. For instance, even if an American historian knew little about Adams and Texas, he'd suspect the annexation story and the South Florida story for the same reason: Adams was prominently and famously anti-slavery. Annexation, in the pre-civil war days, was driven largely by the South - in search of new territories, and seeking to enlarge the sphere of slave economies. These things came together in Adams famous opposition to annexing Texas. Adams knew very well that the Texas revolt was caused in part by the fact that the Americans in Texas were bringing their slaves into a state in a nation that had abolished slavery. All of which adds up to what Adams really did – which was to prevent a pre-emptive annexation of Texas by Andrew Jackson. Actually, the last is a bit speculative, but the latest historian of the Texas revolution, H.W. Brands, in his book Lone Star Nation, makes a pretty good case for it. The speculative part is that Jackson was moving towards annexation. The part that isn’t speculation is that Adams clearly blocked the annexation of Texas to the U.S., and he did it because of slavery. An excerpt from Adam’s speech on the subject:

“Annexation, had been put off with a sort of Return Jonathan refusal. He had been told with Solemnity of face that there was a doubt of the Constitutional power of Congress and the President to accept the proposal and moreover that they could not think of it now because it would risk a war with Mexico, and violate the sacred Faith of Treaties. But Mr. Jefferson had shewn how a Constitutional Camel could be Swallowed for the sake of Louisiana by palates accustomed to strain at a gnat, and the Chairman of the late Committee of Foreign Affairs professed his readiness to swallow another for the sake of Texas. And as to the war with Mexico, one President had told Congress seven months before that it would be justifiable, and his successor, even while alleging this pretence of War and the Sacred Faith of Treaties, was about to tell Congress not only that he himself agreed with his Predecessor that War would have been justifiable the Winter before, but that...both Houses of Congress had been of the same opinion, and that it was now not only more justifiable but indispensable because the last magnanimous Appeal to the Justice and the fears of Mexico, heralded by a Courier from that Department of State, with the indulgence of one week for an answer, had totally failed.”

Notice, however, that Kagan, Ferguson's interlocutor, doesn't correct him. As AJP Taylor once said, foreign policy mandarins know little about their own country, and a little more about other countries -- which is a distinct limitation on their policy formulations.

That's surely the case here.

Now, one might say, in Ferguson's defense, that Adams did, after all, construct what is known as the Monroe doctrine. But this simply reinforces the point about how complicated the American expansionist idea was, and how even in practice it was even attended with sometimes crippling tensions. While Adams, like many Americans, probably did assume that the U.S. would, at some point, take over the whole of North America, in fact his career is about the gradual dissolution of this idea, rather than its triumph. Ignorant of the way dialectical tug in American history, Ferguson justs sees an analogy with the British Empire. If that analogy wasn't there, frankly, Ferguson wouldn't be interested.

Ferguson should get safely back to his field in pronto time. The next time he writes for Slate, they might match him with someone who knows something about American history.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004


Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, pointed us to this very illuminating Salon article on Ahmed Chalabi by an enterprising journalist named John Dizard. It is worth seeing the ad (for the one day’s free membership!) to read the article, which provides an x ray of the motives of Bush’s Pentagon pump house gang. Our idea about the obsession with Iraq on the part of the Wolfowitzies was that, in part, Wolfowitz wanted to impose a coherent policy on the Middle East that would make it easier to accommodate our policy towards both Israel and Saudi Arabia. If Dizard is to be believed, however, the motives were much shabbier and stupider – basically, the idea was to find a way around forcing Israel to cede the West Bank to the Palestinians.

Dizard gets some great quotes. Here’s one from Douglas Feith’s former law partner, who happens to have been Chalabi’s nephew’s partner, too, L. Marc Zell:

“Zell outlines what Chalabi was promising the neocons before the Iraq war: "He said he would end Iraq's boycott of trade with Israel, and would allow Israeli companies to do business there. He said [the new Iraqi government] would agree to rebuild the pipeline from Mosul [in the northern Iraqi oil fields] to Haifa [the Israeli port, and the location of a major refinery]." But Chalabi, Zell says, has delivered on none of them. The bitter ex-Chalabi backer believes his former friend's moves were a deliberate bait and switch designed to win support for his designs to return to Iraq and run the country.”

And here is Dizard’s analysis of the neo-con set of motives:

“Why did the neocons put such enormous faith in Ahmed Chalabi, an exile with a shady past and no standing with Iraqis? One word: Israel. They saw the invasion of Iraq as the precondition for a reorganization of the Middle East that would solve Israel's strategic problems, without the need for an accommodation with either the Palestinians or the existing Arab states. Chalabi assured them that the Iraqi democracy he would build would develop diplomatic and trade ties with Israel, and eschew Arab nationalism.”

If that really sums up the grand Wolfowitzian strategy – they truly are nuts.

This is hard for even someone as cynical as LI to swallow, but Dizard makes a good case. If this was, indeed, the motive, than it would explain the otherwise puzzling loyalty to a man whose greatest accomplishment was escaping Jordan in the trunk of a car to enjoy the fruits of his numerous swindles in other, less threatening, climes. But Dizard does provide a reason for one of the most puzzling aspects of the war: why it was waged when it was waged in the first place. LI had imagined, when Bush was elected on a non-interventionist platform, that he was a traditional Republican in the semi-isolationist mode. It never crossed our mind that he imagined he was Woodrow Wilson’s retarded brother. How he went from the Taft wing to the Daffy wing of the party is a big puzzle, and Dizzard provides some of the key background information.

Dizard’s article doesn’t just nail the neo-cons. It gave LI a small dialectical shock, too. The policy of rapprochement with Iran that Chalabi and his minions are pursuing in Iraq is, obviously, a good thing for Iraq. It is hard to imagine an Iraq that wouldn’t try to seal some type of alliance with Iran. It is a natural fit, and we have always maintained that an autonomous Iraq can be expected to take that direction. A democratic Iraq is not going to spontaneously embrace Israel.

According to Dizard:

“The crux of the conflict is Iran, and whether the U.S. should try to make a deal with the Islamic Republic to enlist its support for peace in Iraq. Before and immediately after the war, the neoconservative position was that U.S. empowerment of the long-disenfranchised Shia community would make possible an Iraqi government that would make a "warm peace" with Israel. This in turn would pressure the rest of the Arab world to make a similar peace, without the need to concede land to the Palestinians.
This was, of course, a pipe dream: The Shia community in Iraq, like the Sunni community, is overwhelmingly anti-Israel, and the entire range of its leadership has close ties with Iran. Belatedly realizing that Chalabi's promise to build a secular, pro-Israel Shiite government is not going to come true, in the past couple of months the neocons in the Defense Department have tried to come up with a new plan. Feith, Wolfowitz and others are backing away from the Shia, due to their ties to Iran as well as Chalabi's deceptions. They are trying to cobble together a coalition of rehabilitated Sunni Muslim Iraqi Army officers and Kurdish leaders backed by their militias that would have Shia participation, but in a reduced role. For proponents of this strategy, the front-runner to be prime minister of the next version of the transitional government is Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, the founder and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.”

One should read the Dizzard article, and then read this mish-mash of lukewarm Democratic centrism by Lawrence J. Korb in the LA Times, today. If you want to know why Kerry is well on his way to losing the election, the Korb article provides the mindset. We particularly like this graf:

“The Bush administration has still not explained why it was mistaken about the primary reasons for going to war. Even in the face of recent setbacks, it has yet to acknowledge that creating a stable Iraq will be a long, difficult and costly endeavor and cannot be accomplished by an artificial deadline like June 30. The president has not recognized that we may have to live with an Iraq that is not a Jeffersonian democracy.”

The supposed sarcasm of the last sentence discloses, in actuality, a deep gullibility. When Howard Dean had his moment of genius about the war, it was in enacting what Husserl called an “epoche” – a bracketing of suppositions in order to understand a phenomenon. Dean bracketed the rhetoric about democracy and freedom, and looked at the “thing itself” – and he found, not democracy and freedom, but the usual shabby American colonial venture, circa 1953, in Iran, and 1956, in Guatamala. The same rushing in of corporate interests, the same lack of interest in setting up representative bodies, the same exercise in re-naming (in order to secure freedom of press, for instance, we have to close newspapers or “direct” the ones our corporations are contracted to “manage” ; in order to save Falluja, we have to destroy Falluja, etc.)

Democrats aren’t necessarily averse to these projects – in fact, they have often benefited handsomely from them. As David Brooks points out, admiringly, in his column in the NYT today, Kerry is campaigning on a Joe Lieberman like platform about Iraq. Korb’s little essay in the LAT ends, predictably, with a Kerry-esque flourish:
“Not learning from our mistakes in Vietnam would be the real disservice to our troops and the country. In fact, learning from those mistakes might be the best, if not the only, way to understand how we got into the current mess in Iraq and how we might get out of it.”
Of course, we have to learn. We have to learn and learn. We have to process. We have to process and process. We can’t promise anything, or plan anything, that would come down to: Getting Out of Iraq. Rather, the Kerry plan entails staying there and learning and processing and internationalizing and just having the most marvelous learning and processing time. Of course, regrettably, collateral casualties (you know, butchered Iraqis, butchered American soldiers) will be incurred in the learning process, but education comes at a steep price.

ps -- for confirmation of the appalling state of the Dem establishment, read Harold Meyerson's op ed piece in the Washington Post today. We loved the verbs in this sentence: "
Kerry's views on Iraq reflect those of the Democratic foreign policy elites, who largely maintain an embattled Wilsonian optimism about the prospects -- or at least, the necessity -- of shaping Iraq into a unified, pluralistic democracy." Shaping, eh? Perhaps those Democratic foreign elites ought to analyze the grammar of the word -- on the one side, the active, muscular, thinking force -- on the other side, the inert mass. Sound like colonialism yet?

Meyerson -- whose thesis is, basically, that Kerry is no flip flopper -- as if this was what mattered -- then present the dissident foreign policy view. Surprisingly, this dissident view doesn't entail having any confidence in a people to self organize -- doesn't entail applying the lessons of the Civil Rights movement in this country to Iraq -- doesn't entail any of the traditional methods used by the left in the past, including unionization, consciousness raising, and the like. I mean, doing things like that implies that the inert mass might not be so inert.

No, the new thing is to just segregate the inert mass into separate little cultural piles. Here's Meyerson, showing that the D.C. Dems are as brain-dead as the Pentagon pump house gang:

"A relative handful of the party's foreign policy mavens -- most prominently, Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia -- have a more chastened perspective. Heirs of such Vietnam-era realists as Sen. J. William Fulbright and political scientist Hans Morgenthau, they argue that Iraq is more nearly three countries than one -- a Shiite south inclined toward some form of Islamic rule, though not necessarily a theocratic republic; a democratic Kurdish north; and a Sunni-dominated middle with large non-Sunni minorities. No region will accept the domination of another, and striking a politically acceptable balance between majority rule and minority rights under these circumstances is all but impossible. You can't do nation-building, they conclude, when the nation doesn't want to be built.

Gelb has argued for letting Iraq devolve into three separate states. Galbraith, fearing that an independent Kurdistan would soon be invaded by a Kurdophobic Turkey, calls for establishing one state with a common foreign policy but consisting of three largely autonomous regions in all other matters. The realists acknowledge that there would be dreadful consequences from either kind of devolution -- certainly, women in the Shiite south would have their freedoms and lives ratcheted backward by several centuries -- but that this is going to be the eventual outcome in any case."

Those dirty, wife beating Shia, and democratic Kurds -- surely that is the verdict of contemporary history?
Or ... perhaps it is the verdict of forgetting contemporary history. Galbraith's article, for instance, mentions the first democratic elections held in Iraq, in 1992, in Kurdistan -- but forgets to mention that the two dominant Kurd war lords, dissatisfied with the results, soon went to war, and have since established their separate territories in Northern Iraq. Democracy at its finest! But why remember the facts?

Meanwhile, in Southern Iraq, elections -- which have been held on a local level -- show no strength for a theocratic party ratcheting women's rights back to the stone age, but a lot of strength for lefty parties with a strong stake in civil society.

Meyerson's article is more evidence, if we need it, that the Kerry flip flop which we should be angry about was his devious stance on Iraq. During the primaries, he allowed himself to be presented as a critic of the war. Little did we know his position was about the same as Bush's.

Monday, May 03, 2004


LI wasn’t planning on writing about the Abu Ghraib tortures, but it is too good an opportunity to ask about U.S. prisons to pass up. After all, the outcry has been confined mainly to the Iraq context, and whether the U.S. contractors and reservists exercizing their talents for cornpone sadism are the equivalent of Saddam H.’s vast torture machine. But while Saddam was constructing his prisons, the U.S. was very busily constructing theirs. And while we know very little about whether Iraqis regularly joked about prisoners in Saddam’s system getting their arms threshed into bloody pulps and their genitals electrocuted, we do know that it has been a huge joke, in the U.S., that prisoners routinely get raped in U.S. jails. That a former prison guard from one of our private prisons in Virginia has spread the practice to Abu Ghraib shouldn’t surprise anyone.

In U.S. prisons, discipline, aka torture, is affected not by the guards so much. Being a more self-organizing society than Iraq under Saddam, the guards and the private prison companies had no time for micro-managing torture – they simply put inmates into maximally dangerous situations and waited around for the inevitable assault, the tearing out of eyes, the gang bang sodomy, etc. All funny fodder for our talk shows and movies. According to this Human Rights Watch report, something like 70 percent of the prison population yearly suffers assault. All hilarious stuff, too. But the guards get in their innings:

“In California, for example, not a single local prosecutor has ever prosecuted a guard for prison shootings that have killed thirty-nine inmates and wounded more than 200 over the past decade.”

Of course, this is the active violence that is meted out and condoned by the U.S. system. The part that isn’t considered torture is solitary confinement – which, according to this article for Fortune Magazine, started as a specifically political punishment:

“This use of sensory deprivation was extensive with imprisoned members of the Black Panther party, the Black Liberation Army formations, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, the American Indian Movement, white activists, jail house lawyers, Islamic militants, and prison activists. At one time or another, they all found themselves living in extended isolation, sometimes for years on end.”

And here’s a pertinent graf from the same Fortune article:

“Many human rights groups have expressed concern over criminal justice policy in the US, which has increasingly, encouraged the use of control units, security housing units and super-max prisons. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Lawyers Guild, California Prison Focus, and many other groups and individuals have joined with the World Organization Against Torture in expressing concerns about these units. The World Organization Against Torture is currently writing a report on United States compliance with the United Nations Covenants (CAT) in 1994. Areas of concern where the US does not comply with that Convention include punitive violence and brutality in control unit facilities, the practice of cell extractions, the treatment of the mentally ill and the use of brutality through chemical sprays and dangerous methods of restraint. The existence and scope of these conditions is also in opposition to guidelines for treatment set in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well as the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.”

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...