Saturday, May 29, 2004


So somebody chose the new Iraqi P.M. – unless he is unchosen in the next couple of days. NPR’s Marketplace interviewed an American correspondent, just back from Iraq, who was uncharacteristically frank for an American correspondent. He said, briskly, that Allawi is hugely corrupt, and hugely unpopular.

LI, thinking about legitimacy, power, and the foundations of democracy, decided to search the new issue of the Journal of Democracy, a neo-con deal, for pointers. The new issue has an astonishing ratio of hot air to footnotes. The first article was a performance that would have earned a charitable C from yours truly, during our T.A.-ing years. It proclaimed that, if we don’t watch it, this might be the century of Anti-Americanism. The piece was almost entirely devoid of references, but these were made up for by that perpetual companion of buncombe, the passive voice. My hand got that red pencil urge, confronted with the ‘some have said”s and “there is now a consensus that”s strewn about the page. Among the murk, one thing was clear: anti-Americanism was anti-democratic. Also, mind you, anti-Jewish. Europeans, decadent ones, opinion leaders, were nourishing this anti-Americanism. The one actual person alluded to in the piece was, of course, Francis Fukuyama, that master of the unsupported generalization and the skewed statistic. Well, my surprise was mighty at seeing his name on the byline of the next article. The Journal of Democracy goes in for this kind of group-think, apparently.

So we stopped leafing through the Journal of Democracy. And started leafing through the Journal of Interdisciplinary History.

There we read a charming review of a recent tempest in the teapot of Italian historiography. Robert Putnam, the man who wrote about bowling alone, wrote a book in 1993 about building democracy that praises the Italian city states for creating social capital through institutions that, in a sense, built the relationships that made trust possible. Or perhaps this is a relationship of mutual dependence – the relationships came with the trust, and the trust came with the relationships. In 1999, in the J.I.H., there was a symposium dedicated to pondering Putnam’s theses. Such is the stately, if not glacial, pace of academic pondering that Mark Jurdjevic, in the current issue, now reviews the reviewers in an article entitled, Trust in Renaissance Electoral Politics.

There is some parallel between the happenings in Florence in 1370 and the happenings in Baghdad now. In Florence, there was a poisonous thirst for political position. Jockeying, disguised by appeals to the “natural rise” of this or that person or party, was fierce. The Italian city states dealt with the ambition partly by unloading the inevitable hostility on a third party: fortuna. Accident was a way of randomizing power. Nowhere was this done with such panache as in Venice. LI humbly urges the CPA, in its wisdom, to consider the way they used to elect council members in Venice:

Consider the safeguards against corruption employed in the Venetian electoral system. The Great Council lay at the heart of the Venetian electoral politics, administering 831 posts in the city and the terraferma. Membership was limited to patricians aged twenty-five and older and usually numbered around 1,000. Four nominating committees compiled lists of possible candidates, each of whom would be subject to a vote in the Council. To determine who the nominators would be, patricians filed past an urn that contained sixty gold balls, plus as many silver balls as were necessary to ensure one ball per patrician. Only those patricians who drew a gold ball were entitled to continue to the next electoral stage. Significantly, anyone in the family of someone who drew a gold ball was also disqualified from proceeding in the election. The sixty patricians who advanced filed past another urn, this time containing thirty-six gold balls and the requisite number of silver ones. The winners divided into four nominating committees and retreated to separate rooms to compose their lists.”
Unfortunately, the CPA’s proconsular tendencies aren’t mitigated by a sense of style so gaudy; these conquerors of Baghdad belong to less ornamental set. But they trust the electorate no more than the Venetian upper class. The conventional wisdom, in the States, is that we are over in Iraq to teach the people about democracy. But as St. Paul liked to say, we see now, as in a mirror, darkly. More bluntly, the conventional wisdom inverts the truth. The real lessons in democracy should be given, first, to Bremer’s set at the CPA, who seem only distantly aware of how the thing works, and definitely opposed to all of its distasteful products. In fact, we have never sent a single individual over there who has ever been elected to any office, including dog-catcher. The inevitable result: we have a bunch of people over there who don’t hesitate to game the justice system, ban papers, and try to game the very mechanism for choosing representatives. In other words, we’ve sent over your typical D.C. lobbyists, and asked them to create a democracy. They have as much chance of doing it as a spayed dog has of birthing pups.

Thursday, May 27, 2004


Marc Reisner’s 1986 Cadillac Desert occupies a unique space in LI’s mental bookshelf. We first read that book in 1992. This was three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. C.D. caused a wall to fall in our own mind – essentially, C.D. destroyed our faith in the central tenet of what you might call the positive economic aspect of Marxism. That tenet, for one hundred years, had been that rationality in economics was the equivalent of finding a way to minimize the social cost of economic activity, which in turn required government planning. No book that we have ever read has presented a more scathing picture of the largescale effects of government planning. If you read, say, interviews with Hayek, the man whose life work was devoted to attacking central planning, you will find that he retained the 20th century’s touching faith in the government’s ability to engineer the environment. Hayek expressly approved of such government programs as the dam building, largescale irrigation, and the lot. What C.D. did is put into question the results of those programs.

We are just beginning to understand those results. If presidential campaigns were truly about our real, long term problems, in 2000 Al Gore and George Bush would not only have mentioned Osama bin Laden at least once in their debates (did they? LI doesn’t have time to check), they would surely have talked, at length, about the disappearance of the Louisiana coast. We’ve already devoted several posts to this topic, and its multiple causes.

Another symptom of the coming of large scale environmental problems directly linked to the government’s engineering of the environment has been just over the horizon of visibility in the West. For the past five years, the West has suffered from a drought that could be more than a drought – it could be a change in the very equilibrium of the climate system in the West, a change to a much drier weather pattern. That would be eerily parallel to the beginning of C.D., which is a pondering of the end of the Anasazi Indian culture in the Southwest. That culture flourished over hundreds of years within a climate that favored agriculture – a climate that was suddenly transformed into a much drier climate.

Ed Quillen, in a retrospective review of C.D., quotes a marvelous paragraph from Reisner’s concluding chapter:

"We didn't have to build main-stem dams on rivers carrying vast loads of silt; we could have built more primitive offstream reservoirs, which is what many private irrigation districts did -- and successfully -- but the federal engineers were enthralled by dams. We didn't have to mine a hundred thousand years' worth of groundwater in a scant half century, any more than we had to keep building 5,000-pound cars with 450-cubic-inch V-8's. We didn't have to dump eight tons of dissolved salts on an acre of land in a year; we could have forsworn development on the most poorly drained lands or demanded that, in exchange for water, the farms conserve as much as possible. But the Bureau [of Reclamation] sells them water so cheaply they can't afford to conserve; to install an efficient irrigation system costs a lot more....

"But the tragic and ludicrous aspect of the whole situation is that cheap water keeps the machine running; the water lobby cannot have enough of it, just as the engineers cannot build enough dams; and how convenient it is that cheap water encourages waste, which results in more dams."

I do wonder how we will look back, in a hundred years time, at such social phenomena as Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in the U.S., perched in the fastest growing desert – for deserts do grow with climate cycles – in the West. Surely the hunger for water, in the next decade, is going to make large scale water projects irresistible – like selling Alaskan water, or Canadian Water, to the Las Vegas or Phoenix municipalities. Mining water like that will extend the unsustainable project of maintaining millions of more people in a desert environment to which they refuse to adapt. At least the Anasazi worked, as well as they could, with what they knew. We don’t have that excuse.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004


Surely those who keep the institutional memory going in the Company are having a rush right now. The controversy around Chalabi is looking increasingly like a controversy that swirled around another Arab figure who briefly convinced an American government to back him, with the help of a story woven by entrenched D.C. honchos. This earlier character was named Nasser.

That Nasser met with the CIA and received CIA support for overthrowing pro-British King Farouk is a story that has been told by Miles Copeland, his CIA handler, in The Game of Nations and his autobiography (which LI has only read bits of, on the web. Like here). Perhaps the operative word isn’t really told – like a donut, a spook story is impossible to separate from its central hole. But Copeland has broadly hinted that the CIA was convinced that the American problem in the Middle East – the perennial tension between supporting Israel and acquiring the necessary amount of petroleum – could be alleviated by Nasser, who would quietly adopt an Israel friendly, or less unfriendly, policy.

Copeland should know, since he spread the story himself. It turned out to be not so. So much American cleverness in the Middle East turns out to be not so.

This isn’t to say that Chalabi has anything like Nasser’s weight as an important figure. Nasser’s constituency was, at the beginning, pretty much the whole Arab world; Chalabi’s, from the beginning to the end, has consisted of a demimonde of family and sleazy family retainers, and a vociferous neo-con lobbying group. As far as the Iraqis are concerned, Chalabi ranks, in popularity, below al-Sad’r, Saddam Hussein, and Darth Vader.

The interesting thing here is that the strategic agenda being pursued, in 1956 and in 2003, is the same. The public side of that agenda was about modernizing the Middle East –democratizing, globalizing, etc., etc. The essence of it, though, was to recreate Nixon’s tripartite structure in the Middle East, with Iraq taking the place of the Shah’s Iran.

Even this is quietly being abandoned. In 2004, as David Ignatius has pointed out in a recent column, the Sauds, far from being slightly shaken from their key position, have seen that position reinforced. In one sense, one wonders: did the Pentagon strategist seriously think they could shake the Saudis with… nothing? They were trying to send a message to Saudi Arabia, but a threat that is couched in terms of an irreality so gross and obvious is less a threat than a sign of weakness. One of the lessons of 9/11 is that the Saudi elite got away with it. Not that they planned it, but they certainly nurtured the ideology that created the hijackers, certainly conveyed the money to the people who paid them, and certainly put the safety of their own hegemony over any other consideration. In all of these things, they have been vindicated. I can’t remember where I ran across the description of Bush, in the week after 9/11, giving Pakistan “an offer it couldn’t refuse.” It made me laugh. Pakistan, after playing bagman for the Saudis, after constructing the Taliban, after mismanaging foreign loans to the extent that they were on the verge of serious IMF action, were given this offer: “here’s three billion dollars in aid, no questions asked.” Wow, I am sure they were all suitably awed by the display of American strength. So the “war on terrorism” that was, in part, a war of terrorists on the U.S., is being played out in two asymmetric parts. The terrorists are doing rather well, considering that they attacked the most powerful nation on earth. They continue to stage attacks, they repel the army of the nation in which they are encamped, and they can even afford to help their old patrons, the Taliban, in the Afghan guerilla war. Their collaborators, the Pakistani secret service and military, have once more managed to get the money flowing from America. And then there are the Saudis. Once again, we are depending on the Saud family to increase the supply of oil. Once again, we are scrambling around to make the Sauds happy.

Yes, but on the other side of the war on terrorism, Bush, having chosen not to fight the war on terrorism, is entangled in a war in Iraq that has everything to do with occupation and a strategy that should have been decorously strangled in the pages of Foreign Policy, rather than enacted in the deserts and the cities.

Kaus, a Republican who has to continually claim he’s a Democrat – it is part of his cred – has been harping for months that the Dem elders will replace Kerry. Kerry is, admittedly, a suck candidate. However, isn’t it about time for the GOP elders to look at Bush? He is not only a bad candidate, but a clear and present danger to some basic American interests that GOP elders should care about.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...