The Closet Moderate: April 2009

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

BREAKING: Humans Have Ten Fingers, Toes

This 100 days triumph has got me annoyed, but not for the reason you may suspect. It bothers me for the same reason that the news stories a few years ago bothered me when they when on and on about the n-thousandth soldier killed in Iraq: the genesis of the story was that something has occurred involving a certain number, that number being a power of ten (or a multiple of a power of ten). These stories derive their significance from the fact that God (or Darwin) has created us with ten digits at the end of our limbs. If we had eleven fingers, like the villainous race of aliens in L. Ron Hubbard's bizarre classic, Battlefield Earth, we might have to wait until May 20th for this celebration. If we had evolved from the three-toed sloth, it would have happened on February 25th.

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I'm not doubting that our Pontifex Maximus has served 10^2 days in office, or that he deserves to be deified by a grateful nation. It's demonstrably true (at least the first part is). Nor are these other bothersome stories false: 4*10^3 American soldiers were killed in Iraq; the Dow Jones Industrial Average once passed over 10^4, and has now receded below that figure. It's true, it's all true.

My problem is that these stories have little to do with their purported subjects. Instead, they are broad opinion-as-news pieces that use the 10^n figure as a bootstrap. The First 10^2 days stories have nothing to do with what President Obama did on April 29. The Dow 10^4 stories do not explain the details of the trade that moved that index above 10^4 points. The Iraq casualties stories do not talk about the life of the 10^3th man killed, what he died for, or why he fought. What they do contain is an editorial disguised as a news story. The First 10^2 days [Isn't Obama Great?!?]; Dow 10^4! [Will the Bull Market Never End?!?]; 10^3 dead in Iraq [Bush Lied, Kids Died!]

I've heard this "event" described as a milestone. Codswallop; a mile has 5,280 feet, as every schoolboy knows. This might be a hectometerstone, if anything. But people like to celebrate things, so why not get on the bandwagon? This is only The Closet Moderate's 96th post, but fear not: in base-12, that's 80!






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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Swine time

It's apparently time to get worked up about the flu again. Every few years, this seems to surface as one of the media-approved fears we're supposed to obsess about. This year, Mexican Swine Flu has joined the economies, global warming, the fate of Gitmo prisoners, and the injustice of male-only golf clubs on that list. Yes, it's not every flu epidemic that features the President as Patient Zero, but I'm still not convinced that Captain Trips is upon us.

I'm still waiting for that Chinese Bird Flu that was supposed to kill us all a few years ago. I guess that will roll in around the time we hit Peak Oil, are overrun by Africanized bees, and experience mass starvation in Europe due to overpopulation.

The news media have yet to fill the vacuum left by the demise of Mutually Assured Destruction and all the other Cold War hi-jinx. They seem to think that the best way to sell newspapers is to constantly scare the shit out of weak-minded fools. We at the Closet Moderate know, as do all educated people, that the real fear about which Americans should be obsessed is not swine, or Mexicans, or flu, but that which all men fear deep in their hearts: zombies. Let the suckers get their flu shots this weekend; I'll be updating my house's zombie defense systems.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Next stop, Havana!

Many of my earlier posts on this blog have been distinctly unfriendly to President Obama and to communists. But together, I kind of like them. That is to say, I like that Obama is being soft on communism. As this article in The Economist tells us, Obama is considering weakening the embargo against Cuba. The only problem, as I see it, is that his proposals don't go far enough.

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The embargo with Cuba goes against many American foreign policy proscriptions, past and present. Jefferson said that our motto should be "commerce with all nations, alliance with none." Our post-1945 internationalism has worn away the second part of that maxim, but commerce with all still applies. We trade with all sorts of nations, no matter how loathsome their governments. Red China is one of our largest trading partners. We get all sorts of oil from Saudi Arabia. We deal with countless sub-Saharan dictatorships. Hell, we even trade with Vietnam (né North Viet Nam), and our beef with them is far more recent and more bloody than our problems with Cuba. So, the Castro bros may be tyrants and scumbags, but so are the leaders of so many places that make us sneakers and calculators.

Cuba confiscated American property during their revolution, it is true, but they're far from the only nation to have done so. Pemex, the state-owned oil company of Mexico, was constructed of American-owned oil wells seized in 1938. FDR didn't bat an eye at that, and in the 1930's nations came to blows over such things all the time. Venezuela and Saudi Arabia acquired American wells by threatening to do the same thing as Mexico, then buying properties for a fraction of the value. So, again, our grudge against Cuba is singular.

There are, of course, other nations we treat like Cuba, but most of them are threats to us now, not forty years ago. Cuba's government is a threat to its own people, but to the United States, they are as the buzzing of flies. Delicious, rum-flavored flies. So, let's return to the vacation spot of our grandfathers! It will be way easier to encourage democratic revolution when we can actually go there.

My only slight quibble is with the timidity of the proposals from the Obama administration. According to the Economist:
Officials said that all restrictions on visits and remittances to the island by Cuban-Americans will be scrapped, and that American firms would be allowed to provide telecoms services to Cubans, including telephone roaming and fibre-optic broadband connections with the United States (if Cuba agrees). The embargo itself will remain, at least until the American Congress decides otherwise.
That's a good start, but why not allow all Americans to visit, not just Cuban-Americans? And why not propose a full withdrawal of the embargo? This occasion calls for a little audacity from the hopemaster-in-chief!

UPDATE: Then again, we should also make sure Castro's not going to be a total prick before we give away the store.



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Friday, April 17, 2009

The Banality of Evil

And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot be easily duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes into work every day and has a job to do. Vorbis loved knowing that. A man who knew that, knew everything he needed to know about people.

-Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

If I had to point to one thing about our post-9/11 world that's made me the most uncomfortable, it's the tendency to regard evil as an immutable characteristic of certain people and societies. There's this idea that people perform evil acts because of some malevolent force that resides within them, rather than a slow process of moral compromise. If some sort of truth commission results from the release of these torture memos, I'd be willing to predict that we'll find more or less what we found in the aftermath of WWII and the fall of the USSR. A few people in positions of power were willing to authorize criminal conduct, and beneath them the obedience to power, the assumption of privileged information, and careerist pressures compelled their subordinates to go along with the plan. Ordinary Men by Chris Browning is worth a read if you're interested in this subject.

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The true tragedy is how little people have changed in 60 years. Then as now the solution was to obscure the actual nature of what was taking place (both in terms of "black sites" / hidden camps and information management) and minimize the number of people involved. Now we're learning that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in a single month. There are really only a couple of points to be made in response to these revelations:

1. This is why we have laws. As much as we might want to believe that we have an unswerving moral compass, that's not the case. Broadly speaking, you can put otherwise law-abiding people in situations where they will abdicate their own sense of right and wrong. The purpose of the torture memos isn't complicated; they exist solely to remove the burden of moral responsibility from the shoulders of the people carrying out the acts in question. We have laws because we can't trust ourselves to do what's right. That isn't to say that personal responsibility doesn't exist, but rather that there are a substantial number of decent people who will set that responsibility aside if they're placed in a difficult situation. And, once you've crossed that line, it's hard to keep things under control, as the KSM article I linked to above clearly demonstrates (See also, Abu Ghraib).

2. The "if you investigate this issue, you're giving aid and comfort to the terrorists" bluster coming from some parts of the American right is self-serving, morally repugnant trash. It's particularly disgusting in light of the fact that they were only too happy to sell their underlings down the river when the abuses at Abu Ghraib surfaced. These are cowardly people who are out to save their own skins (see: Dick Cheney) and nothing more than that. As a result of their decision to condone this sort of conduct, there are many innocent people who have been killed or fundamentally altered by their torture at the hands of the United States. As a final note, torture harms the torturer as well as the victim. You cannot systematically humiliate, violate and brutalize another human being for an extended period of time without sustaining some serious psychological damage yourself:

Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said. Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, the official said, “seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.”

-The New York Times

Indeed.


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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mr. Yes

Many of my friends on the right have been describing our current President's tenure as the second Carter administration. That's a bit unfair; while disorganized and pusillanimous at times, Obama will need years to get close to Carter's record of failure. The President he most resembles, to my mind, is Warren Harding.

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Newspaper and television reporters usually compare a sitting President to one more famous (FDR, Lincoln) or more recent (Reagan, Carter) than Harding. And the issues of the early 1920's certainly differ from those of our own year. But in his attitude toward campaigning and governance, President Obama mirrors our 29th President more than any other.

Harding was an attractive, affable, and above all agreeable Senator. His achievements in office were few, but he was inoffensive enough that the party elites thought he was the man who could take back the White House. His campaign was bland, but positive. He said he would be different than his predecessor, but exactly how was unclear. Fortunately for Harding, specifics were not necessary; the country was sick of Wilson and his foreign war, and Harding swept to office in the biggest landslide ever for a non-incumbent President.

More than anything, though, it is Obama's agreeable nature that marks him as Harding's true heir. Harding told the people what they wanted to hear. His father's description of him is the classic estimate of his character: "If you were a girl, Warren, you’d be in the family way all the time. You can’t say no.” Indeed, it was Harding's inability to say no to his friends that led to the many financial scandals that plagued his administration, most notably the Teapot Dome scandal. Obama's acquiescence in the mono-partisan antics of his friends in Congress have already taken the bloom off the rose of his hopey new politics. His trip to Europe was one long apology for everything the United States has ever done that upset Europe and the Middle East.

Obama told us in his campaign for office that he would tell people some tough things, things they don't want to hear. The only people getting bad news so far have been Republicans who didn't like him anyway. I've heard a little tough talk about teachers' unions, but he seems content to let his pals in the Congress kill off charter schools in D.C. Maybe I'm wrong -- the guy has only been President for three months -- but so far, he seems to be letting the hogs get to the trough far too easily. At any rate, I hope the comparison is wrong on some points, and that Obama serves out his term in perfect health, because Joe Biden isn't fit to hold Calvin Coolidge's bowler.


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Monday, April 13, 2009

Voiced By Gilbert Gottfried

So, we have this problem in central asia that our foreign policy sexperts have taken to calling the AfPak muddle. The prevailing assumption is that this is the war we can't lose, because a defeat there will once again give the Taliban and OBL access to "safe havens" in the warlord-ized semi-state. The problem is that the consensus doesn't hold up in the face of the terror attacks we've experienced since 2001, nor with a thoughtful understanding of terrorist strategy. In many ways, in Afghanistan, we're fighting the next "last war."

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In the aftermath of the US occupation of Afghanistan, terrorist/Taliban elements relocated across the border to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. I'm going to outsource the how-fucked-are-we backgrounding to Anatol Lieven. The underlying problem is this: cracking down on the deeply-rooted insurgency on the Pakistan side of the border is not in the interests of any powerful faction in Pakistan. The American presence in Afghanistan is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, and neither elected figures nor army recruiters can afford to appear to be placing American interests above the will of the people. The Pakistani ISI also has deep connections with players in the FATA which it is unlikely to alienate simply for a pittance. Finally, there is the issue that Pakistan's primary strategic orientation is, has been and will be towards India. The American shitshow in Afghanistan is at best a sideshow. Add to that the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear state and therefore immune to certain types of international bullying, and you have a situation that is, well, FUBAR. Unless we're willing to alienate India to win over the Pakistanis (unlikely), we probably won't be making much headway in re: Taliban/Al Qaida elements in Pakistan beyond UAV strikes. I don't think the political will is there for the sort of massive aid Lieven outlines, nor do I think Barack Obama can afford (financially or politically) to escalate our engagement to that level.

So, faced with a situation where there are not only no good options but quite possibly no options at all, it's time to re-evaluate the strategic premise motivating the conflict. We've sort of accepted the idea that these safe havens represent a threat to the US that can't be answered except with a massive nation-building project. But looking over the terrorist attacks of the past few years (London, Madrid, etc.) have been home grown. A far cry from the grizzled mujahideen plotting the death of the West around a campfire in Afghanistan, these attacks were coordinated over the internet, and planned in local safehouses.

That's not just because of our crackdown in the Middle East. In fact, it's a model that makes much more sense for terrorists of all stripes. It's far better to use assets in-country than to train them outside and try to smuggle them past immigration. Depending on the amount of coherency they want in their horrible, civilian-directed violence, that may work better for terrorist groups. The downside is that it doesn't actually effectively service any concrete political goals. One of the downsides of our policy of "freak the fuck out about everything all the time" during the Bush years is that made life easier for terrorists. A simple act of violence was inevitably placed in the context of some larger global struggle, when in fact it was often a response to regional grievances.

I'm not proposing that we ignore the threat posed by training camps. They're unquestionably a valuable resource for terrorists, but preventing their establishment with an interminable, costly nation-building effort (especially when that effort isn't actually addressing the problem) may not need to be the centerpiece our "overseas contingency operations." That, of course, ties into a much larger argument taking place in the US Military, between counterinsurgency (COIN) advocates and those who see the military in a more conventional light. I'll get into that in another post.


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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Cold hard cash

There's been a lot of loose talk among the third-world countries that the world ought to adopt an alternate reserve currency to replace the American dollar. This reinforces my belief that government and commerce ought to be kept separate whenever possible. For one thing, this idea already happened in 1969 when the IMF created the "special drawing right" as an international currency. There are a few problems with this:
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For one thing, have any of you even heard of this SDR? It sounds fake as hell. If something is supposed to be the global money, it ought to be at least half as well known as the famous greenbacks we all have in our pockets. Also, 44% of its value is based on the dollar, anyway. So basically, the Chinese and others are pushing a watered-down dollar to replace the real dollar. Try passing an SDR to a stripper next time you're at the nudie bar and see what happens. Now, extrapolate that to the world economy. Basically, a bouncer is going to break China's arm.

But let's face it: this has nothing to do with economics and everything to do with politics. So the Chinese want to bust Uncle Sam's balls. OK, mission accomplished. But what about the real question? What would be a stronger reserve currency? That ass Hugo Chavez suggests an oil-based money. OK, you first, Hugo. See how your people like a currency unit that fluctuates wildly and, if they had done this two years ago, would have lost more than half its value.

No, the only reserve currency worth a damn is the one the striped-pants crowd ditched the last time we had a depression. That's right, I said it: gold. G-O-L-D, GOLD, bitches, the best store of value humanity has. The only way we these other nations can hope to replace the dollar is by introducing something more secure, not less.



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