Lowering Standards at The Atlantic?

I consider myself a fan of The Atlantic, but this post by James Gibney is simply disgusting (emphasis added):

John McCain and others often cite U.S. bases in Korea and Japan as a model for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. This rape case, which the Japanese authorities dropped because the family of the 14-year-old junior high student didn’t want to pursue charges, is a reminder of one of the less savory dividends of U.S. bases in your backyard. U.S. military personnel have been raping Okinawans for the last 60-plus years.

Soldiers have often had a bad track record with women, and Japan’s behavior during World War II is proof of that (even if the Japanese don’t admit it), but Gibney crosses the line between saying rape incidents are a problem that causes tension between the US, Japan, and Okinawa* and arguing American soldiers are predisposed to rape. By the Gibney standard, news stories like this should lead us to oppose efforts to send UN Peacekeepers to Darfur.

Gibney’s main point is to use the Okinawa rape case as an anti-Iraq War talking point, and he pushes his argument further beyond the pale by “admitting” in the next paragraph that not all American soldiers are sociopaths. There are numerous reasons against being Iraq, but our soldiers will rape the local women and some of our soldiers are sociopaths aren’t among them. Faulty reasoning got us stuck in Iraq, but bad faith arguments won’t get us out. James Gibney should be ashamed.

(h/t to Marc Danzinger, who is an Atlantic fan no more)

* Note that one of the reasons the Okinawans are so vigorous in protesting transgressions by American personnel is that many Okinawans consider themselves a separate people from the rest of the Japanese, so the Japanese government’s endorsement of the Okinawan deployment is seen as an extension of Japanese domination of the Okinawan people. This fact is rarely mentioned in media discussions of the US presence in Japan.

The Unlikeliest McCainiac

A friend pointed out Arnaud de Borchgrave’s early February UPI interview with Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kwan-yew. It’s a fascinating piece, thanks in no part to the breadth of the issues discussed but also the frankness of the discussion. Lee’s thoughts on Taiwan, the decline of “statesmanship,” new technologies, and capitalism are sure to provoke, but I was interested in his pick for president in 2008:

Of all the candidates who will inherit the [Iraq] problem, I prefer John McCain. He will see this thing through. Walking away from it would also have disastrous consequences. If Afghanistan is a failed state, it’s not your fault. No one has ever made sense out of it. But if you leave Iraq in its present state, you will have even bigger problems throughout the entire Middle East. The Shiites will get together. The Iraqi Shia will become dependent on Iran, and the Iranians will have mastery of that critically important Gulf area.

Massive “Clash of Civilizations” headfake or a real endorsement? You tell me.

While I’m not sure of McCain’s relative prowess in building a stable Iraq, and I dislike some of his recent rhetoric on the subject, I tend to agree that we have a moral duty to try and fix Iraq and that a quick withdrawal abdicates that duty. It’s just too bad for McCain (or Obama or Hillary) that Iraq doesn’t have its own Lee Kwan-yew to run the place when we need. I’ve a feeling that Iraq will need a period of efficient soft authoritarianism (think MacArthur in Japan) before democracy can truly flourish along the Tigris and Euphrates.

Anyways, read the rest of the interview with Lee — it’s highly recommended.

Beautiful Nothings About Iraq

My timezone — and a sick pet — kept me from watching the Super Bowl, but I did catch the advertisement the Obama campaign ran in 24 local Super Tuesday markets during the game. This is pretty slick:


Obama-as-rock star is one of the themes of his campaign, and I’d say the ad reflects that concept almost perfectly by packaging him as the candidate of the MTV (and post-MTV) generation. One look at the front-loaded “I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message” (with concert-level cheers in the background) and you know you’re watching at a unique candidate. The main nonpartisan criticism I foresee is that such ads will have difficulty playing outside their target market. For instance, I can’t imagine Obama winning the respect of retirees or working moms with fast-moving graphics and messages set to a rock soundtrack. Of course, the Obama campaign is smart enough not to put all of its eggs into the youth basket, right?

And now the partisan critique: as much as Obama’s ad appeals to my audiovisual pleasure center, like most things “Obama,” it leaves my rational core wanting for more substance. “Change we can believe in,” Obama’s slogan, is sweet-sounding but ultimately a beautiful nothing — it’s something an incumbent like Reagan ’84 could get away with,* but unsatisfying coming from a comparatively green politician like Obama. Along these lines, Obama’s treatment of the Iraq War has all the hallmarks of magical fairy wand politics. “We can end a war” is empowering, inspiring, and, based on Obama’s policy preferences, almost certainly wrong.

A stronger supporter of withdrawal than his main rival Ms. Clinton, Obama has advanced the progressive meme that bringing the troops home is a cure-all for the conflict. While there’s little question that Iraq, like all of America’s foreign policy, desperately needs a new direction, American withdrawals have historically been followed by increased conflict and/or instability. Some examples:

  • Vietnam, where the pullout (and subsequent cutoff of aid to the South) ensured North Vietnam’s victory;
  • Lebanon, where removal of the American “buffer” allowed for full escalation of the war;
  • Somalia, where American withdrawal not only made the life of common Somalis worse but also encouraged Osama bin Laden to step up his terrorism;
  • and Kosovo, where the lack of an American presence in the region after Milosevic was defeated allowed Kosovar Albanians to do unto the Serbs as the Serbs had done unto them.

Most signs point to a post-withdrawal Iraq being a country where Sunni and Shia continue to battle over the core of the country while Kurds “bunker up” in the increasingly autonomous north. Although I’m not predisposed to predict a “bloodbath” after the US pulls out, I think Somalia-esque failed statehood with constant low-level conflict and little working governmental infrastructure (outside of Kurdistan) might be in Iraq’s future.

After all, even if we engage Syria and Iran the way Obama desires and consequently stop the cross-border flow of small arms, Iraq has more than enough weapons in-country to keep life there nasty, brutish, and short. (Note that one of the failures of the occupation — and there were many — was the failure to seize and control enough stockpiles of Iraqi weapons.) The outcome of the ground game in Iraq probably won’t matter, however, since stopping American casualties and reigning in the Pentagon operations budget are the main concerns of the average voter.

However popular the position, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that bringing our troops home “ends the war.” For Iraqis, the war is going to continue until their spirit for war is broken or until, by virtue of agreement or ethnic cleansing, the historical conceit of Iraq unravels and the Middle East is left with three new countries. This is not to say that I endorse keeping American troops in Iraq until doomsday. I’m merely pointing out that the war is likely to continue even though American troops are no longer being killed or wounded.

The bottom line: a President Obama might be able to truly end the war in Iraq, but not with the plan put forward by candidate Obama.

* As a Reagan-loving Republican I admit that “It’s morning in America” was as equally substance-free as “Change we can believe in.”

Kevin Rudd: Pro and Anti-China?

Matt Schiavenza blogs about the Aussie expat reaction to John Howard’s election defeat, as well as the incoming prime minister’s Sino-centric language skills:

At The Box, one of Kunming’s popular watering holes, the mood last night was jovial. The Australian general election results came in and Labor scored a decisive victory, booting long-tenured Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal Party from office. Aussie expats, like their American counterparts, tend to be decidedly left-wing. As a result, many high-fives and celebratory cheers were exchanged. The Americans in attendance wistfully called for a similar result in our own election next year.

Like most people outside of Australasia, I have never paid much attention to Australian politics. Yet John Howard was a distinctly loathsome figure, perhaps the only leader outside of the United States to match President Bush’s belligerent, hawkish rhetoric. Howard was no Tony Blair- a brilliant politician felled by a monumental error in supporting Iraq. Howard was a neocon’s neocon. He marched lockstep with Bush and never questioned the White House’s prosecution of the war. For that, he paid the ultimate political price.

[…]

So who becomes the new Australian premier? Kevin Rudd. The Labour Party head campaigned on two central issues: reversing Howard’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and removing Australian troops from Iraq. What interests me about Rudd, though, is his background. In the 1980s, he served in the Australian diplomatic corps in Beijing, acquiring fluent Mandarin in the process. Earlier in the year, Rudd made quite a splash in China by delivering a speech in Mandarin in front of the suitably impressed President Hu Jintao.

A “neocon’s neocon” is a silly pejorative,* but one point is clear: Howard, like Spain’s Jose Aznar, like the Congressional Republicans, and to a lesser extent, Tony Blair, is out of the picture because of the war in Iraq. Most right-wing Australians I know (I suppose Tianjin has more than Kunming) were cool to the Liberal Party — or even opposed to Howard — because of the war and the perceived marriage of interests between Washington and Canberra.

There’s also a systemic factor at work in Howard’s defeat: Australia has mandatory voting laws, so if you moderately disliked (or were just tired of) Howard and you were forced to vote, you might have voted against his party, whereas in America, if you moderately disliked Bush in 2004, you might have sat on your hands instead of voted. In an American-style system Howard might still be in office.

In retrospect, Howard was a successful pol for the most part — nearly 12 years in office hardly constitutes failure. It might also, unlike Matt’s characterization, suggest some degree of political brilliance, especially given the high rate of Australian political participation. But Bush has this magic power to drag down everyone he calls a friend, and John Howard couldn’t escape that curse.

The above having been said, it’ll be interesting to see what Rudd does vis-a-vis China, and it’s always admirable to have a Mandarin-speaking executive. However, there are two points to dampen anyone’s hopes of Sino-Oz unity.

First, save for continuing the longstanding US-Australian-Japan security arrangements, Howard’s relationship with China wasn’t exactly “hostile,” so most friendly shifts towards China by Rudd would be almost imperceptible to most observers.

Second, friendly relations with China may have actually contributed to Howard’s defeat. As the IHT observes,

Much of Australia’s economic boom has been fueled by the windfall profits from China’s rise. Australia supplies much of the coal and iron ore that make China’s explosive growth possible. But the benefits have not been evenly distributed across Australia, accruing mainly to the mining states of Western Australia and Queensland and leaving pockets of deep hardship in the country’s most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria.

So when Howard said this year that “working families have never had it so good,” he alienated many of his supporters and gave Labor a tag line that became a refrain of their successful campaign.

Any policy shifts by incoming Prime Minister Rudd to balance this economic growth — possibly by masking it under the aegis of Midnight Oil-powered environmental protection — would likely be seen as negative in the PRC.

We should remember that when dealing with Beijing, it’s not just military policy but also economic and environmental policy that is interpreted as “anti-China.” In the eyes of many Chinese officials and academics, Bush’s strongest “anti-China” moves, aside from the Hainan spy plane incident, were his use of anti-China trade barriers and pressure to revalue the RMB — moves called for and supported by Democrats more than Republicans. Add to this their natural “ownership” of the human rights issue and the Bush administration’s opponents on the left can be seen as more “anti-China” than the supposed “emperor” himself.

If 2007 and 2008 prove to be good years for the new left in Australia and America, they may also, in the end, signal the worsening of Sino-Western relations — at least so long as the left’s policies match their campaign rhetoric.

* I won’t engage in a tired debate about the meaning of neocon, but, like fascist, it’s one of those terms ridiculously overused as an epithet.

About the Name

In Part II, Chapter 60, of the Daodejing, the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi declared, “Governing a country is like cooking a small fish.” The gist of the aphorism is that a ruler must be careful and measured in the application of laws and power, or else his country, like a hastily prepared fish, will turn out poorly.

Laozi has always been a significant voice of laissez-faire in Chinese philosophy, and unlike the Confucian schools of thought which promote obedience to authority for the sake of social harmony, numerous passages in the Daodejing set forth the idea that a rulers are quite capable of making mistakes, especially when they use force to control the lives of people. Instead, rulers should follow ziran (nature) and intervene only when wise and necessary, such as in times of disaster. Laozi’s views have led some libertarians to look to him as one of the earliest libertarians in history, and certainly there’s a connection between Laozi’s line of thinking and the Hayekian school of economic and political theory. Reform-minded Chinese economists who analyzed the success of the “responsibility system” among China’s peasant farmers in the 1980s invoked both Hayek and Laozi to explain how the farmers prospered when no longer under the thumb of state control.

The story of the 20th century might well be that despite our self-conception as rational beings, most “rational” plans for ordering society produced undesirable results, whereas stable political and economic outcomes were generally obtained naturally and democratically, without constant top-down control. From the Nazis to the Soviets to Mao-era China to the former Yugoslavia, this phenomenon was witnessed again and again, and it is no less true today. For example, many Iraq War supporters have pointed to the relatively safe and economically thriving* Iraqi Kurdistan as a model for the rest of Iraq. However, this ignores the fact that plans for Kurdish self-governance, unlike the structure of the coalition government, was not dictated by Washington; rather, America and Britain simply created the free environment that allowed the Kurds to succeed.** In the rest of Iraq, however, America has tried and seemingly failed at state-building precisely because the power-sharing conditions being imposed are not “natural” to the Iraqis.

In the larger picture, I regard Laozi’s saying as reflecting the rational bounds all policymakers must operate within and the speed with which policy can be implemented without harm to the people being governed. It’s also, arguably, a warning against the effectiveness of America serving as the world’s policeman, a role I was skeptical of during the Clinton administration and have become downright hostile to during the Bush years. As this has long been a principle I’ve adhered to as a libertarian-minded conservative, the name of the blog seemed to me a natural fit.

(For the record, I am not adept at cooking fish of any size.)

* The above holds true until the point at which Turkey invades and stops the Kurdish experiment in spontaneous organization.

** Tellingly, the Kurds have succeeded because their territory is ethnically homogenous, whereas Iraq as a whole faces a “Belgium problem” — only in this case, people are wielding suicide bombs and AK-47s instead of fine chocolates.