On the main blog, Philip Giraldi has asked why, given the likely counterproductive nature of Israel’s strikes in Gaza, Israel’s government would go ahead with the planned campaign to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure. There do not seem to be other objectives or grand plans in motion. This is, let us remember, the Olmert government, which has raised incompetence and poor judgement to new heights. We might speculate that there is some hidden, cunning design in all of this, but there is probably no more forethought and cunning involved here than there was in the failure of the current administration to prepare adequately for Phase IV of the initial Iraq campaign. As it was in Lebanon two yeas ago, the answer is miscalculation. The assumption two years ago was that the air campaign against Hizbullah–another long-planned operation waiting for a pretext or provocation–would be decisive and would destroy a significant part of Hizbullah’s military capacity. This proved to be completely wrong on both counts: the war ended in stalemate, it counterproductively turned almost the entire world against Israel after Israel had won almost universal sympathy and support for a limited retaliatory strike, and Hizbullah grew relatively stronger politically despite sustaining considerable losses in the fighting.
Even a more narrow, partisan electoral calculation (i.e., boosting Kadima before the election) does not seem to make sense in this case, as the Gaza operation will tend to remind the public of the Olmert government’s greatest failure, which was the war in Lebanon. If the idea is to redeem Olmert’s government for its failure in Lebanon, attacking a densely-packed urban area seems a strange way to do it, since this is much the same blunder, both political and moral, that the government made in devastating Beirut. The Gaza operation seems to be all together too similar to the war in Lebanon in its evidently open-ended nature, its consequences and its unobtainable objectives, which will tend to discredit Olmert and Kadima even more than Lebanon already did. If it was Olmert’s desire to sabotage his party and successor in the election, he might very well do something like what he is doing now. Unlike two years ago, Livni will not be able to distance herself from the decisions Olmert has made. Supposing that this is a last-ditch effort to play the security card ahead of next year’s elections is a bit like imagining Mr. Bush launching another preventive, unnecessary war in the hopes of boosting flagging GOP political fortunes. Besides being implausible, the attempt would have the opposite effect.
Update: Here is a smart dissent from my post. Max believes I am misreading the Israeli political scene, which could well be true, and he thinks I am relying too much on the comparison with the 2006 war in Lebanon. Regarding the latter, I think the comparison with the war in Lebanon may not be that helpful with respect to military matters, where the differences are real and significant, but it works best in connection with the Israeli political scene. Then as now the Israeli public at first was united completely behind the government’s actions, but then gradually came to realize that the government could not achieve the objectives it had set out and had mismanaged things rather badly. Watching the Israeli public sour on Olmert’s war two years ago was a bit like watching the gradual American disillusionment with Iraq on fast-forward–most people get behind a campaign when they think it will be easy and believe it to be going well (it also helps if they are angry), and then a lot of them turn against the government that took the country into the campaign when things become more difficult.
Depending on how long the Gaza operation lasts, I think we are likely to see a similar souring and a similarly strong political backlash against Olmert and Kadima to the one that sent his approval ratings sinking into single digits. Two years ago, there was a similarly broad consensus across the political spectrum in Israel that the war against Hizbullah was righteous; the trouble was that Olmert waged a war against all of Lebanon. Justified as a targeted, limited action in response to provocation, it expanded far beyond that. Olmert will gain politically from this to the extent that most Israelis do not distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian population of Gaza and to the extent that their attitude toward Palestinians is fundamentally different from their attitude toward their northern neighbors, but to blur this distinction and wage indiscriminate and disproportinate war against the Palestinian population in general as well as Hamas undermines one of the basic reasons why Kadima exists as a separate party. Even if there is some short-term political gain for Kadima out of this, which I doubt, the strikes will ultimately be damaging to Kadima’s political identity.
My apologies for having fallen off the map for the last few weeks. I am back in Chicago in time for the new year, and I will resume regular blogging in the near future. Over the break I had the opportunity to read some very interesting books, including Sidney Griffith’s The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque, which is a very good, brief survey of Christian intellectual culture under Islamic rule up through the 13th century, and I may have some remarks on them in the coming days. No doubt there will be plenty to add about the ongoing fighting in Gaza, Blagojevich’s madness and other matters.
My best, belated Christmas wishes to all our Western friends and Orthodox brethren on the New Calendar, and a happy new year to you all.
Thinking more on pragmatism, it occurs to me that the thing that a lot of people mean when they say they are non-ideological, or when they are classified, like so many undecided voters, as “results-oriented” and interested in “problem-solving,” is that they wish to appear reasonable and capable of making compromises with their opponents. Those who are moral absolutists of different political stripes are seen as unreasonable because there are things on which they will not, cannot, compromise. It seems to me that moral absolutists are often confused with ideologues, while the latter frequently prattle about morality and yet never seem troubled by the use of plainly immoral means to achieve their goals. As I suggested below, those who adopt the pragmatist label are very often ideologues of exactly this stripe. This is related indirectly to the discussion of outrage from yesterday.
Ideologues tend to traffick more in outrage, or rather in what we have come to recognize as manufactured outrage, because an important key to any ideology’s victory is to arouse the crowd’s passions and get them to stop thinking critically or to stop thinking at all. Outrage is the heart of propaganda, and one of the main purposes of propaganda is to deflect attention away from the flaws in one’s own system and focus entirely on the crimes, sometimes exaggerated, of another regime. For any ideology to endure for very long, it needs to cover itself in the legitimacy of morality and reasonableness, and outrage at wrongdoing abroad is useful for mobilizing political support for the ideology and identifying it with moral righteousness. To be pragmatic in our political culture, then, is to be willing to compromise on such moral absolutes as part of the “righteous” struggle against evil abroad, while draping oneself in moralistic rhetoric and being willing to use force against those who have been sufficiently demonized as embodiments of evil.
It’s all very well to insist that Obama be as forthcoming and transparent as possible concerning any connection between himself and his staff and the Blagojevich matter. Transparent, open government was an important part of what Obama promised as a candidate, and he should be held to his pledges. Even so, am I the only one who finds it absolutely crazy that anyone is this concerned about Obama’s answers on Blagojevich when we have just had a Senate report released that confirms that the highest levels of the current administration were implicated in and responsible for serious violations of the law? This is the sort of thing that some people have insisted not be investigated and prosecuted during the next administration’s tenure for various unpersuasive reasons, and not least because of the concern that it would appear to be a partisan witch-hunt. Obviously, we are not concerned about such appearances in Blagojevich’s case, because we think it important to enforce the law here, so why not enforce it when the crimes involved are far more serious and there are far greater breaches of the public trust? We are watching a strange spectacle, in which the entire country fixates on egregious corruption of one prominent public official while appearing to be largely indifferent to the systemic corruption and illegality of the highest officers in the executive branch of the federal government relating to matters of national security and prisoner abuse. To answer Prof. Cole, there is nothing mystifying in the timing of the report’s release–Congress’ desire to bury this issue and avoid doing the hard things necessary to defend the rule of law is evidently very strong.
There has been an interesting conversation about pragmatism and “ideology” going on, which began with Glenn Greenwald’s criticism of the way pragmatism and competence are invoked as if they can be defined apart from a particular set of political principles. I should state at the beginning that I think it contributes to a significant misunderstanding if we equate principles with ideology. If ideology is typically a “highly elastic rationale for action,” as Bacevich has defined it, and if it is fundamentally at odds with the complexity and variety of the world, an ideologue does not have a firm set of principles that guide his actions, but instead has a particular goal, whether utopian or not, that justifies taking more or less any action that he believes will bring him closer to reaching it. Insofar as ideology must be not just non-empirical, but anti-empirical, progress towards the goal is for the ideologue simply a matter of time and determination; experience cannot show the ideologue that the goal itself is unobtainable or impossible, or even that failure in pursuit of the goal has occurred. It is in this way that we should understand ideology, rather than broadly including under that label all sets of beliefs.
Of course, using it as Greenwald does, it is correct to say that we define “what works” based on a whole host of assumptions about what ought to be done and the vision that we have for why we are doing whatever it is we are doing. If we think of it this way, it is impossible to describe “what works” without first laying out an argument explaining why we are trying to make the attempt in the first place. Being able to do something effectively may be entirely undesirable if the thing in question is unjust, exploitative or corrupt. Shakedown artists and war criminals may be very pragmatic and effective in doing all of the wrong things. In our political discourse, politicians refer to pragmatism because they take it as a given that the matters of ought and why need no explanation; at best, they will use slogans and buzzwords to address those matters. This is why the bulk of our “debates” is taken up by arguing over narrow differences of means to pursue the same questionable ends, because most politicians have no interest and no incentive to inquire into whether such-and-such a thing ought to be done or question the reason why it is being done.
Think of it another way: a man of political principles is concerned with using both the right means for the right ends and is willing to let experience inform his assumptions, while the ideologue is indifferent to the means used and willfully ignorant of experience that challenges his assumptions. Any opposition between pragmatism and ideology also seems to me to be misleading from the beginning because what passes for “pragmatism” in government represents adherence to a particular reigning ideology. There might conceivably be some genuine empirically-oriented, sane pragmatism that does not fit this definition, but this is not the pragmatism the political class invokes and it is not the one we are discussing. When a given politician announces his interest in “what works,” we might reasonably interpret this as a statement that he does not intend to overturn established consensus and accepts the constraints and assumptions of the reigning ideology, which broadly speaking means state capitalism at home and hegemonism abroad.
Professing pragmatism is to say that you do not intend to attempt significant change in the structures or practices of government. In the context of this so-called pragmatic “center,” what we might call left and right-leaning instincts are usually a matter of emphasis and style. The “center” defines itself as non-ideological, and insists on identifying anything outside of the narrow band of the consensus as ideological, when this is not the case. This is how “centrists” can wink and nod at torture and support illegal surveillance and aggressive warfare while successfully defining opponents of the same as an ideological “fringe,” and it is how violating other states’ sovereignty and trashing constitutional protections are the serious, responsible positions that only “extremists” would question: whichever positions are taken up by “centrists” (i.e., those who enforce the consensus) are automatically defined as the pragmatic, non-ideological, problem-solving positions.
While the Blagosphere has been almost entirely consumed with our governor’s corruption and the state fair auction-like atmosphere that surrounded the Senate seat appointment, some bloggers on the left have begun noticing that reporting and commentary have tried to make the Blagojevich scandals into a serious problem for Obama, despite the evidence that shows Blagojevich to be deeply hostile to the President-elect and shows the latter to be uninvolved in any of the governor’s (alleged) crimes. One reason why this is happening is that a lot of journalists and pundits have become bored with the transition. It’s been going reasonably well, and it has been run so competently and with such an obvious emphasis on establishment-friendly appointments and merit (at least as merit is conventionally defined by that establishment) that most observers have been hungry for something else to talk about, and what better than a scandal involving all of the themes of the “old” politics, complete with bribery and shakedowns? You already have the makings of an overreaching and misleading narrative: “old Illinois politics mars transition period for Obama.”
On top of all of this, there is the problem that most people, especially journalists and pundits and even more particularly pundits on the right, seem to go through extreme mood swings when they talk and think about Obama. This is the tendency to swing between treating him, in John Kass’ memorable phrase, as the Mr. Tumnus of politics to regarding him as the canny Chicago pol, the Obama David Brooks referred to as “Fast Eddie,” or in other cases going between debating ridiculously whether he is more Maoist than Stalinist and then rejoicing childishly over the “centrism” of his appointments. In the mainstream media, it has gone from early adulation over the promised reform and transformation of Washington (whence the Messiah Watch) to a desire to play up conflict between Obama and the left, and now this latter theme has been partially replaced by the “Blagojevich taint” narrative.
Having finally recognized that Obama is a savvy political operator who is interested in effective government to pursue what are still broadly progressive goals, and having started to grasp that Obama is not a neo-McGovernite radical dove but is actually rather hawkish and establishmentarian in his instincts, the next thing for journalists and pundits to fixate on would have to be ethics and the political career in Illinois that virtually everyone ignored while they, again mostly in the mainstream press and on the right, were obsessing over his religious or tangential associations. Here we see the collective disbelief that a savvy Chicago pol could be at once more or less indifferent to the corruption of the machine politics around him (a guy who “won’t make no waves and won’t back no losers,” as Kass put it over six months ago), while nonetheless being free from any personal involvement in that corruption. People have a hard time making sense of a politician who can appear as the friend of the Hyde Park Independents and the Daley machine when each connection suits him, because it isn’t supposed to work that way.
Obama never transcends categories, as some people seemed to hope he could at one time, but he isn’t easily pigeonholed into any category, either, because he is very, very adaptable (which his admirers call “pragmatism”!). Just as they misjudged his political know-how because of his high-flown rhetoric, and just as they misjudged his foreign policy because of his opposition to the Iraq war, they are going to misjudge him again and try to tie him to Illinois corruption or claim that this reflects poorly on him or “taints” the incoming administration. Those who say this will be proven wrong again, and much to the frustration of his critics and enemies Obama will keep evading the categories and labels people try to stick to him and will separate himself from any associate, no matter how close or distant, the moment that associate becomes a liability.
The premise of Gerson’s entire column, and one that seems to undergird his every thought and word, is that outrage compels action, and that if you aren’t acting — now, dammit — you aren’t outraged. In Gerson’s world, if you’re not outraged, you are paying attention, and you deserve whatever load of scorn, insult, and invective that will inspire you to do good.
This is right, but there is another aspect to this: this is always outrage about what some other government or group is doing, and the more remote and unrelated to us the better, and it must never, ever, apply to the outrageous things done by our own government in the name of national security. Hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq from the invasion, and millions more displaced? Gerson’s seemingly inexhaustible weepy compassion is not moved by this in the least. These Iraqis, no doubt, are deemed to be “better off” or their suffering has been “worth it.” One of the convenient things about being willing to meddle in everyone else’s affairs is that you appoint yourself a competent judge to determine whose lives are worthwhile and whose are worth sacrificing for some future goal.
This is something that I generally find strange about outrage directed at foreign governments or peoples for what they are doing to their own: the people who believe it is a matter of shame to neglect “doing something” about various evils overseas are usually equally confident that our government is more or less beyond reproach in whatever it does overseas or in the name of national security. Those who insist that “we” hold such-and-such regime accountable rarely want to apply the same standards or demand the same accountability from the one government they are obliged as citizens to hold to account. The perfect expression of this lopsided “morality” was probably the Albright standard concerning the consequences of the Iraq sanctions regime. Not only was the death of hundreds of thousands “worth it” in the twisted calculus of responsible, do-gooding activism abroad, but it was also not the responsibility of the “responsible” foreign powers imposing the sanctions–it is always the fault of the target of such treatment. Thus, what our government was doing could not have been something that would outrage Gerson–it would probably have confirmed him in his desire to “do something” more to overthrow the Iraqi government. I sometimes imagine that the government encourages outrage over the abuses of other governments to preoccupy citizens here with other crimes about which they can do little or nothing (except to lobby our government to “do something,” which usually means imposing sanctions or dropping bombs) to keep them too busy to pay enough attention to what our government does and, better still, to provide pretexts and ready-made propaganda to justify the next intervention. That would be all together too cynical, right? Maybe not.
This would be ugly enough if it were simply exploitative and imperialistic, but Gersonism requires that you wrap up this arrogance in smiling reassurances that it is all for a greater good. It is still a matter of a more powerful party imposing its will on another people because it can and wants to, but now we are obliged to pretend that it is being done for humane and lofty reasons. This is different from the mission civilisatrice because we really mean it this time; our hearts bleed much more genuinely than did those of the French. Besides, as Max Boot (who here represents the neo-imperialist underbelly of humanitarian interventionism) would say, there is no other way to “solve” many of these problems. As James has suggested, and as my argument against optimism says, we need to stop thinking of these situations as problems to be solved and start thinking of them as realities we face and with which we cope.
Take the case of Somali piracy, which far too many people seem to think is a perfect case for intervening. Somalia has become an ideal base for pirates because it has no functioning government. Indeed, what government it did have was deemed unacceptable and was smashed by an Ethiopian invasion we backed and armed. I was far too sanguine about the Ethiopian invasion when it began, but I see well enough now that the last attempt to “solve” the problem of Somalia’s Islamists has helped create, or has at least exacerbated, the problem of Somalia’s pirates. It is worth noting that the “restoration” of the Somali Federal Government, which had been in exile and was considered the official, recognized government of the country by all relevant international institutions, completely failed to fill the void, because all of its international legitimacy counted for nothing in Somalia. What would fill the void that would also pass muster with foreign intervetionists?
Striking at the pirate bases would be, at best, a temporary “solution” that will not make Somalia stable or governable again anytime soon. The current situation is a more or less direct result of our indirect meddling in the internal affairs of Somalia. Who honestly believes that there will be an enduring “solution” if we have another round of intervention? A “simple” plan to eliminate pirate havens today soon enough will become an enormously complicated, multi-year project to stabilize the entire Horn of Africa–mission creep is inevitable once you have granted the assumption that someone must “do something” to provide order in this part of the world and have acknowledged that this someone is usually going to be our government. This is exactly what happened the last time we were involved in a “limited” mission in Somalia, and it will happen again if we allow ourselves to get sucked back in. So accustomed are we to being told that we should be outraged by this or that in every other country that I suspect that we will never be satisfied with any outcome in Somalia (or Congo, or Sudan, or wherever) and will soon enough find something else in one of these countries that we want to stop. That this ultimately prevents the development of effective local government and necessitates continued dependence on outside powers is rarely mentioned, but it is one of the worst things about this do-gooding.
Alex Massie has said most of what should be said about Gerson’s new woe-is-Africa column, but I will add a few remarks. The irrepressible need to meddle, help and do good that Gerson is always trying to get other people to fulfill seems to require that he cluck his tongue at some insufficiently concerned villain, as if all that was needed to make the chaos of eastern Congo better was the necessary will and good intentions, and this time Britain and Germany have come in for particular scorn. Not content with damning a few Senators at a time, as he was doing over the last two years, and occasionally comparing himself to Shaftesbury, Gerson has graduated to collective guilt-tripping. German inaction, he says, is “particularly obscene,” which suggests that Gerson’s standard for moral obscenity is more than a little skewed.
Even by the incredibly elastic Joe Biden standard for when to launch humanitarian interventions (“where we can, we must”), Britain and Germany are not viable candidates, because they cannot realistically afford another overseas military mission at the present time. In any case, there is limited domestic political support for the missions they already have, and even less for new ones. If European nations are tiring of the mission in Afghanistan, which at least has some indirect relationship to their governments’ membership in NATO, who could think that they would be keen to plunge their soldiers into the confused situation in central Africa? This is something that does not trouble Gerson. Like McCain, Gerson treats issues entirely moralistically, and anyone who is not on board with his conscience-assuaging, ego-stroking activist agenda is a rotten villain, and that’s all there is to it. Besides coming across as annoying hectoring most of the time, this habit robs the attempted shaming of whatever power it might otherwise have, as Gerson tries to shame everyone about practically everything.
Rather than blustering and insisting that they must act, only to have insufficient resources and public support for the mission, these governments refuse to make a commitment they know they will be unable to honor and support for the long term. Better this, it seems to me, than the leap-before-you-look school of intervention that Gerson seems to prefer, which insists that a handful of governments send their forces to lands in which they have no significant interest right now and worry later about whether there are obtainable objectives, some satisfactory end-state within reach or the political consensus at home to sustain the mission for the many years that it will probably last.
Congo stands out as a country that has numerous deep, intractable problems. Its government in the west exercises limited control over much of the country, its army is ineffective in suppressing militias and foreign forces in its territory, and it is ringed by neighbors that have no scruples against fishing in its troubled waters. Kagame winks and nods at Nkunda’s rebels, but claims to have no control over them, while the government in Kinshasa has not done much, partly because it cannot do much, to strike at the surviving genocidaires. What will outside intervention do that is going to change this dynamic in a fundamental way? Even if Western states were willing and able to establish some buffer force to keep Nkunda in line, what would prevent that force from being pulled into a multi-sided conflict as the Nigerians were in Liberia? At what point would such a mission be deemed too costly or futile to continue? What would keep such a mission from becoming a near-permanent deployment? Obviously, at no point in his column does Gerson answer any of these questions, nor does he explain why the problems of central Africa should not be primarily the responsibility of the states involved and of the African Union.
I was so outraged when I read Cavett’s column that I felt like taking to the air like a Valkyrie and dropping on him at his ocean retreat in Montauk in the chichi Hamptons. How can it be that so many highly educated Americans have so little historical and cultural consciousness that they identify their own native patois as an eternal mark of intelligence, talent and political aptitude?
In sonorous real life, Cavett’s slow, measured, self-interrupting and clause-ridden syntax is 50 years out of date. Guess what: There has been a revolution in English — registered in the 1950s in the street slang, colloquial locutions and assertive rhythms of both Beat poetry and rock ‘n’ roll and now spread far and wide on the Web in the standard jazziness of blogspeak. Does Cavett really mean to offer himself as a linguistic gatekeeper for political achievers in this country?
Yes, it’s a lack of historical consciousness that causes people to think that spoken English should be coherent and comprehensible. No one should be concerned about declining standards or setting an atrocious example for those learning how to use their own language. Poor grammar and disjointed sentences aren’t lamentable signs of cultural deterioration–they’re just “colloquial locutions”! In other words, Cavett’s criticisms of Palin’s use of language were entirely accurate, but are supposedly too fusty and outmoded for the hip blogspeaking kids…and Camille Paglia. Does she think that it is a tribute to Palin to say that her “exuberant” way of speaking is “closer to street rapping than to the smug bourgeois cadences of the affluent professional class”? To hear Paglia tell it, Amy Poehler did not need to perform a Palin rap song on SNL–we need only listen to Palin’s interview excerpts to hear the sounds of the street…or are they the sounds of Wasilla’s Super Wal-Mart parking lot?
Reading Paglia’s descriptions of Palin’s language, I am reminded of newspaper articles that describe crime-ridden neighborhoods as “vibrant.” This is the hyper-condescension of the anti-bien pensant person, who in this case makes a grand show of her sympathy for a target of conventional ridicule to show how even more enlightened and thoughtful she is than the merely “provincial” bourgeoisie. Paglia is worldly-wise, and she appreciates the wonderful “exuberance” of Palin, in much the same way that outsiders might praise the “warmth” of “charming” and “colorful” ethnic neighborhoods as a way of subtly reasserting their superiority while pretending to praise the people who live there. Let us hope that Palin does not make a comeback, if only to spare us more of Paglia’s Palinophilia.
P.S. “Wolf control” (i.e., cruelly running–and gunning–down wolves from the air) is now a working-class
more mos? Who knew?
Look, I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire quite a bit, but can anyone seriously say that Jamal Malik showed “Obamaesque” poise?
Llosa isn’t done yet:
That Boyle managed to tell a Bollywood story without falling into any of Bollywood’s conventions — except for a musical number during the final credits that comes as a summation of the narrative’s uplifting spirit — is one of his extraordinary achievements.
This gets it almost entirely backwards. Llosa can recognize the Bollywood story because Boyle made a non-Bollywood movie that did fall into most or all of Bollywood’s conventions. You have the lovers who are fated to be together, the oppressed, but honest young man struggling against misfortune, the Pyaasa-like depiction of poverty and exploitation, the inevitable involvement with gangsters, the predictable sermons against communal hatred, the hopeless romanticism that compels at least one of the lovers to risk everything and break all worldly ties. There is even a nod at the end to Rama and Sita as a type of enduring love, and on and on. It has almost everything except a story involving long-lost brothers…no, wait, it has that one, too! The only thing that we do not see is the obligatory shaadi, and we can assume that it is forthcoming. One of the things that you learn from watching a lot of Bollywood movies is that their conventions and the conventions of Hollywood aren’t that different. If production values separate the two kinds of film, their storylines bring them back together far more often than most Westerners realize (and not only when Indian screenwriters lift the plots from other films).
What is interesting is how Boyle managed to make a movie that is so recognizably like Bollywood movies, which many tend to feel obliged to denigrate whenever we mention them, while simultaneously winning acclaim for making the best movie of the year. Perhaps that says something about the real quality of Boyle’s film, or perhaps we are hearing all this praise for it because it has become a vehicle that allows people to appreciate something about popular Hindi cinema that they were unable to see before Boyle’s film helped make it accessible. Perhaps it took a foreigner making a movie in India that pays respect to the local cinematic traditions for the designation Bollywood to cease provoking automatic derision.