…and the award goes to: Kurt Anderson in New York Magazine!
Those of us who voted against Bush might like to think that Iraq is all “his” bungle, that we’re therefore free to walk away from the horror show. But we’re a nation, and we’re all responsible for all of our national liabilities. This is not Vietnam, where we hadn’t started the civil war, and where we really did have the power to end the killing by leaving. A more apt analogy, I worry, is the Soviet war in Afghanistan. After the 1979 invasion, the Soviets maintained a force of between 80,000 and 100,000 troops in a Muslim country of some 20 million people divided along ethnic, tribal, and sectarian lines. As General Petraeus said the other day, “I think historically, counterinsurgency operations have gone at least nine or ten years.” The Red Army left Afghanistan after nine years and 14,000 killed in a counterinsurgency war against a mix of indigenous fighters and the foreign jihadi who became the core of Al Qaeda. And six months later, the Soviet empire began to dissolve.
In other words, they were damned if they stayed and damned if they left, and so are we. Which should be the starting point of the real debate we need to begin.
Point: we started the civil war in Vietnam, by (with the French) creating South Vietnam in 1954. Ho Chi Minh beat the French in 1954, and had the whole country been handed over to the Viet Minh as the liberating force, there would have been no Vietnam War.
Point: we did not “end the killing by leaving” in Vietnam. There was the little matter of the rest of the war, from 1973-75, and the reeducation camps afterwards (and the fall of Laos and Cambodia). In fact, far fewer were killed in that period than had been killed while we were involved; but that’s not what the Kissingerian right was telling us in 1973. They were saying that if we didn’t back up the ARVN, there would be mass slaughter. Anderson’s evidence-free predictions that the slaughter in Iraq “may” get worse if we leave Iraq are to be compared to those right-wing predictions of vast Communist massacres if we abandoned Vietnam — which didn’t happen.
Point: Petraeus’s reference was to SUCCESSFUL counterinsurgency operations. Obviously, if you give up on a counterinsurgency operation that’s clearly hopeless, it can go on a lot shorter than 9 or 10 years; it can be as short as you like. The left believes the counterinsurgency operation in Iraq is hopeless, so it thinks we should leave.
Finally, the way Anderson interprets the Soviet-Afghan example here is completely bizarre. The USSR obviously would have been better off if it had recognized in 1983 that invading Afghanistan was a mistake, and had simply retreated. Afghanistan would have been better off, too. The grinding loss in Afghanistan certainly contributed strongly to the national crisis of self-confidence that led to the dissolution of the USSR, but given that the Soviets could not win in Afghanistan, the quicker they cut their losses, the less damage they would have done. Afghanistan is the strongest possible argument Anderson could make for simply getting out of Iraq immediately and completely. I have no idea what Anderson thinks he is trying to say here.
Filed under: United States
The new Pew global attitudes survey of 47 countries came out June 27. Just one quick observation: guess what world region has the most favorable opinions of the US? Guess what world region has never been the site of an American military intervention? I’ll take Sub-Saharan Africa for 500, Alex.
(Except for Somalia, that is. But Somalia wasn’t on the survey, and I’d bet it would be a case of an exception that proved the rule, in the correct sense of the idiom. That is, it was the site of an American military intervention, and the US is probably not very popular there.)
Filed under: Burma
Deputy Assistant Sec. of State Eric John, theUS’s top SE Asia guy, met with three Burmese ministers in Beijing yesterday, the first such high-level US-Burma contact in years. The US said any further progress on bilateral relations depended on freeing Aung San Suu Kyi. According to a State Dept. spokesman:
“It was a frank exchange of views but I don’t think we saw anything coming out of them that would indicate, unfortunately, that they had changed their basic opinions,” Casey said of the meeting, which was held at Myanmar’s request.
It’s easy to make too much of the use of one word by a spokesman, but — “opinions”? As if these guys might have done a little reading and decided, hey, you know, a military junta is kind of an antiquated form of government that’s ill suited to a modern economy, so how about we move towards liberal democracy? Interests, stances, aims, perspectives even. But not “opinions”. On the other hand, the claim that the meeting was held at Burma’s request is interesting. What are they looking for from the US, and why now?
There’s this brilliant sequence in the Washington Post’s series on Dick Cheney’s operating style as VP where Cheney decides to intervene to make sure that farmers and ranchers in Oregon, who lean Republican, will get water from a lake to ease a drought, even though the EPA has found that giving them the water will kill off 2 endangered species of fish, including coho salmon. The way Cheney goes about this is brilliant. He gets the National Academies of Science to convene a panel reviewing whether or not diverting water to farmers will harm the fish. They conclude there’s not enough evidence to say that it will, and the farmers get their water. Tens of thousands of salmon are shortly dying on the banks of the river, in the biggest fish die-off in the history of the American West.
What the article leaves unsaid is the influence of scientific attitudes towards uncertainty on this maneuver. The article portrays Cheney’s gambit as a risky one; the scientists are impartial and can’t be influenced by political considerations, and their conclusions have to withstand peer review. But what that misses is that scientists, especially panels of scientists, are inherently predisposed towards uncertainty on any issue they examine. Cheney clearly understands this, and knows that if he can phrase the question properly, he’s likely to get the answer he wants. He knows the answer will most likely begin “There is not enough evidence to conclude…” So if the question is: “Will the fish survive lower water levels?” — he’s in trouble. But if the question is: “Will diverting the water harm the fish?” — he’s golden. He’s using the bias of scientists towards careful skepticism to enable political power to go ahead and do whatever it wants. It’s the same card energy industries and tobacco industries played for decades, and it works.
Filed under: China
China announced it closed 180 food processing plants over the weekend. Good for them. I find this whole thing enormously encouraging. For one thing, it turns out to be possible to override corporate interests and get the message out when industrially produced comestibles are actually poisoning people. For another thing, the public sentiment rallied by this issue is so overwhelming, and has a such a powerful effect on governments, that no company or country in the world, China included, can do anything less than respond emphatically and quickly. It is an enormous, overwhelming task for China to attempt to institute adequate food safety controls; it’s a vast country and the government is mostly bereft of enforcement power or effective control over business activities. But the key here is to be impatient. Don’t be patient; demand faster action, more action, more public aggression, more transparent action. What are they going to do — say no? Already, institutions across the US have banned Chinese-made toothpaste. Not just the offending brands; they’re going all-out and banning all Chinese-made toothpaste. This is the most effective possible kind of reform pressure on the Chinese government, precisely because it is motivated not by some kind of high-minded moral sentiment, but by pure consumer self-interest. There’s no repressive or propagandistic way out of this: they will either reform their food safety systems, or they will lose their export markets. Can there be any question which they’ll do?
So when we first moved to Hanoi, we moved into a house in a small alleyway next to Lenin Park which also contained a furniture shop, “Can’s Rattan”. Mr. Can and his eponymous store claim to be the oldest private export furniture establishment in Hanoi, and while the shop is a little hole in the wall — a few samples spread over 3 floors of a tiny alley house — their stuff is all over town. Mr. Can himself is something of a character; he’s a bald fellow in his late 50’s, I think, with a sunny grin, a curiously Chinese-looking face, and a bad limp from some old injury that leaves him carrying a cane and moving at a relaxed pace appropriate to his careful, meditative disposition. He speaks excellent French and decent English. You can ask him to recommend furniture for you, or design something, and he’ll take an interest, but ask him how much he’ll charge and he passes you immediately on to his extremely charming wife, Hanh, who actually runs the business. He says he’s not actually interested in making furniture anymore; he spends most of his time reading and thinking.
We’ve since moved out of the alley to a different neighborhood, but we still go to Can for pretty much all our furniture. So yesterday I stopped by to confirm an order of a new table and six chairs, and we caught up a bit. I asked him what he’d been reading lately. He said he was mostly reading philosophy these days.
What? I asked. “Do you know Thomas Kuhn?” he asked.
It turns out he’s just done the first-ever translation of Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” into Vietnamese. It’ll be published by a small publishing house here in August. Richard Rorty may be next.
An odd English transliteration of “Den Haag”, short for “‘s-Gravenhage”, “the count’s hedge”; in its abbreviated and universally recognized form it simply means “the hedge”. As everyone knows, it’s the capital of the Netherlands and the headquarters of the International Court of Justice (or “World Court”) and, more recently, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court. It is the place where the world, in its perhaps arrested moment of international humanitarian consensus in the late ’90s, decided it would send people like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Liberia’s Charles Taylor: heads of state who planned, executed or abetted genocide, mass rape, the amputation of hands and so forth.
Robert Lowell’s poem “Stalin” compares the state to a hedge.
The state, if we could see behind the wall,
is woven of perishable vegetation.
Stalin? What shot him clawing up the tree of power —
millions plowed under with the crops they grew,
his intimates dying like the spider-bridegroom?
Lowell wrote the poem during Watergate, a political moment closely analogous in its comprehensive frustration, disgust and despair to the present one.
The laws and institutions that hold the state together are precisely as strong as people’s instinctive commitment to following them. They are surprisingly easy to kill; one need only have a parasitical body of some kind, a weed, which wraps itself around them, tighter and tighter. With enough people inside the hedge who no longer care about the aims and rules that structured the hedge, the hedge dies. There are a large number of such parasitical actors inside our government at the moment, who could use a stern reminder of how their actions are killing off the “perishable vegetation” of the state. Perhaps we could send them to The Hague for a lesson.