Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Say not the sea of faith naught availeth; or, the tension of a Bush victory

Matthew Arnold v. Arthur Hugh Clough, no rounds, no padding, no submissions, two Victorian poets enter, one Victorian poet leaves...

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; -on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


SAY not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.

If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.

And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!

Friday, October 15, 2004

The impossibility of 9/11 in the mind of someone living

Without wanting to get all ruminative this early in the weekend, it's funny how often writing something down seems to show up a previously unexpected pattern.

Below I wrote a bit about the Right's response, in the US, to 9/11; it has, in some ways, disappeared - not as a bloody shirt to wave, nor as a mass grave to stand on with a bullhorn, in those forms it is still around. Rather it has disappeared as an event that actually happened and ought to be a key part of our understanding of what the threat of terrorism (in the sense of attacks by things classifiable as Al Qaeda) really is. It, alongside the attacks on Bali and Madrid and elsewhere, represent the factual basis, such as it is, of the threat. Now there is of course a core of sense to the notion that it might be especially dangerous if people willing to undertake the sort of attacks we have actually seen were to get access to even more dangerous weapons, and that is something which ought to figure in our thinking seriously but also realistically.

It certainly isn't the case that we ought to think only or even primarily about threats which are merely theoretical. (If, before 9/11, defence against terrorism had primarily involved trying to prevent suicide hijackings of passenger aircraft, the events of 9/11 would never have happened. Instead, the same people would have used their old strategy of filling large trucks with explosives and parking them close to target buildings, and probably wreaked about as much havoc by doing so.)

So much about the Right's forgetting of 9/11. What about the Left's? Well, herewith a pretty distressing article from today's Guardian G2. Now, again, there is a sane core to this article. "Dirty bombs" probably wouldn't be all that dangerous, and perhaps governments could do more to emphasise this, and, maybe, they don't do so because it makes governance easier not to do so. Similarly, politicians (and journalists) often speak of al Qaeda as if it were a straightforward established institution (like the Distressed Gentlefolks' Aid Association), while the best evidence is that it is something much more insubstantial and confusing than that. But around this core of sanity we get to "can there be a decent left?" all over again.

The Guardian's article is entitled "The Making of the Terror Myth", and although it dances around the point a little, it is mainly arguing that terrorist attacks are a myth created by securocrats and Straussians and other Bad People; it explicitly compares terrorism to other risk panics like those over MMR or the Millennium Bug.

Except, for fuck's sake, there was never much evidence that MMR was harmful, and damage from the Millennium Bug was not very significant (although it might have been, if efforts had not been made to avert it), whereas thousands of people have died in attacks by in the past few years. However inchoate the groups behind those attacks are, however convenient those attacks have been to people whose politics are unappealing, however much it is often easier to allow ourselves to think about the world in ways which don't let the attacks in - they actually happened, and they are important, and we must keep ourselves in the realm of the real when we think about them, from left or right.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Wars on Terror

According to the New York Times' "News Analysis" of the second presidential debate, President Bush made a "crisp rejoinder" in saying:

"The war on terror is to make sure that these terrorist organizations do not end up with weapons of mass destruction. That's what the war on terror is about."

Um. Well, it's a crisp rejoinder if you believe it, I guess, but I am still surprised that this statement hasn't received more critical analysis. The WoT is about WMD? Not "partly about", not "largely about", just "about". Not "WMD terrorism as a strategic risk" but "WMD terrorism as terrorism".

If I remember correctly, about three years ago about three thousand people, nearly all civilians, were killed in the United States using, um, hijacked civilian aeroplanes, in an incident which you might expect would have remained in public memory. One might innocently have thought that defence against such incidents would be what the WoT was "about".

Friday, October 01, 2004

Three thoughts about the Presidential debates

FIRST: pickled onions are an improvement on olives in martini, but the ensemble is too weird to become truly popular.

SECOND: also, lemon is good.

THIRD: if the main take-home lesson of this debate is not Bush's bizarre inability to let Kerry have the last word, to always demand the extra 30s/30s extended debate which is supposed to be the moderator's choice, then there really is something pathological about the American press (though, y'know, maybe the moderator could say "no" now and again). It's extraordinary how Bush reacts to Kerry's 90-second bits, really.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

It's rainy

There seems to be no's lyrics database that Google knows of.

Whence and whither away

One remaining piece of the CBS Bush Memos story puzzles me.

What are the origins of the documents? There are three possibilities I can think of: i) the memos were designed to damage Bush; ii) they were designed to help Bush; iii) they were done for money by someone who didn't care about the consequences.

It seems to me that none of those possibilities makes sense in combination with two facts about the memos: (a) they were merely repeating and emphasising what was already pretty well certain, and (b) they could easily have been forged so as not to raise suspicion (e.g. by using a 1970s typewriter, by using the right TANG jargon from other documents in the public domain).

If one went to the trouble of forging memoranda to damage Bush... why not include something juicy? Thus i) and a) seem to conflict pretty obviously.

Similarly, suppose the memos are a piece of infernal Rovian brilliance; wouldn't they include scandalous and easily disproved claims that would make the memos look more like dirty politics? Thus ii) and a) also seem implausible together.

Finally, suppose the memos were forged for profit by some scam merchant. In that case, one might expect they would be forged more professionally; that is, they would be in the same typeface and use the same jargon as the memos already made public. Thus iii) and b) seem to be in conflict.

I don't have any answers to this, but I haven't seen any convincing answers elsewhere. Thus I think that what we have seen is not the whole story; but what the rest of the story is I can't imagine.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Return of the rice dish

Back from the blogdead to do something I said an age ago I'd do: explain why exactly my thinking about the war was so uptight. I'm inspired to do so by this attempt at J&BHAB...) which does most of the work I'd otherwise have had to do.

A particularly helpful feature of that post is that it does emphasise that there were a lot of different reasons to support the war. There is an antiwar critique that war supporters tended to jump from justification to justification without really pinning their argument on any single one. While it's true that at least one of the justifications ought to be both true and sufficient, it's not obvious to me at all that the, umm, multivariate nature of the pro-war argument was in itself wrong. The sanctions policy really was unsustainable and wrong, but apparently necessary in the absence of war. There really were reasons to think Saddam's regime was not living up to the Kuwait ceasefire agreement. Finally, a set of previous limited wars seemed to me (still seem to me) to have been non-disastrous, to be justifiable as acts, and to have been more good than bad in their consequences (I supported both the first gulf war, somewhat equivocally, and the Kosovo conflict, less equivocally, and in retrospect I think I was wrong to oppose the Falklands war); although even at the time that didn't seem like a good reason to oppose the war, it did give reason to think that "war is not the answer" isn't the whole truth. I still think it isn't, as such. What I think was really wrong was my inclination to trust political leaders to make the decision about the war when the public lacked access to all the relevant information political leaders had.

I think this mistake was actually driven by my being a political scientist. I didn't have to be an especially strong rational choice proponent to believe that elected politicians tend to try to avoid disaster, and that electorates tend to try to punish politicians who end up leading them into trouble. I thought these two things to be probably truths both as regards the US and UK governments.

Thus I tended to resolve doubts with the thought that both GWB (and his advisors), and Blair and his government, would be going before their respective electorates within a couple of years of the Iraq invasion, after a period in which however well or badly that went the Iraq news would have been pretty dominant. Thus, they had every reason to make themselves as well-informed as possible about whether there was a WMD threat; whether the country would be governable; whether the whole enterprise stood a decent chance of success; and so on. That they went ahead with such a risky enterprise in those circumstances seemed to me to indicate the threat really was urgent and that the response was appropriate. Had I been in the business of predicting what would happen in the event that no WMD was found, that there would be an ongoing war in which the coalition would lose control of substantial parts of the country, and so on, I guess I'd have predicted a landslide defeat for Bush (or even the resignation of Cheney and Bush and a Hastert nightwatchman presidency); in the UK, that Blair would have been out of office in a year, possibly with the party having divided, probably with a general election to form a new government in which there could be confidence.

Of course all of this is wrong: Firstly, the notion that politicians have reason to do their best to avoid disaster and therefore do their best to avoid disaster. It turns out that both Bush and his advisors, and Blair and his government, were listening to fairytales. It is true that many observers thought that Iraq had WMD, but very unclear what if anything made Bush et al believe there to be an imminent threat. It also turns out that making Iraq successful on any level wasn't enough of a priority in the post-invasion operation (in the sense that other considerations, such as the need to be seen as tough on insurgents, or the desire to give big contracts to US firms rather than employ local expertise, trumped the need to establish effective governance). It may be said that the British operation in Iraq was run by professionals who knew what they were doing, and were derailed by American incompetence and corruption; that's probably close to a consensus view among journalists and the like over here, and I think is a subtext every time a British soldier gets killed in Iraq. But even if that's true, on my original view, Blair should have assured himself that the Americans would handle the occupation OK before signing up.

But now that the whole operation turns out to be a pointless disaster, what about the second point: are the politicians in charge in the UK or the US being punished? That raises tricky counterfactual questions. Possibly Blair is suffering more than Bush; although Labour retains a lead in most opinion polls, it's hard to think that they wouldn't be much further ahead absent the Iraq war. Probably the Labour lead is down to the inadequacy of the Conservative opposition, rather than to a widespread public ignorance of the disaster in Iraq, of which the BBC reminds us every day. There is something very wrong with a democratic political system in which the opposition is so inadequate that widespread public disenchantment with a major policy of the government is irrelevant.

Bush, on the other hand, actually seems to benefit from the war in Iraq. Mark A. R. Kleiman has a post from a reader arguing that Kerry's difficulties in keeping up with Bush are down to the understandable inability of the median American voter to perceive the disaster of the war in Iraq (or of climate change). There is something very wrong with a voter so myopic, but perhaps this description is accurate.

But let us be clear where this gets us. Both Bush and Blair can go to war for reasons that turn out to be wrong and in pursuit of which they turn out to have at best systematically exaggerated very patchy evidence. That war can turn out to be misguided strategically and mishandled tactically. Its consequence can be the systematic derangement of international institutions. It can turn from a war of liberation into a colonial war repressing nationalist insurgents (whom tradition dictates we call "terrorists"), while being a vivid recruiting tool for those who actually are terrorists. It can waste billions of pounds and tens of thousands of lives and leave the world worse off in pretty much every way. Despite all this the two major proponents of the war can have a fighting chance of re-election. In particular it's now difficult for me to see why any US administration should care about the consequences of its foreign policy.

While I'm deeply ashamed to have been on the wrong side of the debate about the war in advance, turning out to be wrong has rather shattered my faith in the effectiveness of democratic feedback as a useful (realist?) constraint on policy-making.

Friday, May 28, 2004


I guess money is on something interesting happening and giving his rather wonderful final paragraph a bit of historical resonance (kinda like David Halberstam's writing on Vietnam now has):

Washington, which was just weeks ago in the grip of neoconservative orthodoxy and absolute belief in Bush's inevitability and righteousness, is now in the throes of agonizing events and being ripped apart by investigations. Things fall apart; all that was hidden is revealed; all sacred exposed as profane: the military, loyal and lumbering, betrayed and embittered; the general in the field, Lt. Gen. Sanchez, disgraced and cashiered; and the most respected retired generals training their artillery on those who have ill-used the troops, still dying in the field; the intelligence agencies, a nautilus of chambers, abused and angry, its retired operatives plying their craft with the press corps, seeping dangerous truths; the press, hesitatingly and wobbly, investigating its own falsehoods; the neocons, publicly redoubling their passionate intensity, defending their hero and deceiver Chalabi, privately squabbling, anxiously awaiting the footsteps of FBI agents; Colin Powell, once the most acclaimed man in America, embarked on an endless quest to restore his reputation, damaged above all by his failure of nerve; everyone in the line of fire motioning toward the chain of command, spiraling upward and sideways, until the finger pointing in a phalanx is directed at the hollow crown.

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