February 19, 2003

Letter to a Friend in Boston, or, Why Are We Ruled By These Idiots, Part 437?

A huge letter I wrote over the weekend to a friend in Boston, who had dissented from my wife's proposition that Bush is the Antichrist, on the grounds that (a) he was serious about the security of the U.S., (b) the Democrats were being pathetic, and (c) unlike Clinton, who practiced "appeasement", he was promoting American values and goals.

Summary: These people don't give a damn about anything I'd want to call American values, and are either idiots or don't care about our safety at all.

Dear R.,

I hope you don't think that disliking Bush means approving of the Democrats. Yes, their response to Bush's proposals and policies has been pathetic. And, yes the government's first priority must be the security of the populace; that's it's most basic function. If I thought that Bush was making us safer, I'd back him. I thought the war in Afghanistan would make us safer, and so I backed it, and still back it.

Bush hasn't convinced me that attacking Iraq will make us safer. The obvious guess is that it will endanger us, because it removes any incentive Hussein has to not use his weapons, it drives him into alliance with al-Qaida et al., normally our mutual enemies, and it recruits people for those movements. The best reason to attack Iraq now is that otherwise it's only a matter of time before it gets nukes, which we, and the rest of the industrialized world, can't live with. This is a strong argument, but it means that disarming Iraq is part of our general strategy, not part of our conflict with al-Qaida. There is the additional argument that, at this point, we are so committed to invading Iraq that our credibility and prestige will massively suffer if we do not. There's force to that, too, but in a free republic, we'd then impeach the president for arrogating to himself the power to declare war.

As to domestic security, there's really no evidence that Bush & c. are serious about it. They spent most of a year opposing creating a federal department to oversee it. (Incidentally: wouldn't it be nice if we called Homeland Security "defense" and Defense "war"? "War" worked quite nicely for us for more than 150 years.) They're not funding police, firefighters, hospitals, public health agencies, or other "first responders" (despite promising to). They're not seriously seeing how known, wanted terrorists could manage to e.g. live openly in San Diego with their real names on credit cards. There's been no investigation, never mind reform, of the intelligence agencies which let it happen. The threat level announcements seem to go up every time Bush's poll numbers drop --- I haven't done a regression on that, so I'm willing to believe that's the bias of my memory. But it's a supremely useless system, and it doesn't even give useful advice (see e.g. Gregg Easterbrook in the Times the other day).

Behind ensuring our safety, comes promoting "our values and our goals". And here, again, I don't see that Bush is doing a very effective job. Under him, we've guaranteed the safety and stability of dictatorships in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia (the home of most of our enemies, who've received funding from the royal family). In Venezuela, we gave official approval to a military coup against a president constitutionally elected by majority vote. (Chavez's policies are idiotic, but so what?) In Argentina, we let a country which had made a point of following all our policy suggestions to the letter collapse economically, which has not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world. Bush made not one but two apologies to China in the spring of 2001 over our crashed airplane. The State Department has officially classified as terrorists non-violent political movements in the mostly-Muslim, mostly-non-Han province of Xinjiang, to please the Communist Party. In Russia, we are not protesting at all as Putin clamps down not merely on dissent but sheerly independent media outlets, and we're now backing his incredibly brutal war in Chechenya, which under Clinton we at least rhetorically opposed. (The fact that many on the Chechen side are brutal, drug-running gangsters does not make what the Russian army does any better.) In Afghanistan, Bush has proposed a budget which contains, literally, not one dollar for economic development or reconstruction there, which is both stupid and contrary to our promises. Because of a speechwriter's conceit, we lump Iran together with its mortal enemy Iraq, thereby handing the mullahs a perfect club with which to beat the secularizing, democratizing opposition we should be doing everything we can to encourage.

Finally, our real allies --- not places like Saudi Arabia, but the network of democratic, market-economy countries we have created since WWII. We need them: we're stronger than any other country in the world, but we can't run the world in opposition to everybody. And it would be nice to have the costs of running the world spread over them, too, since they're going to benefit. (And by "costs" I include "murderous hostility of Islamists".) There have been many powerful empires in history, but I think we've been the first in actually running a part of one on the basis of positive ties and moral authority. We could have installed biddable satraps across Europe after WWII, but we created or reinforced democracies. (Asia, well... we did right by Japan.) We cemented our leadership not just by our overwhelming power, but by creating organizations and institutions which bound us as well, everything from the UN and NATO through little things like the laws of the sea treaties. (I'd say that this expressed our values very well: our response to seeing a need or a problem is to organize, and we tame power through checks and balances, through countervailing power.) One can argue about whether this is morally right, but it has a very practical benefit: in a crisis, people are more likely to stick with a leader exercising what they see as legitimate authority than one who rules by mere strength. There must be a political idea to get us through crises, and for more than half a century that idea has been "the USA is looking out for the free world, not just itself". I think this is the right idea, and in any case one should be leery of changing something that's worked for, what, a quarter of our nation's history --- a full 1% of the recorded history of mankind!

We haven't done that. We want collective action with our allies, which means convincing enough of them that we're right about Iraq; we haven't done that anyplace, even Britain. (Say what you will about Tony Blair, he has political courage.) There are an immense number of ways in which we've managed to convey that we don't really care about the rest of the free world. The one which most appalls me is trade. For a long time we've been saying, correctly, that free trade enriches all countries, that it is one of the best routes to development, and that it ties the world together peacefully. We have led by example in opening ourselves to trade, and been very forceful in persuading other countries to agree to it. Under Bush, we not only reintroduced steel tariffs, for nakedly political purposes, but we've openly reneged on commitments to reduce agricultural subsidies, which everybody knows are protectionist, and textile tariffs, ditto. (Need I point out that there are several countries --- Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia --- with very competitive textile industries, where massive poverty creates fertile recruiting grounds for al-Qaeda and its clones?) On top of all this, we have senior Pentagon officials calling on elected representatives of allied countries to resign for siding with their voters rather than us, and saying that France should no longer be considered an ally. Should we not do things for our own safety because of public opinion in our allies? No, of course not. Should we not do things which are morally right because we can't persuade our allies? Again, no, of course not. But policy which does not realize the value of our alliances, and the need to maintain them, and act accordingly, is incompetent, and not serious about our safety or our values.

As for Clinton --- he's a lying, smug, self-pitying horndog, who'd make a perfectly awful high school principal. You'll recall that wasn't his position. He made a pretty good president, and I really don't think his foreign policy was less serious about protecting American security, or promoting American values, than Bush's has been. He maintained Kurdish autonomy in Iraq (which it now seems we're going to abandon after we invade, turning everything back over to the same old thugs from Baghdad); he bombed Iraq repeatedly for non-compliance with the resolutions about disarmament. He retaliated against al-Qaeda for the embassy bombings, and directed the intelligence agencies to produce a plan for rolling them back, which was presented to the Bush team at the beginning of 2001, who promptly shelved it. Under him, we intervened, militarily, on the right side in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and (to intense opposition from the GOP) Kosovo, and diplomatically in more places than I can readily count. (Not all of these interventions were successful, of course.) In North Korea, our policy was to provide humanitarian assistance in exchange for careful supervision of facilities, making sure there was no weapons development. It's hard to see what could be done better, short of a war which we would win, but would have tens of thousands of American casualties, not to speak of the obliteration of Seoul. Arguably this was "appeasement". Bush canceled that deal and announced a policy of not giving North Korea anything, so the regime resorted to nuclear blackmail. Result: after weeks of crying that we weren't going to negotiate, we started negotiating. Are we more at risk? Yes; North Korea is now producing nukes, and has missiles which can deliver them to our west coast. Has our strategic position improved? Not at all. Has our credibility increased, or our moral authority? Not likely.

The real moral failures of American foreign policy under Clinton was, it seems to me, our reluctance to intervene against genocide --- at all, in the case of Rwanda, or until quite late, in the case of Bosnia. But dear God, better inaction than active complicity in genocide, which is what we had under Reagan and Bush I, in Iraq and Guatemala. (For the record, the fact that we gave Hussein some of the tools for his slaughter of the Kurds means we have a special obligation to make things better, which is not served by isolationist self-flagellation.) Now, there doubtless were other issues where the Clinton administration did not do as much as it could've for our security and values, but compared to our recent history, certainly our history under Bush II, I think he did pretty well.

OK, so I don't like what Bush is doing. Do I have any better ideas? Frankly, yes. Fortunately for me somebody else has taken the trouble to write them up: Robert Wright did it in Slate, as a nine-part series which starts at here. Needless to say, the Democrats aren't pushing that line, or anything much like it. But I'd feel a lot safer if somebody was.

The Continuing Crisis; The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted by crshalizi at February 19, 2003 14:35 | permanent link

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