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"We don't seek empires. We're not imperialistic. We never have been. I can't imagine why you'd even ask the question." Donald Rumsfeld, questioned by an al-Jazeera correspondent, April 29, 2003.

"No one can now doubt the word of America," George W. Bush, State of the Union, January 20, 2004.

A Blog by Rahul Mahajan

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March 25, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- What use are experts?

It was just a throwaway line in President Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday. He was giving Steve Kroft the new conventional wisdom on Afghanistan – “Iraq was actually easier than Afghanistan. It's easier terrain. You've got a-- much better educated population, infrastructure to build off of” – and I suddenly said to myself, “Do they know anything at all about anything?”

It’s very odd. There has been a great flurry of books, articles, media reports about all the things the United States has learned about counterinsurgency, about how to combine offers of development aid with demands for “actionable intelligence,” about how a “kinder, gentler” approach toward the population helps the occupier in the long run, you name it. In fact, U.S. military officials like General David McKiernan have castigated the Europeans for not having learned all the wonderful things we have.

Now, I don’t know whether Afghanistan is actually “harder” than Iraq, especially since I don’t know what “Afghanistan” as a problem rather than a country is. But surely it’s obvious that the better educated population and better infrastructure in Iraq were reasons that “Iraq” was harder – it led to a much quicker growth of resistance and a much wider dissatisfaction with American inability to repair the infrastructure it destroyed. And what exactly does Obama think we’re in Afghanistan to do? Build infrastructure?
One of the main lessons most people have drawn from the Iraq occupation is that we need to understand the Middle East better and concomitantly we need to go back to the tried-and-true methods that the foreign policy experts of our prelapsarian days applied so well.

That has not been the lesson I’ve drawn. It is true that the cabal that plotted the insane venture of destroying a country’s government without an agreed-on plan to replace it with something else knew nothing about the Middle East. And it certainly would have been nice to have the input of experts on the region who could explain to us that Arabs, apparently unlike others, don’t like being herded into prison for no reason, stripped naked, taunted, made to simulate masturbation and copulation with each other, and formed into pyramids. And, of course, soldiers could have benefited from experts explaining to them that beating helpless prisoners to death was immoral.

But the fact is that Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others were the epitome of the foreign policy expert. Doug Feith points out in his book, I think correctly, that in fact the Rumsfeld wing of things was smarter and more “expert” than the Colin Powell wing. It just so happens that foreign policy expertise had and has a lot more to do with encyclopedic knowledge of weapons systems, expertise at bureaucratic infighting, and delineation of strategic contingencies in carefully bullet-pointed memos than it has to do with understanding human beings and the world.

The other pillar of the ongoing American debacle, the economic and financial crisis, has occasioned some grumbling about Wall Street’s expertise from the margins, but again no sustained critique of the concept of expertise and how it is conceived.

It’s paradoxical, because all of us who are not economists trying to make head or tail of Paulsen’s and Geithner’s various plans to spend trillions of dollars have surely experienced the fugitive thought that expertise is very important. We all know that maintaining the status quo and pretending that it can be maintained is the main wellspring of these policies, but it’s not that easy to figure out what should be done instead.

And yet what a farce financial and economic expertise is. It’s very difficult not to laugh when companies like AIG tell us that they need to dole out $165 million in bonuses so they can keep their best and brightest happy and still working for them. Perhaps they and we would have done better if they had populated those posts with people randomly drawn from prison.

When Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and the powers-that-be try to maintain the fiction that they, the macho men of Wall Street, the touts on CNBC, the raters at Moody’s who gave AAA ratings to junk, and the whole sordid kit and caboodle of them are still the holders of an expertise that we desperately need, it’s difficult not to scream.

Expertise is important. I am not advocating Cultural-Revolution-style Maoism or Palin-style Republicanism. The ignorant might well have gotten Iraq right – don’t invade – but figuring out how to deal with possible widespread bank failure probably requires some knowledge and understanding.

One thing is crystal clear: we need a public dialogue about how it is that in so many vitally important spheres we construct experts and expertise who are so detached from reality and from human considerations – and what can be done about it.

Posted at 3:02 am.

March 16, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Jon Stewart and the Poverty of American Satire

Everyone is raving about John Stewart’s supposed takedown of Jim Cramer. Personally, I admit to being deeply unimpressed. Indeed, I think that the video should serve as a warning of what happens when a society leaves its trenchant social commentary to comedians.

It’s important to be fair to Stewart. He’s no mere funnyman; like the best comedians, he’s smart and knowledgeable and funny. His show was one of the few lifelines that helped angst-filled liberals make it through the Bush years. It relentlessly skewers pretension and is about the only thing that, in video form, holds public figures accountable for the nonsense they spew. Politically, the show has run the gamut from prejudice and cheap sneers at Arabs to an actual link of Israel’s occupation and siege with Palestinian violence.

Overall, the show has on occasion been criticized by the left because it moves people toward demobilization and cynicism. It certainly does. And it’s no coincidence that its rise in popularity coincides with the collapse in mobilized political opposition by ordinary people. What’s the cause, however, and what the effect? Stewart is the spokesman for an important social constituency – the effortlessly cynical young and middle-aged who can’t really imagine doing anything about anything. The fact that it’s the main news source for much of its viewership betokens rather clearly its audience’s lack of effort.

But I don’t particularly blame the show for this; it’s simply the low channel that cynicism and inertia find in order to flow to the sea. No, what annoys me about the show is its constant search, in opposition to the spirit of the best social satire, for some comforting conventional wisdom to fall back on, perhaps rooted in some rosily glowing past.

This is part of why the interviews are almost always such a big disappointment. One shouldn’t discount Stewart’s ego or the general chumminess that is required to get people to come on your show; but the obsequiousness that he showed to Colin Powell or the kid gloves with which he’s treated various Bush administration spokespeople in the past stem also from deeper roots.

But, of course, this is supposedly what was different about the Cramer interview. He went after Cramer and the financial TV industry that he represents relentlessly. And there was a different tone. You can see it on other shows as well. The bombing of various Arabs and people we think are Arabs may matter to you in some abstract sense, but people – even the rich and famous – lost lots of money in the financial collapse. So it’s natural that beating up on Cramer, who proffered one meek mea culpa after another, felt good, both to Stewart and a lot of people watching.

Financial TV shows that pimp stocks under the pretense of being “analysis,” next cousin to boiler rooms and chop shops, are an easy and a deserving target. And clowns like Cramer are even easier. I’d like to see Alan Greenspan and Tim Geithner get the same treatment. After all, their claims to expertise and understanding based on inside knowledge seem just as empty as Cramer’s. And why not drag Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s and 95% of the country’s economists into this as well?

And what about the tens of millions of enablers, who not only gave their money to the Bernie Madoffs and their barely legal equivalents, but still just want that world restored? Are they really just victims? These all seem natural questions for a satirist.

Even Stewart’s potentially deepest criticism remains mired in his centrist muddle. He criticizes financial TV for “Selling this idea that you don’t have to do anything, … you’ll get 10 to 20 percent on your money, … When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work.”

Assuming that Stewart has not independently come to believe in the labor theory of value, he seems to be unclear on the “capital” part of “capitalism.” What exactly does he think it involves but making money by having money?

I’m not really criticizing Stewart, I suppose, but pointing out how much is lost by the abdication of social commentary to him and his like.

According to the Ayn Rand Institute, sales of Atlas Shrugged, already climbing in 2008, have tripled in the early months of 2009; everybody’s talking about its hero John Galt’s stratagem of recusing himself from society and denying it the benefits of his brilliance. Economic crises do make people search for new answers and new methods, but they don’t have to make sense and they really don’t have to be progressive.

Posted at 11:09 am.

March 9, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- Capitalism's Remedy -- "Go Shopping"

As criticism of the unlamented George Bush matured during his interminable presidency, one of the statements for which he was most derided was his response to a question a few weeks after 9/11 about what ordinary Americans could do to contribute – supposedly, he said we should “go shopping.” Respectable opinion across the spectrum from Barack Obama to Thomas Friedman to John McCain concurred – instead of seizing the moment to call us to national responsibility and national sacrifice, he played to the lowest common denominator of American society.

Actually, Bush said, “Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Go down to Disney World in Florida,” but the intent was clearly the same. And Rudy Giuliani, still universally praised for his response to 9/11, did indeed say "Show you're not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping,” as did many others.

Now, let’s leave aside the fact that, had he called us to sacrifice, the main difference would have been that we spent the next month being even more insufferably self-righteous than we already were, while still concentrating on shopping. And the fact that there was really no reason to donate even more blood.

What’s truly fascinating is that this time around, when we’re faced with a crisis whose effects are far more wide-ranging, and one whose cause can be directly traced not just to the mindless greed of the clay-footed titans of Wall Street but to the thoughtless profligacy of an entire nation, this time the remedy universally agreed on is “Go shopping.”

In that “universally” I don’t include the Republicans, who are playing their traditional game: after 8 or 12 years of Republican waste and excess that leads to a Democratic victory, rediscover the great heartland American value of frugality (which goes naturally with other heartland values like obesity, SUVs, and giant houses that you can’t afford).

Well, you will say, now is not the time for austerity; indeed, artificially stimulated consumption is necessary to mitigate this economic collapse. And you’re absolutely right; this is one of the few (very few) conclusions of economics that still hold up. Indeed, Bush’s much-ridiculed statement was made in the context of widespread fear of economic collapse.

Barack Obama, who I predict will not be maligned by history for not calling us to sacrifice, is so clear about stimulating consumption that the tax credit in his stimulus package will not, as in previous years, be delivered in a lump-sum. When people get a $600 check from the government, they are apparently far too likely either to save it or to pay down debt.

And that is no good; they must spend the money. So the stimulus cleverly gives you the money by reducing federal withholding from your paycheck. The calculation is that, with your extra money coming in little bits here and there you are more likely to spend it. Note that this is not so people will spend more on necessities; those who really need to would likely spend a lump-sum in the same way. No, this is so the people who would pay down debt instead buy more useless crap.

Capitalism will be saved on top of a mound of 50-inch flat-panel TVs, home furnishings that are never used, Ronco salad shooters, and nights out drinking six-dollar beers. The remedy for the result of 15 years spending most of China’s GDP as well as our own is more spending of China’s GDP.

The problem is not even that we are supposed to spend our way out of this crisis, although it really isn’t clear how long the rest of the world will continue to pay our bills; the problem is that we have a system that structurally requires this kind of behavior. We must always have economic growth, because the alternative is contraction and dislocation. Individual frugality, supposedly such a great virtue, leads to stagnation or contraction on the national level – check out a recent New York Times article on how those stupid Japanese responded to their economic crises of the early 90’s by reducing consumption and living more simply.

The stimulus package is a perfect example of behavior that is locally sensible but globally senseless. Capitalism abounds in eliciting such behavior. Everybody knows the bill is coming due, in this generation. It’s truly disheartening that a crisis that should shake the legitimacy not just of American-style capitalism but of all mainstream economic analysis has led virtually no one to talk about fundamental change of the system. People need to start. It is no good to wait until the crisis has passed; at that point, as the pundits hail another great victory of American capitalism, nobody will be listening.

Posted at 10:49 am.

March 2, 2009

Weekly Commentary -- The Forever War: is the End in Sight?

Is the forever war coming to an end? In a speech to Marines at Camp Lejeune on Friday, President Obama pledged that combat troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of August 2010. Democrats and antiwar organizations have focused on the extremely large size of the “residual force” – 35 to 50,000, oddly, roughly the number that the Bush administration likely envisioned, insofar as it envisioned anything, as a semi-permanent garrison – but surely at least equally worthy of note is his claim that all troops will be gone by the end of 2011, as per the text of the Status of Forces agreement.

What does it all mean? The reaction of many in the antiwar movement, I imagine, will be skepticism. We have been hearing words to this effect almost since March 2003; the only period during which talk about imminent withdrawal was shelved was during the so-called “surge,” when the decision was made that ensuring U.S. credibility as a force to be reckoned with in Iraq required not appearing too eager to leave.

Furthermore, dialogue across the spectrum on the war has been imbued with what is, to say the least, a view of time that is very different from the Western notion of time as a line that one progresses through. From Thomas Friedman’s incessant invocations of the “next six months” as the crucial make-or-break time in Iraq, immortalized by the work of FAIR and others as the Friedman unit to the proliferation of “withdrawal plans,” the key about them was always that the reference point changed every day. If you called for troops to be gone from Iraq in 16 months today, a year from now you would still be saying 16 months; insofar as it had a concrete meaning, you meant that you weren’t calling for troops to be gone in less than 16 months. In what had become an annual pre-spring ritual, newspapers would report in January or February Bush administration plans to severely draw down troops by August or September. At some point even mainstream media commentators stopped pretending to believe them.

This time is fundamentally different, though – and not because Obama is a sincere man unlike the Bush administration and various untrustworthy politicians (although I think he is). The shifting 16-month timeline was in fact Obama’s during a campaign that lasted longer than 16 months. His recent statement to Jim Lehrer that he was essentially sticking to his guns, only changing the 16 months to 18 now, makes sense only within that constantly updating notion of time that is peculiar to extended counterinsurgencies and financial crises.

Finally, though, we are back in ordinary linear time. One reason Obama’s pronouncement is different from the myriad Bush administration ones is straightforward; the vast majority of them were based on the vague hope that things in Iraq would turn around quickly and that then the United States would be able to transition from an occupation to a long-term semi-client setup. For years, it was a hope without any semblance of a politico-military strategy behind it. Those newspaper articles we all remember simply meant that the people in power retained the illusion that one more offensive like all the others would somehow break the resistance and magically give Iraq the state capacity it has not had ever since the invasion.

Another reason, of course, is the Iraqi government’s assertion of independence with the SOFA, which contains actual dates. By some mysterious alchemy, the United States has become committed to upholding at least some minimal notion of Iraqi sovereignty, even as it completely ignores Afghanistan’s and erodes Pakistan’s piece by piece; specific details are very important here. And, no doubt, it is the actual black-and-white of a quasi-legal commitment that is overcoming what would be Obama’s natural tendency to equivocate and temporize over withdrawal.

As I have mentioned numerous times before, the final reason that all of these commitments actually bind this time is the need to divert many of these troops to Afghanistan.

Two wildcards could still affect this withdrawal; the composition and attitude of the Iraqi government and powers-that-be after national elections and a potential resurgence of violence as the United States goes through a loud and messy procedure of dismantling built-up areas and shipping materiel home.

It is no accident that this occupation is ending just as the military need to make more messes in Iraq is dying down almost to nothing and the priority is on building something out of the wasteland that has been created. Ever since the Marshall Plan, that is not really a business that the United States gets into unless it is forced to.

Posted at 10:58 am.
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