Archive for March, 2011

The (Incrementally) New World Order

March 24, 2011

“America will always do the right thing, after exhausting all the alternatives.”

Winston Churchill

My previous postings regarding the Libya situation may have been too cynical and pessimistic. I want the world to be better, and do believe it’s getting better. I just wish it would hurry up. But Rome wasn’t built in a day; civilization is a slow climb. And of course I’m not one of those cynical pessimists who believe humanity is irredeemably bad and progress is an illusion. Libya may well be yet another proof of that error.

The civilized world’s response had, yes, been frustratingly slow; but that many others thought so too signifies how much the world has improved, compared to past eras when such principled and altruistic intervention would have been literally unthinkable.

It was only in 2006 that the UN codified “R2P,” a “responsibility to protect” populations from mass atrocities, even if perpetrated by their own governments. This was potentially a radical amendment of the international order, operative since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which established the modern concept of nation state sovereignty – ever since invoked to shield gangster regimes like Qaddafi’s. R2P pierced that shield, holding that sovereignty is not a privilege, but a responsibility.

This might have seemed just hot air. But the Libyan operation is the first actual action undertaken pursuant to R2P. That Russia and China did not veto it is a remarkable departure from past form. Likewise its endorsement by the Arab League. This is like the Japan earthquake that shifted the Earth’s tilt! One small step at a time, we are on the road to a world in which peace, freedom and justice reign.

Yet, sad to say, the Obama administration actually still doesn’t get it. The next domino is Yemen; President Saleh is a goner, but the U.S. is once again missing in action. This regional revolution is happening basically without us, almost even in spite of us. That’s not only a betrayal of our ideals, it also disserves our true long-term national interests.

Tomahawk missile launch

The US still acts as though Islamic terrorism is our #1 foreign policy concern. It is not. It does not actually have the potential to injure our interests in a major way; it’s not an existential threat (like the USSR was). Rather, it’s a nuisance we can deal with without getting our underwear in a twist. The odd bombing now and then is no big deal when viewed in the context of, for example, the annual 30,000+ highway death toll I keep mentioning, which we accept with equanimity. And forgive me, but even in the most extreme scenario, if Al Qaeda nukes LA (overwhelmingly unlikely, in fact), that would not destroy our society either; we’d recover. Yet we are so irrationally terrorized by terrorism (exactly as the terrorists want), we let this tail wag our foreign policy dog. That injures our interests more than anything else terrorism could do to us!

And why is Obama so insistent we’re not leading on Libya? Is there some shame in it? Those who criticize us for it will do so whether we lead or follow. But after all the criticism about our supporting dictators, we should be trumpeting this action rather than trying to downplay it. And we should be forthright that the objective is Qaddafi’s ouster. Why be disingenuous? If that’s not the objective, then the intervention is pointless. If it scares other dictators, all the better. It’s not an illegitimate objective, but a moral one, and the world needs moral leadership, which should be our role, that we’re proud to exercise.

I have always followed world affairs because I view it as one giant morality play. Evolution endows us all with instincts for morality and justice. To see a Tomahawk cruise missile blasting off, at long last, to join the battle against evil in Libya, thrilled me to the ends of my toes.

I feel sorry for the poor bastards on the receiving end. Those pro-Qaddafi soldiers are human beings, and as much victims as are the Benghazi civilians. It is not America responsible for their deaths; it’s Qaddafi. And the sooner they are defeated, the sooner this horrible carnage can end, and Libya can be yet one more nation joining the inexorably growing global community of free, peaceable, and prospering societies that Immanuel Kant foresaw two centuries ago.

A Worldwide Environmental Disaster

March 19, 2011

Japan 2011 is a disaster for the worldwide environment: by souring nuclear energy’s prospects.

Safety is a valid concern. But safety can never mean zero risk. Nothing in life has zero risk. We must always balance costs against benefits, risks against rewards. We know that planes sometimes crash, yet we still fly. Cars crash too – annually, over 30,000 Americans are killed on highways – yet we still drive. We accept these trade-offs because of the utility of flying and driving. In comparison to the highway carnage, nuclear power risks – even considering the occasional Japan-like disaster – are insignificant.

When I made this point in a radio call-in, someone responded that nuclear is different because 10,000 could die all at once, whereas auto deaths happen one at a time. As if that somehow makes them less of a concern. Meantime, for all the perfervid speculation about what a nuclear disaster might entail, during the past 25 years no nuclear accident had actually killed anyone.

In fact, hundreds of nuclear reactors have been operating around the world for decades without incident. You are more in danger from falling out of bed than from a nuclear accident. (Yes: around 450 Americans die annually falling out of bed.)

Japan’s nuclear mess didn’t just happen out of the blue, or because some Homer Simpson pushed the wrong button on a control panel. This was one of the biggest earthquake/tsunamis ever recorded. That such an extreme event wrecked nuclear plants surely does not prove the technology is somehow inherently unsafe. And in the context of the horrific overall devastation in Japan, the nuclear aspect is relatively minor. The vast bulk of the injury and death will have come from the tsunami, not the nukes.

But when it comes to safety concerns, nuclear is different – in the public mind. Partly because decades ago a certain breed of activists latched onto this, in an anti-industrial luddite crusade. It had a deep resonance for them, and for the wider public, because the modern psyche incorporates a primal fear of anything “nuclear,” a heritage of Hiroshima and the cold war. Simply put, we have an irrational fear of “nuclear” that makes us lose all sense of proportion about its dangers.

(Since some commenter is bound to mention nuclear waste, it’s frankly a bogus issue. Currently we store huge amounts on-site with no problems. The national repository at Yucca Mountain has essentially been shelved only because of NIMBYism and Nevada’s 3 electoral votes. And the ultimate solution is going to be recycling: poof, no more waste.)

Nuclear is the cleanest and least environmentally problematic option for large-scale power generation. Whatever its downsides may be, they are greater for the alternatives. Air pollution from fossil fuel generation actually kills thousands every year. Why don’t activists get upset about that? (We’re oblivious to it because no individual case of lung disease can be definitively tied to power plants. Yet for the population as a whole, we can make that link.) Global Warming too is a genuine problem, and using nuclear in place of fossil fuels (like coal) unquestionably helps (nuclear puts no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). Solar, wind, etc, are all very nice, but currently cannot meet more than a small fraction of our power needs.

The negative impact on nuclear energy development may well prove to be the most devastating long term effect of Japan’s tsunami.

Where’s the noose?

March 16, 2011

I am thoroughly disgusted with the fecklessness of the U.S. government regarding Libya. President Obama’s fatuous March 11 assertion that we’re “tightening the noose” on Khadafy is right up there with George Bush’s notorious “Mission Accomplished.”

Where's the noose?

On March 12, the Arab League called for a Libyan no-fly zone. For Heaven’s sake what more could we need in terms of international legitimacy?* Yet still we do nothing but talk. It’s already too late. The noose that’s tightening is the one upon Khadafy’s opponents.

The Arab League’s pronouncement was actually an utterly astonishing departure from past form, and shows how much has changed in the region in the past months. But the U.S. government still doesn’t get it.

I am fully cognizant of all the problematic issues surrounding any military action in Libya (as expounded, e.g., by Richard Haass on the Newshour and George Will in his column). But there is a bigger issue at stake. We are squandering a golden opportunity to alter perceptions of America in the Arab “street.” This is an opportunity to finally prove that we stand with the people, rather than tolerating or even coddling tyrants. Instead, we are proving the contrary. It makes me sick.

Moreover, democratization of the region is very much in our long term best strategic interests. George Bush was right about that, at least. Tunisia, and then Egypt, radically changed the Mid East political weather, opening a big window for democratization, proving that autocrats could not stand against a really determined popular uprising. Bahrain and Libya followed. But now Khadafy is proving that a really determined sonofabitch still can stand against a popular uprising. And we see how, emboldened by Khadafy’s example, the Bahrain regime is following his playbook. The political weather is changing again; the window is closing.

Benghazi is going to be a bloodbath. And some of that blood will be on our hands.

* We have gotten ourselves into a moral and policy cul-de-sac by making the UN Security Council the be-all and end-all of international legitimacy, where the Chinese and/or Russians always use their veto on behalf of their Authoritarians’ Protective Society. International legitimacy should not be hostage to regimes that are themselves illegitimate. Regional legitimacy is the way to go.

UPDATE MARCH 17 — The UN has authorized military action after all. I guess I was not optimistic enough (!) and there are limits to the shame with which Russia & China are willing to cover themselves. This is a good thing. But now let’s see how swiftly and forcefully the US and allies will actually act. The Brits, apparently, are rarin’ to go.

Capitalism and Human Values (and Magazines)

March 8, 2011

My wife and I are active humanists and subscribe to the American Humanist Association’s magazine, The Humanist (“a magazine of critical inquiry and social concern”). While there are certainly exceptions (me included), humanists tend to lean left in politics. Perhaps it’s because the left better parades its human concerns – poverty, inequality, etc. Though in my view the ends are disserved by the means they advocate.

Anyway, the Humanist magazine has had a pronounced leftward slant. I particularly recall a flaming anti-American rant by an emigre from Vietnam. Well, I do believe in free expression. But when one Humanist issue really overdid it, including an article hitting a whole slew of pet lefty tropes, I decided to e-mail the editor, Jennifer Bardi. I queried whether, for the sake of balance, she might accept an article with a different viewpoint, to be titled “Capitalism and Human Values.”

Her response was that “it would certainly be appropriate to examine the ideas you propose. I’m intrigued, and invite you to submit.”

So, with a prescribed 3,000 word limit, I went ahead and wrote the piece. It was rejected – “doesn’t suit our editorial needs.” Bardi denied that this was “because it’s not inline (sic) with our progressive slant.” “Rather,” she wrote, “we felt that while you make (sic) some reasonable conclusions, the piece oversimplifies at some points and ignores too much (i.e., conglomeration (sic), Wall St. hedging, etc.).”

Well – given just 3,000 words for a huge subject, perhaps a few oversimplifications were unavoidable. But as for “conglomeration, Wall St. hedging, etc,” this seemed shallow sloganeering, reflecting exactly the “progressive slant” Bardi denied invoking. And it was disingenuous – because my piece did not ignore but explicitly addressed the import of Wall Street financial machinations.

The left believes steadfastly in free expression – for the left. (At least that’s true all too often.)

So I thought The Humanist’s refusal to publish was disgraceful; and that it was not because the article wasn’t any good. But you can judge for yourself, because I then submitted it to the distinguished British magazine, Philosophy Now, which published it. Click here to read it.

A bit of an irony is that Philosophy Now’s Assistant Editor who handled this was Grant Bartley. A couple of years ago they published an article by Bartley that I considered the epitome of muddled left-wing thinking about development and globalization issues; and I sent a letter-to-the-editor ripping Bartley’s viewpoint. (I do so as well in my book, The Case for Rational Optimism.) Bartley must have virtually gagged in reading my Capitalism and Human Values. But he never said so. I salute Philosophy Now, and Mr. Bartley, for willingness to publish divergent viewpoints. At least some on the left really believe in free expression.


March 7, 2011

A quote today from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen: “I can’t imagine the international community and the United Nations would stand idly by if Gaddafi and his regime continue to attack their own people.”

What a remarkable lack of imagination.

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

March 2, 2011

In Libya today we see exhibited some of the worst of the human character: a megalomaniac gangster willing to engage in any sort of destruction and cruelty to keep power. So far we have gotten only small glimpses of what I suspect may be great horrors.

Al-Brega retaken by rebels

And we also see the finest of the human character: the absolutely staggering courage and fortitude of people standing up against it, asserting their human dignity. Today, I listened to a gripping report of how pro-Gadhafi troops attacked a rebel-held city, al-Brega, in force, and recaptured it. But they were ousted, after a very tough battle, by people from nearby towns re-invading in a flotilla of trucks. These are not soldiers. These are ordinary people, willing to face the firepower of heavy armaments. If Gadhafi is willing to do anything to hang onto power, the Libyan people are apparently willing to do almost anything to prevent it.

This is their 1776.

They need help. This war could be lost. This is a crucial moment for the entire region, and hence a crucial opportunity we should seize. Pious hot air and irrelevant sanctions do not cut it. We should help the Libyan people – now, militarily. Yes, this may be very costly for us. But I believe the cost, in the long run, will be far greater if we don’t.

In the Left’s mirror, the US military is a bunch of warmongers always itching for a fight. The truth is the opposite. Fighting is the last thing they want to do — too much trouble and effort. Don’t want to get their hands, or spiffy uniforms, dirty. Thus Defense Secretary Gates says a no-fly zone isn’t so simple, we’d have to destroy Libya’s air defenses. As John McCain comments (and he should know), the military always comes up with reasons why it can’t do things. I think destroying Libya’s air defenses surely is something our military can be expected to accomplish.We spend hundreds of billions a year on it. I’d like to see it used for a good cause now and then.