Archive for June, 2011

Tony Blair and big Iraq lies

June 24, 2011

I’ve been reading former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, a gift from my wife. It’s gripping.

As a political junkie, I love his account of reforming Britain’s Labour Party and government. Labourites viewed themselves as champions of the working class. But, as Blair shows, what eluded them was the human aspirations of working people to rise – to be working for something. Many Labourites were so intoxicated with the idea of working class solidarity they could not abide working people striving to become – ewww – middle class. That was what Blair’s career mainly was about.

And, of course, Iraq.

Blair left office – brought down, really – as a villain. History can be a harsh judge. Also mistaken.

Yes, his memoir is a foresquare defense against the calumnies he’s endured. He starts off saying he won’t apologize, that would be wrong. And yet, I actually found him too apologetic in tone, too generous to his attackers.

Take the legality issue. How often the word “illegal” is paired with “Iraq War.” Blair allows that this could be argued either way. But he states the facts. UN Resolution 1441 in November, 2002, gave Saddam one last chance to comply with previous edicts. It did not specify military consequences, and war critics argued that a “second resolution” would have been needed for that. However, back in 1990, Resolution 678 had already authorized “all necessary means” to enforce the UN strictures that Saddam was flouting; 678 was still in effect; and 1441 expressly reaffirmed 678. Furthermore, 1441’s “legislative history” shows rejection of French and Russian moves to insert a requirement for a further resolution before military action.

The conclusion that the Iraq War was UN-authorized is – excuse the expression – a slam-dunk.

Blair is equally trenchant on the other Iraq issues. The canard that it was “all about oil” he crushes in one line: if so, we could have made an oil deal with Saddam in a heartbeat. (And anyway, oil is vital to the world economy.) Blair acknowledges post-war missteps, but shows how the bloody aftermath – a battle for power within Iraq, exacerbated by outside forces (Iran and Al-Qaeda) – unfolded in ways that could not reasonably have been foreseen. The much-feared disasters did not in fact occur; and what did was not the consequence of our bungling but, rather, a deliberate, wicked and fierce effort to wreck Iraqi society. Blair says we had to fight that. And, to the question, “if you knew then what you know now . . .” Blair answers that his decisions would be the same.

The key reason for that judgment contravenes another verse of the conventional catechism: that, on some misguided idea of making Iraq better, we made it worse. Much worse.

People who think so are people who never had to live in Saddam’s Iraq. It’s a mistake of ignorance. This was not just another garden-variety dictator. The suffering Iraq had to go through to get free – yes, everything – was worth it. As bad as all that was, Saddam’s Iraq was indeed worse. Much worse.*

Now, the Big Lie – Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

No, not that Bush and Blair lied. The Big Lie is that they lied.

Here I will do a Blair and acknowledge how widely accepted this lie has become, so you might be forgiven for believing it. But read the book, and if you still think they lied (or cooked the intelligence), your brain is encased in concrete.** Prior to the war, every attentive observer believed Iraq had WMD programs. It wasn’t a fantasy, or a fabricated “pretext” for war. After all, if Saddam didn’t have WMD, why wouldn’t he have come clean and (literally) saved his neck? And – even if the WMD program was subject to doubt – could we have risked being wrong?

But I have more to say. All this “Blair lied” and “Bush lied” stuff is utterly disgusting. You can disagree with policies and decisions, you can loathe the results, but to believe these men were so venal that they lied (sure to be exposed, by the way) to sacrifice lives in a war for (God knows what) bad purposes, then cynicism has totally corroded your soul and destroyed your judgment. This sort of thing has been poisoning our politics.

I have harped on this before. I have strong views on political issues but, by and large, people who disagree I think are honest and sincere and genuinely seek the common good. But I await all-too-predictable comments of a different tenor from people disagreeing with me.

Blair’s book makes painful reading about what hell he’s endured over Iraq. (And his book launch was attended by vicious demonstrations.) Ironically, to have wimped out would have been altogether self-serving and politically expedient, whereas the course he chose was the hard one, and he has indeed paid a heavy price for doing what he believed was right. He should be honored for that – even if you think he was wrong.

Someday there will be a world where horrible choices like 2003’s need no longer be made. I am sure of it. But until then, we must face up to our choices.

* Iraq’s population today is actually almost surely higher than it would be were Saddam still there. And its standard of living far higher.

** The whole “Blair lied” trope was launched by a BBC report that his office had “sexed up” an intelligence dossier about WMD. That report itself was eventually proven false. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a lie can run around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Bashar Assad and Anthony Weiner*

June 16, 2011

Say what you will about the moral lapses of American political leaders, but none (I think) tortures children to death.

Syrian children holding up pictures of Hamza al-Khatib (JamalSaidi/Reuters)

A few years ago my humanist group hosted a covey of “peace activists” who had visited Syria and had a make-nice sit-down with President Bashar Assad. They thought him a pretty decent fellow. I was nauseated. I wonder what they think now.

You can see a video concerning the torture death of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib here – if you have a strong stomach.

It’s said Assad has now lost all legitimacy. When did he ever have any?

There are two kinds of governments. Legitimate ones are grounded in democratic consent. The others are gangster fiefdoms ruled the same way Al Capone ruled Chicago’s underworld – by shooting inconvenient people. Some, like Russia and China, may be borderline cases which enjoy a sort-of consent and don’t have to kill excessively. Bashar Assad evidently has to kill thousands, including children, deliberately, and to do it with vicious cruelty. (His daddy Hafez killed ten or twenty thou in one city in 1982.)

Bashar Assad, vicious child murderer

We must never confuse a nation’s sovereignty with that of a gang that rules by force and terror. Such regimes merit no deference from other nations. They are outlaws with no rights under international law.

Yet again we see in Syria the breathtaking courage of ordinary people. People who are not deterred from going into the streets to protest, knowing full well how many like them have already been remorselessly shot down. Freedom is so appealing an idea that people are willing to lay their lives on the line for it. Who knew? (Well, a large segment of the American intelligentsia seems not to have known.)

Yet again we see the Obama administration disgracefully weak. OK, maybe our hands are full doing Libya. But even the rhetoric is limp. Obama hasn’t even actually said Assad must go. What are we afraid of? “Instability?” Are you kidding me?

It should be the explicit policy of the United States that illegitimate gangster regimes have no place in today’s world. Especially ones that torture children.

* I expect many hits on this blog by people googling this combo of names

Hydrofracking: The Perfect Protest

June 11, 2011

Hydrofracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a method for extracting natural gas from deep underground. (Apparently it can also be used to get oil that conventional wells can’t pull up.) It’s the cause du jour in New York State because we have big gas fracking opportunities in the Marcellus Shale region. The issue is a perfect protest trifecta:

1. Business Bashing. Fits beautifully with the trope that corporations are dastardly monsters caring only for profit and heedless of the destruction they wreak in their relentless greed for the filthy dollar.

2. Environmentalist Misanthropy. Foolishly sinful humanity yet again raping the natural world. The inevitable disasters will be well-deserved punishment for the human hubris of imagining mastery over nature.

3. Good Old-Time Luddism. Distrust of all things technological and industrial. Again that foolhardy hubris of Mankind, deluded that we’ve figured this stuff out. We’re too smart for own good.

4. (OK, a trifecta needs only three, this is a bonus point) Health Fear. They’re poisoning us!

The very word itself – hydrofracking (what public relations genius came up with that?) – with all those harsh clacking consonants – sounds scary and inhumane. Our brains respond to such cues. (My late friend Dana Roberts observed that plans for a power plant on Dead Mule Ridge encountered scant public protest until the place was rechristened “Storm King Mountain.”) I suspect hydrofracking would seem much less scary if it were called, say, flubblyblubbing.

So this was all just made to order for the protest set. Gosh, it was so much fun back in the sixties protesting Vietnam. Too bad that ended. Iraq was a grand opportunity to relive those splendid days of yesteryear. But that’s done too. But now hydrofracking – once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more . . . summon up the blood!

 That’s what this is mainly about. There is a certain mentality that wants to be against. A basic stance of disaffection – the feeling that “all’s wrong with the world,” and protest is the modus of psychic comfort. And, of course, a sense of moral superiority.

My humanist group hosted a talk by Dr. Taury Smith, a state-employed geologist, about climate change. On that he was politically correct, but when asked at the end about fracking, which he’d also studied, he scandalized some listeners by saying the objections to fracking are really bogus, and we have got to do this to get much-needed energy. Since then, anti-fracking groups have pilloried Dr. Smith, saying his views are inadmissible because he eats babies – no, worse, he’s done consulting work for energy companies. (How could any geologist do such a thing?)

A really huge amount of fracking has already taken place in the U.S. Opponents point to some bad episodes – flaming drinking water, etc. – which the industry says actually had nothing to do with fracking. But even if the critics are right in everything they allege, all their horror stories don’t amount to a hill of beans in the perspective of the vastness of the fracking industry and of the economic benefits from the energy produced.

I have made this point before. There’s no free lunch. The quest for total safety is a fool’s errand. All technologies have trade-offs and risks. Life itself is inherently risky. Indeed, invariably fatal.

Protesters scream about the risk that gas fracking might cause some drinking water or other environmental problems. Well, it might. But they are silent about electricity generation from coal and oil that does cause air pollution that kills at least TWENTY THOUSAND Americans annually.

And they probably drove to those protests in cars that kill even more.

Freedom and Flourishing, and American Exceptionalism

June 5, 2011

There is a fairly nice review of my book (The Case for Rational Optimism) at Winton Bates’s “Freedom and Flourishing” blog. Click here. The blog looks pretty interesting.

Winton is Australian, and says he’s “strongly opposed to American exceptionalism.” But I appreciate his saying that my book makes a stronger case than he’s seen  anywhere  that America does still stand for high ideals.

“American exceptionalism” is a loaded phrase. I didn’t use it in my book. It’s obvious that, in a lot of ways, America is not “just another country.” And I think the world would be in a lot worse shape if there were no such country. I doubt America’s critics would really prefer a world in which the pre-eminent power were China or Russia. But none of that means America is outside the rules of the international system (such as they are). Great power brings with it great responsibility. I believe America has acted as responsibly — more, in fact — than could be expected of any great power. Perfect? No. Good? Very.

You see, this is what we’re talking about

June 1, 2011

In today’s economy, with the talk all “jobs, jobs, jobs,” and President Obama stressing the need to boost exports, you might think that Boeing, building a new South Carolina factory, would gets cheers from the federal government.

You might think that. But you’d be wrong.

In fact, the National Labor Relations Board is telling Boeing it can’t even open the factory.

Boeing’s main plant in Washington State had suffered repeated costly labor strikes, delaying delivery of planes. At least one buyer, Virgin Atlantic, said these delays had messed up flight reservations for its own customers, and it would think twice before ordering from Boeing again. So Boeing decided to locate its new factory in South Carolina, where it felt strikes would be less likely. (South Carolina, unlike Washington, is one of 22 states with a “right-to-work” law saying that workers can’t be forced to join a union even in a unionized plant.)

From The Economist. Their caption: "Come to Washington and never leave."

The NLRB (newly stuffed with pro-union Democratic appointees) has ruled that Boeing’s decision amounts to an illegal “retaliation” against the Washington strikers. Never mind that no Washington employee is being fired; indeed, Boeing is actually adding to their ranks! But no: Boeing is still not allowed to open its South Carolina factory (with a $1+ billion investment).

You see, this is what we’re talking about – those like me who supposedly advocate “unfettered laissez faire capitalism.” No, we don’t believe business should be totally unsupervised. That’s ridiculous. Businesses, just like people, should be barred from criminal acts. But we do believe that businesses should be left free to make business decisions, and too often the heavy hand of government gets in the way and hurts the economy. This Boeing case is a perfect example, with government regulators pursuing a daft partisan agenda, telling a company where it can or can’t locate a factory, with obvious harm to the economy, and to working people (whose interests are somehow supposedly being protected).

The NLRB’s twisted stance is unsupported by any precedent, and indeed would establish a very dangerous new precedent of government economic meddling. Boeing is fighting it in court. President Obama has not denounced this job-killing outrage by his NLRB appointees. You can read The Economist’s article, and editorial, about the case.

The Economist also reports the travails of Homa Dashtaki, an immigrant from Iran, who

Photo from The Economist

makes really really good yoghurt that she sells in small quantities in local farmers markets. Her little business has been squashed by California regulatory bureaucrats who insist that she must, in effect, build a big factory equipped for pasteurization – even though her yoghurt is made from milk that is already pasteurized.

I actually know something about government regulation because I spent 26 years doing it. I remember well one of my first cases as a fresh-faced Public Service Commission lawyer. My regulatory agency roughed up a small moving company for breaking the rules – by charging too little. Who were we protecting? Certainly not consumers. We were protecting the other moving companies, threatened by competition from this price-cutting upstart.

That is all too often the real-world face of government regulatory oversight.