Tuesday, December 28, 2004

On Gaddis, Dobbins & Luttwak


this is what passes for analysis in foreign policy these days.

edward n. luttwak, in the current edition of foreign affairs magazine, states that ..."the best strategy for the united states [in iraq] is disengagement."

continuing in the introductory paragraph of an article illogically entitled iraq: the logic of disengagement he asseverates that, "in a reversal of the usual sequence, the u.s. hand will be strengthened by withdrawal..."

but he says lubriciously, if his arguments on the succeeding eleven pages fail to persuade on that point, "nevertheless...the withdrawal should still proceed..."

this is logic, if anafractuous logic, of the highest order. we are witnessing a deep and nuanced mind at work.

luttwak's principia is preceeded by james dobbins' exegisis under the clear-headed title of iraq: winning the unwinnable war. such an engagingly contradictory title, so indicative of "insight" into the problem, such evident complexity in the analysis.

the united states is at war in iraq. it is clear that dobbins believes that. his apercu occurs on the first page, "the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in iraq is not one that the united states can win."

ok, a clear statement of position. BUT, and to paraphrase ross perot, here comes the intellectual part, "the war can still be won..." ??? i thought the war could NOT be won.

the endpoint of wisdom is that "the war can still be won--but only by MODERATE IRAQIS..."

ignorant and sloppy readers may have missed the insight, so let's go over it again.

the u.s. is at war in iraq, a war which it cannot win;

but the war can still be won,

by moderate iraqis.

those who ask if therefore it follows that at some point the u.s. was/is/will be NOT at war outward indicia--such as having troops and material on the ground and shooting and getting shot at--to the contrary, are obviously mistaking appearances for reality.

similarly those who ask if moderate iraqis CURRENTLY are involved in the war are being quarrelsome.

those who ask what exactly it was when the regime of saddam hussein fell if not victory in a war, are being deliberately obtuse.

dobbins, like luttwak, sees a u.s. damned if it does withdraw and damned if it doesn't:

"yet if keeping u.s. troops in iraq provokes further resistance,
withdrawing them prematurely could provoke much worse: a
civil war and a regional crisis of unpredictable dimensions."

what to do?

dobbins complies: "a middle course is the best option." THE MIDDLE COURSE, OF COURSE! WHY DIDN'T ANYBODY THINK OF THAT BEFORE?

what is this middle course?

"wielding [ed note: action verb, languid point] the promise of withdrawal...could give washington valuable leverge..." uh-huh. this is sounding positively luttwak-ian.

how so?

by "compelling [ed note: see above] iraqis, iraq's neighbors, and much of the international community to look beyond their desire to see the united states chastened and toward their shared interest in iraq's long-term stability."

ooh, isn't that a little disappointing even to dobbins fans? first of all, "compel" seems inappropriate. is this really going to "compel" anyone to do anything? to "force" anybody to do anything?

but then that mushiness: "iraq's neighbors and, much of the international community..."

how much?, which much?--will be "compelled" "to look beyond their desire to see the u.s. chastened...?"

two of iraq's neighbors are iran and syria. mr. dobbins is seriously arguing that "wielding the promise of withdrawal" will "compel" iran and syria to work toward a long-term stable iraq.

let's also pause on this statement, "to look beyond their desire to see the u.s. chastened."

isn't that suggestive that the opposition to the u.s. presence in iraq is motivated by petulance and self-interest by states such as france, germany and russia? that is, isn't it suggestive that our international standing, as a consequence of the iraqi war, has nothing to do with fears of the u.s. as a "clear and present danger" (to use john gaddis' words below), of the u.s. acting as an international "policeman," and so on?

professor gaddis says many complementary things about whatever it is that president bush is doing. bush has achieved, he says,

"...far more...than any previous american administration
has achieved in the middle east."


"the military campaign [against iraq] proceeded as anticipated..."


"...on october 9, 2004, millions of afghans lined up to vote
in an election that had no precedent in their nation's long
history. had anyone predicted this three years ago, the
response would have been incredulity--if not doubts about


"the narrowest gap between bush's intentions and his
accomplishments has to do with preventing another
major attack on the united states."

but professor gaddis takes the bushies to task for "conflating" the doctrines of "pre-emption" and "prevention." the former is good because "international law and practice had long allowed such actions to forestall clear and immediately present dangers."

prevention-"reserv[ing] the right to pre-empt perceived dangers by starting a preventive war"-is fraught with dangers because...

BECAUSE, "the united states itself will appear to much of the world as a clear and present danger,"

BECAUSE "for the world's most powerful state suddenly to announce that its security requires violating the sovereignty of certain other states whenever it chooses cannot help but make all other states nervous,"

BECAUSE, "as the political scientist g. john ikenberry has pointed out, washington's policy of pre-emption has created the image of a global policeman who reports to no higher authority and no longer allows locks on citizens' doors."

BECAUSE, "americans within a year and a half [of 9/11] found their country widely regarded as an international pariah."

let all of that sink in.

the united states is "WIDELY REGARDED" as an "INTERNATIONAL PARIAH."

the united states, in pursuing a course of prevention, will appear, to "MUCH OF THE WORLD" as a "CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER."

wow. "widely regarded," "much of the world;" not as bad as "universally regarded" or "most of the world", but still a lot obviously. question though: is gaddis' "much of the world" the same as dobbins "much of the international community." it seems that the same analytical precision informs both.

who exactly?

france? does it think that "whenever it chooses" america may decide to "violate its sovereignty?"

china? do the chinese really think we are a "clear and present danger" to them?

germany, russia, india, brazil, canada, are they "nervous" that the u.s. may attack them?

how about if we take it by continents.

europe, anybody here for the u.s. as a "clear and present danger?" do i see one hand? poland, i can't see you back there? luxembourg, where are you hiding?

professor gaddis, which country(ies) in europe feel that the united states is a "clear and present danger?" is there one?

how about asia? japan, the u.s., pariah or no? cambodia? tibet? richard gere, what say ye?

is there one? professor gaddis, who am i missing?


sub-saharan africa? south africa, is it true you're building underground bomb shelters and instructing your school children in the art of "duck and cover" because the u.s. may a-bomb johannesburg? you're not?

south america. you brazilians, chileans, argentines, anybody battening down the hatches down there?

who in south america, professor gaddis?

professor gaddis is a practiced user of bogeyman overstatement masquerading as scholarship.

and of the straw man argument. for example he states that, "the president and his advisers seem to have concluded" that the international "status quo everywhere needed shaking up. once that had happened, the pieces would realign themselves in patterns favorable to u.s. interests."

yes, one sees in one's mind's eye paul wolfowitz, dick cheney and donald rumsfeld sitting in the basement of the pentagon saying to each other, "i think if we just shock & awe the world a little and really shake things up the pieces will just naturally realign themselves in our favor."

and what, in the paragraph above, was just a "seeming" mode of thought on the part of the bushies, becomes in gaddis next paragraph, on page 15, a fact:

"the assumption that things would fall neatly into place
after the shock was administered was the single greatest
misjudgment of the first bush administration."

how did we get from here to there?

for all three of our worthies, the solution to all of these problems is international involvement in all of its forms.

for gaddis, bush's "strategy of pre-emption by consent did not get consent, and this was a major failure."

for dobbins it is not only that cohort of moderate iraqis who must win the war--that they may or may not have been, or be, in--but that the war can only be won if those iraqi swing voters "concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighboring states, [and] securing the support of the broader international community."

this is the dobbins plan: the bush administration should name a special iraq envoy" to "launch"[ed note: see above] "several simultaneous sets of consultations on the issue":

"one...should center on major u.s. allies, in particular the united kingdom, france, and germany...

"another...should involve all of iraq's neighbors and other regional states." so we shall see disinterested democratic neighbors such as iran and syria at the bargaining table.

also, "expanded roles for the un, nato, the arab league, and the organization of the islamic conference...should also emerge from these consultations."

how one man, our special envoy, is to "simultaneously" be in all these places is the least problem here. or perhaps there is to be one big, BIG table for all the participants.

substantively, this is just mansuetude nonsense, career civil service, academic, think tank, wonk talk. nothing is going to be compelled of these nations by our promise of withdrawal and nothing, other than divvying up iraq's spoils, and counterbalancing u.s. power, motivates states such as russia, germany and france.

regional groups like the arab league and the organization of the islamic conference were impotent to prevent or ameliorate any number of regional catastrophes like the iran-iraq war, iraq's invasion of kuwait, the takeover of afghanistan by the taliban, the continuation of the israeli-palestinian conflict; they were unable to prevent saddam hussein from gassing his own people or to persuade him to submit to un weapons inspections.

if they had had power they would have wielded it. they didn't, and they dont.

the u.s., the only nation that does, should not invite those who can do and who have done nothing to the table to decide what is to be done.

luttwak's argument must get extended treatment here. he, of the the-u.s.-hand-will-be-strengthened-by-withdrawal-but-even-if-it-is-not-it-should-still-withdraw position, gets himself so tangled up in complexity and nuance that, to borrow from gaddis, he "seems" to be sitting in a corner of a room playing with a ball of string and suddenly finds himself all tied up.

now follow along. we must withdraw because:

(1) to "the vast majority of iraqis...[a]s opinion polls and countless incidents demonstrate, americans and their allies are widely [ed. note: "widely," see gaddis above] hated as the worst of invaders, out to rob muslim iraqis not only of their territory and oil, but also of their religion and family honor." (p. 28)

(2) "the plain fact is that there are not enough aspiring democrats in iraq to sustain democratic institutions." (p. 30)

(3) "an already difficult task has been made altogether impossible by the refusal of iraqi teachers, journalists, and publicists-let alone preachers-to be instructed and to instruct others in democratic ways" (p. 29)

that's a pretty compelling litany for withdrawal it must be allowed. but we MUSN'T don't you see.

you don't?

luttwak explains: "yet iraq cannot be evacuated..." because "civil war of one kind or another would almost certainly follow."(p. 30). in the next paragraph luttwak continues, "the probable consequences of abandoning iraq are so bleak, in fact, that few are willing to contemplate them. that is a mistake."

luttwak allows as how he is one of the few, the proud, the contemplators. in the optimistically titled section "how to avoid a rout," luttwak says,

"it is precisely because unpredictable mayhem is
so predictable that the united states might be able
to disengage from iraq at little cost, or perhaps even
advantageously." the brain whirls.

luttwak calls for a "well-calculated retreat," and shows clearly how the u.s. hand could be so strengthened in the eyes of helpful peace partners like iran and syria.

on iran: "iran, for its part has much to fear from anarchy in iraq, which would present it with more dangers than opportunities." further, along the same train of thought, "anarchy in iraq would threaten not merely iran's stability, but also its territorial integrity."

to avoid this holocaust (which luttwak admits the present iranian government is doing much to foster (false consciousness, perhaps)), iran need only take baby steps. as dave barry would say, i am not making this up. this is actually what luttwak says:

"washington would not need to demand much from
the iranians: only the end of subversion, arms trafficking,
hostile propaganda, and hezbollah infiltration in iraq."

not "much," "only" those things. oh yeah, well we'll just send a copy of foreign affairs over to the ayatollah and that'll do the trick.

TWO pages later, on page 35, in turning his attention to how a well-calculated u.s. retreat would also benefit the saudis, luttwak gets his hands all tied up,

"an anarchical iraq would endanger the saudi regime...
not least by...offering iran a tempting playground for

so an anarchical iraq both threatens iran and presents them with a "tempting playground for expansion." heads you win, tails we lose!

as with iran, so with syria. the light is so clear for opthamologist asad to see,

"for all its anti-american bluster, the syrian regime is
unlikely to risk confrontation [in upsetting the u.s. well-
calculated retreat] especially when so little is asked of it:
a closure of the syria-iraq border to extremists and the
end of hezbollah activities in iraq (funded by iran but
authorized by syria)."

see, bashir?

both gaddis and luttwak use history to inform their positions and both invoke the example of world war ii.

luttwak concedes that,

"if iraq could indeed be transformed into a successful
democracy by a more prolonged occupation, as germany
and japan were after 1945, then of course any disengagement
would be a great mistake. in both of those countries, however,
by the time u.s. occupation forces arrived the local populations
were already throughly disenthralled from violent ideologies,
and so they eagerly collaborated with their occupiers to construct
democratic institutions." (p. 27)

this is how gaddis uses world war ii:

"it is easy to say that this [international support] does not matter--
that a nation as strong as the united states need not worry about
what others think of it. but that simply is not true. to see why,
compare the american and soviet spheres of influence in europe
during the cold war. the first operated with the consent of those
within it. the second did not, and that made an enormous difference
quite unrelated to the military strength each side could bring to
bear in the region. the lesson her is clear: influence, to be sustained,
requires not just power but also the absence of resistance..." (p. 6)

what both scholars elide here is the persuasive effect that actions such as the atomic bomb and the firebombing of dresden had on "disenthralling" our wwii enemies of their "violent ideologies." those were the empyrean of "shock & awe," a phrase gaddis uses. the "absence of resistance" can be efficiently accomplished by killing those who resist. but to follow through on the wwii parallels that they themselves introduce, to define for themselves and their readers what they mean by "war" and why a nation's full military arsenal should not be available to it in "war, to think these thoughts, is infradig. better to assert that the war is "unwinnable" and urge a "well-calculated retreat."

the united states did not need its allies consent to declare war after december 7. the united states did not need it after september 11, nor does it now.

gaddis, dobbins and luttwak are all esteemed members of the foreign policy intellegentsia in america, as is foreign affairs itself, and they are part of the problem.

we are in a doctrinal vacuum; gaddis is right when he says that it "seems" that the bushies are doing foreign policy by the seat of their pants, but he, and luttwak and dobbins contribute nothing, they muddy the waters to make them look deep.

we are in a doctrinal vacuum but they fail to articulate the most fundamental premises of such a discussion and fail to present anything like the superstructure that america needs to confront the post-9/11 world, a superstructure that george kennan provided in his famous "mr. x" article in the same pages of foreign affairs a half century ago.

where have you gone, mr. x, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

-benjamin harris

Thursday, December 09, 2004

We Must Not Hate.

We Must Not Hate. This is Public Occurrences.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

ugh, richard wagner. what do you do about him? i put him on tonight and got the pick me up i needed. so stirring, emotional, MASCULINE. but he was a proto-nazi.

first time i heard him was last year at carnegie hall with michelle. got tickets 'cause i had never been to carnegie hall. didn't care what the program was. when we sat down i pointed it out to michelle and told her if she wanted to go it was fine with me. we stayed. daniel baranbohm conducting. didn't know him or the significance either.

first "cole ne vay"(ph), the familiar jewish piece. michelle was moved to tears. then something else. then wagner. wagner is dramatic to WATCH. one part of the orchestra begins, the others silent. then another comes in, tentatively then more strongly, then another part of the orchestra is involved.

wagner pits one section against the other. the spirit of the music just builds. baranbohm conducted masculinely. he has a little stern look anyway and his concentration was intense. he looked angry. he ORDERED the different sections of the orchestra with his baton. he thrust with his other hand to another section. his hair flopped. it was like he was a general in battle.

the music swept through the stage and out into the audience like a sunami. i was immersed as i watched and listened, elbows on knees and was PHYSICALLY moved, actually knocked back a few inches as the music built and built and then crescendoed into the hall.

intermission was welcome. michelle and i looked at each other like, "what had we just seen?"

but what do you do about his politics. and here, he deliberately merged politics and music. his music was SUPPOSED to have the effect it had, unsuspectingly, on michelle and me. hitler's favorite composer. baranbohm, jewish, conducting. and conducting it in israel, to loud protests. isn't that almost deliberately provocative? isn't that a too over-the-top demonstration of...what, "tolerance" for diversity, keeping art "pure", what?

and what of us who paid to hear him?

-benjamin harris

Monday, December 06, 2004

On Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

On Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. *

the case of oliver wendel holmes, jr. just went from ambivalence to poignancy with me.

when i was in grad school i had read mark dewolfe howe's "shaping years" bio of holmes. at the time i thought the book was a little hagiographic but the reality of holmes needed no embellishment. he was brilliant, accomplished, famous, urbane, tall, handsome and a war hero, one who makes you want to just throw up your hands in disgust because he had it all and excelled at everything.

when he enlisted in the civil war he was on a moral crusade. he had been a body guard for one of the most fiery abolitionist orators of the day. after ft. sumter he abruptly dropped out of harvard and when he found out his regiment wasn't slated to head south and fight he joined one that was.

the civil war changed holmes, i knew that. he had been seriously wounded on three different occasions and saw his share of the slaughter that that war is infamous for. he had come out of it steeled, even more rationally inclined than before and he had lost much of his pre-war empathy for people. he never disavowed his abolitionist sentiments but he became cynical about any cause and contemptous of those, like his earlier self, who espoused them.

he was born a boston brahmin and after the war lived the part as intellectual, jurist, well-deserved elite. i remember the later pictures of him in howe's book. he was a very intimidating man even to look at and read about.

i don't know if i knew then about his infamous opinion in the sourth carolina sterilization case ("three generations of idiots are enough") but i remember feeling a coldness and heartlessness in holmes that kept me from placing him in my own personal pantheon of heroes. he and his wife were childless and i wondered about that. howe did not address it. a lack of intimacy with his wife? she was HOT but that didn't necessarily mean anything. maybe he disliked children, which would go along with his coldness.

thus my ambivalence. he was a titan in every way but i don't like elitists even elitists with cause, i don't like mean people, and i don't like people who don't like kids.

now i read louis menand's account of him (1).

menand's book is about the men, holmes being one of them, who instantiate pragmatism, a philosophy that is uniquely and distinctively american and which is criticized as being without a moral center, where "eternal values" are instead seen as historically contingent and where there are many, or no, truths. it is a philosophy that could be created by a brilliant man who had just seen his own values and truths, and so many lives, shattered by war. what i did not know was that the war shattered holmes too.

"he told me, a friend said, "that after the civil war the world never seemed quite right again."

why did he not have children? because "this is not the kind of world i want to bring anyone else into."

sixty-seven years after the war, when he was 93 years old "holmes tried to read aloud to marion frankfurter, felix frankfurter's wife, a poem he liked about the civil war, but he broke down in tears before he could finish it."

holmes never got over the civil war. as he once wrote to his father, "i am not the same man.' the truth is that man was dead now, and the corporeal holmes, the "remains," mourned him every day for the rest of his life. as menand says, the tears he shed before marion frankfurter "were tears for what the war had destroyed." he had to remain aloof. his coldness was his way of coping. "he doesn't show emotion, not because he doesn't feel, but because he feels so deeply."

in the late winter of 1934, holmes began quietly getting his affairs in order. he thought much of the war, of henry abbott, of ball's bluff and antietam, of his wounding and his terror and his resolve never to let it show. he sat in his library thinking of these things and he scratched out something on a small piece of paper. he then rose unsteadily and walked over to the small closet in the library where they were kept and pinned the piece of paper to them:

"these uniforms were worn by me in the civil war and the stains upon them are my blood."

*dickens, a tale of two cities.

-benjamin harris

(1) the metaphysical club

Friday, December 03, 2004


we used to vacation every summer at a lake in upstate new york. there is much merit to vacationing in the same place all the time. it's a home-away-from-home but it's more than that because at home dad had to go to work and we had to go to school. a vacation home has none of that responsibility and none of the daily humdrum, yet you're with your family and in a house you have come to think of as a home.

so you have this idyllic care-free time that you experience over and over again in the same place. and all of the sensations in your memory are good ones and bring back the experience of the whole. even now i can still smell the way our cottage smelled, i can still hear the sound the water made as it lapped at the shore, i can still hear the sound our footsteps made on the wooden outside steps and on the porch.

we always stayed in the same place, rew's cottage. mr. rew had yellow buck teeth and had his own house next door. the cottage was just that, exposed beam ceiling, spartan. we didn't stay there because it was "charming" or "quaint" but because that's what mum and dad could afford. dad was the sole breadwinner of course and there were four children.

lake chatauqua was renowned for a couple of things, neither of which were the reason we went there. one was the world-famous chatauqua institute, a medium-brow intellectual and cultural center with its own potemkin village of truly charming pastel-painted gingerbread cottages. the institute sponsered concerts and lectures--woodrow wilson spoke there once if memory serves--and the concept became quite popular in fin de siecle america. "chatauquas" sprang up all over the country.

the other draw of lake chatauqua was the fishing, specifically its muskelunge fishing. the muskelunge, or "muskie", is a deep, cold-water lake fish, a cousin of the pike, and is prized for its fighting ability. the muskies grew huge in lake chatauqua and pictures of fishermen holding them, 4'-5' in length with the distended bellies of the prize catch were in all the fishing cottages along the lake.

my dad didn't fish so we never went muskie fishing out on the lake but when i was eight or nine years old my oldest brother introduced me to fishing. we fished streams where the catch was trout. after that i fished off the dock at lake chatauqua whenever we were there.

our white dock extended out 30'-40' into the lake and to a point where the lake was then about 6' deep and unpleasantly cold at the bottom, even in june.

one summer there when i was ten or eleven and had been fishing for 2-3 years i noticed a female rock bass that had made its nest under a portion of the dock at a depth of maybe 4'. the water was clear and you could easily see the fish. it was decent size, maybe 8"-12", larger than normal for a fish that close to shore and i concentrated my fishing "skill" on catching her.

i don't know if the species has the reputation for wiles but this one did. because it was under the dock, i couldn't cast to it in a way that brought the bait by it in a convincingly natural way and the bass would not stray from the shelter of the dock to come out for the bait. dozens of times from every conceivable angle and at all times of day i cast, hoping to lure the rock bass out. i tried leaning over the dock and throwing the bait under to get it to settle by the fish. she would have nothing to do with me. fish can't smirk but this one almost did at my efforts. she would look up at me with those fish eyes and then turn her tail to me dismissively. she was like a pretty girl at a party who you make a clumsy pass at and who is more uninterested by the clumsiness of your attempt. i had as much chance of getting that fish on its back on the dock as i did getting marilyn monroe on her back on the dock.

as you grow up you learn the value of certain qualities. you learn for example that persistence can overcome clumsiness and hone technique, and that summer i learned the value of persistence. one day at dusk, while the rest of the family was in the cottage i went down to the dock to make another pass. cast-rejection, cast-rejection. i then had a "eureka" moment which led to another realization, that ingenuity and creativity can make a female make a BIG MISTAKE. i decided to drop the bait down between the slats in the dock, the way ice-fishermen drop their line through a hole in the ice. the salmon egg dropped into the water and drifted down. it drifted right in front of the rock bass' mouth and i can still see it open its mouth wide and swallow the bait.

she fought gamely, a trait of the bass species, but she was hooked good. i had her, or thought i did. my ingenuity had come hard up against one of my inherited limitations of which i am constantly being reminded: low intelligence. after all, i come from a stock of people who, like many others, left the old world for the new and its streets paved with gold. my people were coal miners in cold, harsh, mountainous northeast england and so decided the place for them was the cold, harsh, mountainous northeastern united states where they became, coal miners.

i began reeling the fish in but realized that my eureka moment had not accounted for the dock being between me and the fish and that there was no way for me to get her topside.

in my excitement i repeatedly yanked at the line, which produced nothing more than a rock bass with a bloody nose as it bumped against the underside of the dock. i screamed for mum and dad and tom, my younger brother. they came bolting through the screen door and raced to the dock to see me frantic with a punch-drunk fish on the end of my line.

ingenuity gave way to persistent clumsy attempts again. i grabbed the line and tried to flip the fish onto the dock. she proved too strong at first but weakened and in that way i finally got her up on the dock. the tables then turned again. when she hit the top of the dock she began thrashing about in the usual manner and dislodged the hook. i pounced on her but she squirted through my arms, off the dock and back into the water. i jumped in after her.

now she was back in her medium and i was out of mine. while back in the safety of the water however she was stunned from all the fighting and didn't swim away right away. i grabbed her and held her against my t-shirt and brought her back onto the dock.

i cleaned and filleted her and that night we ate her and recounted the evening's action, the story of the one that didn't get away.

-benjamin harris.