Ex Cathedra

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I apologize. I’m treading on Word Watch’s territory. But I can’t help myself, so I’ll go ahead and step in the mire: President Donald J. Trump’s pronouncements.

Does Trump lie? That is the question.

According to the Washington Post, as of May 1 the President has amassed 3,001 lies or “misleading claims.”

Really?

Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly.

Every politician lies. Stephen Cox hit the nail on the head when he stated in April’s Word Watch that, “The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.”

In spite of his hailing from Chicago, the Alamogordo of old-time political mendacity, Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly. Three examples immediately come to mind: “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” And the immensely more consequential — and extremely ill-conceived (especially to a libertarian) — threat he made on August 20, 2012, that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.”

Well, that red line was a mirage on shifting sands. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided that they’d rely on that paragon of probity, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to ensure the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Not only did that never happen, but Putin used the opportunity to join the fray in Syria. What the hell — both Putin and Assad now knew that the US would do nothing. In quick succession, Assad and Putin targeted Aleppo, an opposition stronghold, destroying hospitals and massacring civilians, including fleeing doctors evacuating the wounded. The US had lost all credibility.

Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health.

What could be worse? Considering that the primary responsibility of the president of the United States is national security, a responsibility based on credibility, it’s hard to imagine anything worse in the diplomatic arena.

Obama’s excuse for not enforcing his red line ultimatum was twofold: One, he believed he was speaking from Mount Olympus . . . speaking for all of the free world without first consulting the rest of it. Two, he was in the thick of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and didn’t want to imperil it by attacking Assad, an Iranian ally.

Really?

Why not do the right thing: enforce his completely undemocratic red line and let the chips fall where they might. Was the deal worth dumping US credibility? After all, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as it is so eloquently known) was only a stopgap measure (and Trump has just withdrawn the US from it).

But the best part of that entire red line debacle was Vladimir Putin’s Obama moment. Immediately following the latest Assad Bunsen burner experiment on his people (the second in a two-part series), Vlad “The Impaler” threatened “severe consequences” if the US retaliated. So the US, this time actually consulting France and Britain and getting them to join, let loose a barrage of missiles on April 14, 2018, that proved particularly effective.

Putin’s response? “If the US does that again, there will be severe consequences!.” One month later, we’re still waiting for those consequences.

The fine print that nearly everyone misses is that papal infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals.

Donald Trump turned Obama’s lie into truth, however belatedly. And since the subject was the credibility of our national security, that puts it in a completely different category from, say, Trump’s assertion that he “unequivocally” is “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

There are lies, damn lies, spin, wishful thinking, statements of fervent intent, hyperbole, and artful irony. I’d put Trump’s health statement in those last two categories. For one, the portly septuagenarian fools no one — especially in this BMI and health-obsessed country — as to his athletic abilities. Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health. Mrs. Wilson took over for Woodrow during his near total incapacitation by a stroke from September 1919 to the end of his term in 1921, during the first five months of that period keeping the country in the dark.

As to FDR, the Associated Press claimed that “Roosevelt’s disability was virtually a state secret during his presidency.” Though he never denied he was a paraplegic, FDR did his damnedest to conceal it, virtually never allowing his wheelchair or his struggles with other aids to be photographed.

Ditto for JFK. According to The Atlantic, “the lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history — no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed.” I don’t know whether Trump was aware of those deceptions and decided on a post-ironic, “fascinating way” to indulge in hyperbole; or whether Trump just hit a “colorful” bull’s eye through sheer chutzpah and luck. I’d be tempted to put his assertion on a par with Obama’s “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history” — except that Obama was certainly serious while Trump may well have had his tongue in his cheek.

The press and the public misunderstand Trump’s pronouncements — much as they misunderstand Pope Francis’ pronouncements. The widely held belief that the Catholic Church considers the pope infallible is based on dogma declared in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. But the fine print that nearly everyone misses is that his infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals. Additionally, his infallibility only kicks in when he makes a declaration ex cathedra, “from the full authority of his office.”

Trump's brand of lying may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

When the press reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell or that “capitalism is terror against all of humanity” it didn’t make a distinction between whether the pontiff was speaking ex cathedra or off the cuff, perhaps using the ambiguity for its own sensationalist ends (or maybe they’re just stupidly ignorant). But the pope is also at fault. While he always specifies when he’s speaking ex cathedra, he never clarifies his other statements as informal or just personal opinions. Needless to say, the ambiguity serves his purpose.

Ditto for President Trump. Whether in tweet, press conference, base rally, or state of the union address, the president never specifies whether his statements are hyperbole, aspirational declarations, firm US policy, or just a needling dart at his opposition. But they are all — in the mind of the uber-deal maker — potential negotiating tactics. MSNBC and the Fox Five will interpret these statements in radically different ways — in ways that push their own agendas. It may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

Hell, if it works for the pope, why not for Trump?

The press and the public should stop treating every Trump pronouncement as if it were ex cathedra when he might just be P.T. Barnuming it.




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Europe’s Migrant Crisis: Culture Matters

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Almost a decade back, at a Liberty magazine conference in Las Vegas, a speaker asked the audience what they see from the windows of their planes slightly after takeoff. He was alluding to the vast empty spaces in the US. Why not be more inviting to outsiders?

I shuddered. It had been a painful process to leave India and the last thing I wanted was the prospect of having millions of Indians living around me, again. I was even trying to run away from one Indian I couldn’t run away from: me.

It was not turning out to be easy to wean myself from the indoctrination. I had decided not to return to India for a few years, to avoid falling back into the old patterns of thinking and living that I had earlier succumbed to. Muscles have memories. Old habits don’t go away easily, even if the bad one can be recognized — for those living the bad patterns don’t see them.

Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of these migrants. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

Most Indians I know in the US earn top salaries. They pay massive taxes. But alas, virtually all vote for things that contribute to making the US the mirror image of India. They vote for big, nanny governments. They vote for an increase in regulations to control the lives of others.

Culture matters. Our public institutions are nothing but a reflection of the underlying culture.

Indeed there is tyranny in Syria, Afghanistan, northern parts of Africa, and many other places. Only someone heartless would not feel empathy for the sufferings of migrants from there. They know what tyranny is. They have starved. They have been abused. They have lived under totalitarian systems.

A rational mind might easily conclude that such immigrants would fight for their liberties, and ours, once they were in Europe or elsewhere in the West.

But I still recall with anger and frustration the fact that when anyone among my colleagues from my engineering college in India — people who were elite students, having gone through an extremely competitive examination to gain admission — was abused, he almost never retaliated. Instead he looked for someone weaker to abuse. That was his release. I never managed to make even those proficient in math and science see reason.

Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa?

A man of faults projects his faults on others. A man of virtues projects his virtues on others. That second principle defines the erroneous zone of empathetic Europeans. The European thinks that any rational immigrant would feel grateful for new opportunities and would be a frontrunner in any effort to preserve the liberties that Europe offers. Such a European erroneously projects his rationality on others, assuming it to be a natural state of being. Alas, it is not.

A look at the videos of migrants offers a glimpse that very likely leaves a rational observer uneasy and confused. Why should these migrants, instead of feeling and showing gratitude, create an angry nuisance? Why should they destroy public property? Why should they steal from their kind hosts, and abuse them? Worst of all, why should they fight among themselves — kick and beat one another — in exactly the way they seem to be forever fighting among themselves in Syria and northern Africa? A rational observer thinks that once in Europe, these people will give up the ways they have apparently been trying to leave behind. But that isn’t happening.

It is from rationality that morality emerges. It is from rationality that a society knows what is truly right or wrong, what is a virtue and what is a vice. The irrational society is immoral and incapable of respecting virtues. Irrational people see no need of being grateful or being virtuous in a thoughtful way. Rationality must be learned. But the European, nurtured in a culture of basic reason, thinks that rationality is a natural state of being. Certainly, they don’t always live up to it — but the claims of impartial reason, reason that transcends and judges the claims of tribe and superstition, do not have to be explained to them.

Unfortunately, the concept of reason has hardly made itself popular outside the West. These, the Rest — in Africa, in the Middle East and most of Asia — still exist in superstitions and tribalism. In a nonrational operating system, a person responds very different from the way in which a rational person would respond. The nonrational behavior you see on your TV screens in foreign news reports therefore comes across as strange, unbelievable, and uncomfortable in many ways.

They fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation.

The gem of analytical and skeptical reason is mostly and predominantly a Western phenomenon. Despite almost 500 years of trade and interactions with the Rest, and over the past decade, with immediate, worldwide access to knowledge through the internet, one would have expected wisdom and rationality to have percolated through to the Rest rather quickly.

It hasn’t.

The truth is that the concept of reason needed 2,500 years and the vehicle of Christianity, and a lot more, to come to the visible changes that happened in Europe in the past 500 years: the Reformation, the age of reason, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution.

But shouldn’t the culture of migrants change over time? Indeed, there are people who left their homelands because they were desperately tired of their irrational societies. These people appreciate the freedoms they experience when living in the West. They feel grateful for their hosts, for they have or at least had the inkling of the concept of reason before they arrived. But these are a small minority. Most modern day immigrants stay irrational, and never gain respect for their hosts. Moreover, processing their experiences — the compassion, opportunities and liberties they face in the West — but still using the operating system of the society they left behind, many immigrants learn to disrespect their hosts. They came not for freedom but for the material prosperity they had seen on TV. They are incapable of understanding what made the West what it is. They gravitate toward areas — Germany, for example — that offer the most welfare payments, for they fail to shake off a deeply ingrained meme that money is “created” through political connections and positioning themselves in a certain way socially, rather than through wealth-creation. They fail to see that when people continue Syrian or African ways of interaction they will evolve institutions in Europe that mirror what they ran away from.

Today in Europe there are many urban areas that are barred for visitation by those from outside the ethnic or religious ghettoes. When I lived in England, I had to pass through a Muslim area and then a Hindu area. I had made up convenient names for myself, rehearsed in my mind to tell them if I were accosted. This is not life lived according to reason. A rational person — projecting his virtues on others — would be in his erroneous zone if he expected that this predicament can change with time or with increase in prosperity.

It was in my early teens that I finally realized the cultural milieu that I was growing up in was utterly corrupt and irrational. Thirty-five years later — a span that includes a couple of decades spent in the West — I still feel envy when I see Western kids not suffering from habits and patterns that I still cannot shake off, after huge amount of work. Even a passionate person who realized his problems early on has found it almost impossible to surmount the problem of releasing himself from the shackles of his culture and indoctrination. When it is so difficult for someone keenly interested in changing himself to change, how difficult it must be to change those who don’t feel the need to change themselves! How doubly difficult it must be to change those who exist in a society, or ghetto, that won’t let them change even if they want to. Moreover, my indoctrination was Indian. A Syrian or North African indoctrination is probably much worse.

But isn’t the US a good example for Europe? Isn’t the US a cultural melting pot? Can Europe not do the same?

It pays to remember that virtually all the early immigration to North America was from Europe. The migrants were people who had Europe, and reason, in their genes, memes, and cultures. It is not necessarily the same with the new immigrants, either to Europe or to North America.

As a corollary, imposing what are products of enlightenment in the West — democracy, the nation state, public education — on culturally alien countries won’t work. It is for this reason that the removal of Saddam Hussein, after a lot of pain, chaos, and crisis, will end in a situation in which Iraq, some day, has to restart with a tyrant similar to Hussein. The same is the case in Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.

Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change.

The US government, perhaps influenced by lobbies from the military-industrial complex, wants to be forever embroiled in conflicts abroad. In the meantime, the rational American, projecting his virtues on alien cultures, thinks that such institutional impositions can effect changes in such places as Syria and Iraq. Such a rational American very erroneously sees the individuals in Syria and Libya as isolated innocents — but they are, very unfortunately, part and parcel of the problem.

It is best not to destabilize other countries. Syria and Iraq should be left to develop their own social capacities for change, and even before that they have to find an internal feeling of a need for change. This is the only possible way for a change in their societies, and Europe’s only chance to avoid getting too many migrants. Should the migration continue, it will almost certainly make an end, in Europe at the least, to the biggest achievement of humanity: the culture of reason, and hence the future of liberty.




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The War of Words

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I am writing this during a long road trip. You know what happens when you’ve driven a few thousand miles and you’ve been through all your CDs and you’re off in the middle of farm country where there’s nothing between you and the stratosphere except NPR (which is everywhere), the daily hog reports, and Sean Hannity. So you listen to Sean Hannity. At least I do. Despite the fact that I dislike him intensely.

Well, not him. His shows. This side of the White House, there’s no purer example of partisan talking points. Every week Hannity has one thing to say, and he says it all week. During the week of September 16, his talking point was how terrible it was that President Obama gave a speech that day in which he made “noble” statements about the shootings at the Navy yard in Washington, then proceeded to give his scheduled speech about the economy in which he dissed Republicans and the former Republican administration. On Sept. 17, Hannity said, “I can’t think of anything more despicable” than Obama’s going on with that scheduled speech. Hannity said that for the rest of the week, in every context and on all occasions.

If you’re looking for overkill, look no further. Indeed, if you’re looking for irrationality, look no further. Obama’s remarks about the economy and about Republicans were nonsense; they always are. They were also obnoxious. But they were not obnoxious because a madman happened to conduct a shooting spree on the same day.

If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

What offended me was the fact that the president canceled a performance of Latin music that was supposed to be staged at the White House that evening. Why should he do that? People in Amarillo didn’t cancel music events that night. So what if the shooting took place in Washington, within miles, in the constantly reiterated media phrase, of the White House? Is life, such as it is in Washington, supposed to come to a stop because of a minor event (yes, I said minor event) like that? Was the Latin music troupe supposed to spend the night meditating about violence in our society? Or initiating a national conversation about our treatment of the mentally impaired? Were the rest of us supposed to do that? If Obama had any kind of leadership, he would have issued a brief statement and continued as usual, despising the criticism of people like Hannity, who was blue with anger for no reason at all.

Since I’ve said this much, I may as well say more. None of the shootings about which the country has paused, prayed, lowered the flag to half-staff, engaged in a national conversation, mourned the victims of tragedy, kept the families in our hearts and prayers, etc., etc., has been anything but a festival of hypocrisy. If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

Many of the deep mourners over the shooting victims are simply gun-control fanatics, happy enough to discover victims (of guns, not the lack of guns, which is a somewhat greater problem). Many of the others are chasers of thrills, ecstatically snuffing the air of crisis. Many of the rest are slaves of the eye, not followers of the brain: they mourn the deaths of anyone killed on national TV, but when they find out that someone they actually know has died from a car accident (or cancer, or a heart attack, or suicide), their reaction is to move on with their lives, in the same way they were five minutes before. Their reaction to violent news on television is sensationalism: the quest for sensations. But sensations aren’t moral feelings.

I am happy that in September the American populace staged a revolt against sensationalism, when they rejected the president’s plan to punish Syria for its government’s alleged gassing of some of its people. The point was clear: there are people who feel real concern about human life, and then there are people who merely think they do, or act as if they did, because they are interested in the latest media sensation; and that the latter group should not be allowed to set policy for the former.

Multitudes of people have died, in Africa and other places, because environmentalists succeeded in restricting the use of DDT, thus allowing insect-borne diseases to thrive, with devastating effects. Christians, gay people, and members of other minority groups are martyred daily in both “friendly” and “unfriendly” Islamic countries. Uncounted thousands of people have died in Syria, butchered by the government and its foes. Fifteen hundred of those people are thought to have died of a gas attack. Why is the conscience of the world aroused by the latest event and not by the earlier ones?

And what is the response of those whose consciences are so highly exercised? The response is that we should bomb the Syrians — not to remove the government, not even to cripple the government, but just to show ’em. Or, if you’re John McCain, the response is that we should send guns and ammo to antigovernment fighters (curiously, they’re never soldiers; I guess that would make them look bad, somehow), many of whom stand ready to become the jihadist foes of the United States. Do you think that more than 1500 lives might be lost in that way?

But now comes the Obama administration, with a hypocrisy even greater than that of the strict interventionists. And here I need no help from Hannity in discerning the debased quality of our leaders’ rhetoric.

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." It was typical of Obama, that weird combination of faux folksiness (“a whole bunch”) and faux acadamese (“calculus,” “equation”).

The weirdness continued on Sept. 4 of this year. You remember the president’s remarks on that day. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” he said, with the high-school-principal petulance that expresses his dislike of criticism. “The world set a red line.” He continued, with equal testiness: “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” He also mentioned America’s credibility, and that of Congress. There he went beyond hypocrisy. He told a set of flat-out lies.

Isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies?

Of course, the weirdest thing about the Syria affair was John Kerry, the dove turned screaming eagle. First Kerry ranted like a maniac about the gas attacks, which he insisted, because of evidence he would not reveal, were both real and the responsibility of the Syrian government, not that of its equally nasty opponents. About this, he said, in the bullying voice with which the global warming nuts announce their findings, there were “no dissenters.” (Whenever someone says that, you know they’re trying to fool you.) According to him, all good people must unite in hitting Syria so hard that it would never dream of gas again. Then, after he was criticized for being a warmonger, which he visibly was, he insisted that the airstrikes he advocated would be (dramatic drum roll) “unbelievably small.”

Tell me: can someone with such wild mood swings be believed about anything?

It’s curiously appropriate, isn’t it, that Kerry should come to roost on the word “unbelievably.” And isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies? Can it be, can it be, that they have never actually read a book?

Consider President Obama’s comments about Syria on Sept. 6:

"When there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future."

Can you think of a good author who has ever tried to foist an image as bad as an unraveling norm? Jane Austen would slit her wrists before doing something like that. Jane Austen, hell; Harry Truman would slit his wrists. Not only did Obama evoke that unvisualizable image: he insisted on it; he used it three times in a row. It’s the kind of image that only the most childish of bureaucrats would use. You can picture them, hunched over the computers, proudly crafting their next public utterance. So, they’re thinking, there’s this really cool word, that word we hear all the time on NPR . . . norm, normed, normative, norming . . . And there’s this other hip, cool word, which is unravel. Like, uh, our initiative unraveled, our funding unraveled . . . . So yeah! It would be really really cool if we put them together and said, like, our norm, our norm unraveled.

James Rosen, the Fox News correspondent who probably dislikes Obama as much as Obama dislikes him, which is plenty, opined on August 31 that “this president, so attuned to literature,” would put a lot of effort into preparing his next speech on Syria. Obama would be all worked up about the judgment of history and so forth. But what’s the evidence that Obama is thus “attuned”? Name one author whom Obama reads and quotes. You can’t — and that’s enough to make my case. No one ever charged Obama with fleeing the responsibilities of office in order to curl up with a book. He is charged, instead, with fleeing his responsibilities to play golf or watch basketball on TV.

Obama is not only unattuned to literature; he’s unattuned to grammar. Try this passage, selected virtually at random from his recent (Sept. 6) verbal interventions:

"For the American people, who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion." Obama is a great orator. He just can’t make his subjects match his verbs.

 And Kerry is worse, much worse. As if to emphasize his total lack of literary education or sensitivity, Kerry (or one of his assistants, deputed to the hard task of fishing through the internet for jazzy quotes) discovered a cliché that has been kicking around for about 250 years. It started as one of Samuel Johnson’s witty remarks. According to Boswell’s Johnson, it went like this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." 

That’s still quotable, I suppose. But when something, even a cliché, gets into Kerry’s maw, it ends up horribly mangled. “A lot of people,” he intoned on Sept. 10, à propos his threats to Syria, “say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”

I would like to find some cunning here. I would like to think that Kerry didn’t credit Dr. Johnson because he didn’t want to ruffle the rubes by implying that he could actually quote an actual author, and had therefore, at some desperate hour, managed to read a book. I would like to think he wondered about the possibility that someone would think, “Strange — I never heard anyone say that ‘nothing focuses the mind,’ etc.,” but concluded that the possibility was remote: no one would check his memory on that point. And I would like to think he substituted “focuses” for “concentrates” because he knew that “concentrates” would take the rubes as much as two seconds to figure out. But there’s no evidence that Kerry himself is anything but a rube. And that goes for the rest of our statesmen, too.

the judgment of historyJohnson




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Obama’s Syrian Folly

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President Obama is about to ask Congress to endorse military action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Over the past week momentum has been building against the Obama policy of airstrikes to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons against civilians. It’s not that the case against the Assad regime is weak. On the contrary, it is clear that sarin was used by regime forces at Ghouta near Damascus on August 21, killing hundreds of civilians including children. (It is not known whether Assad personally ordered the use of gas, but it is virtually certain that his forces, and not the Syrian rebels, are responsible for the August 21 attack.) But a war-weary American citizenry simply sees no compelling reason to start yet another war in the Middle East. The atrocity in Ghouta does not rise above the many ghastly events that occur around the world on an almost daily basis. I have mentioned before in this space that some 7 million people have been killed in the Congo since civil war broke out there in 1996, and yet America has done nothing to stop the killing. Why then is Obama so keen to avenge what in comparison is a small-scale atrocity in Syria?

We should be clear that the president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility. In 2012 he foolishly called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that al-Assad must not cross. At Ghouta his bluff was called. Undoubtedly he now feels that he must strike in order to restore respect for himself and the nation he leads. He has in recent months been dissed by China (over hacking and other matters), Russia (over Edward Snowden), and Britain (where Parliament voted down a government proposal to join the US in attacking Syria). As Obama sees it, to do nothing would only further erode what remains of the respect he commands on the world stage.

A second reason for the strike is the misguided humanitarianism of the president and his closest advisors, particularly National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry. This past weekend Kerry bloviated ad nauseam about Bill Clinton’s regret over not intervening to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. Rice is known to believe in military action to fulfill humanitarian goals. Leaving aside the fact that there are more humanitarian crises in the world than we have forces to deploy on such missions, there is in fact no reason whatsoever to believe that lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria will alleviate the suffering there. It may, in fact, increase suffering by intensifying and spreading the conflict. Al-Assad’s Shiite allies in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon have indicated that US and other targets in the Middle East and perhaps beyond will be hit if we act against Syria. Are they bluffing? Perhaps. But do we want to find out, given that we have already exhausted ourselves fighting terrorists and others over the past dozen years?

The president is motivated primarily by the need to shore up what’s left of his international stature and credibility.

Russia has said that it will provide advanced weaponry to Syria in the event the US goes to war. Such a move could lead to additional US strikes to knock out Syria’s augmented defenses. A spiraling escalation of the conflict, while unlikely, should not be discounted. Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

The US and the new government in Iran have been talking behind the scenes about negotiating an end to the nuclear issue that has divided them for years. The prospect of ending the danger of war in the Persian Gulf, of avoiding yet more American blood and treasure spent, will be thrown away if we attack Syria.

In recent days world opinion as well as opinion here at home has turned decisively against the idea of US intervention in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the US Congress will find the courage to stand up to the president. Obama shrewdly asked Congress for authorization to strike, which places the burden of responsibility equally on its shoulders. The leadership of both parties appears to be “on board.” A certain amount of obfuscation has been used by the administration to persuade the leadership to support war. House Speaker John Boehner and others have been told that the strikes will be limited, that we will basically be sending Assad a message. At the same time, Senate hawks were told that the strikes will be more extensive and punishing. Its prestidigitation may come back to haunt the administration in the near future, assuming that Congress does vote for war.

We will soon know whether members will follow the leadership down the primrose path. At present, members see their constituents opposing war by 10-to-1 and even 100-to-1 margins. Most of them will await the president’s speech to the nation on Tuesday to see whether the political winds shift. Opponents of war on the far Left and far Right will vote their consciences; most of the rest will vote according to what’s best for them politically. Much therefore rides on Obama’s performance Tuesday. If his speech is well received, congressional authorization will be assured, and the missiles will fly soon thereafter. For what it’s worth, this analyst is convinced that Congress will vote to authorize war.

One hopes that the strikes will be limited, and that we will then declare that Assad has been taught a lesson, followed by a return to the status quo ante. Syria’s allies will choose not to act, and the war will not spread. But in the past few days the Defense Department has expanded its list of targets, some of which will require attacks by strike aircraft. An air campaign stretching out for days or possibly even weeks could be in the offing. Such an expanded campaign is more likely to provoke a response from Syria and Syria’s friends. A longer, messier intervention by US forces could conceivably devolve into a regional war. If events spin out of control, the possibility of boots on the ground cannot be excluded.

Every war, a soldier recently said to me, is a door into the unknown. Risking a major war to restore Obama’s amour propre is simply a bad idea.

It’s pretty clear that the military dreads such a possibility. On Sept. 5 Major General Robert Scales (ret.) published a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post opposing Obama’s march to war. Within the last two days I have spoken to a retired Army colonel and a captain in the Army Reserves. Both feel Syria would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The colonel in particular, a former brigade commander, spoke passionately about the need for the Army to recuperate from a dozen years of war. He told me that in his opinion, the Army is “broken,” pointing to the rise in suicides and the epidemic of sexual assault as sure proof of this. He would not exclude the possibility that another war now might end in defeat and a complete breakdown of the force.

A certain feeling of dread overhangs the movement toward war. US public and world opinion are strongly against any US action, allies are falling away, and enemies seem prepared to retaliate. The Congress is likely to endorse the war nonetheless. And the administration seems determined, come what may, to strike. Perhaps the event will prove less dramatic than one fears — a few days of bombing accompanied by shrieks of protest and threats from Assad and his friends. In that case, Obama and his friends will feel vindicated; presidential credibility will be, at least in part, restored. But nothing will have changed on the ground in Syria. The killing will continue. And there remains the possibility that we will become involved in a new war, a war that may extend beyond Syria. All this because the president chose to cavalierly lay down a “red line” he thought that a tinpot dictator wouldn’t dare to cross. Helluva way for a great power to conduct foreign policy.




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Still Waiting

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Today (August 31), President Obama made a bellicose speech in which he said that he had decided to attack Syria — but wouldn’t do it until he had a supportive vote from Congress. At least that’s the way I interpreted his remarks. “Are you going to strike if Congress disapproves?” shouted a member of the audience. But Obama walked away from her question.

The president had just said he was confident he had the authority to act but out of respect for democracy he wanted to bring Congress into the thing. His thought was characteristically muddled, but the meaning I take from it is that the chief executive views democratic consent as a privilege, not as a right. It is the kind of privilege that mom and dad give to the “family council.” The kind of privilege your boss gives you when he says, “We’re going to go forward with Project X. I’m sure you agree.”

I expect Congress to disappoint him. But if that happens, I’m sorry to say that it will be because the Great Decider has blundered so badly, not because the Little Deciders have rejected the idea of an aggressive executive power.




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Waiting

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I write while waiting — waiting to find out whether the President of the United States is going to attack Syria (Syria!) and perhaps initiate another war in the Middle East.

The president. Not Congress. Not a political party. Not a movement among voters. Not necessity. Not even advisability. And certainly not the Constitution, which makes the president commander in chief but gives the power to declare war to Congress.

So we wait to discover what the decisions of one man may do to our lives and liberties. How is this republican government?

Readers of Liberty know that I am not an isolationist, if by that word you mean someone who is morally opposed to the use of military force outside our borders. To me, the borders of such a “nation” as Syria have no sanctity at all. And I can conceive of circumstances in which America’s safety would depend on our attacking some other country.

Barack Obama and John Kerry were formerly pacifists of the silliest kind. Both are now interventionists of the silliest kind.

But I am an isolationist in the sense in which the founding generation of the United States and the founding generation of libertarian thinkers were isolationists. These people believed that it is almost always best to mind our own business.

That’s just common sense, you say. Indeed it is. And how can people possibly be guided in their military decisions by anything other than sense and logic?

About military and diplomatic affairs, the president is even less good at thinking than he is about other things. He intervened in Libya, thereby dispensing arms to America’s worst enemies, Islamic radicals. He helped to destabilize the government of Egypt, thereby bringing to power an Islamist regime. He fecklessly “stood up to” Russia. In every case, there were disastrous geopolitical results. As for Syria, the common sense of both the Left and the Right, Democrats and Republicans, pacifists and military experts has pronounced the idea of an American military attack dangerous and ridiculous.

In his statement of August 30, and in an earlier interview, Obama claimed that the presence of chemical weapons in Syria imperiled the security of the United States, thereby justifying military action against that country. By this logic, the presence of serious weapons anywhere imperils our security and mandates war.

If you say no, that’s not what he means, please tell me what he does mean. By what principles is the foreign policy of Barack Obama and John Kerry governed? Both were formerly pacifists of the silliest kind. Both are now interventionists of the silliest kind.

Obama also claimed that the Syrians had killed many innocent people, and that no one on earth should be allowed (by us?) to do so. Kerry shouted in the same vein. Does this mean that we are obliged to intervene in half the countries of the world? Again, if that isn’t what they mean, what do they mean?

So now, we wait in fear for the decision of these men, because their decision is all that matters — in this, the greatest of all constitutional nations.




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Syria: Heading Toward War?

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On June 13 the administration announced that it will begin supplying small arms and ammunition to rebels battling the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It also indicated that it may decide at some point to send the rebels heavy weapons of the antitank variety. Off the table, at least for now, is the possibility of supplying the rebels with antiaircraft missiles.

The US has been supplying nonlethal aid to the so-called Free Syrian Army since 2012. The rebels are in fact a disparate grouping of Sunni Muslims, who range ideologically from mildly pro-Western to fanatical supporters of al-Qaeda. The pro-Westerners are by far the weakest group among the rebels. Hence the US hesitancy about supplying those antiaircraft missiles: it’s all too likely that they would fall into the hands of terrorists, who would use them to shoot down US military aircraft and passenger jets.

It is difficult to understand the administration’s decision to escalate our involvement, even in this small way. This spring the war turned definitely in the Syrian regime’s favor. In May a key leader of the Syrian Free Army admitted that the FSA lacked the power to topple the Assad regime. Supplying military aid now, when the rebels’ cause appears lost, seems foolish.

It may be that the administration is hoping to keep the rebels in the fight long enough to get a negotiated settlement. This analyst, however, believes that the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is in a position to crush the rebels eventually. The peace conference to be held in Geneva starting in July will be a talking shop of the kind beloved by diplomats but incapable of stopping the fighting. The fight in Syria will be to a finish. Bashar al-Assad is almost certainly going to survive, although low-grade guerrilla conflict may persist for years.

The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow?

The only possible way to alter the course of events in Syria is for the Western powers to intervene with force. The Syrian air force would have to be destroyed, or at least grounded. Heavy weapons and other matériel would have to be supplied to the rebels, and trainers (i.e., boots on the ground) would be necessary if the rebels were to employ these weapons effectively. This raises the question of whether the Assad regime would respond by employing chemical weapons.

Ostensibly, the US decision to supply the rebels with small arms came as a result of a US finding that Assad’s forces had already used chemical weapons against the rebels. A resort to chemical warfare on a larger scale raises the specter of a major US intervention, including ground troops. Securing or destroying Assad’s chemical weapons would require far more than a commando-style raid by Navy Seals or the Army’s Delta Force. At a minimum, two combat brigades with accompanying support forces, i.e., 10,000 to 15,000 troops, would be needed. That this might lead to an even deeper US involvement is, given the vagaries of war, quite possible.

The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims (the Alawite sect, to which Assad and his supporters belong, is an offshoot of Shiism). The Sunni forces, all but a small portion of them, are anti-Western, and include al-Qaeda affiliated elements. We have already experienced the difficulties of sorting out such a situation. Needless to say, another Iraq is the last thing America needs.

So far, the drumbeat for war maintained by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham has fallen on deaf ears. According to the polls, 60% of the American people do not want a war in Syria. There is no great media push for war, as there was in Iraq. Establishment figures such as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, are opposed to military intervention. Most importantly, and to his everlasting credit, the president has no desire to fight. Yet he has failed to come out and say frankly that Syria is a situation we cannot solve, and that to intervene in it would be a colossal blunder. His political timidity is baffling, given that he has no more elections to worry about.

The McCains of the world may yet have their way. The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow? Incremental steps can lead to a deeper involvement, as Vietnam proved. There has been a small US force in Jordan for some time. In April Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that it would be augmented in order to “increase readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios.” It actually represents the germ of an advanced headquarters for a Central Command expeditionary force, should one be ordered into Syria. This constitutes another drop, and a significant one, in the trickle toward war. One hopes that Obama will find the courage to turn off the tap.

rsquo;s all too likely that they would fall into the hands of terrorists, who would use them to shoot down US military aircraft and passenger jets.em




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Imperium Sinarum Delendum Est

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On June 7 and 8 President Obama will meet Chinese president Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, California. The meeting is being billed as an informal, “shirtsleeves” summit with a minimum of ceremonial distractions, allowing the two leaders to focus on the issues dividing their respective nations.

Make no mistake, this meeting of the uncrowned emperors of East and West is serious business. The world’s sole superpower and its up-and-coming rival are jockeying for prestige and influence around the globe. Remarkably, it is a mystery just which side asked for the meeting; neither wants to appear to be a supplicant. Yet for the moment at least it is we who are more in need of the other side’s help. Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, was in Beijing from May 26–28, laying the groundwork for the summit by speaking to Xi and the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (roughly equivalent to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), General Fan Chanlong. Donilon and the president are seeking Chinese cooperation to —

  1. Halt the People’s Liberation Army’s repeated hacking of US computer networks, and the theft of US intellectual property and government and industrial secrets.
  2. Persuade North Korea to cease its highly provocative behavior toward South Korea, Japan, and the US.
  3. Obtain a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war and the removal of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
  4. Further tighten the sanctions regime imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program.

That the Chinese are playing us on all these fronts is patent. After temporarily halting the cyberattacks when the US government went public about them in February, the PLA’s notorious Unit 61398 resumed operations (using somewhat different techniques) in May, on the very eve of Donilon’s visit. The Chinese then agreed to hold “talks” with us about hacking! (What’s to talk about? Stop the hacking!)

On North Korea, the Chinese are supposedly putting denuclearization of the Korean peninsula above their concerns for stability there. The Chinese have described this as a “big gift” to the US. In fact, the change has been merely rhetorical. North Korea depends upon China for its economic survival. China has the power to dictate to North Korea; it refuses to do so because it fears a collapse of the North Korean regime. China’s biggest concern is that a unified, democratic Korea will bring US troops and weaponry even closer to Northeast China. Verbiage aside, it prefers to leave the North Korean thorn in America’s flesh.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes.

As for Syria and Iran, China’s role has been anything but helpful. China has important economic and military ties with Syria, and supports the continuation of the Assad regime. And although it voted for the last round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, it continues to enjoy valuable economic relations with that country (particularly in the energy field), and will never put these in jeopardy. Two months ago its foreign ministry publicly deprecated the idea of “blind” (i.e., more comprehensive) sanctions.

China has in reality been most unhelpful to us on every big issue affecting our bilateral relations. Nor should we expect any real changes as a result of this summit. China, although wary of US military power and political influence, sees itself as ascending toward its rightful place as the world’s leading state, the Middle Kingdom reborn. Its economy will eventually surpass that of the US to become the largest in the world. Its military spending has been rising dramatically, though still far below that of the US. Its self-confidence is clearly growing. A recent New York Times article (“Chinese President to Seek New Relationship With U.S. in Talks,” May 28), contained the following paragraph:

It is a given, Chinese and American analysts say, that Mr. Xi and his advisors are referring to the historical problem of what happens when an established power and a rising power confront each other. The analysts said the Chinese were well aware of the example of the Peloponnesian War, which was caused, according to the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, by the fear that a powerful Athens instilled in Sparta.

Contemplate for a moment the bizarre notion of China, an authoritarian, reactionary, and (if truth be told) semi-barbarous state, comparing itself to Periclean Athens. The true historical paradigm for the current US-China relationship is the Anglo-German rivalry in the years leading up to World War I. Fortunately, our position vis-à-vis China is somewhat more favorable than the one Britain found itself in before 1914. But we are in danger of squandering the important advantages that accrue to us. We must, first and foremost, recognize the true nature of present-day China.

The Han Chinese empire is the last great colonial empire on earth. About 40% of its national territory is non-Chinese. Tibet and Xinjiang are truly captive nations, ruled from Beijing with an iron hand, exploited and colonized by Chinese carpetbaggers. But Chinese ambitions extend far beyond the current imperium. Already eastern Siberia is being quietly converted into a Chinese colony (on this, and also Tibet and Xinjiang, see Parag Khanna, The Second World, 71–84). China’s most important long-range task is not the recovery of Taiwan, but rather the conquest and colonization of sparsely populated and resource-rich Australia. This obvious objective for an overpopulated and resource-hungry China goes unmentioned in conventional diplomatic and media circles today because it remains a distant prospect, and a frightening one. But its logic is irrefutable.

We should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

Without question, China’s long-range goal is to dominate the area between Hawaii and Suez. Its economic penetration of Africa and Latin America continues apace. Ideally, from the Han point of view, the later 21st century will find Europe (geographically a mere peninsula extending from the Eurasian supercontinent) and North America isolated in an otherwise Chinese-dominated world. If China can achieve this, the fate of both Europe and America will, of course, be sealed.

Like those of all past would-be world dominators, China’s ambitions are fantastic and unlikely to be realized, assuming we take the steps necessary to prevent their realization. The Obama administration has made a good first move in the global chess game with its pivot to Asia. In ten years’ time most of the US Navy will be based in the Pacific. But much more needs to be done. I am not talking about war or even an arms race. War with China is the last thing we should want. Nor should we burden ourselves economically by trying to spend China into the ground, as Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union. Indeed, we should be cutting defense for the sake of our own economic wellbeing. Victory without war is the goal, and it can be achieved.

The following steps would constitute a rational program to contain China and, eventually, break up the Han empire:

  1. Recognize that the Middle East is of dwindling importance and that East Asia is now the focal point of world affairs.
  2. Tighten America’s military and economic bonds with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Vietnam, and India with the objective of establishing a cordon sanitaire against Chinese expansionism.
  3. Apply economic pressures (naming China a currency manipulator, tariffs against dumping, etc.) designed to throw a wrench into the Chinese economic juggernaut.
  4. Initiate an active propaganda campaign designed to foster internal dissatisfaction with the Communist Party’s monopoly of political power, highlight corruption within the Party and the PLA, foster tensions between Han Chinese and other ethnicities, and encourage Muslim and other religious opposition to the atheist regime.
  5. Cyberwarfare should be reserved as an ultima ratio should the Chinese persist in their impertinent hacking.

While it would be going much too far to describe China as a giant with feet of clay, the Chinese state has its weak points. Corruption is rife and the rule of law mainly absent. The political class is inbred and largely divorced from the population. Economically, the state capitalist model that China is following, while superior to socialism, contains serious flaws and inefficiencies that would be periodically flushed out in a freer market. Environmental and other necessary regulatory regimes are in their infancy, or yet to be established, with consequences in terms of pollution, disease, and manmade disasters that dwarf anything seen in the West. Tensions between Han Chinese and the subject peoples are real, and probably growing. Centrifugal forces lie just beneath the surface of Chinese society. We should be working to bring these forces to life.

World politics in the so-called Modern Era (16th century to the present) has been marked by a series of political-economic-military struggles between the English-speaking peoples and a succession of powers seeking world domination. Spain, France, Germany, and Soviet Russia all failed in their efforts to master the world, foiled as much by the political aptitude and coalition-building of the English speakers as by the latter’s economic and military power. Until 1917 Britain bore the main weight of these struggles. In 1917 and 1941, when Germany proved too powerful for Britain to defeat, America weighed in with what proved decisive effect. In the Cold War against the USSR, America took the lead, with Britain a junior partner. Now, in the 21st century, the last in the line of would-be world dominators is reaching for global supremacy. This does not mean war is inevitable, or even likely. But a political and economic struggle is underway from which one side or the other will emerge triumphant.

What was practiced upon the Soviet Union must be practiced upon China as well. Containment combined with economic and political steps to weaken and finally break up the Han empire should be our policy in this struggle that will decide the fate of the world, probably for centuries to come. The idea that we can allow China — a corrupt, repressive, and brutal imperium, an evil empire whether we care to recognize it as such or not — to dominate the world, is unthinkable.




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