One-Ring Circus

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And on the third day, the Libertarian Party rose again, and ascended to the stage, to sit at the right hand of the party chair. From there they shall judge whose campaign is living, and whose is dead.

OK, maybe not. But it was a day of judgment. And Jesus did appear to the masses. But all that in good time.

The morning session saw leftover platform material from the night before; in particular, a motion failed to delete the party’s longstanding, 10th-Amendment-inspired “Omissions” clause: “Our silence about any other particular government law, regulation, ordinance, directive, edict, control, regulatory agency, activity, or machination should not be construed to imply approval.” Additionally, the LP passed, for the first time in Party history, a platform plank calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The other morning diversion was a William Weld meet-and-greet that turned into a grill session, with Gary Johnson wading in to help out his floundering partner. (Sample of said flounder: asked what sort of threat the CIA might pose, Weld tried to joke about how his wife’s great-uncle Kermit Roosevelt helped orchestrate the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, thus making him “probably the wrong person to answer that question.”)

One outside media onlooker said that McAfee’s speech was “the most apocalyptic thing I’ve ever heard at a political event” — proving his total lack of familiarity with LP events.

Now, to Johnson’s credit, this was already far more engagement than was shown by 2008 candidate Bob Barr. But by the afternoon session, the LP Radicals, energized by their successes in the bylaw and platform portions, were even more eager to rattle sabres (or whatever the equivalent is for anarchist anti-warriors) against Johnson/Weld. As of the afternoon session, the delegate count stood at 907: half again as many as in 2012. Each delegate could cast a vote, or “token,” for one presidential candidate: 30 tokens would suffice for nomination, but it would take 86 to enter the evening’s televised debate. In the end, that meant six candidates out of the 16 potentials moved forward: the high-coverage trio Gary Johnson, Austin Petersen, and John McAfee; anarchist Darryl W. Perry; and rank outsiders Marc Allan Feldman and Kevin McCormick, with only the first four (at least initially) qualifying to debate.

The order of nominating speeches was determined by a favorite of both libertarians and the next-door MegaConners: a 20-sided die, which dictated that McAfee would go first. He was nominated by Derrick Grayson, a Ron Paul supporter and failed VP candidate from the night before; McAfee then went without a seconder in order to talk on the importance of supporting the grassroots and creating “a different definition of victory” within the party — something that would involve “derailing the train” that we are currently on. One outside media onlooker said that McAfee’s speech was “the most apocalyptic thing I’ve ever heard at a political event” — proving his total lack of familiarity with LP events.

Next was Gary Johnson, whose bona fides were established by Bill Redpath and seconded by one-time prez candidate Steve Kerbel, before the ex-NM gov. took the stage with the less-than-inspiring message that he was “not an old white guy” nor “a Republican-lite.” Afterward, though, everything was red meat for the libertarian soul, with even a Gandhi quote landing. I found myself confused, however, by his statement that, though he “doesn’t understand or articulate LP principles as well as some here,” nonetheless behind his lead “we can get this thing done.”

After a too-long rap video, the candidate urged attendees to “Vote for Marc Allan Feldman, nobody for president.”

Johnson then did double duty by speaking as a second for Feldman, as a means of encouraging delegates to get him the few more tokens it would take for debating privileges; all would end the night grateful for the maneuver. Despite a too-long rap video start (no, really, he rapped), he charmed by noting that he was running for president “because I can,” and urging attendees to “vote for Marc Allan Feldman, nobody for president.”

Austin Petersen’s nominator, Sean Haugh of North Carolina, said he used a “call my mom” test to decide which candidate to support — as in, which candidate most inspired him to call his aged mother and tell her to turn on the TV. (It’s a little Norman Bates, sure, but only a little.) The candidate urged everyone to gather together and counter “the armies of darkness [that] are on the march,” something that would involve ending the Fed, for a start. Petersen was also the only candidate to put down a clear anti-abortion platform (though, as he would clarify in the debate, not favoring criminal charges against women seeking such), earning him some boos from the crowd.

Darryl W. Perry was the first candidate not to speak on his own behalf, though whether this is because his nominating speaker went overlong — rattling on about Orwell and Ruby Ridge, before using the Platonic cave as an allegory for libertarian epiphany (unaware, one hopes, of Plato’s more explicitly political works praising tyranny and repression) — or because he made a strategic choice to save it all for the debate. Either way, Perry received a second from Starchild who, wearing a Wilma Flintstone number with matching leopard-print parasol, set off a cascade of press photographers getting social media snaps.

Last, in every way, was McCormick, who didn’t seem to have much reason to be there — he admittedly entered the race late; he didn’t have a nominator; he didn’t even speak in favor of his own campaign — his message instead was to encourage party unity come November. (He also asserted that this gathering was “the most diverse group of people ever at a political convention,” which just — no, dude. No.) Following this speech, LP chair Nick Sarwark announced that Feldman had indeed made the debate via late tokens; McCormick remained nowhere close to debating, but would still be in the mix as designated Round 1 casualty the next day. And after that, they adjourned (early!) to set up for the debate.

Austin Petersen's nominator said he used a "call my mom" test to decide whom to support — a little Norman Bates, sure, but only a little.

Let me preface this next statement by noting that I am comfortable with both the bizarre and the avant-garde. And I relish particularly the sort of oddity that pops up in gatherings of individualists, such as the LP. That said, John McAfee’s campaign reception was the weirdest scene I’ve come across while covering this beat. It’s not that it was that out there, more that there was just enough of the sheer mundanity of the convention reception — standing tables, too-large room, cash bar, people standing about awkwardly — to underline the strangeness of the rest of it and turn the whole thing into a screeching car-crash. The room was semi-dark, with strobing lights and projected visuals like butterfly wings, with tech-company Euro-trance playing over the PA. There were two women standing on chairs dressed as architecture swaying gently to the tunes. The MC, a man in a tuxedo T-shirt, came in to play live, amplified violin over top of the recorded music while a woman in a cat costume cavorted onstage behind him. Later an acrobat draped herself across a large ring in the midst of the room, while gossamer-winged women on stilts stalked through the crowd and the aforementioned Jesus spun round slowly, parading himself on stage. All this happened, and we hadn’t even yet hit the debate.

Part two of this report to follow Sunday, with election report and convention wrap after. For up-to-the-minute coverage, follow @libertyunbound on Twitter.



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A Step Back From War

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On November 24, an interim agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions was reached between the P5+1 powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the US) and the Islamic Republic. Under the agreement Iran is obligated to:

  • stop enriching uranium beyond the 5% level, and take steps to downgrade its stockpile of uranium already enriched to the 20% level (at 20% it can be quickly converted to weapons-grade material)
  • allow inspectors better access to its nuclear sites, including daily inspections of the important facilities at Natanz and Fordo
  • halt development of the Arak heavy water plant, which upon completion would be capable of producing plutonium
  • build no new enrichment facilities
  • install no new centrifuges at its current facilities, or start up any centrifuges not currently in operation

Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium to the 3.5% level, as is its right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the US interprets the NPT differently, but apparently has agreed to disagree with Iran on this, in effect conceding de facto that Iran has this right). Under the agreement Iran is also allowed to keep all of its existing centrifuges.

In return Iran will receive limited relief from the international sanctions regime which has crippled its economy. Some $6–7 billion worth of sanctions will be eased or lifted. Over $4 billion of this will come from the unfreezing of oil revenues currently held in foreign banks. No new sanctions will be imposed on Iran during the next six months (the lifetime of the interim agreement), so long as the Islamic Republic adheres to the terms of the agreement. The most crippling sanctions affecting Iran’s oil and financial sectors remain in place under the interim agreement.

There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

The US sanctions that will be removed can be lifted by presidential action — a key point, given that majorities in Congress remain suspicious of Iran. (Or, to put it another way, Israel and Saudi Arabia wield considerable influence over American legislators, while Iran has none.)

Is it a good deal? Yes, assuming that both sides are acting in good faith. The deal is an interim one with a six-month lifespan. Lacking progress on a comprehensive agreement, the US and the international community as a whole will quite likely ratchet up the sanctions pressure once more. We have not witnessed a “new Munich,” as some Israeli and neocon commentators have averred. It is quite simply the beginning of a badly needed dialogue between Iran and the West, one in which the interests of both sides may perhaps be found to dovetail. There can be no question that ultimately the only alternative to negotiations is war. And war would be a catastrophe for both sides.

This analyst feels certain that the P5+1 want to settle the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully, with Iran’s nuclear program at least frozen if not rolled back. Iran, it would seem, has been brought to the table by sanctions, particularly the very tough ones imposed since 2010. Self-interest rather than goodwill has brought the parties together, and self-interest is a much better foundation than goodwill to build a comprehensive agreement upon. Goodwill may follow in time.

There is little doubt that Iran has long sought, if not an actual nuclear weapon, at least the capability to produce one relatively quickly. Given the hostility that Iran has faced from the US, Israel, and the major Sunni Arab countries since 1979, its desire to become a nuclear power is understandable. Israel’s possession of a formidable nuclear arsenal (probably 200 or perhaps even 300 weapons) makes Iran’s effort seem puny by comparison. But again, it is Israel and not Iran that has widespread influence over the US Congress and American public opinion. On this issue the American viewpoint has been badly slanted in favor of both Israel and Saudi Arabia (two nations which are, in effect, allies when it comes to Iran), irrespective of US national interests. With this interim agreement the Obama administration has made a small beginning in redressing that dangerous imbalance.

In fact, it really isn’t the terms of this agreement that have disturbed the Israelis and the Saudis, but the very fact that an agreement was reached at all. The fear in both Tel Aviv and Riyadh is that an American-Iranian détente will follow, diminishing their influence over Washington. Would that it prove so! These two “friends” of ours have done considerable damage to America over the years. Our unconditional support for Israel has warped our relationship with the Islamic world, to our cost both economically and in terms of our national security. Saudi Arabia, by exporting radical Wahhabism (in an effort, so far largely successful, to deflect the fanaticism and violence of that movement away from the House of Saud), cost us dearly at 9/11 (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis) and thereafter. It is not too much to say that our interaction with these two countries laid the groundwork for the disasters of 9/11 and the Second Iraq War, and much else besides. The time is long overdue for a rebalancing of US policy toward the Middle East.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam. The Iranian people, unlike the majority of Arabs (and particularly Sunni Arabs), are actually pro-Western to a great degree. This is quite evident to anyone who actually studies the country and its people, rather than relying on soundbites provided by cable news. It is true that the Islamic regime in Tehran has supported terrorist acts against the US in places such as Iraq and Lebanon. But it is equally true that this terrorism was motivated by raisons d’état, rather than religious fanaticism and anti-Occidentalism. A reorientation of US policy would bring such acts to a halt, whereas our frenemy Saudi Arabia is unable to prevent (indeed, has at times even secretly encouraged) Sunni terrorism against the US.

The US, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, put the Shia majority in power in Iraq, by means of war. Having embarked upon such a policy, we should, logically, extend it by demanding majority (i.e., Shia) rule in Bahrain. The next step, from the perspective of realpolitik, would be a US-Iranian condominium over the Shia-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, which coincidentally is where almost all of the Saudi oil is located. But of course we lack the statesmen or women capable of charting such a course.

A truly national American policy would involve a radical break with the past, and a turn toward Iran and Shia Islam.

To return then to the real world. This interim agreement opens the possibility of preventing a nuclear Iran without war. A US war against Iran would be a difficult proposition under any circumstances. Given the strain of a dozen years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a real danger of the US military cracking during an operation that, to be successful, would entail the commitment of considerably more resources than those devoted to the Iraq war. The economic consequences of such a war (including a major increase in the price of oil, and the choice between borrowing money or raising taxes to pay the war costs) would be devastating.And an attack on Iran, as former Sec. of Defense Bob Gates commented during the Bush administration, would create a wave of terrorism that might persist for decades. There is in fact no alternative to a diplomatic solution.

Will diplomacy succeed? As already mentioned, both sides appear committed to reaching an agreement. The West needs peace and quiet in the Persian Gulf; Iran desperately needs relief from sanctions. Therefore it would seem this interim agreement will be succeeded by a more comprehensive one. Even so, it may be that in the end we will find ourselves containing an Iran that retains a “breakout capability.” But if we could contain a Soviet Union bristling with nukes, then surely we can contain a power that may have the capacity to produce one or two or even a dozen bombs. The alternative, war, is a far bleaker prospect.

Its logic aside, I regard a successful diplomatic outcome as a 50-50 proposition at best. Very powerful forces, both inside the US and beyond our borders, are committed to keeping the US and Iran apart. They are prepared to do almost anything to prevent a US-Iranian détente. And I fear they will.




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Sand Shortage

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Milton Friedman's notion that "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in five years there'd be a shortage of sand," has been borne out for decades in US energy policy. Sitting on top of the world's most prolific supply of oil, coal, and gas, every president since Richard Nixon has promised energy independence. The result: an energy dependence that led to the September 11 attack by Osama bin Laden.

With terrorism financed by oil revenues (Saudi Arabian, for the Sunni variety, and Iranian, for the Shiite variety), fretting terrorists evidently anticipated an oil shortage. Who could blame them? When the oil ran out, they would be left with sand. Disconcerted, therefore, by America's voracious energy appetite, bin Laden complained, "Muslims are starving to death and the United States is stealing their oil." That, and our military presence in the Arabian peninsula, provoked his famous 1998 fatwa, exhorting God-fearing Muslims "to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."

But Muslims were not starving because of US oil theft. We paid a fair market price of untold trillions (plus an annual premium of $30–60 billion in taxes to protect the Persian Gulf, even before 9/11). Hunger — along with poverty, ignorance, disease, violence, and despair, to name a few other maladies common to the region — was the result of Muslim governments put in charge of the oil fields.

In the early 1900s, when oil was first discovered in the Middle East, the Muslim world had been in decline from its former greatness for over 100 years. Defying the principles of free market capitalism, and at least a few laws of probability, Muslim political leaders managing Muslim oil — the greatest single source of naturally conferred, easily accessible wealth in the 20th century — extended the decline for another 100 years.

Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500?

The descent of Muslim military power, economic strength, and scientific leadership began, ironically, around the time the American republic was born and Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. The subsequent adoption of democracy and capitalism by the US and European nations produced immense prosperity and an ever-widening gap between the West and the Muslim world. Today, by any meaningful measure of achievement, Muslim countries lag dramatically behind the West. During a 2010 interview on Al-Arabiya Television, Saudi scholar, Ahmad bin Baz (the son of the former Saudi grand mufti, Abdul Aziz bin Baz), explained,

We Muslims have found ourselves at the tail end of the world's progress. The Muslims are always on the receiving end, and their only role in life is to receive from others. Western society has become the society of innovations. It is Western society that produces and adapts itself to the changes of life, whereas we Muslims have become passive recipients of all these innovations, and all we do is sit down and ponder whether these innovations are permitted or forbidden by Islam.

Muslim leaders are no doubt perplexed by their abysmal failure to rejuvenate Islamic civilization. Who would have thought that decades of brutal, totalitarian police states, run by secular tyrants, would fail to restore the tremendous successes Muslims had achieved in the glory days of AD 600–1500? Why has the terrorism of Islamists (i.e., religious tyrants from organizations such as al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the nation of Iran) been so slow to advance the Muslim cause? What other strategy might invigorate Muslim innovation, should corruption, cronyism, intolerance, bigotry, homophobia, and misogyny fail?

Give up? Here's a clue: it involves neither democracy nor capitalism. Instead, some Islamist intellectuals have decided that the future of Islam lies in a global Caliphate. They even have annual conferences for indulging in the fantasy. A promotional video for "Caliphate Conference 2012" proclaimed that "the Islamic Caliphate is the only social and political system that has the right solutions to the political, social and economic problems of humanity" and asserted that "the relentless decline of Capitalism has begun. The time has come to fight against poverty. Time to obliterate the injustices. Time for the correct system."

While the precise architecture of the "correct system" is a little sketchy, many of its core concepts — common bonding tenets, mandatory for all self-respecting Islamist intellectuals — are well known. These include (a) totalitarianism, masquerading as religion, (b) absolute rule by Sharia law, the legal codification of the Quran, (c) hatred of Jews, (d) blame to Jews (for caliphate failures), and, of course, (e) death to Israel.

When (or if) the Caliphate begins its transition from a pan-Islamic state to a global empire, the failures produced by the spreading dystopia and cultural havoc will be too numerous and varied to indict Jews alone. Thus, Islamists can be expected to add Christians and other infidels to (d) above.

As a surprise to Israel (not to mention the residents of cities such as Mecca, Damascus, and Cairo), Jerusalem will be the capital of the Caliphate. And as a surprise to capitalism (not to mention the billions of people it has lifted from poverty, more people than any other economic system in the history of mankind), it will be blamed for the world's poverty. Add “Capitalism” to (c) and (d).

A Sunni (al Qaeda) version of the Caliphate is scheduled to be victorious by 2020, right after four years of the "final battles against nonbelievers." However, given the pace at which Iran is developing its nuclear weapons, a Shiite version may be established sooner — unless, of course, al Qaeda steals its nuclear capability from a crumbling and sympathetic Pakistan. Picking a winner is troublesome, as is the idea of a Shiite theocracy having a nuclear bomb among its weapons and a “Death to America Day” among its holidays. Foreign policy experts tell us that Iran seeks its nuclear capability to gain a seat at the table of power. On the other hand, says former CIA director James Woolsey, al Qaeda simply wants to "blow the table up." It's a safe bet that “America” can be added to (c), (d), and (e).

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region.

America's hedonistic culture mocks the "purity" of Mohammed-era ideals. The conspicuous progress of American capitalism undermines Islamist efforts to reconcile Islam with modernity. To the more eager Caliphate builders, the salve for this incessant irritation might be an EMP attack. A small (1 KT) nuclear weapon or two, detonated at an altitude of as low as 40 km, would destroy our infrastructure (power, communications, transportation, etc.) and, as a bonus, instantaneously fry our blasphemy-spewing smartphones, TVs, radios, and other electronic devices. According to the 2008 “Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack,” its effect would be “something you might imagine life to be like around the late 1800s" — not the 7th century, but a start.

If the Islamists prevail, their caliphate will be the first since the previous Islamic Caliphate was dissolved by Kemal Atatürk in 1924, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Islamists are nothing if not ambitious, and patient.

That patience is about to be tested. Thanks to capitalism, America is now in the early stages of an oil and gas boom, despite all efforts by our federal energy intellectuals to stifle fossil fuel production. As Gary Jason pointed out in A Totally Fracked Planet, "We will reach energy independence in the not too distant future, thanks not to any corrupt crony green energy industry (solar, wind, ethanol, or biodiesel) but to the vast resources of shale oil and gas made available by advanced fracking technology." Privately owned US companies, employing innovative drilling techniques and private capital, on mostly private land, have made the US the fastest growing oil and natural gas producer in the world. The US is expected to be independent of all foreign oil, except for oil imported from Canada, by 2018.

During the last ten years, capitalism has been turning our long dependence on Middle East oil into little more than a bad memory of the 40 years of feckless policies concocted by our federal energy stewards. And it will turn the dream of Islamists into a nightmare. Try running a totalitarian state on oil revenues, when Brent crude drops from today's price of $110 per barrel to $70 by the end of the decade. What will Caliphate Conference 2020 have to say about world domination when dwindling Saudi Arabian and Iranian terrorism contributions squeeze prospective caliphate budgets to nothing?

Osama bin Laden was correct to worry about the conservation of oil in a desert region. He may have pondered over the use of sand when the oil beneath it ran out. Perhaps he recognized that excessive reliance on oil was the real source of the Middle East plight — that all the while, Muslims were more dependent on their oil than Americans. If Muslim leaders meted out freedom and opportunity, instead of crumbs from the table of oil revenue, economic diversity would result. Industries such as manufacturing, banking, tourism, and agriculture would expand and thrive. Who knows? As America becomes the new Middle East, the Middle East could become the next Silicon Valley, creating thousands of companies, millions of jobs, billions in tax revenues, and trillions in profits to shareholders— as it did here, in capitalist America. Why not? Unless you are an Islamist, there is no reason to believe that Middle Eastern Muslims are not as intelligent, industrious, and ambitious as American Muslims.

Meanwhile, according to an NBC News series on the economic and political ramifications of the American oil and gas bonanza, things will be looking up in America. Lower energy costs are making American businesses more profitable and competitive. New and better jobs are being created. With lower product prices and rising incomes, our standard of living will increase. And we will buy unprecedented quantities of any blasphemy-spewing, Islamist-mocking semiconductor devices Silicon Valley can invent. Semiconductors, by the way, are made from silicon, which is, in turn, fabricated from silicon dioxide — aka, sand.




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Iran: A Shaft of Light in the Darkness

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On June 14 Iran held a presidential election. Emerging as the winner was Hassan Rowhani, a cleric of relatively moderate views. Rowhani took over 50% of the vote in a six-candidate field, thus avoiding a runoff. Over 70% of the electorate turned out to vote, and large crowds filled the streets of Tehran and other cities to celebrate the election result.

By all accounts the election was free and fair, without the manipulation and fraud that marked the 2009 contest. Of course, the candidates for president were selected, or given permission to run, by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, Iran is by Middle Eastern standards a functioning democracy. And Iranians are more pro-Western than any other people in the Islamic world, except perhaps the Turks.

The Iranian people have, through their votes, expressed a desire to re-engage with the West, and particularly the United States. This is hardly surprising, given the economic suffering caused by the sanctions under which Iran has been living since 2006. Rowhani, while ruling out direct talks with the US for the moment, appears to want some kind of deal on the nuclear issue that has plagued US-Iranian relations for more than a decade. He was Iran’s nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, during the presidency of another moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami. Khatami and Rowhani were responsible for Iran’s voluntary suspension of nuclear enrichment in 2004, a concession that brought no meaningful response from the US and its European allies. As a result, the hardliners in Tehran have been in the saddle since the Khatami presidency ended in 2005.

Iran will never agree to end uranium enrichment completely. Indeed, it has a right to enrich for peaceful purposes under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, in the present environment Iran may be willing to limit enrichment to less than 20% (at 20% enrichment uranium can be converted to weapons-grade material relatively quickly), and allow meaningful international inspections of its nuclear facilities. Given that President Obama has categorically ruled out containment as a response to a nuclear Iran, this option seems to be the only one other than war available to us. War would be a catastrophe for both Iran and the US.

The US has been given something very rare in international relations — a second chance. During the Khatami presidency from 1997 to 2005, the US failed to seize opportunities for an American-Iranian détente. The Clinton administration was too timid; the Bush administration had no interest in improved relations. Given the importance of the Persian Gulf region, and Iran’s status as a regional actor, every effort must be made to reach a modus vivendi with the Islamic Republic. Rowhani’s decisive victory has given him weight to counterbalance the hardliners in Tehran. By reaching out to him we can perhaps tip the scales in favor of peace.




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The Loss and the Future

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Obama won reelection, and the Left is utterly jubilant. Obama — jubilant himself — obviously views this as a mandate for four more years of bigger government, higher taxes, more Fed money-printing, more regulation, more war on fossil fuels, more socialization of industry, and more welfare programs.

He made this clear in his characteristically arrogant “my way or the highway” talk regarding the looming fiscal cliff, where he said that the voters have made it clear they want to soak the rich with more taxes. In his hubris, he reminds me strongly of Nixon after his reelection. And I suspect he is headed for the same fall.

Leftist “pundits” are full of advice for Republicans about how to grow beyond their “prejudices” — and embrace leftist ones! This would be convenient for the Democrats, one would think.

I want to sketch, briefly but more accurately, the reasons for the Republican loss, what it portends for the future, and some suggestions (from one on the inside) on how to fix it.

First, I am not as impressed with Obama’s victory as most of the leftist pundits are. The Electoral College totals typically overstate matters, of course. Obama won, but with fewer votes than he received last time, and there were 2 million fewer votes cast in this election than in 2008. As Michael Barone points out, every president reelected since Andrew Jackson won reelection with a greater popular vote percentage than he received in his first run, except Obama. Last time he won 53% to 46%, as opposed to 50% to 48% now. As Jim Geraghty notes, had Romney received about 407,000 more votes in as few as four of the battleground states, he could have won the Electoral College vote. Gallup and other accurate polls showed that just before the handy hurricane Sandy, Romney had a slight edge, but it was eroded by the photo ops of Obama conspicuously “caring” about the victims. It was an ill wind that blew Obama a lot of good. Considering the huge advantage any incumbent president has, the wealth of financial resources available to Obama, and the lock he had on his key voting blocks — in 59 black precincts of Philadelphia, Romney got zero votes! — Obama hardly waltzed to victory.

The markets were similarly unimpressed. They dropped 2% to 3% on the following few days. And now with the certainty that Obamacare will be fully inflicted upon the country, businesses are doing exactly what it was predicted they would: cutting their full-time workforces to avoid the costs of giving full-time workers government-mandated insurance or pay the fines, as well as the taxes that Obamacare will bring. Companies large and small are accelerating the shedding of full-time jobs in favor of part-time workers and contractors. These include: Abbot Labs; Applebee’s; Boston Scientific; Covidien; Dana Holding; Darden Restaurants; Kinetic Concepts; Kroger; Lockheed-Martin; Medtronic; New Energy; Papa John’s Pizza; Smith & Nephew; Stryker; TANCOA Janitorial Services; and Welch Allyn. As person put it, “We own a small business and we have 100 employees, we will lay off many and put many on part time status due to [Obamacare]. Ironically, many of our employees voted for the man who will put them out of a job.”

That will only accelerate in the new year, as the mandates loom.

Obama won and Romney lost for a variety of reasons, some of which the Republicans can overcome, and some of which they will have to figure out how to circumvent — if they have the will and skill. These include:

1. Obama’s massive negative campaign — really, classic negative associative propaganda. The strategist behind it was formulated by Jim Messina. He bet six months before the election that Romney would win the primary, and followed the strategy enunciated by Dick Morris: if the public doesn’t know a candidate, run massively negative ads to create an initial impression which later positive ads will not overcome. While Romney was still forced to battle primary opponents during an unreasonably long primary period, getting attacked in a seemingly endless series of debates (typically moderated by leftist Democratic “journalists”), Obama was free to start running hundreds of millions in attack ads against Romney. The ad that alleged that Romney was responsible for some guy’s wife dying of cancer, for example, was a Goebbels-like pearl of vicious mendacity. The ads bashed Romney for exporting jobs, wanting to enslave women, put blacks in chains, and so on. This wasn’t so much a Chicago-style attack campaign as a Berlin-style one. Only a man of Obama’s metastasized narcissism could gloat over such a low victory.

Every president reelected since Andrew Jackson won reelection with a greater popular vote percentage than he received in his first run — except Obama.

2. There was a concomitant campaign by the Obama-worshipping mainstream media of deliberately arousing the anti-Mormon hatred long endemic in American culture, a campaign involving dozens of articles in major publications, including Newsweek just before the election. (Romney chose not to allow his surrogates to explore Obama’s own controversial church, something I suspect Obama counted on.) Obama could have ended the deliberate enflaming of anti-Mormon prejudice with just one utterance, but he cheerfully let it proceed.

3. Romney failed to hammer home more powerfully the massive corruption of this regime. I would have run hard-hitting ads naming names and showing pictures of each of the legion of wealthy Obama campaign bundlers whose useless green energy companies received tax dollars.

4. Romney didn’t do a good job of rebutting the bogus narrative put forward ceaselessly by Obama and his media courtesans about how bad the economy was when he took office. The recession ended in 2009, and the recovery was the weakest in recent memory, not because the recession was so severe, but precisely because of Obama’s policies. The Romney campaign just took it for granted that everybody remembered the Reagan recovery, not realizing that most young people don’t. He needed to connect those dots to counter the media’s clear mission to push their false narrative.

5. True to his Chicago roots, Obama used OPM (Other People’s Money) liberally to buy votes to an unprecedented degree. Despite the recovery, Obama added 15 million new people to the food stamp program alone (hitting 47 million, or 14% of the total population). You can bet the vast majority of those became his loving supporters. And by 2011, 70.4 million people were on Medicaid — a record 22%, or one out of every five Americans. Hell, even the government-subsidized cellphone program for the poor (the “Lifeline” program) was turned into an effective vote-buying scheme. The number of people getting “free” phones rose from 7.1 million in 2008 to 12.5 million in 2012 — a 76% jump!

This is public choice lumpen theory in action. Give a cellphone — and maybe a bottle of Gallo wine! — to the voters, and then truck them to the polls. The Chicago way, indeed!

In fact, it was a thoroughly public choice theory election: give the voters enough “free” health care, “free” food, “free“ cell phones, “free” storm assistance, “free” contraceptives, “free” student loans, and they will vote for you, even if it costs them long-term in lost jobs, prosperity and freedom itself.

It would appear that we are all Greeks now.

6. Obama’s campaign of changing the subject was a classic of successful misdirection. He was able to convince many voters that Romney hated women. Here Obama was helped by the primary win of one Todd Akin, a wingnut with some loopy theories on rape. Really, this was a wonderful example of a dirty trick: Akin’s opponent, Claire McCaskill, had run ads attacking Akin's primary opponents and building him up as a strong conservative, cleverly ensuring that the sane (and stronger) candidates would lose out to the nutjob. Romney and the Republican establishment tried in vain to get this bastard to drop out, and distanced themselves from him when he wouldn’t, but they were all bashed for being closet Akinites. McCaskill coasted to victory, never having to defend her awful record in Congress.

The Romney campaign just took it for granted that everybody remembered the Reagan recovery, not realizing that most young people don’t.

It was hard to decide who was more reprehensible: Mr. Akin, because after making his ignorant remarks, he refused to do the honorable thing and resign, or “Senator” McCaskill, for her filthy trick in pushing the wingnut to become her opponent out of fear of explaining to the voters why she deserved their votes.

7. There is no way in hell that Romney or any other candidate could have won any appreciable number of black voters in this election, obviously. But he really hurt himself with Hispanics by positioning himself to the right of Gingrich and Perry on immigration (and not choosing Rubio for VP candidate). He should have thought through the issue more carefully, and articulated a more pro-immigration policy that does justice to the real, genuine concerns of immigration opponents, but one more in keeping with our national history. (I have a rather lengthy and detailed piece on this subject coming in these pages soon.)

8. Romney failed to pound home the failed policy of Obama in Libya. Bush had settled with Gaddafi, obtaining his mustard gas and nuclear weapons technology, in exchange for his not invading Libya (this was in the first week or so of the Iraq war). Obama helped overthrow the admittedly evil Gaddafi, and recently denied extra protection for our ambassador in Benghazi, while boasting of his own killing of bin Laden. The result was a successful al Qaeda attack, which Obama had the audacity to blame on some obscure video.

Can future Republicans prevail? Certainly. The Democrats recovered very rapidly after massive defeats by Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984, landslides next to which this election was as nothing. But it would help things if Republicans did some reasonable things.

1. Get clear on the purpose of your party, as opposed to the purpose of your faction. In contemporary politics, the Democratic Party is the big-government party; the Republicans should be the smaller government party. Be transcendentally clear on what that means. Democrats are not (usually) communists, they just want an ever-larger government — they are neosocialists, rather than socialists. This is because the party is primarily a coalition of groups that get money from government or progressive government policies. The key constituents of the party are public employees, especially teachers; people on welfare or other forms of public assistance; attorneys who sue businesses for a living; unionized workers in private industry; and young people who get government benefits but pay little for them (in taxes).

Republicans aren’t (as Obama so often insinuates) anarchists; they just want government restrained to its most effective and indispensable core functions: defense; internal security; a fair judicial system; only such regulation as stops significant negative externalities and other market failures. And Republicans are also aware of the everpresent risk of government failures.

2. The Republicans, again, need to understand with transcendent clarity that people don’t vote their interests, but their perceived interests. People can be mistaken about these interests, and often are. In public choice parlance, this gives rise to democracy failure, or as I term it, voter failure. Indeed, in my view, this election involved a huge amount of voter failure.

So it is that many poor people vote for weakened welfare requirements, unable to see that it is their communities that will suffer the most from the expanded cycle of poverty. Many elderly people support the federal government’s taking control of healthcare, unable to see that in countries with national healthcare systems, the elderly are put at the bottom of the list for scarce procedures.

For that reason, Republicans need to hammer home cases of government failure, not just here, but elsewhere as well. That means that in the coming two years, Republicans at all levels need to keep pressing this administration about its failures, both in the past and as they mount rapidly over the next two years. Remember, the costs of Obamacare were carefully structured to occur after the 2012 election. Every Republican politician should point out every case where a business lays off workers, cuts back hours, or charges customers more, to pay for Obamacare — as an owner of a large chain of Denny’s just announced he is doing (raising prices and cutting hours to 28 per week per worker). Keep pointing out the costs of each and every new tax imposed by that law. Since the Republicans still control the House, they should run hearings on these costs, as well as (for that matter) on each crony capitalist deal from the past and going forward.

The Republicans need to understand with transcendent clarity that people don’t vote their interests, but their perceived interests.

In particular, Republicans in Congress need to resist the temptation to say of Obamacare, “Oh, well — it’s now the law of the land. Let’s try to make it better.” No — make Obama, Pelosi, and Reid own it. And do so with loud publicity.

3. The Republicans need a much shorter primary season. Romney ran short of money early in the race — right after winning the primaries — because he had to spend so much on campaigning so long. While he spent his campaign cash against Gingrich and Santorum, Obama spent his attacking Romney. When Romney finally clinched the nomination, he was virtually out of cash, and could not answer the vicious onslaught of attacks.

4. Republicans should not allow mainstream media commentators to moderate during the Republican primary debates. Pick only conservative and libertarian journalists to do that job. In the primary debate “moderated” by ex-Clinton aide and partisan Democratic hack George Stephanopoulos, he introduced the phony “war on women” meme (as he was no doubt instructed to do by the Obama team) by out of the blue bringing up birth control — the legitimacy of which none of the candidates had ever denied.

And in the general debates, eliminate the single media moderator format. In the debate that Candy Crowley moderated, she shamelessly took the side of Obama, interrupting Romney dozens of times (and Obama fewer than ten times), and at one point actually told the audience that Romney was “wrong” on the facts about whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. In fact, while Obama used that phrase in his earlier news conference, it did not clearly apply to the attack, and for the following two weeks he and his spokespeople advanced the false narrative that the assault was a spontaneous demonstration aroused by a video.

Going forward, insist on having true balance by having panels of moderators, panels that are themselves well balanced between left and right.

One final observation is worth making here. It will be hard for half of this country to watch the insufferable arrogance of the president as he continues his quest to push the country to the left. But as John Steele Gordon recently noted, most presidential second terms have been cursed by scandal, war, and battles with Congress. Obama, who has already seen all of those during his first term, will likely find things even worse in his second term.

Why? First, even his own estimates show him running the national debt up to $20 trillion — an estimate based on rosy projections. The final tab may well hit $22 trillion. Sooner or later, this will trigger inflation or increases in the interest the country must pay to service the debt. This will hurt his popularity.

Second, he will not be able to sweep the problem of Iran’s nuclear weapons program under the carpet much longer. He has claimed that his rather weak sanctions program will prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability, and that his Republican critics are warmongers. This is rich, considering that he used our military to overthrow Gaddafi, bragged openly about killing bin Laden (a boast that likely motivated the killing of the four Americans in Benghazi by the resurgent al Qaeda), and has himself said he will not permit Iran to go nuclear.

Most presidential second terms have been cursed by scandal, war, and battles with Congress. Obama, who has already seen all of those during his first term, will likely find things even worse in his second.

We’ll see. I suspect that the sanctions won’t work — without the support of Russia and China, how could they? And have they worked at all so far? Either Iran will go nuclear — in which case Obama will be revealed as having made a truly Carteresque blunder, and in the same country, allowing our bitterest enemy to achieve game-changing power which will surely lead it to expand its terrorist operations against us — or else he will use force, which will make the anti-American Left and isolationist Right bitterly angry.

Third, the effects of Obamacare will hit. If the death panels start ruling out heart valve surgery for Grandpa, there will be heat. If millions of people lose their preferred health insurance (because their employers find it cheaper to pay the fine instead of furnishing the more expensive federally mandated insurance), there will be heat. And if millions of Americans lose their jobs (or get knocked down to part-time status), there will be profound disappointment.

Finally, Obama is now pushing for $1.6 trillion in tax increases. If he shoves them through Congress, and this further chokes off economic growth, swelling the numbers of the unemployed and perhaps pushing us back into outright recession, there will be fury.

Obama, in running one of the dirtiest campaigns in history, made a deal with the Devil to cling to power. We will see what price the Devil will exact in return.

/p




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Argo F*** Yourself

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One part compelling documentary, two parts zany Hollywood comedy, and three parts suspenseful spy thriller, Argo is one hundred percent excellence in filmmaking.

Although the events depicted in Argo occurred 33 years ago, they could not be more timely. In 1979 we had a likable but inept president whose policies could not avert double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, and the doubling of gas and oil prices; today we have a likable but inept president whose policies have led to stagnant growth, high unemployment, doubling of the national debt, and another doubling of gas prices. Both presidents dealt with turmoil and crisis in the Middle East as they campaigned for reelection.

When Ben Affleck set out to dramatize a recently declassified covert operation that took place within the context of the Iranian hostage crisis over 30 years ago, he could not have known that a similar crisis would erupt in the same part of the world exactly one month before his film was released. Watching hostages in Argo quake with fear as they are blindfolded by their tormentors and dragged before a firing squad, viewers cannot help but think of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through the streets of Benghazi on his way to a horrifying death just last month. This unintended melding of the two stories adds to the suspense created in this well-made film.

Argo begins with a brisk montage of historic photos, film footage, and newspaper headlines taken from the days and weeks of the Iranian hostage crisis that began November 4, 1979. A young Walter Cronkite and an even younger Ted Koppel report the news from old-fashioned television screens. Many people have forgotten that ABC's “Nightline” began as a temporary nightly update about the hostage crisis; 444 days later, when the hostages were released (on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration), the news show had become so entrenched that it stayed on as a serious alternative to NBC’s “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and the CBS “Late Movie,” which eventually gave way to Letterman's “Late Show.” Ted Koppel earned his stripes reporting the Iranian hostage crisis and paved the way for all-news cable shows.

As the crisis begins, embassy personnel are busy doing other things: processing visas, filing reports, and interviewing local Iranians who wait patiently in the outer rooms. When angry mobs threaten to storm the building, embassy workers rush to shred documents, burn files, break metal plates used for counterfeiting documents, and destroy computers. Ignoring threats to their own lives, they focus intensely on eliminating all sensitive material that could lead to the torture and death of Americans and local residents who are friendly to Americans. This is absolutely essential for national security and for the safety of regional operatives (local spies) in Iran.

The film deftly portrays the rising panic among security personnel inside the building while angry young men climb the walls and breach the compound. “We need some security, and you’re responsible!” one man screams into a phone, presumably to someone in the State Department. During a security briefing another man warns, “Don’t shoot anyone. Don’t be the one to start a war. If you shoot one person, they will kill everyone in here.” As a result, security personnel seem afraid to act. They hold their guns, but they don’t use them. One goes outside to try reasoning with the mob, but of course that just feeds the frenzy. In short, the fear of being responsible for diplomatic consequences is crippling.

During this confusion, six Americans slip out a back door and run for safety. But in a country overpowered by anti-American sentiment and energized for a fight, where might safety be found? Several embassies turn them away before the Canadian ambassador and his wife (Victor Garber and Page Leong) agree to take them in. But they are still far from being free, or even safe. Forced to hide in a room beneath the floorboards, they cannot leave the ambassador’s residence. They live in constant fear that local domestic workers will reveal their presence to Iranian insurgents, putting Canadian embassy personnel in danger as well. The scene is reminiscent of Jews hidden in attics and basements by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust. Spiriting these six unexpected hostages out of Iran becomes an even stickier problem for the US State Department than negotiating for the 52 publicized hostages.

Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials.

This is where the zany Hollywood comedy comes in. State Department officials come up with such solutions as providing the six Americans with bicycles so they can ride to the border (300 miles away) or pretending that they are part of an agricultural team investigating crops (even though it is winter) or that they are volunteer teachers (even though all Western teachers have been withdrawn from the country). After dismissing these ideas, seasoned CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) suggests pretending they are members of a film crew doing a site inspection for a science fiction flick called Argo.

Mendez turns to makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) to act as director and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to act as producer on this bogus film, and together they select a script from among genuine screenwriter submissions. Goodman and Arkin ham up their scenes with insider jokes about Hollywood while also demonstrating that they understand the gravity of the situation. Human lives are at stake, and they know it. They also impishly create a tagline with more zing than "Who is John Galt," a phrase that is reflected in the title of this review.

But the real story of this film takes place in Iran, where Mendez must first convince the six hostages that the plan will work, and then teach them how to play their roles as set designer, director, cinematographer, etc., all in a matter of two days. Tension mounts as time draws near. They must act their parts convincingly and be prepared to answer any question that might come up as they go through airport security. If one person blows it, they all go down. Audience members have to be thinking, “Could I do this? Could I make it through this intense scrutiny?” and this adds to the tension of the film.

Mendez must also convince the State Department not to give up on the plan. At one point a State official says pragmatically, “Six Americans executed at the Canadian embassy is an international incident; six Americans caught playing filmmakers with a CIA spy is an embarrassment.” Evidently saving face is more important than saving victims, at least to these State Department officials. I'd like to think they were concerned that CIA involvement would lead to retaliation against the remaining hostages. Mendez, however, refuses to leave without the people he has come to rescue.

To avert retaliation against the American hostages still held in Iran, Canada received all the credit for masterminding the rescue. Now that the case has been declassified, the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez's daring plan for spiriting the six hostages from the Canadian embassy and onto a plane leaving Iran can be revealed. But this should not detract from the gratitude afforded the Canadian ambassador and his wife. They risked their own lives and gave up their residence to help these American strangers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Argo," directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2012, 120 minutes.



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Some Thoughts on Sharia Law

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I can’t say I’m in favor of dripping acid into peoples’ faces — but, given the right circumstances, I might appreciate the opportunity. I got to thinking about this back in the summer when Amnesty International called upon Iran to revise its penal code.

Sharia law provides for retributive justice and the retribution in question was made available to a woman named Ameneh Bahrami who’d been blinded when a creep named Majid Movahedi threw acid into her face after she refused to marry him. Outside of being a good judge of potential husbands, Ms. Movahedi holds a degree in electronics and held a job at a medical engineering company. She seems to be an accomplished woman who, even in the Islamic Republic, had a really bright future.

Now it seems that she doesn’t have much of a future at all. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it’s hard to imagine how any blind person could hold down a job in engineering, or how anybody as brutally scarred as Ms. Bahrami is going to have much luck finding a husband to take care of her. What she did have was the opportunity to visit Mr. Movahedi while he was strapped onto a hospital bed and pour acid into his eyes. For a long time, she wanted to do it, and I can’t say I wouldn’t have wanted to, also. Then Amnesty began to put the squeeze on her to back off, Ramadan and the time of forgiveness came around, she forgave and, from looking at the beaming pictures of her scarred face, it’s easy to see she feels pretty good about the decision. Think what would have happened in a similar situation in America.

For starters, the crime wouldn’t have been against Ms. Bahrami. It would have been against the State, and she would have been nothing more than a witness, if the judge had even allowed her to testify, because it’s easy to see a defense lawyer convincing a judge that the mere sight of her scarred face was too inflammatory for the jury to be allowed to see.

Even if she were allowed to testify, it’s not hard to imagine the same defense attorney convincing a jury to acquit on the ground that, since she was blind and all, her ability to identify her attacker simply wasn’t good enough to dispel all reasonable doubt that the guy who’d thrown the acid really was the same man sitting here in court.

Perhaps the prosecutor would be worried about getting a conviction, or just have too many trials to handle, and let Mr. Movahedi plea-bargain his way down to, say, second-degree assault and get off with time already served. No matter how things shook out, Ms Bahrami’s feelings would have had no bearing on the outcome.

I prefer the way the Iranians handle this. I like it that Ms. Bahrami is the one who not only got to decide what happened to Mr. Movahedi, but would have been the one to do it to him.

Or not. Either way, she was the one who got whatever emotional satisfaction there was to be gotten from the situation. I also don’t mind thinking about Mr. Movahedi spending something like the seven years he spent in prison waiting for Ms. Bahrami make up her mind about whether he got the acid treatment.

What Ms. Bahrami did have was the opportunity to visit Mr. Movahedi while he was strapped onto a hospital bed and pour acid into his eyes.

Or, take an example that’s a little closer to me, personally. A few years ago my nephew was riding home on his bicycle. He had just been licensed as a civil engineer, and he and his father were about to launch into business together. He was, when I think about him, the best that his generation, the best that America, had to offer. He was smart and hardworking; he had a beautiful bride, a winning personality, and a glorious future — all of which ended when a middle-aged driver fell asleep, ran onto the shoulder where my nephew was riding, and put a stop to everything except his life with massive brain damage.

The thing was, it was probably the worst day of the driver’s life, too. She showed up at the hospital, sick with grief. And wasn’t allowed to see him. The lawyers thought it was a bad idea. She showed up repeatedly and never got into the room. Always the lawyers.

The boy’s father is a kind, generous man who would have given comfort to the driver, if he had been allowed to. And she to him. But they weren’t permitted to meet. Instead, the only satisfaction he got was to drive out to the highway and look at his son’s blood puddled on the asphalt. And the driver had to watch her trial grind its way through the legal system with no concern for whether the boy she had hit, or his family, even wanted her to be on trial.

Now, imagine if something like this had happened to an American in Oman in the mid-Seventies. It did. To a good friend of mine, only he was the driver.

Three years earlier, no Omani who wasn’t either in the military or the royal family even owned a car. In fact, no Omani even owned sunglasses. The sultan was opposed to things Western. Then he was deposed and the next sultan began to modernize, so the road my friend was driving along was brand new. And the old gentleman standing on the side of the road was newer still to the whole concept of high-speed traffic when he stepped out in front of my friend’s car.

My friend slammed on the brakes, spun the wheel, fishtailed, caught the old man with the rear of his car, then rolled four or five times before coming to a stop. The court my friend had to explain himself to was Sharia: a single judge with a council of elders to advise him.

I mean it when I say that my friend had to explain himself. Nobody got to have a lawyer. The old man spoke, my frind espoke, the police told what their accident investigation had found, the judge consulted with the elders, the village sat in a semicircle and listened, and the judge announced his decision:

To the old man, he said, "Our country is changing and you need to pay attention to those changes. By stepping into the road in the way you did, you have embarrassed a guest in our country."

To my friend, the judge said, "It appears that there was nothing more you could have done to have prevented what happened. I instruct you to pay the old man three rials." Rials were worth about $2.50 at the time, so my friend was ordered to pay seven-and-a-half bucks.

Nobody thought the rials compensated the old man for whatever injuries he had received. That wasn’t the point. The point was dignity. Regardless of how it happened, the old man had been hurt and my friend had been involved. The rials were for honor and, I am almost sure, for my friend too. To clear the books in his conscience as well as to make the old man feel vindicated.

Clearly, the lady who ran down my nephew was a lot more culpable than my friend, but ask yourself. If you had been either driver, would you rather have hired an expensive lawyer to try to justify your actions to a jury chosen at random from voters’ lists and then, if you did get off, perhaps face a trial for civil damages until you were bankrupt from attorneys’ fees? Or would you rather have told your story to a council of wise old men? I know which one I would choose.




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1989 in the Muslim World?

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On December 17, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, driven to desperation by mistreatment at the hands of petty officialdom, drenched his body with gasoline (or paint thinner, according to some accounts) and set himself alight. His death touched off a chain reaction in much of the Muslim world. Protestors took to the streets of Tunis, and their protests culminated in a popular revolution that ousted the country’s corrupt president. The tumult spread to Egypt where, remarkably, a massive yet largely peaceful protest movement succeeded in forcing Hosni Mubarak, who for 30 years had ruled the land like a pharaoh, to step down. At this moment street protests and violence are occurring in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and Iran — an upheaval reminiscent of that which swept Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Will the outcome be the same? Are the Middle East and North Africa on the verge of changes that will transform the lives of the people living there? Americans cannot but hope that the early promise of this revolution will be sustained. But I would sound a note of caution. There are reasons to believe that the events we are witnessing represent a false dawn.

That a region-wide conflagration had to come at some point was obvious, though exactly when it would occur no one knew. Demographics (a major youth bulge exists in all the countries in tumult), economics (the region is plagued by high long-term unemployment and soaring food prices), and government corruption provided the tinder that allowed Bouazizi’s fire to spread. Conditions in the Middle East are as backward and absurd as those that prevailed in Eastern Europe in 1989. But Eastern Europe’s problems were in a sense artificial, caused by the warped imperatives of Marxism-Leninism. The problems of the Muslim world are more fundamental.

 Although Iran, the one non-Arab nation involved, has a democratic tradition of sorts (no thanks to the US, which overthrew a democratic government there in 1953), the Arab world does not. Despite the hopes and dreams of foreign policy liberals in the West, there is no evidence to indicate that the Arab peoples have any talent for democracy. Indeed, history seems to show that the reverse is true. Egypt, the political and cultural center of the Arab world, will be the test. Some observers believe that the Egyptian middle class, educated and secular to the extent that it is largely immune to the lure of radical Islamism, will take the nation into a liberal democratic future. But given the abject poverty of the Egyptian masses (living on two dollars a day, as we were reminded again and again during the uprising), and the country’s apparent aversion to liberal values (i.e., free markets and functional democracy), this seems very doubtful indeed. East Germany was pulled up from dictatorship and poverty by rich West Germany, with the latter expending a vast amount of wealth in the process. Who will be Egypt’s mentor and bankroller? The US? Not likely, given the state of our economy and the massive federal budget deficit — not to mention the fact that Egyptians will likely spurn our advice and even our money if any strings are attached. The only nation with enough wealth available to prop up Egypt economically is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But we may take it as certain that the Saudis have no desire to see their neighbor become a thriving democracy. The Egyptians will have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, something they have never demonstrated an ability to do. Should they fail, the lure of Islamism will be strong and perhaps irresistible.

Eastern Europe’s problems in 1989 were in a sense artificial, caused by the warped imperatives of Marxism-Leninism. The problems of the Muslim world are more fundamental.

Final victory for the protestors in Egypt came about not as a result of their undoubted courage and determination, but because the Egyptian Army refused to stage a Tiananmen Square. That they refrained from doing so was the result, in part, of US “advice” to exercise restraint. The American and Egyptian militaries have maintained close ties since the 1970s. Egyptian officers attend US military schools and training courses, and Egyptian forces are equipped with US weapons. The relationship is so close that the US has permitted production of the M1 battle tank on Egyptian soil.

The US, therefore, has leverage with the Egyptian military. At the same time, we must listen to what that military says, for maintenance of the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty remains the top priority of US policy in the Middle East. Egypt is the irreplaceable linchpin of America’s Middle East strategy. If the transition to democracy in Egypt fails from the outset or is derailed by democracy’s inability to cope with the country’s massive economic and social problems, look for the Egyptian army to take a hand. And don’t be surprised if the US backs any action the army may take, even if it comes to the establishment of a new dictatorship. The US must retain Egypt within the orbit of its influence, or find its entire Middle East policy ruined.

There remains a third possibility beyond a successful transition to democracy or a reversion to military dictatorship — a recurrence of the events witnessed in Iran in 1979. This possibility has been pooh-poohed by some experts, who are convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928 and after the army the largest and best organized actor in Egypt) is neither strong enough nor willing to impose an Islamic regime. The Brotherhood itself has done much to dampen fears, denying that it harbors ambitions to remake Egypt and even going so far as to promise not to field a candidate in the next presidential election. But consider this: on February 18 the radical Sunni cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had been forbidden to preach in Egypt for 50 years, and who supports attacks on both Israel and US forces in Iraq, spoke to over a million people (as estimated by the New York Times) gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He exhorted them to demand of the army that it clear out all holdovers from the Mubarak regime and prepare the way for a new government forthwith. And he urged Egyptians to keep up the pressure until all their demands are met.

Needless to say, such a forcing of the pace will lead to disappointment, more protests, and perhaps a move by the army to “restore order.” Already the army has warned that the country must get back to work; indeed, anything like permanent revolution in Egypt will mean bankruptcy for the Egyptian state. If chaos rather than order results, and the army begins to disintegrate, with conscripts deserting or joining the ranks of the Brotherhood, nothing will stand between the Islamists and their achievement of power in the state. And an Islamist regime would undoubtedly, sooner or later, turn Egyptians’ frustrations outward against Israel and the US. The US would then be effectively shut out of the Middle East (unless it could somehow maintain a precarious position on the Arabian peninsula), while Israel, already facing the demographic challenge of a Palestinian birth rate far higher than that of its Jewish inhabitants, would find itself surrounded once again by hostile states, now motivated by religious fanaticism. One can play out this scenario in various ways, none of which ends well for the US or Israel.

There is no evidence to indicate that the Arab peoples have any talent for democracy.

To the west of Egypt lies Tunisia, the birthplace of revolution, and its neighbors Libya and Algeria, both of which have experienced major unrest. Libya is to an extent a special case, being a collection of tribes rather than a true nation state. As of this writing civil war is raging there between supporters of the regime and rebels. Even the armed forces are divided. It is difficult to predict a winner at this point; however, the longer the fighting continues, the more the possibility of radical Islamists gaining a foothold increases. Recall that in the 1990s Islamists won free elections in Algeria, only to be prevented from taking office by the army. Throughout North Africa the armed forces are the main, or sole, bulwark against radical Islamism. Even in Tunisia, which thanks to French influence has what most of us would regard as a normal attitude toward alcohol and sex, riots have broken out in which fanatical Muslims sought to close down brothels and ransack bars.

But North Africa west of Egypt remains, for the US (though not Western Europe), a sideshow. It is to the east, in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, that events of world-historical importance are being played out. The principal centers of events here are Iran and, surprisingly, tiny Bahrain.

Iran of course is the other great and ancient civilization besides Egypt in the Middle East. It has more of a democratic tradition than any country south of Turkey, a sizable middle class, and the potential to build a thriving economy based on more than its immense oil and gas reserves. Its peoples are not Arabs but belong to various ethnic groups, with Persians making up a slim majority. The vast majority of its citizens are followers of the Shia sect of Islam, whereas in Egypt the people are Sunni. Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iran has been under Islamist rule. The Iranian revolution was a delayed reaction to the Anglo-American coup of 1953, which overthrew a democratic government and restored the Shah to power. But for that cardinal Anglo-Saxon sin, Iran might today be a rock of pro-Western stability in one of the most important regions of the world. Instead, it is the West’s most dangerous adversary this side of China.

The tide of history is undergoing a major turn. The whole edifice of Western and especially American policy in the Middle East is crumbling.

In 2009 pro-democracy activists took on the Iranian regime after an election that was widely (though not universally) perceived as fraudulent. They were crushed. In the wake of Egypt, street protests once again sprang up. It is believed in some quarters that these protests mark the death knell of the Islamist order in Iran. On the February 20 edition of Fareed Zakaria’s CNN talk show, the ubiquitous (and apparently immortal) George Soros declared that the Iranian regime would be swept from power within a year. This seems to me a fundamental misreading of the situation. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the real power in Iran, is as entrenched as the People’s Liberation Army in China. It has the means to crush any popular revolt, and will do so.

The uprisings in the Arab countries should be seen as anti-Western and anti-American (for who supported the autocrats? and who will be blamed if the revolutions don’t deliver democracy and prosperity?), and therefore helpful to the Iranian cause. Iran will reach out to Islamists in the Arab world with a message of unity against the common enemies, America and Israel. Such an appeal will have a potent effect on people looking to blame their problems on malevolent outside forces. In February, for the first time since the overthrow of the Shah, Egypt allowed Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal (something Egypt could not legally prevent in any case, but nevertheless a definite straw in the wind).

Watch Bahrain to see which way the tide turns. This small Persian Gulf nation has a Sunni ruling family but a majority Shia population. So far, the protests there have been contained, but if the Shia chase out the rulers, Iranian influence will be at the very doorstep of Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where the oilfields lie, is connected to Bahrain by a causeway. And its population is overwhelmingly Shia.)

Throughout North Africa the armed forces are the main, or sole, bulwark against radical Islamism.

The Saudis are very, very nervous. They have been urging the Bahrainis to take a hard line with the protestors, while at the same time announcing new giveaways of money for the average man in their own country. How secure the House of Saud really is remains to be seen, of course, but I would point to the fact that more jihadists come out of Saudi Arabia than any other Arab country. If Bahrain goes, and a Sadrist, pro-Iranian regime emerges in Iraq (as may very well happen in time — see my January 27article, “The Return of Moktada”), Saudi Arabia is probably doomed. At a minimum, the Eastern Province and its oil riches will be the target of Iranian pan-Shia propaganda and subversion. How the Saudis and the US will cope with such a situation appears problematical to say the least.

Even if the pro-Saudi ruling family holds on for the time being in Bahrain, one cannot but think that the tide of history is undergoing a major turn. The whole edifice of Western and especially American policy in the Middle East is crumbling. The majority of the peoples in the region have no love for us, or any strong interests in common with the Western world. We are witnessing not a liberation of the peoples as in 1989, but the end of a neocolonial epoch that began with the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In terms of economic impact, and particularly regarding energy, this will have a profound effect on an America already suffering from severe recession and catastrophic fiscal problems. And the effect on Israel will be even worse.

The history of revolution in countries with little or no tradition of self-government is instructive. Moderates overthrow oppressive autocrats, only to be removed by more ruthless and better organized actors — actors who are invariably more oppressive and murderous than the original autocrats. Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, Khomeini are the winners; the moderates are exterminated and the people are worse off than ever. When possible, popular discontent is then deflected upon an external enemy, as when the French Revolutionary armies swept over Western Europe. Such a future may await the West in the Middle East.




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