Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

26 June 2009

John Boehner

[OCTOBER 3, 2010: I AM DELIGHTED TO REPORT THAT JOHN BOEHNER HAS A SERIOUS OPPONENT, AND I HAVE FULFILLED MY PLEDGE IN THE PENULTIMATE PARAGRAPH (BEFORE THE UPDATE) BELOW. His name is JUSTIN COUSSOULE (pronounced "kuh-SOO-lay"), and he has a perfect bio: distinguished military service, experience in small towns, small business and big business, and a focus on clean energy jobs. If you despise John Boehner and his lies and stupidity as much as I do, help Justin, too!]

[For more recent examples of John Boehner’s stupidity, click here.]

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) is my nominee for the worst high-profile politician in the United States today.

During the presidential campaign last year, he insisted that speculators control global oil prices, but that oil prices would drop immediately in response to mere permission to “drill here, drill now!” in environmentally sensitive areas. That assertion should have earned him a Pulitzer Prize for economic stupidity.

Now Boehner is leading the charge against the first serious effort ever to curtail climate change and our energy dependence. What are his reasons? Does he have a better plan? Hardly. He bases his entire opposition—and his party’s political future—on immediate, short-term cost. He believes that American voters are so short-sighted and selfish as to oppose a measure vital for the nation’s economic and humanity’s environmental survival just because it would cost some money up front.

Apparently Boehner wants voters to react to an unprecedented crisis by assuming the fetal position, clutching their wallets, and doing nothing. If that’s leadership, I’m Peter the Great.

For a politician who has spent his entire career railing against taxes, this stance may not be surprising. What is surprising is how Boehner manages to believe that a one-dimensional, short-term obsession with immediate cost has any relevance to proper public policy.

Let’s take a simple example. Coal is the dirtiest fuel known to mankind, and Ohio (Boehner’s home state) is coal country. Suppose the cap-and-trade bill increases the cost of electricity there by 25%. No one believes that will happen; but let’s just suppose it does, as an extreme worst-case scenario.

Now suppose consumers worry about the cost of electricity in their home. They can replace their incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lighting (CFL), which uses about one-fourth the electricity for the same amount of light. Then the cap-and-trade bill would force their cost of electricity up to 125%, but their usage would decrease by a factor of four. The result: consumers would pay less than 32% of their original cost for lighting, after a one-time “capital investment” in new bulbs.

I know, I know. Consumers use electricity for a lot more than lighting, and many other uses don’t have as dramatic efficiency “fixes” as CFL bulbs. But other efficiency measures for other uses have been and will be found. The whole purpose of cap and trade is to provide economic incentives for finding them, as well as better, cheaper ways to make electricity.

That’s the fundamental fallacy of Boehner’s reasoning. It’s also the reason why all the hoopla about the difference between the Congressional Budget Office’s cost numbers and the coal industry’s much higher figures is beside the point. No one can calculate whether the cost of using electricity for particular purposes will go up because no one can predict how cap-and-trade’s powerful incentives will change electric utilities, devices that store and use energy, and the way consumers run their households.

Economists call this fallacy the “equilibrium fallacy.” It assumes that everything else will stay the same, i.e., “in equilibrium,” except the cost of burning coal. But that’s nonsense. The legislation is designed to move everything off equilibrium, with powerful incentives for changing the ways we generate, use and conserve electricity.

As it serves these goals, cap-and-trade will create new jobs, new industry sectors and whole new industries. Among other things, it will move us from coal to wind and solar energy, which have near-zero marginal cost.

Boehner has always seemed to me as dumb as a board. Maybe he simply can’t understand the plan of legislation that scientists, policymakers and his political colleagues have been explaining for years. Or he might be just dumb enough to think that a self-defeating short-term strategy is all his failing party has left.

But there is another possibility. Boehner may understand full well and be counting on the stupidity of voters, whom he can dupe into voting against their long-term interests by clever pocketbook demagoguery.

Who would benefit from that demagoguery? Certainly not the nation, and most probably not Boehner’s constituents. (I’m unaware of any coal mines in his district.)

So what’s the point? Does Boehner really want to continue destroying the Earth’s biosphere to save consumers an unknowable number of bucks? After promoting Gingrich-Rove-Dubya economic nonsense that has enriched the rich, thinned the middle class, and devastated the poor, does he really think the struggling consumer will see him as a friend?

Who elected this guy, anyway?

Boehner represents Ohio’s Eighth Congressional District. Ohio is an industrial state with the nation’s seventh-largest population, estimated at about 11.5 million people as of July 1, 2008. But unlike California, Illinois, New York, and Texas, it has a widely dispersed population.

In fact Ohio may have the most uniformly distributed population of any major state. Its largest city, Columbus, has only about 6% of the state’s population, and its top five cities together have less than 18%. The rest of the population lives on farms and in far suburbs, small cities, towns and villages.

Boehner’s district takes these statewide trends to an extreme. In fact, it seems gerrymandered to avoid major population centers. Its largest conurbation is the city of Hamilton, a far northern suburb of Cincinnati, which at less than 61,000 population is Ohio’s twelfth largest. The district has an amoeba-like pseudopod that dips down into Montgomery County but avoids the City of Dayton (Ohio’s sixth largest) and most of its suburbs. The apparent purpose of this gerrymander is to put Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and its conservative military folk in Boehner’s district.

So while Ohio as a whole is an industrial state and makes many fine industrial products, Boehner’s congressional district (except for Wright-Patterson) might as well be in rural Kentucky or Tennessee. Maybe that’s why he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) are the Bobsie Twins of Economic Ignorance.

If we are to move this country forward, politicians like Boehner have to be held to account for their obstructionism. It would be one thing if he had better ideas—or any ideas!—for solving national and global problems like energy dependence and fossil-fuel-induced climate change. But for him to pander to his constituents’ worst instincts, and to insist on doing nothing but save an indeterminate and speculative amount of short-term cash, is the political equivalent of criminal negligence.

In Boehner’s case, an accounting may not be far away. Democrats now control Ohio’s state government, and redistricting will follow the 2010 census. You wouldn’t have to change district boundaries much to put some city people from Cincinnati and/or Dayton into Boehner’s district. Then it might reflect some of the state’s industrial power and history and some productive common sense.

There are also other means. I would love to see a political action committee specifically dedicated to dis-electing Boehner at the next primary or general election. I hereby pledge to donate at least $500 to any serious effort of that kind.

With his low-key “aw-shucks” manner, Boehner might seem a harmless fool. But he is the House Minority Leader and one of the few Republican notables left standing after near-universal economic and personal scandals. If he succeeds in retarding or defeating legislation in vital areas like energy and health care, he will have dealt our country a grievous blow. So he’s got to go.

Update (late Friday June 26): Despite Boehner’s determined opposition, the House passed the climate-change bill by a frighteningly close vote, 219-212, with only eight Republicans voting for it. You might say that all’s well that ends well, but it’s not over yet. The contest continues in the Senate, where our Great Compromise gives folks from sparsely populated states, many in coal country, disproportionate power. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will now take up the cudgel of Boehner’s obstructionism and pocketbook demagoguery, with unpredictable results. Now is the time for the President to spend some serious political capital and take his good case to the people. If anyone can get through the noise, he can.

UPDATES: John Boehner’s pleasingly mellifluous voice continues to utter stupidity by the bushel. I’m not really keeping score, but I’ll add the worst new examples to this post from time to time.

9/18/09: One of Boehner’s whoppers concerned the President’s postponement of Dubya’s so-called “missile shield” based in Poland and the Czech Republic. Apparently without thinking or consulting experts of any kind, Boehner criticized that decision as “taking one of the most important defenses against Iran off the table.”

Far from being “one of the most important defenses against Iran,” Dubya’s plan would have been a complete waste of money. Secretary of Defense Gates—an expert holdover from Boehner’s own party—said that “those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe [i.e., Boehner] are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing.” In other words, Gates thought the President’s plan better.

But the facts are even worse than that. What Gates didn’t say, no doubt to avoid national embarrassment, is that Dubya’s plan was a really dumb idea. It would have been easy to circumvent and would have given us a false sense of security and Europe little or no protection at all. As I’ve analyzed in detail in another post, it was like the French Maginot Line, which Nazi troops drove around to conquer France in days. True to his moronic self, Boehner wanted us Americans to have a Maginot Line of our own.


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23 June 2009

What’s At Stake In Iran

Every human being has a stake in what is happening in Iran.

No, it’s not the nuclear issue. No matter who wins this power struggle, Iran will still insist on developing nuclear power, for economic reasons. Iran is a largely barren, arid country with few natural resources other than oil. Rather than consume its oil itself, Iran can jump-start its economy by selling its oil abroad—at what will undoubtedly be increasingly higher prices as the world’s economy recovers. To do that, Iran needs alternative energy sources for its own use, including wind, solar, and nuclear. If I were an economic adviser to Iran’s government, that’s exactly what I would advise.

No, what’s at stake in Iran is something far more important than the “nuclear question.” Nuclear technology poses no danger in rational, peaceful hands. What’s at stake is whether “national sovereignty” will remain an excuse for small, self-interested ruling cliques to use every possible means, including nuclear brinksmanship, to keep themselves in power and their people down. That’s a question that impacts all humanity, no less in North Korea than in Iran.

What’s at stake in Iran is a simple but vital proposition: can a people can throw off tyranny by peaceful means?

History suggests it can be done. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did it. But the tyrannies they overthrew were not indigenous: Gandhi fought a colonial regime, and Mandela the vestiges of white colonial rule. In both cases, race was an enormously important factor. Martin Luther King, Jr., overthrew a tyrannical legal system (Jim Crow) based on race, which was a vestige of colonial slavery.

Peaceful overthrows of indigenous tyrannies not based on race are rarer. The Magna Carta’s origin may have been one, but it was not entirely peaceful. The Barons met King John at Runnymede in full force, all decked out for battle. John wisely bowed to superior numbers and the inevitable. It was hardly a non-violent revolution on the model of Gandhi, Mandela and King.

Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” is closer, both in time and in substance. But there, too, foreign (Russian) influence and Ukrainian nationalism played major parts. They still do. Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” was similar; yet it may have degenerated into a mini-tyranny of its own. Saakashvili’s government is hardly the epitome of democracy.

Russia itself provides a useful model. The Gorbachev-Yeltsin revolution that swept away the big lie of Communism was peaceful and enormously effective. But it was a “top down” revolution. It couldn’t have happened without Gorbachev and Yeltsin; it was hardly a celebration of grass-roots “people power.” Maybe that’s why Russia under Putin remains an authoritarian society.

Perhaps the closest modern analogy to what may be happening in Iran is the Philippines’ “people power” revolution in 1986. Conditions there were strikingly similar to those in Iran today. The people had long chafed under a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Alleged fraud in his 1986 “re-election” served as the trigger for a popular, nonviolent uprising that removed him and brought a woman (Corazon Aquino) to power as president.

There were differences. Marcos’ was a secular, military dictatorship, without claim to moral or religious authority. Among the reasons why it fell so easily was determined opposition in the military and the Catholic Church, whose Jaime Cardinal Sin actively aided the protestors.

In contrast, Iran’s dictators style themselves clerics and Iran a theocracy. Someone with influence is going to have to inform the ignorant and credulous that God does not make day-to-day governing decisions in the Islamic Republic; men like Ali Khamenei do. Someone is also going to have to convince the Iranian people (those who are not already dissidents) that they have a right to pick the people who make decisions that govern their lives.

Maybe Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri will be Iran’s Jaime Cardinal Sin. He has unambiguously supported the people’s right to choose and has proposed a three-day period of national morning, which could double as a general strike. So there’s a chance—despite the religious trappings of Iran’s dictators—that the Philippine scenario could unfold in Iran.

Logic suggests that the dissidents and protestors possess enormous power, if only they can organize effectively. Even the fraudulent election results credit them with 34% of an enormous 80% turnout. More likely their numbers are at least north of 40%.

Not even the most ruthless dictatorship can arrest, jail, kill or intimidate that many people. No minority that large (if indeed the dissenters are a minority) can be successfully abused for long, if its members have the necessary will, courage and organizational skill. They can use all the tools of peaceful civil disobedience, including general strikes, work slow-downs, “sick-outs,” letters, marches, and constant persuasion of neutrals, independents and wavering supporters of the tyrants.

The dissidents also have another ace in the hole. The vast majority of Iran’s non-religious elite—Iran’s experts—are with them. These are the folk who make Iran’s infrastructure work: the radio and television stations, the airports, the power plants, the sewage system, the hospitals and all of Iran’s many industries. Their civil disobedience could bring Iran to a halt without a shot fired. They must tread a fine line between showing their “power of knowing” and being accused of sabotage; but these are subtle people who can find a way, if they have the will.

As one commentator observed, the revolution that took the Shah down and brought the Islamic Republic to power took an entire year. This one may take as long. If Western governments are smart, they will observe the entire process as silently as possible.

There are three powerful reasons for silence. First, the tyrants and their apologists are using their vast propaganda apparatus, day and night, to convince Iran’s people that the challenge to their power is external, not indigenous. They are even tying to convince the credulous that foreign media inspired hooligans to foment the recent violence in Tehran. Every foreign comment, no matter how carefully phrased or innocent, aids the tyrants. Loose lips can sink peaceful revolutions.

Second, Iran is in this fix in part because self-interested colonial rule, followed by Cold-War manipulation (including the Shah) delayed Iran’s natural social and political development by as much as a century. Iran is just now in the process of discovering the principle of separation of Mosque and State that we discovered two centuries ago and the Russians discovered during the last century (through Communism). Like a mistreated and harshly-raised child, Iran is “acting out” against its erstwhile colonial and neocolonial “parents” who retarded its development. That’s why the UK and the BBC are particular objects of its ire.

Finally, there’s that nasty business of the invasion by Saddam’s Iraq that we fomented in the 1980s. Iranians have every reason to be angry about it. The war that followed killed as many as half a million Iranians. It’s as if Iran had incited Mexico to invade the U.S. and we lost 2 million people. Do you think we’d like to be scolded by Iran’s leaders in that event?

With his superb understanding and empathy, our President gets it. Many Americans don’t. Our breast-beating so-called “conservatives” want us to lecture Iran’s leaders and “stand up for democracy.” Nothing could be more counterproductive. The people who need to speak out are all Iranians, foremost among them dissident clerics. Our own leaders’ “speaking out” will do nothing but hurt the dissident cause.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Iran will follow the Philippines and Ukraine into democracy. But there’s a good chance. All Western people can do is offer moral support, ideas, and hope—apart from our silent governments!—and keep the Web as open as possible.

If Iran’s people lacked the motivation for a sustained effort, surely they have it now. Neda Agha-Soltan was one of the sweetest martyrs to democracy in human history. Jeanne d’Arc should have looked so appealing. If her needless death cannot inspire thoughtful Iranians to a cold, calculated, deliberate and sustained assertion of the rights of millions, then nothing will.

Footnote. Official Iranian media have gone to the outrageous lengths of suggesting that her death was “staged.” I challenge any actress, anywhere, to duplicate the death mask that appeared in the first frame of the now-infamous video. That frame was so arresting as to command my attention from the moment I first saw it. After learning the story, I didn’t have the heart to play the video.


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19 June 2009

Iran: What’s Next and How We Can Help

[For an important update from midday Sunday, June 21, click here. For comment on the historic implications of what is happening in Iran, click here.]

Sometimes one is delighted to be wrong. Five days ago, I opined that Iran’s velvet revolution was confined to its cities’ elite, and that the countryside would likely pick Ahmadinejad even in a fair election. I thought it would take another cycle—four long years—for the revolution to take effect.

Now it appears I may have been wrong. The massive demonstrations against the self-evidently rigged election were not confined to Tehran. Today an apparently youthful Iranian, writing anonymously in the New York Times, claims the country is 70% urban anyway. He/she writes that workers, farmers and even some soldiers share the outrage at the crudely stolen election. I hope this anonymous voice is right, and I would hardly put my armchair statistics forward in refutation.

So it appears that Iran’s revolution, like the one that overthrew the Shah thirty years ago, cannot be denied. What’s the next step?

Forsaking Islam, peace and honor, Ayatollah Khomeini made a thinly veiled threat of violence during his unusual appearance at Friday morning prayers. He signaled a willingness to use force to suppress the rebellion. Whether he’s bluffing only Allah can tell, but the people beneath him who led (or pushed) him to make the threat are probably not.

It follows that further massive street demonstrations are probably unwise. Tiananmen cautions against them. In the Ukraine, nationalism was on the side of the Orange revolutionaries, who were trying to throw off Russian hegemony. In Iran, nationalism is on the side of the conservatives, and nationalism can be bloody. So more street protests are probably not the best way to proceed.

A general strike would be much more effective. Just as happened in our own country, the people most outraged by the misrule and the stolen election are the experts: teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists—including the ones running the centrifuges at Natanz. What would happen if none of them showed up for work? Can the basiji and clerics keep the power on, the airports and trains running, the sewage from overflowing, and the universities full? With participation from workers and even a few soldiers, a general strike could shut the country down and show the rulers the extent of popular disgust with their rule.

No one need leave home, and no one need get hurt. Everyone can stay indoors and watch the consequences of people power in the Internet Age unfold.

How can Americans help? The President is absolutely right on what our government should do: nothing. Despite all the American angst, Iran’s last revolution, which created the Islamic Republic, was surprisingly free of bloodshed. The real bloodshed came later, when our government incited Saddam to invade Iran. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians died. With that shameful legacy to live down, we should have the decency to shut up and let events unfold, at least insofar as concerns official comment.

What the American people can do is another story. There is an immense outpouring of sympathy here for the long-suffering Iranian people’s trials, the more so as some of that suffering resulted in part from bad governance here at home. Americans, including Iranian expatriate residents and many citizens of Iranian descent, can help by keeping communication channels open.

None of this could or would have happened without modern electronics. Cell phones, satellite television and the Internet (including tweets and Facebook) were the tools of Iran’s revolutionaries. If it succeeds, Iran’s second revolution will be dramatic proof of the transcendent power of ordinary people in the Internet Age.

But we all have to aid that power. Channels are limited, and Iranian authorities are doing everything they can to disrupt them. The New York Times has invited ordinary Iranians to comment and has a moment-by-moment blog reporting events in Iran. This is journalism at its best, using the power of the Internet to get vital information not just to curious Americans and other foreigners, but to the revolutionaries inside Iran who need it most. Even frustrated Chinese have reportedly gotten into the act, with Chinese hackers anonymously helping Iran’s revolutionaries defeat the government’s attempt to hobble the Internet.

Ordinary Americans can help by “staying off the air” and closing their windows and browsers when servers with Iran-related content are slow. Just as uninvolved people had to stay off their cell phones during an emergency like 9/11, so people whose only motivation is curiosity should stay clear of key Web pages (including those of the Times and You Tube) when servers appear to be laboring. Let the Web be an instrument for Iran’s oppressed people to maintain contact with each other and the outside world!

No one can tell where these events will lead. But Tiananmen is not necessarily the model. The Internet did not exist in 1989. Today it has reached full strength and resilience.

From its inception, thinkers speculated that the Internet would bring an unprecedented Renaissance of democracy by empowering individuals. This very week will test that speculation. The outpouring of interest and sympathy from around the world has little to do with governments or international politics. It reflects the universal empathy of human beings for their fellow beings who just want their voices heard. So stay “off the air” unless you have a role to play—as aide, reporter, or friendly hacker—and let the Web work its magic in this new age of electronic people power.

Update: 6/21/09 1:30 p.m. EST

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So would a general strike called “national days of mourning.” That’s what the chief opposition cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, called for over an hour ago: three national days of mourning, beginning Wednesday.

You can bet that the tyrants will not be happy with this suggestion. They are going to be spending every waking hour—and sleepless nights—trying to pull harder on the reins of power. No one in the conservative faction thinks he/she has anything to mourn. They all think they “won” the election and that the slain protesters were hooligans and criminals.

So the “days of mourning” will be a silent and very effective show of strength by the opposition. They can all stay home, watch TV and the Internet, twitter, and chant from the rooftops while their absence from the wheels of commerce brings Iran to a halt. It will be a powerful demonstration of their numbers and strength, including the strength of experts in the non-ruling elite.

If the rulers approve the event, so much the better. Every man, woman and child who believes the election was stolen can appear on the streets of Iran, with candle in hand, in a vast, public repudiation of the leaders. Mourning can transform a nation.

Iran’s Second Revolution: The First Cyber War

Whether or not it succeeds, Iran’s second revolution is the first cyber war. The war is very real: control over a nation’s destiny is at stake. Yet—at least at present—the primary means of struggle is in cyberspace. Iran’s dictators are trying to shut down cell phones, the Internet, rebellious websites and twitters without disabling Iran’s information infrastructure. Rebels and hackers as far away as China are trying to keep the channels open.

Think about that. Chinese hackers are frustrated with the slow pace of democratization at home and their government’s attempt to cripple the Internet. So what do they do? They help Iranians, halfway around the world, communicate with each other to protest a stolen election.

This is a flat world that not even Tom Friedman envisioned. Totally ignoring national boundaries and nation-states, lovers of democracy are conspiring over global distances to defeat the forces of stasis and tyranny. This is a global battle of good against evil in which borders, armies, and navies make little difference.

To say this phenomenon is revolutionary would be Obamanian understatement. It’s in the same league with the invention of gunpowder, the Gutenberg Bible, the Protestant Reformation, and the birth of America. It’s what thinkers always believed the Internet and other means of modern communication would do. Now it’s happening before our eyes, in “real time,” to use a nerdly term.

Does this mean that the old ways are gone forever? Can we kiss the tanks, the bombs, the thumbscrews, and the waterboards goodbye? Not hardly. Uncomprehending tyrants (including our own) will still try medieval methods, and sometimes they will succeed. But the old ways are getting a lot harder.

Stalin set the stage for the bloodiest century in human history when he stuffed the ballot box and “defeated” Sergei Kirov for control of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Kirov’s assassination cemented Stalin’s “victory.” Like Saddam, Stalin then repeated the purging process numerous times, becoming the most monstrous leader in human history, with the possible exception of Adolph Hitler.

Stalin’s already disillusioned comrades could have stopped him by the simple expedient of opening the ballot box or consulting each other, and finding out who had actually won. If they had, the whole history of the twentieth century might have been different. Kirov’s name might have emblazoned a vibrant Russian democracy, rather than merely a ballet.

Today, the Internet provides a way to double check the ballot box without a battle or even a confrontation. The little-mentioned conservative alternative to Ahmadinejad, a candidate named Mohsen Rezaei, officially “received” only 300,000 votes. So he put up a website and asked everyone who voted for him to register his or her name. Within twenty-four hours, he had over 900,000 Internet “votes.”

Perhaps the most important revolution in human history involved no blood at all. When King John met the Barons at Runnymede, he saw he was outnumbered. Rather than engage in a suicidal battle, he agreed to terms. The result was the Magna Carta and the beginning of Anglo-American democracy.

The Internet makes that sort of accommodation possible without the need to marshal troops in full battle regalia, or even to have troops. If Iran’s revolutionaries are as numerous as they seem, all they have to do is organize and walk off their jobs for a few days. The leaders will realize they can’t run the country without them—not can they kill or arrest them all—and will likely come to terms. Numbers do matter; all you have to do is prove that they are real.

So be ready for a wild roller coaster ride. Barack Obama’s election was just the first thrilling result of political use of modern telecommunication and the Internet, which is only thirteen years old. Once its versatility and power are fully understood and established, tyrants and demagogues will have a tougher time than ever before in human history. The transformation is going to be fun to watch.


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18 June 2009

An American Soap Opera

Sometimes politics in America becomes a theater of the absurd. Take our current economic “dialogue,” for example. You might see it as an argument between two gay spouses, in the depths of winter, that goes something like this:
Spouse 1 (Barry O.): Honey, something terrible happened last night. Our roof blew off in the storm. I looked in the kids’ room. The floor’s covered with snow, and they’re shivering under their blankets.

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): Lemme see! [Leaves the room and comes back seconds later.] Dad gum! That storm blew the roof clean off! And those liberals said it was getting warmer. Damn fools!

Spouse 1 (Barry O.): But what’re we going to do about it? We have to fix the roof, don’t we?

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): Well, what can we do? We’re in a recession, I lost my job, and we’re in debt. Maybe the kids can sleep downstairs with us.

Spouse 1 (Barry O.): Won’t we waste a lot of energy heating a house without a roof? Won’t the whole house get wet inside and blow down if we don’t fix the roof? We haven’t done any work on this house in forty years. Your credit’s still good. Can’t we borrow money to fix the roof and save our kids and our house?

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): Well, we’re deep in debt. We can’t go deeper. That would be like stealing from the kids.

Spouse 1 (Barry O.): Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you bought the Hummer on credit. Anyway, isn’t it worse if the kids die of pneumonia or don’t have a house to live in?

Spouse 2 (Johnny Mitch): We don’t have the money, I tell you! We’re in debt!
At this point, the story can go one of two ways. Spouse 1 takes the kids and moves in with his parents. Or Spouse 1 realizes that he has equal control over the joint credit account, takes out a loan and fixes the roof. Spouse 2 goes into a major pout, but he thaws when spring comes, he gets a new job, and he begins to pay off the loan. The couple lives happily ever after.

Just before these alternative plot resolutions is where the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll says we are. A majority of the public (although a slightly smaller one than before), still thinks the President is doing a good job. Nearly two thirds think he’s not trying to do too much. But a majority doesn’t want to borrow to pay for what he’s doing.

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance there. My father once said that a sane person thinks two and two are four. A psychotic thinks two and two are five. A neurotic knows two and two are four, but just can’t stand it.

That’s what we are: a nation of neurotics. We know we’ve neglected things like energy, education and health care for a long, long time. We know that our long neglect is bringing us down. We know we’re in debt. But we don’t want to borrow more money to pay for the things we know we have to do to keep our country moving forward.

Maybe it would help to review some history. Today our national deficit-to-GDP ratio is about 12%. During World War II, it was over 30% in 1943 and over 20% for the next two years. [See official statistics, Table 1.2, page 23.] You know what the maximum dollar value of the deficit was at that time? Less than 56 billion dollars. [Same post, Table 1.1, page 21.]

Today, sixty-plus years later, that is pocket change. If kept healthy, economies tend to grow out of debt incurred during crises. But if they don’t solve their fundamental problems, they fundamentally decline.

Unlike my fictional Spouse 1, those of us who have enough faith in ourselves and our future to borrow to fix what needs fixing can’t all take our kids and move abroad. So the only positive outcome is borrowing the money and living happily ever after.

Men like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell—who are so dumb they make wooden dolls look bright—are going to have a major pout. They’re going to do the best they can to confuse the rest of us and either leave the roof blown off for the foreseeable future or nag us interminably for borrowing to fix it.

If they’re successful in making us doubt ourselves and can bring the party that neglected the house for forty years back into power, God help us. Bye bye, house!

Stay tuned for next week’s episode of the American Soap Opera. It’s going to be exciting!


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14 June 2009

Persia’s Bush

Many Americans know just how Iran’s reform voters feel today.

Think back to November 5, 2004. Four years earlier, a mediocre and deeply incompetent man—with the Supreme Court’s aid and comfort—had stolen the White House. After the shock of 9/11, he had let bin Laden get away and started an unnecessary war in Iraq.

By election day 2004, the optional war seemed to be going well. We had captured Saddam only the previous December. The Golden Mosque’s destruction, Iraq’s civil war, and the blood on the streets in Baghdad lay in the future. So did the Great Recession.

But informed folk, most of whom had voted against Dubya the first time, could see how badly he and his team governed. Although only dimly, they could foresee the disasters ahead.

After Dubya’s 2004 election, an oppressive gloom prevailed. It lasted for four long years. Events justified the gloom: not much positive happened during those four years, except for a desperately-needed change at the Pentagon.

That is what Iran faces today. Like us in 2004, it can look forward to more governance by a mediocre, incompetent man who has little or no ability to predict the consequences of his actions in the real world. The gloom felt today by Iran’s intellectuals, students, reformers, moderate clerics, business people and housewives clad in colorful burkas (not chadors!) is justified. Not much will change for the better in Iran during the next four years, except that the price of Iran’s oil will rise as the global economy recovers.

There are differences, of course. We think our democracy is real: we think our votes are counted, not manufactured. There are many reasons to doubt the same in Iran. Authorities announced the election result there prematurely. The 63%-to-34% landslide for Ahmadinejad they reported seems implausible; a closer result would have been more credible. There are also the difficult facts of minuscule votes for the other two candidates, even in their own hometowns. So there is much circumstantial evidence of fraud.

Iran’s dictatorial authorities also seemed well prepared for a backlash. Phalanxes of black-clad motorcycle police invaded the capital just after the results were announced. Reformist leaders of all kinds, including Moussavi, seemed to be under house arrest or temporary detention, and Facebook, dissenting websites and text messaging in Iran were shut down. None of this could have happened without a great deal of careful advance planning.

But was the election really stolen? Joe Biden said we just don’t know. Probably no one will ever know, unless and until Iran enjoys a flowering of glasnost like pre-Putin Russia. Maybe if all votes had been counted fairly, Moussavi would have won a runoff with Ahmadinejad. But would he have won that runoff?

That outcome seems doubtful. Democracy’s Achilles Heel is that the people rule—all of them. Folks who see politics and government on the edge of their peripheral vision, if at all, don’t always get things right the first time around. If our own elite determined election results, Dubya never would have had two terms. But he did. The same no doubt holds true in Iran.

Although Iran’s official vote tallies are implausible and seem manufactured, the ultimate result does not. Iran’s population is 71 million. Tehran’s is a little over 12 million. The top six cities total less than 20.2 million. The vast majority of Iran is rural, populated by simple country people like the kind who voted for Dubya twice, or the folk from rural states (representing less than 5% of American GDP) who would have put McCain in the White House by 20% margins. Iranian polls showing Moussavi ahead didn’t even try to assess voter sentiment in the countryside.

So if—as appears to be the case—Iran’s conservative clerics made up the numbers, they may not have changed the result. The fact that they didn’t wait for the real result to be counted only shows how insecure, impatient and fallible they are. As for the subsequent “crackdown” on protest, it’s not much more intense than Mexico’s after the close election of Felipe Calderón.

So what’s the lesson of this tragic comedy? It’s primarily one for Iran’s elite. To paraphrase Von Clausewitz, politics is war by other means.

War is not fun or easy, and neither is politics when done right. That’s especially true when great issues are at stake. We Americans took our country back from our own know-nothings and mossbacks with the best-organized, widest and longest political campaign in world history.

Barack Obama had literally millions of people working for him. On election day, virtually every precinct in disputed states had observers working for his election. Several times during the day, these observers called in preliminary results by cell phone, as they were posted, into a central office for independent review and tallying. I know, because my wife and I were among those workers.

Not only did the two of us donate enough money to buy a car. We housed a campaign worker in our home for three weeks and worked our tails off to get Obama elected. Neither of us had ever engaged in politics before, besides voting and donating small amounts of money. Millions of others did as much or more than we did. That’s what it takes to get your country back—peacefully—from self-interested, incompetent, reactionary forces.

So the cry of some disappointed voters in Tehran that they’ll never vote again is exactly the wrong response. The right response is to work to pass laws requiring every polling station to post preliminary and final results publicly. Then, on election day, supporters of reform candidates can assign political party workers with cell phones to every polling place in the country, to create an unofficial tally and keep the official count honest.

It’s hard to see how this can be done without political parties. In all the reporting on Iran’s election, I’ve never seen one mentioned. But the reported results (if not sheer fantasy) suggest how one could be built. Apparently nearly all reform voters coalesced around a single one (Moussavi) of the three anti-Ahmadinejad candidates. This fact alone suggests some crude organizational ability among reform voters.

But it will take a lot better organization and a more sustained effort to win next time. Among other things, all those rural voters will have to be educated about the real-world consequences of their political choices.

It took extraordinary organization—plus an eighteen month campaign (including primaries)—to get President Obama elected. It will take something similar to turn Iran around. Childish voters who pout and turn away from politics because their informal, several-week effort failed will never win. It takes adults with real perseverance to win.

None of this is easy. But we Americans did it, and Iranian reformers can, too. They have four years to get started.


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09 June 2009

Two Generations of Imbecile-Dictators Are Enough

Fifteen years after Bill Clinton first offered to trade oil and food for a halt in North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, it’s clear that policy has failed. Kim’s travesty of a government has broken every promise and made every possible threat including, recently, offensive first use of nuclear weapons.

The main reason for the recent escalation of threats of war from Pyongyang is obvious. An ailing and failing Kim is trying to maintain control of his Stalinist apparatus and insure that power passes to one of his three sons, reportedly Kim Jong Un. The threats are classic demagoguery, designed to get the North Korean people to rally around their ailing and increasingly irrational “Dear Leader” and his prince, and to set the stage for tarring any internal challenger as a traitor in wartime.

This is medieval stuff. It was old in the Medicis’ time. The king foments war to thwart internal contenders for the throne and crown his chosen prince.

If North Korea’s threats were only verbal, our best policy would be to ignore them and so persuade internal dissidents that the greatest source of bellicosity is the Kim regime itself. But unfortunately that is not the case. North Korea is the world’s single most dangerous weapons proliferator, selling arms, missiles, and possibly its nascent nuclear technology to anyone who can pay.

At the same time, the North’s nuclear weapons are becoming more powerful. While the first blasts were duds, the latest reportedly had the force of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima. We don’t know whether the North has other weapons of similar power, but we have to assume the worst.

So we have three problems. We have an intransigent dictator who threatens war whenever he can’t otherwise get his way. The proper term is bully. That bully also happens to be the world’s most dangerous weapons proliferator, and his nuclear weapons stash is growing more dangerous day by day.

We certainly don’t want to start or threaten a war ourselves. That would play right into Kim’s hands, allowing him to suppress any semblance of internal dissent or revolt. On the other hand, temporizing might also help Kim’s internal strategy succeed. Internal dissidents won’t stick their necks out except to avoid a calamity.

So we may have to engage in a bit of brinksmanship to achieve a good result. The closer to war it seems (as long as the threat is clearly internal and not from us), the more likely forces inside North Korea are to remove the weakened Kim family to avoid a catastrophe. We know so little about Kim’s government, but his subordinates are unlikely all to be as paranoid as he.

Kim’s actions lately have been so spastic and desperate as to suggest a real chance of internal change. Now therefore may be the best time to act. All it might take is a few brave souls—a Khrushchev or Gorbachev—to avoid a third generation of imbeciles (after Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) turning North Korea into a permanent, nuclear-armed version of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel.

Here’s what we should do.

First, we should make sure we have South Korea fully committed. It has by far the most at stake. Seoul, a gem of Asia, lies only miles from Kim’s massed conventional weapons and now the threat of a nuclear strike. But it should be clear to the South most of all that negotiation has accomplished nothing, and that the best chance to insure against North Korea becoming a permanent, nuclear-armed bully is to take action now.

Second, if South Korea agrees, we should immediately implement and begin enforcing an embargo on shipments of arms and nuclear and missile technology from North Korea. We should do this together with the South, Japan, Russia, China and any other country that will help. If possible, we should ask a country besides us and the South to be the first to board ships.

Kim has said an embargo would be an act of war. We should call his bluff. If there is no one high in North Korea’s government who will risk his life to stop a war for the “right” to blackmail the world and proliferate dangerous weapons, then war is probably inevitable anyway. It’s just a matter of time. Now, when Kim’s regime and succession are most vulnerable, is the best time to make our move.

Third, we should make as clear as possible the vast imbalance of nuclear force that Kim faces. Quietly and covertly, we should inform Kim that any full-scale attack on the South, or any use of nuclear weapons, would result in several 50-megaton warheads descending in tandem on Pyongyang. We should accompany this warning with videos of test blasts at Bikini and scientific reports on the results of those tests. Kim has no defenses against our nuclear submarines and short range missiles, and his military advisers (if not Kim himself) know this. It’s time to counter threats with a threat of retaliation, but covertly. (It doesn’t matter whether we actually intend to carry out these threats. We have the capability; let Kim and his underlings guess about our intentions for a change.)

Fourth, we should do everything we can to persuade China to commit to cutting off all oil, coal and food to North Korea, immediately, in the event of any large-scale military mobilization or threat of immediate nuclear action by the North. We should ask China to announce this policy as openly as possible, including on Korean-language broadcasts directed at Pyongyang. The broadcasts should emphasize that the North is the warmonger and that the cutoff policy is designed to prevent war, not start it.

China’s help in this regard is absolutely crucial in case Kim decides to start a conventional war. North Korea has no indigenous oil, and you can’t wage conventional war without it. Existing oil reserves are vulnerable to air attack.

Finally, we should attempt to communicate with senior North Korean leadership, saying that rapid and dramatic improvements in relations (along with cessation of any hostilities already begun and massive economic aid) are possible under two conditions: (1) the North ceases any hostilities and threats already begun, and (2) the North agrees to dismantle its nuclear weapons program under effective international inspection. The subtext is that the imbecile family is gone, but we needn’t say this out loud. We might convey this message covertly, but the best approach might be simply to publicize our policy in the international press and on the Internet.

There will never be a better moment to act. Kim’s twisted regime is vulnerable to internal challenge, or he wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing. His nuclear program is getting more dangerous by the day. Waiting will only make him and his offspring stronger.

The unfortunately plight of the two female journalists just sentenced as “spies” does not argue for any less tough a response. Just like Iran with Madame Saberi, the North is using them as bargaining chips, lest its crude threats of war fail to produce a basis for bargaining. But on our side we have little to bargain with. It’s hard to bargain when you are already lying prone on your back, which is about where we’ve been vis-à-vis North Korea for the past decade. Getting tough will give us some leverage to negotiate these hostages’ release.

A soft touch worked with Iran because the last administration had been unreasonably tough and Iran is modernizing and democratizing as we watch. In any event, Iran is only enriching uranium, it insists for peaceful purposes. North Korea has nuclear weapons and insists that any attempt to keep it from spreading them around the globe will be an act of war. Which nation poses the greater threat to civilization?

There is no comparison between Iran and North Korea, except that the hard liners in Iran appear to be taking some lessons from Kim, and vice versa. North Korea is sui generis in isolation, political and social pathology, and unremitting (and so far successful) bullying. If the international order cannot stop it from becoming a nuclear-armed criminal rogue state, then the “new world order” will be the law of the jungle in the nuclear age. Civilized people can’t let than happen.

The disastrous example of Neville Chamberlain has been used wrongly by analogy so often that it has become a tired and unwelcome cliché. But this time the analogy fits. If the world does nothing, the threat will only increase, and increase dramatically. Two generations of North-Korean imbecile-dictator-proliferators—let alone armed with nuclear weapons—are enough.


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06 June 2009

A New Dawn: Obama in Cairo

During the presidential campaign, I wondered what it would be like to have a leader with the vision of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Nelson Mandela in charge of the most powerful nation on Earth. Now we do.

That, to me, was the impact of the President’s speech to the Islamic world in Cairo Thursday. [Use this post for easy word searching.] The speech had some political content, to be sure. And it was carefully nuanced and framed to appeal to his primary audience. But most of the people reporting on it were listening for the wrong things.

It was not an announcement of a change in policy, nor was it intended to be. It was not a ten-point plan. Nor was it a sudden, brilliant solution to the world’s most longstanding and vexing problem, of Israel and Palestine. Instead, it was a clarion call to moral clarity. It was the (previous) Pope going to Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, the apt phrases from the Quran, the Bible and the Torah were lost on most Americans and indeed most Westerners. Secular folk hear these well-worn phrases and think “cliché!” But to believers, they carry deep meaning. They are cultural icons.

Even among educated, secular Westerners like me (an assimilated, unobservant Jew), the Bible (along with the works of William Shakespeare) is one of the most important, compact forms of accumulated cultural wisdom on the human condition. The same is undoubtedly true of the Quran for Muslims and the Torah for observant Jews. What Obama was doing—as only he can—was putting his call for moral clarity in words and a context that resonate with Muslims’ long and rich history, while keeping morally congruent with Christians’ and Jews’ as well.

Before our eyes and ears, he sketched a picture of common humanity that no educated, moral person could deny. It was a masterful performance.

New York Times reporters heard his words as “scolding at times.” Maybe they were, but only gently so. The President was asking his audiences—in Cairo, around the world, and here at home—to grow up. He asked them to forsake childish peeves for adults’ mutual respect. He asked them to be honest about what they know and really think. And he asked them to strive, as adults do, to find common ground for cooperation rather than pretext for discord.

His was a simple moral message. It was the kind of message that great leaders in both politics and religion have delivered since the dawn of human history.

The President reminded the world that Islam was a beacon of tolerance and justice during the Inquisition. He did not name Saladin, but his words evoked that great and wise Muslim leader, who took a Jerusalem devastated and tortured by Crusaders and built it into a tolerant, international city where justice reigned and Christians and Jews could practice their religions unhindered.

If Muslims could build such wise, just, tolerant and prosperous societies a millennium ago, Obama implied, they can do it again. The President challenged Muslims worldwide—and especially in the Middle East—to do just that.

Yet the President’s message was not for Muslim ears alone. It was badly needed here at home, where we have engaged in so much breast-beating about how good our system is and how big are the defects in others, including the “Old Europe” that gave us birth.

Obama challenged us and the rest of the world to abandon stereotypes of Muslims. He acknowledged that fighting stereotypes is part of his job as President of the United States. Then he dwelt at length on specific themes of honesty, transparency, democracy, women’s rights, and economic development. But what struck me hardest was his simple plea for honesty, decency and mutual respect.

How many Jews here at home think that expanding Israeli settlements is both strategically stupid and morally wrong, and deplore what is happening in Gaza, but don’t say so? How many Arabs—even Palestinians—think that launching rockets to kill or maim school children is not the best way to achieve freedom and sovereignty, but don’t say so? How many Arabs and Iranians understand how little the Arab nations, let alone Iran, have done to help the Palestinians improve their miserable lot in life, but don’t say so? If the “moral majorities” in both Israel and Palestine had they way, there would be peace, but extremists and self-seeking politicians without vision have hijacked both sides.

So the searing lesson of the Holocaust applies to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including their respective foreign supporters. Evil triumphs when good people say and do nothing. Maybe now more good people will speak up.

And so it went. Detractors will say that the President is a starry-eyed idealist. They will say that morality and humanity alone can never succeed. They will call him a wimp.

But you could say the same about Gandhi, King, and Mandela. Detractors derided every one as an idealist, until he made his dreams happen. And every one realized his dreams through moral suasion, not the barrel of a gun. Today’s idealists are tomorrow’s social and moral heroes.

We need such heroes right now. For humankind has the power to destroy itself and to ruin our planet for life as we know it. Avoiding these fates will require extraordinary leadership and great capacity for change. The usual cycle of rage, reconciliation and regret is no longer good enough. Radioactive isotopes don’t feel regret; nor do melting polar ice caps. They just keep making life as we know it inexorably less enjoyable and less possible.

The President, of course, is more realist than idealist. Several times he said that moral suasion will only help a bit, at the margins. It might only improve the atmosphere for negotiation.

But Obama is also one of the few world leaders in my lifetime who sees over the horizon. Toward the end of his speech, he gave us a hint of his real audience. “[T]o young people of every faith, in every country,” he said, “you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.”

President Obama has no illusions that the changes he called for in Cairo will come easily or will happen overnight. But, as a realist and idealist packed in one skinny human form, he knows we must start somewhere. If he succeeds in calling the world to a new vision, a century from now last Thursday will be a global holiday, celebrating the day when the human race at last began to come together.


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03 June 2009


[For a note on Pakistan’s huge potential for good, click here.]

In his delusion, Dubya thought the central front in his “war on terror” was Iraq. As candidate, President Obama said it was Afghanistan. It is neither. It is Pakistan.

Why Pakistan? Because Al Qaeda is there. So is bin Laden, if still alive. Zawahiri is also undoubtedly there, and he’s smarter, healthier and probably more dangerous than bin Laden ever was. The Taliban are also there.

That’s also where the Islamic nukes are. If Al Qaeda or the Taliban get their hands on a working nuke, the world will change for the foreseeable future. It might not be New York or D.C. that goes; we Americans have always been a peripheral concern of Islamic extremists. It might be Cairo, because Egypt’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood started the whole movement off. Or (because Mecca and Medina are sacred) it might be Riyadh, as the Saudi Royal Family is first on Al Qaeda’s list. No one will be safe if unaccountable fanatics get nukes, let alone them who sit in the fanatics’ most immediate cross-hairs.

That’s why Pakistan’s tribal areas are so important. They are just like Afghanistan before 9/11: they are ungoverned areas that serve as safe havens for terrorists and extremists.

But while the safe havens are ungoverned, the rest of Pakistan is not. It’s a moderate, democratic Islamic nation of 173 million people with a strong sense of sovereignty and a (perhaps false) self-assurance instilled by British colonizers. It has a weak but functioning democracy and a strong, well-organized military ready to step in again if democracy falters. One way or another, Pakistan is not about to tolerate heavy-handed intervention by outsiders until (perhaps) it is too late for intervention to do any good.

Thus the first thing to understand about Pakistan is that it is neither Afghanistan or Iraq. Afghanistan was an ungoverned no-man’s land immediately after 9/11. It was a relatively easy place for us to step in and make our own rules. Iraq was similar. It suffered an enormous power vacuum after we deposed Saddam, and we were there, on the ground, in force (although not enough force to prevent temporary catastrophe). In contrast, Pakistan is a fully functioning state jealous of its sovereignty, with a few areas within its borders that have been ungoverned for decades.

Nearly three decades ago, in his book Among the Believers, an Islamic Journey, the great writer V.S. Naipaul described the problems of ungoverned Baluchistan, which lies just southwest of the critical border areas. Since then, not much has changed in the ungoverned areas besides Al Qaeda’s largely failed attempt to infiltrate their ancient cultures. Pakistan is a unique nation, and analogies just don’t apply.

The second thing to understand about Pakistan is a consequence of the first. The more we storm in like Rambo with all guns blazing, the less progress we will make. Not only will we alienate the local population whom our excessive firepower maims. We will also alienate the vast majority of peaceful, democratic Pakistanis—including moderate Muslims—who can’t understand why a Western nation (which reminds them of the British who let Kashmir be divided) is coming half way around the world to invade their country, destroy their homes and kill innocent civilians (even if by accident).

So the best way to work in Pakistan is to work with the Pakistanis and through Pakistan’s government, as slow and frustrating as doing so may be. If we do anything directly, it should be as covert and subtle as possible and with the explicit or tacit approval of Pakistan’s authorities.

Beyond these two rather obvious points, nothing about Pakistan is easy. Until their recent invasion of the Swat Valley, it has not even been easy to convince Pakistani authorities that the Taliban and Al Qaeda pose real threats. The authorities seemed to say the right words only for international consumption (and to insure the continued flow of American aid).

There are historical reasons for that attitude. For decades the central government’s writ has barely run to places like the northwestern tribal areas and Baluchistan, and the state has not crumbled. Lacking our formal structure of federalism, Punjabi-dominated Pakistan nevertheless has tolerated great autonomy in non-Punjabi areas, with considerable success. Those areas are backward but until recently haven’t caused much trouble. Convincing Pakistanis that their residents have become mortal threats has been a bit like convincing Americans to believe the same about Cajuns in Louisiana. The first reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

As for the Taliban’s recent success, it is one thing to terrorize simple peasants and residents of an erstwhile resort in the Swat Valley. It is quite another thing to take on the dominant ethnic group (Punjabis) in their stronghold in Islamabad, where they presumably have a high degree of social, political, military and police organization.

Again, think of our own country. Suppose someone warned that the folks from Appalachia had become militant and were moving on New York City. Would you believe them? Would you be worried? I don’t mean to say that this analogy is strong, but that’s probably the mindset. The first reaction was disbelief, based on decades of peaceful co-existence with loosely governed local tribes and warlords.

How did we break through the disbelief? Maybe General Petraeus huddled in a room with Pakistan’s military and intelligence leaders and put on a slide show from Iraq. Maybe he told them,
“You folks have lots of ethnic groups who’ve gotten along for decades. Besides the Kurds, Iraq had only two big ones: Sunni and Shiite. Until recently, you’ve had virtually no trouble with inter-ethnic discord or religious extremism. Neither did Iraq during Saddam’s brutal rule.”

“But look what happened. See the Golden Mosque at Samarra destroyed. See the marketplaces blasted. See Baghdad’s ethnic neighborhoods cleansed, bloodied and walled off. See the revenge killings, the blood, gore and bodies. See the count of dead and wounded.”

“This is not an accident. It’s the result of a deliberate strategy. This is what Al Qaeda and the Taliban do. This is how they operate. It begins with beheading policemen and tribal leaders and escalates from there. If you don’t wise up, pictures like these could be coming from Islamabad and Rawalpindi in a year or two. Even if there’s only a small chance of that happening, you’ve got to take action now.”
Maybe we put on such a slide show, and maybe Pakistan’s leaders finally got it. Their huge military operation in the Swat Valley is far from an assured success, but it’s not a token effort either.

Besides the strong skepticism of Pakistan’s leaders, there’s another big problem. Pakistan’s intelligence service, called the ISI, is far too provincial and misfocused. It might be better named the Kashmir Grievance Society. It may work adequately in the big Punjab cities; after all, the Pakistanis gave us Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. But if the ISI had even halfway decent intelligence in non-Punjabi areas we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in.

So one part of our and Pakistan’s problem is turning the ISI into a real intelligence service capable of operating effectively outside the Punjab. That’s not going to be easy, but we and the Pakistanis have to try. The alternative is giving a whole bunch of clueless Americans total-immersion courses in local dialects and letting their foreign complexions and foreign accents paint targets on their backs while they inadvertently stir up trouble violating Pakistani sovereignty and local cultural norms. That’s a recipe for disaster. What we need is good intelligence in the difficult areas, which (for the foreseeable future) only the Pakistanis can provide.

How is Pakistan’s current military-colonial invasion of the Swat Valley going to work out? We all hope it succeeds. But will the locals see the invading Punjabis as any different from the British and other invaders going back to Alexander the Great? Only time will tell.

There is little chance of long-term success unless the Pakistani military adopts the same kind of intelligent, forward-leaning anti-insurgency strategy that General Petraeus used to pull our irons out of the fire in Iraq. Pakistan’s military, which is heavily bureaucratized and focused on fighting major wars with India, is going to have to morph into a quick learner.

Taking the Valley from remaining Taliban forces after the civilians have fled probably won’t be hard. But who’s going to keep the Taliban from exchanging their black turbans for white, slipping right back in, and whispering in locals’ ears, “Those damn Punjabis blew up your house and killed your brother while he was fleeing!”

Petraean “clear, hold and build” tactics could work in the Valley as they did in Iraq. But it will take time and good intelligence to gain the locals’ trust and root out the bad guys.

It would be better if, after clearing the Valley, Pakistani forces had intelligence good enough to keep the bad guys from returning in the first place. But that sort of intelligence is unlikely, and the many paths back through the mountains are hard to police. It may be a year or two before the Pakistani military gains enough public trust and has enough intelligence just to clear, hold and build. We’ve got to be patient and hope our advice is heard.

What about our drones? Are they helping our hurting? As a persuasive piece in the New York Times argued recently, what they give in Taliban and Al Qaeda body counts, they take away in resentment and anger over “collateral damage.” Our current drones are just too big, too expensive (at $10 million a pop) and too loaded with firepower for this mission. (So are our manned aircraft, as recently admitted military mistakes that produced nasty “collateral damage” to civilians show.)

Almost a year ago, I suggested that we need small, cheap drones, costing no more than $5,000 each, that are agile enough to take a single target’s picture and then take him out. Until we have them, we should reserve Predators for bin Laden and Zawahiri alone.

So there is no magic bullet, and it’s going to be a long, hard slog. The good news is that the Pakistanis can and will do most of the hard work, unless they invite us in, which is unlikely. The bad news is that we must sit on the sidelines, give training and assistance, and watch and wait. It’ll be a bit like rooting for the home team when your life is at stake. Although the part of the war in Pakistan is going to cost us a lot of money, it shouldn’t cost many American lives.

In any event, Pakistan is far from Vietnam or Iraq. It’s a somewhat chaotic but modern, functioning democracy with a strong British culture laid over ancient tribal societies. The vast majority of its people don’t want to be ruled by religious or any other extremists. Any country where lawyers march in the streets en masse (with popular support!) to challenge a dictator and restore the supreme court is basically in tune with our culture.

We can work with the Pakistanis if we are patient. In the meantime, we must do all we can to strengthen their democracy, divert them from their senseless feud with India, help them develop and regain control of their tribal areas, and goad them into following India’s path of rapid economic development. In short, we have to engage in nation building, not as colonial master, but as a helpful and sympathetic partner whose patience and wisdom are as strong as its arms.

Patience has never been our strong suit, but we don’t have any other attractive options. Rambo tactics in Pakistan will only make things worse.

P.S. Pakistan’s Potential

Like the British before us, we Americans have the unfortunate tendency of viewing foreign cultures through the narrow lens of our immediate needs. We look at them and ask, “What can they do for us today?” What we should be asking is, “What can they become?”

Pakistan has the potential of becoming a major force for economic development, moderation and democracy in Southwest Asia and the Islamic world. It can be a bigger, stronger Turkey.

There are four reasons why this is so. The first is Pakistan’s huge population, 173 million. In comparison, Russia’s population today is probably about 150 million, and Japan’s is less than 128 million. Yet Japan nearly beat us in World War II and has the world’s second largest national economy. It’s people, not land mass, that matter.

Although Pakistan’s cities are crowded and chaotic and parts of its countryside only loosely governed, it has a high level of civilization by any measure. Like India’s, its indigenous and independent development of atomic weapons showed unusual skill in science and engineering. Its weapons are not duds like North Korea’s. This technological skill is the second reason for Pakistan’s huge potential.

The third is its high level of political and legal culture. Where else in the so-called third world, besides India, would you find lawyers marching in the streets, successfully, to remove a dictator and restore the rule of law? And let us not forget that, but for assassins’ bombs and bullets, Benazir Bhutto—a woman!—would be the prime minister of this majority-Islamic nation.

That brings me to the fourth point: Islam in Pakistan. With its strong overlay of British culture, Pakistan is a secular Islamic society. There are elements of extremism, mostly outside the Punjab. But Pakistan’s Islam has the potential of becoming something like France’s Catholicism: a non-militant cultural and moral force whose sharp edges a sophisticated and well-educated population rounds off. Pakistan can show the world the positive side of Islam.

Moderate Islam in Pakistan also can serve as source of cultural cohesion, promoting harmony among Pakistan’s multiple ethnic groups, especially outside the Punjab. It can give Pakistan a social edge over India, which has conflicting religions among its multiple ethnic minorities. And owing to Islam’s influence, Pakistan has no caste system to overcome.

So, if Pakistan can be persuaded to drop its obsessive feud with India and focus on peaceful economic development, it can become a beacon of light in a part of the world that has seen little of it recently. Not coincidentally, it can provide an important counterweight to the influence of Iran, whether or not Iran becomes a nuclear power.

The conclusion that follows is that our relationship with Pakistan should be one of our most important in the region, if not the world, quite apart from our immediate need to capture bin Laden and Zawahiri and take down Al Qaeda Central.

In the long run, Pakistan’s peaceful, moderate and democratic development may be as important to us and to the world as India’s. Even in the near term, Turkey need not be the only example of a moderate Islamic democracy. Therefore Pakistan should be among the first of the Islamic allies for progress of which the President spoke today.


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