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March 31, 2009



I hope Europe is smart enough to resist Obama's popularity. Because what Obama wants will not benefit Europe. They can't afford to do what Obama wants them to do.

Best thing for all of us would be for some strong personalities to have an open and very publicized conflict with Obama at this summit. The other countries need strong leaders to look after their own needs.


the next two paragraphs:
"Instead of more stimulus spending, European and Asian leaders want more government regulation of the financial system. And they have been openly skeptical of Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner's regulatory plans, suggesting they don't go far enough.

Nor have foreign leaders responded wholeheartedly to Obama's call for a greater commitment to the war in Afghanistan."

It would seem that Obama is, for the Europeans, disappointingly laissez-faire in his economic approach (which seems to have really irritated Krugman as well) and too committed to Afghanistan. I think I have to be on Obama's side of this.

Nathan Smith

Not me. It would be too glib, but only slightly, to say that Afghanistan is a sideshow that we can't afford. Maybe if there were a well-designed plan, but what are we even trying to do there? Catch bin Laden? Who cares? Prevent a humanitarian disaster? Plausible, but tell me more. No, tell the whole world more, loud and clear, like Bush used to do. Except that this is the post-Bush era; no grandiose missions anymore. Fine, then let's go home. If it's realpolitik it's not worth it.

Regulations could help or hurt, it's hard to say. Often they're eviscerated in practice anyway. Some are needed, possibly more or needed. It's the SPENDING that is the disaster, that has got to be stopped. I'm with the Western Europeans all around. I guess one bright side of the recent election is that, in relative terms, I constantly find myself admiring the wisdom of foreign leaders. Jacques Chirac for President!


So was Chirac right to spearhead the resistance to Bush's handling of Iraq, the original "sideshow that we can't afford"? Also, did Nathan miss Obama's March 27 statement on Afhganistan strategy going forward? Beyond details, in included the quotable:
(from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29898698/ )
“So I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future,” the president said.
“That is the goal that must be achieved,” Obama added. “That is a cause that could not be more just. And to the terrorists who oppose us, my message is the same: we will defeat you.”

The specifics included a much larger training effort, and lately some of the friction with our allies has come from Obama putting pressure on them to match our increase in focus and commitment. I'm not sure if Nathan missed these rather significant wrinkles or decided to dismiss them without comment. Either seems a little strange when criticizing Obama's foreign policy.


To be a bit more aggressive, it's just really interesting to see a person who vociferously defended Bush's deficit spending, arguing that the US should take on more debt rather than less, suddenly switch to the opposite position when it's Obama doing the spending, and perform what would seem to be a similar volte-face on the importance of fighting terror once Obama is advocating the fighting. It almost seems as if the only thing one has to know to determine what position Nathan will take is the political affiliation of the official advocating it. I know this not to be true in a number of cases, but it seems to be an strong pattern lately.

Nathan Smith

No, Iraq was not a sideshow we can't afford. Whatever Iraq was, it was not a sideshow; it was very much the main event. It was always much more central than Afghanistan, because (a) fighting totalitarianism is more central to America's national identity and foreign policy *raison d'etre* than cleaning up one of the world's remotest and destitute regions, and (b) the Arab world was the heart of a certain kind of Islamofascist irredentism which gave rise to 9/11, and to export democracy as a rival ideology to Islamofascism in the heart of the Arab world was a breathtakingly daring and yet appropriate way to deal with it.

Also, we could afford it better in 2003 than we can now, after the crisis.

The problem with Obama's statement as quoted here is that it offers nothing positive, and nothing for the Afghan people. Maybe the Afghan people will be glad to be rid of al-Qaeda. Well, probably not all of them. But maybe most. But what follows? Do we care? Does Obama care? What Bush envisioned and set in motion-- the installation of a free, capitalist democracy allied to the US in the heart of the Arab world-- was really the kind of anathema to an Islamic terror group that would constitute a fundamental defeat, not merely for the individual warriors/terrorists/organizers themselves but for the cause they're fighting for. By contrast, is it even a defeat for al-Qaeda to be "disrupted and dismantled?" Sure, sort of, but if they can find heroic ways to die in the process and inspire others to take their place, now or in ten or twenty or a hundred years time, they've come away with a victory of sorts.

We know what we're fighting against in Afghanistan, crudely, but what are we fighting *for*? To establish a free, capitalist democracy allied to the US, like in Iraq? If so, Obama needs to say so, loud and clear. Then we have a goal. Only, it doesn't seem like an achievable goal. Afghanistan seems like a much less promising environment for democracy than Iraq. Poorer, lower literacy rates, more multi-ethnic, more remote and less accessible to international trade, etc. Or are we going to occupy the country permanently, in imperialist fashion? It's hard to see how we can be sure of "preventing [al-Qaeda's] return to either country" otherwise. But the British and the Russians found that Afghanistan was a difficult place for imperialists to conquer.

Also, what, I wonder, is the theory of justice undergirding the claim that "That is a cause that could not be more just"? Why is it just? Because al-Qaeda attacked the US on 9/11? (But why should Afghans rank that particularly high among the various considerations?) Because they've committed crimes elsewhere? What if they promise to mend their ways? Would that make a difference? Or is this cause just because Obama says so? That would be an argument appropriate to the campus relativism that seems to characterize the Obamaphile social milieu.

I don't claim to understand Afghanistan or to follow the war closely and don't feel especially qualified to critique Obama's foreign policy in detail. But the vibe I get is that this is another Vietnam.

Nathan Smith

Did I "vociferously defend Bush's deficit spending?"

I don't really think so.

What I did is suggest, tentatively, during 2004-2007, that Bush's deficit spending might be serving as a sort of global Keynesian stimulus. Given the astonishing growth that occurred, especially in developing countries, in those years, I was beginning to entertain, on empirical grounds, a more pro-Keynesian view than my appraisal of the relative strength of the theoretical arguments would have led me to do.

Also, I resisted some of what seemed at the time overwrought attacks on Bush's deficit spending.

But had you asked me in 2004-2007 for an overall position on whether the Bush administration should spend less, I would definitely have called for a good deal less.

My about-face on this issue has nothing to do with the partisan identities of the officials involved and everything to do with the fact that the crisis makes Bush's deficit spending policies look a lot worse in retrospect than they did at the time. And then of course there's the scale of deficit spending. Bush simply never approached the fiscal recklessness of what the Obama administration is doing now.

Similarly, if the truth be told, I was never very into the war on terror. Actually, I have a sort of sympathy for the devil when it comes to bin Laden and al-Qaeda. I don't support terror, of course, but, on the other hand, I don't entirely understand why it's so bad for Osama to kill 3,000 Americans yet it's OK that the Allies killed orders of magnitude more civilians fire-bombing Dresden and nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WWII. And Osama was right, or partly right, about some things. I'm inclined to agree with him that the Iraqi sanctions of 1991-2003 were evil. For somewhat different reasons than Osama's, I object to the presence of US troops on Saudi soil. And the Palestinians have a very raw deal, and Israel should withdaw unilaterally from the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, though not (in my opinion) from Israel proper. Saddam was utter evil: bad means; bad ends. Osama is a mixed case: bad means, but not nearly as bad as Saddam's; ends, partly good. All in all, I doubt that Osama fits in the top 100 most evil people in the world. And I would have been happy enough if the US response to 9/11 had been to do nothing.

What made me admire Bush is that he shrewdly repurposed the war on terror, which could have been a great evil, a new pretext for sordid alliances with dastardly regimes etc., and channeled American anger into a cause that was much more unambiguously just: anti-totalitarianism. Osama was semi-bad; Saddam was utterly, horribly, monstrously bad; Bush's genius was to realize that we could defeat Osama by overthrowing Saddam. Indeed, the overthrow of Saddam would be a much greater defeat for Osama than killing Osama would be, for Osama dead would become a martyr, but Saddam is a hard man to make a martyr of, and yet Osama's pan-Islamist, anti-American stance put him on the same team as Saddam in an enemy-of-my-enemy sense and forced al-Qaeda to make common cause with the Baathists. Bush found an ingenious way to win back the moral high ground while also dealing al-Qaeda, not merely a physical defeat which is of limited importance, but a moral defeat.

Obama seems to be going back to the war-on-terror idea which always struck me as morally inadequate. By what moral calculus are we entitled to wreak havoc in a nation of twenty millions to avenge our 3,000 dead? Of course, if we're not wreaking havoc but nation-building, that's a different story, but Obama's rhetoric seems to sideline the positive and generous goals of the mission in favor of the narrow and negative ones.


"...fighting totalitarianism is more central to America's national identity and foreign policy *raison d'etre* than cleaning up one of the world's remotest and destitute regions..."
The Taliban wasn't totalitarian?

"...the Arab world was the heart of a certain kind of Islamofascist irredentism which gave rise to 9/11..."
The Arab world here being Saudi Arabia, plus some other gulf states and the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Islamofascist irredentists were never very fond of Saddam, nor vice-versa. Where was it realized? In Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime. Where could it be realized today? In Afghanistan or Pakistan. When could it have been realized in Iraq? Never.

These are obvious facts to Arabs, and so when we invaded Iraq, it made it clear that we were less interested in reducing terror than we were in establishing control in the Middle East. We un-discredited Al Qaeda.

So fine, grant Osama some legitimate gripes and then say he's not as evil as all that because he didn't have an much power as Saddam. Say that fighting terror wasn't really that important. Say instead that "the installation of a free, capitalist democracy allied to the US in the heart of the Arab world" is the main goal. I'm not sure what that's going to do that Bahrain, or Qatar, or the UAE isn't already doing. Is it that they aren't democracies? Then use security guarantees to push them to democratize rather than provide diplomatic cover in return for basing rights. What about finishing the job in Afghanistan? Is it that they're not Arabs? Well, Al Qaeda is certainly Arab, and seeing them being run out of town by happy locals would be pretty effective PR.

Nathan Smith

"The Taliban wasn't totalitarian?"

Sure they were, and that's why it was good to overthrow them. But we couldn't just fight al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, of course, and a global war on terror would tend to lead to lots of sordid alliances. That's why the Iraq gambit was such a brilliant way of changing the game.

"The Arab world here being Saudi Arabia, plus some other gulf states and the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt."

Nato knows more about this than me, of course, but I'm pretty sure Iraq is, and is perceived to be, part of the Arab world.

"Islamofascist irredentists were never very fond of Saddam, nor vice-versa."

No, but they still had to be on his side against the Americans.

"When could it have been realized in Iraq? Never."

I don't quite follow, but it seems pretty clear that the Islamist state al-Qaeda dreams of could and would need to include the Arab world and Iraq at some point. Afghanistan was a poor substitute, a detour. And Saddam was going to fall, or die, someday. These guys think in centuries, don't they?

"These are obvious facts to Arabs, and so when we invaded Iraq, it made it clear that we were less interested in reducing terror than we were in establishing control in the Middle East."

"Made it clear" implies that (a) they thought so, and (b) they were correct. They were not correct: we're not interested in controlling the Middle East

"We un-discredited Al Qaeda."

Well, perhaps temporarily, but we also compelled al-Qaeda to discredit themselves either by butchering civilians in Iraq trying to fight us, or else by letting our project succeed and thus making themselves irrelevant. But I don't believe that we un-discredited al-Qaeda because I don't believe that al-Qaeda was discredited before. No doubt your average Arab would say politically correct things about disagreeing with the methods or something. But they were certainly with him on the Palestine issue, and maybe on some other issues. They could easily have gotten used to bin Laden's methods, if they had seemed to work.

"Say instead that 'the installation of a free, capitalist democracy allied to the US in the heart of the Arab world' is the main goal."

Well, not exactly. The main goal, morally, is to get rid of one of the world's two or three (or one) most murderous totalitarian tyrants. Also to end the sanctions which gave us moral responsibility for hundreds of thousands (some said, I'm not sure whether the real figures have been established) of dead Iraqi children. And to replace Saddam with something better, though that's not saying much since anything is better, probably even chaos and civil war. But preferably something a lot better. And to do something good in the lives of Arabs, something which, no matter how much they writhe and howl and protest in the religio-xenophobic antagonism to the idea, they ultimately cannot repudiate the fruits of because the change for the better is too self-evident. It would probably not be so easy to democratize Bahrain, the UAE, and Qatar, but even if we did that would be a marginal, incremental change. We needed to twist the kaleidoscope. We needed to trade a bad situation structurally destined to gradually get worse to a bad situation with a structural tendency to get better. We needed a revolution.

"What about finishing the job in Afghanistan?"

Which brings us back to the original question. What does it mean to 'finish the job in Afghanistan'? What is our goal there? Do we have a positive goal beyond the negative and morally trivial one of driving out al Qaeda? Do we want to build a free capitalist democracy in Afghanistan? That was possible in literate, middle-income, urbanized Iraq; do we believe it's possible in Afghanistan too? How? I'm still waiting for answers to that.


""The Arab world here being Saudi Arabia, plus some other gulf states and the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt."

Nato knows more about this than me, of course, but I'm pretty sure Iraq is, and is perceived to be, part of the Arab world."

To clarify, I was responding to what Arab world was "the heart of a certain kind of Islamofascist irredentism which gave rise to 9/11." That is to say, Saddam was perhaps the Arab regime least associated (in Arab minds) with Takfiri Sunni Islam. That doesn't mean it was a good regime somehow, or that it was even a bad thing to liberate Iraq. It just means that justifications for invading Iraq that referenced Al-Qaeda made us look fatuously dishonest. I've said elsewhere what I think the primary motivations were for invading Iraq*, and those aren't motivations that would even occur to most Arabs, who are about as far from understanding the American mindset as Americans are from understanding the Arab mindset. So, they thought certain US motivations were clear even though those motivations didn't even occur to most Americans.

As a side note, I'm glad we agree about what (approximately) needs to happen in Israel. I saw that before and didn't comment on it for lack of time, which follows a general failing on my side to engage everything fully.

*Short version: embarrassing internationalists by demonstrating a swift and inexpensive American-exceptionalist regime-change. This might actually have been a good thing, if we hadn't embarrassed ourselves instead.


Am I missing something? Did we not go to war with Iraq primarily because of WMDs? Isn't that the only pitch we made to the UN, the US, and the rest of the world? Sure, when it was discovered that there were no WMDs, we retroactively said the war was about overthrowing a tyrant, installing a democracy, and fighting terrorism, but those were not the main selling points at the beginning. If they had been the main selling points, we might have received more support.

Nathan Smith

We had to say WMDs because you can't tell the UN, half of whose members are dictatorships, that you want to liberate people from totalitarianism. Also, it wasn't a sure thing, *ex ante*, that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, as they did, as everyone knows having seen it on TV with their own eyes although there has been a strange Orwellian effort to suppress this after the fact. Since everybody knew for certain that Saddam had WMDs, that was a safe way to avoid humiliation if it turned out that Iraqis really did like Saddam.

salt lake auto insurance

It seems every side is settled on this problem. I'm happy for it and hope it wont happen again.

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