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Ends, means, etc.


Somehow I doubt this significant news will affect our leftist friends’ preferred narrative/slogan “Bush lied, people died.”

The defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons programme has admitted for the first time that he lied about his story, then watched in shock as it was used to justify the war.

Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed Curveball by German and American intelligence officials who dealt with his claims, has told the Guardian that he fabricated tales of mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime, from which he had fled in 1995.

“Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right,” he said. “They gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy.”

— Chulov, Martin and Helen Pidd.  “Defector admits to WMD lies that triggered Iraq war.” Manchester Guardian, 15 February 2011.

(Via the Tiger on Politics.)

There’s no question that Saddam Hussein was brutal tyrant of poor moral fibre—a despot who employed chemical weapons against his own citizens—and every punishment that was finally heaped upon him was undoubtedly deserved.   There is no question that the first Gulf War had been ended only by a temporary ceasefire—whose terms Saddam had repeatedly violated from 1997 onward with malice aforethought.  But I would not blame the policymakers, diplomats and servicemen of the United States for feeling a twinge of resentment at having been misled by a zealot into an essentially avoidable endeavour.

Saddam’s story is one we might have seen earlier, in an alternate history.  If the French and British had gone to war in 1936, when Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles by remilitarising the Rhineland, it’s likely we would have a much sunnier image of the 20th century’s most famous dictator.  Let’s suppose der Führer also managed to survive the 1936 war, clinging to power in an economically crippled Germany (still hobbled by Versailles reparations), only to be deposed by an Allied invasion ten years later when an escaped scientist (an Einstein perhaps, or a von Braun) fabricated details of a Nazi superweapon program.  Without the horrors of a worldwide war and the additional nightmare of the Holocaust to prejudice our judgment, he would probably be a university campus hero today, like Che Guevara; just another hopeless, seedy foreign outlaw snuffed out by the reigning imperialists of the day.

Saddam was not Hitler, of course, though he was demonstrably brutal, tyrannical and anti-Semitic.  But even given all of that, one’s attitude toward the errors and deception underlying our casus belli probably depends on whether one believes Saddam’s greatest evils lay behind or ahead.  It’s a question to which—perhaps fortunately—we won’t ever have a definitive answer.

TRUE LIES UPDATE: A reminder that belief in Saddam’s WMD program was very much a bipartisan affair.

“If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.”

— President William J. Clinton, Statement on Iraq, 17 February 1998.

“Iraq is a long way from Ohio, but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.”

— Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Town Hall meeting on Iraq, Ohio State University, 18 February 1998.

“He will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has ten times since 1983.”

— National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, Town Hall meeting on Iraq, Ohio State University, 18 February 1998.

“Mr. Speaker, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I am keenly aware that the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons is an issue of grave importance to all nations. Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology which is a threat to countries in the region and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.”

— Representative Nancy Pelosi (D—California), Statement in support of air strikes underway against Iraq, 17 December 1998.

“This December will mark three years since United Nations inspectors last visited Iraq. There is no doubt that since that time, Saddam Hussein has reinvigorated his weapons programs. Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf war status. In addition, Saddam continues to refine delivery systems and is doubtless using the cover of a licit missile program to develop longer-range missiles that will threaten the United States and our allies.”

— Congressmen John McCain, Jesse Helms, Henry Hyde, Richard Shelby, Harold Ford Jr., Joseph Lieberman, Trent Lott, Ben Gilman, Sam Brownback. Joint letter to President George W. Bush calling for stepped up action against Iraq, 5 December 2001.

“We begin with the common belief that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a threat to the peace and stability of the region. He has ignored the mandates of the United Nations and is building weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them.”

— Senator Carl Levin (D—Michigan), Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, September 2002.

“As a condition of the truce that ended the gulf war, Saddam Hussein agreed to eliminate Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and to abandon all efforts to develop or deliver such weapons. That agreement is spelled out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. Iraq has never complied with the resolution.”

— Senator Tom Daschle (D—South Dakota), Statement on authorisation of the use of United States armed forces against Iraq, 10 October 2002.

Category: Foreign Affairs, National Defence  Tags: , ,  Comments off

On Egypt

Demonstration in Cairo, 25 January 2011 (Juan Cole)

For the purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world

— President John F. Kennedy, address to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, September 26, 1963.

It will be tempting for those of us in North America to view the demonstrations and protests in Egypt as a nascent democratic movement; our media and indeed our own popular consciousness tends to view most of these grassroots uprisings through the lens of the American War of Independence.  But it’s worth remembering that revolutions more often yield tyrannies just as awful (if not moreso) than the ones they were fomented to destroy.  The Jacobin Reign of Terror, Stalin’s Great Purge and Mao Zedong’s many domestic slaughters (suppression of counterrevolutionaries, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution) are just a few of the obvious examples.

We also have a regrettable tendency to regard democracy as an end in itself, when in fact it is merely a decision-making tool.  Democracy allows a society to express its values, and Canadians and Americans see it as being an intrinsic good because our societies propagate values that promote socioeconomic mobility for the vast bulk of our populations.  We’ve been remarkably blessed, having been spared (so far) the tragedy and shame of electing a genuine opponent-slaughtering homegrown despot.  Other nations—Haiti and the Philippines, for example—haven’t been nearly so lucky.  But even if a democratic society avoids the hazard of electing a closeted tyrant, there is always the possibility that the values it expresses will be quite antithetical to equality and social harmony; Canada’s two original Indian Acts, America’s Jim Crow laws and Britain’s Test Act are all pretty good examples of democratically mandated inequality.

With these caveats in mind, we would be right to wonder what sort of domestic and foreign policies an Egypt freed of the Mubaraks might yield.  There’s the transnational Islamist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, of course, but are they popular enough to command the allegiance of the average man in the street?  What are attitudes in Egypt actually like?  According to a backgrounder by the Council on Foreign Relations (Islam: Governing Under Sharia, Nov. 2010) there are broad majorities supporting both democracy and the strict application of sharia:

In a 2007 University of Maryland poll (PDF), more than 60 percent of the populations in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia responded that democracy was a good way to govern their respective countries, while at the same time, an average of 71 percent agreed with requiring “strict application of [sharia] law in every Islamic country.” Whether democracy and Islam can coexist is a topic of heated debate. Some Islamists argue democracy is a purely Western concept imposed on Muslim countries. Others feel Islam necessitates a democratic system and that democracy has a basis in the Quran since “mutual consultation” among the people is commended (42:38 Quran). John L. Esposito and John O. Voll explain the debate in a 2001 article in the journal Humanities.

Noah Feldman, a former CFR adjunct senior fellow, writes in a 2008 New York Times Magazine article that the full incorporation of Islamic law is viewed as creating “a path to just and legitimate government in much of the Muslim world.” It places duplicitous rulers alongside their constituents under the rule of God. “For many Muslims today, living in corrupt autocracies, the call for [sharia] is not a call for sexism, obscurantism or savage punishment but for an Islamic version of what the West considers its most prized principle of political justice: the rule of law,” Feldman argues.

— Johnson, Toni and Lauren Vriens.  “Islam: Governing Under Sharia.” Council on Foreign Relations, November 2010. [Emphasis mine]

For those steeped in the intellectual currents and political economies of the West, that final bolded sentence in the second paragraph may read like the mathematical equation 2 + 2 = potato.  How do they get that result from those inputs?  In the Western world, sharia is shorthand for 7th century oppression; but in the Muslim world, sharia offers—at least theoretically—a way out of the corruption and tyranny governing their lives today.  Western modes of governance and economics, on the other hand, are perceived as being the cause of Muslim poverty and decline.  A further CFR backgrounder (Sharia and Militancy, Nov. 2010) explains:

Sharia in the Muslim world is often associated with good governance. A 2008 Gallup poll of Muslims in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt found sharia is “perceived to promote the rule of law and justice.” Most Muslim-majority countries have political systems and legal codes derived from Western models. However, many of these countries have majority populations that are economically or politically depressed. John L. Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University, writes in his book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam, that many Muslim nations suffer from “overcrowded cities lacking social support systems, high unemployment, government corruption, and a growing gap between rich and poor,” and sharia’s appeal can be attributed to a number of factors, including a widespread feeling of failure and loss of self-esteem. “Many Muslims blame Western models of political and economic development as sources of moral decline and spiritual malaise,” and look to sharia for social and political order, Esposito says.

A 2008 Gallup poll of ten Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and Indonesia, indicates that most Muslim populations are not advocating theocracy (PDF) when they envision sharia’s role in governance. Experts say many Muslims view sharia as a means to be liberated from government corruption and believe it can exist within a democratic and inclusive framework. However, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, an Islamic law expert at Emory University, writes in his book, Islam and the Secular State, that advancing the cause of a theocratic Islamic state assumes that the ruling authorities will be less corrupt and more pious than those of a secular one. An-Na’im believes this assumption rests on a weak premise. He writes: “The fundamental defect of the idea of the Islamic state is that the logic of the invocation of religious or moral authority can be very easily inverted, so that instead of regulating political power by religious authority, religion itself becomes subordinated to power.”

— Johnson, Toni.  “Sharia and Militancy.”  Council on Foreign Relations, November 2010. [Emphasis mine]

This dichotomy—that a majority of Muslims want both democracy and strict sharia, and see no inherent paradox in the mixing of the two—is fundamental if we want to understand where the so-called “Muslim street” is coming from.  For this is exactly what the polling results tell us, and Egypt is foremost in wanting to have the best of those two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.  Let’s have a look at the poll results from the 2007 University of Maryland study, Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda.  It’s more illuminating than a thousand breathless reporter-in-the-crowd pieces.  I will quote the relevant sections of the poll after each chart; you can click on each chart to enlarge it.

Views on Democracy; Sharia. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

Democracy: In all four countries polled, strong majorities (67% overall) said they considered “a democratic political system” to be a good way of governing their country.  Support for democracy was highest in Egypt, where an overwhelming 82 percent saw it as good and a 52 percent majority called it “very good.”

Human rights: Support for human rights appears to be strong, even extending to the freedom to practice any religion.  Respondents were asked whether in their own country, “people of any religion should be free to worship according to their own beliefs.”  On average 82 percent said they should (63% strongly)… In Egypt almost nine out of ten (88%) agreed, including 78 percent who agreed strongly.

Sharia: Most respondents express strong support for expanding the role of Islam in their societies, a view that is consistent with the goals of al Qaeda. Large majorities in most countries—an average of 71 percent (39% strongly)—agree with the goal of requiring “strict application of Shari’a law in every Islamic country.”  …About three in four Moroccans (76%) and Egyptians (74%) also agreed.

Views on US Government; Desirability of US Withdrawal from Islamic countries. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

The US Government: Negative views of the United States government are widespread. An overwhelming majority of Egyptians (93%) expressed unfavorable attitudes toward the current US government, with most (86%) saying their opinion was “very unfavorable.”

Responses were mixed when presented arguments that made the case that the United States has at times been helpful to others or compared favorably to other great powers in history.  Presented the argument, “There have been at times in American history where it has helped to promote the welfare of others.”  A majority in Egypt (58%) and a plurality in Morocco (42%) disagreed…

Similar responses were elicited by the argument, “There is a lot wrong with America, but at least America has done more to promote economic development in the Middle East than past great powers like the British.” A majority of Egyptians (59%) and a plurality of Pakistanis (37% to 28%) disagreed…

Getting the US Military out of the Muslim World: Large majorities in all countries agreed with the goal of getting “the US to remove its bases and its military forces from all Islamic countries”—on average 74 percent.  …In Egypt, agreement was 92 percent (82% strongly).

Views on attacks against US troops; Support for attacks on US and European civilians. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

Attacks on US Troops in Muslim countries: Consistent with their support for the goal of driving US military forces out of Islamic countries, respondents express significant—but not universal—approval of attacks on US troops in Islamic countries, including both those that are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and those that are based in the Persian Gulf. On average, for each area, approximately half favored such attacks, with three in ten opposed, but there were substantial variations between countries. Very large majorities in Egypt said they supported such attacks, as did robust majorities in Morocco…

Majorities in Egypt and Morocco expressed approval for attacks on US troops in Muslim countries. Egyptians were those most likely to support such actions. Nine out of ten Egyptians approved of attacks on US military troops in Iraq (91%) and in Afghanistan (91%). Four out of five Egyptians (83%) said they supported attacks on US forces based in Persian Gulf states…

Attacks on US, European Civilians at home and in Muslim countries: Consistent with the opposition to attacks on civilians in principle, and in contrast to the significant support for attacks on US troops, majorities in all countries disapprove of attacks on civilians in the United States as well as civilians in Europe. Nearly as many disapprove of attacks on Americans working for US companies in Islamic countries. In all cases the Egyptians are the most opposed, while the Pakistanis are the least…

Egyptians were the most strongly opposed. Nine out of ten disapproved of attacks on both Americans (91%) and Europeans (93%) and most of them disapproved strongly (79% for Americans, 84% for European)…

Most respondents also opposed attacks on US civilians working for US companies in Muslim countries. In Egypt, nine out of ten disapproved, including 78 percent who chose “strongly disapprove.”

Views on Groups using violence against Civilians; Support for Groups that attack Americans. Muslim Public Opinion on US Policy, Attacks on Civilians and al Qaeda. April 24, 2007.

Islam’s view on attacks against Civilians: Most believe that attacks on civilians are contrary to Islam. Respondents were asked about the “position of Islam regarding attacks against civilians,” and asked whether it supports or opposes such attacks. They were offered the additional options of saying that it “certainly” supports or opposes such attacks. Most took the strongest position of saying that Islam “certainly” opposes targeting civilians. On average, 63 percent took this position including 83 percent of Egyptians…

Groups that Attack Americans: Respondents were also given the opportunity to differentiate between various “groups in the Muslim world that attack Americans.” In this context significant numbers expressed support for at least some such groups. Respondents were given three possible responses: “disapprove of all of these groups,” “approve of some but disapprove of others,” and “approve of all or most of these groups.”

In contrast [to respondents from the other three countries], two-thirds of Egyptians (66%) said they approved of at least some of these groups. This included 51 percent who said they endorsed some and rejected others and 15 percent who said they approved of all or most groups that attack Americans.

I think this poll is valuable because it demonstrates quite clearly that the average Egyptian is a not a bloodthirsty terrorist ready to indiscriminately cut civilian throats, but they do support many Islamist goals, and are rather virulently opposed to US influence in the region.

Now that you’ve waded through all of that data, there lies the big question.

What do these poll results mean for a democratic Egypt?

I grant that the data is a few years old, and thus public opinion may have shifted since it was collected.  But if the trends indicated in these polls are still generally true, I believe we can draw several significant inferences.  Egyptians appear to broadly support attacks on the US military presence in the Muslim world.  They may disagree with Al Qaeda’s tactic of attacks on civilians, but not its political goal of US withdrawal from the Middle East.  Even in the unlikely best-case scenario where Egypt develops a fully functioning democracy with an effective bicameral legislature, independent judiciary, official tolerance of other faiths, and so forth—overnight, no less—it’s pretty clear to me that any democratic Egypt (with or without the Muslim Brotherhood in the legislature) is going to bear the following hallmarks:

  • Significant elements of sharia in both civil and criminal law.  Not necessarily Saudi-level brutality in punishments, but certainly sharia will be the cornerstone of Egyptian jurisprudence.
  • Termination of the US-Egypt security alliance, and the cessation of most security cooperation with Israel.
  • Covert or overt support for regional terrorist groups that focus on attacking military targets.

Assuming Mubarak doesn’t simply wait out or crush the opposition (per the example of the Iranian “green revolution”), the democratic Egypt of the future isn’t going to look too friendly.  A people’s impression of a particular nation isn’t going to change overnight, and Egyptians are basically inimical to the United States.

One can see why the decision is difficult for the President; support a tyrant who is a “friend”, or hang the tyrant out to dry and—even in the best case—he will be replaced by a profoundly hostile democratic government.

Category: Foreign Affairs  Tags:  3 Comments

World-class means world events

Editor’s Note:  The title of this piece was altered, upon reflection, from its original—”For the whiners”

Toronto’s a big city.  Big cities occasionally host big events and big personalities.  New York manages to have UN General Assembly meetings all the time and host world leaders without the city descending into chaos.  This is our first time, but more will come; this is what happens when you reach a certain level of wealth and renown.

If one doesn’t wish to be interrupted by the visit of world leaders, one might consider living in a smaller urban centre; i.e. the suburbs.  To live in large urban metropolis and complain that big-city events happen there is to miss the point on a cosmic scale.

For the wags suggesting web conferencing as way around these physical meetings, let’s think about this for a moment.  The physical meetings permit off-the-record discussions amongst many leaders and their advisors.  Web conferencing by definition will leave a record, and leave it in many places all across the globe in various ISPs and networks.  How many world leaders are going to candidly suggest something if any random sysadmin jackass from a foreign country can excerpt their traffic and dump it in his country’s media?

Most of us have experience with ordinary civil web conferences; which go over the civil internet and have some not-very-elaborate security measures.  Nobody much cares what the marketing department of MiniWidgetCo in Podunkville, YourCountry is up to, after all, which is why hackers never interrupt the tedium of your average office’s web conference.  But an awful lot of people might be willing to get their mitts on the thus far off-the-record remarks of world leaders candidly discussing major issues.  So right away you know that this notional G20 web conferencing is not going to travel over the ordinary (and easily degradable) civil internet.  It will go over a separate secure link, like the videoconferences that US unified combatant commanders have with the White House.  And that traffic, my friends, goes over SATCOM.

So what would a secure SATCOM connection that can provide live audio-video feeds to a multitude of spots on the globe end up costing?  Fortunately we have some idea because the US Dept. of Defense has built just such a system; it’s called Wideband Global SATCOM (formerly Wideband Gapfiller Satellite) and its program cost (including R&D) is estimated to have reached $2 billion for its 3-satellite constellation.  Now we won’t have to re-invent the wheel, so let’s assume we’ll buy three Boeing 702 WGS birds at USD $400 million each; or 1.2 billion just for the hardware.  Keep in mind you’ll have to replace this hardware every few years as it fails or runs out of gas (manoeuvring to avoid debris, solar storms, and so on).

Then we’ll have to get these WGS birds into space somehow—why not use the Delta IV launcher that USAF uses to put its WGS birds on orbit?  Each launcher costs between USD $140-170 million, and we’ll need three—so that’s $420-510 million.

Now you’ll need a place to launch it from.  Oh, your country doesn’t have a launch facility?  Well, it costs USAF $400 million annually to maintain Vandenburg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6.  You could build one of your own for several times that, or maybe just chip in on the rent.

Now, does your country have a facility to track and monitor orbital assets?  No?  DND’s Joint Space Project (a contributor to the United States Space Surveillance Network) used to have a budget of CDN $1.2 billion to monitor Canadian space assets and preserve our space situational awareness.  That budget has fallen in recent times to $625 million, but it’s still a big chunk of change.

And we have not even begun to examine the program costs of building ground stations to handle this secure SATCOM traffic, plus retrofitting various governmental buildings, facilities and residences with the ability to handle it.  Nor have we introduced the salary and entitlement costs of all the personnel required to work on, maintain and secure these programs, their hardware and their facilities.

When you think about all of that, $1 billion for an event we likely won’t host for another decade is not too big a deal.  And certainly not untoward for a city that constantly likes to assert it is “world-class”.  World-class means world leaders come to visit every once in a while; deal with it.

Category: What Really Grinds My Gears  Tags: , ,  Comments off

Ikaria XB1 (1963)

Icarus XB1

Future Czech cosmonauts survey a derelict spacecraft from (presumably extinct) capitalist nations, launched in 1987.

In one of history’s supreme ironies, these retro-cosmonauts expected black tie attire, cocktails and gambling aboard Western craft—amenities today’s government-funded astronauts are sorely lacking; but then we have decided to do without a manned spaceflight program at all.  With the demise of the shuttle program, our astronauts will ride into orbit aboard Russian or private craft, and other astronauts/space tourists of the future will indeed be the wealthy who can afford such $200,000-per-trip trifles.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Adam Hebert, executive editor of the Air Force Association’s house magazine, wrote an interesting piece in the July issue about the history of MIRVed ICBMs.  He notes that the landmark SALT treaties had the opposite of their intended effect because they restricted only the number of launchers, not warheads—drastically increasing the desire for each side to MIRV their treaty-limited number of launch platforms.

Arms negotiator Paul C. Warnke memorably, and mistakenly, compared the superpowers to “apes on a treadmill,” with both “jogging in tandem on a treadmill to nowhere.” There was only one ape, though. Former Defense Secretary Harold Brown had it right when he said, “When we build, they build; when we stop building, they build.”

According to Natural Resources Defense Council estimates, the US and Soviet Union in 1975 each had roughly 2,200 warheads atop their ICBMs.

Over the next five years, the US total didn’t change, but Moscow more than doubled its MIRV force, winding up with 5,630 warheads fitted to its 1,400 or so land-based missiles. A huge number of these—more than 3,000 warheads—were found on the monster, 10-warhead SS-18 missiles. The Soviets had 308 of them.

— Hebert, Adam.  “Issue Brief: The Rise and Semi-Fall of MIRV.”  Air Force magazine, July 2010. [Emphasis mine]

Although we enjoy considerably less tension in relations between the great powers today, the old dynamic is still at work.  While the United States has agreed to de-MIRV its entire Minuteman III inventory (and currently has about 550 warheads aboard 450 launchers), Russia maintains an inventory of 1,100 warheads aboard its 331 ICBMs.

You can offer no consequences that matter

There’s a lot of noise in the press today about South Korea’s Cheonan investigation, and how the evidence points to a deliberate torpedo attack by an NK submarine. Perhaps my favourite headline is this one from the Voice of America: “S. Korea Says North Will ‘Pay’ For Ship Sinking.” Well, no, they won’t. And here’s why.

It makes a lot of strategic and tactical sense for the North to apply pressure to South Korea and adopt a more threatening posture.

North Korea’s a country in terminal decline; its economy stagnating, its people malnourished if not starving. For a long time South Korea sent food and economic aid to the North, in order to stave off a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. For many years the South gave more aid to the North than its putative ideological sponsors in China. But two years ago, the South cut off most of its aid because of the North’s foot-dragging on nuclear non-proliferation agreements. They had only recently reinstated some food aid shipments.

The North is trying to remind the South that it can’t be shunted off to a corner and ignored; it needs food, and the South needs to provide it. Or there will be war. And in order to prove that the threats of war are clear and present, it has to do something that looks and smells an awful lot like war—such as torpedoing the Cheonan without warning or provocation.

North Korea is canny enough to know that its southern neighbours would do just about anything to avoid a war. The collective memory of the last Korean peninsular war is long-lived, and the South is well aware that its present prosperity and social cohesion would be strained by a protracted war with the North. Thus the North can commit these acts of war and cold-blooded murder at the times and places of its choosing, and be assured that the South would never respond in kind. The South may threaten sanctions, but what are more sanctions to a nation already saddled with many, and a population already starving? The North is battling for survival and is willing to take big risks.

When things quiet down again, the South will probably reconsider its food aid once more, which will then provoke a newer, bloodier attack. And the South will once again emit a lot of harsh words but take no effective deterrent action. It will be forced to deal with the North and send more aid, purely because it can’t stomach the alternative.

The South, unfortunately, will have to re-learn the lessons that Britain did in the late 1930s—namely that there are fates worse than war. Such as having a neighbour who feels free to murder your citizens and servicemen at regular intervals in order to underscore the point that you need to ship them more food. Avoiding a war now seems like a small price to pay, but forty years hence, when a dozen corvettes have been sunk and various other atrocities committed, will the bargain in lives seem quite so cheap and easily bought?

Let us be blunt, it will be difficult if not impossible to avoid war with such a state. The North is already committing acts of war without fear of reprisal, and will only grow bolder as each new escalation goes unanswered. The South has nothing to mitigate these provocations, short of war—but because such an outcome is what is fears most, it will put up with no end of outrages in order to avoid it. At some point, its populace will lose patience and South Korea will be forced to wage a concerted campaign to bring the North down—whether by covert means or an overt economic and military campaign. One thing is certain, though: no nation of free peoples can long endure paying Danegeld to tyrants.

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How to turn an Islamist

In the March/April edition of The National Interest, Former Air Force interrogator Matthew Alexander argues for a smarter, relationship-building approach to prisoner interrogation—a method that has paid rich dividends for Indonesia’s Detachment 88 counterterrorist unit.

The goal of the interrogators is not intelligence information that can prevent future terrorist attacks, but the conversion of the extremists into advocates against violent jihad. Interrogators have, de facto, become the primary facilitators of rehabilitation. In this manner, Karnavian has turned a tactical weapon into strategic leverage, and the results speak for themselves.

Following the implementation of Karnavian’s interrogation strategy, Indonesia did not have a terrorist bombing for almost the entire three years between 2006 and 2009, no doubt chalked up to the cooperation of numerous imprisoned extremists. Two former senior JI members captured by Detachment 88 have since written books admitting their erroneous violent beliefs. One book was a national best seller in Indonesia.

— Alexander, Matthew.  “Martyrdom, Interrupted.” The National Interest, 08 March 2010.

Mr. Alexander’s prescriptions do come with a certain number of partisan pot-shots at the previous presidential administration.  That doesn’t invalidate his argument per se, but it does raise questions about how many of these interrogation concepts are genuinely useful and field-workable, and how many are just a useful rhetorical stick used to beat one’s political opposites.

But as a grand strategy, it’s certainly true that turning the enemy’s key people can provide both useful operational intelligence as well as enormous propaganda victories.  I am all for taking the initiative and making the enemy waste his time on putting out the brush fires we can start.  More importantly it helps drive intellectual wedges between moderate and radical Muslims.

Ironically, many conservatives seem to make the same arguments as the Islamists: the only true Muslims are the ones that practice violent and murderous jihad.  It seems to me that we ought to be making a specific and pointed counter-argument using the voices of non-radical Muslims.   Whether or not moderate or radical Islam is actually closer to the intent of the founder is a secondary or even tertiary concern; the main object is to diminish the radicals’ potential manpower and recruiting pool.

Oddly enough, as the years have gone by my estimation of the Islamist threat has fallen, not risen.  This is not due solely to the fact that terrorist attacks in North America are far and few between, but also because oil reserves are dwindling, and the more I examine it, the more ridiculous Islamism as a political philosophy becomes.

To be blunt, violent Islamism is not the sort of thing anyone with half a brain and decent prospects would subscribe to.  Shackling the aspirations and potential of one-half your population is self-evidently a recipe for widespread human misery.  Retarding scientific and technical advances because they do not fit into 7th century cosmology is obvious self-imposed stagnation.  Arguing the merits of pluralist democracies versus blatantly unpalatable theocracies ought to be child’s play for a civilisation with Hollywood at its disposal.  That we have yet to do so says a lot more about the weakness of current Western philosophical thought than it does about the supposed strength of Islamism.

What little economic strength it has, it derives from “found wealth”—the happy accident of Saudi Arabia, longtime patron of evangelical Wahhabism, sitting astride a large concentration of the globe’s oil reserves.  If someone were to invent a portable garbage-powered Mr. Fusion reactor (a la 1985’s Back to the Future), the revenue stream of many Persian Gulf states would be irrevocably disrupted.

What’s more, political Islam is generally unpopular even in the places where it currently reigns, so I am not so worried that it will ever take hold here.  It is barely managing to hold on to the places it does have, and it manages that only through draconian laws, autocratic government and official suppression of most other religions.

What is far more troubling is that if we cannot rouse ourselves to tackle so weak and brittle an enemy, we will have no hope at all of tackling larger, fiercer pathologies which actually enjoy considerable popularity both at home and abroad.

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Wars and rumours of wars

Apsit, Aleksandr Petrovich. The International. c1919.

Not a good day for a whole lot of countries.

  • RUSSIA—Two female suicide bombers—suspected to be members of the Chechen “Black Widows”—kill 38 people in attacks on two Moscow subway stations.
  • SOUTH KOREA—Divers reach the sunken halves of ROKS Cheonan, but hear no signs of life.  A North Korean mine (one of 4,000 purchased from the former Soviet Union) is thought to be the most likely culprit.
  • ISRAELLack of U.S. support for Israel’s negotiating position (“a Palestinian state shorn of some sovereign powers and which recognized Israel as a Jewish state”) inevitably means an emboldening of hardliners on other side.  An Israeli minister’s naïveté is perplexing, though, as I’m sure the US position was carefully crafted to achieve the desired outcome.
  • GREECE—In Athens, a bomb planted at an institute for training public officials ended up killing a passerby—a 15-year-old Afghan boy.  The blast also injured his 45-year-old mother and 10-year-old sister.

And on a marginally lighter note:

  • CANADA—Organisers of a Halifax military tattoo think HM the Queen is too frail to safely mount a twelve-foot-high reviewing platform.  The ascent is a mere  17 steps at a 60 degree angle.  The Sovereign disagrees, pointing out that she regularly ascends the 47 steps of Buckingham Palace’s grand staircase.  The organisers would not relent, so the Queen has struck the event from her itinerary. Look, if the Sovereign says she can hack it, then she can hack it.  Let her climb the stairs, already.
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On the Edge of Chaos

Human beings are curious by nature; it is an integral part of the human experience to observe effect, and try to find its causation.   To build a framework for understanding how our universe is ordered, so that we might more frequently encounter beneficent events while avoiding the calamitous.  Ever since Herodotus began the craft in the 5th century BC, historians have struggled to construct overarching narratives to describe the rise and fall of nation-states and empires.  As a result, historians, anthropologists and the general public have become accustomed to viewing imperial decline as a lengthy stage in a stately cycle rather than a short, significant cataclysm.   But we have perhaps over-engineered our analyses by misunderstanding the nature of the beast.  In the March/April 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs, Niall Ferguson—Harvard’s pre-eminent “rockstar academic”—argues that history is not as deterministic and pre-ordained as historians and laymen are often tempted to think.

Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder — on “the edge of chaos,” in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.”

…Whether the canopy of a rain forest or the trading floor of Wall Street, complex systems share certain characteristics. A small input to such a system can produce huge, often unanticipated changes — what scientists call “the amplifier effect.” A vaccine, for example, stimulates the immune system to become resistant to, say, measles or mumps. But administer too large a dose, and the patient dies. Meanwhile, causal relationships are often nonlinear, which means that traditional methods of generalizing through observation (such as trend analysis and sampling) are of little use. Some theorists of complexity would go so far as to say that complex systems are wholly nondeterministic, meaning that it is impossible to make predictions about their future behavior based on existing data.

— Ferguson, Niall.  “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.” Foreign Affairs 89.2 (March/April 2010): 18-32.  Print.

Mr. Ferguson goes on to tilt with the ghosts of Spengler and Toynbee (and their contemporary successors), arguing that “the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess.”  Looking beyond more immediate and obvious causal factors, to mine distant decades for a longer-term cause is “what Nassim Taleb rightly condemned in The Black Swan as “the narrative fallacy”: the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.”  I can’t imagine Ferguson will make many colleagues happy with assertions like those, but—assuming one accepts his primary argument for a more chaotic, less deterministic reading of history—his paragraph-length illustrations of rapid imperial decline are fascinating.

But what if fourth-century Rome was simply functioning normally as a complex adaptive system, with political strife, barbarian migration, and imperial rivalry all just integral features of late antiquity? Through this lens, Rome’s fall was sudden and dramatic — just as one would expect when such a system goes critical. As the Oxford historians Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins have argued, the final breakdown in the Western Roman Empire began in 406, when Germanic invaders poured across the Rhine into Gaul and then Italy. Rome itself was sacked by the Goths in 410. Co-opted by an enfeebled emperor, the Goths then fought the Vandals for control of Spain, but this merely shifted the problem south. Between 429 and 439, Genseric led the Vandals to victory after victory in North Africa, culminating in the fall of Carthage. Rome lost its southern Mediterranean breadbasket and, along with it, a huge source of tax revenue. Roman soldiers were just barely able to defeat Attila’s Huns as they swept west from the Balkans. By 452, the Western Roman Empire had lost all of Britain, most of Spain, the richest provinces of North Africa, and southwestern and southeastern Gaul. Not much was left besides Italy. Basiliscus, brother-in-law of Emperor Leo I, tried and failed to recapture Carthage in 468. Byzantium lived on, but the Western Roman Empire was dead. By 476, Rome was the fiefdom of Odoacer, king of the Goths.

What is most striking about this history is the speed of the Roman Empire’s collapse. In just five decades, the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters. Archaeological evidence from the late fifth century — inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle — shows that the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe. What Ward-Perkins calls “the end of civilization” came within the span of a single generation.

So it was, says Ferguson, with the Ming dynasty in China, Bourbon France, the 20th century Ottoman Empire, post-WW2 British Empire, and Soviet Union.  All went from initial calamity to complete collapse within the span of a single lifetime; usually just a decade or two following the initial catalytic event.  More often than not the catalytic event was (either itself or tied to) a financial crisis.  But these are all hors d’œuvre to the central message, which is that this arrangement of circumstances should sound very familiar and more than a little alarming to our southern brethren living here and now in the 21st century.

America’s debt is blossoming in a less-than-careful fashion; a few decades down the road, it would not take much—maybe just (as Ferguson posits) a negative rating by a creditor agency—to fatally undermine domestic and foreign investor confidence.  This is the road to oblivion; great nations die when citizens lose faith in their vitality.

Finally, a shift in expectations about monetary and fiscal policy could force a reassessment of future U.S. foreign policy. There is a zero-sum game at the heart of the budgetary process: if interest payments consume a rising proportion of tax revenue, military expenditure is the item most likely to be cut because, unlike mandatory entitlements, it is discretionary. A U.S. president who says he will deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and then, in 18 months’ time, start withdrawing them again already has something of a credibility problem. And what about the United States’ other strategic challenges? For the United States’ enemies in Iran and Iraq, it must be consoling to know that U.S. fiscal policy today is preprogrammed to reduce the resources available for all overseas military operations in the years ahead.

Defeat in the mountains of the Hindu Kush or on the plains of Mesopotamia has long been a harbinger of imperial fall. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the annus mirabilis of 1989. What happened 20 years ago, like the events of the distant fifth century, is a reminder that empires do not in fact appear, rise, reign, decline, and fall according to some recurrent and predictable life cycle. It is historians who retrospectively portray the process of imperial dissolution as slow-acting, with multiple overdetermining causes. Rather, empires behave like all complex adaptive systems. They function in apparent equilibrium for some unknowable period. And then, quite abruptly, they collapse. To return to the terminology of Thomas Cole, the painter of The Course of Empire, the shift from consummation to destruction and then to desolation is not cyclical. It is sudden.

This prospect should concern Canadians because without America, Canada would not exist.  Upwards of eighty percent of our trade goes to America, and an impoverished America is one that cannot afford to buy Canadian goods, unless they will be sold at fire sale prices.  Because of our tight economic integration, a debt-ridden, cash-poor America must also mean an impoverished Canada—unless of course we suddenly and miraculously shift the bulk of our exports to other foreign markets.  But that is not all.

Canada is a wealthy nation in terms of actual and potential resources, but despite those riches, we defend ourselves very lightly.  Our military forces today do not possess adequate equipment, doctrine or personnel to successfully defend the remotest resource-rich areas of the country; the small, highly constrained CF today is clustered around the major population centres.  In a world without the protective umbrella of overwhelming American military force, Canada’s possession of her northern reaches could not long survive.  The decline of American forces to a strictly constabulary or garrison level, able to defend only CONUS, would have disastrous consequences for us, too.

As the Arctic region is further developed for commercial transit routes and petroleum extraction, some ambitious people will regard it and wonder why, given its light defenses, they should not secure those resources and revenue for themselves.  It doesn’t matter much who decides to take it, much as it didn’t really matter whether it was British or French pirates (not to mention their merchantmen and navies) that sapped the lifeblood of Spain’s far-flung colonial empire.  The point is that the putative owner will be displaced in favour of a more ambitious and persistent rival.  I would expect that within this century, at least one island in Canada’s Arctic archipelago will fall from our orbit, and we will have little capacity to do anything but grimace and bear it.  Or, like 19th century China, we may be compelled to sign a deleterious treaty, granting foreign powers the right to traverse our waters, extract our resources, and set up logistics facilities and communities abiding by the dominant power’s civil and criminal laws.  It may end up like the Caribbean, with the islands becoming a cornucopia of foreign-owned outposts, once the big fish in the pond determine that we do not have the capability or national will to hang onto it.

One hopes these potential outcomes remain far-fetched, and that America never becomes too enervated to enforce the Monroe Doctrine.  But it’s worth remembering that Canadians too have a vital interest in ensuring America’s health and prosperity.

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