Sunday, February 10. 2008
Fred Kaplan: Downsizing our dominance. Another piece on the shrinking of American hegemony abroad. Kaplan sees this as the inevitable result of losing a common threat with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I suspect that most former allies never took the military parrying all that seriously, but sought to curry favor with the US to tap into economic power and technological prowess. That position has been eroding for some time now, even if it's only become obvious since Bush took office. Even now nations suck up to us much more than seems warranted, probably because it's cheap to be deferential and our egos demand it. The real fall is still to come. As Kaplan notes, presidential candidates prefer to skirt the issue: the American people would rather hear about dawn than decline and fall. That actually leaves an opportunity open, if anyone is smart enough to take advantage of it. All we'd have to do is ditch the sole-superpower horseshit and take a lead in pushing for multilateral, shared solutions to real problems: to pursue peace and justice through the UN, to seriously tackle global warming and other environmental issues, to restructure free trade along lines that benefit poorer countries most. Didn't Gandhi say something to the effect that he has to follow wherever the people go because he's their leader? The US can't lead selfishly because the world won't follow. An alternative would be to just get out of the way, but that might be even more unpalatably ego-deflating.
William Astore: In the Military We Trust. A former Air Force Lt. Colonel, Astore gives two reasons why the military is still regarded by most Americans as an honorable and trustworthy organization. One is that demographically it is much more like America as a whole than most other organizations -- he picks on Ivy League colleges in particular -- so many Americans find it easy to see themselves in the military. The other is that the notion of public service is engrained and catered to in the military, especially for males who find it a particularly helpful way to define their masculinity:
Astore further argues that antiwar people need to understand these points before they can possibly, well, do what? That part isn't clear. It seems to me that the military is trusted mostly because people are very ignorant about its real skills and liabilities in today's world. That actually has very little to do with the character or discipline of those in the military, even if the romance of atavistic war is what draws them in. Still, the problem isn't how to "engage" the military to make them less harmful and more useful. The whole function needs to be rethought from the policy end down. Maybe that involves building different organizations that tap into the qualities Astore recognizes. But it starts with recognizing what is dysfunctional about the military we have, and that's bound to hurt some egos both in and near to the armed forces.
Robert Kuttner: The Recovery Plan America Needs. Argues that the stimulus package Congress is working on falls way too short of what is needed:
Kuttner's solution to the "Housing Mess" makes a lot of sense. So does more public sector spending on things like infrastructure, although by looking at all government spending as stimulus he fails to note how dysfunctional US war spending really is. As for reversing long-term trends toward inequality, his heart's in the right place, but I wonder whether letting the recession do its damage might not be more effective. Much of that inequality is in the form of bubbled up real estate prices, stock prices, dollars even, and one effect of the recession will be to bring that inflation back toward reality. The poor may suffer more, but the rich have a lot more to lose (which is why they've only started panicking now as stock prices started to fall).
Senator John McCain's tenure as the de facto GOP presidential nominee ran into a little stormy weather in Kansas on Saturday. Huckabee won 60 percent of the vote, to McCain's 24, with Ron Paul third at 11. McCain had the support of both Kansas senators, and had ex-Senator Bob Dole lobbying for him in the national press. One thing the news reports didn't dwell on is the raw numbers: the Republican caucuses drew about half as many voters as the Democratic caucuses did. Weather? The Republicans met on a Saturday morning of a 60-degree day. The Democrats met in the middle of a blizzard. I suppose McCain can take some solace in the thought that it wasn't just him: nobody much gave a shit about any of the Republican candidates. They just cared a lot less about him than the others. But it's also true that the GOP regulars in Kansas have grown so dependent on the Christian right for their grass roots support they don't know how to get their old crowd out. Part of the problem is that the right have been calling any and all Republicans with anything resembling moderate views RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). It's gotten so annoying a lot of them aren't even that any more.
McCain also lost in Louisiana to Huckabee. And he was losing Washington until the GOP honchos rounded up enough McCain votes to squeeze into a temporary lead, then decided to stop counting and go home. Last known margin there was 26% to 24%, which itself smells pretty funny. Talk about buyer remorse.
Meanwhile, Obama's won five of five states since Super Tuesday. Won a Grammy too. Maybe it is his year.
John Burgess wrote in to make the following comment on my notes on Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower:
I recommended Gilles Kepel's book Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam for its broader and deeper coverage of Islamism, including the Deobandis. Especially since 1980 Saudia Arabia has spent a lot of money on promoting their Wahhabi brand of fundamentalism abroad, and they've found a receptive audience among the Deobandis, who share their belief in the righteousness and completeness of the earliest followers of Muhammad. On the other hand, there are differences -- e.g., the Deobandis follow Hanafi sharia where the Wahhabis follow Hanbali -- and I'm far from competent to sort them out. But it does seem fair to say that both movements are salafist -- a term that embodies much of the same generalizations as fundamentalist does for Christians who nonetheless continue to disagree on sectarian details -- and that both have small subsets that are jihadist. The Deobandis may count for as many as 40% of Pakistani Sunnis. They have an extensive network of madrassas, which are significant given the generally poor state of education in Pakistan. The Taliban is based on and allegedly adheres to Deobandism, although it's also quite possible that some of their more repressive tenets come from Pashtun tribal traditions, and it's likely that whatever their source they've degenerated further due to the brutality of more than 25-years of foreign-engineered war. Holy war has been invoked by adherents of so many varied doctrines that it seems likely to me that its real motivation lies elsewhere.
I'm not sure how this works out. Clearly, Pakistan has been a fertile ground for anti-US jihad, rivaling the Arabs and much more so than any other Islamic countries, and Deobandism may have much to do with that. But also the Afghan mujahideen, especially the Taliban, were actually doing the sorts of things that Al-Qaeda aspired to, setting a practical example in their use of violence both within and against foreign enemies. So it's not surprising that they proved simbiotic. But I'm less sure about who influenced whom and how. This is what Kepel has to say (pp. 222-226):
The Taliban also proved to be attractive to Pakistani politicians including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who alternated power in the early 1990s. As the Taliban gained ground in Afghanistan, their imposition of harsh sharia was largely consistent and compatible with Saudia Arabia's own practice, certainly no cause for alarm. The Taliban only crossed a Saudi line with the harboring of Saudi dissidents like Osama bin Laden. There's much more in the book on the rise of the Taliban, but little on their relationship with Al-Qaeda. Kepel's book was originally published in France in 2000 and translated in the US in 2002. It is likely that there has been considerable hybridization between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban since the US drove them into their mountain retreats in 2001-02, and that at least the old core of Al-Qaeda has become ever more dependent on Deobandi good will within Pakistan's Frontier Territories. I doubt that anyone really knows what's going on there, let alone what it may wind up meaning. One thing for sure is that the Deobandis form an awfully large pool for recruiting by jihadists.
Burgess has a blog called Crossroads Arabia which provides a lot of detail on Saudi Arabia ranging from geopolitics to everyday life.