Monday, August 16, 2010

Risks and Sacrifices

We must be prepared to make the same heroic sacrifices for the cause of peace that we make ungrudgingly for the cause of war.

-- Albert Einstein, 1930

In this week's Sift:

  • Lining Up the Next War. Talk about attacking Iran stopped for a while after Obama got elected. It's back.
  • Fire, Flood, Drought. The bad stuff that's happening this summer doesn't necessarily prove global warming, but it's the kind of thing you can expect to see more of if the Earth keeps getting hotter.
  • Short Notes. The L.A. Times' Framework site is a stunning collection of topical photos. Glenn Beck sounds more and more like an evangelist, or maybe a messiah. Why Palin won't run. A bogus argument for repatriating Muslims. VW's prototype Dung Beetle. Government isn't spending as much as you think. And more.

Lining Up the Next War

In the 19th century, a grain trader (in a reference I've never been able to find again) remarked that studying the fluctuations of the wheat market was like watching a wrestling match with a blanket thrown over it: You can tell when the wrestlers are doing something, but not what it is or who is doing it.

I had the same feeling this week when the idea of war with Iran surfaced again. During the Bush administration this used to happen every few months. Someone who wanted us to attack Iran would leak some (possibly false) information about how they were closer to building nuclear weapons than previously thought, and the right-wing media would go wild. Or someone who didn't want war would leak some (possibly false) information that the decision to attack Iran had already been made, and the administration was in the process of creating the official justifications. Then the left-wing media would go wild.

I have gotten cynical about all this: It's a wrestling match under a blanket. I can't figure out who really wants us to attack Iran and why, or who is opposing them and why. As we saw in the build-up to the Iraq War, the reasons that appear in the media are almost all attempts at manipulation. It is difficult to figure out who really believes what.

President Obama's election ended that talk for a while. But it started again this week with Jeffrey Goldberg's article ("The Point of No Return") which is on the cover of the current Atlantic. (Well, it really started two weeks before that in the Weekly Standard, a publication so far to the right that it's hard to take seriously. What country do they want to live in peace with?)

Goldberg's article begins with a list of all the peaceful ways a crisis could be avoided, and then concludes that none are likely.

What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran … They will tell their American colleagues that Israel was left with no choice. They will not be asking for permission, because it will be too late to ask for permission.

Goldberg's visions are dramatically specific: names, timetables, model numbers of airplanes. His highly placed Israeli sources have reached "consensus … that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July."

Once we take that "better than 50 percent chance" as a given, Goldberg's next question is whether it would be better for the United States to launch the attack instead: Our air force is bigger and would have a better chance of success. An anonymous source identified as an "Arab foreign minister" thinks we should attack, or at least make a serious bluff:

Iran will continue on this reckless path, unless the administration starts to speak unreasonably. The best way to avoid striking Iran is to make Iran think that the U.S. is about to strike Iran.

And of course these Arab countries will all rejoice if we do attack, just as Iraqis greeted us as liberators. And the democracy movement in Iran will rally around us rather than around their own government. And as Iranians are having their noses rubbed in the dirt, they will not think: "We really do need nuclear weapons."

It's striking how Goldberg's article appears to set a reasonable tone, while simultaneously removing all serious points of contention from the discussion: He takes as given that the Iranians are bent on getting nuclear weapons as soon as possible, and doesn't even mention that the most recent National Intelligence Estimate disagrees. And besides, what matters is not what is true, but what the Israelis believe. They feel threatened, so there will be war; our only choice is what kind of war it will be.

He offers the possibility that maybe the threat of an American strike will be enough. But of course if it isn't, we'll then have to go through with the threat, won't we? Not because it will work -- that's another possible point of contention that is somehow irrelevant -- but because we'd lose credibility.

And the dire scenarios that justify the risks of war never justify corresponding risks of peace-making: The vision of a nuclear-free Middle East, with Israel's WMD programs also on the table, never comes up:

The most crucial component of Israeli national-security doctrine, a tenet that dates back to the 1960s, when Israel developed its own nuclear capability as a response to the Jewish experience during the Holocaust, is that no regional adversary should be allowed to achieve nuclear parity with the reborn and still-besieged Jewish state.

Unalterable. Carved in stone. Reasonable people wouldn't even question it. Why can't those crazy Iranians just accept that they live under the nuclear hegemony of a hostile power?

Other writers have taken up the details of Goldberg's argument: Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett in Foreign Policy, Glenn Greenwald, and Jonathan Schwarz, just to name a few.

They point out that Goldberg has done this before: in a 2002 New Yorker article about the evils of Saddam Hussein, including his ties to al Qaeda (that proved to be mythical) and ominous assessments of his WMD program (also mythical):

There is some debate among arms-control experts about exactly when Saddam will have nuclear capabilities. But there is no disagreement that Iraq, if unchecked, will have them soon, and a nuclear-armed Iraq would alter forever the balance of power in the Middle East.

There is no accountability in journalism. The invasion of Iraq has cost trillions of dollars, thousands of American lives, and tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives -- all to avoid nightmare scenarios that turned out to be imaginary. Eight years later, one of the primary purveyors of those nightmares is back with new nightmares, pushing a new war to avoid them. And a respectable publication like The Atlantic gives him their cover.

But the problem is not Goldberg, or all the other malpracticing journalists who justified the Iraq War with falsehoods and are still getting published. (Judith Miller had an article in the Wall Street Journal last Monday -- about Iraq, no less.) Goldberg's article is a move under the blanket. There will be more as the case for attacking Iran marches further into the mainstream. Where are these notions coming from, ultimately? Who knows?

But they will all push one Big Illusion: that war is the safe option. If we can't figure out what else to do, we should go to war, because that always works. Articles and talking heads will pretend to examine the what-ifs, but they will take for granted that Iran can only respond in foreseeable ways, and will express confidence that we have those scenarios covered.

That's not what happened in Iraq. None of the war-pushers' crystal balls predicted a popular insurgency that we'd still be fighting seven years later. (Other crystal balls did show an insurgency. But the public didn't hear those voices until it was too late.) But nothing is more typical of war: Push an enemy to the wall and he becomes desperate and clever. He thinks of new options that your think-tank experts didn't consider.

War is not safe. No matter what cards you are holding or think that the other players are holding, war is a wild risk. We can't let the propagandists fool us into forgetting that again.

Or maybe the next war won't be televised. Sunday's New York Times focused on

the Obama administration’s shadow war against Al Qaeda and its allies. In roughly a dozen countries — from the deserts of North Africa, to the mountains of Pakistan, to former Soviet republics crippled by ethnic and religious strife — the United States has significantly increased military and intelligence operations, pursuing the enemy using robotic drones and commando teams, paying contractors to spy and training local operatives to chase terrorists.

When it works, it's just the thing: Imagine if a robot drone had blown up Bin Laden's inner circle while they were planning 9-11. The bad guys vanish and we aren't left picking up the pieces of some country's shattered government.

The NYT does a good job of outlining the problems too: Robot drones don't develop relationships with the local population. So your intelligence is always second hand, and you blow up the wrong people sometimes. When you do, on-the-ground al Qaeda propagandists are there to take advantage.

And there's a larger problem: The temptations of a secret murder machine are more than human virtue can handle. Even if it isn't being abused now, someday it will be.

Fire, Flood, Drought

This summer we've seen record heat and drought in Russia ruin the wheat crop and lead to wildfires that filled Moscow with smoke. (It looked even worse from space.) We've seen record monsoons in Pakistan lead to floods, at least 1500 deaths so far, and  and massive public health problems. Greenland just lost a 100-square mile chunk of ice -- the biggest in 50 years.

So is it the Apocalypse or global warming? Lester Brown is cautious about his claims, but says the Russia crop failure is exactly the kind of thing we should expect to see more of as the Earth heats up.

Are this record heat wave and the associated crop shortfall the result of climate change? Not necessarily. No single heat wave, however extreme, can be attributed to global warming. What we can say is that heat and drought similar to that experienced in Russia are projected to occur more frequently as the earth's temperature continues to rise in the decades ahead. This Russian heat wave lets us see just how brutal future climate change can be.

He then connects these dots:

  • heat waves shrink harvests (about 10% for every degree degree Celsius or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • every year the Earth has 80 million more mouths to feed
  • about 3 billion people (mostly in places like China and India) are taking advantage of economic growth to eat more meat, which ultimately requires more grain
  • around 30% of the U.S. grain harvest is producing ethanol fuel for cars

And concludes:

Surging annual growth in grain demand at a time when the earth is heating up, when climate events are becoming more extreme, and when water shortages are spreading makes it difficult for the world's farmers to keep up. This situation underlines the urgency of cutting carbon emissions quickly--before climate change spins out of control.

Ditto for Pakistan and Greenland. These kinds of things could happen at random, but they'll happen at random a lot more often as the climate gets hotter.

Short Notes

You could pleasantly spend hours rummaging through the L.A. Times photography site Framework. The Pictures in the News feature is always worthwhile. Want cute animals? We got cute animals. Meteors over Stonehenge? Something out of the archives? Something pastoral? Newsy? Artsy? Sporty?

Most places on the web, you have to sift through a lot of crap to find the really good stuff. Not here. It's just one OMG shot after another until you decide to stop.

Glenn Beck wants to save your soul, and he's getting increasing messianic about it.

Markos Moulitsas and I have the same assessment of Sarah Palin:

So watch, she'll make noise about running for president in 2012, but when push comes to shove, she doesn't have the work ethic to actually campaign. She'll bask in the attention, sell lots of books, and get $100K per speech. But the second it becomes hard work, she'll call it quits.

I predict a long attention-milking tease: a year or more of hints and winks, culminating in an announcement that she needs to protect her family from the vicious media, and besides she can do more good for the American people by tweeting 140-character policy treatises and giving $100K speeches to audiences who don't get to ask questions.

Here's a lesson in how propagandists can turn legitimate research to their own purposes. In a survey of French Muslims, 60% said they identified equally as French and as Muslim, 14% as primarily French, and 22% as primarily Muslim. The headline reporting this in Le Figaro described French Muslims as "well integrated".

This got quoted by a Danish psychologist as "only 14% of the Muslim populations … see themselves as more French … than Muslim", which supports his claim that "Integration of Muslims in western societies is not possible."

And this Dane is then referenced by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association who calls for "a halt to the immigration of Muslims into the U.S." and repatriation of "Muslims who have already immigrated here … back to Muslim countries".  He attributes this conclusion to "simple Judeo-Christian compassion". After all, "Why force [American Muslims] to chafe against the freedom, liberty and civil rights we cherish in the West?"

Just for context, I'd like to see a survey of people who contribute to the American Family Association: Do they consider themselves primarily Christian, primarily American, or equally Christian and American?

Anderson Cooper has been debunking the "terror baby" fantasy of the extreme Right. (They think pregnant terrorist women will come here to have their babies, and that they will then take those babies home to raise as terrorists. In 20 years: a terrorist with U.S. citizenship!) He asks Rep. Gohmert if he has any evidence for his claims, lets Gohmert rant without cutting off his mike, but repeatedly points out that Gohmert has offered no evidence.

I'm sure Gohmert sees this as evidence of Cooper's "left-wing bias". But if someone claims the sky is green, there's nothing biased about going outside, looking up, and reporting that the sky is still blue. That's a reporter's job.

I can't remember the last time I agreed with something at National Review, but Josh Barro pulls together all the sensible points about the Ground Zero Mosque -- including one I hadn't thought about: In Manhattan, a 13-story building two blocks away is invisible (a point made even more graphically by this image). And then he explains the issue in terms conservatives ought to understand:

Part of supporting limited government is understanding that sometimes, things you don’t like will happen, and the government (especially the federal government) won’t do anything about it. Getting to do what you want comes at the price of other people getting to do what they want—including build mosques where you’d prefer they didn’t.

Canadian citizen Omar Khadr would have been a child if we'd tried him promptly. But after 8 years in Guantanamo we can try him as an adult.

In honor of the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage, Gail Collins tells the story of Harry Burn, a 24-year-old state legislator who casts the decisive vote for Tennessee to ratify the 19th amendment after getting a note from his Mom.

Yes, you can run a car on sewage. VW has a methane-powered prototype it calls the Bio Bug, but I prefer Discovery's name for it: the Dung Beetle.

Or, if you want to use human muscle rather than human waste, there's this muscle/electric hybrid. Four "rowers" can get it going 60 mph on their own, or you can tap the battery. Or look at it this way: If it runs out of juice, you can still row your way home.

Portugal gets 45% of its electricity from renewable sources. It's expensive, but it works.

The Conservapedia -- the right-wing response to that leftist Wikipedia -- says that Einstein's theory of relativity is "heavily promoted by liberals". But Conservapedia knows it must be false because it doesn't allow for action-at-a-distance, as witnessed by John 4:46-54.

The Onion reports an everyday environmental disaster: A crude oil tanker safely reaches port. "In a matter of days, this oil may be refined into a lighter substance that, when burned as fuel in vehicles, homes, and businesses, will poison the earth's atmosphere on a terrifying scale."

The Onion News Network holds a talking-heads debate on whether Biblical theories of Armageddon should be taught in addition to global warming. "What's so wrong," the anchor asks "with kids being exposed to both views of how they'll die?"

And Onion Sports Network discusses a football coach's decision to retire from his family to spend more time with the team. OSN reports that after 41 years of family life the coach "felt that he had nothing left to prove as a husband and father." The OSN expert then speculates on who will replace the coach as head of the household, with attention focusing on a neighbor, his wife's high school boyfriend, and another former football coach.

If you ask anybody, they'll tell you that government spending is way up under Obama, and the economy's continuing weakness is proof that government spending doesn't work as a stimulus.

Well, not exactly. Increased federal spending has mainly just compensated for decreased state and local spending. So net government spending isn't way up, and now that the federal stimulus (which included major aid to the states) is ending, the overall amount of government spending in the economy is set to go down.

Conservatives will describe those losing their government jobs as "bureaucrats", but most of them will be teachers, firemen, and police.

Paul Krugman makes the same point in a wonkier way.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at


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