ashthomas//blog: September 2004


Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Australia and the U.S.

Charles Krauthammer wrote half a good article in the WaPo last week—“The Art of Losing Friends.” Krauthammer discusses the United States’ relationship with Australia, an issue that may not be big in America, but is a serious election topic here:
Australia does not share only a community of values with the United States. It understands that its safety rests ultimately on a stable international structure that, in turn rests not on parchment treaties but on the power and credibility of the United States.

Except for the disturbing subtext of disdain for treaties, this does identify the dependence that Australia has on the U.S. Like it or not, Australians need to recognise that the United States and Great Britain are our closest allies and the cultures that we have the most in common with (it could almost be argued that there is no significant difference between cultures in the anglo-sphere of the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa).

One of the consequences of sharing the values of the U.S. and of throwing our lot in with them is that our friends’ enemies have become our enemies, and thus we have become a target, especially when we are identified as an easy target—a large country with a long border, but a small population, close proximity to the country with the largest Muslim population in the world, and a relatively small defence force. As Krauthammer notes, terrorists can get at the United States through us:

The terrorists’ objective is to intimidate all countries allied with America. Make them bleed and tell them this is the price they pay for being a U.S. ally. The implication is obvious: Abandon America and buy your safety.

Australia must stand by its principle of not giving into terrorists’ threats. The example of Spain emboldened the resolve of the terrorists and gave them reason to think that their methods are successful. An essential element of the war on terrorism is to demonstrate to the terrorists that their methods are ineffective and will do nothing to further their cause.

I say that Krauthammer wrote half a good article because after this good and sensible beginning, he descends into partisan Kerry-bashing, which ruins an otherwise excellent piece.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Straw Men in TNR

Peter Beinart had a much discussed article in The New Republic recently in which he criticises Bush’s intellectual consistency. Beinart begins “Double Standards II” with three propositions:
As far as I can tell, George W. Bush believes three things about his war on terrorism. First, it can only be won by promoting democracy. Second, the more integral a country is to the war on terrorism, the less principle number one applies. Third, moral consistency matters above all else.

This “intellectual train wreck”, as Beinart calls it, is illustrated by the United States’ relationship with three countries in particular—Russia, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. These three countries are not known for their civil rights. Indeed, while the United States is promoting democracy in the Middle East, these nations have been steadily clamping down on dissent, throwing people into jail without trial and employing strong-arm tactics on their own citizens.

After showing their shortcomings, Beinart cites Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous distinction from the early eighties between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, the former being less offensive to America than the latter, and more likely to move towards democracy on their own. Beinart says:

It is not sure how one would update that logic to distinguish, say, proAmerican Saudi Arabia, which has no democractic mechanisms whatsoever, from anti-American Iran, which has regular, partially free elections. But it remains a theoretical question because Bush officials don’t grapple with the intellectual contradiction underlying their war on terrorism—they ignore it.

Actually, it is quite simply to update this logic. Certainly, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the other non-democratic countries that the United States is forced to work with in the war on terrorism are not perfect, but they are not as bad as the countries that the West is currently concerned with. Saudi Arabia is not Iran, Pakistan is not North Korea, Russia is not Syria. There is a hierarchy of values and interests, and these countries we will tolerate while we deal with the more urgent international situations.

Some critics on the left have asked, if the Bush administration is so belligerent, why not go after another, stronger country like Iran or North Korea rather than Iraq. The answer is that North Korea is, at the moment at least, relatively inward looking and insular, while Iran has a nascent democratic movement and there is hope that a new generation of Iranians will bring about an internal cultural revolution. Iraq, on the other hand, has a history of wanting regional dominance, has invaded and attempted to annex a sovereign nation and has been at the very least uncooperative with regard to complying with United Nations inspections.

I certainly agree with the illogicality of the premises that Beinart identifies. But of course, this is his phrasing and understanding, and designed to set up the argument he makes. Such constructions of straw men are beneath the dignity of The New Republic.

Monday, September 27, 2004

History Offers Lessons, but will Bush Listen?

“Despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, ignoramus.” Which president is being described? George W. Bush? No. Abraham Lincoln, according to Harper’s Magazine. Max Boot quotes this line in defence of the proposition that even successful and victorious presidents make mistakes and incur the ire of their constituents.

Boot is an astute enough thinker, especially on military matters, to recognise that the Iraq war has not been without failures and set-backs, and he acknowledges that “John Kerry is right to accuse President Bush of “colossal failures of judgment” in Iraq. But Boot also knows that this does not mean the Iraq campaign will be a failure as a whole.

Two lines in Boot’s piece, titled “History Can Offer Bush Hope…”, reveal Boot’s ideological preferences for the way to fight war. In reference again to Lincoln, Boot notes that Lincoln “ultimately won the war only by backing Ulysses Grant’s brutal attritional tactics that have been criticised as sheer butchery.” The implication is clear – victory often requires strategies that may seem deplorable but are in fact necessary for the greater good.

The second line is in reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s planning for the post-war environment. Boot writes,
His failure to occupy more of Eastern Europe before the Red Army arrived consigned millions to tyranny; his failure to plan for the future of Korea and Vietnam after the Japanese left helped lead to two wars that killed 400,000 Americans.

Of course, the occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviets was not due to a failure to plan by Roosevelt. The occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviets was the plan. Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin decided that the Soviets would be the first into Berlin. Patton could have advanced through Italy and reached Germany much more quickly than the final plan of invading through the middle of France. This choice, between invading through France or Italy, was as much a political decision as a military one, and a decision that Patton, for one, did not agree with. The decision was made, at least partially, as a concession to Stalin, to guarantee his continued cooperation.

Regardless of its simplification, what the line reveals is that Boot favours more long-term planning for the post-fighting period, especially with regard to dealing with ideological enemies in a cold war situation. This is, of course, a very wise, and obvious, idea—greater thought and more preparations would have minimised the incidence of insurgency in Iraq and made the transition much more easy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Andrew Sullivan on the Craft of Blogging

Andrew Sullivan (possibly sitting in his living, also possibly wearing his pajamas) responds in his Time column to a former 60 Minutes executive's snarky comment that "bloggers have no checks and balances. [It's] a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas."

Sullivan is one of the most popular of bloggers, and his defense of the medium is based on the idea that blogging is the most meritocratic form of journalism. Given the enormous amount of political commentary taking place on blogs and their related comments pages, a reader will eventually determine which blogs they trust, sympathize with, or respect. And the medium encourages dialogue between reader and writer like few others -- it is talk radio where anybody can start their own radio station. As Sullivan observes, this higher level of connectivity requires the writer to be better:
The beauty of the blogosphere is that if you make a mistake, someone will soon let you know. And if you don't correct immediately, someone will let you know again. And again. Like Internet Jack Russell terriers, readers grab ahold of your pants and don't let go until you have made amends. Blogs that ignore critics will lose credibility and readers. It's the market at its purest. And readers may have more and better information at their fingertips than the best researcher in the world.

Of course, the popularity of blogs and their effect on the political sphere is not so great that it will replace other media. Blogs are, by their original nature, a commentary on the work of others, be it academic, journalistic or political. Print/traditional journalists, especially, have no reason to worry about being replaced, as Sullivan notes:

Does this mean the old media is dead? Not at all. Blogs depend on the journalistic resources of big media to do the bulk of reporting and analysis. What blogs do is provide the best scrutiny of big media imaginable—ratcheting up the standards of the professionals, adding new voices, new perspectives and new facts every minute. The genius lies not so much in the bloggers themselves but in the transparent system they have created.

No, old media is in no danger of being replaced -- only of being held accountable in this massive letters-page that is the blogosphere.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Max Boot on Democratisation

I generally agree with Max Boot, but a line in his column over the weekend struck me the wrong way. In an LA Times op-ed "A Democratic World Is No Neocon Folly" (reg req'd, or read it on the CFR page), Boot writes on the history of the Wilsonian idea of a U.S.-led mission to spread freedom across the globe. He notes that recently, the idea has been pushed aside as either a purportedly arrogant display of American desires for world hegemony, or as noble but impractical ideal that creates more insecurity than it prevents:
Because of the difficulties we are encountering in Iraq, the democratization imperative is under attack today from both left and right. From Pat Buchanan to Paul Krugman, the cry has gone up that the stress on exporting American ideals is a plot by nefarious "neoconservatives." Even John Kerry — the nominee of Wilson's own party — sounds disdainful of attempts to spread freedom to places like Cuba and Iran.

Maybe, the cynics suggest, some people (the Arabs, for instance) are simply unfit for self-rule. More sophisticated versions of this argument suggest focusing on economic development first, to be followed eventually by political liberalization. If impoverished nations rush to hold elections, realpolitikers fear, the result could be the rise of "illiberal democracies" or instability and civil war.

Now, I do not consider myself a "realpolitiker". Indeed, I consider myself a neoconservative (albeit of the Fukuyama rather than the Krauthammer variety, that is, of the kind that acknowledges the importance of multilateralism, rather than single-minded unilateralism).

However, I fear that I am one of the cynics that Boot is referring in that I am a proponent of the idea that democratic elections are the least important of objectives of the neocon agenda. The rise of illiberal democracies is indeed a concern. It is not that I desire that countries modernise economically before elections. As Boot mentions in his op-ed, democracy encourages economic growth, not the other way around.

No, what I value more than elections or economic modernisation is the political, social and cultural reform of the country. It is necessary to liberalise a country before democratising it. A nation that maintains illiberal notions, that does not embrace freedom of religion or of the press, that continues to suppress women and minorities, that imposes strict interpretations of religious laws, will not be improved by elections. If anything, it will provide a veneer of legitimacy to those beliefs.

Boot acknowledges the importance of liberal values -- but he does not seem to acknowledge that liberalisation can be a long and arduous process that may require decades of liberal imperialism by an external power or liberal authoritarianism by an internal administration. I hope it is simply a matter of definition -- that where Boot writes of the democratic imperative, he includes liberalisation first followed by democratic elections after an appropriate period of time. I take a perhaps more cynical view, that democracy does not also come hand in hand with political freedom and civil liberties. But I do agree with the "realpolitickers" that Boot disparages, if for a different reason. Rushing to elections can be dangerous, but not because those countries are too poor or not economically modern enough, but because they are not liberal enough.

On a related note, there is a thread at Kevin Drum's Political Animal blog about Max Boot. Kevin sparked some debate amongst his readers after calling Boot an "appealing neocon", in the context of a discussion of the line-up of the LA Times op-ed page.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Defence Spending in Australia

I was reading an interesting article in the latest issue of Quadrant Magazine this afternoon: "A National Security Election?", by Michael O'Connor. The ostensible subject of the piece is that both parties will give a lot of air time to the issue of defence and national security during the campaign season leading up to the Federal Election, but neither party truly addresses many of the important questions.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the debate on defence in Australia is the lack of serious thought on defence spending. Australia currently allocates about 1.9% of GDP to defence expenditure, in contrast to Great Britain and France who both spend about 2.5% and the United States, which spends about 3.3%. Although Australia is significantly smaller than these other nations, the amounts in question are not trivial. O'Connor writes:
Arguments over whether current defence outlays amount to 1.8 or 1.9 per cent of GDP are squabbles over some $700 million, at the time of a budget surplus said to be around $4 billion. These figures give the lie to claims that Australia cannot afford increased defence spending.

Australia's defence capabilities are embarrassing. Australia's contribution to the coalition forces in Iraq of about 800 troops (with 3 times more personnel in support) does not correlate with the rhetorical support that the government has thrown behind the Iraq mission. O'Connor notes that if we had sent "a contribution proportional to that of the British", we "would have seen 15,000 Australians on the job, a number that we simply could not produce, much less sustain."

In the current world security climate, defence means more than just being prepared to repel an invading force. Traditional inter-state wars are quickly becoming a thing of the past. More and more, the focus of defence forces have been paramilitary or special forces operations against selected targets within another country (terrorists, arms dealers, drug cartels), as well as peace-keeping and state-rebuilding. If Australia is going to command any degree of respect or moral legitimacy in the region, as well as in alliances on a global scale, we will need to increase the size of our defence forces, and improve their capabilities. We cannot rely on being the (very) junior partner of the United States, without our relative weaknesses becoming more and more apparent and therefore more likely for exploitation.

As the attacks against westerners, and in particular Australians, two weeks ago week in Jakarta and a couple of years ago in Bali show, the region is not immune to terrorist attacks. I fear we seeing a parallel to the late nineties, when US citizens and embassies were targeted in Africa before the major attack on September 11. Australia needs to increase defence spending to improve our international standing as well as protect the homeland.