Monday, October 11, 2004

David Brin's Political Salvo

Well, belatedly, just two weeks pre-election, I've posted my "big political salvo at:

War in the 21st Century: Maturity vs. Neocon Panic and the True Role of Pax Americana

In fact, that's the principal reason I at last bit the bullet and started a blog, after delaying for a long time. I cannot say if I'll make this a daily or even weekly stop when the election's over, but I'll try.

Until then, though, I declare the discussion open.

(If you are a science fiction fan who disagrees vehemently with the views I've posted, well, just bear in mind that I use a different part of the brain for SF. Anyway, science fiction is about staying openminded to change - not letting rigid dogmas inspire hate. So keep enjoying those grand adventures in the future! ;-)


ccfoo said...

Hey Dr. Brin!

I'm glad to see you started blogging, not because I'm a huge blog fan, but it seems to make you more accessible.

I've printed your "War in the 21st Century" article from your web site and I'll read through it tonight. But I wanted to at least stop by and say hello and that I've been a huge fan of yours for about 14 years now.


Mike said...

Interesting centrist view and polemic. I especially liked the side-by-side comparison of Iraq to the Balkans. I would add to it that it has also distracted us from paying proper attention to two other governments that may represent a much more serious threat to us: Iran and North Korea. While there is an argument that Iran is sane enough not to use nuclear weapons or provide them to terrorists, I don't think the same can be said of North Korea. You also did not note that we have as a major ally Pakistan, a country with nukes and whose chief nuke scientist sold nuclear technology to all and sundry for years and whom we cannot even talk to about who may be working with the stuff he sold them. This falls into the strange bedfellow category and I, for one, would not trust the Pakistani government as far as I could throw a 500lb bomb. Finally, even though we may have started well in Afghanistan, we have not finished well. Where is Osama bin Laden? Why has his name disappeared from the administration rhetoric when we were told that they would get him dead or alive? More swaggering baloney from our leaders and more image of incompetence in follow-through.

My experience over the past few months has been that many friends and family who generally are conservative are having real problems with this administration. Those who are not single-issue adherents (gay marriage, guns, abortion, etc.) do not understand how anyone looking at the entire record of this administration could possibly be happy with it. They may not agree that we were lied to about Iraq but they really are angry about the fiscal policies, for example. I think many will be voting, perhaps for the first time, for a Democrat even if they don't really like Kerry. They understand that you don't have to like the guy for him to do the job.

But what I don't understand is why oil and energy, and their potential effect on the economy of our society, are not much more a part of the national discussion, since these intertwined subjects are actually the elephant in the parlor. If you look around you virtually everything you see. from the synthetic carpet on your floor to the paint on your walls to the medications in your cabinet, in part or entirely originated in a barrel of oil (or more accurately in an oilfield). Petroleum is already over $50 a barrel and barring some governmental intervention will be over $100 within two years, 5 years with intervention. Competition with developing economies of China, Russia and India will be major drivers with the lack of refining capacity being a secondary driver in the short term. This will put inflationary pressure on virtually everything we buy and use in this society.

And we burn incredible amounts of the stuff to power motor vehicles and for other power and heating uses. I say this not as an enviromentalist, though I do think we need to guard the environment, but as an organic chemist who has found that most people, even highly educated and intelligent people, simply do not understand how much we depend on petroleum in all aspects of our lives. And how inflation will inevitably hit it all as the price of raw materials heads over 3 figures a barrel and continues upwards.

I have written to both the Bush and Kerry campaigns and they, of course, have not responded at all. Not unexpectedly since it certainly is a long-term issue, meaning that since it will not be a problem until long after this election, and since they really don't have a clue what to do about it anyway, it simply will not come over their horizon. But it will bite us and hang on like a pit bull.


Anonymous said...

David Brin here, testing "anonymous posting" while answering Mike.

Very cogent thoughts. It's even worse though. We have had many chances to HELP the Iranian people rise up and push aside the oppressive mullahs who keep a tennuous grip on what would otherwise be the greatest democracy in the Middle East. Condi Rice COULD have put W on a plane to Tehran, imitating Kissinger sending Nixon to China. It would have been Saddam's worst nightmare. And the worst nightmare of Riyadh.

And of course that's why this administration does the opposite. Instead of helping to restore the longstanding close friendship between Iran and America, they reliably saber-rattle ("axis of evil") in order to push the pwople of that country back into the mullahs' arms.

Anonymous said...

Great article!! Definitely why I like reading David Brin stuff. Very insightful, balanced and well-reasoned. I hope to share it with some of my Fox-News-loving "conservative" co-workers, although I'm not sure it will change their minds. It has just seemed to me that lately a lot of people have "shut down" their critical thinking, because of 9/11. I wanted to see us go after Osama, and like a previous commenter posted, you hardly see any mention of him. And I'd also like to see us get off our insane dependence on oil. I was born in the 70s and I remember all that stuff around "conserve energy", and it just seems to me that we're right back acting as if that whole thing never happened. Yet because more time has passed, I just feel like we're that much more in danger of a serious crash, once this party ends... =(


Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Brin & All~

Overall this is one of the better pieces I've seen picking apart the neocons, from either the "left" or the "right." The comparison between our actions in the Balkans and those in Iraq is a wonderful use of existing information. Certainly not something I've seen made before, despite the fact that the points in both columns are widely known and accepted.

As a matter of somewhat anecdotal support, I have a friend serving in the Balkans right now. Even with everything that's happened, even with changes in U.S. policy and international sentiment, the people over there are still extremely supportive and grateful for our presence. Moreover (and perhaps even more importantly), the troops we have there feel good about the job they're doing. From speaking with my friend I've come to believe that this has more to do with feeling like they're actually doing good, and getting feedback to that effect from the people around them, then the fact that none of them have died yet. (And death still is a possibility over there -- they still get shot at sometimes, and there's a shit-load of landmines left to clean up.)

What's really interesting is that, despite the high morale of our troops in the Balkans, most seem to dread a transfer to Iraq. "Quagmire," "Vietnam," "unplanned," and "wrong" are all words that have come from the troops themselves to describe that conflict. At least in the Balkans, it would seem that the working men and women of our military feel just as lied to as the rest of the nation.

(Granted, this is a story filtered through one man, and told second-hand by myself, so it's worth taking with a grain of salt. But similar sentiments have been expressed in enough other places that I'm inclined to believe it's representative.)

That said, I'm unfortunately wary of the idea of a Pax Americana. It sounds good in theory, and may even be workable, but does that mean it will be? Despite all the good we've done as a nation, we also have amassed a long record of supporting our short-term interests over our ideals. During the Cold War, we had a tendency to replace left-leaning democracies (especially in South America) with right-leaning dictatorships, on the theory that "at least they weren't Communists." As the Evil Empire fell we continued to support these regimes and meddle in the affairs of emerging democracies to suite our short-term interests.

If a Pax Americana was used to promote democracy and regional economic development around the world, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But I worry that we'll set these goals aside as we have so often in the past. Helping to raise a fledgling democracy that may sometimes loudly disagree with you is thankless work, but supporting dictatorships that keep the oil and cheap clothes flowing home will get you votes for "helping the average American." Never mind the fact having another stable democracy is probably more important in the long run; its advantages are quite invisible on a four-year election cycle.

I think it's this forms the core of the anti-globalization movement and the growing suspicion of those on the left for anything American. Globalization done right is very much worth it, but that means it has to be a two-way street. We like to raise hell about farm subsidies in other countries, but god forbid anyone mention our own entitlement programs. It's the hidden inequalities that really sabotage our efforts on that front.

My hope is that de Tocqueville was right when he spoke of democracy as an inescapable force of history. Nothing would please me more than to see America truly become the embodiment of this force, but for every time we've upheld our values there seem to be two for which we set them aside. I'm afraid that recent world events have done little to educate us on the error of such short-sightedness.

-- Nathan Acks

John said...

Dr Brin, an interesting read.

Living in Australia, I don't have the immediate personal perspective on the US that you do, but I still feel that you made some pertinent points.

I especially appreciate the way you pointed out that the US administration did the right thing the wrong way in Iraq.

It's always seemed to me that the groups with the loudest voices are those with the weakest grip on reality; the good economic managers want to clamp down on civil liberties, the green groups want to ban nuclear power, etc. It seems that far too few prominent figures are rational and balanced; as such, I'm glad you've decided to speak out on this issue.

ccfoo said...

After reading it I can only offer one suggestion: Can you expand on the comparison of troop deaths in the Balkans vs. Iraq?

It's hard, but not impossible, to lose troops when they are bombing from the air. In retrospect Clinton looks wise to have resisted, but perhaps he was just lucky. And perhaps Milosevic was simply less crazy and stupid than Hussein.

I may sound as if I am defending Bush, I am not. But, perhaps he simply wants a place to stage troops for an invasion of a greater enemy, Iran?

David Brin said...

Very interesting anecdote about the friend serving in Bosnia. Another commenter pointed out that we face lower casualties using air power than ground troops. Right! It's why the (Clinton-planned) Afghanistan intervention was more successful and less costly than any other outside intervention there in history. (Though we may still wind up regretting our hubris there, as did all other empires; still it was worthwhile trying, as the Taliban needed killing and the women needed rescuing.)

(Why has nobody commented on the profound difference in design/planning/tactics/philosophy between Afgh and Iraq?)

Before we inavded Iraq in the stupidest possible way, (emphasizing (too few) ground troops coming in from Iraq's narrowest border, the farthest from Baghdad, with no local support or provision to utilize defecting Iraqi forces), I had openly suggested asking this question: "What would be Saddam's worst nightmare?"

The answer is the same as for "what would be Riyadh's worst nightmare?" In fact the nightmare of ALL our enemies in that region. Restoration of the traditional friendship between America and the Iranian people.

Yes, a peace gesture might not succeed. But Nixon went to China, right? Instead of even TRYING to do that, W's "axis of evil" saber rattling seemed bent on driving the Iranians back into the Mullahs' arms at the very moment they seemed ready to break free.

I mention this because Iranian allies sent in to liberate their southern Shiite brethren would have been the subtle way, using our air power and local muscle, as Clintons' plans did in Balkans and Afghanistan, instead of using our ground troops like toy soldiers and committing our best divisions and all our reserves to a quagmire, when their readiness should be a treasure to be spent miserly in a dangerous world.

And right now it would be IRANIANS resented as occupiers in Najaf, not Americans, and the Sunni Center would be viewing us as their sole safeguard against Iranian domination.

ANd Riyadh would be forced to play nice. But that's exactly why the Saudis have always vetoed peace with Iran.

Anonymous said...

Hi, very nice article.
I'm not American, I'm Argentine/Canadian but I consider myself centrist too and I have spent an important part of my life in the US and grew fond of it, its liberties and its people.

I believe this has given me a broader perspective of the whole picture, not only because of my personal experience, but also because I have candid access to people's opinions on America from both inside and outside the country.

I agree wholeheartedly that the current administration is corrupt, perhaps more so than many in 3rd-world countries (but the US is just too powerful too permit this). But I have grown very distrustful of US government foreign policy in general. I'm always wondering what are the real intentions behind military actions.

For example, in the Balkans, why did it take so long and so much slaughter before anything was done? Of course, I don't blame only the US for this. After all, no other country did anything either.

But it's remarkable how much time (and how many deaths) it took compared to Irak, considering one of the reasons there was also to liberate the people of Iraq from a genocidal tyrant.

To be real leaders, which the world would willingly follow, any government in any country should have clear reasons all the time. It's obvious that in Irak the reasons are confused, but I fail too see clear reasons in not taking actions in the Balkans in a timely manner, except that there wasn't anything of strategic interest in the region, like the oil in Irak.

David Brin said...

Good question. With a good answer. Responsible leaders of a decent Pax Americana will lean toward using force as a last - not first - resort. Except in a case of true to the homeland. In the Balkans, there were many things to try first, including something called diplomacy.

An added factor was the fact that this was the back yard of allies like France and Germany and the EU, all of which deserved respectful offers of support first. Only when they had certifiably screwed up, showing utter spinelessness or (worse) cynical resignation ("The Balkans are a curse that can never be cured") did we then have a right to step up and say "It is now our turn to lead. Follow us!"

I agree that it was frustrating. It should have been done quicker and lessons should be learned. But the list of outcomes compares to Iraq like day vs night.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Brin,

Obviously, you are absolutely clueless about the Balkans. Your comments are too simplistic and to a great extent incorrect, showing your absolute lack of understanding of the subject. My advice to you: stay away from commenting on things you don't know anything about.

Sincerely yours,

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but your list of outcomes of the Balkans Campaign is just laughable.

-a brutal dictator was toppled.

WRONG! Milosevic was not toppled from power by Clinton Administration or NATO intervention. He stayed in office until October 2000, when he lost the elections.

So, what did the NATO intervention achieve?
Did it topple Milosevic? –No.
Did it stop the killings in Kosovo? –No. On the contrary.
Did it cause a great number of civilian casualties? –Yes.
And you think that was one of the great successes in the history of American foreign policy?

-no big lies; intervention was justified on its merits.

WRONG! There were numerous lies, mainly in the figures.
Read this:

-our credibility and friendships in Islamic world increased.

Well, after siding with all sorts of terrorists and Mujahedeen in the Balkans, Clinton surely hoped so... Clinton Administration openly collaborated with Al Qaeda in the Balkans.

One more thing... You cannot argue with results. And the result is that Clinton created a monster in the Balkans, namely in Kosovo. Who is going to clean the mess?

Anonymous said...

Lies, lies and more lies...

A Review of NATO’s War over Kosovo by Noam Chomsky

David Brin said...

Our anonymous friend is pretty silly, though no more so than more of the ideologues who predicted, confidently, that "hundreds of Clinton officials will be indicted" as soon as Republicans got control over the Executive Dept file cabinets.

Alas, sfter scouring files with an army of hungry attorneys for four years, the net number of indictments filed agains Clinton Administration figures since 2001 has been... zero.

That's zip, nada, none zero. In fact, it's the first time that has ever happened. The EVIDENCE, rather than shrill, livid dogmatic rage, shows that the BC admin was the MOST HONEST in the nation's history. Exactly and diametrically opposite to the rightwing rage image.

It's unsurprising that "Anonymous" cites Noam Chomsky, a "scientist" in name only and a flaming ideologue in most areas. His theories have been disproved by evidence. His flames over the Balkans were turgid with conspiracy theories that make Oliver Stone and Gore Vidal look judicious.

>>So, what did the NATO intervention achieve?
Did it topple Milosevic? –No.<<

To credit M's collapse to the elections of 2000 without acknowledging the leadup TO those elections, including the powerful undermining of M's position through defeat and humiliation, plus the NATO imposed presence of election observers, is howlingly disingenuous. Moreover, the whole point is that mature intervention, while slower, can rely upon local allies and decent local people to do much of the heavy lifting.

>>Did it stop the killings in Kosovo? –No. On the contrary.<<

Life is gradually improving every month, according to my contacts. The Balkans will take a long time to heal. But as long as wealth is rising, mines are being cleared, elections are spreading and crime is dropping (all true) AND a month's violence in Kosovo is matched by an HOUR's violence in Iraq....

>>Did it cause a great number of civilian casualties? –Yes.<<

Yes, regretably. And in numbers insignificant compared to Iraq, where reporters now can no longer set foot out of the Green Zone and every month things get worse.

>>And you think that was one of the great successes in the history of American foreign policy?

The business about Clinton cozying to Al Quaeda is lunatice imbecility. Proved by the fact that we had special forces teams in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan a whole year before W entered office, learning the languages and making contacts and training Northern Alliance forces, preparing the alliance that worked so well in late 2001.

As for the Balkans being a success, let me cite results again. A european continent at peace for the first time in 4,000 years.

John said...

As I might have guessed, this blog has already prompted angry ideologues to come out of the woodwork. Although it's rather amusing to watch them, I can see this becoming a problem. Flames ahead if you're not lucky.

As far as a list of historical American interventions, I'm surprised that no-one's mentioned post-WWI and WWII Europe. Anyone else think the Middle East could use a Marshall plan rather than a Schlieffen plan?

Tess said...

I found your article fascinating, and, unsurprisingly, well-supported. Much as I dislike right-left rhetoric, I've always considered myself 'more left than left', for a variety of reasons. Still, I found myself agreeing with you, largely because your opinions are well-founded. I don't like the idea that the US dominates the world, but I can accept that we've been at it a while, and that if we're going to continue, we should do so responsibly.

I believe strongly and wholeheartedly in diplomacy and the possibility of peace. There are always situations that are difficult to judge, times when even I can admit that force might be necessary. I'll probably always be the person urging caution and arguing against military intervention. On the other hand, I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea of playing that role in an ongoing discussion about when and where our nation should be involved militarily--as long as I feel our nation is being run in a sane fashion.

In other words, I accept that my convictions might not always lead me to the right solutions. I wouldn't want to be handed a dictatorship--I'd rather share my perspective and leave ultimate authority up to someone I could trust to use it wisely.

Somehow I don't think W and wisdom have ever met.

Thank you for writing this piece--I always enjoy finding that simple defintions of political polarity are false, and that I agree deeply with people I might disagree with on the surface. I spend a fair amount of time talking with (relatively uneducated) conservative Mainers about the upcoming election and the state of our nation; I think your article will help.

Rockhound said...

I must concur with the comments that Mike posted above regarding the failure of this administration (or any politicians, really) to address the pending oil crisis. World oil production will probably be peaking soon, if it hasn't already (read Kenneth M. Deffeyes' "Hubbert's Peak: the Impending World Oil Shortage). While oil sands (previously better known as tar sands) are an expensive, but usable source of oil, and oil shales may yet prove to be usable sources, the cheap oil is probably going to be exhausted sooner than we are prepared for. I can only hope the garbage-to-oil plants live up to the hype.

The most disturbing aspect of the coming oil crisis, however, is the probable destabilization of the Middle East, especially of our good friend Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have created an entire generation of rich, entitled young people who are both unemployed and unemployable (not many companies are eager to hire grads with degrees in Islamic Theology). According to the National Geographic article I read on the matter, the Saudis import most of their workers, not just maids and gardeners, but engineers, doctors, architects, you name it. Yikes! Can you imagine how many fresh terrorists will be minted following the collapse of Arabia's oil industry, all of the oil money having been squandered, rather than having been used to build a solid base for the future?

Anyways, I have to say that Dr. Brin captured many of the reasons I have felt profoundly uncomfortable with the current regime in Washington.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Brin. I'm a long time reader of your books, fiction and non-fiction as I have found you to be both incisive and entertaining.

I come from what is considered the "Left" and while I do claim to be a Liberal, like you I dislike the over simplification of the left-right stereotype. I know very few people who actually fit it.

I am not fond of the Pax Americana idea, but I do believe in using American power when our ideals require it. The two most recent examples both being cited in your article. Given the way you put it I may not, in fact, have a problem with Pax Americana per se, but rather with this Administration's concept and aplication of it. I completely supported going into Afganistan for all of the reason you listed and I cannot imagine Al Gore having done otherwise had he been President. The disappointment I have in regards to Afganistan is that it now seems to have been put on the back burner and is not getting the aid it needs to stabilize politically, socially and economically. Instead we spend our resources on the volatile mess that we created in Iraq.

In the posts above you and others have mentioned Iran. One of the worst things that I have long thought this Administration did was to alienate Iran. If Iran is going for the bomb, and it looks as though they are, can anybody really wonder why? After watching from very close proximity what happened to their fellow "Axis of Evil" member who lacked the capability to defend himself I cannot conceive of the Irannians not desparately wanting the bomb. They know that if they have the capability to wipe Tel Aviv from the planet, even in ensuring their own extinction, that the cost would be too high for us to move against them. North Korea is in the same position, only targeting Seoul and Tokyo and with a less rational government.

Going back to Iran, I have watched Iran with hope ever since Khatami became president. I have talked with Iranian-Americans about the situation, and while many thought that Khatami was a puppet there to appease the liberalizing elements in Iranian society most also felt hope that the situation was improving and that it was not out of sight for a true democracy to rise in Iran. Bush's words have hurt those prospects and, possibly, robbed us of what could have been our greatest ally in the Middle East. Couple those statements with an aggressive foreign policy that does, from Muslim eyes, look like the United States of America is waging war on Islam and such hopes become dimmer.

I hope that on November 2nd we elect John Kerry and demostrate that Americans do not, by a slim majority at least, support such misuse of American power.


David Brin said...

I am far more impressed with the thoughtfulness of these responses (most of them) than by the expressions of agreement. Indeed, in The Transparent Society I praise the value of competition and argument, when both sides have the flexibility to listen and learn a bit.

It is a concept that's absent in today's bitter version of politics. Alas.

Those of you interested in an ongoing discussion group with bright people might have a look at the brin-l site =>

I thank you for participating... and let's both pray and ACT to save civilization...