Archive for the ‘Foreign Affairs’ Category

Some Thoughts on ISIS

November 22, 2015

There has been a lot written lately on what should be done with the growing threat of terrorism sponsored by the Islamic State and about Islamic radicalism generally. I don’t imagine I have anything significant to contribute to this discussion but here are some thoughts, for whatever they are worth.

One reason for the appeal of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East that doesn’t seem to get much attention is that the recent history of the Islamic world, particularly at its Arabic speaking core is largely a history of repeated failure. Generally, the Middle East has had a very difficult time adjusting to the modern world. With the exception of Israel, which doesn’t really count since it is a Western transplant, the countries of the Middle East are backwards and poor with repressive, corrupt governments. They produce almost nothing the rest of the world wants in trade, except for oil. They contribute little to the progress of science and technology. Their militaries may be well equipped with purchases from the United States and Russia, but they are ill trained and not very effective, particularly against any Western power. It must be very humiliating, since Islam promises that the Muslims are the best of men who enjoy Allah’s favor, to see the infidel West enjoying success and prosperity while they languish in poverty and powerlessness, especially for proud, young men.

This may be part of the reason there is so much hatred of Israel among the Arabs. Israel is in the same part of the world, has much the same resources and geography though without oil, and even some of the same culture among the Jews from the Middle East, yet Israel is a vibrant, prosperous country that has contributed far more to the world than one might expect from a country of its size, more than the entire rest of the Middle East combined. There might be a good deal less hatred of Israel if Israel were just another third world sewer.

It is not that the Muslims haven’t tried to modernize. For most of the twentieth century,

various Muslim countries have attempted modernize, secularize, and westernize themselves, with varying degrees of success. Kemel Ataturk in Turkey, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the Communists in Afghanistan, and others such as Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi all tried to transform the states they ruled. Unfortunately, these Muslim leaders picked up all the worst ideas that the West had to offer,  such as socialism, communism, militant nationalism, and others, combined with traditional Middle Eastern despotism created nothing but a series of  repressive failed states. Modernization and westernization didn’t seem to work. It is not too surprising that many people began to believe that the Middle East was going in the wrong direction. . Maybe the failure of the Islamic world was due to them abandoning the ways of Islam.Maybe instead of becoming more Western, they should become more Islamic. One by one these secular dictators have fallen, to be replaced by Islamic rulers. Turkey is something of an exception since it has long had the forms of democracy if not always the realty. However Ataturk’s secular legacy has been increasingly challenged over the last decade with the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party.

It is also worth noting that all these twentieth century efforts to modernize the Middle East were largely the top down efforts of a small, educated, westernized elite and enacted by force, while the more religious and traditional majority have been indifferent or actively hostile to efforts to modernize and westernize their countries. It doesn’t seem as if the westernized elite spent much time or effort trying to educate or change the minds of the masses in the Islamic world nor to try to achieve some sort of synthesis between Islamic and Western values. They have remained nominal Muslims while trying to undermine the influence of Islam in the people’s lives. It should not be surprising that the majority of people throughout the Middle East have tended to resent these efforts as an attempt to force an alien, irreligious culture on them. To make matters worse, the secular modernization efforts don’t seem to have worked. Countries like Egypt, Iraq or Iran have not become as wealthy and powerful as Western nations despite any attempts at westernization. The Westernized elites and despots have failed them.

Considered this way, the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East is not really that different from the revolts against the elite in the West. ISIS and al-Qaeda are not that different in principle from the TEA Party in the United States or the UK INdependence Party in Britain or any of a number of other populist movements throughout the West. ISIS and the TEA Party both seek to revive a former greatness by going back to fundamentals. What makes all the difference is that Tea Partiers study the constitution and run for office. Radical Muslims study the Koran and engage in terrorism. What makes this difference? In the West, we have learned to settle our differences more or less peacefully. In the Middle East, they seem to have not.

It is often said that the Middle East is a tribal society and that is the cause of so much violence in the region. Maybe, but the West is tribal too. Look at a map of any major city in the United States and you may still find neighborhoods labeled “Chinatown”, “Little Italy” or the like, a relic of the days when immigrants came and settled among people of their own nation, or tribe. Every human society is prone to factions. Why is it that in the West the tribes have somehow managed to learn to live in peace and even to blend together while in the Middle East old hatreds continue for generations to the detriment of the common good?

Part of the appeal of Islamic radicalism, as well as the original appeal of Islam in Mohammed’s time, is that it promises to surmount these petty differences between tribes and nations carved out from colonial empires and create a united kingdom under the rule of God. No doubt many Muslims feel that the disaster began when the Islamic community began to fracture into competing sects and empires. In the twentieth century, there was a strong pan-Arab nationalist movement promising to unite the Arabic people. If Arab nationalism didn’t unite the Middle East, perhaps Islamism might.

I don’t think it is very useful to blame one president or another or one policy or another for the rise of ISIS. Something like ISIS would have happened regardless of what we have done. It is tempting to believe that a superpower is the cause of everything that happens in the world but much is beyond our control. The cultural attitudes and societal trends that have led to present conditions have been occurring for a very long time and much depends on how the people in the region resolve, or fail to resolve their problems. Ultimately, we cannot solve their problems for them.

The West has had a violent, tumultuous history on its path to to liberty and democracy, and perhaps some parts of Europe have not quite completed the journey. It took periods of terrible bloodshed, the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century and the World Wars of the twentieth century to make Europe what it is today. It maybe that the Middle East must go through a generation of bloodshed to convince the people to live in peace. If so, than the only thing we can or should do is leave them alone to fight it out, taking care that the conflicts do not spill over outside the Middle East. It  may also be that allowing a generation of Muslims to live under an Islamic State is the only way to sour them on the whole idea. The people in Iran do not seem to be very enthusiastic about Islam these days. They have lived under their own Islamic State and they are sick of it. We would like to think that we can solve the world’s problems, but maybe this time we can’t . Maybe the best we can manage is to protect ourselves and hope for the best.



November 15, 2015

Once again the civilized world has been attacked by barbarians, this time in Paris. I suppose that once again we will have the usual reactions, politicians promising action while carefully refraining from mentioning the religious ideology that inspired this attack, vague condemnations of the work of violent extremists while never noting just how high the actual percentage of the followers of the Religion that Must Not Be Named might be considered “extremists”. The left will, in fact already has, placed the blame squarely where it belongs, the racism and Islamophobia of the right. If only the extreme right in Europe and America were not so hateful, those nice Muslims would live in peace. There will also be the usual round of anti-terrorism rallies and candle light vigils, prayers  and Facebook widgets to express support for France and the rest of the silly, sentimental exercises to show how sad we are over this tragedy.

How about we do something different this time? How about we take action to stop these attacks from happening? To start with, would it be too much to expect for the political leaders of Europe, especially Angela Merkel to reconsider the policy of allowing tens of thousands of refugees from Syria into Europe. This may be the compassionate thing to do, but under current circumstances in the Middle East, it may not be the sensible thing to do. It does not take a tactical genius to realize that masses of people streaming into Europe provides an excellent opportunity to smuggle in operatives. There is no easy way to differentiate between refugees and terrorists and no way to guarantee that even Muslim not currently linked to terrorism might not get religion someday with deadly results.

Can we also at long last admit that we, the civilized world that is, have a problem with Islam. Not violent extremism or radical Islam, but with Islam. It is true that only a small minority of Muslims are actually terrorists and it may even be that only a minority of Muslims support terrorist acts as happened in Paris, though public opinion polls suggest otherwise, but the numbers do not matter. The problem is not individual Muslims who have the same mixture of good and evil as any other population The problem is with Islam. Islam, more than any other religion, justifies violence, particularly against the outsider in its scripture, theology, and doctrines. Yes, Christians, Jews, etc.  commit violence and may even use religion to justify their actions. Yet they will not get the same sort of support from their religious leaders and traditions that a Muslim who commits violence might. A Christian who bombs an abortion clinic and kills people will find himself denounced from every pulpit in the country. Even the most zealous pro-life activist will reject his actions. A Muslim who bombs a nightclub or shoots a theater full of hostages will all too often find himself celebrate as a holy martyr in mosques around the world. The moral equivalency between Islamic terrorism in our time and atrocities committed by Christians, in defiance of Christ’s teachings, in centuries past, which is being ceaselessly offered by progressives ignorant of both history and religion simply is not valid. Islam is a problem in the same way that Nazism or Communism was, a violent ideology deeply hostile to our democratic, liberal values. Yes, there are a great many good Muslims, just as their were a great many good Nazis and Communists, but they are still following an evil belief system.

If this admission is still too politically incorrect to make, then can we at least admit that it is better to be considered an islamophobe than to be dead and that protecting the lives of people living in Europe and America might be more important than protecting the tender sensibilities of those who might want to kill them. Whatever is done, we need to be clear in our minds that we are at war with people who want to destroy us and unless we start taking the threat seriously, a lot more people are going to lose their lives.


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UK Election

May 11, 2015

They had an election across the pond last week and the results were kind of interesting, not to say unexpected. Before the dissolution of the previous Parliament even though the Conservatives had the most seats in the House of Commons, they didn’t have a majority so they had to form a coalition with the Liberal-Democrats. Most observers expected that the Conservatives would lose seats requiring the formation of another coalition, perhaps with the Labour Party playing a greater role. It seemed certain that Britain’s “two and a half” party system with the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal-Democrats was breaking down with the rise of the more right-wing UK Independence Party and the Scottish National Party.

It turned out the the pollsters and pundits were wrong. The Conservatives gained enough seats in the House of Commons to be a majority while the Liberal-Democrats lost big. The Labour Party was badly hurt by the rise of the Scottish National Party in Scotland, where Labour has generally been strongest. The UK Independence Party got more votes than the Liberal-Democrats, but Britain’s first past the post system meant that they only won one seat.

There are 650 seats in the British House of Commons so 326 seats are needed for a majority. The Conservatives received 36.9% of the vote getting 331 seats, just above what they needed. They had 302 seats in the previous Parliament so they gained 28. (The extra seat is that of the Speaker of the House of Commons who is considered to be nonpartisan. He renounced his former party allegiance when taking the office. ) The Labour Party went from 256 seats to 232, losing 24 seats. They won 30.4% of the vote. I am especially glad to see this. From what I can tell, the Labour Party has abandoned Tony Blair’s centrism to embrace the loony left once again. Their leader, Ed Miliband even promised to outlaw “Islamophoba” in Britain in a desperate last minute attempt at pandering to the Muslim vote.

The Liberal-Democrats simply collapsed. They dropped from 56 seats to 8 losing 48 seats. They won 7.9 % of the vote. The UK Independence Party did better, with 12.6% but only won one seat, as I said. I wish they had done better. The sooner Britain is out of the EU, the better. The biggest winner was the Scottish National Party. They only won 4.7% of the vote, but it was concentrated in Scotland, obviously, so they went up from 6 seats to 56 winning 50 seats. The remaining 23 seats were won by a number of minor parties.

So, what does this all mean? I don’t really know. I do not live in the United Kingdom, so I have no particular insights to offer about its politics. I find the rise of the Scottish National Party to be a little disturbing. It seems that last year’s referendum on Scottish independence was only a reprieve and they will be for trying independence once again. I think that would be a mistake on the part of Scotland, since by itself Scotland would be a rather insignificant country. Considering the strength that the Labour Party has traditionally enjoyed there, it seems likely that an independent Scotland would embrace the sort of socialism that has been the ruin of many nations.

One thing that seems remarkable is that every country in the Anglosphere is currently ruled by a conservative or right-wing government, except for the United States. The Conservative Party has a majority in Canada’s House of Commons. They also have a majority in Canada’s Senate, but the Senate has less power than the Commons, though more than Britain’s House of Lords. The Prime Minister is the Conservative Stephen Harper. Australia’s Parliament is operated more like America’s with both the Senate and the House of Representatives having approximately equal power. The Liberal Party controls both Houses and the Prime Minister of Australia, currently Tony Abbott is always appointed from the membership of the largest party. The Liberal Party, despite its name is actually the more conservative of the major Australian parties. Its left-wing opposition is the Labor Party. New Zealand has a unicameral legislature in which the more conservative National Party rules in coalition with a few minor right-wing parties.

Ireland, which I suppose ought to be considered a member of the Anglosphere, is a little strange. The Irish Parliament, called the Oireachtas, has two houses, an upper house, the Seanead Eireanne, which is largely powerless, and the lower house, the Dail Eireanne, which selects the Taoisearch, or Prime Minister. There is a President of Ireland, but it is a ceremonial office. The more conservative Fine Gael currently runs the government in coalition with the Labour Party. while the more centrist conservative Fianna Fail is the opposition. That seems to me to be as if the Republicans were in a coalition with the Green Party against the Democrats.

The United States is the odd man out here, with our more left-wing Democrat, Barack Obama, as president, but that is only because we do not have a parliamentary system here. Instead we have a powerful president elected independently of Congress with a fixed term. If we had a parliamentary system, President Obama would have lost his job in last year’s Republican landslide. Unfortunately we have to put up with him for another two years.

I do not know if the politics of these various countries have any influence on one another, despite all having political cultures descended from the English system. American and British politics historically have seemed to run in tandem with one another with Reagan and Thatcher or Clinton and Blair having parallel administrations, though I haven’t gone through the whole list of the party affiliation of British Prime Ministers. Roosevelt was a Democrat while Churchill was a Conservative while George W. Bush was a Republican and Blair was Labour. It would be nice to take the results of last week’s elections in Britain as a good omen for the Republican’s prospects next year, but we will have to wait and see.


Let Them Eat Cake

April 13, 2015

To start with, Marie Antoinette never actually said it. The phrase is actually found in Jean Jacque Rousseau‘s autobiography, Confessions where at one point he claims that “a great princess” upon learning that the peasants had no bread made the famous statement. Rousseau couldn’t have been speaking of Marie Antoinette, however, because his Confessions, although not published until after his death, was completed by 1769 when Marie Antoinette was still a girl living in Vienna. Which great princess, if any, Rousseau was actually referring to is unknown and since Rousseau adhered to the”fake but accurate” school of historiography so beloved by progressives it is possible that he simply made the whole thing up. In any case, the statement was actually out of character for Marie Antoinette. Despite the caricature of the callous, out of touch aristocrat created by the French radicals, Marie Antoinette was aware of the plight of the French poor and gave generously to charity. She was extravagant in her spending and could be somewhat clueless about what political advisers would call today the “optics” of the royal administration.


Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the late...

She didn’t say it  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Even if she did say it, Marie Antoinette didn’t really say, “let them eat cake”. That is poor translation of the actual statement in French, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“. La brioche is not really cake but a kind of  bread made with eggs and butter to give it a light texture and rich flavor. Brioche was more expensive than the plain flour and water bread that the French poor subsisted upon, so perhaps a more exact translation might be, “if they don’t have the plain bread, let them eat the fancy pastries”. Somehow, that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.


Not cake

Not cake






The meaning behind the words let them eat brioche may not be quite what it is generally assumed to be. It generally is taken to refer to a ruler or government callously unconcerned about the poor, but the pre-revolutionary French monarchs were greatly concerned about the welfare of the French people over which they ruled. As I said, the French poor depended on cheap bread to survive and the French government tightly regulated the supply of grain and flour to ensure that they had a steady supply of bread. There were strict regulations and inspections to ensure that bakers did not adulterate their bread to save money on flour. The price of the cheapest bread was set by the government to be affordable to the poor. Since bakers might be tempted to produce only a limited supply of the cheapest bread, and concentrate on more expensive and profitable pastries like brioche, French law required that if a baker ran out of the cheap bread, he was obliged to sell his more expensive wares at the set price for cheap bread. So, if Marie Antoinette had said let them eat cake, what she meant was that if there was a shortage of the cheap bread that was the staple of the poor, they should the have more expensive bread made available to them.


This system worked well enough in times of plenty, provided that the government set the price of the cheapest bread at a level that ensured that bakers could make a profit. If there was a bad harvest, however, the price of grain and thus of flour would increase. Since the price of bread was set and could not be changed, bakers could find themselves selling bread at a loss. The bakers were supposed to be compensated for their losses when good harvests return,  but they had no way of knowing when that might be. Under the circumstances, they might well decide to not to bother making any bread at all, leading to worse food shortages.


Now, a free market advocate might suggest that the French government ought to have ended its price controls on grain and bread and let the free market determine the cost and supply of bread. Over the long term, the equilibrium between supply and demand would ensure a stable supply of bread at a reasonable price. In fact, that was exactly what was happening in the early years of the reign of Louis XVI. Influenced by the writings of the French school of economics known as the Physiocrats, who advocated free trade and free market economics, and by Louis’s  minister Turgot, the French government had been slowly dismantling the system of price controls and strict regulation of bread in the early 1770’s. Unfortunately, this was also a period of bad harvests which drove the price of grain and then bread to a level beyond the reach of many of the poor. Given time, the market would have righted itself but that was small comfort to the poor who found themselves unable to feed their families. Rioting broke out all over France in 1775, leading to what has been called the Flour War, a sort of pre-revolution. At first the rioters attacked grain merchants who they suspected of hoarding grain, but it wasn’t long before they were fighting with Royal officials. Both the traditional view of the King as protector of his subjects and the free market economics endorsed by Turgot were discredited in the chaos and Turgot was obliged to resign. King Louis XVI  restored the price controls on bread and organized relief for the areas most afflicted by hunger. By the summer of 1775 the Flour War was over, but in hindsight this the beginning of the end of the French ancien régime.


Let them eat cake, then, is not really so much the rallying cry of an uncaring and callous elite as it is for a regime that enacts well-intentioned reforms to help everyone but because the unintended consequences of such reforms are not carefully considered they end up causing more harm than good. This is a lesson many contemporary Louis XVIs and Marie Antoinettes  would do well to learn.




Rand Paul for President

April 8, 2015

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has officially announced the opening of his campaign to be the next President of the United States. As CNN reports,

For Rand Paul, it’s all led to this moment.

Since riding the tea party wave into the Senate in 2010, Paul has carefully built a brand of mainstream libertarianism — dogged advocacy of civil liberties combined with an anti-interventionist foreign policy and general support for family values — that he bets will create a coalition of younger voters and traditional Republicans to usher him into the White House.

The test of that theory began Tuesday when the Kentucky senator made official what has been clear for years: He’s running for president.

“Today I announce with God’s help, with the help of liberty lovers everywhere, that I’m putting myself forward as a candidate for president of the United States of America,” Paul said at a rally in Louisville.

Paul immediately hit the campaign trail for a four-day swing through New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada — the states that traditionally vote first in the primaries and caucuses.

In his speech, he called for reforming Washington by pushing for term limits and a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. He argued that both parties are to blame for the rising debt, saying it doubled under a Republican administration and tripled under Obama.

“Government should be restrained and freedom should be maximized,” he said.

In general, I like Rand Paul. He seems to be more clever than most of the  leading Republicans and he is willing to  move beyond the comfort zone of the GOP and reach out to people who haven’t generally been very responsive to overtures from Republicans and he is willing to take unorthodox positions. His mainstream libertarianism is likely to be appealing to the large number of Americans who simply want the government to leave them alone without seeming overly dogmatic or extreme. He seems to be having a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the mainstream media, in that he is not allowing the reporters who have interviewed him to corner him or put words in his mouth. Perhaps Rand Paul understand, as few Republican politicians seem to, that the media is the enemy and will never give any Republican candidate a fair chance. All in all, Rand Paul seems to be an excellent candidate for president.


I have some reservations, though. Paul doesn’t have much experience in politics, just one term as the junior Senator from Kentucky. The last time we elected a one-term junior Senator, it didn’t work out too well. A more serious objection to a Rand Paul candidacy is the fact that his father, Ron Paul, is a lunatic and I am afraid that the nut doesn’t far fall from the oak tree. My most serious concern with Ron Paul is his extreme isolationism. There are a lot of people, including Rand Paul, who have been labeled as isolationist because they have expressed the position that the United States need not get involved in every conflict in the world and should exercise more discretion in intervening in foreign affairs, particularly in matters that do not affect our interests. This is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Ron Paul, however, seems to be of the opinion that the United States should not be involved in foreign affairs at all. We should mind our own business and in return the world will leave us alone. This is a dangerously naive position to take. For one thing, America is simply too big and powerful to mind its own business. Everything we do, even not doing anything, affects everyone in the world. A small country like Switzerland can keep to itself. The US does not have that option. Also, our present period of relative peace and prosperity depends very much on American leadership and power. If America falters, things could get very bad, very quickly. President Obama’s reluctance to assert American leadership has already caused much vexation among our allies and in the world generally. A truly isolationist administration would be a disaster.

Rand Paul seems to be more reasonable about foreign policy than his father and it may be that he will find a middle ground between extreme isolationism and excessive interventionism. It may also be that his father’s extreme positions will prevent his election or even nomination as the Republican candidate. It remains to be seen. The election of 2016 is still a long way off and it is probably premature to make any predictions or make any decisions about the candidates.

Violent Extremism

February 26, 2015

Peter Beinart defends President Obama’s use of the term violent extremism rather than Islamic terrorism in an article in The Atlantic. I think he makes a few good points but missed the reason there is a problem with Obama’s refusal to name the source of the problem.

Sometimes we overlook the obvious. For weeks now, pundits and politicians have been raging over President Obama’s insistence that America is fighting “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam.” Rudy Giuliani calls the president’s refusal to utter the ‘I’ word “cowardice.” The president’s backers defend it as a savvy refusal to give ISIS the religious war it desperately wants. But, for the most part, both sides agree that when Obama says “violent extremists” he actually means “violent Muslim extremists.” After all, my Atlantic colleague David Frum argues, “The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character.”

For Obama’s critics, and even some of his defenders, this is the president being “politically correct,” straining to prove that terrorists, and their victims, hail from every group and creed in order to avoid stigmatizing Muslims. But the president’s survey is fairly representative. Peruse the FBI’s database of terrorist attacks in the United States between 1980 and 2005 and you’ll see that radical Muslims account for a small percentage of them. Many more were committed by radical environmentalists, right-wing extremists, and Puerto Rican nationalists. To be sure, Muslims account for some of the most deadly incidents: the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayat’s shooting spree at the El Al counter at LAX in 2002, and of course 9/11. But non-Muslims account (or at least appear to account) for some biggies too: the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing, the explosions at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 2001 anthrax attacks.

If you look more recently, the story is much the same. Between 2006 and 2013, the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (GTD) logged 14 terrorist incidents in the United States in which at least one person died. Of these, Muslims committed four: a 2006 attack on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, a 2009 assault on a Little Rock recruiting station, the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, and the 2013 Boston Marathon attack (which the GTD counts as four separate incidents but I count as only one). Non-Muslims committed 10, including an attack on a Unitarian church in Knoxville in 2008, the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller in Wichita in 2009, the flying of a private plane into an IRS building in Austin in 2010, and the attack on the Sikh temple that same year.

Not all European terrorists are Muslim either. According to the Center for American Progress’s analysis of data from Europol, the European Union’s equivalent of the FBI, less than 2 percent of terrorist attacks in the EU between 2009 and 2013 were religiously inspired. Separatist or ultra-nationalist groups committed the majority of the violent acts. Of course, jihadists have perpetrated some of the most horrific attacks in Europe in recent memory: the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 attacks in the London subway, and, of course, last month’s murders at Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher. But there have been gruesome attacks by non-Muslims too. Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 assault on a summer camp near Oslo, for instance, killed far more people than the recent, awful attacks in France.

Why does this matter? Because the U.S. government has finite resources. If you assume, as conservatives tend to, that the only significant terrorist threat America faces comes from people with names like Mohammed and Ibrahim, then that’s where you’ll devote your time and money. If, on the other hand, you recognize that environmental lunatics and right-wing militia types kill Americans for political reasons too, you’ll spread the money around.

We’ve already seen the consequences of a disproportionate focus on jihadist terrorism. After 9/11, the Bush administration so dramatically shifted homeland-security resources toward stopping al-Qaeda that it left FEMA hideously unprepared to deal with an attack from Mother Nature, in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The Obama administration is wise to avoid that kind of overly narrow focus today. Of course it’s important to stop the next Nidal Malik Hasan or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But it’s also important to stop the next Timothy McVeigh or Wade Michael Page. And by calling the threat “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam,” Obama tells the bureaucracy to work on that too.

Instead of assuming that these threats are the same, we should be debating the relative danger of each. By using “violent extremism” rather than “radical Islam,” Obama is staking out a position in that argument. It’s a position with which reasonable people can disagree. But cowardice has nothing to do with it.

I think that Mr. Beinart is correct in saying that it would be unwise to concentrate on the threat from Islamic radicals to the exclusion of any other potential threat.There are many sources of danger in the world, both natural and man-made and it is prudent to maintain at least some vigilance in as many ways as possible. I think that he does not understand that the terrorist threat from  radical Islam is greater than from any other source, either foreign or domestic. Beinart concedes that the attacks from Islamic terrorists, while fewer in overall numbers, have been more deadly, but the greater danger is not because attacks by violent Muslims tend to kill more people.

Timothy McVeigh, Anders Brevick, the Unibomber, and others like them were demented loners. While their actions were dangerous and deadly they acted alone or with one or two accomplices. They had no large network of supporters to give them aid and no one applauded their actions. The environmentalist and right-wing terrorists Beinart mentioned are very much isolated and marginalized, even among supporters of the causes they espouse. While there may be some few people who approve of their violent actions, the number of people willing to give any sort of material support is very low. These sorts of demented loners and extremist splinter cells can be handled by law enforcement.

Islamic terrorists such as the late and unlamented Osama bin Laden and the Islamic State are not demented loners or small groups of isolated extremists and we practice a dangerous self delusion if we believe that they play as insignificant role in in the Islamic world as Earth First! does in the West. These militants are not a small group of extremist who have perverted a peaceful religion. Their actions and ideology are far closer to the mainstream of Islam than our political leaders are willing to admit.

Consider the numbers. There is something like 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. If only one percent are willing to give at least moral support to terrorists, that is 16 million supporters. If only one percent of that number is willing to support the cause materially, than there are 160,000 people in the world willing to help with acts of terrorism against the West. There are not hundreds of thousands or people willing to actually commit acts of terrorism, even most Muslims who think that such acts are justified would rather live their lives in peace, but this should suggest the size of any potential base of support an Islamic terrorist group might be able to exploit. This is a base far greater than any other cause that a terrorist might support. Law enforcement is not enough to handle this problem. We must be willing to admit that we are at war. They certainly believe that they are at war with us and unlike us, they are fighting to win, while we do not even want to name the enemy.

I do not want to suggest that military action is the only, or even the best, option for dealing with the problem of radical Islam. I do not know what the best option is, but I have a feeling that it will require a variety of approaches including military action, law enforcement, diplomacy and others,just as we used a wide variety of tactics to bring down the Soviet Union. But first we have to admit to ourselves the nature of the threat we face. We cannot defeat an enemy we make no effort to understand.


Christian Revival in France

February 22, 2015

It is a commonly held viewpoint in our times that history moves in only one direction, from the benighted past to the enlightened present. This viewpoint is justified in the fields of science and technology. We obviously have much greater knowledge of the natural world and far better tools and machines than our ancestors could have dreamed of. This progressive view of history is less justified in politics and culture. In those fields it is less clear what really constitutes progress and whether history is really moving in a straight line toward some end. What I am trying to get at is that our ideas about what is right and wrong, or true and untrue, or desirable and undesirable are not necessarily superior to the ideas of our ancestors nor is it certain that we are forever moving in a certain direction toward the truth or the good, etc.

I mentioned, in passing, in a recent post that the idea of our time being uniquely liberated in its sexual mores while all past ages were repressed and puritanical is not really true. These sorts of cultural movements seem to go in cycled. A similar idea is held about the status of religion in society. It is often believed that religion is a relic of past ages in which people were ignorant and superstitious. In our more enlightened times, in which we have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, religion is no longer needed. As people become more educated, the influence of religion must fade. Europe is held as an example of this phenomena. The continent has become steadily more secular over the last two centuries and surely before long the people of Europe will be entirely free of religion. The fact that the United States is just as advanced as Europe in science and technology but has remained consistently more religious than Europe may seem to disprove the rule that societies become more secular as they advance, but the US is, in some ways,culturally backward compared to Europe, especially in the Red States. After all, those ignorant Americans still don’t have nationalized medicine or strict gun control. In twenty years, the US will be just as secular as Europe. After all, that is the way history is moving. So goes the argument.

But, perhaps not. Religious observance too tends to run in cycles. Periods of great fervor,even fanaticism in religion alternate with periods of laxity and skepticism. Atheism is by no means a new phenomena. There were atheists in ancient Greece and Rome, and curiously enough, they used the very same arguments against religion that the so-called New Atheists use. The current period of secularism in Europe may be followed by a religious period and there is no reason to believe that the US must inevitably follow in Europe’s footsteps.

Consider this article from The Week, about a possible religious revival in France.

On a recent Sunday, my family and I only showed up 10 minutes early for Mass. That meant we had to sit in fold-out chairs in the spillover room, where the Mass is relayed on a large TV screen. During the service, my toddler had to go to the bathroom. To get there, we had to step over a dozen people sitting in hallways and corners. This is business as usual for my church in Paris, France.

I point this out because one of the most familiar tropes in social commentary today is the loss of Christian faith in Europe in general, and France in particular. The Wall Street Journal recently fretted about the sale of “Europe’s empty churches.”

Could it be, instead, that France is in the early stages of a Christian revival?

Yes, churches in the French countryside are desperately empty. There are no young people there. But then, there are no young people in the French countryside, period. France is a modern country with an advanced economy, and that means its countryside has emptied, and that means that churches built in an era when the country’s sociological makeup was quite different go empty. In the cities — which is where people are, and where cultural trends gain escape velocity — the story is quite different.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. My wife and I now live in an upper-crust neighborhood with all the churches full of upwardly-mobile professionals. When we were penniless grad students, we lived in a working class neighborhood and on Sunday our church was packed with immigrant families and hipster gentrifiers.

It was only recently that I was struck by the fact that, imperceptibly, the majority of my college and grad school friends who were Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics when we met now report going to Church every Sunday and praying regularly. On social media, they used to post about parties; now they’re equally likely to post prayers for persecuted Middle East Christians or calls to help the homeless over the holidays.

My friends live all over town; some of them are young singles who move around a lot; all of them report looking for those mythical “empty churches” we hear so much about — and failing to find them. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around: If you don’t show up early, you might have to sit on the floor — and people are happy to do it.

The massive rallies in France, underwritten by the Catholic Church, against the recent same-sex marriage bill stunned the world: Isn’t France the poster child for sexually-easygoing secularism? Perhaps more than a million people took to the streets, and disproportionately young ones, too. (Compare Britain’s “whatever” response to its own same-sex marriage act, passed around the same time.) But they forgot that a century of militant secularism didn’t kill the Old Faith — it merely drove it underground. And perhaps by privatizing faith, the secularists unwittingly strengthened it; after all, the catacombs have always been good to Christianity.

There is more.

I hope that this is really the case, that there is a revival of Christianity in France and ultimately Europe, with the difference that there will be no more state sponsored churches. The melding of church and state that took place in the late Roman Empire and afterwards has been very bad for Christianity. Most of the bad behavior attributed to Christianity, which has served to discredit the church in the eyes of many, has been the result of an institution backed by the state, and employing coercion. Whatever form a possible revival of Christianity in Europe might take, it would certainly be better than the alternatives. I believe that secularism is a dead end. Man does not live by bread alone. He needs something higher to believe in. If people do not have religion, they will find something else, or they will cease to live. As it is, Europe is dying.

The are many who believe that the future of Europe is in Islam. They project a future in which thanks to a higher birthrate and conversions, the Muslim population of Europe will come to be a majority and impose their culture and values on Europe. I am not so certain of this, myself. It is unwise to take current demographic trends and project them in a straight line into the indefinite future. People do react to events and it may be that the Europeans will wake up to the threat to Islamization. Whatever happens, the influence of Islam is not a good one, and the less such influence Islam has on Europe and the world, the better. Secularism cannot really counter Islam. You can’t fight something with nothing. If the Europeans do not want to descend in the poverty and barbarism of the Islamic world, they will have to find a competing ideology, and what better than their Christian heritage.


The First World War

February 12, 2015

The First World War was the single most important event of the twentieth century. Every event that followed that war, all the other wars, the great movements and revolutions, and even the scientific discoveries and inventions, began in some way, direct or indirect, from the great and terrible happenings of the years 1914-1918. A world in which that war had not occurred would be a very different and perhaps better world.

Despite the importance of World War One, I have never known very much about it. I had some knowledge of the general outlines, which countries fought on which side, and which side won. I knew the names of some of the battles, the Somme, Verdun, but nothing in detail. I had some familiarity of the conditions of the Western Front but knew almost nothing at all about the Eastern Front, save that Russia ended up losing. I do not think that I am alone in knowing so little about World War One. The First World War tends to be overshadowed, in contemporary minds, by the still greater and more catastrophic Second World War. Yet, had the first war not been fought, it is very unlikely the second war would have broken out. At first the nature of the combatants would have been different, no Nazis in Germany and no Communist Soviet Union. In the United States, World War One tends to get little attention because we only entered the war in its last year. While the US contribution was crucial to the Allied victory, the war did not hurt us as badly as it did the European powers that fought it. Unlike France, Germany or Britain, America did not lose much of a generation in the fighting.


To learn more about this war, I turned to The First World War by the eminent military historian John Keegan. I am happy to report that Mr. Keegan does a truly marvelous job in relating the course of the war, from its beginnings, in the plans by the military staffs of the various combatants to fight the next war, to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand that sparked the war, through the years of trench warfare when massive armies butted heads to no avail, all the way to the last desperate attempt by the Germans to knock Britain and France out of the war before fresh American soldiers arrived to reinforce them. He seems to pay equal attention to both the Western and Eastern fronts. I learned quite a lot about the fighting between Russian and the German-Austrian alliance, not to mention the fighting in the Balkans where the war started.
Keegan mostly dwells on the military aspects of the war and has relatively little to say about the domestic politics of the European nations. He does go into some detail about the diplomatic maneuverings the nations of Europe engaged in during the Balkan crisis that led up to the war. It is somewhat poignant to learn that neither side really wanted a general war in Europe, but no one seemed strong enough to end the crisis. Keegan speculates that if Austria-Hungary had launched an immediate invasion of Serbia in retaliation of their support for terrorist activities, the crisis would have ended before it had grown out of control. As it happened, Austria-Hungary waited for support from Germany, and the wait proved fatal for Europe.

Keegan challenges some myths and ideas that have grown up about the war. He argues that the various generals were not as incompetent or unconcerned about casualties as is often supposed. As he points out, they tried to fight the war as best they could, but technological development was at an awkward phase for fighting a war. Barbed wired and the machine gun made defended positions nearly impregnable, while the technologies that would have aided the offensive, tanks and airplanes were only beginning to be developed. Improvements in transportation, especially trains, made it possible to send many thousands of men into battle, but the generals had no way to keep in contact with their armies once battle had begun. It was no longer possible for generals to lead their men in person; the battles were too large for that. Telephone and telegraph wires were easily cut. Radio was still in its infancy. The generals were removed from the battlefields because they had no choice. They sent their men to be slaughtered because wars cannot be won without attacking the enemy and attacking the enemy’s positions killed thousands.

I enjoyed learning about World War One from John Keegan’s book and I think it serves as an excellent introduction to the war. It covers all the major battles and aspects of the war without getting bogged down in details. Best of all, it can be understood easily even by the reader not familiar with military affairs. I can highly recommend The First World War.


Crossing the Line

January 23, 2015

DeWayne Wickham believes that the French magazine Charlie Hebdo has gone too far. They have crossed the line between free speech and toxic talk and thus is responsible for much of the violence committed by Muslims in France and around the world. He writes in USA Today;

Charlie Hebdo has gone too far.

In its first publication following the Jan. 7 attack on its Paris office, in which two Muslim gunmen massacred 12 people, the once little-known French satirical news weekly crossed the line that separates free speech from toxic talk.

Charlie Hebdo‘s latest depiction of the prophet Mohammed — a repeat of the very action that is thought to have sparked the murderous attack on its office — predictably has given rise to widespread violence in nations with large Muslim populations. Its irreverence of Mohammed once moved the French tabloid to portray him naked in a pornographic pose. In another caricature, it showed Mohammed being beheaded by a member of the Islamic State.

While free speech is one of democracy’s most important pillars, it has its limits. H.L. Mencken, the fabled columnist who described himself as “an extreme libertarian,” said that he believed in free speech“up to the last limits of the endurable.”

French President Francois Hollande, apparently, disagrees. He defendsCharlie Hebdo‘s latest depiction of Mohammed by saying that protesters in other countries don’t understand France’s embrace of free speech.

But even as Hollande defends Charlie Hebdo‘s right to publish images of Mohammed that many Muslims consider sacrilegious and hateful, his government has imprisoned dozens of people who have condemned the magazine with talk the French won’t tolerate. Those arrested are accused of speaking in support of the attack on the magazine, and a separate assault on a kosher store in Paris by a lone Muslim gunman with links to the men who attacked Charlie Hebdo.

While the Obama administration condemned these deadly attacks, it probably wasn’t surprised. Two years ago, then-press secretary Jay Carney questioned the judgment ofCharlie Hebdo‘s editors when they published an offensive depiction of Mohammed. That came a year after the newspaper’s office was firebombed when it tauntingly named Mohammed its guest editor. That portrayal came with a caption that read: “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.”


In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled speech that presents a “clear and present danger” is not protected by the First Amendment. Crying “fire” in a quiet, uninhabited place is one thing, the court said. But “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”

Twenty-two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that forms of expression that “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are fighting words that are not protected by the First Amendment.

If Charlie Hebdo‘s irreverent portrayal of Mohammed before the Jan. 7 attack wasn’t thought to constitute fighting words, or a clear and present danger, there should be no doubt now that the newspaper’s continued mocking of the Islamic prophet incites violence. And it pushes Charlie Hebdo‘s free speech claim beyond the limits of the endurable.

The principle that Mr. Wickham seems to be enunciating seems to be that freedom of speech is all very well unless someone is upset by what is being spoken or written, in which case, that speech should be suppressed. I wonder if he has really thought through the implications of this principle. If the idea that only speech that offends no one should be permitted is applied even-handedly, than only the blandest sort of platitudes can be allowed, given that there are so many people offended by seemingly innocent expressions. Of course, this principle of forbidding “toxic talk” cannot be even-handedly applied even with the best efforts. In practice, it will be those quick to use force, either violent or otherwise whose feelings will be spared. A pornographic portrayal of Jesus or Buddha is permitted. Christians and Buddhists do not usually respond to insults with bombs or guns. A pornographic portrayal of Mohammed is forbidden. Muslims often respond to insults with murderous rage.

Mr. Wickham justifies this sort of distinction by invoking the example of a man crying fire in a crowded theater. The editors of Charlie Hebdo knew that their cartoons would provoke violence that would create a clear and present danger to the peace. Therefore, their fighting words should be prohibited. He further accuses the French authorities of hypocrisy in defended Charlie Hebdo’s free speech rights while denying the rights of those who have called for violence against the magazine. I do not think that DeWayne Wickham really understands the meaning of the phrase inciting to violence nor does he appear to make a distinction between speech that someone may find offensive and speech that calls for violence against a person perceived to be causing offense. The former must be permitted or there is no freedom of speech. The latter must be forbidden or the violent will deny freedom of speech.

I will try to explain what I mean. If I am addressing a rally of the Ku Klux Klan and I state that everyone in the audience should go out and kill an African-American ( I know what word they would really use, but nevermind.) that would clearly be an incitement to violence. If someone actually did kill someone afterwards, I might be considered legally responsible. I would certainly be morally responsible. Clearly, such speech ought not to be allowed. If, on the other hand, I made the statement that African-Americans were all stupid, that would not be an incitement to violence, even if such a statement would certainly be offensive to an African-American reporter covering the rally. If that reporter jumped up onto the podium and punched me in the face, he would be arrested and charged with assault. The fact that he found my speech offensive would not be considered justification for his action, although a jury might not convict him. The Black reporter would be responsible for his action, not me. The statement that African-Americans are all stupid is protected speech, even if the statement is offensive and even hateful.

In like fashion, Charlie Hebdo is not responsible for the actions of Muslims who find its cartoons offensive. They do not have to read the magazine. They can publish their own magazine mocking the sort of people the cartoonists and editors are likely to be. To blame Charlie Hebdo for their actions is really rather insulting since it implies that those people are savages who cannot really be responsible for their actions. To argue that this magazine should be in any way suppressed because of the threat of violence is giving the violent a veto over our speech and thus ending the concept of free speech. One might think that the dean of a school of journalism would understand that.


Death of a King

January 22, 2015

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has died. The Associated Press has an obituary.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaida and sought to modernize the ultra conservative Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including nudging open greater opportunities for women, has died, according to Saudi state TV. He was 90.

More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.

He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several countries, but in Lebanon for example, the policy failed to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from gaining the upper hand. And Tehran and Riyadh’s colliding ambitions stoked proxy conflicts around the region that enflamed Sunni-Shiite hatreds – most horrifically in Syria’s civil war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Those conflicts in turn hiked Sunni militancy that returned to threaten Saudi Arabia.

And while the king maintained the historically close alliance with Washington, there were frictions as he sought to put those relations on Saudi Arabia’s terms. He was constantly frustrated by Washington’s failure to broker a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also pushed the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against Iran and to more strongly back the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Abdullah’s death was announced on Saudi state TV by a presenter who said the king died at 1 a.m. on Friday. His successor was announced as 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, according to a Royal Court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency. Salman was Abdullah’s crown prince and had recently taken on some of the ailing king’s responsibilities.

He can’t have had an easy time trying to balance between the needs of modernizing his country and the ultra conservative religious establishment which controls so much of the kingdom’s society. As the obituary mentions, King Abdullah was an ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism, yet Saudi Arabia has supplied much of the funding for that terrorism, with members of the Saudi royal family almost certainly providing assistance to radical groups. The strict Wahhabi sect of Islam which is Saudi Arabia’s official religion has provided much of the ideological backing for the most extreme Islamic groups and Wahhabism has spread in the Islamic world due largely to the financial support from the sale of Saudi oil.

King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002

King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saudi Arabia is among the few countries left in the world governed by an absolute monarchy. The King of Saudi Arabia holds all the legislative, judicial and executive functions of government in his own persons and his royal decrees make up the law of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is also one of the few countries without even a pretext of any democratic machinery. Totalitarian dictatorships such as the People’s Republic of China and the People’s Democratic Republic of (North) Korea have (one party) elections and a legislature to rubber stamp the rulers’ commands. Saudi Arabia is still ruled like a medieval kingdom or a Bedouin tribe. Things are beginning to change in this old fashioned land. Recently there have been elections on the municipal level though no political parties are permitted and the councils elected are mostly powerless. In the 2015 elections, women will actually be allowed to vote and even run for office.

The king’s rule is not absolute, however. He must rule in accordance with the Koran and sharia law. Every Saudi male has the right to petition the king through a tribal council called the Majlis and in practice members and branches of the royal family have considerable influence as well as ulema, the religious establishment of Islamic scholars and jurists. The royal family, the Sauds, form an elite in the kingdom. These are the descendants of the first king of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud who united the Arabian peninsula and founded the Kingdom in 1932. Because of the practice of polygamy, the number of princes in the kingdom is very large, perhaps more than 7000. Of these, around 200 play an important role in the kingdom’s government. The Sauds effectively own the whole country and little distinction is made between the family’s assets and the finances of the state. They are the Saud in Saudi Arabia.

It is not easy to determine what will come next in the desert kingdom since so much is dependent on the personality and concerns of the king. So far, every king of Saudi Arabia has been a son of Abdulaziz. The new king, Salman, is 79 years old, so I doubt he will provide vigorous leadership.  Since Abdulaziz died in 1953, I doubt if any of his remaining sons are much younger, so it is possible there will be a series of short-lived, feeble kings for several years until the line of succession goes to the next generation.One can only hope that the desert kingdom continues to inch toward modernity.


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