Sunday, July 30, 2006

Middle East Lunacy, Part 457

I wanted to make this post more long-term in its view, but given its topicality, I thought it important to contribute my $0.02 to understanding it all.

Essentially, Hizbollah has taken Lebanon hostage and is now using it as a human shield. Lebanon suffered 15 years of sectarian civil war, 18 years of Israeli (partial) occupation, and 15 years of Syrian control. The Cedar Revolution of 2005 (the March 15th movement) gave many hope that it could make a full comeback. But Lebanon cannot be put back together or become a real country with an armed Hizbollah acting as an Iranian proxy. It's not only a state-within-a-state, but a mini-state apparently more powerful than its host. It's the Iranian Armed Forces West.

The governments currently complaining about Israel's disproportionate response will be singing a different tune when terrorist groups in, say, Russia or India can do what Hizbollah is now doing. (The Russian or Indian response to such attacks will also not be proportionate -- the Chechen war has been wildly disproportionate. But they also probably won't appear on CNN.) Many of the world's critics of Israel are still reading an old script connected to the Palestinians. What they don't realize yet is that Nasrallah and Hizbollah have, in a single stroke, succeeded not only in exporting a Shiite jihadism that might soon eclipse Sunni jihadism, but have also finished converting the Arab-Israeli conflict into a Muslim-Jewish conflict no longer connected to the Palestinians.

The apparent political payoff is that Hizbollah is staging a "coup" against the Lebanese government, by leveraging its fight against Israel to achieve what they couldn't achieve through internal Lebanese politics or Syrian domination -- that is, to reverse the Cedar Revolution. See here and here, as well as here. For more, listen to this discussion by a Lebanese Christian here (streaming WMV video). In this regard, my biases are essentially these.

The payoff for Iran is also great. A Hizbollah coup moves Iran closer to dominating an area stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean coast, in part through allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon -- the start of a new caliphate with messianic ("hidden imam") claims and a big blow to the current Western-style system of nation-states in the region. For a second time, Iran has diverted attention from its nuclear weapons program by instigating a crisis, just at the moment the G8 summit in Russia was to focus on that very issue. The first was last winter, when Iran led the way in engineering the staged provocations (the anti-Danish cartoon riots) in Europe, just at the moment when Denmark took the chair of the UN Security Council.

Many commentators are now arguing that Israel is losing against Hizbollah. It's too early to say that for sure. But it is clear that the Israeli policy of unilateral withdrawals has come to an end. The first such withdrawal (from Lebanon in 2000) helped precipitate the misnamed "Al-Aqsa intifada"; the second (from Gaza in 2005) helped lead to the Hamas electoral victory and start of rocket attacks from Gaza this past spring. Israel's goals for now are narrowly military. Olmert is clearly determined to avoid playing empire-builder in Lebanon as Sharon did 24 years ago. But that will eventually have to change. While the larger regional problem cannot be solved by Israel alone and international involvement is needed to put Lebanon back together, Israel is a regional power and needs to act as such, and not just militarily. The one good thing about all this is that what was once just Israel's problem, is now recognized as everyone else's problem as well. Arab governments are terrified that what they see in southern Lebanon is also their future. There is growing public recognition that jihadism is as big or bigger threat to Arab countries than to Israel or West. European governments should also be terrified, but they're not -- yet.

Another consequence is that isolating Iran will now be easier than you think -- they have overplayed their hand. Until now, they avoided doing anything really stupid (unlike Saddam or Milosevic), but they've clearly blown it. The stubborn Euro-myth that Hamas-Hizbollah jihadism was merely "resistance to occupation" has been exploded: Israel is gone from Gaza and was gone from Lebanon for six years. Clearly, Hizbollah and to a lesser extent Hamas are Iranian proxies, and this is a proxy war, not a war against occupation. Of course, that's always been true, but there has a widespread refusal to see this in Arab capitals and in Europe. This can no longer be sustained. The parallel need to isolate Syria, Iran's sidekick, is widely recognized in Arab capitals, but not appreciated in the West.

A final clear point is the need for Bush to re-engage politically in Middle East, something that is tentatively underway. By Bush reducing much of his foreign policy to the Iraq war, America is no longer as respected or feared as it once was in the Middle East, one of the many negative consequences of the Iraq invasion. Another was riling up Iran by toppling its neighboring regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush's times of maximum leverage in the Middle East were 2002 and early 2005, both periods of intense political engagement. Let's hope Bush is now free of the neoconservative fallacy of trying to achieve non-military ends with military means and that he understands that military means are effective only when used for military ends.

To add more opinion than analysis: Olmert does not want to repeat what Sharon did in the 1980s in Lebanon, a prolonged and massive ground war/occupation. Hence the air strikes without a large ground force. But Hizbollah has quite deliberately interlaced its rocket launchers in civilian areas (not even always Shiite areas, but Druze and Christian areas as well). Stopping the rockets needs ground attacks. To stop the rockets by air would require carpet bombing southern Lebanon, and even that would probably not work. Special forces raids can do this. But they can't accomplish the larger goal of disarming Hizbollah, or pushing it out of southern Lebanon, or allowing the Lebanese government to take control. Many Lebanese now support Hizbollah, because of the escalating civilian casualties. This could turn into a catastrophe for Lebanon and the end of Lebanon as an independent country, as well as another Iranian-backed jihadist triumph.

There is an alternative to a massive ground invasion, as Michael Totten has repeatedly explained: those Israeli bombs currently falling on southern Lebanon should instead be falling on Syria and Iran. The air strikes on southern Lebanon should stop. Israel should explicitly link attacks on Syria and Iran with the international and Middle Eastern effort to isolate both countries. The best offense is strategic, not getting bogged down in a futile and politically costly fight against Hizbollah, a diversionary trap in the end. Hit their sponsors instead, and hit them hard. The timing is obviously critical but should not obscure the need.

Israel should not just offer, but insist, publicly, that it be involved with Lebanon's reconstruction, including paying some of the costs. This aid should be conditional on disarming Hizbollah and on Lebanese government control of the border.

(Posted on the eve of Tisha B'Av 5766 and the 92nd anniversary of the start of World War One.)

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Thundering Kossacks

As probably every politico-cybersavvy person has heard by now, a mini-scandal has erupted from the revelations of "webola" received by the leftist blog DailyKos from fellow leftist bloggers and important Democratic operatives. Accusations of corruption are flying, important Democratic moderates (associated with the Democratic Leadership Council, the Clintons, and the New Republic) are trying to wrest their party back from the semi-literate fringe, and DailyKos meister Moulitsas-Zuniga has reacted angrily to the sudden intrusion of adults into his "Miri"-style romper room (no grups!). Descending from the Higher Sefirot, Kavanna is coming a little late to this fracas, so start with this major posting from Instapundit and the key New Republic and Weekly Standard articles here (requires subscription) and here.

Then read the always-thoughtful Ann Althouse of Madison. Check out the quotes from Newt and the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" guy, then go down to comments. There's a poignant one from a leftie (Theo Boehm). It's incredible that the Democratic dog is being wagged by the Kossack tail and their fellow playpen-mates from MoveOn. They already control a lopsided share of Democratic fundraising and activism, in spite of their 0-for-N (you fill in for N) electoral score. (They're also evidently about to put Lieberman through the wringer -- just what the party doesn't need.) The Deaniac phenomenon was an earlier version of this -- a bizarre cult of angry juveniles, although that wasn't as clear three years ago. (What that struck Binah then about Dean was that he was promoting himself as a populist, but in fact he was largely a media phenomenon -- they built him up, then destroyed him -- and he was too arrogant and clueless to realize what was happening. And like DailyKos, the Deaniacs grossly exaggerated their following.) It's like your local house of worship being taken over by Scientologists. That's the real problem here, not "corruption."

Something similar happened 50 years ago to the Republican party. From the late 1930s until the mid-1960s, before the coalescence of the modern conservative movement, the Republican right-fringe was inhabited by anti-intellectual weirdos and conspiracy theorists. Because the Party lacked a widely-accepted ideology and leadership during that period, it was in considerable danger of being dominated by crackpots. The 1936 and 1940 elections featured impassioned and incoherent Republican reactions to the New Deal and impending intervention in World War II. They did have decent presidential candidates (Landon and Wilkie), and an important part of the party -- East Coast, Anglophile, pro-intervention liberal Republicans -- nearly split off. After 1945, further angry anti-New Deal and anti-interventionist reaction (combined with the nasty and unexpected Korean War) culminated in Congressional revolt against Truman and the McCarthy episode. Not until Eisenhower did the Republican party stabilize, and not until the arrival of Buckley and his National Review were the crazies (isolationists, conspiracists, Birchers, and antisemites) ejected from the respectable Right. Unfortunately, the Democrats have never undergone such a purging -- instead, they seem doomed to continually repeat their post-1968 cave-in to the overgrown adolescents of the Left. They too are now dominated by "... irritable mental gestures seeking to become ideas."

One predictable result is that there's an attempt by the mainstream media right now to portray the blogosphere as generally nutty and not "professional" (unlike them -- ha!). But there's no symmetry between the left-blogosphere and everyone else. The non-left-blogosphere is mostly sane, fairly large, diverse in views, tolerant, and above all grassroots -- made up of people with real lives and lots of common sense. The left-blogosphere is considerably smaller, much nuttier, much angrier, more puerile, and sectarian-cultish. Its social profile has "loser" written all over it. It fits that they're trying to take over the Dems and turn them into a cult front. Can you imagine an academic like Reynolds or even conservative warriors like Hugh Hewitt or Ann Coulter trying to take over the Republican party in this fashion? Just to pose the question is to answer it -- these are normal people, and those are not. (OK, maybe Ann isn't normal.)

Spelling out the negative consequences of DailyKos and the "netroots" movement for the Democratic party and American politics deserves another posting or two. But to start, digest this perceptive article by Matthew Continetti. Keep in mind that the "hit" and pageview numbers claimed by the leftie bloggers are almost certainly a serious exaggeration, which makes Continetti's point even stronger.

Finally, this is just funny: Martin Peretz, publisher and owner of the New Republic, speaks out! But hey, he's tight with that Joe-neocon guy from Connecticut -- right? Aren't "they" all? Or am I just missing something? I guess we here at Kavanna are part of the problem, and we'll never get it :D

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The depressing decline of Europe

This is a topic perpetually "out there" these days, but we're frequently reminded of the underlying condition by some event or another. Two books and authors getting the most attention (deservedly) are Claire Berlinski's Menace in Europe and Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept. Berlinski's book is more journalistic and fragmented; Bawer's is the better thought out and better written. Read this interview with Berlinski for more.

Why should Americans care? Because Europe is the "other half" of the West and, along with Japan and the US, forms the "old core" of advanced countries. If Europe goes into a terminal tailspin, the US will need a Plan B for many things. Even as it is, the US is the only advanced country with an above-replacement birth rate and strong economic growth. This fact underlies many of the world's current dramatic imbalances (people and capital flows, military strength, etc.). But that topic deserves one or two postings all by itself.

As Jim Bennett likes to say: Democracy, Multiculturalism, Open Immigration -- pick any two. A simple yet profound related thought from Foreign Policy.

You can get a glimpse of what's wrong in Europe these days by considering the disgraceful case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch parliamentarian expelled from Holland. See here for her blog. Check this page out for Web interview videos of Ali. She spoke recently at Harvard. Her appearance was reported upon here, here, and here. (As always, truth-tellers on campus these days are faced with hostile Mulsim students and their pseudo-left PC-brainwashed allies. Remember that Harvard costs $50K a year -- as Ali herself asked, "What do they learn here?" If she only knew. Maybe she should have a chat with Larry Summers.)

Then there's the shameful case of Oriana Fallaci. This is how Europe treats one of its own; the Ali case, how Europe treats one of the Other you hear the post-modern Left chatter about so much. (But you'll hear few of them chatter about Ali.) Myopia and denial constitute the tragedy of the Fallaci case. Ali's tragedy is that an escapee from Islamic fanaticism believes in the Enlightenment values that Europe has either forgotten or repudiated.

A final thought: This topic is a beautiful example of why reading books and quality magazines, along with a few decent blogs, is infinitely better than a junk food diet of television news. When you read serious brain food, you'll actually know more than when you started, and little of the "news" will surprise you. When you consume television news, all you get is a stream of context-free and thus meaningless "news" events. Everything will surprise you. (Newspapers and radio are better, but not radically better.) The purpose of the news industry is not to enlighten, but to shock, propagandize, entertain, advertise, and generate a steady background of anxiety -- all to keep you coming back tomorrow.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cool books 2

In keeping up with science, I've also recently re-read Lee Smolin's two quantum gravity-inspired books, The Life of the Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity. Among specialists, these are controversial topics. Smolin does a fine job of explaining the key concepts and the agonizingly slow progress of unifying the very small (quantum) with the very large (gravity/general relativity/cosmology), including (a) string theory, (b) canonical quantum gravity, and (c) black hole information theory. He proposes a mind-bending multiverse picture where life and consciousness play a critical role in sorting out viable universes. It's speculative metaphysics and no more scientific or convincing than other such multiverse ideas. But Smolin's version is better thought out and argued than the others. He does indulge in too much groovy-sounding postmodernism -- I guess he wants his book to sound hip. But po-mo is anti-intellectual poison. A serious thinker like Smolin should know better.

A critical concept in the "multiverse" debate is the "Copernican principle," which requires that any particular place or time or situation in the cosmos not be "special" in some suitably defined sense. The "multiverse" extends the Copernican principle to multiple universes, not just multiple solar systems or galaxies. The problem is that the Copernican principle isn't a scientific principle like the "principle of relativity" or "energy conservation." These are precisely formulated concepts carefully tested under controlled conditions and confirmed by all observations. OTOH, the Copernican "principle" is really nothing more than a philosophical prejudice (one Copernicus is not even responsible for). There are good reasons to think that it's not all that, especially when it comes to the evolution of complex life. The universality of physics and (with some qualifications) chemistry is an established fact. Not so for biology. If we abandon serious standards for science in favor of philosophical enthusiasms, what we have is not science, but science fiction.

Smolin is coming out with a new book in September, about the failure of string theory and how fundamental physics (the search for a complete and consistent theory of forces and matter) has lost its way. More such books are starting to appear -- they're overdue in my opinion. A lot of money and talent has been sunk into string theory in the last 20+ years, accompanied by a lot of gaga hype, with no more than modest results.The sociological pressure on the best graduate students to do this stuff is intense, and theoretical physicists who don't are shuffled out the door. The price paid (beyond just the money) is that smart people have been lured into a scientific dead-end and away from the most exciting and rapidly-progressing subjects, like biophysics and astrophysics, as well as from difficult but accessible problems in complex and nonlinear systems, all of which need more smarts. But they do know how to market themselves, to the disadvantage of more productive and successful areas of science.

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