Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

A few days ago I counted the books I had "on the run," that is, books that I had started reading, had not finished, and had not chucked into the "never going to finish" or "not worth the effort" piles. Some were books I owned, and some were from the library. By the way, our local library system, the Pikes Peak Library District, is very nice. There is a small branch more or less across the street from me, up at the Village Center shopping center, and the much larger East Branch is only a couple of miles away on Union Boulevard.

I had sixteen books going, not counting the NIV Study Bible, which I began on November 1, 2007, under a program which will have me completing it on October 31, 2008. Sixteen! Some I had started a long time ago, and had not touched in months. Others I had been reading at the rate of a chapter or so a day, for a greater or lesser period of time. And a few had only recently been started.

Therefore, my first New Year's resolution is this:

Read these 16 books [on an attached list], plus the prescribed parts of the Bible, before buying any other book.

I understand this to mean that I will not only not buy another book, but that I will also not withdraw any from the library, nor will I start any of the other books (read or unread) in my collection.

Thanks to this resolution, I have already been able to diminish the disorder in my house, as I shelved a number of books I had taken down, with the idea of reading them soon. Now I have acknowledged I won't read them any time soon, so back on the shelves they go!

This profusion of books is partly due to the networking or referral system on which I read. That is, a couple of months ago I was reading Paul Theroux's travel classic The Old Patagonian Express. In the course of the book, Theroux mentioned that he was reading The Adventure of A. Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allan Poe, and, later, that he read and enjoyed Boswell's Life of Johnson. So I found my copy of the complete works of Poe and set it aside. Then I got Boswell out of my (incomplete) set of the Great Books of the Western World, and put it next to my bed.

I also read Wittgenstein's Poker recently. This is a fascinating little book about a confrontation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper on October, 25, 1946, at King's College, Cambridge (the one whose choir one often hears at Christmas time). That led me to get out the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Now all of those books are back in their rightful places on the shelves.

My other resolutions are:

2. Maintain weight in the range of 170-175 pounds.

3. Exercise regularly, including the walking program, workout tapes, and yoga.

4. Practice meditation.

5. Eliminate short-term debt.

6. Complete PMP [Project Management Professional] certification.

Today I finished the first of the books on the list, The Ultimate Weight Solution, by Dr. Phil McGraw. I found this book for $2.00 in the bookshop at the East Branch library (proceeds go to the library), and it was in very good shape: no highlighting or underlining. Reading it has obviously been in pursuit of my resolution # 2, although McGraw also talks about exercise and meditation.

McGraw's book isn't bad, for the kind of thing it is. A lot of it is the kind of commensensical advice that seems inane, but is all too easy to forget in the stress of daily living. Set realistic goals, don't expect miracles, make it easy to do the right thing, eliminate excuses - that sort of thing. I'll probably write more about this on another occasion.

Oh, since mid-October I have lost about 30 pounds. I am now down around 175, on my 70.5-inch frame, and it is a far more comfortable weight for me than what I had been maintaining for the past several years. So I think it's important to maintain it until it is really stable.

And now I have another 15 books to read.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Coincidence and Astrology

In my recent post, "Wittgensteins Everywhere," I noted the coincidence that I ran across a couple of references to Prince Wittgenstein, in two different books, on different topics, on the same day. I adumbrated (facetiously, I assure you) the possibility that there was some "Grand Plan" causing these apparently coincidental events in my life. A friend has since cautioned me about attributing events to "grand plans."

That's always a good caution. After all, as is well known, incompetence (greed, normal human foibles) is a better explanation of untoward events than conspiracy. (Yes, I think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. And, while I found Kevin Phillips' book American Theocracy interesting, I don't for a moment believe that there is a conscious, intentional, conspiracy underlying the events Phillips finds to be so suspicious.)

Moreover, if one has a sufficiently large sample, one will often find "strange coincidences" that are not strange at all. One of my favorites in the realm of statistics is that there was a perfect correlation between the price of rum and the salaries of Congregational ministers over quite a long period of time. Was there a secret compact between the rum dealers and the Congregational Church (which was, after all, the established church in Massachusetts)?

Not really. Over a very long period of time, prices have trended upwards. This is due to a number of things: rising populations, exhaustion of some resources, a constant tendency of governments to debase the currency, the discovery of gold and silver in the New World, and so on. Since prices of most goods and services are rising most of the time, all prices are positively correlated to some extents. (This is how your stockbroker can assure you that the stock market always, in the long run, rises. However, as Lord Keynes once said, in the long run we're all dead.) If one has a sufficiently large universe of prices, two of them will be perfectly correlated.

There is an old trick question illustrating this phenomenon. How many people do you have to have in a group before the chances of two of them sharing the same birthday go above 50%? Well, you might reason, there are 365 (and 1/4) days to choose from, so there would need to be 183 people in room before one of them has the same birthday I have. True, but that wasn't the question. The correct answer is, as I recall, 24. (Corrections and explanations are welcome.)

So, it doesn't really take all that many cases to have a sufficient universe for various "coincidences" to appear. If I ask, "Isn't it strange that two very different books happen to mention the same man?" - that looks like a coincidence. If, on the other other hand, I ask, "Out of the hundreds of men mentioned in the dozens of books I've read this year, wouldn't it be odd if some of them weren't mention in more than one book?" - then I'm looking at a predictable regularity.

Part of the fortune-teller's bit is to throw out so many vague predictions that some of them are bound to agree with some future event. But even more of it is due to our constant need to create patterns. When the patterns really do exist, as in the natural selection of biological traits, this human propensity is quite useful. When, however, the pattern isn't really there, one ends up with a specious theory. Astrology, for example, isn't just wrong because the stargazers can't agree on which predictions to make for which combinations of signs. Rather, it's wrong because it is based upon the positions of the constellations in the heavens. And the constellations do not exist. The stars really are randomly distributed, with respect to their visibility to a viewer on the Earth, so that any so-called "constellation" is purely a creation of the observer. Since the constellations don't correspond to any real pattern, they can't be predictive of events.

Unless, of course, you want to contend that the particular constellations we "see" are a result of some hard-wired characteristics of our minds - characteristics which also determine how we react to various circumstances. Sort of a celestial Rohrschach test.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wittgensteins Everywhere

As is often the case, I am reading a number of books concurrently. As is surprisingly often the case, I find that I run across something in one book which relates, somehow or other, to material in another book, without any apparent reason for the connection.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a well-known philosopher. In fact, a quote from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the masthead for this blog. Wittgenstein wrote much of the Tractatus while serving as a forward artillery observer with the Austrian army during World War I. At the moment, I am somewhere in the middle of a work called Wittgenstein's Poker, which is ostensibly about a ten-minute argument between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper, which took place in Cambridge, England, in 1946.

There are all sorts of places one could go from there, and Messrs. Edmonds and Eidinow, the authors of Wittgenstein's Poker, go to many of them.* They bring in the backgrounds of the two protagonists, social, religious, and political, as well as philosophical.

The Wittgensteins, though they converted to Protestantism years before Ludwig was born, were Jews, and the original family name was not Wittgenstein, but Maier. Ludwig's grandfather, Moses Maier, took the name from the Sayn-Wittgensteins of Hesse, for whom he was an estate manager. The Times stated in its obituary for Ludwig Wittgenstein that he was descended from that "Prince Wittgenstein who fought against Napoleon." (See Edmonds and Eidinow, page 113.)

Now, that in itself is, I think, an interesting phenomenon. Jews taking the names of the estates on which they worked has a certain resonance to the United States after the Civil War, when black freedmen took the names of their masters and the plantations on which they had labored. It recalls the manner in which the Romans adopted promising young men into their families, and gave them names similar to, but not exactly the same as that of the gens.

At the same time, I've been reading The Book of War. Perhaps I should explain. A few years ago, at the height of the drought in Colorado, my wife and I took a week's vacation at a timeshare resort in Pagosa Springs. While there, we came across a small bookstore selling quite a number of books with black marker stripes across the bottoms of the pages. Naturally, these sold at quite a discount, and I bought several books. To this day, I do not think that I have finished reading any of those books. There may be a reason that they were relegated to the remainder shelves.

But lately I took to reading The Book of War: 25 Centuries of Great War Writing, edited by John Keegan. From pages 155 to 169 Keegan excerpts a work by Helen Roeder about her ancestor, Franz Roeder, who served in a Hessian (note that location!) regiment: the Lifeguard Regiment of the Grand Duke of Hesse. At page 158 Ms. Roeder quotes the Captain's journal as saying, "I begged a piece of bread from Prince Wittgenstein, and then gave it to Amman because I thought that his need was the greater."

Obviously, this is the Prince Wittgenstein for whose family the Jewish Maiers, later the Vienna Wittgensteins, were estate managers. So I have a line connecting page 133 of a book about two twentieth-century philosophers with page 158 of a collection of excerpts from books about a variety of wars. But there's more, because on page 161 of Keegan's collection, we take up the story from the point of view of a Russian memoirist, also writing about the retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow, in which we find this line: "... Count Wittgenstein was approaching from Tschasnik with his corps reinforced by General Steinheil, in order to link up with the Army of the Danube." Not only is Count Wittgenstein not the same as the Prince Wittgenstein of Hesse to whom we were just introduced, he is on the other side! Count Wittgenstein's forces are chasing those of Prince Wittgenstein and his colleagues across the Beresina. Meanwhile, Prince Wittgenstein's estate manager is appropriating his name and moving to Vienna, where his descendants will become the wealthiest family in Austria.

Once again the disparate elements of my reading combine to cast light, or maybe shadows, one upon the other.

Is this merely coincidence, or is there a grand plan operating behind the scenes?

*David Edmonds and John Eidinow, Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of A Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Off-Shoring in a Changing World

The editor-in-chief of Information Week, Rob Preston, has a weekly column in the magazine. In the October 29, 2007, issue, Mr. Preston commented on the shifting state of competitive advantages. (I don't think this term should be identified with the economic concept of comparative advantage, though the two ideas have commonalities.) There should be general agreement on the main point of the column, which is that things change. That is such a commonplace thought that one might not think it worth a column, let alone comments upon that column, except that some of the examples Preston raises are often discussed in terms that would have us think that these are immutable and irreversible trends, rather than the ebb and flow of global economic life. Thus, I think Preston does his readers a service in reminding us that "this, too, shall pass."

His first point about high-tech labor is that American and European firms, seeking lower labor costs, have sent some work to India, China, and other offshore providers. At the same time, foreign workers have been allowed to enter the U.S. and Europe on favorable terms. So, foreign workers have some advantage over American workers in obtaining certain kinds of employment. However, as Mr. Preston points out, salaries for high-tech workers in India have been climbing, due to both local and international demand, while concerns about quality and public relations have dampened the ardor of American employers for off-shoring customer-facing functions. Thus, the pendulum swings back the other way.

At this point, let me insert a note about the new EU "blue card." The October 27 issue of The Economist reports on the European Commission's plan to issue a new document making it easier to recruit and retain highly-skilled foreign workers. The Economist understands countervailing trends as well as Mr. Preston does. A better immigration card "would do nothing to make Europe's economies more attractive in themselves. As long as those economies remain relatively undynamic, the most talented (especially English-speakers) will use their wits to look for work elsewhere." (Page 60) Interestingly, The Economist says that the EC estimates that the "blue card" will push the number of highly skilled non-Europeans in the work force up to 100,000, from about 70,000 today, while Information Week sets Europe's goal as attracting 20 million workers "over the next several decades." I suspect that the lower number is far more in line with what Europe might be willing to absorb.

Rob Preston goes on to look at the impact of currency fluctuations. For those of your who thought that the fall of the dollar vis-a-vis the loonie was a joke, in the past five years the dollar has fallen 39% against the Canadian dollar. If I were living in Ottawa now, as I did from 1986-1989, I would be a poorer man with my U.S. dollar-denominated salary, and the government would find paying for my housing much more expensive than it was 20 years ago. So, he says, "Suppliers in China, India, and elsewhere aren't as attractive as they once were, as they adjust the dollar prices of their products to ensure that they sell at the correct value." Therefore, some firms are turning back to U.S. workers for jobs they might have considered outsourcing to an offshore firm.

I have read elsewhere that the cost differential needs to be at least 20-30% before a firm considers off-shoring work now done in the U.S. Given the administrative headaches, the supervisory problems, and the risks in the quality-control area, there has to be a pretty good premium to justify taking this step.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Commentaries on Foreign Affairs: "Time for Detente with Iran"

Commentaries on Foreign Affairs: “Time for Détente with Iran”

Ray Takeyh, “Time for Détente with Iran,” pages 17-32 in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007.

It seems that, for every adversarial regime the United States has faced in its history, there is some group of Americans promoting the idea that we need only appeal to the “moderates” in the other regime in order to stymie the “hardliners” who are the source of all that hostility. There are a number of problems with this view, not least the invisibility of the “moderate” forces just when their influence would be most helpful. With regard to Iran, whose relations with the United States have been troubled for the past three decades, Ray Takeyh is a member of that optimistic group.

I should mention that Mr. Takeyh is the author of Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. I have not read that book, so I cannot draw upon it for further elucidation of Mr. Takeyh’s views.

First, from the title of this article, we can see that Mr. Takeyh is advocating détente with Iran. This by itself places Mr. Takeyh on the liberal end of the American foreign policy spectrum. Détente is a perfectly fine word with a simple definition: “a relaxation of strained relations or tensions (as between nations).” It was most popular when indicating the relaxation of American-Soviet tensions during the early 1970s, under the aegis of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, by Raymond L. Garthoff (1985) indicates in the sub-title the progression of the reputation of the word. Conservatives came to associate détente with the granting of a form of legitimacy to the Soviet Union, and they asserted a preference for confrontation, returning to that old Republican desire for a “rollback” of Communism.

The problem is two-fold: First, more conservative observers think that tensions are only relaxed when the United States makes concessions to the other side; and, second, any improvement of relations generally rests upon some sort of commitment not to take military (or other strongly damaging) action against the other party. It is, after all, hard to relax and enjoy friendly relations when the other party keeps threatening to invade you. Conservatives of the stamp of Vice-President Cheney are made uneasy at the thought of the renunciation of the military option.

So far I haven’t said very much about what Ray Takeyh actually says in this article, so it’s time to turn to his very own words.

“[Iran’s} regime has not only survived the U.S. onslaught (sic) but also managed to enhance Iran’s influence in the region.” (Page 17)

“Ever since the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979, the United States has pursued a series of incoherent policies toward Tehran.” (Page 17)

“If it hopes to tame Iran, the United States must rethink its strategy from the ground up. The Islamic Republic is not going away any time soon, and its growing regional influence cannot be limited. Washington must eschew superficially appealing military options, the prospect of conditional talks, and its policy of containing Iran in favor of a new policy of détente.” (Page 18)

“In order to develop a smarter Iran policy, U.S. leaders must first accept certain distasteful facts – such as Iran’s ascendance as a regional power and the endurance of its regime – and then ask how these can be accommodated.” (Page 21)

“Iran’s need for a foreign policy better adapted to changes in the Middle East, the regime’s perennial factionalism, and, perhaps most significant, the rise of a new generation of leaders in Tehran have sparked important internal debates within the regime. If the United States plays its cards right, it could become an important arbiter in those deliberations.” (Page 22 – emphasis added)

Aha! Here’s where the United States can appeal to the “moderates” within the Iranian regime, and, the next thing you know, we’ll “normalize” relations with Iran. Why, Iranian politicians will begin to show up at diplomatic receptions and try to keep pace with American political officers at downing ice-cold vodka martinis. (It can’t be done.) Then they’ll welcome American contractors, such as Halliburton, back to Iran to recondition their petroleum infrastructure. And the next thing you know, Iran will be the new Pakistan. (Won't that be nice?)

Mr. Takeyh identifies a “new right” group, which is itself divided, so that a “pragmatic” group of educated younger political types is ripe to establish more normal relations with the U.S. Lest we think that the religious leadership would put the kibosh on such openness to Western influence, Takeyh asserts that Supreme Leader Khamenei “has tentatively supported the pragmatists’ drive for negotiations with the United States.” Page 27)

Mr. Takeyh then lays out a strategy (with four negotiating tracks) for the United States to pursue, and urges U.S. policymakers to “focus on the challenge of managing [Iran’s] that power constructively.” (Page 31)

In conclusion, Takeyh says, “A new paradigm cannot preclude tension, or even conflict, but it could persuade Tehran that its interests would be best served if it voluntarily restrained its radical tendencies. Iran will remain a problem for the United States for the foreseeable future; the question is how best to manage its complexities and contradictions. An offer by the United States to normalize relations and start talks on all outstanding issues between the two states would give Iran a chance to choose whether it wants to be a nation defending legitimate imperatives or one guided by self-defeating delusions. And for the first time in decades, there is an indication that Iran may opt for the former.” (Page 32)

What can I say? Well, lots, because Takeyh is so eager to see us offer the world to Ali Larijani (his number 1 “pragmatist”) that he ignores a few problems with his analysis and his thesis. First, by his own account, Takeyh notes that the new right is divided, and, at this point, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is on top. Moreover, he admits that Khamenei, due to his “deficient religious credentials,” is forced to “rely on reactionary elements.” So the United States should make an offer to Iran designed to appeal to a minority of a minority of the political class, and we should make that offer generous and comprehensive. And the people at whom we are aiming the offer, may be in no position to consider it, let alone accept it.

Then there’s Tehran’s “need” for a new policy. Didn’t Mr. Takeyh spend the first half of this article pointing out how successful Iran has been at foiling all of the American plots and initiatives in the area? Didn’t he tell us that Iran’s “growing regional influence cannot be limited”? So, where is the pressing need for Tehran to turn to the United States? Normal relations with the U.S. would make some things easier for Tehran; they might finally be able to get spare parts for any F-4 Phantoms they still have lying around. I don’t see the compelling driver for a new policy.

Given that the United States as been unrelentingly, if also unsuccessfully, hostile to Iran for the past 28 years, why should Tehran trust us? We backed Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, in which about 500,000 Iranians (and an equal number of Iraqis) died. We even shot down a civilian Iranian airliner. (See Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation for a full account of that murderous fiasco.) We’ve tried – and failed – to mess up Iranian relations with Russia and China, which tells them that we are both hostile and weak, a really bad combination.

Then there’s all this talk of “managing” Iranian politics. Isn’t that where we came in, in 1954, managing Iranian politics for the benefit of U.S. and British oil companies? Isn’t that one of the reasons the Iranians view us as the source of all evil? Haven’t we figured out yet that no foreign government can successfully “manage” the internal politics of any country sophisticated enough to have politics? From West to East, we have Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. We’ve managed to mess up in all four of them, and Ray Takeyh thinks we should try to “manage” the internal politics of Iran, the only one in which we don’t have any American lives at risk at the moment.

Finally, on the question of whether one should let foreigners tell you how to run your country, there are no “moderates.” There are patriots and corrupt sellouts. From Benedict Arnold to Ahmad Chalabi, we have found that the corrupt sellouts don’t make good partners. Not just because they’ll rip off their sponsors, but because they cannot deliver the goods.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Knight's Reading List III: March 2007

In March 2007 I finished reading the following books:

fx-9750G Plus User’s Guide. xxv + 455 pages.
A Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden. (1968, 1972), 453 + xiv pages, including Index.
Peter Wells, The Complete Semi-Slav. (1994) 304 pages.
The Mauritius Command, by Patrick O’Brian. (1977) 348 pages.
Eric Flint and David Drake, The Dance of Time. (2006) 468 pages.
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. (2005) 309 pages.
I also listened to the audiobook, The Majesty of the Law, by Sandra Day O’Connor.

I think we can skip lightly over the user's guide to a graphing calculator I bought myself, although it was part of my continuing effort to master some of the higher mathematics. There will be more on that later. I'm also going to ignore The Majesty of the Law, although it was both enjoyable and informative. The Supreme Court is a long-time interest of mine, and there were other books on that subject which came over my desk this year.

The Mauritius Command is another good, workmanlike novel by Patrick O'Brian, and is based upon an actual incident (or series of incidents) on and about the island of Mauritius. Mauritius is, in case you didn't know, in the Indian Ocean, and was the home of the late lamented flightless bird, the dodo. O'Brian has quite a knack for finding obscure theaters of war during the long struggle between England and France in the early 19th century, and placing his characters in them to display their virtues, as well as their faults, in the course of solving the puzzles set for them. The Mauritius Command, for those of you interested in combined-arms operations, illustrates both how difficult it could be to obtain effective cooperation between the naval and the military forces of the some country, and how helpless an enemy could be in the face of such cooperation. These seem to be lessons that need to be learned anew by every military command, in the circumstances of each new war.

One example of good cooperation is that between Grant's army and the Union's naval forces on the Mississippi, during the Vicksburg campaign. If one compares the imperfect state of cooperations during the operations around Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, earlier in the war, to the finely coordinated actions in 1863, one can see how much effort and intelligence is needed to obtain a result, the need for which seems self-evident.

David Drake wrote the outline for The Dance of Time, and Eric Flint then put flesh on that skeleton. This has been a good system for the two writers and their publisher, but, in my opinion, The Dance of Time shows the Belisarius series running out of steam. The trajectories of the actors are determined to a large degree by what occurred in earlier books in the series, rather than by what is between the covers of this book. These books, by the way, also illustrate the successful use of combined arms, but I rather think it comes off a little too effortlessly. I could, of course, be wrong, and I'd have to re-read some of the earlier works in the series to validate my thinking. I might, at least, mention the rather interesting scene early in Drake's solo novel (in his Lord of the Isles series) Servant of the Dragon, in which some of the difficulties of training up a military force are indicated when two oared ships attempt a passing maneuver, and some of the rowers don't get their oars out of harm's way quickly enough.

Which brings me to the great work of this month. I should mention that I have the habit, for good or ill, of simultaneous (or, more precisely, contemporaneous) reading of several books at once. I'll read a chapter in one, and then two chapters in another, and then a chunk of a third, so the timelines of my books all overlap. It is, therefore, indicative of the grip established by Cormac McCarthy on this reader, that I read No Country for Old Men in three days, beginning on March 19 and ending on March 21, 2007. Cliches such as "page-turner," "gripping," "couldn't put it down," come to mind, and are all inadequate to express McCarthy's accomplishment here. The story here is that of a man just a little too stupid to pass up good fortune, and the consequences - the terrible consequences - of his ill-considered action.

In brief, in West Texas in 1980, a drug deal has gone wrong, and the buyers and sellers have managed to kill one another to, it appears, the last man. A trailer-park cowboy comes upon this scene and finds bags of money without apparent owners. He takes some, and, I think, the real hook in this story is that so would you. At least, it is quite believable that, under these circumstances, any of us might say "What the Hell?" and make off with a stash of "found money." From that point on, this becomes a story of violent responses to violent stimuli, all the more compelling because it all follows so naturally from the original situation. Of course, Adam and Eve are driven from the Garden of Eden; they took the apple, didn't they?

I heard a review of the movie the Coen brothers have made from this book on NPR a few days ago. The reviewer asserted that the movie was "nine-tenths of a masterpiece." The book is closer than that.

By the way, in March of 2006 my friend Al Vogel and I went down through New Mexico to the Big Bend country of West Texas. This has been Cormac McCarthy's homeland since Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses. The stark, dry, deadly landscape is not only a fine setting for the grim story of No Country for Old Men, it goes a long way to explain the characters McCarthy discovers there.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Stone That the Builder Refused

Today, November 25, is a Sunday, the 329th day of 2007.

Notable literary events of November 25 include the births of Leonard Woolf (1880) and Lewis Thomas. Thomas, who wrote The Lives of a Cell, was born in 1913 in Flushing, New York. As it happens, my wife's mother was also born in 1913, and her late father was from Flushing, so there's a little nexus of coincidence there.

Another nexus of convergence are those between the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, and between the Bible and later literary works. Earlier this year I read a book called The Stone That the Builder Refused. The work is the last part of a trilogy by Madison Smartt Bell. The Stone That the Builder Refused has xvii + 747 pages, and I read it between August 10 and September 27, 2007. As far as I knew at that point, the source of the title was a lyric by Bob Marley, the reggae artist, cited at the beginning of the book.

I now know that the phrase has a much older provenance than can be found in Jamaican reggae. I am reading the Bible (New International Version), and on November 19 I reached Psalm 118. At verse 22 I find this phrase: "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone." (The King James Version has, at Psalm 118:22, "The stone which the builders refused is beome the head stone of the corner.")

The phrase appears again in the New Testament. 1 Peter 2:7 states: "Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, 'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.'" In this latter context, Peter is using "stone" as a metaphor indicating that the Christians to whom he is writing are the building blocks of the church. In that sense, I suppose, this is another way of saying that Christians are important to God, even though they may be scorned by non-believers.

Psalm 118 also contains a very familiar phrase, often used to open Christian services. Psalm 118:24: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it."

Another example of the use of Old Testament language in the New Testament is also drawn from Psalm 118. Verses 6-7 read "The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies."

Compare Hebrews 13:6: "So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"

When I was a child the only Psalm I ever heard much about was the 23rd ("The Lord is my shepherd, ..."). It is interesting to find that the 118th is quoted in two different books of the New Testament, as well as in modern church services.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tolstoy and Poetry: November 21, 2007

Today is Wednesday, November 21, 2007, the 325th day of the year. This is the birthdate of Voltaire (1694) and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863), and the anniversary of the death of Count Leo Tolstoy (1910).

I heard an interesting story about the death of Tolstoy. Apparently, as he and his wife aged (they were married for 48 years), they both became mistrustful. She was seized of the idea that he had written her out of his will. He insisted that he there was no new will, but she was so possessed of this idea that she searched his study. When the 82-year-old Tolstoy caught her rummaging through his stuff, he blew up and fled. He caught pneumonia and died on the train trip.
Another writer, a Latin poet, died 1902 years before Tolstoy. Horace - Quintus Horatius Flaccus - was born in 65 B.C.E. and died in 8 C.E. He was, therefore, 21 when Julius Caesar was assassinated, and he lived through the closing years of the Roman Republic and the beginnings of the Empire.

Maecenas atavis edite

Maecenas, sprung from an ancient line of kings,
my stronghold, my pride, and my delight,
some like to collect Olympic dust
on their chariots, and if their scorching wheels

graze the turning-post and they win the palm of glory,
they become lords of the earth and rise to the gods;
one man is pleased if the fickle mob of Roman citizens
competes to lift him up to triple honours;

another, if he stores away in his own granary
the sweepings from all the threshing-floors of Libya;
the man who enjoys cleaving his ancestral fields
with the mattock, you could never move, not with the legacy

of Attalus, to become a frightened sailor
cutting the Myrtoan sea with Cyprian timbers;
the merchant, terrified at the brawl of African gale
with Icarian waves, is all for leisure and the countryside

round his own home town, but he is soon rebuilding
his shattered ships – he cannot learn to endure poverty;
there is a man who sees no objection to drinking
old Massic wine or taking time out of the day,

stretched out sometimes under the green arbutus,
sometimes by a gently welling spring of sacred water;
many enjoy the camp, the sound of the trumpet merged
in the bugle, the wars that mothers

abhor; the huntsman stays out under a cold sky,
and forgets his tender wife the moment
his faithful dogs catch sight of a hind
or a Marsian boar bursts his delicate nets.

Horace , Odes, Book I, I
Translated by David West (1997)
The sentiment in the third verse of that poem is found again, with a sardonic twist, in the first stanza and the ending of this one:
Beatus ille
Fortunate the man who, free from cares,
like men of old still works
his father's fields with his own oxen,
encumbered by no debt.
No soldier he, aroused by bugle's blare,
nor does he fear the angry sea.
The Forum he avoids and lofty doors
of powerful citizens....'
When Alfius the money lender said all this,
resolved at last, at last, to be a countryman,
he called in all his money on the Ides -
and on the Kalends now he tries to place it out again.
Horace, Epodes, II
Translated by David West (1997)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Knight's Reading List II: February 2007

In February 2007 I finished reading the following books:

Caro, Robert A. Master of the Senate. 2002. xxiv + 1167 pages. Includes Selected Bibliography, Notes, Index. Volume 3 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

Drake, David A. Other Times than Peace. 2006. 331 pages.

O’Brian, Patrick. H. M. S. Surprise. 1971. 379 pages.

Other Times than Peace is a collection of Drake’s stories in various warlike settings, going back nearly 30 years. For those who don’t know, David Drake is a lawyer and Vietnam veteran who has written a very large amount of fantasy and science fiction. His sensibilities are stark. His imagery is informed by his personal experience of war. I am pleased to be able to count Dave as a friend. Those of you who read the eleven stories in this volume may discern some of the reasons I value Dave as a friend, and as an author of solid, engaging prose.

I spoke of Patrick O’Brian in the context of one of the books in my January 2007 list, Post Captain. Although H. M. S. Surprise follows in the series – O’Brian did no flashbacks: the publication order of the books and the ostensible chronological order of the events described in them are the same, it certainly stands on its own as a novel. O’Brian doesn’t waste a lot of time recounting what has occurred in previous works.

Someone commented that O’Brian was better than C. S. Forester at putting himself into the mind of an eighteenth-century man. Indeed, having read both the Hornblower and the Aubrey-Maturin novels complete, I can attest that Hornblower is a 20th century man – someone Forester might have known, placed in scenes of the early 19th century. Jack Aubrey, the commander of H. M. S. Surprise, has much more of an 18th century mind. This is probably due to O’Brian’s reliance on the journals and letters of contemporary sea officers as a source for language and incident.

Looking at these two books as fictional presentations of men at war, the main difference between Drake and O’Brian, in my opinion, is that Drake’s characters tend to be haunted by the expedients to which they are forced. O’Brian’s have a greater ability to sit down with some wine, music, and toasted cheese, and let bygones be bygones.

Master of the Senate is the third volume in Robert Caro’s amazing biography of Lyndon Johnson. The project has already taken a few decades of Mr. Caro’s time, and I don’t know if he will outlive its completion. I had read the first two volumes – The Path to Power* and Means of Ascent** – years ago, when they were published, but I re-read them both before starting Master of the Senate. I was reading Robert Caro for a year, from February 2006 until February 2007. By the end, I felt as if I knew Lyndon Johnson as well as it is possible for one human being to know another. Caro is both critical of Johnson’s weaknesses, and some of his strengths, but in Master of the Senate he is portraying Johnson as a man in the perfect milieu. Had Johnson not been driven to become President, his mastery of the people and the institutions that are the United States Senate would have been the hallmark of his career.

This is, by the way, more than a biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro brings together a number of strands to form this story. He gives a brief, but very informative, history of the Senate itself, and the manner in which it had become a very powerful obstacle to social change. He provides a summary biography of Richard Russell of Georgia, a complex and powerful man. And, by using the Civil Rights Act of 1957 as the focus of the work, he reveals much about American society and its institutions at a time when it was under great pressure to change. The Civil Rights Act of 1957, for all its faults, showed Lyndon Johnson's ability to understand the forces at work in the Senate, and beyond, and to bring about a surprising result, and one with implications beyond the apparent.

* The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume I: The Path to Power. 1981, 1982. 882 pages.
** The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume II: Means of Ascent. 1990. 522 pages.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Knight's Reading List I: January 2007

I read quite a lot, and quite a variety, as well. Some of the books I read are well-known - some are even regarded as classics. On the other hand, some are pretty obscure, and many of those deserve their obscurity. Still, I get something out of almost every work I read, and I'd be happy to share my impressions of any book with others who find the title of interest. In these reading lists, I provide basic information on books which I finished in the month in question.

In January, 2007, I finished reading the following works:

Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Lincoln, Volume II: Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861. 1950. viii + 524 pages, including Appendices, Bibliography, and Index.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and the Piazza Tales. 2006. xliv + 338 pages.

O'Brian, Patrick. Post Captain. 1972. 496 pages

Appleyard, Dennis R. and Alfred J. Field, Jr. International Economics. xxvi + 822 pages, including Index.

Not my most productive month, January, though I could note that I was also reading four other books, which, however, I did not finish. (In fact, I have yet to finish The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.) I read a total of 1272 pages in eight books during the month.

Now, which would I recommend? On the fictional side of the ledger, Post Captain is an expertly composed and very entertaining, as well as thoroughly-researched, novel of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Melville's style, on the other hand, is not likely to be to everyone's taste, and some of the stories miss the mark. "Bartleby the Scrivener" makes very little sense, but "Benito Cereno" is pretty good. Unfortunately, Melville uses the denseness of his viewpoint characters to build suspense (but Conan Doyle has the same fault.)

International Economics is a textbook, and I would only recommend it to someone who really wants to gain a technical understanding of that field. Economics is a subject matter which relies on recent examples to demonstrate its currency (no pun intended.) I would buy something newer if I wanted to begin study of this subject.

Allan Nevins is, I think, one of the great historians of the 20th century, who wrote a long, multi-volume history of the origins of the Civil War and the war itself. (I have four of the volumes and have read three; I need to read the volume that comes before this one.) He tends to stress the economic side of the conflict and, with regard to the war, the North's advantage in material factors. This book provides really wonderful background to two others I'll mention later: Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and Gore Vidal's Lincoln.

My Trip to Las Vegas

My wife Helen and I visited Las Vegas over the weekend. We left Colorado Springs on Saturday, November 10, and returned on Tuesday, November 13. We drove from Colorado Springs to Denver, and flew between Denver and Las Vegas on Southwest Airlines.

There are a number of reasons we fly from Denver more often than from here in Colorado Springs. On the one hand, while it is only a 40-minute drive to the Colorado Springs airport, it is only about 75 minutes to Denver International. In fact, made it home Tuesday night in just about an hour, counting from the time we left the Bennigan's on Tower Road where we ate dinner. The long-term parking is cheaper in Denver, too. Mostly, however, we find a larger selection of flights at convenient times, especially non-stop flights, and (in general) better prices out of Denver.

Let me continue with some notes from my journal:

Las Vegas deals in the outsize. Each of the larger casinos we've seen is like a small city, a shopping mall, a cruise ship. There are two million residents of Las Vegas, and God knows how many tourists, and all of them were on the Strip Saturday night. (Really! We were outdoors on the sidewalk to see the pirate ship act at Treasure Island, and the crowd was so dense I could hardly breathe.)

Like a cruise ship, each casino has accommodations for many people - thousands at the MGM Grand, Mirage, Venetian, etc. And, like cruise ships, they are essentially self-contained. One could live in Caesar's Palace for years without every going outside. That's because they share the cruise ship philosophy of providing something for every taste. Each hotel has multiple restaurants, in various price ranges, themes, and cuisines.

Some of these are - or seem to be - incongruous. At the Venetian, they tout a Chinese themed restaurant called Tao, with its own nightclub, gift shop, and other spin-offs. At the Mandalay Bay there is a House of Blues.

At Caesar's there are eight restaurants, plus eight more in the Forum Shops, plus the Cafe Lago buffet.

The Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace and the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian are quite large-scale, high-end shopping malls under artificial skies. Versace, Gucci, Kenneth Cole, and upscale retailers of all sorts rub elbows with shops purveying the most meretricious of souvenirs. (Probably the grossest T-shirt prize goes to one I saw at Harrah's: the slogan Danger: Choking Hazard surmounts a drawing of an erect penis and testicles.)

My sister Nancy pointed out that many, though by no means all, of the clothing items cannot be worn anywhere but in Las Vegas. If she bought a resortware dress or top, she would never find an occasion to wear it in Bellevue or Seattle.

Las Vegas is its own little world. The scale is so large, so grandiose, that one is returned to the old tales of the desert - the mountains that seem to recede as one approaches them. The Mirage is so large and brightly lit that one underestimates the distance to walk there from Treasure Island.

While we were there, they demolished the New Frontier in the middle of the night. Helen woke up to the sound of the explosions going off, and then heard the prolonged rumble of the building coming down.

Perhaps there's an irony in the fact that, while traveling, most of my reading was in Paul Theroux' The Old Patagonian Express, a travel book.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Commentaries on Foreign Affairs: "Iraq's Civil War"

Let me start by quoting the third paragraph, which seems to me to be the real lead, of James D. Fearon's article, "Iraq's Civil War," in the March/April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs.

"In fact, there is a civil war in progress in Iraq, one comparate in important respects to other civil wars that have occurred in postcolonial states with weak political institutions. Those cases suggest that the Bush administration's political objective in Iraq - creating a stable, peaceful, somewhat democratic regime that can survive the departure of U.S. troops - is unrealistic. Given this unrealistic political objective, military strategy of any sort is doomed to fail almost regardless of whether the administration goes with the "surge" option, as President George W. Bush as proposed, or shifts toward a pure training mission, as advised by the Iraq Study Group." (Pages 2-3)

Mr. Fearon, a Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, goes into considerable detail in this article about the nature of recent civil wars, the likelihood of a military coup, and the failure of power-sharing arrangements. One interesting statement is this: "To avail itself of more attractive policy options, the Bush administration (or its successor) must break off its unconditional military support for the Shiite-dominated government that it helped bring to power in Baghdad." (Page 13) In line with this argument, he concludes:

"The more likely scenario is that the Bush administration's commitment to the 'success' of the Maliki government will make the United States passively complicit in a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing. Standing back to adopt a more evenhanded policy in the civil war already in progress is a more sensible and defensible course. To pursue it, the Bush administration or its successor would first have to give up on the idea that a few more U.S. brigates or a change in U.S. tactics will make for an Iraq that can, in President Bush's words, 'govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself' once U.S. troops are gone." (Page 15)

Readers will note that a number of events have occurred since the publication of Mr. Fearon's article. First, the "surge" has taken place, and is continuing. At some point the numbers of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Iraq will begin coming down, but that point is not yet. Second, whether the U.S. has become more "evenhanded" on the political level in Baghdad, U.S. forces have undertaken to cooperate with a number of Sunni tribal leaders on the local level. Third, I think it is becoming evident that there is a contradiction between our all-out support for a Shiite government and our hostility to Iran. And, finally, the Democrats in Congress have failed to force the Bush administration to make any major change in its "strategy" in Iraq. (I would prefer the word "tactics" because, as far as I can tell, the Bush administration has no strategy at all.) Moreover, the leading Democratic candidate, while committed to "ending the war," has no intention of pulling the U.S. out of Iraq in one fell swoop on January 21, 2009.

Now, given my criticisms of Mr. Bret Stephens and Mr. Arthur Herman for their positive fews of the military (and, to a degree, political) situation in Iraq, it may surprise my readers to discover that I think Mr. Fearon's argument has very little going for it. In fact, I think that his conclusion is entirely incorrect.

Indeed, as I stated in another place, the Iraqis have acquired the trappings of a democratic government, without an understanding of the need to share power, to tolerate differences, and to protect the rights of minorities while exercising the will of the majority. However, Mr. Fearon's argument is self-contradictory. On the one hand, he says that powersharing arrangements, however well-intentioned, have seldom worked in modern civil wars. (I might say that I find this obvious: If a group has geared itself up to the point of going to war, it is unlikely to consider its objectives so unimportant, or its enmities so trivial, that it can sacrifice both friends and principles in a trice.) Consistent with this, he says that U.S. efforts to encourage powersharing have been failures. Obviously then, he would support the U.S. backing one side or the other, and not trying to make them kiss and make up.

On the contrary, he then attacks the U.S. for the probability that support of the Shiite regime will involve us in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. And he then advocates that we "step back" from the Maliki government and "adopt a more evenhanded policy."

Here's the way I see it. The reasons that we have a civil war in Iraq are many and complex but, at bottom, the reasons that the minority Sunnis are willing to risk all in openly fighting the government are two-fold: 1) they believe that they will be badly treated by the Shiites and, 2) they also believe that they, with superior military traditions, can at least hold their own against the government. The only way to disabuse them of this fantasy is to back the Shiites to ensure that they achieve a decisive victory over the Sunnis, as soon as possible, so that the Sunnis will realize the necessity of entering into the political process. Weakening the Maliki government, opposing the Shiites, and arming the Sunnis, will merely prolong the violence and postpone the day of reckoning. Moreover, the longer it takes for the Shiite government to subdue the Sunnis, the more a thirst for vengeance is likely to lead to ethnic cleansing.

In this case, Mr. Fearon has it just backwards.

I would encourage you all, by the way, to read Mr. Fearon's article. I find it interesting that a man who is obviously intelligent and well-informed could be both illogical and wrongheaded on a matter to which he has devoted quite a bit of thought.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Commentaries on Commentary: "How to Win in Iraq - and How to Lose"

Arthur Herman, in "How to Win in Iraq - and How to Lose," Commentary, April 2007, pages 23-28, takes the familiar position that the war in Iraq is being won militarily, but that the politicians may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As Herman puts it, "if the battle for the hearts and minds of Iraqis still continues and is showing signs of improvement, the battle for the hearts and minds of Congress, or at least of the Democratic majority, seems to be all but over."

Herman then takes up an extended discussion the war in Algeria (1954-1962), and the work of David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. I have, by the way, just finished reading Alistair Horne's classic history of the Algerian war, A Savage War of Peace, which was first published in 1977, and which was reissued in 2006 with some new notes and material. Many of the details of the incidents to which Herman alludes in this article are described at length in Horne's work.

Herman is quite correct that the French army, with the use of such principles as concentration of force, defeated the FLN (Front de Liberation National), and its military arm again and again. In particular, the Morice line, named after a French Minister of Defense, closed the border with Tunisia, and prevented the ALN from reinforcing the suffering cadres in the wilayas.

Some of these principles are, as Herman says, important in the context of Iraq. Some of the steps taken by General Petraeus have applied some effective measures to the problems of defeating and eliminating certain anti-government or anti-American forces. The fact that Iraq lacks an equivalent of the Morice line to prevent infiltration of personnel and weapons from Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, is the source of many of the problems the American forces face in Iraq.

Herman takes the position that the war in Algeria was, in the end, lost because left-wing politicians in France forced the government to abandon a victorious army just as the war was won. He also mentions the similar example of Vietnam. And so, he concludes, there is a terrible danger that "feckless politicians" may pull the plug on the Army's latest initiative in Iraq before it has had a chance to work.

I have a couple of problems with this sort of article. The "stab in the back" theme has been trotted out ever since the American Revolution. (Cornwallis had the war just about won, but the Ministry wouldn't send any more troops after he suffered a temporary setback at Yorktown.) The most famous "stab in the back" was that administered to the German army in 1918 by the liberal (and Jewish) politicians, who betrayed the soldiers and the Kaiser. The story of the stab in the back gained a certain credibility from the fact that the German army surrendered while still occupying large sections of France and Belgium. The German public did not see how shattered the military was after the ultimate failure of the last great German offensive in March, 1918, and the Allied attacks later that year. Moreover, Germany's allies had gone under, the blockade had driven the German population to near-starvation rations, and the increasing numbers of American soldiers and Marines, who could not be matched by fresh levies of Germans, all meant that the Germans must inevitably lose.

Vietnam is an interesting case. There are many people who feel that political interference caused many problems during the war. Certainly a case can be made that the Tet Offensive of January 1968 was a defeat for the Viet Cong. I would argue that Tet was a terrible defeat for the U.S. military in Vietnam, and its political leadership on the following counts: First, it was obviously a terrible surprise to everyone in Saigon, betraying the failure of military intelligence after seven years of continuous presence in the country. Second, the Vietnamese forces were must stronger than any of the MACV estimates would have led one to believe. This was not only another intelligence failure, but cast doubt on (at least), previous reports of numbers of the enemy killed, of the success of the interdiction of reinforcements and supplies through Laos, and of the reliability of South Vietnamese (ARVN) forces. Third, it demonstrated that the Vietnamese were not going to give up.

It has always been the case in warfare that, under certain circumstances, the winner is the side that refuses to concede defeat. In the days when the winner of a battle was determined by which side controlled the battlefield at the end of the day, the side which was too stubborn to retreat could end up claiming a victory. One can argue, for example, that, had General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker not retreated after the battle of Chancellorsville, that fight would have been recorded as a Union, rather than a Confederate victory.

Horne makes the point that the FLN never changed its goals, never backed away from its demands, never conceded anything. In the end, the war in Algeria was too expensive. It was preventing the modernization of the French army and economy, it was diverting too much energy and manpower away from Europe, and the game was simply not worth the candle for the French. Certainly, from the time the Algerian war ended, France entered upon a period of rapid economic growth and modernization.

In the end, the dictum of Clausewitz is still with us: War is the continuation of politics by other means. The idea that one can have a military victory and a political defeat is nonsense. The only way to have that appear to occur, is if the military has been misinformed of, or has misunderstood, the political goals. It is the accomplishment of those goals, not military advances and retreats, which denotes victory.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Commentaries on Commentary: "Realists to the Rescue?"

Commentaries on Commentary: “Realists to the Rescue?”

Bret Stephens’ article in the February 2007 issue of Commentary magazine is, first and foremost, an attack on the Iraq Study Group’s set of “79 prescriptions for U.S. policy in the Middle East.” To reveal Mr. Stephens’ attitude, I don’t think I can do better than to quote this long sentence from his first paragraph. (I think this is what we might call the “topic sentence” of his essay.)

“With neoconservatism supposedly repudiated by the ‘fiasco’ of Iraq, the backing of a wise man’s council composed equally of Republicans and Democrats, and a friendly media breeze in its sails, the ISG report was heralded not just as a fresh perspective on Iraq but as offering, at last, a new and blessedly different type of foreign policy for a country tired both of foreign adventures and of the adventurist President conducting them.” (Page 27)

Let us consider for a moment this sentence. Mr. Stephens is saying that Iraq is not a “fiasco,” though it has been characterized as such by many observers. He is also saying that, therefore, neoconservatism has not been repudiated. He implies that the media is a leading force in attacks on our “adventurist President” and his policies. And, moreover, he considers that the favorable reception of the ISG report was due in large part to the bipartisan nature of the effort. If, however, the ISG report isn’t as successful as it was first represented to be, perhaps bipartisanship isn’t a valuable approach.

I could characterize this in a near-parody of criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. Mr. Stephens seems – and the article makes clear that the seeming is real – to support the neoconservative enterprise which sponsored the war on and in Iraq, to support unilateralist and partisan political approaches, to place the media in the camp of the “enemy,” so that all media criticism of Mr. Bush can be attributed to partisan bias, and to feel that the war in Iraq has been to some degree successful. In other words, “We were right all along, and anyone who says we weren’t is against us for partisan political reasons.”

However, Mr. Stephens deserves better than that. He goes on to a review of the realist approach to international politics, from Hans Morgenthau, through Eisenhower and Nixon, to the present. He sees both failures and successes in that record, and his views may be summed up in this sentence: “Finally, realists have performed best when they have resisted the lure of their doctrine’s ingrained passivity, verging on defeatism.” In other words, realism is all right as long as it isn’t too realistic.

Mr. Stephens proposes five factors which are present in today’s “global affairs that challenge realism’s most basic premises.” These are:

The accelerated pace of democratization.
The reach and impact of the news media.
The intersection – one might say the blending – of humanitarian and strategic challenges.
The nature of post-9/11 terrorism.
The increasingly asymmetrical nature of global conflicts.

“The upshot,” says Mr. Stephens, “is that the United States faces a set of urgent challenges – and, to be sure, potentially fruitful opportunities – which realism never fully anticipated and to which realists have yet to adapt.” (Page 32).

This brings us back to the ISG and its weaknesses. Since the ISG is based on “bad” realist thinking, the sort of narrow, interest-based thinking that characterized the Eisenhower administration, it proposes that the U.S. hold the Iraqi administration to various standards, proposes diplomatic approaches to Syria and Iran, and ignores the perils of Hamas and Hizballah.

After saying that realism was, at its best, a call to common sense, he goes on:

“By contrast, today’s realists begin from theory and proceed to wishes: the wish that war against Islamist terror can be waged at the same relatively leisurely pace as the cold war, and perhaps need not be waged at all; the wish that one can negotiate in good faith and clear conscience with Iran and Syria; the wish that all will be resolved with the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict; the wish that one can curry favor with terrorists, and win them to our side, if only one offers the right mix of incentives; the wish that we can hold our allies’ feet to the fire, and not lose them.” (Page 34)

I would like to make four points.

First, Mr. Stephens is absolutely right that a realist approach (Thank you, Mr. Burke!) stressed prudence and a due regard to one’s limitations. Realists disliked exchanging a known, and controlled evil, for a new situation of unknown difficulty.

Second, a lot – only God knows how much – of Mr. Stephens’ critique of realism is due to the neoconservative attachment to Israel. Eisenhower’s realism was bad because it led him to stop the Suez adventure in 1956. Nixon’s realism was good because he support the Israelis in 1973. And, I suspect, the ISG is bad because it would call upon Israel to make concessions and to accept realities that are unpalatable to Israel.

Third, I think that none of Mr. Stephens’ five new factors are particularly new, nor do I think that a realist approach cannot account for them. After all, realist thinking was based on the run-up to World War I, in which terrorism, increasing democratization (from a much lower base), and asymmetrical relations all played a major part.

Fourth, I think Mr. Stephens’ gives his game away with one little phrase in the last statement quoted: “clear conscience.” Let us think about why one could not, with a clear conscience, open a discussion with any country about any subject.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Commentaries on Commentary: "Health Care in Three Acts"

Commentary is a magazine of strong, and sometimes unpalatable, views. It is, perhaps, most famous as a neoconservative magazine: Norman Podhoretz is Commentary's Editor-at-Large. Other prominent contributors in a conservative vein are Gabriel Schoenfeld, Joshua Muravchik, and Victor Hanson Davis. In addition to its political side, Commentary, provides criticism, book reviews, and a "Letters" department that prints the longest letters I have ever seen in a magazine. Even though I disagree with the contributors more often than not, I find Commentary fascinating because the articles are usually well thought out, well-written, and thought-provoking. On top of all that, Commentary provides insight into Jewish (and Israeli) culture and thought which is all terra incognita to this Gentile.

The tradition of commentaries is long and rich. I would imagine that most of my readers have read Machiavelli's Discourses on the First Ten Decades of Tito Livio. (If you haven't, run right out and get yourself a copy.) In the Discourses Machiavelli uses the stories in Livy's history of Rome since the founding of the city to generate and illustrate a variety of political and military lessons. Many of the essays of Montaigne are also based upon his reading in the classics.

I am not trying to establish the essays in Commentary as equal to Ab Urbe Condita. I am merely invoking the tradition of one author using the words of another as starting point for his own reflections. There are, of course, other sources upon which one may draw as an inspiration for one's essays. In any event, I plan to comment upon a number of articles from Commentary. Those who are interested in seeing the orginals are invited to visit

The February 2007 issue of Commentary, is rich in material. Joshua Muravchik leads off with "Our Worst Ex-President," attacking Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid as the centerpiece in our 39th president's array of crimes of omission and commission. Two articles on Iraq: "Realists to the Rescue?" by Bret Stephens and "Is Israel the Problem?" by Amir Taheri follow. I can recommend the Taheri article, although the question posed in the title is somewhat disingenuous. It is interesting to compare Taheri to some of the articles and essays in Bernard Lewis From Babel to Dragomans, as a study in the tendency of the Arabs to displace the blame for their failures and shortcomings onto the Israelis, the British, and, naturally, the United States. Gabriel Schoenfeld weighs in with "Why Journalists Are Not Above the Law." Hillel Halkin contributes an essay about Tel Aviv: "The First Hebrew City." Terry Teachout, the regular music and art reviewer, has sent in "Hitchcock's Music Man", a nice piece for anyone who has seen North by Northwest recently enough to remember the way in which Bernard Herrmann's scoring helps to maintain the pace and tension of the film.

The books reviewed include Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan (a neoconservative himself); The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud; Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War, by Robert L. Beisner; Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life, by Jon D. Levenson; and American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, by Paul M. Barrett.

The particular article I would like to discuss here is by Eric Cohen and Yuval Levin, "Health Care in Three Acts." In the interests of full disclosure, let me note that one reason - the primary reason, I enjoyed this article is that I have an analytic bent. The original meaning of "analysis" goes back to the Greek for "breaking down" or "taking apart." I don't have any problem with big, sweeping measures to solve a lot of problems, but I think they should be based upon a process in which the problems are disassembled into their constituent parts and examined severally. This is what Cohen and Levin do in "Health Care in Three Acts." The key sentence comes near the end of the first page of the article (page 46 of this issue of Commentary, for those who are following along).

"In fact, America faces three fairly distinct predicaments, affecting three fairly distinct portions of the population - the poor, the middle class, and the elderly - and each of them calls for a distinct approach."

They go on to further analyze the problem of the poor, in which they break the 46 million uninsured Americans into:

- those who have lost insurance with their jobs
- those who are not American citizens
- those who are eligible for for Medicaid and similar programs
- those ("many of them young adults under 35") who could afford insurance but don't buy it.

The problem of the middle class, on the other hand, is "the uncertainty caused in part by the rigid link between insurance and employment and in part by the vicissitudes of health itself."

Finally, the elderly face different problems based on costs and end-of-life issues.

As Cohen and Levin note, such disparate problems are not susceptible of a single solution.

Let me note at this point that the portability of health insurance, with some means-tested subsidies, would take care of many people both the "poor" (i.e., the poor and the unemployed). There is a program now, COBRA, which allows people to retain their employers health insurance coverage, if they can pay the premiums. Take off the time limits, add a subsidy for those who can't afford the premiums, and allow coverage to continue if a new employer does not offer a health care plan, or if the employee has a pre-existing condition, and you would both eliminate many of the 46 million uninsured, and ease middle-class anxiety about the prospect of losing coverage. Add to that a campaign to educate poor people about the programs for which they are already eligible, and you narrow the numbers a lot. The big remaining question is: Do we, or do we not, want to provide health care coverage for illegal immigrants?

Cohen and Levin opine, and I find them persuasive, that the biggest problem we face, the one we've done least to solve, and the one that is going to be a killer, is how to manage health care for the elderly. Again, we can break this problem down into its constituent parts, but the big problem is that we are not facing the problem at all As Cohen and Levin say:

"Neither socialized medicine nor a pure market approach is suited to America's three health-care challenges, while the bipartisan conspiracy to ignore the looming crisis of Medicare in particular will return to haunt our children." (Page 52)

Let me give you their last paragraph, as they seek to balance practicality and compassion in a complex system:

"Even as we pursue practical options for reform, however, it behooves us to remember that health itself will always remain out of our ultimate control. Medicine works at the boundaries of life, and its limits remind us of our own. While our health-care system can be improved, our unease about health can never truly be quieted. And while reform will require hard decisions, solutions that would balance the books by treating the disabled and debilitated as unworthy of care are no solutions at all. In no small measure, America's future vitality and character will depend upon our ability to rise to this challenge with the right mix of creativity and sobriety."

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Algerian Connection

A few observations on the last day of the month, the last day of the third quarter, the 273rd day of the year: September 30, 2007.

I have a little book called A Book of Days for the Literary Year, a gift some years ago from my younger sister Nancy. Among its notes for September 30 is this: 1937 Albert Camus notes: "It is in order to shine sooner that authors refuse to rewrite. Despicable. Begin again."

Camus was a fine writer, if somewhat crazy. The story goes that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at a relatively early age because the committee was aware that his lifestyle made it unlikely that he would live to be old. He was awarded the prize in 1957, just fifty years ago, and he died in 1960. According to my almanac, he was awarded the prize "for his important literary production, which with clearsighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."

Camus was counted as a French author, and, of course, he wrote in French and was a French citizen. He was, however, as Alistair Horne puts it, a typical pied noir. This is an expression applied to the French and, quite often, Spanish, settlers of Algeria after the French took it in 1830. Generations of pied noirs lived and died in Algerie francaise. Camus most famous novels, La Peste (The Plague) and L'Etranger (The Stranger) are set in Algeria. They are very effective novels, and they evoke Algeria, at least French Algeria, very successfully. The Algerian sun is very nearly a character in L'Etranger. Having lived in Algiers (1979-80), I can testify that the sun is very much with one in Algeria.

I saw the line from Alistair Horne in his The Savage War of Peace, which I have just started reading. It was originally published in 1977, but there is a 2006 edition in trade paperback. It has a very good reputation, and the other works by Horne I've read (many years ago) were quite good. I'm looking forward to it. Horne has a number of references to a literary/historical conference held in Algiers in 1984, on the 30th anniversary of the revolution. I missed that one, but I was in Algiers for the 25th anniversary, at which celebration the U.S. was represented by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor. That was the week that our embassy in Teheran was captured, and the assistance of the Algerian government on that occasion led to their continuing involvement in the negotiations for the American hostages in Iran.

In later March and early April of this year I happened to read a memoir by Robert Gates, now Secretary of Defense. I was interested to note that Mr. Gates accompanied Dr. Brzezinski to Algiers. Gates' account mentions some circumstances that lead me to believe I may have met him, or, more probably, that we were both in the room at the Aurassi Hotel with Dr. Brzezinski at the same time. The trip to Algiers wasn't a big part of Mr. Gates' career, or his account of it. But I found it interesting that our career arcs, his steeply upward, mine much less regular, crossed at that out-of-the way point.

My opinions on the war in Iraq and how it has been handled have been influenced by my time in Algeria, and I wonder if Mr. Gates gained any insights into Arab life that have helped him deal with his current responsibilities.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Conservative and Liberal Brain Function

On Monday, my local paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, carried a story from the L.A. Times asserting that a psychological study had found that liberals and conservatives achieved differing results in a simple test of brain function. First, I would urge anyone who has not seen some version of this story to read it, so that you may judge for yourself the importance of it, and so that you can assess whether I'm making too much of it. I could, myself, raise a number of methodological questions. (For example, there isn't a lot of detail about the protocol used to identify the "conservatives" and the "liberals.") But that's not my intent here.

I have said this before, and now that this bit of research has come out, I have the opportunity to say it again: Underlying a lot of the reasoned arguments, and the impassioned concerns, driving the contest between liberals and conservatives in this country (and in others, as well), are deep-seated personal preferences which are not accessible to evidence, to argument, to persuasion of any form. Liberals, very broadly speaking, like change. They expect good things to happen when circumstances change. This bespeaks a certain confidence, even arrogance, about their ability to read the trends and to control their destinies. Conservatives, on the other hand, distrust change. They like the "tried and true". They like systems that inhibit change.

What did the psychological test find? Well, they asked the subjects to press a button whenever they saw a "W" after a sequence of "M"s. MMMMWMMWMMMW. Something like that. Previously identified (and probably somewhat self-identified) liberals made many fewer errors than the conservative subjects. Why? The interpretation is that conservatives readily fall into a mindset in which they anticipate the next letter to be the same as the last, and so they are more likely not to perceive the change. Does that really tell us that conservatives resist change? I'm not sure. But it does seem to find a readier acceptance of the occurence of change among liberals than among conservatives.

By the way, for the rest of this article, I am going to use the term "conservative" in an attitudinal, not in a programmatic sense. I don't believe that everyone who opposes abortion is a conservative, for example. I tend to think that, the law of the land having allowed abortion for over 30 years, the conservative position is to support the status quo. Be that as it may, my use of "conservative" is about resistance to change, reluctance to adopt new ideas or practices, and a tendency to oppose "change for change's sake."

One way to look at the difference between conservative and liberal positions is to consider an analogy from evolutionary biology. (If you prefer, you can just think of this as an example from ecological biology. In that case, you'll probably want to substitute individuals for species, and changes in behavior for speciation events.) I'm talking about the so-called adaptive landscape. Let us visualize a perfectly flat terrain. All species are capable of surviving in this domain with a same degree of ease or difficulty; there are no advantaged species and no part of the terrain advantages one species more than another. But things begin to change. Just as erosion cuts a flat valley floor into ridges and gullies, so the abundance of food species changes the adaptive landscape.

In one area, a particular plant drives out rival vegetation; this becomes low country for those species that lived on the unsuccessful plants, but it becomes a pleasant upland for those which can use the successful species. In another area, a predator finds the climate unfriendly, and the prey begin to thrive and multiply.

In the end, we have a rugged landscape, with peaks on which live well-adapted species which enjoy an abundance of food, water, and whatever other goods are needed for the purpose of life: reproduction, and, on the lower slopes, species struggling against scarcity, competition, and predation, barely able to sustain themselves. (Down in the gullies are the remains of extinct and near-extinct species.)

Similarly, I would argue, conservatives tend to view themselves as in one of two conditions: Either they are living on an adaptive peak, so that any change will be for the worse, or - notably among contemporary religious conservatives, they have left such a peak for the lower slopes (dragged down by illusory progress), and their most desperate need is to struggle back to the top of the hill. Liberals, on the other hand, view themselves as moving toward a new, better, peak, and have little reluctance to abandon their current post, having convinced themselves that it is far enough down the slope to be barely tolerable.

One of the reasons for the impassioned defense put up by the conservatives is, in this view, that they see any move away from the present situation as a perilous descent into a steeper and steeper trough, with only the abyss of destruction at the end of this path. What the liberals discard as discounted through prior use, the conservatives cling to as a symbol of enduring happiness.

One reason I mention the second conservative position is the tendency, throughout history, for conservative thinkers to disguise innovation as a return to old, golden principles. I would note that, for example, a number of bills introduced in Congress which would, in the view of many, destroy the traditional barrier between church and state, are labelled as "restoration acts". One such bill, passed in the Clinton administration, was the "Religious Rights Restoration Act," which, in fact, gave religious practitioners privileges they had never enjoyed before. Putting new wine in old bottles is always more acceptable to conservatives than the admission that they enjoy the new vintage.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Interactive Nature of Warfare

The first couple of paragraphs here are quoted from a comment I left on another blog. After that I expand upon them, as is my wont.

It is unfortunately true that one's adversary seldom consents to sit immobile while one maneuvers against him. Here is a quote, from the book I recently reviewed on my blog, which doesn't blame the mess in Iraq on President Bush, but on our failure to recognize that there are other actors in this drama, and not just props. "After Vietnam, the U.S. military had vowed never to wage a counterinsurgency war again - indeed had largely stopped preparing for the possibility. In the year since Chiarelli had arrived in Baghdad, however, he had learned what so many commanders before him learned, and always the hard way: The enemy has a vote." Martha Raddatz, The Long Road Home (2007), page 291.

There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing. The Chinese winter assault in Korea comes to mind, as does the Battle of the Bulge. But there are also counterexamples: The enemy, too, is human and has his weaknesses. Ulysses Grant tells the story, in The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, of his first days as a colonel of Illinois volunteers in 1861. Grant was sent to confront a band of Confederate raiders who had crossed the river from Missouri. He was quite naturally concerned about his chances. His troops were green, they were not well-equipped, and their officers had little experience of command. Imagine his reaction when he came over a hill above the Confederate camp, to find his opposite number had packed up and fled. Grant, in what might have been the one great insight of his life, realized that his adversary had been as frightened of Grant as Grant had been of him. From that moment on, he stopped thinking of his opponents as supermen.

As to finding out more about our enemy, his plans and objectives, one of the books I read this summer related to U.S. national security and the war in Iraq was The Looming Tower, a rather good study of Al-Qaeda, its predecessors and genesis, its attitudes, objectives, and assumptions. It's a good starting point.

Cafe Third Edition

Terence Berres visited and left us a present: his own blog address. Terence's blog, Cafe Third Edition, is here: There are a number of interesting-sounding posts on the blog, and I tried to comment on a post by Agim Zabeli, but messed up somehow. That means, I suppose, I'll have to answer Agim's post on this site, thereby creating an inter-blog dialogue.

Good to know that Terence and Agim are still out there.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Long Road Home, by Martha Raddatz

On Palm Sunday, April 4, 2004, a platoon of the First Cavalry Division entered Sadr City, the Shi'ite slum in Baghdad, Iraq, for a routine patrol. Until that date, the Shi'ites had seemed relatively undisturbed by the American presence in Iraq and were, in fact, believed to be grateful to the Americans for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. By the end of that Sunday, the military and political situations in Iraq would both have been shown to be more complex, and less amenable to American aims, than policymakers and military leaders alike had assumed. This is the story Martha Raddatz tells.

There is another account of the same incident in Rajeev Chandrasekaran's book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. What distinguishes Ms. Raddatz's book-length account of the events in Sadr City is her description of the impact of these events on the families of the soldiers involved. These families, wives and children (and one husband) of officers and enlisted personnel alike, were mostly living in Killeen, TX, at the time. Killeen is home to Ft. Hood, which is the home base for the First Cavalry Division. The contrast between the safe, somewhat sanitized life on the base, in a town whose "nationally-known restaurants" are Bennigan's and Applebee's, and the chaotic life on the streets of Sadr City is particularly wrenching because the latter proves to have the power to reach into the former and negate the families' assumptions of security.

Ms. Raddatz deals with combat on an emotional, as well as a physical level, and she deals with her action sequences quite competently. I would say that she has as little squeamishness at handling combat as my friend David Drake - an author of military science fiction stories, which is to say, no discernable squeamishness at all.

There isn't a lot here about high policy, but there are plenty of comments on the effects of policy on the lives - and deaths, of soldiers. For example, some of the troops went into a hostile urban environment, with snipers firing at them from rooftops, in canvas-topped Humvees and open trucks.

Well-written, powerful, affecting, informative - I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to know about life on the ground in Iraq.

Introduction to Knight's Castle

I have created this blog to share my thoughts on a variety of topics, and to garner the reactions of other people. I will use it to comment on books and articles I have read, political issues of the day, and philosophical questions.