Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State - A Review

Feldman, Noah. The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008. A Council on Foreign Relations Book. 189 pages. Acknowledgments. Notes. Index $22.95. ISBN: 978-0-691-12045-4.

Since September 11, 2011, a lot of attention has been paid to Islamic states, states that claim to be Islamic, states in which Shari ‘a law is in force, states in which the law must not conflict with Shari ‘a law, and the manner in which Shari ‘a law has been enforced in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and northern Nigeria. Published materials on these topics reveal a lot of confusion, or at least a lack of clarity, about what Shari ‘a law is and what an Islamic state might actually be. Noah Feldman, professor at Harvard Law School, has done all of us interested in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world a real service by explaining the history and nature of the Islamic state, as well as the choices facing Islamists today. This is a very short book; if you leave out the Index and other impedimenta there are fewer than 150 pages of text. It is not necessarily a fast read, though, as it will provide lots of food for thought.

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State was reviewed in Commentary, June 2008, by Paul Marshall. Marshall was not impressed by Feldman’s contention that the Muslim world (and, by extension, the rest of us) would be better off if the current crop of dictators and monarchs was replaced by states subject to Shari ‘a law. Marshall points to Saudi Arabia and Iran as current cases in which Islamic states are repressive and intolerant. But Marshall’s main objection to the book is that Feldman fails to address such issues as the unequal status (what Marshall refers to as the “dual hierarchy”) of men and women in Islamic law.

I think that criticism, while germane to whether one wants to accept Feldman’s policy recommendations, misses the mark. Feldman doesn’t really address the content of Islamic law at all. His evaluation of Shari ‘a is based on its success, over a period of one thousand years, of securing property rights, establishing a level of predictability for government actions, and limiting arbitrary and inconsistent acts of Islamic rulers. In effect, and I think Feldman is clear about this, his point is that Shari ‘a law, and the scholars who interpreted and enunciated it, functioned as law is supposed to function in any society, reducing the incidence of arbitrary and unpredictable actions, without regard to the merits of any particular law.

In other words, and this is where a lot of conservatives would part company with Feldman, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State is a thoroughly relativist book, looking to universal principles only at the highest, most abstract level. This takes me back to Thomas Hobbes and his contention in Leviathan that justice meant property. The basic principle Feldman is advocating here is that of checks and balances. Arbitrary power, whether executive, legislative, or judicial is a bad thing and is to be avoided. In the Muslim world, with the partial exception of Turkey, legislatures and judges are inadequate checks on the executive, where they have the temerity to attempt to act against its wishes at all.

If you look at some of the other books I’ve reviewed here in recent months, you’ll see many examples of the unchecked executive at work in the Arab and Muslim world. Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed is all about the abuses an arbitrary executive may countenance. Some of these books contain examples from the United States, in which the Bush administration (and sometimes its predecessors) has exploited the weakness of congressional and judicial oversight to abuse the rights of citizens and residents, and to carry on undeclared warfare around the world.

On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold points out that the success of the Anglo-American model of sea power and commerce for the past 400 years has been based upon balance. The executive is checked by the legislature, and both by the courts. No one religion is so dominant as to maintain itself as the established church. No one tendency within religion is so dominant as to stultify innovation. I have suggested elsewhere that the Muslim world may have been handicapped in its development by the weakness of the powers of reason compared to scripture and tradition.

And so Feldman is looking to Islamic courts to function in somewhat the way the Supreme Court of the United States functions, by bringing positive law into line with Shari ‘a. There are many problems along the way. For one thing, there are four schools of the law in Islam, one of which is primarily used by Shiites and another by the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia. The Ottoman Empire used the Hanafi school as the basis for its codification of the law. On the other hand, the existence of four schools, plus sources outside Islam, could give Islamic courts a great deal of leeway to develop law based on Shari ‘a but adapted to twenty-first century conditions.

Feldman does not go on to push the tripartite division laid out by Montesquieu and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. He does suggest that, if an Islamic state were to have both judicial and legislative institutions independent of the executive, and supported in that independence by the people, a situation might arise in which no one institution could bypass or ignore the others, and thereby gain a monopoly of power. One telling example, not mentioned by Marshall in his review, is that of Somalia. It is clear that Feldman believes that the United States erred in encouraging (if not hiring) Ethiopia to invade Somalia and put down the Shari ‘a courts movement there. The Shari ‘a courts movement had been making some headway in providing dispute settlement independent of the warlords, and even in obtaining some binding agreements across tribal boundaries. In other words, a system of checks and balances had begun to evolve in Somalia, which might have led to a stable governing regime. The Ethiopian invasion aborted that opportunity.

It strikes me that Feldman is in substantial agreement with Fareed Zakaria, who some years ago published an article in Foreign Affairs on illiberal democracy. It was Zakaria’s contention that in emphasizing such democratic processes as free elections, the West was placing the cart before the horse. Before democracy comes constitutionalism: the existence of institutions which guarantee the rule of law. Feldman, too, is not advocating that we urge Egypt and Jordan to have free elections, though that might help them to develop stronger, more independent legislatures, but that we press them to stop ruling by decree. The Muslim world needs strong, competing institutions, which will preserve the liberties of the people, more than it needs pieces of paper declaring the existence of those liberties.

There is an old story of an American who visits one of the stately homes of England. Impressed by the beautiful lawns, he asks the gardener to what he owes his wonderful results. The gardener replies, “Regular mowing, water and fertilizer on a strict regimen, and two hundred years.” The same may be true for constitutional government. If someone could induce Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, or Pakistan to adopt a system in which executive power were balanced by judicial or scholarly legal power on the one hand, and tribal or factional legislative power on the other, and keep that system running for two hundred years, at the end of that time there might be a working constitutional democracy so natural that no one could imagine an alternative.

It’s a nice dream. I don’t see a clear path to making it more than a dream.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Relying on Foreign Intelligence Services

The accompanying article has a quite interesting summary of, and link to, a story about the U.S. relying on foreign intelligence services for all sorts of things, such as kidnapping people off the street, torturing them, and disposing of their bodies. That's kind of old news, though the story has the twist that President Obama's policies limiting what U.S. agencies can do "have left him with few options." Somehow, it escapes Mr. McShane that one of the President's options is to stop ordering the commission of illegal acts.

Here's a link to the original New York Times story

On a more serious note, I don't see the problem with U.S. intelligence agencies providing other countries' police or intelligence services with information about suspected terrorists, given that we've accepted that other countries may not have judicial systems meeting our standards. The real problem is that we apparently want to contract out interrogation (torture), kidnapping, and murder, while evading responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

There is also the question of the practicality of a policy which has us turning suspected terrorists over to agencies, such as Pakistan's ISID, which may well have recruited and trained them in the first place.

Preventive Detention Erodes the Constitution

The attached article includes a link to a New York Times analysis of the idea of preventive detention suggested by President Obama in his speech on May 21. The Constitution provides for the right of habeas corpus, meaning that a person can only be incarcerated for a limited amount of time before being charged or released. Period. End of statement.

The Constitution says, in Article I, which covers the powers of Congress, "The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in case of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, and the Supreme Court found (but not until after the war) that he lacked the authority to do so. As far as I can tell, there is no rebellion underway in the United States at this time, nor is the country subject to a foreign invasion. Therefore, no one in the government has the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

In other words, whether there are "bad dudes" at Guantanamo, or elsewhere, isn't the question. The only question is whether the government is prepared to bring criminal charges against the people it has detained. If not, it should turn them loose immediately. Preventive detention has no place in the American Constitutional system, and I am amazed that the President would even suggest that we make room for it.

Does California Lead the Nation Once Again?

There is a saying that goes around on the Internet, and that I've seen in some popular politics books (i.e., polemics and apologetics), that a democracy will endure only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves benefits. The first time I saw this saying, it was attributed to a 19th Scots legislator. I have since seen it attributed to Benjamin Franklin, an attribution I find doubtful because "democracy" was not a word Franklin would have used in such a context. In any event, the saying is a favorite of "small government" and "low tax" conservatives, and there may even be some truth to it.

California has often led the nation in the adoption of fads and fashions; is it going to be the leader in fiscal disaster? Thanks to the populist devices of the initiative and referendum, the people of California have tied their government in knots. They have adopted a number of measures, starting with the infamous Proposition 13 in 1978, that have limited taxes, which is to say, that have limited the revenue available to the state government. They have also adopted a number of measures requiring that the government do this or that, thereby driving increases in the costs of state goverment. Further, they have placed a straitjacket on the budget by requiring that some activities, such as education, receive certain percentages of the state's budget. Thus, if circumstances lead the state to increase funding for highways, prisons, or parks, the legislature must also increase the funding for education by the prescribed proportion.

They have capped this incoherent system with a provision that budget measures must gain a two-thirds majority to pass the state legislature, thereby guaranteeing that no coherent, sensible budget can become law.

In addition, I might note, while California's constitution seems to require a balanced budget, it also seems to allow the legislature to count large amounts of borrowed money as revenue.

Now California faces an enormous deficit, and the voters recently rejected a number of measures designed to relieve the problem. (One article asserts that these measures would only have reduced the deficit to about $15.4 billion dollars.)

There are only two ways to balance a budget, since, by definition, a balanced budget is one in which expenditures are equal to revenues. First, you can raise taxes, fees, or other sources of revenue. Second, you can cut programs, reduce staff, eliminate grants, and otherwise reduce costs. Usually, a successful effort to balance the budget requires some of both forms of remedy. At some point, somebody must be responsible to defining the relationship between revenue and expenditure and bringing them into balance.

Unfortunately, the California system limits revenues without any reference to the expenditures that those revenues will be required to fund. Proposition 13, for example, limits ad valorem taxes to 1% of the cash value of real property. In other words, the tax will produce revenue of no more than 1% of the value of the real property in the state; when real estate values decrease, revenue decreases without an obvious means of making up the shortfall.

Unless California's leaders can persuade the voters that they cannot have both low taxes and a specified range of government services, the state appears headed for complete financial collapse. Given some of the attitudes evident in the U.S. Congress, can the rest of the country be far behind?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama at Notre Dame and China at the Gates

The May 18 issue of Today's Papers give good coverage to President Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame. The local Taliban protested.

Also of interest, in light to the Daniel Gross column I posted earlier today, was an item (with links) about Chinese interest in acquiring some of the parts that are falling off of the U.S. auto industry. (The reference is to an old joke about British cars: "How can you identify a British automobile?" "You follow it until parts fall off.")

Finally, there is a story about the land in Alaska rising as the weight of the glaciers is removed by global warming. Years ago, I read an article which mentioned that Scotland was still rebounding, elevation-wise, from the weight of the glaciers of the last Ice Age. These are long, slow processes.

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Layoffs

Today's Papers of May 16 continues the somewhat unseemly contest between the Speaker of the House and the CIA, a contest no one can win. There was other news, too.

Among the Chrysler dealerships being closed are one in Colorado Springs and one in the Denver area. In addition, Daniels Chevrolet, one of the oldest dealerships in the area, got its walking papers from GM. This may be the ultimate Wall Street impacting Main Street story. Nobody ever financed a car through Bear Stearns, but the collapse of that investment bank is part of the reason that local car salesmen are looking for new jobs.

And Now ... on the Tiny Screen

Those of us who are old enough to remember some of the early days of television, may recall the tiny screens. It seems to me that the trend toward watching movies and television programs on our computers, and especially on our hand-held devices, is taking us back to the eyestrain days of Your Show of Shows. Anyway, here's my first attempt at posting a video clip.

And the CIA Fights Back

The enclosed Washington post story includes a link to Leon Panetta's statement on Speaker Pelosi's comments.

U.S. Companies Booming in China

Daniel Gross's article notes that such American brands as Citigroup, General Motors, and KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken) have been doing more business in China, at the same time as they have been losing business in the United States. Is the tail wagging the dog, or China becoming the big dog of the global economy?

I was moved to post this article partly because of the recent visit of a friend of my daughter's, a young woman who spent three years working in China. Lauren contends that press reports about China are usually incorrect and unfavorable. I don't think this piece falls into that category.

Pelosi Takes on the CIA

This article is one week old, for which I apologize, but I thought it was still worthwhile to bring to your attention. I know this might sound amoral, but my main concern about this torture scandal has been that it would become an enormous distraction for a government that has many important initiatives on its plate. (Note President Obama's comment at his recent press conference about having more major issues on his plate than he had expected.) With Speaker Pelosi's effort to divert attention from her knowledge of possible torture by attacking the CIA, that danger has become substantially greater.

It will be hard enough for the President and the Congress to give legislative expression to the various programs under discussion. If the Speaker is hors de combat while fighting her personal battles with the intelligence committee, it will be that much harder.

McKiernan's Fall and NATO in Afghanistan

This is a thoughtful article about the firing of General David McKiernan as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The author, "Spook 86," alludes to one of McKiernan's problems as the management of NATO forces in Afghanistan. He might have spent more time on that issue, because it is quite evident that reconciling the various countries's preferences has been close to impossible.

Tom Ricks, in his new book in Iraq, The Gamble, points out that one of the problems with the counterinsurgency doctrine promoted by General David Petraeus is that it virtually guarantees increased military casualties when first implemented. The mission of "protecting the population" is accomplished by placing troops between the population and the insurgents, thus virtually asking the insurgents to focus their attacks on the military. This may be the right way to fight this kind of war, but it may not be popular. Some Americans are remarkably blase about the deaths of Iraqi or Afghan civilians, but highly intolerant of the deaths of American soldiers.

The feeling now, unlike during the Clinton and early Bush administrations, is that the American people will tolerate a certain level of casualties, if the military effort appears to be succeeding. In other words, the public has an instinctual grasp of the military principle that one should never reinforce defeat. In the Afghan environment, successful counterinsurgency efforts will mean placing a lot of soldiers on foot patrol in Afghan villages, when many of them will be shot at, and some will be killed. This may be, I say again, the right way to proceed, but I don't see our German or Italian allies joining us in such an endeavor. High Noon is not in their cultural DNA.

The Torture Continues

The central assertion of Richard Fernandez's essay is that the liberals - President Obama and Speaker Pelosi - are trapped in a web of lies about the torture scandal. On the one hand, they want to denounce torture and have nothing to do with it. This position is weakened when we find out how early and how thoroughly Nancy Pelosi was briefed on the matter. And so, the Speaker may have fibbed a bit to conceal her apparent complaisance.

On the other hand, they don't really want to concede that torture produced any really useful information, because that would draw too starkly the choice between national ideals and national security. Fernandez may be right to say that they should have faced that choice, and that they should be prepared to explain when it is right to sacrifice a little public safety for the sake of our democratic ideals, and when it is better to give a little more scope to the pursuit of security.

What Fernandez does not say is that the same dilemma faced the Bush administration, and they too funked it. Oh, sure, you can point to the torture memos from the Office of Legal Counsel as exactly the sort of attempt to balance law and security that was needed. But those memos were secret. Those memos were kept very secret, because the administration didn't want to explain its reasoning to the public. Moreover, I suspect, the administration was concerned that the public would reject its reasoning.

Fernandez, by raising the possibility of public debate on such matters, raises yet another dilemma. What if the people's judgement about when it is appropriate to use torture (and polls have shown that, depending upon how the question is asked, a lot of people would approve of such methods) and that of the officials does not coincide? One could contend that the secrecy of renditions, enhanced interrogation techniques, and the paper trails generated by such activities, was driven by the dual fears that the public would either find the methods used to be criminal and unacceptable, and that the public would find them too half-hearted and ineffectively applied.

Given the choice, the Bush administration opted to try to enhance our security at the cost of the Constitution it is our purpose to defend. It may have damaged the Constitution without enhancing our security, or any gains in security may have been so marginal as not to matter. The Obama administration is trying to take a public position on how these things have been done up to now, and to take a clear stand against certain practices, while keeping a few of them available, just in case that choice between security and liberty raises its head again.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Current Reading Sidebar

I'm sure some of your have noticed the "Current Reading" sidebar on this blog. The title is pretty descriptive. I add to this list books I am reading right now. I started reading Tom Ricks' The Gamble a couple of days ago, and I added it to the list today. On the other hand, I delete books once I've read them and posted a review to the blog. I removed a couple of books today because I've posted their reviews - Legacy of Ashes, Marching Toward Hell, and God and Gold. Two of the books listed on the sidebar have been read, but I haven't posted reviews yet for The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State and Against All Enemies.

I don't post every book I may be reading to the list. I think that inclusion in the sidebar is a sort of implicit endorsement, and I have read some books I wouldn't want anyone else to waste his time on. Sometimes I change my mind. I wasn't going to add Blogging for Dummies to the sidebar, but now I'm thinking that some of the people who read this blog may be bloggers themselves, and they might find it useful.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Posy Knight's Playlist at Colorado College

I'm not sure how many of you know that our daughter Posy is a dancer. Well, the accompanying story from the Gazette of Colorado Springs should leave one in no doubt.

This posting is intended to spread the word about my daughter and her performances May 14-17 at Colorado College. It is also a kind of experiment. I joined Facebook today (some of you will have received notices as a result), and I want to find out if the link I put on Facebook to this blog means that any update to the blog will also show up on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Marching Toward Hell - A Review

Scheuer, Michael. Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq. New York, London, and Toronto: Free Press, 2008. xvi + 364 pages. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $27.00.

Michael Scheuer spent some twenty years in the CIA, including three years as head of Alec Station, the virtual station in Langley charged with intelligence on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He wrote two previous books, both published anonymously because Scheuer was still employed by CIA at the time. I have seen him a time or two on The Newshour on PBS discussing questions about terrorism. He is also a highly opinionated man who doesn’t seem to mind putting controversial views front and center. I say “seems” because Mr. Scheuer’s feeling were apparently hurt by criticism of his views as expressed in his earlier books.

Scheuer’s thesis is fairly simple, although both the evidence for it and his projected policy options to deal with have a number of ramifications. Scheuer restates his thesis a number of times in the course of the book. That thesis is that the Islamist groups who have attacked the United States and American interests are not motivated by some generalized hatred toward our lifestyle and our freedom. Indeed, polls taken in the Muslim world consistently show widespread approval of the American people and our way of life. Rather, these groups are motivated by dislike for a number of specific policies and actions which the United States has pursued over a period of many years.

I think I should say two things here. First, Mr. Scheuer is not saying that anything the United States might have done would justify terrorist actions. He is saying, however, that such actions may be motivated by other people’s perceptions of our polices and actions. Second, there is another book out recently, Choice of Enemies, which makes something of the same point, though at greater length and with more sophistication. The United States did not have to go to war against any of the Middle Eastern countries, nor were we forced to befriend any of them. We chose to support certain countries rather than others, and we have backed some regimes and tendencies within countries, at some cost to their rivals.

What are the policies and actions of the United States which have made us unpopular to the point that people all over the Muslim world believe that the killing of American soldiers and civilian is acceptable? Mr. Scheuer offers a list of six items:

  1. The U.S. military and civilian presence in the Arab Peninsula
  2. Unqualified U.S. support for Israel
  3. U.S. support for states oppressing Muslims, especially China, India, and Russia
  4. U.S. exploitation of Muslim oil and suppression of its price
  5. U.S. military presence in the Islamic world – Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.
  6. U.S. support, protection, and funding of Arab police states.

Much of Marching Toward Hell is devoted to explicating this list, pointing out how our actions and policies appear to the residents of Muslim countries, and explaining why the United States has adopted such a self-defeating posture.

The first point is that, from a Muslim point of view, the United States declarations of support for democracy and freedom mean very little. Since the end of World War II, we have consistently supported military regimes, kingdoms, and dictatorships which have oppressed their own peoples. We have armed and re-armed Israel, and declared that we would never abandon Israel, when Israel has engaged in constant violence against Muslim people. But perhaps the worst thing is that we are there. We are present, in force, with bases in a number of Muslim countries, including parts of the Arabian peninsula which are regarded as sacred ground.

Mr. Scheuer tries to explain why we pursue these policies. I’m not sure that his explanations are sufficient, though they may contribute something to the debate. He strongly believes that we are losing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that we will continue to lose wars in the Muslim world unless we get out of Cold War habits of thinking, try to understand the inhabitants of those countries, and disengage from local politics.

Scheuer contends that the Cold War casts a long shadow on U.S. military and political attitudes. One example is our tendency to try to find proxies to fight our wars for us. The failure of our Iraq policy may be attributed to the simple fact that Iraqis were not willing to kill other Iraqis (at least, Iraqis of the same confession) to forward our purposes. Similarly, I doubt that any Pakistani government will be able to sustain itself by cooperating in our mission to kill hundreds or thousands of Pakistani people. People helped us fight the Soviet Union because they believed that the Russians were evil, and there was plenty of evidence for that view. Scheuer doubts that we can persuade Muslims to believe that their fellow Muslims are evil.

This is partly due to a problem we have in much of the world. We don’t learn the local languages, we know nothing of the local cultures, we expect everybody to act just the way they do back home in Ashtabula. Do you think that the Iraqis are unaware of the contempt in which they are held by U.S. soldiers who speak no Arabic, and that they do not return that contempt in spades.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Scheuer recommends that we attend to American interests first and stop arming both sides in a religious war. Who is responsible for the Arab-Israeli conflict lasting for 60 years? We are. And neither Israel’s interests nor those of the Saudis are identical to those of the United States.

No matter how you look at it, Michael Scheuer has written a contentious book. The prose isn’t always elegant, but his sincerity shines through. Sincerity is, of course, no guarantee that Mr. Scheuer is right. This book will anger some people, perhaps especially supporters of Israel. But it raises questions that are worth raising and discussing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

God and Gold - A Review

Mead, Walter Russell. God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 449 pages. Acknowledgments. Notes. Index. $27.95.

History is a word with a great many meanings. In its origins, it comes down to “story.” History is the stories we tell about our past. In that sense, I suppose, Beowulf is not only the oldest Anglo-Saxon poetry, it is also our oldest history. Of course, Beowulf is fictitious, a story out of legend. The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Bible, and many another collection of tales are likewise the stuff of myth and legend, and not to be construed as literally historical. I recall the distinction made in my college New Testament class between “historic” and “historical” (from the German historische and geschichtliche), that is, between events which seem to have had a profound effect on later societies, such as the Trojan War and the founding of Rome, and events which could be shown to have occurred.

Even when we are dealing with history (Geschichte) as narratives of actually verified events, there are big differences between chronicles and explanatory texts. I just posted a review of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. That is a chronicle, a more or less chronological recounting of events, arranged in the traditional fashion of the passage of presidential administrations. Choice of Enemies, another book I read recently, starts in 1979 and runs, similarly, through the administrations of Carter, Reagan, 1 Bush, Clinton, and 2 Bush. Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold, is in an entirely different category.

Mead is not merely setting out to recount a series of historical events; he intends to explain them. In particular, he notes that since the Dutch got into the global trading business in the 17th Century, the three great sea powers of the world, Holland, Britain, and America, have dominated economic, political, and social developments all over the Earth. It is not too much of an exaggeration to agree with Mead’s subtitle that this is the world made by those powers.

For one thing, in the past 400 years, since the days of Louis XIV, the British and Americans have won every war they’ve fought, except for the two occasions on which they fought one another. For another, Rotterdam, London, and New York have controlled and directed world finance over that same time span. In fact, most of the instruments of modern fiscal operations were invented in those financial centers. If a country wishes to participate in the world economy today, or (as may be the case) a country must engage in international trade, even against its wishes, it must do so according to the terms set by modern capitalism. For an example of the social influence of the maritime powers, I think it is only necessary to cite a story I was told of a professor at an Indian university who proudly displayed on the name placard on his door: “Failed Ph.D. Harvard.”

Mead starts the book with an account of some similarities among the experiences of England and America, between for example Cromwell and Reagan, and their many successes. But he also notes that both the English and the Americans keep expecting history to end. That is, they keep thinking that, having defeated the Spanish, or the French, or the Germans, or the Russians, they have reached the uplands of perfect peace, in which all the peoples of the world will live in perfect harmony, drinking Coca-Cola and acting like good Britons or Americans in all other ways. So far, history has not cooperated.

Mead sets out to answer “six key questions,” which are worth recounting in full.

· What is the distinctive political and cultural agenda that the Anglo-Americans bring to world politics?
· Why did the Anglo-Americans prevail in the military, economic, and political contests to shape the emerging world order?
· How were the Anglo-Americans able to put together the economic and military resources that enabled them to defeat their enemies and build a global order?
· Why have the Anglo-Americans so frequently believed that history is ending – that their power is bringing about a peaceful world?
· Why have they been wrong every time?
· What does Anglo-American power mean for the world?

These are interesting and, I think, very important questions. Mead makes a good effort to answer them with humor, with impressive scholarship, and with a nice eye for great little examples and metaphors to make his points. Even if you think, after reading this book, that Mead has gotten every answer wrong, he will have given you enough to think about to keep you busy for a long time. This is the kind of book that leads you to go read the books referred to, so that it might serve as the touchstone of a lifetime’s education. We have Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Milton, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Edward Gibbon, and many others brought in as witnesses before the bar of history.

The part of Mead’s exposition I found most interesting was the manner in which the Anglo-Americans adopted an Anglican approach to religion. Unlike the Lutherans and some other Protestants, the Anglo-Americans don’t subscribe to the idea that scripture should be, or can be, the sole authority to guide life and religion. After all, the best minds, reading the best manuscripts, disagree on the meaning of scripture. But, unlike the Catholics, the Anglican approach does not wholeheartedly embrace tradition. Bishop Newman tried to reconcile the Anglican church with tradition, and he ended up converting to Catholicism. And, despite the best efforts of such as Gibbon, Hume, and Jefferson, reason has never been able to run the table as a life-directing methodology.

So the Anglican approach is to balance the three sides of religious belief, and never go too far in one direction or another. Mead takes Bergson’s philosopy and Popper’s ideas about the open society, and carries them on to show how the open society allows for the rate of innovation that has made capitalism a success. In short, Mead brings to the table a full toolkit of philosophical, historical, political, and military analytic approaches to demonstrate that the last four hundred years of Anglo-American dominance was no accident, but the result of a complementary set of cultural attributes. His use of his tools is masterly. I can give no higher recommendation than to say that I plan to read this book again, and in the not-too-distant future.

Back to Basics, Conservative Style

Eric Florack has decided that the founding manifesto of the National Review, written in 1955, is an appropriate statement of the conservative and libertarian principles that should guide the Republican Party. It is certainly clear about its positions, and, in fact, might be a better program than the current melange of anti-tax fanaticism, medieval superstition, worship of greed, and fear of honest negotiation that characterizes the Republican Party in Congress and in the country. That the GOP's leadership is insufficiently conservative may be doubted. That it lacks a coherent program is, however, apparent.

However, like many "movement" conservatives, Mr. Florack forgets that the purpose of a political party is to do exactly what he faults the Republican leadership for doing: to get elected. In fact, a political party's only purpose should be to construct a program that commands the support of a majority of the people, so that it can enact that program when in power. The manifesto opposes bipartisanship, but by opposing everything, and cooperating in nothing, the Republican Party has merely rendered itself irrelevant to the government of the country.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Torturing the CIA

Christopher Hitchens goes after the CIA for reasons beyond the current torture scandal, looking for reasons that the Agency would have been so desperate as to use such means. As usual, incompetence is a better explanation than any conspiracy or consciously evil intent.

This week one of the visitors to this blog commented on my review of Legacy of Ashes. He was of the opinion that the CIA was implicated in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I'm sorry, but the reason Kennedy's assassination looks like the work of a lone gunman is that it was the work of a lone gunman. If the CIA - which employed E. Howard Hunt at the time - had been involved, it would have left not fingerprints, but footprints all over the place.

Last July I read a book called Tears of Autumn. (I posted about it in my reading list XIX.) It was an enjoyable read, and its plot revolved around a rather plausible explanation of the Kennedy assassination: it was an act of revenge for the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. It made perfect sense; it was a very plausible story. But it was labelled a novel, a work of fiction. It would be nice if the authors of these conspiracy theories would be honest enough to label their work as fiction, too.

Running On Empty

The attached column by Daniel Gross is entitled "The Scary Rise of the 'Empty Creditor.'" I'll let you read the article to find out the technical definition of "empty creditors." The point on which I wanted to comment concerns Chrysler. Last week, certain hedge funds and other investors forced Chrysler into bankruptcy by not signing onto a deal in which they would have received stock for their debt. Having been through the WorldCom bankruptcy, I can tell you that it is normal behavior for creditors to take equity in exchange for their debt. In fact, one of the odd things about bankruptcy is that the stockholders lose all their equity on the front side, while the creditors receive equity on the back side. Thus the ownership of the firm completely changes hands.

In any event, I thought the Chrysler story was odd, and President Obama obviously didn't think that these investors had the interests of the company at heart. This article offers a possible explanation for their behavior.