Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Paint Mines Interpretive Park

My wife, my daughter, and I have been exploring the parks and scenic attractions of El Paso County, Colorado.

Two weeks ago we spent our Sunday morning at the Paint Mines Interpretive Park, near Calhan, in eastern El Paso County. The site, as may be seen from the link in the title to this piece, is an area of eroded clay soils, laid down some 60 million years ago, and exploited by Native American as a source for pigments. This is where "war paint" came from for some of the Plains Indians, and proto-Indians, going back some 9,000 years. It was also a source of clay for pots.

I suppose the drive from home out through Falcon, Peyton, and Calhan, took us about an hour. There are several miles of well-kept trails in the park, and it was a very enjoyable walk. There wasn't a lot of bird activity, though there were some Red-Winged Blackbirds. Of course, they are found pretty much everywhere.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Realism and Morality

In the enclosed article Rick Moran argues that President Obama has chosen realism over morality with regard to Iran. I think that a) he's incorrect, and b) that's exactly the choice the president should have made.

I think all this realism vs. morality talk is mistaken because there is, as far as I know, no moral rule at all that says that the United States should encourage people in other countries to get themselves killed. You may recall that a lot of people found the results of such encouragement disheartening in Hungary in 1956 and Iraq in 1991.

And, in any event, the president has to deal with the world as he finds it. That doesn't mean he can't work to change it. It does mean that it isn't very wise to run into a stone wall again and again.

The Absolute Truth of Victor Davis Hanson

I enclose an article by Victor Davis Hanson, who is one of the few right-wing ideologues who can write in complete sentences. I suppose that's due to his training as a classicist.

In this article, Mr. Hanson seems to assert that the U.S. is now a less reliable ally than it was under President Bush. But that's not actually what he's asserting. What he really says is that the Europeans ought to perceive President Obama as less reliable than President Bush because Obama is "to the left of Europe." He adduces no evidence that anyone in Europe actually perceives Obama as less reliable than Bush.

What struck me the most, though, was that at the base of Hanson's accusations is that Obama does not believe in "absolute truth," but in some relativistic vision of history. I've had a number of discussions on this sort of thing over the years, and "absolute truth" usually means "the particular version of the truth to which I subscribe." In matters of history and politics, there aren't a lot of absolute truths running around, and the people who believe that they possess absolute truth are almost certainly wrong. Does Hanson really want the President of the United States to up himself in the same category as the Supreme Leader of Iran, Osama bin Laden, and Mullah Omar?

Of course Obama needs to take a relativistic stance! That's called "empathy" or seeing the affair from the other person's point of view. How can we possibly hope to defeat the jihadists if we don't try to see how the world looks from their side of the table?

"Absolute truth" is absolute bunk!

Does History Repeat Itself?

The affair that has led Senator Jon Ensign to resign his leadership post in the U.S. Senate has some uncanny similarities to a scandal that dogged Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago. As you will see from the accompanying article in the Washington Post, it appears that the husband of the woman with whom Ensign had the affair demanded a payoff from the Senator. Was this extortion, or was he, in effect, pimping out his wife?

The Reynolds Affair, as it was called, is described in the Wikipedia article on Alexander Hamilton:

In 1791, Hamilton became involved in an affair with Maria Reynolds that badly damaged his reputation. Reynolds' husband, James, blackmailed Hamilton for money, threatening to inform Hamilton's wife. When James Reynolds was arrested for counterfeiting, he contacted several prominent members of the Democratic-Republican Party, most notably James Monroe and Aaron Burr, touting that he could expose a top level official for corruption. When they interviewed Hamilton with their suspicions (presuming that James Reynolds could implicate Hamilton in an abuse of his position in Washington's Cabinet), Hamilton insisted he was innocent of any misconduct in public office and admitted to an affair with Maria Reynolds. Since this was not germane to Hamilton's conduct in office, Hamilton's interviewers did not publish about Reynolds. When rumors began spreading after his retirement, Hamilton published a confession of his affair, shocking his family and supporters by not merely confessing but also by narrating the affair in detail, thus injuring Hamilton's reputation for the rest of his life.
At first Hamilton accused Monroe of making his affair public, and challenged him to a duel. Aaron Burr stepped in and persuaded Hamilton that Monroe was innocent of the accusation. His well-known vitriolic temper led Hamilton to challenge several others to duels in his career.

I note, by the way, a couple of examples of bad writing in this Wikipedia article. "Touting that" is not an expression that works. "Claiming that" or "asserting that" would be better. Also, the phrase "did not publish about," is awkward. Publish usually takes an object, as in "did not publish the information they possessed about him."

In any event, Ensign has provided yet another example of the hypocrisy that seems to be rife in the Republican party. Hypocrisy, it has been said, is the tribute vice pays to virtues. The Republicans, it appears, can praise virtue; they just don't know how to practice it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Hazards of Self-Referential Thinking

A week ago there were big demonstrations in Tehran. There were rumors of demonstrations in other cities in Iran: Isfahan, Fars, Mashad. The attached news summary led with the New York Times reportage on the Iranian situation. One reason I'm posting it here, and now, is that it mentions that the Iranian government had, for the first time, accused the U.S. of "meddling" in Iranian affairs.

There are a couple of ways to react to that. If you are one of the people who still believe that the CIA is an organization of superheroes - like X-Men, but with less facial hair - you can take it at face value. "See, Martha! I told you that Leon Panetta was up to no good." In that case, you probably believe that the NPR stringer who was arrested for possession of wine and then convicted of espionage was guilty. If she weren't in Wisconsin now, she'd probably be up to no good.

If, on the other hand, you think that the mullahs must be lying just because they are mullahs, then you may be sure that the U.S. government is innocent of anything that could be called "meddling."

I, to stake out my own position, think we have three components here. First, the Iranians, like white southerners in the 1960s, have to believe in the power of "outside agitators." They don't want to believe that the people of Iran might be turning against them. Second, there's the history of U.S. and British interference in Iran. Third, just as we tend to see all of the Iranian actions as aimed at us, the Iranians see all of our actions as directed at them. So Mr. Obama's Cairo University speech had to be intended to stir up the opposition in Iran.

For some real insights into Iranian thinking, see the movie Persepolis.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Speak Softly ...

I notice that a lot of conservative commentators are urging President Obama to speak out on the events in Iran. These are the same people, of course, who identified Iran as the source of all of the evil in the Middle East, and who condemned anyone who wanted to open a dialogue with the country's leadership. Now they want President Obama to speak out on one side of an internal Iranian fight.

There are two good reasons for the President of the United States not to jump into the Iranian melee. There are lots of other reasons, some formal, some shaky, but there are two good ones.

First, most Iranians are not big fans of the United States. Even those who are not enamored of the present regime have been raised to believe that the United States, along with Britain, has played the villain more than once in Iranian affairs. It is one thing to note that some Iranians share some of our values. It is another to cause the broad mass of Iranians to identify the students and other protestors with the United States. There is no way that most Iranians would see that as us merely supporting a movement we like. They would have to see us as Khamanei wants to portray us - as puppetmasters of these brave young people.

Second, working out an arrangement which keeps Iran's nuclear program from becoming a nuclear weapons program is more important that who the political leader of Iran might be. If Mousavi wins, we'll have to deal with him (and he ain't no George Washington). If Ahmadinejad wins, we'll have to deal with him. In no case should we make it easy for these guys to refuse to talk with us.

Let's also remember that, as in most of the Middle East, public opinion is more anti-American and anti-Israeli than elite opinion. Iran might be an exception, but I'd be somewhat cautious about accepting the idea that a more "democratic" government would necessarily better for us.

In 1956 we spoke out in favor of the Hungarian revolution, and then we stood by and did nothing while the Red Army stormed Budapest. In 1991 we urged the Shi'ites to rise up against Saddam Hussein, and then we stood by and did nothing while Saddam's army and the mukhabarat massacred thousands of people. Let us remember the first half of Teddy Roosevelt's famous injunction, "Speak softly, and carry a big stick."

Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal was born on June 19, 1623, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was the author of Pensees. I have a copy, but had not even opened it until today.

"The power of kings is founded on the reason and the folly of the people, but especially on their folly. The greatest and most important thing in the world is founded on weakness. This is a remarkably sure foundation, for nothing is surer than that the people will be weak. Anything founded on sound reason is very ill-founded, like respect for wisdom." (330)

I am drawn to reflect upon that passage in light of the recent events in Iran. The power of the ayatollahs has been founded upon the folly of the people. Then again, the power of the Shah was also founded upon the weakness of the people. Unfortunately, I don't suppose that the overthrow of the current, theocratic regime will result from the triumph of reason, either.

In fact, a lot of the problems which have caused so much dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad and the regime are due to economic policies common in the Middle East and Asia. Staples such as bread and gasoline are subsidized in the cities, in order to avoid giving the people cause for unrest. But Iran is now having to import refined petroleum products, and the program is becoming unsustainable as 70% of Iranians now live in cities. At some point the government is going to have to adopt some unpopular policies, at which point the people will be in the streets again. It would be better if that were to happen under Ahmadinejad than under a government identified with political reform.

Changes to Castle Ramparts

Castle Ramparts is my list of blogs I enjoy and would like to share. I update the list from time to time.

Today, for example, I removed the blog for the United Nations Association of Westchester because it seems to have gone under. I moved Arts and Letters Daily to my News, News, News sidebar. I added a new blog, SplinterScript, in hopes that the owner will blog actively there. And I added one of the biggest blogs in the business, Daily Kos.

I added some additional on-line news sources to News, News, News. I fixed the link to the Huffington Post, and I added the Drudge Report, The Daily Beast, Salon, and The Economist.

Suggestions for additional blogs or news sources are welcome. Enjoy!

Changes to the Current Reading List

I need to make updates almost constantly in order to keep my blog current and interesting. Today, for example, I updated the Current Reading List in the sidebar. I had read Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies some time ago, and I had posted my review of the book. So it was time for Dick to go. The books by Tom Ricks, Douglas Feith, Jane Mayer, and Gardner and Birley will stay up until I've written and posted reviews of them. I added Richard Russo's novel Empire Falls to the list. I don't know if anyone else remembers the Paul Newman movie Nobody's Fool, but it was based on an earlier novel by Russo.

I also added a book that has appeared on the Foreign Affairs Bestsellers list: Amy Chua's World on Fire. I've just started the book, but I will say that I am finding it very interesting. The author has a very provocative thesis. "In the numerous countries around the world that have pervasive poverty and a market-dominant minority, democracy and markets - at least in the form in which they are currently being promoted - can proceed only in deep tension with each other."

I have also added, somewhat belatedly, The NIV Study Bible. I started reading the Bible in November of 2007 on a program that took me through the entire book by the end of October 2008. I stayed with that program through the end of 2008. In 2009 I am following two Bible-reading programs. The first program takes me through the Bible in one year, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. The other program takes me through the New Testament in two years, spending a week on each group of two or three chapters.

Anyway, check out the Current Reading List, take a look at the recommended reading lists from Foreign Affairs and The Economist I have posted here, and find something good to read.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Against All Enemies - A Review

Clarke, Richard A. Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Free Press, 2004. xiii + 304 pages. Index. $27.00. ISBN: 0-7432-6024-4.

The opening chapter of Against All Enemies describes the scene at the White House during and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Fearing that another plane was aiming for Washington, the Secret Service ordered the building to be evacuated. Richard Clarke, the National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, and a few stalwart souls hang in there, monitoring events, calling upon the resources of other agencies, and generally managing the response to the disaster. This is what the permanent staff of the government does: They manage crises. The story makes a great set piece to lead off the book, and it establishes Richard Clarke’s credentials as a man at the center of events, respected by his colleagues, and in command of the reins of power.

Richard Clarke reached that eminence by serving in a series of posts in the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House during a thirty-year civil service career. One of the characteristics that Mr. Clarke brought to these various posts was a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that appears to have arisen from his belief that professional military, intelligence, and diplomatic officers regarded civil servants as less accomplished, or less dedicated, than themselves. Mr. Clarke makes a point of noting that his hiring other civil servants when he was Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs irritated the career Foreign Service personnel with whom he worked. He also makes a point of every petty bureaucratic battle he ever won.

The remainder of the book is both a history of the U.S. Government’s efforts to come to grips with terrorism, foreign and domestic, and an account of Mr. Clarke’s working life. Chapter 2, “Stumbling into the Islamic World,” reviews the experience of the Reagan administration, including the several disasters in Beirut, Lebanon, during that period. The chapter title conveys Mr. Clarke’s impression of the direction of our efforts in that part of the world. The chapter ends with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and apparent American victory which would eventually turn to ashes in our mouths.

In subsequent chapters Mr. Clarke reviews the first Bush administration’s experience with the Gulf War, which he refers to as “unfinished,” the rise of Islamic terrorism during the Clinton years, and the many threads that led to the discovery of Al Qaeda. This is in some ways the strongest part of Against All Enemies, as Mr. Clarke recounts how the investigations of apparently unrelated events led eventually to the realization that there was a single organization behind the World Trade Center attack of 1993, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the 1998 attacks on U.S. Embassies in Africa, and this strange Saudi businessman, Osama bin Laden. This historical review ends, with Chapter 9, in the observation that the Bush administration found it rather odd that the Clinton people identified the elimination of bin Laden as one of the top national security priorities.

The chapter on “Before and After September 11,” in which Mr. Clarke critiques the Bush administrations counterterrorism efforts is probably the most quoted part of the book. After all, this is where he shows Bush’s national security team ignoring his many warnings about terrorism, and choosing to focus on missile defense and doing away with the ABM treaty. In fact, he concludes that there was very little chance, given the developments to date, that Bush could have stopped the 9/11 attacks. There might have been a chance for Clinton to have disrupted Al Qaeda enough to have prevented that kind of action, but, by January 20, 2001, the die was cast. As for the period after 9/11, Clarke characterizes the decision to invade Afghanistan as “plainly obvious,” but Bush’s efforts as “slow and small.” His assessment of the decision to invade Iraq – “Far from addressing the popular appeal of the enemy that attacked us, Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed, proof that America was at war with Islam, that we were the new Crusaders come to occupy Muslim land.”

In the final chapter, “Right War, Wrong War,” Richard Clarke gives us his policy prescriptions for the dealing with terrorism. Rather, for dealing “with the fundamental problems revealed by the terrorist attacks.” Clarke’s three items are: “a massive effort to eliminate our vulnerabilities to terrorism at home,” “a concerted effort globally to counter the ideology of al Qaeda and the larger radical Islamic terrorist movement,” and to cooperate with other countries to “round up terrorists” and to “strengthen open governments and make it possible politically, economically, and socially for them to go after the roots of al Qaeda-like terrorism.” Which open governments? Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

One oddity that I need to mention here is that there is a point on which Richard A. Clarke and Doug Feith, the former Undersecretary for Policy in the Defense Department, agree. They both assert that the U.S. government has not developed an effective means to counter the ideological message of the Islamist movement. I might add that such a means, if we could develop and apply it, would make both turning America into a fortress, and rounding up terrorists overseas, unnecessary.

If you are interested in the origins of the September 11 attacks, and in the manner in which the U.S. government developed (or failed to develop) its counterterrorist policies, Against All Enemies is a good place to start.

Reviewing Books by Unpleasant People

If you look at the sidebar on the right-hand side of this blog, you'll see Richard A. Clarke's Against All Enemies. This is one of the earliest "insider" books about the September 11 attacks, and Clarke looks at both the events leading up to 9/11 and the Bush administration's reaction to that supreme act of terrorism. A number of the other books on the subject are reacting to Clarke in one way or another. Michael Scheuer spends quite a bit of time in Marching Toward Hell, which was reviewed on this blog some time ago, criticizing Clarke.

My own review of Against All Enemies is half-written. I find Clarke easy to criticize. He's pompous; he is critical of others but never finds fault with his own actions or omissions; he has the defensive attitude one finds in people who feels they've been left out of the inner circle. In fact, a lot of Clarke's criticism of the Bush administration as a whole, and Condoleeza Rice in particular, comes down to "They didn't listen to me!" In short, Clarke is a rather unpleasant person. It would be easy to dismiss him as a self-justifying ass.

But that isn't the whole truth. Clarke was an insider, and he was involved in counterterrorism and related activities for many years. He worked at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House. He was in on a lot of investigations and discussions. He was "read in" on the subject to an extraordinary degree. So there is a lot of valuable material in Against All Enemies. You just have to get past the blowhard, know-it-all narrator to find it.

All of which is by way of saying that I have found this a very difficult book to review. I found myself spending a lot of time criticizing Clarke's personal qualities, rather than attending to the substance of the book. Now that I've gotten this off my chest, I hope the review itself will be easier to finish.

Have a good day!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Legislating from the Bench

The idea that judges should not "legislate" from the bench is a shibboleth on the Republican side of the aisle, and many Democratic legislators would agree that judges shouldn't trespass on their turf. In my opinion, this is an overblown issue in which hypocrisy content is extremely high. For one thing, in many cases judges have no option but to "legislate" from the bench, because Congress (or the states) have written laws that force judges to choose among differing interpretations.

First, even though Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that the Supreme Court could do without the power to declare Federal statutes unconstitutional, judicial review has been a key, if rarely used power of the judiciary. Suppose Congress passes a law that clearly violates the Constitution. More likely, Congress passes a law, some parts of which clearly violate the Constitution. The law comes up for review before the courts, probably because some individual has been penalized by the law, and has appealed to his constitutional rights. The courts find that some portions of the law are, indeed, unconstitutional. In effect, the courts have amended the law, a legislative act. But what's the alternative? The alternative would be the British situation, in which any act of Parliament is constitutional, because the unwritten constitution is largely a compilation of acts of Parliament.

Second, the law is often unclear. State legislatures and the Congress both write bills with lots of compromises, amendments, and cobbling together of sections drafted by different people. A bill comes into force which seems to require two contradictory things. Someone who finds that he cannot do both of these things sues, and the case comes into court. So a judge has to, in effect, amend the law in order to make sense of it. Judges are usually deferential to legislative intent, but if the intent is unclear, the judges have to reach a conclusion somehow.

Third, in some cases the legislators have deliberately left details of a law undefined, to be interpreted by the courts, or to be filled in by the executive. In these cases, the Congress has made the courts an associate in the legislative process. Congress give the President authority to fight a war in Iraq, for example, and the President says that he will use that authority to attack Burma. The courts may have to step in to say that the executive cannot construe the law in that manner.

These are just a few examples, more or less off the top of my head. I should point out that most of what courts of first instance do is to apply existing law (including precedent) to cases in which these questions do not arise. It is in the nature of the business that the cases that are appealed to higher courts are the ones in which lawyers see some chink in the solid wall of the law, and that those which rise to the Supreme Court are those on which there is disagreement among the lower courts. When Congress, in the various judiciary acts, authorized the appelate court system, it provided for courts whose job would be to legislate from the bench. So now they want to complain?