Fulcrum Ruminations

Monday, March 21, 2005

Items in the News

Columnist Jack Kelly points out that the tone is often just as important as the content. Check it out.

Basically. Army and Marine Corp recruiting is down due to concerns about the war in Iraq and, to a lesser extant, Afghanistan, but not terribly so. The press, of course, blows it all out of proportion.

And here's a piece from the London Times by Gerard Baker that points out a curious discrepancy in the mutterings of the Left.

Wolfowitz critics call him a warmonger but as a neocon he's also a real democrat
Gerard Baker on America

AMID the howls of horror around the world that greeted the nomination this week of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank, one word was uttered with particular clarity and venom.

Mr Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, is well known, according to his many critics, as a warmonger, a unilateralist, a scourge of the working classes, a bloodsoaked twister of the truth in avaricious pursuit of oil and American power.

But he is, of course, something else, something far, far worse than any other insult in the lexicon of modern political demonology.

As one World Bank employee, evidently in full suicidal mode, put it in a comment to a website (www.worldbankpresident.org ) on Friday: “The mood here in the bank in the last 2 days is one of shock and disgust. It feels like a funeral here. From a public relations point of view, this is a disaster. It took years for us to disassociate the bank from the bad old days of being on a leash for the US . . . now we are in a worst position ever (sic) by being the tool of not even the US as a whole, but neoconservatism.”

There it was, that heavily pregnant appellation, that ugly abstract noun, spat out like a perfect arc of phlegm from across the ether — Mr Wolfowitz is not just your common or garden evil genius. He is a neoconservative.

The puzzle for most Europeans and leftish Americans these past few years is how the neocons, a tightly knit group of highly motivated men, came to seize the reins of political power in the US and subvert American foreign policy to their ends.

But a much more germane question is: how did the neocons, a hitherto obscure group of intellectuals and policy specialists, whose principal ambition is the spread of democracy around the world, come to be so maligned and despised by almost everyone across the political spectrum?

The question is particularly apt in the light of developments in the Middle East in the past few weeks, where positive expressions of popular will in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and even Saudi Arabia have raised hopes of democratic change in the region.

Since this change, welcomed even by most Europeans and leftwingers, was always the principal aim of American neoconservatives, why have people like Mr Wolfowitz provoked such fear and loathing?

Miles of newsprint and documentary film footage have been spent in an effort to flush out the neocons in the past four years and by any measure the efforts have been spectacularly successful.

Institutions generally identified as hotbeds of neoconservatism — think-tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Project for the New American Century — have received the kind of treatment usually accorded to Mafia families.

This attention is mystifying. As one neocon puts it: “Have you ever seen the Project for the New American Century? It consists of five men and a fax machine.”

In the late 1990s perhaps one person in a million had heard of neoconservatism. In those days the term was understood generally for what it actually was — a portmanteau ideological worldview that united many former liberals and leftwingers to some more traditional conservatives around a belief in the liberating potential of American power.

Though Ronald Reagan was no neocon, several of his advisers were, and all members of the tribe argue now that it was Reagan’s willingness to articulate a strong moral approach to foreign policy and to face down the Soviet Union that led to the spread of democracy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

In the 1990s neocons were enthusiastic supporters of the Clinton Administration-led wars against Serbia.

They argued for a redirection of US policy away from connivance at or outright support for tyrannical regimes, towards an active policy of promoting democratic change.

The intellectual roots of neoconservatism are more abstruse. Many adherents were enthusiastic followers of Leo Strauss, the 20th-century University of Chicago philosopher. Strauss was a classicist first and foremost, an admirer of 5th century BC Athens, who advocated the assertion of moral values in politics and foreign policy.

Why all this should arouse such opprobrium inside and especially outside the US is hard to fathom.

Part of it might be some musty intramural academic critique of Strauss, who was, ironically, not much of a believer in democracy and who thought governments should occasionally deceive their publics in the broader public interest.

The Great Neocon Conspiracy is even harder to understand if one considers their actual role in US policymaking.

Finding neocons in the US government is not easy.

The true believers in the Bush Administration probably only stretch as far as Mr Wolfowitz and his deputy at the Pentagon, Douglas Feith (both now leaving the Administration) as well as Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff of Dick Cheney, the Vice- President.

Neocon-phobia is probably, therefore, just a more sophisticated way for President Bush’s critics to articulate their opposition. It’s a lot easier to say that you are against neoconservatism than to say that you are against democracy.

I would have linked it but the Times has a strange way of searching for stories. Anyway.

The strange thing is that Baker is right on at least one point. The "neocons' " central idea is the promotion of democracy by vigorous means. And yet the chattering classes equate the "neocons" with the Legions of Hell. Makes you wonder what they might have against democracy, eh? I mean, aren't these the same people who were telling us for the last couple years that democracy couldn't work in the Middle East (or in arab societies, or islamic societies, or . . . well, anywhere, it seems like sometimes).

And yet there are those pesky elections in Iraq and Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and . . . Yeah.

Of course, it remains to be seen if this fragile blossom will take root in that bitter soil and actually grow.

The Left isn't doing too well with its predictions for the Bush administration. They thought Bush would lose the 04 election. Thought Iraq would be VietNam redux. Threw the "quagmire" word around with reckless abandon. And yet those of us who watch the goings-on with a jaundiced eye, cynicism fully engaged, can see that things seem to be working out for Bush. He says he's gonna do something and he does it, which is pretty rare for a politician.

Maybe that's why the Left is confused.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Domino Theory

This is probably premature. The way these things happen, in fact, I'm almost certain it's premature. But I can't help but theorize, fantasize, plunge off into a complete through-the-looking-glass we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore-Toto kinda thing here.

Things are changing in the middle east. Things that a certain element, commonly referred to as the "chattering class", has been telling us were impossible. Consider -

Elections in Afghanistan. Elections in Iraq. Not perfect elections, but elections nonetheless.

Libya gives up its WMD programs and begins to rejoin the world community.

Egypt announces it's going to hold elections.

Saudi Arabia does the same.

The Palestinians hold an election, made possible by the death of Yassir Arafat.

My gosh . . . could the Evil Neocons have been right? Is the Bush Plan for World Domination and Hegemony Uber Alles actually working?

Nah. Couldn't be.

But what if it is? Oh me, oh my.

This line of thought brings up another idea. A bit more sinister. Suppose all the "mistakes" that have been made in Iraq were done on purpose in order to camoflage what was really going on. Make the Great Satan seem a little less implacable, reduce the perceived threat of spreading democracy, or any other weird crap you want to attach to it. My thinking's a little fuzzy on this point right now, and I'm not known for my membership in the tinfoil hat brigade, but it bears thinking about.

It will be interesting to see what the next couple years bring. Yes indeed, very interesting.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The Fulcrum's Fulcrum

To turn to a hoary old cliche, there are two kinds of people in the world . . .

No, scratch that. There are two philosophies in the world. Two basic schools of thought that govern all human affairs. Without further delay, I reveal these deep mysteries to you, gentle reader.

Short-term thinking and long-term thinking.

Forget Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, Capitalist and Communist, or any other duality you might have thought ran the world. It's really all about the short-term vs the long-term.

As with all things, there is overlap between the two. Even the most committed practitioner of long-term thinking must pay attention to the short term. After all, a guy's gotta eat, right?

The problem is that short-term thinking is absolutely endemic to our species. Most people, left to their own devices, will focus almost exclusively on what they perceive to be their best short-term interests and give little (if any) thought to the long term.

We could debate where the short term ends and the long term takes over, but fortunately I already have that figured out for us. When speaking of human affairs, the long term is anything more than a year away. Most people take the year as their longest interval of measure, consciously or unconsciously. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving (in the US) and so forth. This is the rhythm to which they dance.

Politicians have a slightly longer interval, which coincides with their election cycle. Rare is the politician who can think past their next election. Business types are on a shorter cycle . . . as near as I can tell, it's driven by the quarterly profit-and-loss statement.

Now for most affairs, this is not a problem. Basic survival demands short-term actions. You have to eat your meals, pay your bills, and like that. All well and good.

The problem is, focusing on all that means that you don't see the long-term consequences of your actions. Example: young people who take up smoking because "it's cool" or because of peer pressure or whatever. In the short term it's basically harmless, but as years of breathing in toxic fumes go by, the problems appear. Shortness of breath, yellow teeth, smelly skin, cancer, mounting expenses, on and on. All eminently predictable, all completely avoidable, all ignored for that short-term nicotine rush.

On a larger scale, it's short term thinking that gives us things like global warming (we need our conveniences NOW, dammit!), pollution, deforestation, and gasoline at $2.15 a gallon.

Global warming is a good example. It's not hard to see that dumping tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is not a good idea. Scientific evidence has been mounting for at least the last two decades that we're having an effect on world climate patterns. There's evidence that the ocean thermal conveyor that regulates temperature extremes and has kept us out of an ice age is weakening because of things we human beings are doing.

But the short term economic dislocations that would accompany doing anything about this are judged to be too severe to risk, even tho the longer we wait the worse things will be. Basically we'd have to take the world off of the oil standard (which would have a trickle-down effect like nobody's ever seen, what with all the problems petroleum dependency causes) in order to fix it.

The oil companies, fixated on short-term profits, expend considerable resources to make sure that no competing technologies knock them off of their perch. If they could think long term, they'd realize that they are in an ideal position to usher in an alternative fuel economy since they already have the institutional knowlege of the infrastructure needed to produce and distribute that fuel.

Aside - the best alternative is hydrogen, which is abundant, produces no toxic waste, and is easily produced and stored.

If Exxon-Mobile et al stopped obstructing non-petroleum fuel, they could reap the rewards of being the ones to bring in the solution to a lot of problems. They'd also get all the warm-n-fuzzies from being "green" and for at least giving the impression that they were concerned with more than profit.

Another example, perhaps a bit easier to relate to for the young'uns.

P2P music distribution such as Naptser and its clones. The recording industry is fighting tooth and nail to kill this technology. If there was one working brain amongst the pack of weasels that runs that business, they'd have been out in front of the digital wave reaping enormous benefits by making their product available for, say, a dollar a song. Instead, they didn't understand the new medium that is the Web and ignored it until they perceived that it was eating into their profit.

Aside - it's been pointed out that P2P hasn't had near the effect on sales of CDs as has CD piracy and their own high prices for bad products, but that's a subject for a future Fulcrum article.

Anyway, the point is that by concentrating on short-term issues, the music industry missed the long-term trend of digital distribution of music over a new medium (the web) and are slowly stupiding themselves out of business.

You can apply this model to virtually any human enterprise and see the distinction between what the short-term fixation is causing and what the long-term view makes evident.

I will leave you now to contemplate this idea. I might post more about it at some future date, as I ponder the matter.

Just remembe that each of you is the fulcrum of this particular issue. Do you think of the immediate above all else, or do you grasp the long-term consequences of your actions?