Sunday, March 29, 2009

On political writing

AlQuds alArabi prints an op-ed by Egyptian writer Mohammed Diab called "Political writing, and the issue of Liberalism and its relationship to projects for change".

He says political writing has become more like a form of armed combat than of civilized debate. The principles of tolerance, admission that true assertions can contain mistakes and vice versa, that circumstances can change truths into falsehoods--all of this tends to be forgotten in the heat of battle.

Let's distinguish, he says, between evil and error, the one being subject to correction by force, the other not.

Within all of the political currents in the region--state-nationalist, Arab nationalist, Islam-nationalist, Marxist, Liberal--there are parallels and cross-currents, and there is no reason why the proponents cannot live together in peace, provided that those above-mentioned principles continue to be respected. On the other hand, in all of them there is or can be an absolutist strain, for instance Islam-nationalism can degenerate into the intolerance of the takfiiris; Arabism sometimes risks consorting with racism; and so on.

The extreme case of absolutism is contemporary Egypt, where the group that holds power has build built for itself a systematic structure of corruption and self-interest.

Summarized in this way, the piece sounds like a string of liberal cliches. Particularly if you are not Egyptian and not Arab and have the Western homogenized picture of that region. Why would a big, radical paper and a regular columnist waste time with platitudes? I think the answer is that platitudes are in the eye of the beholder. When Diab says: Let's distinguish between those wrong positions that have to be dealt with by force, and those that can be dealt with in other ways, I think he is doing us the favor of burrowing his way back to the source of what we all think we hold in common: And it is that the nature of humans and human society is such that the exercise of force only needs to have a very limited sphere of application, while that of education and discussion ought to have a very wide sphere of application. (Here I snuck in that word "education"...)

This is a principle--minimize the use of force and maximize discussion and education--that has been subverted more than anywhere in America itself, where most political debates now revolve around military or a law-enforcement policy, and where education is seen as something in the service of either technical advancement to keep up with our enemies, or in the case of language-education is something in the service of national security. Moreover, to get back to his point about political writing, the problem isn't just in the Arab world, because in America the polarizing tendency is stronger than anywhere. What doesn't seem to be clear is the fact that this is a symptom of the same root cause--namely the loss of that original insight into what it is that is supposed to make us people and not manipulable objects.


That's not very well said, and it's not his fault, it's my fault. It's because I've run out of the kind of patience you'd need to come to grips with this. Or maybe it's that blogging isn't the right format. In any event, that's it for me, I'm going to be taking up small farming* instead. Warm thanks to those who commented, and those who didn't but still read the things with attention. And good courage to those who are able to still keep at it.

* I hear there's good money in chickens, and very little work involved. No matter how bad things get, people will always need eggs. Think about it. And feathers to stuff all those f*cking suits with, now that you mention it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Washington solipsism

The announcement and interpretations of the Afghanistan/Pakistan "policy" have said nothing about those actual countries, and here is the reason:

The problem--"how to make the US government move"--has now been solved, as the USIP dude says.
“We have never seen this level of political attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is easy to underestimate how much that attention means.” Beyond the additional diplomatic, aid, and military U.S. personnel being committed to the mission, Thier added, “Fundamentally to have such high level support by people such as Richard Holbrooke who really know how to make the U.S. government move – we haven’t seen before.” J. Alex Thier of USIP
So naturally we can now expect smooth sailing, says CAP:
I think the odds of the multi-modal influx of military forces, civilian development and governance experts, and money working are pretty good. MY
In other words, the view is that the debilitating effects of inter-agency sectarianism have been overcome--in Washington. If you want to know what that has got to do with anything in the region, well...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Funny stories in international finance

Paul Krugman has famously complained of a feeling of policy-despair, and now in the Atlantic, a former chief economist at the IMF has a similar complaint.

Without questioning the fact that they have good grounds for despair, I would like to point out that there is something funny here.

Funny issue # 1

Krugman, in the Japan crisis of the 90s, argued that the problem was entirely monetary, and that restructuring was not necessary. In the current US case, he is arguing that restructuring, at least in the form of bank-nationalizations is necessary. Fair enough. Instead of re-arguing the Japanese case, what I would like to point out here is merely the pattern.

What Krugman and others were urging the Bank of Japan to do was to be more aggressive in making interest rates (1) fall to zero; then (2) via "quantitative easing" flood the banks with liquidity reserves in exchange for their bad assets, supposedly in hopes they would eventually have so much liquidity they would start to lend to the real economy and finally (3) commit to keeping interest rates at zero nominal levels until inflation had heated up to a pre-defined level ("inflation targeting"). So it was zero interest rates; then in real inflation-adjusted terms sub-zero interest rates; to continue until inflation reached a pre-defined level. Banks (short-term borrowers) ended up borrowing almost exclusively from the Bank of Japan, making fish-in-a-barrel spreads buying almost exclusively government-issued securities.

Those whose ox was gored in this were obviously Japanese households, whose savings in the domestic market were now earning close to zero-rate yields, absent unfamiliar risk-taking (in a lot of cases this ended up being in foreign currencies), but the household sector was not much heard-from. They were particular losers in this (not to mention the fact that this chilled consumption spending and contributed to lengthening the slump in that way).

That seems to be what is happening now in the US, only this is not seen as aggressive and innovative, but rather as essentially corrupt, with "quantitative easing" now seen to be more appropriately called "cash for trash" (Krugman); and with inflation targeting now apparently a taboo expression. My point here is merely about the pattern. It seems to have become a form of orthodoxy: Rescue the banks first, by cutting nominal rates to zero; then by flooding them with liquidity. Krugman, who opposes this policy in his own back yard, was quite a vigorous proponent of it for the Japanese. So it goes.

Funny story # 2

Japan is a country with foreign currency reserves, and America can sort of create its own, but what about chronic international debtors? Here the pattern was set by the IMF in the debt-restructurings in Latin America starting in the 1970s. And here again I would just like to point up the pattern. The policy was to lend to these governments (via the IMF) but only on condition that the governments switch from supporting their domestic-demand sector, to supporting their export sector. Via things like currency-devaluations, elimination of consumption-goods subsidies, and other means. This was dressed up in different ways, but the people participating in the anti-IMF food riots of that period knew what the the story was: IMF policy was to force a switch to exports in order to earn foreign currency to repay the US and European banks. The threat was often made explicit. If a government defaults, it will never, ever again be able to access international capital markets.

The pattern here--for chronic-debtor countries--was to punish the domestic-demand sector in order to ramp up exports (naturally there was a trickle-down argument to go with this). While for countries like Japan and the US, the new orthodoxy is to punish the household sector via zero (nominal) and sub-zero (real inflation-adusted) interest rates. In both cases the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow has been to resuscitate the banks at the expense of the household sector.

(The former-IMF dude makes a point of IMF efforts in recent years to confront local oligarchies and force them to "take a hit", but one wonders. He skates around the essential structure of these deals with this: "Almost always, countries in crisis need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut—and the goal is to do this without the most horrible of recessions. Naturally, the fund’s economists spend time figuring out the policies—budget, money supply, and the like—that make sense in this context. Yet the economic solution is seldom very hard to work out.") With the government and the oligarchs at the table with the IMF, and the working people having only the streets, it is a considerable imposition to be asked to believe, just on this man's word, that "what makes sense in this context" is the kind of crusading for social justice that he seems to be suggesting.

In any event, this is what I find funny: Krugman and the former IMF dude were participants and proponents in this process, and now they are against it. I believe the reason is that people where they live--in the USA--are suddenly waking up to what it means. As opposed to where other people live. Not perhaps waking up to what the whole picture is, but certainly enough to understand that there is a class that is being enriched, at the expense of another class that is being impoverished.

Hence this somewhat funny policy about-face. Not that they aren't right about the need for bank-nationalizations, just that I think they could be a little more forthright about how the system has been working.

From the Annals of the Historian


In the first year, in the spring, the court was in decline
the poets were writing satire


is the road [to Sichuan, over the high mountains]
more difficult than climbing the blue heaven...

--Li Bai


Monday, March 23, 2009

News, and a question about JournoList

On March 19, Prime Minister Maliki's office issued a statement clarifying the meaning of his recent statements about an opening to those outside the political process, and in particular the ambiguous point about the Baath party as such, the Baath party under different names, ex-Baathists, guilty Baathists, and so on. And also the relevance or otherwise of talk about constitutional amendments The statement began like this:
There have been calls by Prime Minister Maliki's to effect national reconciliation according to the conditions defined by the Constitution and in accordance with the program for national reconciliation and preparation for a program of political reform, and to eliminate the equivocations that have been published by some of the information media...on the stance with respect to the banned Baath Party, we clarify for this matter for everyone, so that they can deal with it without unnecessary fear or anxiety: The Constitution forbids the discussion or any return to activity of the dissolved Baath party, or any articipation by it in the political process, on account of its having commited horrible crimes against all of the entities of the people of Iraq for a period of 35 years, and on account of its promotion and exercies of sectarian and racial ideas. We therefore urge everyone to respect this principle, and with respect to all the names or the faces of the interred Baath party. This party, which bears all of the responsibility for the suffering of the Iraqi people and for their humanitarian, political, security and economic situation, is not able to be a national party or one that respects the Constitution, and anyone who thinks to have discussions with them, let alone permit them to participate in the political process, is commiting a clear violation of the Constitution...
but you get the picture.

The message appears to have sunk in, and yesterday AlHayat published a piece headed: "The Iraqi government announces its rejection of Baathist participation in the political process under any of its names..." outlining the above-quoted statement, and noting that not only do the proponents of what they thought was a reconciliation process object to this, but the people on the other side (SupremeCouncil affiliates and others) also object to it, because they say the statement didn't go far enough.

Saleh Al-Mutlak of the Nantional Dialog Council said it is now clear that the Maliki government is unable to carry though a reconciliation process, and he blamed this on pressure from Maliki's coalition partners.

On the other side, AlHayat says a group called the Popular Movement for the Dissolution of the Baath,
[which was] founded a couple of weeks ago, and is thought to be close to the Supreme Islamic Council [Hakim's group] rejected the latest statements by Maliki [the one quoted above], and said the government should cut off all communications with the Baathists immediately, and announce that with a statement that doesn't bear any constuctions or require any interpretation. And [the group demanded that the government] dismiss all Baathists who have returned to their jobs and immediately institute court trials of the Baathists who have fled, and issue arrest warrants against them, and hold them accountable for the crimes of the 35 years of Baathist rule.


Sadrist politician Bahaa Al-Araji made extended remarks to the Iraqi Press Agency on the same subject. He said no one needs to worry about any Baathist political resurgence, partly because of the Constitutional ban. But he did say: "It is very clear that there are Baathists or Sadaamists who have already, very unfortunately, entered into various positions in the state, on account of differences between the political blocs". And he continues: "We also need to pay attention to the timing of this reconciliation", referring among other meetings to a tour of Arab capitals almost two years ago by Petraeus and Crocker, demanding the Arab governments open embassies in Baghdad. Al-Araji says the quid pro quo demanded by the Arab governments was the return of Saddamist Baathists to Iraqi political life.
And as a result, very regrettably, there are commitments that were made by the government. These commitments were secret, and they need to be revoked.

Now as to the timing--and this is an important point--the timing as you know is with the requirements of the agreement--which we [Sadrists] do not have confidence in, and it would have been better if the United States had withdrawn--and therefore before withdrawal the United States wants to give a large share of political and govermental permanency (qarrar) to the Baath.
This idea of linkage of re-Baathification to the American withdrawal schedule isn't unique to Al-Araji; for instance Fadhil AlRubaie made the same point recently here. And here, in the Egyptian paper Al-Shorouq. In all cases the linkage is referred to as a matter of more or less common knowledge, in the process of making various arguments about what it means.

This linkage of Maliki's problematic re-Baathification (or non-re-Baathification) initiative to the American withdrawal strategy--and what is now obviously the un-reconciliatory character of it--are obviously important for an understanding of the Obama Mideast policy generally.

The corporate media are silent, but more interestingly the big blogs are silent as well. I will probably be hooted down for asking this, but who is or are the JournoList "experts" on Iraq and what are they saying to the assembled multitude of influential bloggers about this?

Just curious.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fame and war-promotion on the left

For what it's worth, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, 19-year-old up-and-coming blogger Ezra Klein explained why he was a strong supporter a US war against Iraq, despite his dislike of Bush, and the text is here (thanks to an alert commenter on his blog). (You have to scroll one-third of the way down, to March 6, 2003 post called: "Why the Hawks of the Left Must Not Falter"). Saddam, he wrote, is a threat to the region because of his nuclear-arms ambitions, and for that reason alone, American war on Iraq in order to topple him "is a goal very much worth supporting," despite the fact Bush was going at it the wrong way. He wrote that March 6, 2003, and two days later March 8, he expressed his humble thanks to then already-famous Matt Yglesias for a nice recommendation and including him on his blogroll. It could well have been the day that Ezra realized the power of accepting and promulgating conventional wisdom as a basis for popular advancement. (Unfortunately, MY archives for 2003 don't seem to be available).

The discussion about JournoList, which he recently (?) founded has mostly missed the point. The point being that people have a legitimate expectation that journalists and others, to the extent they rely on sources, whether attributable or not, in any event each relies on his own sources. It should be sort of blindingly obvious that each reporter has his own sources, and others have different sources, so there is diversity. And to the extent bloggers rely on sources, there is a natural expectation that there will be the same kind of diversity.

That is the revolutionary point of JournoList (and maybe of Townhouse before it, but very little was ever said about Townhouse): namely that everyone on the list had the same sources. No one outside the list can really say anything more, but the point is you don't have to. And the point isn't that everyone was brought to agree on everything. The point was merely that there was--is--a common fund of so-called "expertise" relied on by all the big-volume "progressive" bloggers, so there was, and is, a common set of assumptions.

And if you want to see a clear outline of what those common assumptions were in March 2003, read the Ezra Klein post linked-to above.

And what are those common assumptions today? We don't know officially, but if you read carefully the JournoList people today, you can get the drift of it: Israeli atrocities are not a big deal; but the Iranian "nuclear issue" is a big deal. Just substitute "Iran" for "Iraq" in the above-linked Ezra Klein post and you will see the logic.

And so it goes, like holding a deck of cards. Iraq was at the top, then Iran, next Pakistan, then what...

Commenter Zephyrus at the American prospect blog put it plainly:

The "Hawks of the Left Must Not Falter" piece is cringe-inducing. And then you realize that that's the kind of stuff that has led to the death of over half a million Iraqis, and you want to puke.

And then you realize that EK and MY and all of those serious thinkers* are the ones who have all the hype about them nowadays, and you despair.


*Here's Matt doing his serious thinking dipsy-doodle about the war on Afghanistan:
I worry that proponents of scaling-up our efforts in Afghanistan are in fact offering too little too late and just don't want to admit that the door has closed on their prescriptions. Even so, it's probably the right bet -- we owe it to the Afghan people to try in good faith to offer security and a start rebuilding their country before we conclude that we need to radically restrict our goals and settle for stand-off airstrikes against high-value terrorist targets. But at the same time, the administration needs to avoid a losing bet that sticks us with a quagmire.
He worries, but in the final analysis he sees that we owe the people of Afghanistan... just as Ezra worried, but at the same time he saw the need for war: It was what we owed the people of Iraq.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chalabi says the CIA was expecting a Baathist coup against Saddam

AlHayat prints the first installment of an extended interview with Ahmed Chalabi--it would be a tough job for some poor soul to translate, if anyone were to bother, let alone annotate with all the necessary caveats given the man's reputation. Meanwhile, the first thing that jumped out at As'ad AbuKhalil was Chalabi's mention of the famous "liberal" Kanaan Makiya as a co-conspirator with Chalabi and others in paving the way for the 2003 American invasion. To the LB of RoadstoIraq, an Iraqi, the first thing that jumped out at her was the mention of a similar role by the Jordanian King Abdullah.

For me, this part cried out for attention:

Following meetings in late 2002 in Iran that Chalabi says included himself, representatives of the Supreme Council, Barzani and Talabani, with senior Iranian military and political officials, there was then a meeting in London in December 2002. Chalabi says the Iraqis had decided to form a provisional government, before the invasion, "to take part in the liberation" and to act as an interim government thereafter. But at the meeting in London, Zalmay Khalilzad, on specific orders from the White House, vetoed the idea, and said there would instead be an interim American or Coalition Provisional Authority. And this veto was repeated by Khalilzad at a meeting with a similar Iraqi group in Salahuddin in February 2003.

The interview asks Chalabi what the reason was, and Chalabi replied as follows:
My explanation is that [the Americans] did not want the opposition [meaning primarily himself, the Supreme Council and the Kurdish parties] to control this [interim] government, and they were convinced--particularly the CIA--that it was within their ability to obtain the support of military leaders in Iraq and members of the Baath party to replace Saddam and rebel against him. And up until the last moment they were expecting these people to play a role in [regime-]change in Iraq. And they were saying that the formation of an interim government would make these people turn away from supporting replacement of Saddam, and would make them stand with him.
I haven't read any of the Americans' memoirs and so on, so I don't know what kind of real corroboration or otherwise there may be from Washington for the report that the CIA was expecting Baathists to carry out a coup. (In the interview Chalabi cites books by Douglas Feith and Bob Woodward). But to the extent that such a thing is plausible, the parallel with current events is striking. Because in the face of Maliki's current "opening", and the shadowy reports of US pressure in that direction, what the Supreme Council is now saying is that they would accept the return of former Baathists, but only those who opposed Saddam, presumably the same group of people that the CIA was looking to back in 2003.

The whole thing dressed up as a drastic new departure for a "post-sectarian" Iraq.

Michael Moore said somewhere in that film: "Maybe it was all a dream".

Friday, March 20, 2009

What is Pakistan? (With a few added links to show what this is about)

Too much has been made about the uniqueness of Jonathan Krohn, the gifted 14-year-old conservative thinker and talk-show radio orator featured in the NYT a few days ago.

Because there's 24-year-old Ezra Klein, too, who writes:
Sometimes I need to know about Pakistan before the ICG issues its report,
explaining the usefulness of the secret-membership e-mail "JournoList" that he created.

The point being that to the extent you are dealing with superficial airheads, to that degree you have less need of actual conspiring-together in order to produce the kind of lock-step of opinion that afflicts us.

I think it is a point that was missed by some of the commenters at places like this.


One of my woodland friends tells me this is pretty much incomprehensible.

By way of explanation I should have included this link to a piece called Inside the echo chamber, that started the current discussion, such as it is.

And a link to this piece about the equally mysterious Townhouse e-mail list, apparently the predecessor of JournoList, including a number of links in the footnotes.

And maybe a link to this Mother Jones article from 2007.

I started complaining about the lockstep-"expertise" problem in Iraq-blogging back in August 2007 with this post called "How the big blogs mislead you" (or try searching "food-chain" in the search box at the upper left on this page), and the problem now is the same as it was then.

It is a bubble. And by now we should understand what happens in any area when influential groups with their tails in the air are persuaded to take complicated "expertise" on faith, and reproduce it in mass-market forms, when they don't really understand what they are talking about.