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Liberty & Power Archive 11-1-03 to 12-07-03


I have argued, as have many others (including Friedrich Hayek, and historian Barbara Tuchman) that the idea of centrally-planned"nation-building" is a delusion doomed to failure, and that history conclusively demonstrates that not everyone in the world wants freedom in precisely the form in which it has manifested itself in the West, and particularly in the United States. This is simply a recognition of the inescapable fact that history and culture matter -- that it is not possible to graft a political system onto a country which has no social or, more importantly, intellectual traditions to support it.

There is nothing remotely racist about any of this. As I said, this is simply a recognition of the fact that the history of any given country is obviously crucial to what may be reasonably expected of that country in the future. Nonetheless, for stating these obvious truths, many hawks have irresponsibly accused people of viewing Arabs and/or Muslims as somehow innately"inferior," as being"unworthy" of"democracy." Such an accusation, at least insofar as it relates to the kind of argument I have been making over the last many months, is simply wrong and without foundation.

But now, in connection with our new"get tough" policy in Iraq -- a policy which involves surrounding entire towns with barbed wire among other delightful"innovations" (as if brutal dictatorial regimes in Iraq's recent past hadn't employed similar methods) -- we have American military commanders making statements like the following:

"Underlying the new strategy, the Americans say, is the conviction that only a tougher approach will quell the insurgency and that the new strategy must punish not only the guerrillas but also make clear to ordinary Iraqis the cost of not cooperating.

"'You have to understand the Arab mind,' Capt. Todd Brown, a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division, said as he stood outside the gates of Abu Hishma. 'The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face.'"

"You have to understand the Arab mind." If a well-known antiwar activist had made such a statement, imagine the howls of protest that would ensue from many self-righteous hawks."Why, he thinks Arabs are sub-human! He doesn't think they deserve democracy! Why, it's positively ... unAmerican!!"

And our military commanders inform us that"[t]he only thing [the Arabs] understand is force." Well, that doesn't bode too well for the prospects for democracy, does it?

The Times story also contains a significantly misleading sentence near its opening:

"In selective cases, American soldiers are demolishing buildings thought to be used by Iraqi attackers. They have begun imprisoning the relatives of suspected guerrillas, in hopes of pressing the insurgents to turn themselves in."

But toward the end of the story, we learn the following:

"In Abu Hishma, residents complain that the village is locked down for 15 hours a day, meaning that they are unable to go to the mosque for morning and evening prayers. They say the curfew does not allow them time to stand in the daylong lines for gasoline and get home before the gate closes for the night.

"But mostly, it is a loss of dignity that the villagers talk about. For each identification card, every Iraqi man is assigned a number, which he must hold up when he poses for his mug shot. The card identifies his age and type of car. It is all in English.

"'This is absolutely humiliating,' said Yasin Mustafa, a 39-year-old primary school teacher. 'We are like birds in a cage.'

"Colonel Sassaman said he would maintain the wire enclosure until the villagers turned over the six men who killed Sergeant Panchot, though he acknowledged they may have slipped far away."

Abu Hishma is a town of 7,000 people. We are therefore holding 7,000 people hostage -- not merely"the relatives of suspected guerrillas" -- in hopes that the villages will turn over six men, who may have slipped far away in the meantime.

And here, in a disturbingly accurate admission, is the key to the psychology behind all this:

"'With a heavy dose of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them,' Colonel Sassaman said."

This is nothing less than insane. There is a well-recognized syndrome in psychology -- a syndrome which leads to a never-ending intergenerational cycle of violence. A parent beats a child, constantly repeating:"But why don't you understand that I love you? Why don't you see that I'm just doing this for your own good?" And all the while, the parent physically brutalizes the child, who then grows up and does the same to his child.

And one of the notable results of this behavior is hardly surprising: the child fears -- and hates -- the parent. Yet this is now how we propose to win over the Iraqis, and prepare them for democracy:"a heavy dose of fear and violence" -- and monetary bribes -- will" convince these people that we are here to help them."

This is the same road the British traveled down in Iraq -- and after 40 years, the British finally gave up, recognizing the hopelessness and self-defeating futility of their task. But in close to record time, we have crossed over into very dangerous territory: this is the kind of occupier psychology that could easily lead to the killing of large numbers of Iraqis, a massacre or massacres which could unleash a horrific wave of violence directed at Americans, and possibly also directed at other Iraqis.

It is time for some very harsh truth-telling, and it is time to strip away the comforting and false self-delusions in which many hawks wrap themselves. There is nothing loving or kind about a parent who beats his child, while claiming that he does it out of love and concern for the child's well-being. And there is nothing kind or benevolent about forcing Iraqis to adopt a form of government or a way of life which they may not want -- and which they certainly do not want if it comes at the ends of the guns wielded by an occupation force.

We have invaded a country which posed no serious threat to us, and we still maintain we are intent on bringing the blessings of liberty to the Iraqis -- but we will do it using force, fear and violence. This is a fatal contradiction that was doomed to fail. But in the process of attempting to make a contradiction true -- which can never be done, and which must end in the destruction of the one who attempts it -- we are turning ourselves as a nation into monsters. And we are also planting innumerable seeds of hatred against the United States, which may well grow into future terrorist attacks on the U.S., just as they are now causing the deaths of American soldiers on a daily basis.

The Bush administration, by means of this insanely destructive foreign policy, is now achieving one objective for which I truly cannot forgive them: they are making me ashamed to be an American.

Cross-posted at The Light of Reason.

Posted by Arthur Silber at 09:45 p.m. EST


An improved-format version of my article Two Cheers for Modernity is up at SOLO, along with some reader responses.

Posted by Roderick T. Long at 07:19 p.m. EST


It looks like support for citywide smoking bans is literally coming out of the woodwork in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Winnipeg police say that they never would have found the decomposing body of a DJ hidden in the wall of a local nightclub if it weren't for their city's smoking ban.

Posted by R. Reid McKee at 3:55 p.m. CST


Lindsay Perigo, editor of The Free Radical, a New Zealand-based libertarian and Objectivist magazine, wrote a piece condemning"Saddam's Succours" to which I respond in the current issue. In" A Question of Loyalty: A 'Saddamite' Responds to Perigo," I reply to Perigo's criticisms of many who opposed the war in Iraq. Lindsay is a great pal and colleague of mine—I'm even Assistant Editor to the magazine (and you can start here for pics of his recent visit to Brooklyn)—but it doesn't stop us from disagreeing on so many issues. Here's some of what I have to say:

The long-term consequences of the Iraq war are slowly coming into focus. The most recent Bush request for another $87 billion—on top of the $45 billion already spent for military preparation and invasion—is more than double what the US is spending on “homeland security.” The war has contributed to a ballooning deficit that will be in excess of $500 billion next year, “but could reach a cumulative total of $5.8 trillion by 2013” ... The federal debt increases exponentially, even as the US aims to pay off Iraq’s $350 billion foreign debt, not to mention resettlement and reconstruction costs, estimated at another $200 billion over the next decade. And for those who thought Iraqi oil reserves would pay for this: Nice try. Oil revenues from a devastated Iraqi oil industry might rise to $20 billion annually by 2006. ...

Meanwhile, the threat to domestic liberties from a variety of euphemistically named “Patriot Acts” is growing too, as the Bush administration uses the provisions of these acts in criminal investigations that have nothing to do with terrorism—prosecuting everyone from drug traffickers to suspect Internet users ... And while the thousands of wounded are nowhere near the number of casualties from previous wars, the US has now lost more troops in the occupation—an occupation with no end in sight, costing an additional billion dollars per week—than in all of its combat operations. Worse yet, if Iraq actually had WMDs—they were not used in the war and they have not yet been found—then the invasion has most likely brought about the very condition the US feared: their dispersal in chaotic social conditions among hostile terrorist groups. Fanatics are picking off US troops daily, as Iraq becomes a magnet for terrorists from all over the Muslim world.

Moreover, the US is facing massive ethnic conflict within Iraq, as each group vies for a different part of the “democratic” pie, with no history of knowing how to “share” the pie, let alone eat of it. This is not unusual in the period after the fall of a despotic regime. When the Soviet Union fell, many were astonished at how ethnic warfare re-emerged as if unaltered from 70+ years of Communism. Democratic nation-building presupposes that there is a nation upon which to build democracy. But as columnist George Will has observed, Iraq—like the Soviet Union—is not a nation. Iraq was a makeshift by-product of British colonialism. So if the US is trying to bring “democracy” to Iraq, the question remains: Which Iraq? Sunni Iraq? Kurdish Iraq? Shiite Iraq? (Which Shiites?)

This is not to say that the world was better off with the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein in place. Good riddance! Those regimes exercised monopoly control over the instruments of oppression in brutalizing their populations. In the absence of a monopoly terrorist regime, however, and in the absence of any culture of individualism, the only “democracy” that is emerging in Iraq is an anarchic “democratization” of the means of terror: a war of all against all, instead of one against all. Not quite the Wilsonian democracy envisioned by US policy-makers. ...

And throughout this whole “War on Terror,” the poisonous soil from which Bin Laden emerged—Saudi Arabia—remains untouched. While the US is busy fighting in Iraq, it sleeps with the Saudis, continuing a 60+ year-affair that most likely led the Bush administration to blot out 28 pages from a report on the failure of 9/11 intelligence, which might have embarrassed its Saudi “allies.” US corporations engage in joint business ventures with the Saudi government—from petroleum to arms deals—utilizing a whole panoply of statist mechanisms, including the Export-Import Bank. The US is Saudi Arabia’s largest investor and trading partner. Historically, the House of Sa’ud’s alliance with—and exportation of—intolerant, fanatical Wahhabism has been strengthened by the US-Saudi government partnership with Western oil companies, especially the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), a merger of Esso, Texaco, and Mobil. This is precisely the kind of “pull-peddling” that Rand condemned as “the New Fascism”—a US-Saudi-Big Oil Unholy Trinity that sustains the undemocratic Saudi regime.

And so, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will ever be touched significantly in the “War on Terror,” even if 15 of the 19 people who rammed those planes into US targets were Saudi. So close is the US-Saudi relationship that the US government worked with the Saudi embassy to facilitate, by private jet, the evacuation from the US of 140 prominent Saudis, among them members of the Bin Laden family, in the days after 9/11.

Within the Saudi cultural climate, however, anti-US sentiment is on the rise. Some terrorists gain the sanction of Saudi government officials, who talk out of both sides of their duplicitous mouths. Other terrorists flourish in reaction to the despotism of the Saudi regime and to its US alliance. It is a regime that depends upon a barbaric network of secret police and sub-human prisons, using the kinds of torture tactics that would have made Saddam proud: routine floggings, rotisserie hangings, amputations, penis blocking, and anal molestations. Such is the “pragmatic” nature of official US government policy, which goes to war for “human rights” in Iraq, while tacitly sanctioning their eradication in Saudi Arabia.

It’s this kind of pragmatism that has been the midwife to anti-American terrorism—from US support of the Shah of Iran that led to the establishment of an anti-American Islamic theocracy to US support of the Afghani mujahideen that led to the establishment of an anti-American Taliban. It is not a question of loyalty to one’s “friend,” therefore, when that “friend”—the US government—appears to be more loyal to its autocratic allies than to its own citizens.

Dante may have reserved the Ninth Circle of Hell for those who, like Satan, Judas, Brutus and Cassius, are treacherous to kindred, country, party, lords, superiors, and benefactors. But loyalty is of no ethical import unless it is loyalty to an idea. And, in this instance, it is the idea of America to which I owe my loyalty. It is to the rational individualist and libertarian ideas of Western civilization to which I owe my loyalty—ideas that the United States of America embraced in its infancy, and that have faced extinction over the past two centuries.

As Ayn Rand once wrote: “Loyalty can be maintained in only one of two ways: by terrorism—or by dedication to ideas," ... by fear or by conviction. I owe no loyalty to any group, party, class, or Commander-in-Chief, when such adherence undermines loyalty to moral principles. And it is only those principles that will save my country—and the rest of the world—from utter destruction.

Again, read the whole essay here.

Posted by Chris Matthew Sciabarra at 12:20 p.m. EST


I have never been a fan of Al Sharpton, but he did a pretty good James Brown imitation during his monologue last night on"Saturday Night Live." On the campaign trail, Sharpton has been resident comedian of the Democratic Party. On hearing that President Bush wanted $87 billion for his new Great Society program in Iraq, Sharpton said:"Why doesn't Bush just run for president of Iraq?" But he's been no kinder to his Democratic foes. Asked if Democratic candidates should have more time to respond to questions during the umpteen debates that have been scheduled on the primary trail, Sharpton answered:"What are we really talking about? A minute or two? It's not like some of them were on the verge of brilliance and somebody cut them off!" Stay tuned. This guy won't be President, but he does have a future as a comedian.

Posted by Chris Matthew Sciabarra at 12:15 p.m. EST


I just posted some thoughts about Tony Kushner's extraordinary play,"Angels in America," which will be shown on HBO beginning tomorrow night. And I've offered some ideas about why, even though I disagree with all of Kushner's explicit political beliefs (he's a committed socialist), I find the play to be marvelously rewarding. Here is part of what I said:

The play is set in the mid-1980s, but I doubt that you'll find it dated at all. Even though a lot of the specific subject matter is about politics and AIDS, it's about many other things as well: about the nature of religion and religious beliefs, about the myths we seem to need in order to live (including founding myths, especially), about"[t]he space between what we'd like to be and what we actually are," about desire, about the connections that occur between the most unlikely people, about fantasy and delusion (including the self-deceptions so many of us also seem to need), and even more. One of the characters in the play remarks that"History is about to crack wide open"—a statement that seems remarkably prescient, given events of the last few years.

And to grasp just how damning Kushner's portrayal of conservatism is, consider this: one of the main characters is a young Mormon Republican (Mormons, and Mormon mythology figure very prominently in the play, in a variety of fascinating ways). This young man, Joe Pitt, is about to go to work for the Reagan Justice Department, with the help of Roy Cohn. Joe is an ardent devotee of the Reagan Revolution, and says at one point:"The truth restored, law restored—that's what President Reagan's done. ... He says truth exists and can be spoken proudly."

But it turns out that Joe, whose marriage is rapidly deteriorating, is, like Cohn, a closeted gay man. So much for speaking the truth"proudly." And yet, Joe is a tremendously engaging—and sympathetic—character. All of this goes, of course, to Kushner's point about those spaces between what we hope to be and what we actually are—a dilemma that affects almost all of us to one degree or another in the course of our lives. But again, if you're just going down a checklist of what you think constitutes"good conservative writing," you will miss all of this—which means you will miss the complexity, richness and rewards that life, and superb writing, have to offer.

The entire entry can be found here.

Posted by Arthur Silber at 08:30 p.m. EST


I've gotten a number of inquiries about my recent dialogue on the Atlantis II discussion list. As follow-up, I'd like to post a few links here that include excerpts from my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. Here, I outline Rand's philosophy of history and compare it to Marxist historiography; I follow-up with a postscript on the historiography of Rand, Marx, and the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Enjoy!

Posted by Chris Matthew Sciabarra at 11:30 a.m. EST


Oh great. The Bush people are looking for “unifying national goals” for the second term. Ideas being kicked around include going to the moon (again?), extending life spans, and eradicating childhood illnesses. According to the Washington Post, “One person consulted by the White House said some aides appear to relish the idea of a ‘Kennedy moment’ for Bush, referring to the 1962 call by President John F. Kennedy for the nation to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade.” (Groan.) An administration official “said Bush's closest aides are promoting big initiatives on the theory that they contribute to Bush's image as a decisive leader even if people disagree with some of the specifics. ‘Iraq was big. AIDS is big,’ the official said. ‘Big works. Big grabs attention.’”

This puts Bush squarely in the neocon “national greatest conservatism” camp. As he says on the campaign trail, he wants “great goals worthy of a great nation.”

As a libertarian I know likes to say, Are we to be spared nothing?