The Folly of Pacifism (III)

This is a reworking of two earlier posts (here and here). Follow the second link to see a long list of related posts.

Winston Churchill said, “An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.” I say that a person who promotes pacifism as state policy is one who offers himself and his fellow citizens as crocodile food.

Bryan Caplan, an irritating twit who professes economics at George Mason University, is an outspoken pacifist. He is also an outspoken advocate of open borders.

Caplan, like Linus of Peanuts, loves mankind; it’s people he can’t stand. In fact, his love of mankind isn’t love at all, but rather a kind of utilitarianism in which the “good of all” somehow outweighs the specific (though by no means limited) harms caused by lying down at an enemy’s feet or enabling illegal immigrants to feed at the public trough.

As Gregory Cochran puts it in the first installment of his review of Caplan’s The Case Against Education,

I don’t like Caplan. I think he doesn’t understand – can’t understand – human nature, and although that sometimes confers a different and interesting perspective, it’s not a royal road to truth. Nor would I want to share a foxhole with him: I don’t trust him.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Caplan’s pacifism reflects his untrustworthiness. He is a selective anti-tribalist:

I identify with my nuclear family, with my friends, and with a bunch of ideas.  I neither need nor want any broader identity.  I was born in America to a Democratic Catholic mother and a Republican Jewish father, but none of these facts define me.  When Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Catholics, and Jews commit misdeeds – as they regularly do – I feel no shame and offer no excuses.  Why?  Because I’m not with them.

Hollow words from man who, in large part, owes his freedom and comfortable life to the armed forces and police of the country that he disdains. And — more fundamentally — to the mostly peaceful and productive citizens in whose midst he lives, and whose taxes support the armed forces and police.

Caplan is a man out of place. His attitude toward his country would be justified if he lived in the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, or any number of other nation-states past and present. His family, friends, and “bunch of ideas” will be of little help to him when, say, Kim Jong-un (or his successor) lobs an ICBM in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., which is uncomfortably close to Caplan’s residence and workplace.

In his many writings on pacifism, Caplan has pooh-poohed the idea that “if you want peace, prepare for war”:

This claim is obviously overstated.  Is North Korea really pursuing the smart path to peace by keeping almost 5% of its population on active military duty?  How about Hitler’s rearmament?  Was the Soviet Union preparing for peace by spending 15-20% of its GDP on the Red Army?

Note the weasel-word, “overstated”, which gives Caplan room to backtrack in the face of evidence that preparedness for war can foster peace by deterring an enemy. (The defense buildup in the 1980s is arguably such a case, in which the Soviet Union was not only deterred but also brought to its knees.) Weasel-wording is typical of Caplan’s method of argumentation. He is harder to pin down than Jell-O.

In any event, Caplan’s pronouncement only attests to the fact that there are aggressive people and regimes out there, and that non-aggressors are naive to believe that those people and regimes will not attack you if you are not armed against them.

The wisdom of preparedness is nowhere better illustrated than in the world of the internet, where every innocent user is a target for the twisted and vicious purveyors of malware. Think of the millions of bystanders (myself included) whose sensitive personal information has been scooped by breaches of massive databases. Internet predators differ from armed ones only in their choice of targets and weapons, not in their essential disregard for the lives and property of others.

Interestingly, although Caplan foolishly decries preparedness, he isn’t against retaliation (which seems a strange position for a pacifist):

[D]oesn’t pacifism contradict the libertarian principle that people have a right to use retaliatory force?  No. I’m all for revenge against individual criminals.  My claim is that in practice, it is nearly impossible to wage war justly, i.e., without trampling on the rights of the innocent.

Why is it “nearly impossible to wage war justly”? Caplan puts it this way:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

It would seem that Caplan is not entirely opposed to war — as long as the ratio of lives saved to lives lost is acceptably high. But Caplan gets to choose the number of persons who may die for the sake of those who may thus live. He wears his God-like omniscience with such modesty.

Caplan’s soul-accountancy implies  a social-welfare function, wherein A’s death cancels B’s survival. I wonder if Caplan would feel the same way if A were Osama bin Laden (before 9/11) and B were Bryan Caplan or one of his family members or friends? He would feel the same way if he were a true pacifist. But he is evidently not one. His pacifism is selective, and his arguments for it are slippery.

What Caplan wants, I suspect, is the best of both worlds: freedom and prosperity for himself (and family members and friends) without the presence of police and armed forces, and the messy (but unavoidable) business of using them. Using them is an imperfect business; mistakes are sometimes made. It is the mistakes that Caplan (and his ilk) cringe against because they indulge in the nirvana fallacy. In this instance, it is a belief that there is a more-perfect world to be had if only “we” would forgo violence. Which gets us back to  Caplan’s unwitting admission that there are people out there who will do bad things even if they aren’t provoked.

National defense, like anything less than wide-open borders, violates another of Caplan’s pernicious principles. He seems to believe that the tendency of geographically proximate groups to band together in self-defense is a kind of psychological defect. He refers to it as “group-serving bias”.

That’s just a pejorative term which happens to encompass mutual self-defense. And who better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

Would it be “group-serving bias” if Caplan were to provide for the defense of his family members (and even some friends) by arming them if they happened to live in a high-crime neighborhood? If he didn’t provide for their defense, he would quickly learn the folly of pacifism, as family members and friends are robbed, maimed, and killed.

Pacifism is a sophomoric fantasy on a par with anarchism. It is sad to see Caplan’s intelligence wasted on the promulgation and defense of such a fantasy.

Analytical and Scientific Arrogance

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, Strategy for the West

I’m returning to the past to make a timeless point: Analysis is a tool of decision-making, not a substitute for it.

That’s a point to which every analyst will subscribe, just as every judicial candidate will claim to revere the Constitution. But analysts past and present have tended to read their policy preferences into their analytical work, just as too many judges real their political preferences into the Constitution.

What is an analyst? Someone whose occupation requires him to gather facts bearing on an issue, discern robust relationships among the facts, and draw conclusions from those relationships.

Many professionals — from economists to physicists to so-called climate scientists — are more or less analytical in the practice of their professions. That is, they are not just seeking knowledge, but seeking to influence policies which depend on that knowledge.

There is also in this country (and in the West, generally) a kind of person who is an analyst first and a disciplinary specialist second (if at all). Such a person brings his pattern-seeking skills to the problems facing decision-makers in government and industry. Depending on the kinds of issues he addresses or the kinds of techniques that he deploys, he may be called a policy analyst, operations research analyst, management consultant, or something of that kind.

It is one thing to say, as a scientist or analyst, that a certain option (a policy, a system, a tactic) is probably better than the alternatives, when judged against a specific criterion (most effective for a given cost, most effective against a certain kind of enemy force). It is quite another thing to say that the option is the one that the decision-maker should adopt. The scientist or analyst is looking a small slice of the world; the decision-maker has to take into account things that the scientist or analyst did not (and often could not) take into account (economic consequences, political feasibility, compatibility with other existing systems and policies).

It is (or should be) unsconsionable for a scientist or analyst to state or imply that he has the “right” answer. But the clever arguer avoids coming straight out with the “right” answer; instead, he slants his presentation in a way that makes the “right” answer seem right.

A classic case in point is they hysteria surrounding the increase in “global” temperature in the latter part of the 20th century, and the coincidence of that increase with the rise in CO2. I have had much to say about the hysteria and the pseudo-science upon which it is based. (See links at the end of this post.) Here, I will take as a case study an event to which I was somewhat close: the treatment of the Navy’s proposal, made in the early 1980s, for an expansion to what was conveniently characterized as the 600-ship Navy. (The expansion would have involved personnel, logistics systems, ancillary war-fighting systems, stockpiles of parts and ammunition, and aircraft of many kinds — all in addition to a 25-percent increase in the number of ships in active service.)

The usual suspects, of an ilk I profiled here, wasted no time in making the 600-ship Navy seem like a bad idea. Of the many studies and memos on the subject, two by the Congressional Budget Office stand out a exemplars of slanted analysis by innuendo: “Building a 600-Ship Navy: Costs, Timing, and Alternative Approaches” (March 1982), and “Future Budget Requirements for the 600-Ship Navy: Preliminary Analysis” (April 1985). What did the “whiz kids” at CBO have to say about the 600-ship Navy? Here are excerpts of the concluding sections:

The Administration’s five-year shipbuilding plan, containing 133 new construction ships and estimated to cost over $80 billion in fiscal year 1983 dollars, is more ambitious than previous programs submitted to the Congress in the past few years. It does not, however, contain enough ships to realize the Navy’s announced force level goals for an expanded Navy. In addition, this plan—as has been the case with so many previous plans—has most of its ships programmed in the later out-years. Over half of the 133 new construction ships are programmed for the last two years of the five-year plan. Achievement of the Navy’s expanded force level goals would require adhering to the out-year building plans and continued high levels of construction in the years beyond fiscal year 1987. [1982 report, pp. 71-72]

Even the budget increases estimated here would be difficult to achieve if history is a guide. Since the end of World War II, the Navy has never sustained real increases in its budget for more than five consecutive years. The sustained 15-year expansion required to achieve and sustain the Navy’s present plans would result in a historic change in budget trends. [1985 report, p. 26]

The bias against the 600-ship Navy drips from the pages. The “argument” goes like this: If it hasn’t been done, it can’t be done and, therefore, shouldn’t be attempted. Why not? Because the analysts at CBO were a breed of cat that emerged in the 1960s, when Robert Strange McNamara and his minions used simplistic analysis (“tablesmanship”) to play “gotcha” with the military services:

We [I was one of the minions] did it because we were encouraged to do it, though not in so many words. And we got away with it, not because we were better analysts — most of our work was simplistic stuff — but because we usually had the last word. (Only an impassioned personal intercession by a service chief might persuade McNamara to go against SA [the Systems Analysis office run by Alain Enthoven] — and the key word is “might.”) The irony of the whole process was that McNamara, in effect, substituted “civilian judgment” for oft-scorned “military judgment.” McNamara revealed his preference for “civilian judgment” by elevating Enthoven and SA a level in the hierarchy, 1965, even though (or perhaps because) the services and JCS had been open in their disdain of SA and its snotty young civilians.

In the case of the 600-ship Navy, civilian analysts did their best to derail it by sending the barely disguised message that it was “unaffordable”. I was reminded of this “insight” by a colleague of long-standing who recently proclaimed that “any half-decent cost model would show a 600-ship Navy was unsustainable into this century.” How could a cost model show such a thing when the sustainability (affordability) of defense is a matter of political will, not arithmetic?

Defense spending fluctuates as function of perceived necessity. Consider, for example, this graph (misleadingly labeled “Recent Defense Spending”) from usgovernmentspending.com, which shows defense spending as a percentage of GDP for fiscal year (FY) 1792 to FY 2017:

What was “unaffordable” before World War II suddenly became affordable. And so it has gone throughout the history of the republic. Affordability (or sustainability) is a political issue, not a line drawn in the sand by an smart-ass analyst who gives no thought to the consequences of spending too little on defense.

I will now zoom in on the era of interest.

CBO’s “Building a 600-Ship Navy: Costs, Timing, and Alternative Approaches“, which crystallized opposition to the 600-ship Navy estimates the long-run, annual obligational authority required to sustain a 600-ship Navy (of the Navy’s design) to be about 20-percent higher in constant dollars than the FY 1982 Navy budget. (See Options I and II in Figure 2, p. 50.) The long-run would have begun around FY 1994, following several years of higher spending associated with the buildup of forces. I don’t have a historical breakdown of the Department of Defense (DoD) budget by service, but I found values for all-DoD spending on military programs at Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables. Drawing on Tables 5.2 and 10.1, I constructed a constant-dollar of DoD’s obligational authority (FY 1982 = 1):

FY Index
1983 1.08
1984 1.13
1985 1.21
1986 1.17
1987 1.13
1988 1.11
1989 1.10
1990 1.07
1991 0.97
1992 0.97
1993 0.90
1994 0.82
1995 0.82
1996 0.80
1997 0.80
1998 0.79
1999 0.84
2000 0.86
2001 0.92
2002 0.98
2003 1.23
2004 1.29
2005 1.28
2006 1.36
2007 1.50
2008 1.65
2009 1.61
2010 1.66
2011 1.62
2012 1.51
2013 1.32
2014 1.32
2015 1.25
2016 1.29
2017 1.34

There was no inherent reason that defense spending couldn’t have remained on the trajectory of the middle 1980s. The slowdown of the late 1980s was a reflection of improved relations between the U.S. and USSR. Those improved relations had much to do with the Reagan defense buildup, of which the goal of attaining a 600-ship Navy was an integral part.

The Reagan buildup helped to convince Soviet leaders (Gorbachev in particular) that trying to keep pace with the U.S. was futile and (actually) unaffordable. The rest — the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR — is history. The buildup, in other words, sowed the seeds of its own demise. But that couldn’t have been predicted with certainty in the early-to-middle 1980s, when CBO and others were doing their best to undermine political support for more defense spending. Had CBO and the other nay-sayers succeeded in their aims, the Cold War and the USSR might still be with us.

The defense drawdown of the mid-1990s was a deliberate response to the end of the Cold War and lack of other serious threats, not a historical necessity. It was certainly not on the table in the early 1980s, when the 600-ship Navy was being pushed. Had the Cold War not thawed and ended, there is no reason that U.S. defense spending couldn’t have continued at the pace of the middle 1980s, or higher. As is evident in the index values for recent years, even after drastic force reductions in Iraq, defense spending is now about one-third higher than it was in FY 1982.

John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy from 1981 to 1987, was rightly incensed that analysts — some of them on his payroll as civilian employees and contractors — were, in effect, undermining a deliberate strategy of pressing against a key Soviet weakness — the unsustainability of its defense strategy. There was much lamentation at the time about Lehman’s “war” on the offending parties, one of which was the think-tank for which I then worked. I can now admit openly that I was sympathetic to Lehman and offended by the arrogance of analysts who believed that it was their job to suggest that spending more on defense was “unaffordable”.

When I was a young analyst I was handed a pile of required reading material. One of the items was was Methods of Operations Research, by Philip M. Morse and George E. Kimball. Morse, in the early months of America’s involvement in World War II, founded the civilian operations-research organization from which my think-tank evolved. Kimball was a leading member of that organization. Their book is notable not just a compendium of analytical methods that were applied, with much success, to the war effort. It is also introspective — and properly humble — about the power and role of analysis.

Two passages, in particular, have stuck with me for the more than 50 years since I first read the book. Here is one of them:

[S]uccessful application of operations research usually results in improvements by factors of 3 or 10 or more…. In our first study of any operation we are looking for these large factors of possible improvement…. They can be discovered if the [variables] are given only one significant figure,…any greater accuracy simply adds unessential detail.

One might term this type of thinking “hemibel thinking.” A bel is defined as a unit in a logarithmic scale corresponding to a factor of 10. Consequently a hemibel corresponds to a factor of the square root of 10, or approximately 3. [p. 38]

Morse and Kimball — two brilliant scientists and analysts, who had worked with actual data (pardon the redundancy) about combat operations — counseled against making too much of quantitative estimates given the uncertainties inherent in combat. But, as I have seen over the years, analysts eager to “prove” something nevertheless make a huge deal out of minuscule differences in quantitative estimates — estimates based not on actual combat operations but on theoretical values derived from models of systems and operations yet to see the light of day. (I also saw, and still see, too much “analysis” about soft subjects, such as domestic politics and international relations. The amount of snake oil emitted by “analysts” — sometimes called scholars, journalists, pundits, and commentators — would fill the Great Lakes. Their perceptions of reality have an uncanny way of supporting their unabashed decrees about policy.)

The second memorable passage from Methods of Operations Research goes directly to the point of this post:

Operations research done separately from an administrator in charge of operations becomes an empty exercise. [p. 10].

In the case of CBO and other opponents of the 600-ship Navy, substitute “cost estimate” for “operations research”, “responsible defense official” for “administrator in charge”, and “strategy” for “operations”. The principle is the same: The CBO and its ilk knew the price of the 600-ship Navy, but had no inkling of its value.

Too many scientists and analysts want to make policy. On the evidence of my close association with scientists and analysts over the years — including a stint as an unsparing reviewer of their products — I would say that they should learn to think clearly before they inflict their views on others. But too many of them — even those with Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines — are incapable of thinking clearly, and more than capable of slanting their work to support their biases. Exhibit A: Michael Mann, James Hansen (more), and their co-conspirators in the catastrophic-anthropogenic-global-warming scam.


Related posts:
The Limits of Science
How to View Defense Spending
Modeling Is Not Science
Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Dead, Just Not Buried Yet
The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective
Analysis for Government Decision-Making: Hemi-Science, Hemi-Demi-Science, and Sophistry
The Limits of Science (II)
The Pretence of Knowledge
“The Science Is Settled”
Verbal Regression Analysis, the “End of History,” and Think-Tanks
Some Thoughts about Probability
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
AGW in Austin?
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
My War on the Misuse of Probability
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
AGW in Austin? (II)
Is Science Self-Correcting?
“Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings”
Words Fail Us
“Science” vs. Science: The Case of Evolution, Race, and Intelligence
Modeling Revisited
The Fragility of Knowledge
Global-Warming Hype
Pattern-Seeking
Babe Ruth and the Hot-Hand Hypothesis
Hurricane Hysteria
Deduction, Induction, and Knowledge
Much Ado about the Unknown and Unknowable
A (Long) Footnote about Science
Further Thoughts about Probability
Climate Scare Tactics: The Mythical Ever-Rising 30-Year Average
A Grand Strategy for the United States

Moral Relativism from the Times

The headline in The New York Times Says It All: “As U.S. Demands Nuclear Disarmament, It Moves to Expand Its Own Arsenal“. As if an enlightened policy would be to disarm the U.S. first and hope (without hope) that other countries would follow suit.

I wonder if the authors of the piece really gave any thought to the matter. If they had, they might have concluded that it would be better for the U.S. to have a monopoly on nuclear weapons so that (a) no one could threaten the U.S. or its citizens’ overseas interests with a nuclear attack and (b) the U.S. could more easily protect its citizens and their overseas interests. It’s like having your favorite team ahead 10-0 going into the bottom of the 9th inning, instead of being tied 1-1. But the U.S., of course, isn’t the left’s favorite team.

The “reporters” who work for the Times — like their “liberal” brethren” throughout the U.S. — have swallowed the poison pill of moral relativism and transnationalism:

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms”. It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism. “Transnationalism” is just a “soft” form of aggression; it would erode American values from the inside out, though American leftists hardly need any help from their foreign allies.

In the real world of powerful international rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereignty of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

None of that matters to a “liberal”. Better the U.S. should be blackmailed by a tin-pot dictatorship than it should spend money to ensure against blackmail by any power, small or large. The U.S. is such an awful place, after all, so rife with sins of the left’s imagining. That’s why the leftists moved to Canada and Europe — I wish.

It’s a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World

This post isn’t about the movie of that name, which is overrated by users of the Internet Movie Database (average rating, 7.6; my rating, 6). This post is about mutually assured destruction (MAD), which

is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender…. It is based on the theory of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using strong weapons against the enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons.

The main lesson of the Cold War and its sequel in the US-Russia[1] relationship is that MAD works among major powers.[2]

MAD works mainly because of ASSF – assuredly survivable strategic forces, or enough of them to retaliate (perhaps more than once). It was and is impossible, even with first strikes against all three legs of Russia’s strategic-nuclear triad, to nullify Russia’s strategic retaliatory capability. The same goes for the U.S. triad and retaliatory capability.

These truths have been and are understood by U.S. and Russian leaders. Were they not understood, MAD might have failed at any of the several stress points that arose in the past 70 years.

MAD works best if the major powers have strong and versatile conventional forces to go with their strategic-nuclear forces. Call it MAD-plus. The existence of large conventional forces is a kind of psychological safety valve. It allows the major powers to say to themselves “We can fight each other without having to destroy each other” (though the fight would entail a lot of destruction). But the major powers don’t fight each other (or haven’t yet) because MAD looms over them.

The possession of conventional forces also enables the major powers to manage their spheres of interest. Conventional forces also allow the major powers to skirmish where their interests clash, but without having to push the nuclear button. It’s the possession of the nuclear button that deters the escalation of skirmishes to more destructive levels of conflict.

In sum, the leaders of the U.S. and Russia knew and know that more than a skirmish between the powers was and is a remote possibility. (Never say never.) Yes, there have been some tense moments in the past 70 years. But the absence of a shooting war between the powers is evidence of the effectiveness of MAD (as between the two powers, at least).

Against this backdrop, the powers engage in ritual statements and actions. These rituals are meant to explain, justify, and explore the nuances of what is, at bottom, just a simple balance-of power relationship. The statements include strategic doctrines and elaborate scenarios for major wars, some involving nuclear exchanges. The actions include exercises that are advertised as practice for what might happen in a real war, including direct attacks on the other side’s strategic-nuclear forces.

In the end, however, the leaders know very well that what really matters is the fact of MAD. What would actually happen were MAD to fail and a shooting war ensue is unpredictable.

Yes, the forces engaged in such an implausible war might actually some of the things written about and practiced in peacetime. But which ones and in what circumstances, if ever? For example, the use or non-use of tactical nuclear weapons in a local or regional battle space – in the air, on land, or underwater – is unknowable in advance. Declarations or demonstrations by one side or the other about the use of various weapons are just that: declarations (words) and demonstrations (practice). And the leaders of both sides know it.

The essential purpose of these ritual statements and actions is to justify the possession of large and varied strategic and conventional forces, and to “prove” the worth of those forces. The justifications vary with time, as do the forces. And sometimes the forces are increased or reduced significantly, but never enough to undo MAD and MAD-plus.[3]

To repeat: MAD and MAD-plus rest on rough comparisons of the balance of forces between the powers, not on strategic doctrines, elaborate scenarios, or war-fighting capabilities “demonstrated” by peacetime exercises.

Here is a leading case in point: In the early 1970s, Russian Admiral-in-Chief Sergey Gorshkov issued a series of articles under the general title of “Navies in War and Peace”. The articles seem to have been aimed at preserving or enhancing his Navy’s standing with Russia’s leaders. Gorshkov did so by emphasizing the importance of Russian ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) to ASSF, and the role of the Russian Navy (especially its attack submarines, SSNs) in the protection of the SSBNs. (The Ns in the acronyms mean that the submarines are nuclear-powered.)

Before the defensive mission of the Russian Navy had dawned on most U.S. leaders, including leaders of the U.S. Navy, one of the Navy’s time-honored rituals had been to invoke the Battles of the Atlantic in the two World Wars. In those battles, the Navy had to cope with enemy submarines wreaking havoc on the sea line of communication (SLOC), along which arms, munitions, supplies, and troops were ferried to the European theater. Thus the Navy concocted scenarios revolving around a third Battle of the Atlantic, waged mainly against Russian SSNs attacking the Atlantic SLOC during a war in Europe (started by Russia, of course).

When the defensive nature of the Russian Navy finally dawned on U.S. and U.S. Navy leaders, they choreographed a new ritual: the Maritime Strategy. A stated purpose of the Maritime Strategy was to tie up Russian forces that were protecting SSBNs, so that those forces couldn’t be used against SLOCs. There was also the understood possibility of attacking Russian SSBNs in the event of a major U.S.-Russia war in Europe, though that was (and is) only a speculative stratagem (for reasons discussed above), not a central component of U.S. strategy, which (like Russia’s) boils down to MAD.

And so, despite strong evidence to the contrary, the leaders of the U.S. Navy continued to observe the SLOC-defense ritual. This had a long and successful record of attracting funds for versatile forces (e.g., aircraft carriers and SSNs) that could also be used to go after the forces defending Russian SSBNs, and even the SSBNs themselves. The SLOC-defense mission also attracted funds for forces and systems that were practically useless, but this mattered not as long as MAD and MAD-plus were in place and war between the U.S. and Russia was thereby averted.

The preceding narrative underscores my view that no one really knows how a real war (as opposed to a peripheral skirmish) might start or unfold. U.S. and Russian leaders must understand that. In the face of such uncertainty, they wisely expect the worst and factor it into their calculations. With respect to a possible U.S. anti-SSBN mission, for example, Russian leaders might reason as follows:

  1. The U.S. could try to take out our SSBNs and thereby deprive us of our ultimate bargaining chip.
  2. But it’s unlikely that the U.S. could take enough of them out, and quickly enough, to actually accomplish the deed.
  3. U.S. leaders must know that.
  4. Further, U.S. leaders must know that if they made a move toward our SSBNs in the course of a conventional war, our likely response would be to initiate limited but devastating nuclear strikes (tactical or strategic) as a warning not to proceed.
  5. U.S. leaders must know that, too. So it is very unlikely that they would mount an anti-SSBN mission — at least not in the course of a conventional war in which the U.S. homeland wasn’t at risk.
  6. U.S. leaders are rational (caveat for Trump-haters: at least those who are in a position to prevent precipitous action).
  7. Therefore, MAD remains in effect, despite U.S. exercises or policy statements which might seem to threaten it.
Similar reasoning (not about attacking U.S. SSBNs, but about parallel Russian moves) would prevail among U.S. leaders.

In summary:

It is MAD and MAD-plus that keep the peace between major powers (the U.S. and Russia, at least).

The forces that sustain MAD and MAD-plus are the result of rough balance-of-power calculations, not sophisticated strategic doctrines, complex war-fighting scenarios, or provocative demonstrations of war-fighting capabilities.

What would happen if MAD and MAD-plus fail to prevent more than skirmishes between the powers is unpredictable. Strategy statements, war-fighting scenarios, and decisions about when and where to use nuclear weapons (strategic and tactical) would be as useless as the paper they were written on. It would be a whole new ballgame. The only possible way to win it — if winning is the right word given the resulting destruction — is to be better prepared than the adversary. That means having bigger, better forces and systems, and better trained, more highly motivated warriors.

There’s a real strategy for you.
_________

[1] I use “Russia” and its cognates throughout for the sake of expositional simplicity. But references to Russia during the Cold War should be understood as references to the USSR, a.k.a. the Soviet Union and the Soviets.

[2] MAD doesn’t work with stateless terrorist groups. And it’s unclear that it will work on the in-between case of an unstable or quasi-terrorist state leader. As the nuclear club grows through the addition of in-between cases, so do the number of opportunities for a black-swan event.

[3] These reductions are another kind of ritual: a pretense of fundamental change to mollify a nation’s “peace party” or its budget hawks.


Related posts:
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Planning for the Last War
The Folly of Pacifism

Preemptive War Revisited

I discovered this post deep in my queue of unpublished drafts. It rounds off two posts of mine about preemptive war:  “Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves” and “Continuation of ‘Sorting Out the Libertarian Hawks and Doves’“. (Other related posts are listed at the end of this one.) I had commented on Micha Ghertner’s post at Catallarchy, “Moral Relativism Isn’t What You Think It Is” (July 27, 2005). Joe Miller‘s comment on my comment led me to follow up with a hypothetical and some related questions. Joe replied thoroughly and thoughtfully to those questions, and then posed some of his own. This post documents our exchange.

PART I

This part reproduces my hypothetical and the related questions (roman type, flush left), Joe’s replies to those questions (italics, indented), and my response to Joe’s replies (bold, double-indented).

The hypothetical:

1. In Country A (just as in Country B), the armed forces are controlled by the state. (I don’t want to get off onto the tangent of whether war is more or less likely if defense is provided by private agencies.)

2. The only restriction on the liberty of Country A’s citizens is that they must pay taxes to support their armed forces. Country B’s citizens own no property; their jobs are dictated by the state; their income is dictated by the state; and all aspects of their lives are regimented by state decrees.

3. Though Country A’s armed forces are underwritten by taxes, the members of the armed forces are volunteers. The members of Country B’s armed forces are conscripts, and Country B’s armed forces are, in effect, supplied and equipped by slave labor.

4. Country A would liberate Country B’s citizens, if it could. Country B would subjugate or kill Country A’s citizens, if it could.

The questions (all of which I answer “yes”):

1. If Country B attacks Country A, what limits (if any) would you place on the measures Country A might take in its defense? Specifically:

a. Are civilian casualties in Country B acceptable at all?

1. a. Yes, provided that Country A doesn’t directly intend those casualties, that it takes pains to minimize such casualties, and that it ensures that said casualties are proportional to military gains.

I don’t know how to evaluate proportionality. Perhaps an empathetic decision-maker might make a seat-of-the-pants judgment that “enough is enough” or “the particular objective isn’t worth the cost in human life.” Do you have a more precise metric in mind?

b. Are civilian casualties in Country B acceptable if they’re the result of mistakes on Country A’s part or the unavoidable result of Country A’s attacks on Country B’s armed forces and infrastructure?

1. b. Yes, but see 1a. for caveats.

See my comment on your answer to 1.a.

c. Is the deliberate infliction by Country A of civilian casualties in Country B acceptable as long as Country A’s leaders reasonably believe that the infliction of those casualties – and nothing else – will bring about the defeat of Country B? (Assume, here, that Country A’s leaders try to inflict only the number of casualties deemed necessary to the objective.)

1. c. Maybe. I think that there are two components to supreme emergency. One is that there must be an imminent danger of losing and the second is that losing must be catastrophically evil. Worldwide Stalinism probably would count. I’m not sure, from your quick description of Country B, that it really meets the second part of that criterion.

It would always be a judgment call. I suppose there are many libertarians (not to mention pacifists) who would rule out any deliberate infliction of casualties, even under the circumstances I’ve outlined.

(Assume, for purposes of the next 2 questions, that Country A inflicts casualties on Country B’s civilians only to the extent that those casualties are the result of mistakes or unavoidable collateral damage.)

2. Should Country A attack Country B if Country A concludes (rightly or wrongly, but in good faith) that Country B is about to attack, and if Country B strikes first it is likely to:

a. win a quick victory and subjugate Country A?

2. a. Yes. I’ve no objection to preemptive strikes, provided that it really is the case that Country B is about to attack. If you and I get into a fight, I see no reason that I’m obligated to wait for your first punch to land before I can defend myself. Once I see that you’re going to throw the punch, it’s okay if mine lands first. I can’t see why that ought not apply in war, as well.

b. inflict heavy casualties on Country A’s citizens?

2. b. Yes, again. It’s not the winning or losing or the casualties that matter here. It’s a question of aggression. The scenario you describe makes Country B the aggressor, regardless of who actually fires the first shot. That said, finding real cases of preemption isn’t easy to do. Israel in the Six Day’s War comes closest. (Or is it Seven? Hard to keep up with countries that keep winning wars in less than a week.)

3. Should Country A attack Country B if Country A concludes (rightly or wrongly, but in good faith) that Country B is developing the wherewithal to attack, and if Country B strikes first it is likely to

a. win a quick victory and subjugate Country A?

3. a. Nope. Here’s the analogy I like to use in class. Suppose that you and I really don’t like each other. In fact, we really hate one another. As it happens, right now, I’m stronger than you and know a bit about fighting, so I’m not really in much danger from you in a fight. But now suppose that I see that you’ve taken out a gym membership and signed up for Kung Fu classes at the Y. Am I justified in beating you up now on the grounds that, in a few months, you might possibly decide to beat me up? The same has to hold true for nations, I think. The mere fact that Country B doesn’t like Country A and is arming itself doesn’t imply that Country A will actually attack Country B. After all, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. actively didn’t like one another and actively armed against one another without ever actually directly shooting at one another. Possibility of future attack doesn’t justify preventive war. Imminence of attack does. When Country B makes it clear that they actually mean to attack, then they’ve aggressed against Country A and war is justified.

Assume this situation: Country B is developing a devastating weapon that, if used, would kill half of Country A’s inhabitants. There is no way to defend against the weapon if Country B decides to use it. Country B hasn’t said that it would use the weapon, but the mere existence of the weapon poses a grave threat to Country A’s citizens. Country B has demonstrated through its past behavior that it is unreceptive to pleas, negotiations, and offers of economic “assistance” (i.e., bribes). The only way to ensure that Country B won’t use the weapon when it’s built is to destroy the weapon in a preemptive attack, while the weapon is still under development. Country B has deliberately placed the development site so that a preemptive attack would result in the deaths of one-half of Country B’s citizens. What would you do? I know what I’d do, given my opening statements about Country A and Country B: I’d launch the preemptive attack, as long as it had a reasonable chance of success (say 50%) and as long as I had the wherewithal to launch at least one more equally potent attack.

3.b. inflict heavy casualties on Country A’s citizens?

3. b. Same as 3a.

See my comment on your answer to 3.a.

PART II

Now we switch to Joe’s questions (italics, flush left), my answers (bold, indented), and Joe’s replies (italics, double-indented):

1. I’m not sure that we’re in all that much disagreement about whether it’s a
good idea to arm. I’m hardly a pacifist; if anything, I think that I make my
liberal friends a bit nervous with my defense of intervention. I suspect that
we’re in pretty broad agreement about why the U.S. is worth defending. We’re
both liberals in a broad sense, and both of us, I think, see freedom/liberty
as worth defending. I’m not really all that worried about or interested in
trying to convert pacifists; I tend to think that’s pretty much a lost cause.

Right. I think our disagreements are about how best to defend liberty. It seems to me that real pacifists (as opposed to isolationists or those who object to the way we’re going about fighting terror or those who simply oppose Bush for the sake of opposing Bush) have to ask themselves why they put pacifism above liberty, especially when pacifism can lead to the loss of liberty. Come to think of it, isolationists and those who oppose Bush for the sake of opposing Bush have to ask themselves the same question.

Agreed. I find pacifism to be more defensible than isolationism, actually, because there are at least some principled reasons for being a pacifist. If one really is an absolutist of a certain sort (i.e., one who holds that it’s never right to do wrong to do right) and also believes that killing is wrong (e.g., takes Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek seriously), then pacifism follows. I don’t accept the position, but it’s hard to know what to say about it, exactly. Isolationists, however, just strike me as deeply confused, holding a flawed pragmatism that fails to adequately address long-term consequences. Opposing Bush for the sake of opposing Bush is a political strategy (and maybe not a terrible one in terms of short-term political gain), but it’s not a philosophical position, so I’m not really all that interested in wrestling with it.

2. I wonder what you make of the question of aggression. I tend to think
that aggression is the international crime. I don’t much hold with
libertarians who try to make aggression the only crime period, but I think
that in international affairs, it probably is the only crime. So most of my
discussion of just war theory revolves around aggression. Based on some of
what you’ve written, I get the impression that you might think that aggression
(meaning something like willfully violating a nation’s sovereignty) is okay if
doing so is necessary for (or even useful for?) the defense of the U.S. Am I
reading you correctly there?

My reading of those libertarians who think that aggression is the only crime is that they find a way to push every crime — even non-violent crime (e.g., theft and fraud) — under the heading of aggression. I have no real problem with that, but instead of focusing on aggression, I focus on what liberty is all about and why it’s so important. (The short version: Liberty enables individuals to fulfill their potential. Potential isn’t a zero-sum game; your ability to fulfill your potential enables me to fulfill mine.)

Liberty is the name of the game; non-aggression is just a means to the end of liberty, but not necessarily the only means or the best means. Non-aggression works reasonably well in a society that is bound by an agreed and enforceable code of behavior. But the world at large isn’t bound by such a code; the United Nations isn’t a larger version of the United States or an Amish community. The question then becomes, how best to preserve or foster liberty. If the answer, in some instances, is to attack those who have shown that they would suppress liberty, so be it. Is that aggression or defense of liberty? I call it defense of liberty.

Thus, why not destroy or decimate the Third Reich’s military might before Hitler begins to dominate Europe? And why not destroy the USSR’s burgeoning nuclear arsenal before Stalin checks the power of the U.S. and forces communism on much of Europe? Hitler and Stalin, if unchecked, would have used the resources of their “empires” against the U.S. That’s why I wouldn’t consider preemptive attacks on the Third Reich or Stalin’s USSR to be aggression. Hitler and Stalin were aggressors in that they opposed liberty, not only for the people of other nations but also for their own people. Striking at aggressors isn’t aggression.

Interesting. I’ll start at the end and work backward. I think that part of the difficulty in waging preventative war is demonstrated in the examples that you give. Yes, it clearly would have been better, in retrospect, to have destroyed the Third Reich before Hitler. Your example with Stalin is much harder. Yes he was a bad guy, maybe even worse than Hitler. And yes the world would have been a better place had Stalin not come to power. But the question is not whether the world would be better without Stalin, the question is whether the world would be better without Stalin or without the massive war that would have been necessary to prevent Stalin from dominating Eastern Europe. As it happened, Stalin didn’t use the resources of his empire directly against the U.S. OTOH, invading Russia is rather notoriously difficult to do. Maybe the U.S. would have succeeded where the Germans had failed just a few years earlier. I don’t honestly know enough about the period or about the relative capabilities of the two sides to say. It strikes me that it would have been tough, especially while at the same time trying to rebuild Germany and Japan, and with the rest of Europe trying to rebuild itself.

This, I think, leads us to what will likely be a point of fundamental disagreement. I do agree with you in thinking that liberty is an important value. I’m a consequentialist, though (a utilitarian, specifically), so I don’t think that liberty is the only important value, nor do I think that liberty is intrinsically valuable. In other words, I think that there are other values that have to be weighed into our decisions. In the international arena, sovereignty is one of those other values. Arguably, sovereignty and liberty aren’t entirely unconnected. If a person has a right to be self-determining, then a collection of people surely ought to be accorded that same right. And what is sovereignty if not the collective right of a body of individuals to be free from outside interference. Now I might very much dislike what it is that some body of people decides to do with that sovereignty. I might also attempt to convince them to do something different (by, for example, refusing to trade with them unless they clean up their act). But I don’t see it as legitimate to force that group of people to do anything. Thus I have a pretty strong presumption against war.

That said, I’m still not a pacifist. When nation A violates the sovereignty of nation B, then A has now violated the rights of B. That is morally wrong, and opens A to a response from B…and also from C, D, and E. The international arena is more like (the romanticized version of) the old west before the town gets around to appointing a sheriff. Or rather, there is a sheriff (the U.N.) but he’s woefully unequipped to take on any really serious bandits. When the bad guys come around, then, the sheriff can (and does) deputize pretty much anyone with a gun to go stop the bad guys. So aggression (or the violation of a state’s sovereignty) is a crime that can be met with force. In the international arena, then, I’m pretty much a libertarian (gasp!)

This is all a long way of saying that I think that there must be some actual act of aggression, some real violation of sovereignty, before war is justified. Preemption is justified when you know (or at least have really good reason to believe) that the other side will strike soon. Prevention, or war with a nation that might just possibly plan to attack at some as-yet undetermined future date and which might be harder to defeat in the future, is not a response to aggression at all, and thus violates the rights of the citizens of some nations to hate me while building a big army.

3. So we’re on the same page, what is your criterion for a just war? Or, to
ask the flip side, what is your criterion for an unjust war? You point out
(half-joking I think) that liberals tend to like on the Revolutionary War, the
Civil War and WWII. I do like all of those (depending on which side we’re
taking in the second), but I happen to think that WWI, Korea, and Gulf War I
were all just as well (though the former was sort of pointless as it was
mostly over when we got there). I’d offer the Spanish-American War, the War
of 1812, and, of course, Vietnam as examples of unjust wars. The former all
involved responding to aggression (on behalf of someone else in each case, but
that’s okay too). The latter three all involve acts of aggression on our side
(we made up an act of war for the first, invaded Canada in the second, and
intervened on behalf of a puppet government that didn’t have enough support
from its citizens to stand on its own in the third).

A just war (for the U.S.) is one in which (1) the actions of the U.S. are aimed at defeating or neutralizing a threat to the liberty or well-being of Americans, whether or not that threat is imminent, and (2) the cost (to the U.S.) is worth the likely long-term benefits. By those criteria, I like the Revolutionary War, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War (but only because it ensured an end to slavery), World War II, the Korean War (because it was necessary to respond to communist aggression, after having practically invited it), and Gulf War I. The Vietnam War was entirely unnecessary, but having committed ourselves so deeply it was a grave mistake to cut and run.

Hmmm. This sounds a lot like a realist positions (attaching labels is an occupational hazard for philosophers). Perhaps this would be the place to focus, as it might really get at why we disagree. I worry that this sort of position really amounts to egoism nationalized. Micha sometimes posts on something similar to this at Catallarchy: the objection here is that there don’t seem to be any non-arbitrary reasons for thinking that one ought to favor the interests of Americans over the interests of non-Americans. To put the question a different way, why should the well-being of Americans be a reason for harming non-Americans? Maybe the “well-being” part is just a throwaway, but it strikes me that it leaves things pretty wide-open. If India keeps taking American jobs (I don’t endorse this position; I like free trade, but let’s just go with this for a moment), then mightn’t we make a good case that it is harming the well-being of Americans? Or if Saudi Arabia cuts back its oil production, doesn’t that harm Americans’ well being?

I suppose that I also wonder whether the two-part just war criterion you sketch here really is consistent with the value that you place on liberty. If liberty really is your core value, then doesn’t everyone’s liberty count the same? What then justifies acting only on behalf of American liberty or only when America benefits from the action?

4. Not to be flip here, but is there anyplace that George Bush could invade
that you would find objectionable? Conversely, is there anyplace that Bill
Clinton could invade that you wouldn’t? Again, I don’t mean to come across as
flip, but I detected considerable scorn when you talked about some of
Clinton’s military actions, particularly in his missile attacks during the
whole blow-job thing. The irony here is that those were actually aimed at
terrorist camps, unlike Iraq whose only terrorist camp was actually in
territory controlled by the Kurds, whom we were protecting from Saddam. It’s
probably fair that I answer the reverse of the question. So, for the record,
I supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. I also thought that Bush I
was right to intervene in Somalia and Clinton wrong to withdraw. Clinton
should have intervened in Rwanda, Bush in Liberia.

The short answer: Any president (authorized by Congress) should invade or take other “aggressive” action, whether military or not, whenever the action meets my criteria for a just war (previous answer).

Just to be flip, I would object to George Bush’s invasion of Austin, Texas, even though it is a left-wing stronghold. Seriously, my problem with Clinton’s military actions is that they seemed half-hearted. Halfway measures show a dangerous lack of resolve, which I think was the hallmark of Clinton’s presidency — except when it came to getting re-elected and avoiding conviction by the Senate. To be honest with you, I so distrusted Clinton that I found it hard to swallow anything he had to say about anything, military matters included.

I opposed Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo, and would object to Bush’s intervention in Liberia, because I’m opposed to humanitarian interventions. The commander-in-chief should be focused on defending Americans (as defined in my previous answer); helping others should be confined to those instances where it serves the purpose of defending Americans or protecting their well-being. Bringing down Saddam and helping to foster some sort of representative government in Iraq is good to the extent that it makes it less likely that Iraq’s oil will be turned against or denied to the U.S. It’s also good to the extent that it discourages state-sponsored terrorism or the spread of state-sponsored terrorism. The nation-building/humanitarian aspect of the Iraq War is desirable (in my view) only to the extent that it advances our ability to defend our interests in the Middle East.

I didn’t know that left-wingers were allowed in Texas. Surely in such a gigantic state, it’s okay if we congregate in one city? I might point out that Forbes’ ranking of the best places to do business are pretty much dominated by cities that are dominated by liberals (2004’s top five: Madison, WI; Raleigh-Durham, NC; Austin; DC; Atlanta). I guess that’s another story, though.

In this answer, my worries about the consistency of your view become more evident. If liberty is really the central value, then what’s the difference between military action designed to protect American liberty and military action designed to protect Kosovar liberty? Some interventions are surely imprudent (say, intervention on behalf of Chinese liberty). But again, I would ask why American liberty is so important?

5. To what extent do you think that war makes the world safer? You mention
in your post “War Can Be the Answer” that you think that U.S. could learn from
Israel in fighting terrorism. I’m inclined to agree, but probably for a
different reason. The only place that Islamic terrorists would rather bomb
than New York is Tel Aviv. Despite committing what I think are horrific war
crimes against Palestinian civilians (or perhaps because of), terrorists
continue to throw bombs at Israeli soldiers and blow up Israeli coffee shops.
It’s not clear to me that blowing up cities in retaliation for blowing up
buildings has been a successful strategy overall. This is not to say that we
shouldn’t hunt down terrorists, but do you think that the Army is always the
best way to do that?

War makes the world safer to the extent that it kills bad guys and deters other people from acting bad. I’m not persuaded that killing bad guys actually generates more bad guys. I think they’re already out there, looking for an excuse and opportunity to do bad things. If killing bad guys does generate bad guys, then killing good guys ought to generate good guys. We killed a lot of “bad guys” in WWII and it worked. In fact, for a long time, many “bad guys” became “good guys.” But it takes victory to do that. Which is one of the reasons we shouldn’t leave Iraq until it’s clear that the “good guys” are in charge.

Yes, you’re absolutely right that sometimes killing bad guys is the only way to make the world safer. Part of the difficulty, though, is that in a traditional war between nation-states, most of the people being killed are neither bad guys nor good guys specifically. The average German killed in WWII wasn’t a monster or a war criminal. He was a guy who thought that he was fighting for his country. Yeah, chances are that he was a pretty serious racist. The odds are that the American soldiers on the other side were, too; Americans just hated a different group of people for an arbitrary reason. Now I’m not claiming moral equivalence between Nazi racism and American racism. I’m only claiming a rough moral equivalence between the average German soldier and the average American soldier. In WWII, the really bad guys weren’t the people Americans were killing during the war. The bad guys are the ones we hanged at Nuremberg after the war. Victory there was necessary because that was the only way to get to the really bad guys who actually needed to be stopped.

It’s not so clear to me that this is the case in the Israel-Palestine contest. There are genuine bad guys (on both sides, I think). But bombing cities or sending tanks to demolish entire quarters isn’t the way to get at the really bad guys. In traditional war, armies fight other armies, and typically, when the war ends, the two armies stop fighting. In Israel, you have an army fighting against the general public. There is no way for one side to officially surrender, and it requires only the actions of a single lunatic fanatic to restart the entire conflict. That, I think, calls for a different strategy entirely.

Israel is in a “fight or die” situation, and forbearance hasn’t worked when it’s been tried. The bad guys keep showing up. Targeted killings and surgical strikes can do only so much damage to the terrorist element. Given the proclivity of Palestinian terrorists for mingling with Palestinian civilians, I’m inclined to blame Palestinian terrorists for the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Yes, Israel takes the blame, and it inflames Palestinians. But what’s the alternative?

I think that a good start would be more police work, and fewer tanks and missiles. Terrorism is really bad stuff, but mostly it’s criminal activity and not war activity. There are some exceptions, like 9/11 where you have what amounts to a state that sponsored the attacks (or at least knowingly and willfully harbored the attackers). Mostly, though, I think that the sort of terrorism we’re worried about today would be something in between an army and a police force, perhaps an entirely new entity. I have in mind something like a law-enforcement agency with a pretty serious military arm, but a military arm that consists largely of special-forces and light infantry types—the sort who did most of the work in Afghanistan. I worry that a lot of what is really needed in hunting down terrorists is law-enforcement types of skills, and while our military is, hands down, the best in the world, it’s not particularly good at law-enforcement jobs, because, after all, that’s not what it trains for. OTOH, law enforcement types rarely have the skills necessary to take on heavily-armed terrorist cells. That’s the sort of thing that the military is good at. To use a (probably bad) analogy, the army is a broadsword, the FBI a scalpel. What we really need is a good saber.

There are lots of ways to fight terrorists. The best way depends on where they are and how they’re operating. (That’s trite, isn’t it?) Military force wouldn’t be the answer inside the U.S. unless, for example, we happened to find a large training camp in the wilds of Colorado or a major munitions depot on a farm in Michigan. As for the use of military force overseas, large-scale military operations may be an effective means of combating terrorists when they’re massed for some purpose (e.g., in training camps or drawing on large munitions caches). Small-unit and special-forces operations are more effective in the pursuit of small bands of terrorists. In any event, good tactical intelligence is a key to success (as it is in any war), and that’s simply harder to come by when you’re fighting an enemy who blends into the populace and whose weapons are easily concealed and easy to transport. But, again, what’s the alternative to trying to find and kill them? Ignoring them doesn’t work, and the truly dangerous ideologues won’t be mollified by peace and prosperity.

No, you’re right that the truly dangerous ideologues won’t be mollified by peace and prosperity. But I’m not really trying to convert the ideologues. I’m worried about the disaffected who are more likely to be swayed by ideologues when they’re poor and miserable than they are when they’re driving shiny new Hondas and building TVs to sell to Americans. It’s going to be a lot harder to find suicide bombers when the average citizen knows that Americans buy the stuff his factory makes. After all, it’s not the real ideologues who strap on the bombs, it’s the disaffected youth who turn to ideologues who offer a scapegoat for their own misery.

The main difference between Israel and the U.S. is that Israelis (for the most part) realize that they’re fighting for their survival. Americans were more inclined to believe that right after 9/11, but the rage has subsided.

Not to sound too cynical here, but are we really fighting for our survival? As bad as 9/11 was, it’s not like it really threatened the very existence of the U.S. There are close to 300,000,000 in the nation. Fewer than 3,000 died on 9/11. The murder rate is somewhere around 7.4 per 100,000. We’re killing ourselves at a far faster rate than terrorists are managing.

I don’t mean to belittle the problem, but I do think that reaction to 9/11 was a bit overblown. It’s not like large-scale terrorism came into existence in September 2001. It was just new to us. I suspect that the biggest threat to American survival lies not in what terrorists can do to us but rather in what we can do to ourselves. I’m going to sound like a left-winger here maybe, but it seems to me that a lot of what we did in response to 9/11 was to make ourselves less liberal (in the broad sense that you and I share).

Let’s suppose that we do prevent another 9/11. What cost are we willing to pay to do that?

I’ll put the point another way. Andrew Sullivan pointed out a few months ago that, relative to their population size, Iraq was experiencing the equivalent of a 9/11 every day. That got better for a while, but it’s back to being pretty bad again. Despite all that horror, no one really questions whether or not Iraq will survive. Given that the U.S. is in almost incomparably better shape than Iraq, it’s hard to imagine that America’s survival is actually at stake.

And before you mention it, yes, the nuclear threat is a different story entirely. There’s a nice quote from the movie The Peacemaker, in which Nicole Kidman’s character says, “I’m not afraid of the man who wants 10 nuclear weapons, Colonel. I’m terrified of the man who only wants one.” Well, I’m also afraid of some men who want 10, since lots of them are the sort who wouldn’t mind having only 9 and selling the other to the lunatic who just wants one. It thus puzzles me deeply that we’re spending so much money to stabilize a place formerly ruled by a lunatic who had no nuclear weapons and wasn’t close to having any while completely ignoring another lunatic who does have nuclear weapons and cozying up to a bunch of criminals who have access to thousands of them.


Other related posts:
9/11 and Pearl Harbor
Vietnam and Iraq as Metaphors
Wisdom about the War on Terrror
Why Sovereignty?
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
A Rant about Torture
What If We Lose?
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Media, the Left, and War
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
Terrorism Isn’t an Accident
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues
Planning for the Last War
The Folly of Pacifism

A Rearview Look at the Invasion of Iraq and the War on Terror

UPDATED WITH AN ADDENDUM ABOUT SYRIA, 04/12/18

In a bombastic piece at American Thinker, Silvio Canto Jr. said this:

In a few weeks, we will remember the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War.  President Bush made a tough call, and I’m still supporting it years later.

Close your eyes and imagine Saddam Hussein running Iraq.

Over there, Saddam would be trying to compete with Iran for nuclear weapons.  Libya would still have them.

Israel would have probably gone to war with Iran or Iraq by now.

Oil would be $100 a barrel, at least.

Over here, John Kerry would be giving speeches that Pres. Bush left a madman in power.  He’d tell us about his vote to remove Saddam Hussein.

Hillary Clinton would remind us that her husband’s administration said Iraq had WMDs and connections to al-Qaeda.

Al Gore would argue that 9-11 changed everything and that the U.S. looks weak playing cat and mouse with Iraq.

I’m sure that a few other Democrats would tell us about their opposition to Saddam Hussein.

It was 15 years ago, and President Bush was right.  All you have to do is look at North Korea.  The lesson of North Korea is that you cannot allow these regimes to go nuclear.  You cannot give them the benefit of the doubt because they have no intention of complying with any agreements.

Saddam won’t be conducting any nuclear tests.  He is dead and gone.

Better than that, we don’t have to hear John Kerry say the Bush administration passed up an opportunity to take out Saddam before he conducted a nuclear test.

I forwarded the piece to a correspondent who is, like me, a veteran of the defense-analysis business. My correspondent takes the view that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was unnecessary because

Saddam [was] containable, and Iran was an agent in his containment. In the sense of keeping him boxed in, Iran was an ally of the US.

Nuke ownership is worrisome, but nuke usage is way more so. The world, with lots of hard work from us and others, has kept the cork in the bottle for 73 years.

Dubya’s mistake in Iraq was called by his SecState Powell a dozen years before; if ya break it, ya own it. Deposing a dictator isn’t so hard (see Noriega 1989) if you can do it at reasonable cost. Dubya didn’t.

As for what a bunch of faded Dem pols would be saying if Saddam were in power…yawn.

It is quite true that Saddam was unlikely to march his armies outside Iraq’s borders, especially given his quick and humiliating defeat in 1991. But is that containment?

North Korea is contained, in the sense that its armies haven’t ventured across the DMZ since the truce of 1953. But is North Korea really contained? Not at all. It has in its possession the means to blackmail South Korea into playing nicey-nicey. And South Korea — which is now under new, left-wing management — may be on the verge of succumbing to North Korea’s veiled threat. Kim Jong-un, like many a shrewd dictator before him, knows how to act crazy enough to make his opponents believe that he will attack them even if such an attack proves suicidal (for his country if not for himself). In the ability-to-act-crazy department, Kim may have met his match in Donald Trump, but Kim is a real dictator who can and might do something suicidal. Trump is only a crazy dictator in the eyes of hysterical women, feminized men, and leftists, who are projecting their own fascistic fantasies onto him.

Saddam was contained in the same way as Kim. But, like Kim, he aspired to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, at least to nearby countries if not all the way to the United States. Saddam’s dilatory response to UN-ordered inspections of his WMD programs was a casus belli in 2003. The uncertainty surrounding Saddam’s nuclear program is reflected in the following narrative, the source of which is the Brookings Institution — a left-of-center think-tank, and not the kind of outfit that would give aid and comfort to American “war mongers”:

[A] nuclear weapon is something Saddam almost surely does not now have, but that he might someday acquire—and that, if ever used, could clearly dwarf 9/11 in its effects. We don’t know if Saddam would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons if he had them. But to paraphrase Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations, letting Saddam get a nuclear weapon and then seeing what if anything he might do with it is a social science experiment we can live without. Simply having such a weapon could give Saddam “defensive cover” for aggression, fundamentally changing the balance of power in the region.

That, in a nutshell, is the case for a pre-emptive war. Whatever one thinks of this case, it should not depend on advocates producing a “smoking gun.” Evidence that Saddam is on the verge of building a bomb is unlikely to exist, not only because our sources of intelligence inside Iraq are highly imperfect, but because Iraq is probably still years away from any kind of nuclear capability….

… But Saddam is trying to get the bomb. And if that’s a persuasive reason for going to war—as it probably is, in the absence of rigorous inspections that would prevent him from acquiring one—it would make more sense to fight before he had the bomb than after.

… As is well known, Iraq was disturbingly close—perhaps only months away—from building a nuclear weapon at the time of Desert Storm [in 1991]. After Israel bombed its Osirak nuclear reactor a decade earlier, Iraq had embarked on a program to develop less visible technologies for enriching uranium from domestic and possibly foreign sources—its “basement bomb” project. In numerous ways, this effort resembled the difficult and tedious approach taken in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project in the United States, particularly the effort to build uranium-235 devices such as the one dropped on Hiroshima. U.N. inspectors found and destroyed most of the equipment believed to have been involved in Iraq’s effort before the Gulf War of 1991.

When [former chief bomb designer Khidhir] Hamza defected a couple of years later, Iraq’s nuclear program was still in a state of dismantlement. That said, Saddam kept together his bomb designer teams, putting them on other projects to ensure their continued availability and proficiency. By the mid-1990s at the latest, he also had a workable design for a bomb that likely would have been effective, if he had been able to get his hands on fissile material. He also had the capability to manufacture most other critical nuclear-weapon components, such as timing devices and properly shaped conventional explosives to compress the fissile material and initiate the explosion.

In recent months, as reported in The New York Times, U.S. intelligence has gotten word of Iraqi efforts to buy key nuclear-related components. In particular, Iraq seems bent on acquiring large numbers of sophisticated aluminum tubes that could be used to build centrifuges. Centrifuges spin uranium at high speeds, gradually separating the lighter U-235 from the heavier and more prevalent U-238 (which is not capable of supporting a chain reaction and hence not usable in a bomb)….

More worrisome, perhaps, is that Saddam might get access to U-235 or plutonium on the black market, most likely with Russian criminal elements as the original source. Thankfully, there is no evidence that the nuclear black market has yet involved large quantities of fissile material. But as Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, we don’t know what we don’t know. Any delay in pre-emption entails some degree of risk—and precisely what degree is hard to estimate.

Saddam probably could not hurt the United States directly with a bomb even if he had one. Even if he overcomes his most serious obstacle by obtaining fissile material on the black market, he would probably be able to build only a few nuclear weapons, and they would be big. That would make it hard to transport such weapons to give to terrorists or his own foreign-based operatives for use against a U.S. city. He might be able to sneak a bomb into Kuwait or another neighboring state with a low-flying aircraft, but the plane might well also get shot down. He probably does not have a missile big enough to carry what would be a fairly primitive and thus large nuclear warhead.

It is possible that Saddam would consider possession of a bomb a “regime survival insurance card” and undertake aggressive behavior as a result. For example, Saddam might try to take Kuwait’s oil field that was the original purported source of contention back in 1990, prior to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Or he might move forces back into Kurdish regions of his own country, aware that our airpower probably could not stop him and that we might be unwilling to risk escalation by moving in ground forces.

These types of worries are real, if not quite the equivalent of Hitler’s demands at Munich, as Bush administration officials have exaggerated in recent weeks. That said, a nuclear-armed Iraq is a serious concern, and we would be vastly better off without one. Even a war skeptic such as me must acknowledge that President Bush has a reasonable case when he describes the risks involved in Iraq’s nuclear program. Rigorous inspections and disarmament would, to my mind, be an acceptable solution. But to get that outcome, we may have to threaten war, and threaten it quite credibly…. [Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Saddam’s Bomb: How Close is Iraq to Having a Nuclear Weapon?“, September 18, 2002]

(PBS, another left-of-center source, offered a similar assessment.)

But threats of war were to no avail. And so Iraq was invaded, Saddam fell, and the threat of a nuclear-armed, Saddam-led Iraq was ended.

In that regard, consider the usual kind of reasoning against preemptive war, which appears in a passage of O’Hanlon’s essay that I skipped over. After saying that “it would make more sense to fight before [Saddam] had the bomb than after”, O’Hanlon adds this:

However, it’s not necessarily an argument for mounting a full-scale invasion now. That argument depends on how close Saddam really is to obtaining a bomb.

That kind of thinking baffles me. If one is going to preempt an enemy, the time to do it is when he is relatively weak. What is the point of giving him time in which to become stronger? Hope that he will change his spots? A survey of relevant historical examples would find few spot-changing episodes, except under duress (e.g., Muammar Gaddafi’s in the wake of Saddam’s downfall), which makes my point.

The O’Hanlons of this world can’t contemplate preemptive war, so they seize on flimsy excuses to delay or avoid it. The inevitable result is that the enemy eventually becomes strong enough that preemptive war then becomes too costly to wage — too costly for America, that is, in terms of blood and treasure.

Except that it took only three weeks to overthrow Saddam and subdue his armed forces. The mistake wasn’t in the doing of it, but in why and how it was done. The invasion of Iraq was really a piece of the Bush administration’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and should be evaluated as such. Mark Helprin does the job (my parenthetical commentary is in italics):

True shock and awe following upon September 11, when the world was with us, could have pitched the Middle East (and beyond, including the Islamists) into something resembling its torpor under European domination or its shock after the Arab-Iraeli War of 1967. That is to say, pacified for a time, with attacks on the West subsiding…. Instead, we exhibit the generosity of the soon-to-be defeated, otherwise known as concession and surrender. [Surely this blogger wasn’t alone in believing, at the time, that the response to 9/11 was too tepid and limited in scope. Nor that the “Islam is a religion of peace” mantra was exactly the wrong thing to say because it connoted conciliation and squeamishness where determination and massive force were called for.]

Comporting with the idea that if you’re going to have a war it’s a good idea to win it, and with the Powell Doctrine, General Eric Shinseki’s recommendations, the lessons of military history [including the failure of half-measures in Vietnam], the American way of war [through World War II], and simple common sense, an effective response to September 11 would have required an effort of greater scale than that of the Gulf War—i.e., all in. [This might not have been possible immediately after 9/11, given the defense drawdown of the 1990s, when Clinton — with GOP complicity — balanced the federal budget on the back of defense. But it would soon have been possible given the degree of support for rearmament in the wake of 9/11.] With a full and fully prepared “punch through,” we could have reached Baghdad in three days, and instead of staying there for a decade or more put compliant officials or generals in power … and wheeled left to Damascus, smashing the Syrian army against the Israeli anvil and putting another compliant regime in place before returning to the complex of modern military bases at the northern borders of Saudi Arabia. There, our backs to the sea, which we control, and our troops hermetically sealed by the desert and safe from insurgency, we could have occupied the center of gravity in the heart of the Middle East, able to sprint with overwhelming force within a few days to either Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh.

Having suffered very few casualties, our forces would have been rested, well-trained, ready for deployment in other parts of the world, and able to dictate to (variously and where applicable) the Syrians, Iraqis, and Saudis that they eradicate their terrorists, stay within their borders, abandon weapons of mass destruction, break alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, keep the oil price down, and generally behave themselves. These regimes live for power, do anything for survival, and have secret police who can flush out terrorists with ruthless efficiency. Such strategy, had we adopted it, would have been demanding and imperious, yes, but not as demanding and imperious as ten years of war across much of the Middle East. Our own economy and alliances need not have been disrupted, our polity not so severely divided, and far fewer people would have suffered. [Many Americans across the political spectrum would have blanched at this exercise of raw power, even though it was probably the best way to curb terrorism against Americans. This squeamish attitude ignores a main justification for the existence of the United States under a central government: the defense of Americans and their interests, which includes overseas interests, not the winning of popularity contests, and certainly not the invitation of further attacks through ineffective action.]

But rather than this approach, which is not, as the record will show, hindsight, the businessmen and business-schooled officials of the Bush Administration chose to run the war according to the business principle of doing the most with as little as possible. [This slam on Donald Rumsfeld and ilk is one that I believe my correspondent would say amen to.] Thus, although war demands surplus, reserves, and overkill, for it is never as predictable as selling widgets, it was deliberately and gratuitously a war of penury, and like most such wars it has lasted long and will bring a frayed and unsatisfactory end. [“The Central Proposition“, The Claremont Review of Books, September 13, 2011]

In any event, the fact remains that even George W. Bush’s botched job resulted in the removal of any threat posed by Saddam. I don’t understand why that fact is overlooked or dismissed. For, as I argue above, Saddam wasn’t really contained as long as he had (or could have had) a nuclear program (or other weapons of mass destruction).

Well, what’s another member of the nuclear club? There are already at least 9 members: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Thanks to Barack Obama, Iran will soon join the club to make it a nice, round 10.

If 10 is all right, why not 15 or 20? Is it too many because such numbers represent too many opportunities for a “mad man” to let loose the dogs of nuclear war? When there were 8 club members, there were only 8 such opportunities. With 2 more (North Korea and Iran), the number of opportunities is 25 percent greater than it had been since 1998. How is that at all comforting? When the number goes from ten to 11, will that be acceptable because the number of opportunities will rise by only 10 percent? Or will it be unacceptable because there is yet another opportunity for a “mad man” to do something drastic? I take the latter view. One more club member is always one too many. Two was too many because the second to join was the USSR; one (the U.S.) was just the right number.

A nuclear weapon hasn’t been detonated in anger since 1945. That must prove something. All it proves is that a nuclear weapon hasn’t been detonated in anger since 1945. As my correspondent knows very well, intentional events aren’t random events, and therefore aren’t probabilistic ones. In other words, the past — in this case — isn’t necessarily prologue. All we know for sure is that the addition of members to the nuclear club means more opportunities for something bad to happen.

What about those (thankfully) faded Democrat politicians who probably would have second-guessed GWB if he hadn’t deposed Saddam, and Saddam had joined the nuclear club? Canto added some (perhaps gratuitous) rhetorical spice to a valid point by invoking the faded pols. His valid point is that GWB would have been second-guessed with good reason, because most Americans would rightly have been angry about Saddam’s entry into the nuclear club.

The angry Americans would include a lot of squeamish ones who want their defense but not what must be done sometimes to secure it. (Retrospective approval of the “unthinkable”, such as dropping A-bombs on Japan, doesn’t count as willingness to do what must be done.) This is an unrealistic approach to life with which I have no sympathy, and which courts disaster.

I speak from personal experience. In 1994, the budget of the think-tank where I was chief financial officer was slashed by Congress. The handwriting was on the wall: a few dozen employees would have to be fired. My boss, the CEO, resisted that course of action, in the vain hope that the budget cut would be restored. He finally relented in 1995, with the result that the continued employment of a couple of dozen employees had worsened our budget deficit. And so twice as many employees had to be fired — as I had told him from the beginning of the budget crisis.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. And the cost of deferring action is almost certain to be greater than the cost of having taking action when it was called for.

ADDENDUM

Excerpts of my messages in subsequent correspondence about the situation in Syria and its relationship to the Iraq War:

The thing about Iraq — beyond Saddam and what he might have done — is its central position in a major oil-producing region of the world. A military occupation — without “nation building” or any pretense of establishing democracy — was my preferred solution. A U.S.-controlled Iraq would have brought stability to the ME and sent a strong message to Iran and whoever else might have had ideas about messing with U.S. interests. Yes, the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds would have been at each other. But as long as they didn’t threaten U.S. forces and interests, they should have been allowed to kill each other. Attacks on U.S. forces and interests could have been dealt with promptly, forcibly, indiscriminately (they’re all “bad guys”), and without apology. If you’re going to conquer a country, then conquer it and don’t pussy-foot around. How long should the U.S. have stayed? As long as it takes — just as in Europe.

What about Syria? Leaving it to the Russians is fine by me, as long as there’s really a bright red line around it. But even if Trump were to somehow backtrack on his tough talk and strike a deal with Russia — Syria is your problem — the next president or the one after that is just as likely to be Obama II. That’s because the mushy center of the American electorate can’t make up its mind what it wants — limited government or unlimited goodies. There goes the bright red line, and possibly the whole ME with it. That’s my reservation about leaving Syria to the Russians.

Unlike the seize-and-hold strategy that I had hoped the U.S. would take with respect to Iraq, [my correspondent’s preferred] containment strategy would have left open a greater range of possibilities. It could have been interpreted as a signal that the U.S. would keep hands off a country (e.g., Syria) as long as its actions weren’t spilling over into U.S. interests (e.g., oil, Israel, stability in the ME). But that wouldn’t have precluded an uprising in Syria, and it might even have encouraged it. Without a strong U.S. presence next door in Iraq, Russia might well have decided to intervene in the hope of extending its influence in the ME. And we’d be exactly where we are now.


Related posts:
9/11 and Pearl Harbor
Vietnam and Iraq as Metaphors
Wisdom about the War on Terrror
Why Sovereignty?
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown
A Rant about Torture
What If We Lose?
The Best Defense . . .
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Defense as the Ultimate Social Service
Not Enough Boots: The Why of It
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Media, the Left, and War
Getting It Wrong and Right about Iran
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
Transnationalism and National Defense
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
Terrorism Isn’t an Accident
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues
Planning for the Last War
The Folly of Pacifism

Recommended Reading

Leftism, Political Correctness, and Other Lunacies (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 1)

 

On Liberty: Impossible Dreams, Utopian Schemes (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 2)

 

We the People and Other American Myths (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 3)

 

Americana, Etc.: Language, Literature, Movies, Music, Sports, Nostalgia, Trivia, and a Dash of Humor (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 4)

Planning for the Last War

I am in the midst of an exchange with a former colleague. He is a retired political scientist who decades ago belonged to a small but hardy band analysts who questioned the conventional wisdom about Soviet naval strategy. It turns out that he and his comrades-in-arms were right, and the conventional wisdom was wrong. He worries, with good reason, that history might repeat itself, and is working on a paper to document the events of 40 years ago and the possibility that history is repeating itself.

I have no doubt that history is repeating itself. This is from a recent message from me to him:

It seems as if the Pentagon [of the 1970s] was planning to fight the last war (or two), just because that’s the way things are usually done. Fast forward to 2018: What war(s) is the Pentagon planning to fight now? I’m not au courant with the defense budget, but I believe that it’s considerably smaller (in constant dollars) than it was in the 1980s [after adjusting for the cost of America’s present wars]. Which means, rhetoric aside, that the Pentagon is actually planning to refight the wars of the past 28 years, with a side-helping of skirmishes of other kinds. In any event, it can’t be on the scale of the two-major/one-minor war strategy of the McNamara era, which (de facto) animated the Reagan buildup after the post-Vietnam let-down. The point of this ramble is to suggest that the U.S. is in a position (once again) to be “surprised” by the not-so-sudden emergence of an aggressive power or axis of them. You may not subscribe to this view, but if you do, some discussion of it in your paper would underline the essential point: The dire consequences of [the] persistent misreading of a potential enemy’s intentions and capabilities. It’s an old refrain, which begins (at least) with Pearl Harbor and extends through North Korea’s invasion of the South, the Tet Offensive (and some later reruns), 9/11, and the emergence of IS.


Related posts:
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Defense Spending: One More Time
Pacifism
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
Presidents and War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty
Terrorism Isn’t an Accident
The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues

The Ken Burns Apology Tour Continues

Ken Burns, of the Burns-Novick team responsible for The Vietnam War and many other documentaries, is known to be a man of the left. Leftists have many tics. One of them, which Barack Obama exhibited vocally and often, is the habit of apologizing for America’s moral imperfections. It is those imperfections that justify the left’s dismissal of America as just another country — nothing exceptional to see here, folks, so just move along.

One of the exceptional things that leftists dismiss is the written (real) Constitution, with its explicit limits on the power of the central government. The left’s aim — everywhere and always — has been to override those limits, so that government can decide what is best for the people, instead of allowing the people to decide that for themselves.

Also exceptional are the sacrifices that Americans have made — in life, limb, and money — to defend people around the world against tyranny. But leftists have a way of turning those sacrifices into sins.

Which brings me back to Ken Burns, whose first and perhaps most famous series revisited the Civil War. Where better to begin hammering away at America but with the Civil War, which was all about slavery — except when it wasn’t? But why would a leftist bother to give serious consideration to the legitimate, constitutional cause that impelled many Southerners to defend their homeland?

Burns managed to turn his baseball and jazz series into extensions of the Civil War, with their long sermons about America’s racism. Burns’s lop-sided history of baseball included the obligatory (and badly distorted) depiction of Ty Cobb as a vicious ballplayer and a vicious racist.

Then came Burns’s epic about World War II, The War, of which I wrote in 2007 (here, here, here, and here). I draw on those earlier posts in the next several paragraphs.

The War illustrates that, however necessary a war, victory may be attainable only at a very high price. The War also makes the case, graphically, that there can be no alternative but to pay that very high price when one is faced with brutal, fanatical enemies. (These are points that The Vietnam War fails to follow through on.)

But The War also spends a lot of time on issues with racial dimensions; specifically:

  • the forced removal and internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans (62 percent of whom were United States citizens) from the West Coast of the United States during World War II
  • government-enforced racial segregation in the armed forces (and, sometimes, among workers in defense plants), against a backdrop of racial tension.

The War neglects to mention the military considerations that justified the internment. (See these three posts, for example.) Instead, The War engages in the kind of second-guessing eschewed by the U.S. Supreme Court when it opined in the case of Korematsu v. United States (1944). It is right to give time to the internment; it was a significant (and temporary) event arising out of the prosecution of the war. But it is wrong to give a one-sided presentation of that event.

Why hammer away at the segregation of blacks and black-white conflict? They were not central to the conduct of the war. Racial tension is an ineluctable fact of life that had nothing to do with World War II, except as it found its way into the armed forces. But so did other social phenomena, including divisions along the lines of class, religion, and region, for example. But leftists — who are as clannish as they come — just cannot abide the thought that other people are also clannish. And in the case of racial tension, the clannishness is depicted as one-sided — as if blacks aren’t just as clannish and prone to race-based violence as whites.

Forced segregation had been (and would remain, for some years), a government policy. Would it have been too much to expect a government that was battling ferocious enemies abroad to take time out to desegregate the armed forces, desegregate civilian life, and deal with the resulting racial conflict (of which there was already enough)? The short answer is yes. That is not to excuse government-sponsored and government-enforced segregation. It is simply to call, once again, for perspective and balance, which The War does not offer.

The effect of the racial sideshow is to tarnish what was a great and noble undertaking: the defeat of Japan and Germany. Which is to say that the racial sideshow plays into the anti-war message of The War. That message is underscored by the exploration of three other themes.

The first is that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, according to Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891). But after making that observation (in slightly different words and with the wrong attribution), The War goes on to conflate it with a second theme about defective leadership.

The fact that war is an unpredictable endeavor is a thing entirely apart from the fact that some commanders aren’t fit to lead men in battle. We can thank The War for reminding us that unpredictability and bad decisions can be part of any war. But there is too much about bad leadership (which wasn’t endemic among U.S. forces in World War II), and too little about the unpredictability of war and the necessity of working through it to attain the ultimate strategic objective, which is victory.

The third theme is the horrors of war, especially as expressed by Eugene Sledge and the egregious Paul Fussell (see this). Fussell clearly implies that the war wasn’t worth fighting until the Holocaust came to light, late in the war.

Under the heading of horrors, there is the presentation of “balanced” reactions to the dropping of A-bombs on Japan. One of the “witnesses” who appears throughout the series staunchly defends the act. Another notes its strategic wisdom but still wishes it hadn’t been necessary. But it was necessary — and, really, an act of mercy toward the Japanese as well as to America’s fighting men. Why pander to the nay-sayers, who will go to their graves condemning the act, in spite of its moral necessity?

Finally, there is the film’s subtext, which has two main elements. One element is voiced at the very end of the final episode, in the dedication. It is to those who served in World War II, “that necessary war” — not “a necessary war”, as the first episode has it. The implication is that no later war was or is necessary, including (of course) the war in Iraq which was going strong when The War first aired.

The second element of the subtext reinforces the first one, and it is less subtle. That second element is The War‘s insistence on playing up America’s moral failings (as discussed above). The intended message is that because of America’s moral failings, and because war is hell, World War II was barely worth fighting, although it seemed necessary at the time (even to the left, given that the USSR was an “ally”). The left proclaims an act of war against anyone but Hitler (not a Hitler, but the Hitler) to be an act of hypocrisy and brutality by a morally imperfect nation.

In sum, The War affirms the American left’s anti-defense, anti-war dogmas, which reflect the post-patriotic attitude that America is nothing special. It’s as if Burns and Novick were paving the way for the ascendancy of that post-patriotic president, Barack Obama.

The Vietnam War picks up where The War left off. Yes, The Vietnam War is superficially balanced, but its anti-war, anti-American message is in the subtext — or, rather, the missing subtext. The Vietnam War is an exemplar of propaganda by selection and omission.

The ex-soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen chosen for on-camera roles are notable for their range of views: from being stridently against the war to stolidly neutral. Was it impossible to find anyone who served during the war who thought it a worthwhile cause, a cause that was undermined by the media and poll-driven politicians? Surely it wan’t impossible. But Burns and his production partner, Lynn Novick, nevertheless were unable — unwilling, really — to produce such a person out the tens or hundreds of thousands whose testimony would have conflicted the Burns-Novick story line.

To take a second, glaring example, The Vietnam War glosses over the media’s complicity in drumming up anti-war hysteria, especially in the wake of the Tet Offensive. The fact that it was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong is mentioned but not pursued. Why did the U.S. government fail to exploit the U.S.-South Vietnamese victory?

Here’s why: LBJ, who at the time of the offensive, was probably aiming for re-election, gave in to the media-led hysteria in the wake of the offensive. LBJ, anxious as ever about “public opinion”, responded to media-led hysteria by turning victory into defeat.

Does The Vietnam War pursue that line of inquiry? No. Instead the viewer is treated to a monotonous stream of snippets from “news” programs. These feature the oracular, avuncular Walter Cronkite (and his imitators) crying doom and gloom and pushing the polls against the war.

So Burns-Novick gladly second-guess the French, the decisions that led the U.S. into Vietnam, and the wisdom of the war itself. But it’s off-limits (for Burns-Novick) to second-guess LBJ’s reluctant-warrior act after Tet. Despite a further troop buildup, the constraints placed by LBJ on the conduct of the war — especially in the air — led eventually to the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the defeat of South Vietnam. It’s as if those ignominious outcomes were inevitable — and perhaps deserved by a nation as flawed as the one the Burns likes to portray.

I am far from alone in my disdain for the Burns-Novick treatment of the Vietnam War:

Lewis Sorley (author of A Better War) appears in The Vietnam War, but if he said anything contrary to the Burns line, it fell to the cutting room floor. Later, in a different setting, Sorley speaks his mind; see the video embedded here, starting at 48:00. There are many other Sorleys out there, I’m sure (e.g., Mark Moyar, author of Triumph Forsaken).

Scott Johnson of Power Line has much to say about The Vietnam War in “Notes on the Ken Burns Version” and “Notes on the Ken Burns Version, Continued“. In both posts he cites and quotes other dissenters from the Burns-Novick narrative.

Another example of informed dissent is George J. Veith’s post at Library of Law and Liberty, “Burns and Novick on Vietnam: A Neutral Film, or a Rifle Butt to the Heart?“, which concludes that The Vietnam War

was at best an imperfect effort to tell an extraordinarily complex story. At worst, it has cemented, perhaps forever, the old stereotypes—the Americans as bumbling interlopers layering mistakes upon bad judgment and governmental deceit; the communists as ardent nationalists simply trying to unify their country; the people in the South as corrupt incompetents not worth the lives of our GIs. The film serves as a stark reminder that, “In war truth is the first casualty.”

And in peace truth is the first casualty when leftists push an agenda.

What about North Korea?

A correspondent writes:

There is a time to hit the bear and a time to run. We’ve had many opportunities to hit the North Korean bear and have not, and are now left with poor choices.

I agree that the U.S. now seems to be left with poor choices, having failed to act decisively in the past.

I doubt that any U.S. president, even including Trump, wants to be responsible for the devastation that would follow a preemptive attack (of any kind) on North Korea. Therefore, I believe that an ICBM-equipped North Korea is probably in our future.

Does that mean a nuclear exchange with North Korea is in our future? It depends on whether Kim Jong-un is actually crazy or just a canny loudmouth. (I suspect the latter to be true.)  However, if Kim does get trigger-happy, the resulting war will be a short one. North Korea will be devastated; South Korea will suffer greatly; and there may be collateral damage to Japan, Guam, Hawaii, and even the U.S. mainland.

How far the damage spreads will depend on how soon Kim pulls the trigger. The sooner he does, the less time there will be for the installation of effective missile defenses, but the less time there will be for Kim to deploy effective long-range missiles. So if he is going to pull the trigger, it’s probably best (at least for mainlanders) if he pulls it sooner rather than later.

But if Kim is really canny, as I suspect, he will never pull the trigger. Instead, he will use his growing offensive capability as blackmail in any military or economic confrontations with his Asian neighbors. The fact that he seems crazy gives him an advantage in such situations; it leads people to believe that he will actually pull the trigger.


Related posts:
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
The World Turned Upside Down
The Old Normal
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Pacifism
Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War
Much Ado about Civilian Control of the Military
Presidents and War
LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty

Thinking the Unthinkable about North Korea

Propositions for discussion:

1. The U.S. and South Korea jointly launch preemptive attacks on North Korea’s nukes and the conventional forces that could unleash a retaliatory attack on South Korea.

2. North Korea’s subsequent retaliation against South Korea is likely to be less damaging to South Korea than if North Korea had launched first.

3. North Korea’s retaliation against the U.S. and other countries (e.g., Japan) is likely to be less damaging to the U.S. and those other countries than if North Korea had been allowed to further develop its nukes and then launched first.

4. Preemption by the U.S. and South Korea therefore comes down to four calculations:

a. Could the U.S. and South Korea act swiftly and surely enough to effect an overwhelming preemptive attack, or would preparations for an attack trigger devastating preemption by North Korea?

b. What is the likelihood that unfettered development of North Korea’s nukes would lead to their first use, either directly or as backing for military-economic blackmail?

c. What is the likelihood that the PRC would respond militarily to preemption by the U.S. and South Korea, and what would be the scope of such a response? (I assume away economic retaliation absent military retaliation. If the Chinese are truly bent on intervening, they are unlikely to settle for a half-measure that would severely harm the economy of the PRC.)

d. What would be the effect of preemption on “world opinion” toward the U.S. and South Korea. (Not that I believe in the importance of “world opinion or give a rat’s ass about it, but there are those who do — even some in Trump’s administration.)


Related posts:
Parsing Peace
The Best Defense . . .
The Media, the Left, and War
Delusions of Preparedness
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Pacifism

A Word of Warning to Leftists (and Everyone Else)

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.

Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor,
Strategy for the West

I am not a pessimist by nature, but I do consider myself a realist. Despite Trump, the U.S. is rapidly moving in the direction of the British Isles and continental Europe: welfare-dependent, nannied in the nth degree, and politically correct to the point of feminization.

This “ambiance” will dominate the military-diplomatic sphere under the next Obama — who will arrive four or eight years from now, given the fickleness of the American electorate.  The U.S. will then be open to military blackmail by a determined and strong regime in search of economic gains (e.g., de facto control of oil-rich regions) and political dominance over vast regions if not the globe. Inasmuch as the U.S. is properly and profitably engaged in the world (for the ultimate benefit of American consumers), the result will be vast harm to Americans’ interests.

Military blackmail by a state (or states acting in opportunistic coordination) might be accompanied by or follow in the wake of a major terrorist attack by an emboldened non-state actor. (I remember reading of evidence that bin Laden was emboldened to order the 9/11 strikes because previous U.S. responses to terrorism suggested softness.)

But such developments will come as a surprise to most Americans, whose solipsism blinds them to the realities of a world (out there) that hasn’t been — and won’t be — turned into a kindergarten by left-wing university administrators and faculty, generations of indoctrinated public-school teachers, tens of millions of their indoctrinees, politicians and otherwise hard-headed businessmen eager to signal their virtue by favoring political correctness over actual ability and accomplishment, and the media chorus that eagerly encourages and sustains all of with its skillfully slanted reportage.

When the surprise occurs, it probably will be too late to do anything about it, despite the sudden mugging by reality that will convert many leftists into conservatives.


Recommended reading and viewing:

Simon Sinek, “Millennials in the Workplace,” Inside Quest, October 29, 2016

Chenchen Zhang, “The Curious Rise of the ‘White Left’ as a Chinese Internet Insult,” openDemocracy, May 11, 2017

Mark Steyn, “Tomorrow By the Numbers,” Steyn Posts, May 10, 2017

Katie Kieffer, “Tick, Tock: EMP War Looms,” Townhall, May 15, 2017

Bruce Schneier, “Who Is Publishing NSA and CIA Secrets, and Why?Schneier on Security, May 15, 2017


Related posts:
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Media, the Left, and War
A Grand Strategy for the United States
The Folly of Pacifism
Why We Should (and Should Not) Fight
Rating America’s Wars
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Next 9/11?
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
Patience as a Tool of Strategy
The War on Terror, As It Should Have Been Fought
Preemptive War
Preemptive War and Iran
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Mission Not Accomplished
The World Turned Upside Down
Defense Spending: One More Time
Presidential Treason
Walking the Tightrope Reluctantly
My Defense of the A-Bomb
Pacifism
Presidents and War

LBJ’s Dereliction of Duty

SEE THE ADDENDUM OF 04/13/17

I mentioned H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in “Presidents and War.” Having finished reading the book, I must say that McMaster was derelict in his duty to give a full and honest account of the role of the service chiefs in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

The book’s focus is on the political-military machinations of November 1963 to July 1965. Most of the book is taken up with a detailed (almost monotonous) chronological narrative. It reads like a parody of Groundhog Day: Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was fixated on “graduated pressure,” as were Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Ambassador (to South Vietnam) Maxwell Taylor; the service chiefs and General William Westmoreland (Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) kept asking for more, but without a clear strategy; McNamara kept President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) in the dark about those requests; when the chiefs met with LBJ, he played the pity card and persuaded them that he was in a tough spot, so they went along without vocal dissent. General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, played along with McNamara and LBJ. Lather, rinse, and repeat ad nauseum.

In the narrative and subsequent analysis, LBJ and McNamara come across as the real heavies, which is what I thought of them at the time. (Regarding McNamara, see “The McNamara Legacy: A Personal Perspective.”) McMaster indicts the service chiefs for not agreeing on a unified approach to the war, and then for failing to object (with one voice) to LBJ”s temporizing approach, which McNamara abetted by pushing “graduated pressure.” LBJ’s aim was to prevent Congress and the public from seeing how deeply the U.S. was getting committed (though far from adequately), so that LBJ could (a) win the election in 1964 and (b) keep the focus on his Great Society program in 1965. The only quasi-hero of the story is General Wallace Greene, Commandant of the Marine Corps, who finally voices his dissent from the go-along attitude of the chiefs. He does it en famille and then in a meeting with LBJ. But he is ignored.

Though McMaster goes into great detail about people and events, there’s nothing really new (to me), except for the revelation that the chiefs were supine — at least through July 1965. LBJ’s deviousness and focus on the election and his domestic programs is unsurprising. McNamara’s arrogance and rejection of the chiefs’ views is unsurprising. Service parochialism is unsurprising. The lack of a commitment by LBJ and McNamara to winning the war and devising a requisite strategy are unsurprising.

But there was something at the back of my mind when I was reading Dereliction of Duty which told me that the chiefs weren’t as negligent as McMaster paints them. It has since come to the front of my mind. McMaster’s narrative ends in July 1965, and he bases his conclusions on events up until then. However, there was a showdown between the chiefs and LBJ in November 1965. As recounted by Lt. Gen. Charles Cooper, USMC (Ret.), who was a junior officer at the time (and present at the showdown), “the chiefs did their duty.”

Here’s  a portion of Cooper’s story, which is drawn from his memoir, Cheers and Tears: A Marine’s Story of Combat in Peace and War (2002):

It was a beautiful fall day in November of 1965; early in the Vietnam War-too beautiful a day to be what many of us, anticipating it, had been calling “the day of reckoning.” We didn’t know how accurate that label would be….

The Vietnam War was in its first year, and its uncertain direction troubled Admiral McDonald and the other service chiefs. They’d had a number of disagreements with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara about strategy, and had finally requested a private meeting with the Commander in Chief — a perfectly legitimate procedure. Now, after many delays, the Joint Chiefs were finally to have that meeting. They hoped it would determine whether the US military would continue its seemingly directionless buildup to fight a protracted ground war, or take bold measures that would bring the war to an early and victorious end. The bold measures they would propose were to apply massive air power to the head of the enemy, Hanoi, and to close North Vietnam’s harbors by mining them….

Despite the lack of a clear-cut intelligence estimate, Admiral McDonald and the other Joint Chiefs did what they were paid to do and reached a conclusion. They decided unanimously that the risk of the Chinese or Soviets reacting to massive US measures taken in North Vietnam was acceptably low, but only if we acted without delay. Unfortunately, the Secretary of Defense and his coterie of civilian “whiz kids” did not agree with the Joint Chiefs, and McNamara and his people were the ones who were actually steering military strategy. In the view of the Joint Chiefs, the United States was piling on forces in Vietnam without understanding the consequences. In the view of McNamara and his civilian team, we were doing the right thing. This was the fundamental dispute that had caused the Chiefs to request the seldom-used private audience with the Commander in Chief in order to present their military recommendations directly to him. McNamara had finally granted their request….

The chiefs’ appointment with the President was for two o’clock, and Admiral McDonald and I arrived about 20 minutes early. The chiefs were ushered into a fairly large room across the hall from the Oval Office. I propped the map board on the arms of a fancy chair where all could view it, left two of the grease pencils in the tray attached to the bottom of the board, and stepped out into the corridor. One of the chiefs shut the door, and they conferred in private until someone on the White House staff interrupted them about fifteen minutes later. As they came out, I retrieved the map, and then joined them in the corridor outside the President’s office.

Precisely at two o’clock President Johnson emerged from the Oval Office and greeted the chiefs. He was all charm. He was also big: at three or more inches over six feet tall and something on the order of 250 pounds, he was bigger than any of the chiefs. He personally ushered them into his office, all the while delivering gracious and solicitous comments with a Texas accent far more pronounced than the one that came through when he spoke on television. Holding the map board as the chiefs entered, I peered between them, trying to find the easel. There was none. The President looked at me, grasped the situation at once, and invited me in, adding, “You can stand right over here.” I had become an easel-one with eyes and ears….

The essence of General Wheeler’s presentation was that we had come to an early moment of truth in our ever-increasing Vietnam involvement. We had to start using our principal strengths-air and naval power-to punish the North Vietnamese, or we would risk becoming involved in another protracted Asian ground war with no prospects of a satisfactory solution. Speaking for the chiefs, General Wheeler offered a bold course of action that would avoid protracted land warfare. He proposed that we isolate the major port of Haiphong through naval mining, blockade the rest of the North Vietnamese coastline, and simultaneously start bombing Hanoi with B-52’s.

General Wheeler then asked Admiral McDonald to describe how the Navy and Air Force would combine forces to mine the waters off Haiphong and establish a naval blockade. When Admiral McDonald finished, General McConnell added that speed of execution would be essential, and that we would have to make the North Vietnamese believe that we would increase the level of punishment if they did not sue for peace.

Normally, time dims our memories — but it hasn’t dimmed this one. My memory of Lyndon Johnson on that day remains crystal clear. While General Wheeler, Admiral McDonald, and General McConnell spoke, he seemed to be listening closely, communicating only with an occasional nod. When General McConnell finished, General Wheeler asked the President if he had any questions. Johnson waited a moment or so, then turned to Generals Johnson and Greene, who had remained silent during the briefing, and asked, “Do you fully support these ideas?” He followed with the thought that it was they who were providing the ground troops, in effect acknowledging that the Army and the Marines were the services that had most to gain or lose as a result of this discussion. Both generals indicated their agreement with the proposal. Seemingly deep in thought, President Johnson turned his back on them for a minute or so, then suddenly discarding the calm, patient demeanor he had maintained throughout the meeting, whirled to face them and exploded.

I almost dropped the map. He screamed obscenities, he cursed them personally, he ridiculed them for coming to his office with their “military advice.” Noting that it was he who was carrying the weight of the free world on his shoulders, he called them filthy names-shitheads, dumb shits, pompous assholes-and used “the F-word” as an adjective more freely than a Marine in boot camp would use it. He then accused them of trying to pass the buck for World War III to him. It was unnerving, degrading.

After the tantrum, he resumed the calm, relaxed manner he had displayed earlier and again folded his arms. It was as though he had punished them, cowed them, and would now control them. Using soft-spoken profanities, he said something to the effect that they all knew now that he did not care about their military advice. After disparaging their abilities, he added that he did expect their help.

He suggested that each one of them change places with him and assume that five incompetents had just made these “military recommendations.” He told them that he was going to let them go through what he had to go through when idiots gave him stupid advice, adding that he had the whole damn world to worry about, and it was time to “see what kind of guts you have.” He paused, as if to let it sink in. The silence was like a palpable solid, the tension like that in a drumhead. After thirty or forty seconds of this, he turned to General Wheeler and demanded that Wheeler say what he would do if he were the President of the United States.

General Wheeler took a deep breath before answering. He was not an easy man to shake: his calm response set the tone for the others. He had known coming in, as had the others that Lyndon Johnson was an exceptionally strong personality and a venal and vindictive man as well. He had known that the stakes were high, and now realized that McNamara had prepared Johnson carefully for this meeting, which had been a charade.

Looking President Johnson squarely in the eye, General Wheeler told him that he understood the tremendous pressure and sense of responsibility Johnson felt. He added that probably no other President in history had had to make a decision of this importance, and further cushioned his remarks by saying that no matter how much about the presidency he did understand, there were many things about it that only one human being could ever understand. General Wheeler closed his remarks by saying something very close to this: “You, Mr. President, are that one human being. I cannot take your place, think your thoughts, know all you know, and tell you what I would do if I were you. I can’t do it, Mr. President. No man can honestly do it. Respectfully, sir, it is your decision and yours alone.”

Apparently unmoved, Johnson asked each of the other Chiefs the same question. One at a time, they supported General Wheeler and his rationale. By now, my arms felt as though they were about to break. The map seemed to weigh a ton, but the end appeared to be near. General Greene was the last to speak.

When General Greene finished, President Johnson, who was nothing if not a skilled actor, looked sad for a moment, then suddenly erupted again, yelling and cursing, again using language that even a Marine seldom hears. He told them he was disgusted with their naive approach, and that he was not going to let some military idiots talk him into World War III. He ended the conference by shouting “Get the hell out of my office!”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff had done their duty. They knew that the nation was making a strategic military error, and despite the rebuffs of their civilian masters in the Pentagon, they had insisted on presenting the problem as they saw it to the highest authority and recommending solutions. They had done so, and they had been rebuffed. That authority had not only rejected their solutions, but had also insulted and demeaned them. [“The Day It Became the Longest War,” History News Network, January 20, 2007]

Emphasis added, with gusto.

This story, which I first read only a few years ago, underlines LBJ’s character as I had observed it since the 1950s, when he ran the U.S. Senate. America would be in a far better place today had LBJ succumbed to his first heart attack in 1955. With the possible exception of Franklin D. Roosevelt, LBJ did more damage to this country than any president, between his failure of leadership as commander-in-chief and his economically and socially debilitating Great Society.

It’s a pity that General Curtis LeMay (Chief of Staff of the Air Force until the end of 1964) and General Greene overlapped on the JCS for only one year (1964). Greene hadn’t yet worked himself up to stating openly his view of what it would take to win. As a team — if they could have been harnessed — they might have moved the JCS toward confronting McNamara and LBJ sooner. Confronted sooner, McNamara and LBJ might have opted to cut and run before committing the U.S. any more deeply to the bankrupt strategy of “graduated pressure.” By late 1965, however, cutting and running had become an unpalatable option for pseudo-macho LBJ, who would urge American soldiers to “nail that coonskin to the wall” but wouldn’t give them the wherewithal to accomplish the mission. In that respect, LBJ proved himself a typical “liberal,” full of rhetoric and willfully ignorant of reality.


P.S. A relevant recollection:

Sometime in 1965, when I was a young analyst at a defense think-tank, I was working with an officer at Headquarters, Marine Corps, on the issue of troop levels. I plotted a simple relationship between the number of Marines in-country and estimates of the number of Viet Cong killed in action. You would have thought that I had invented sliced bread. The Marine officer arranged for me to present my analysis to General Greene, who arranged for me to present it to Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze, in an effort to buttress the case for a larger infusion or Marine combat units. I don’t know the effect of my analysis, if any. And, frankly, I was embarrassed to be presenting such a simple-minded analysis to the Secretary of the Navy.


ADDENDUM 04/13/17

No discussion of LBJ’s failure of leadership should pass without mentioning the accusation leveled by General “Pete” Piotrowski USAF (Ret.) in Basic Airman to General: The Secret War & Other Conflicts: Lessons in Leadership & Life. The following passage (from pp. 246-247) is quoted by Don Jewell in “Flying without GPS One Dark, Stormy Night” (GPS World, March 11, 2015):

Nearly twenty years later, [ed. after the Vietnam War ended] I saw former Secretary of State Dean Rusk being interviewed by Peter Arnett on a CBS [ed. CBC] documentary called “The Ten Thousand Day War.” Mr. Arnett asked, “It has been rumored that the United States provided the North Vietnamese government the names of the targets that would be bombed the following day. Is there any truth to that allegation?”

To my astonishment and absolute disgust, the former Secretary responded, “Yes. We didn’t want to harm the North Vietnamese people, so we passed the targets to the Swiss embassy in Washington with instructions to pass them to the NVN government through their embassy in Hanoi.” As I watched in horror, Secretary Rusk went on to say, “All we wanted to do is demonstrate to the North Vietnamese leadership that we could strike targets at will, but we didn’t want to kill innocent people. By giving the North Vietnamese advanced warning of the targets to be attacked, we thought they would tell the workers to stay home.”

No wonder all the targets were so heavily defended day after day! The NVN obviously moved as many guns as they could overnight to better defend each target they knew was going to be attacked.  Clearly, many brave American Air Force and Navy fliers died or spent years in NVN prison camps as a direct result of being intentionally betrayed by Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara, and perhaps, President Johnson himself. I cannot think of a more duplicitous and treacherous act of American government officials.  Dean Rusk served as Secretary of State from January 21, 1961, through to January 20, 1969, under President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.  Perhaps Senator John McCain, POW for five years and presidential candidate in 2008, was one of the many victims of this utter stupidity and flawed policy flowing from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mr. Peter Arnett opined that this would be a treasonous act by anyone else.”

Senator J. William Fulbright alludes to the warnings in episode 6 of a 13-part CBC documentary, Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War. The segment starts around 1:10. Later, around 4:45, there’s a general discussion about targeting. Rusk is on-camera briefly, talking about the routing of attack aircraft. It has been alleged that his original admission about revealing targeting information to the North Vietnamese was excised. It’s a credible allegation, inasmuch as Rusk’s comment doesn’t make sense.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XX)

An occasional survey of web material that’s related to subjects about which I’ve posted. Links to the other posts in this series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

In “The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox,” I quote from Frédéric Bastiat’s “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen“:

[A] law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

This might also be called the law of unintended consequences. It explains why so much “liberal” legislation is passed: the benefits are focused a particular group and obvious (if overestimated); the costs are borne by taxpayers in general, many of whom fail to see that the sum of “liberal” legislation is a huge tax bill.

Ross Douthat understands:

[A] new paper, just released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, that tries to look at the Affordable Care Act in full. Its authors find, as you would expect, a substantial increase in insurance coverage across the country. What they don’t find is a clear relationship between that expansion and, again, public health. The paper shows no change in unhealthy behaviors (in terms of obesity, drinking and smoking) under
Obamacare, and no statistically significant improvement in self-reported health since the law went into effect….

[T]he health and mortality data [are] still important information for policy makers, because [they] indicate[] that subsidies for health insurance are not a uniquely death-defying and therefore sacrosanct form of social spending. Instead, they’re more like other forms of redistribution, with costs and benefits that have to be weighed against one another, and against other ways to design a safety net. Subsidies for employer-provided coverage crowd out wages, Medicaid coverage creates benefit cliffs and work disincentives…. [“Is Obamacare a Lifesaver?The New York Times, March 29, 2017]

So does Roy Spencer:

In a theoretical sense, we can always work to make the environment “cleaner”, that is, reduce human pollution. So, any attempts to reduce the EPA’s efforts will be viewed by some as just cozying up to big, polluting corporate interests. As I heard one EPA official state at a conference years ago, “We can’t stop making the environment ever cleaner”.

The question no one is asking, though, is “But at what cost?

It was relatively inexpensive to design and install scrubbers on smokestacks at coal-fired power plants to greatly reduce sulfur emissions. The cost was easily absorbed, and electricty rates were not increased that much.

The same is not true of carbon dioxide emissions. Efforts to remove CO2 from combustion byproducts have been extremely difficult, expensive, and with little hope of large-scale success.

There is a saying: don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

In the case of reducing CO2 emissions to fight global warming, I could discuss the science which says it’s not the huge problem it’s portrayed to be — how warming is only progressing at half the rate forecast by those computerized climate models which are guiding our energy policy; how there have been no obvious long-term changes in severe weather; and how nature actually enjoys the extra CO2, with satellites now showing a “global greening” phenomenon with its contribution to increases in agricultural yields.

But it’s the economics which should kill the Clean Power Plan and the alleged Social “Cost” of Carbon. Not the science.

There is no reasonable pathway by which we can meet more than about 20% of global energy demand with renewable energy…the rest must come mostly from fossil fuels. Yes, renewable energy sources are increasing each year, usually because rate payers or taxpayers are forced to subsidize them by the government or by public service commissions. But global energy demand is rising much faster than renewable energy sources can supply. So, for decades to come, we are stuck with fossil fuels as our main energy source.

The fact is, the more we impose high-priced energy on the masses, the more it will hurt the poor. And poverty is arguably the biggest threat to human health and welfare on the planet. [“Trump’s Rollback of EPA Overreach: What No One Is Talking About,” Roy Spencer, Ph.D.[blog], March 29, 2017]

*     *     *

I mentioned the Benedict Option in “Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead,” quoting Bruce Frohnen in tacit agreement:

[Rod] Dreher has been writing a good deal, of late, about what he calls the Benedict Option, by which he means a tactical withdrawal by people of faith from the mainstream culture into religious communities where they will seek to nurture and strengthen the faithful for reemergence and reengagement at a later date….

The problem with this view is that it underestimates the hostility of the new, non-Christian society [e.g., this and this]….

Leaders of this [new, non-Christian] society will not leave Christians alone if we simply surrender the public square to them. And they will deny they are persecuting anyone for simply applying the law to revoke tax exemptions, force the hiring of nonbelievers, and even jail those who fail to abide by laws they consider eminently reasonable, fair, and just.

Exactly. John Horvat II makes the same point:

For [Dreher], the only response that still remains is to form intentional communities amid the neo-barbarians to “provide an unintentional political witness to secular culture,” which will overwhelm the barbarian by the “sheer humanity of Christian compassion, and the image of human dignity it honors.” He believes that setting up parallel structures inside society will serve to protect and preserve Christian communities under the new neo-barbarian dispensation. We are told we should work with the political establishment to “secure and expand the space within which we can be ourselves and our own institutions” inside an umbrella of religious liberty.

However, barbarians don’t like parallel structures; they don’t like structures at all. They don’t co-exist well with anyone. They don’t keep their agreements or respect religious liberty. They are not impressed by the holy lives of the monks whose monastery they are plundering. You can trust barbarians to always be barbarians. [“Is the Benedict Option the Answer to Neo-Barbarianism?Crisis Magazine, March 29, 2017]

As I say in “The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote,”

Modern liberalism attracts persons who wish to exert control over others. The stated reasons for exerting control amount to “because I know better” or “because it’s good for you (the person being controlled)” or “because ‘social justice’ demands it.”

Leftists will not countenance a political arrangement that allows anyone to escape the state’s grasp — unless, of course, the state is controlled by the “wrong” party, In which case, leftists (or many of them) would like to exercise their own version of the Benedict Option. See “Polarization and De Facto Partition.”

*     *     *

Theodore Dalrymple understands the difference between terrorism and accidents:

Statistically speaking, I am much more at risk of being killed when I get into my car than when I walk in the streets of the capital cities that I visit. Yet this fact, no matter how often I repeat it, does not reassure me much; the truth is that one terrorist attack affects a society more deeply than a thousand road accidents….

Statistics tell me that I am still safe from it, as are all my fellow citizens, individually considered. But it is precisely the object of terrorism to create fear, dismay, and reaction out of all proportion to its volume and frequency, to change everyone’s way of thinking and behavior. Little by little, it is succeeding. [“How Serious Is the Terrorist Threat?City Journal, March 26, 2017]

Which reminds me of several things I’ve written, beginning with this entry from “Not-So-Random Thoughts (VI)“:

Cato’s loony libertarians (on matters of defense) once again trot out Herr Doktor Professor John Mueller. He writes:

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists. (“Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security,” Cato@Liberty, July 24, 2012)

Mueller’s “calculation” consists of an recitation of known terrorist attacks pre-Benghazi and speculation about the status of Al-Qaeda. Note to Mueller: It is the unknown unknowns that kill you. I refer Herr Doktor Professor to “Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown” and “Mission Not Accomplished.”

See also my posts “Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism” and “A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism.”

*     *     *

This is from my post, “A Reflection on the Greatest Generation“:

The Greatest tried to compensate for their own privations by giving their children what they, the parents, had never had in the way of material possessions and “fun”. And that is where the Greatest Generation failed its children — especially the Baby Boomers — in large degree. A large proportion of Boomers grew up believing that they should have whatever they want, when they want it, with no strings attached. Thus many of them divorced, drank, and used drugs almost wantonly….

The Greatest Generation — having grown up believing that FDR was a secular messiah, and having learned comradeship in World War II — also bequeathed us governmental self-indulgence in the form of the welfare-regulatory state. Meddling in others’ affairs seems to be a predilection of the Greatest Generation, a predilection that the Millenials may be shrugging off.

We owe the Greatest Generation a great debt for its service during World War II. We also owe the Greatest Generation a reprimand for the way it raised its children and kowtowed to government. Respect forbids me from delivering the reprimand, but I record it here, for the benefit of anyone who has unduly romanticized the Greatest Generation.

There’s more in “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“:

This is from Tim [of Angle’s] “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“:

The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.

As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it….

I have long shared Tim’s assessment of the Boomer generation. Among the corroborating data are my sister and my wife’s sister and brother — Boomers all….

Low conscientiousness was the bane of those Boomers who, in the 1960s and 1970s, chose to “drop out” and “do drugs.”…

Now comes this:

According to writer and venture capitalist Bruce Gibney, baby boomers are a “generation of sociopaths.”

In his new book, he argues that their “reckless self-indulgence” is in fact what set the example for millennials.

Gibney describes boomers as “acting without empathy, prudence, or respect for facts – acting, in other words, as sociopaths.”

And he’s not the first person to suggest this.

Back in 1976, journalist Tom Wolfe dubbed the young adults then coming of age the “Me Generation” in the New York Times, which is a term now widely used to describe millennials.

But the baby boomers grew up in a very different climate to today’s young adults.

When the generation born after World War Two were starting to make their way in the world, it was a time of economic prosperity.

“For the first half of the boomers particularly, they came of age in a time of fairly effortless prosperity, and they were conditioned to think that everything gets better each year without any real effort,” Gibney explained to The Huffington Post.

“So they really just assume that things are going to work out, no matter what. That’s unhelpful conditioning.

“You have 25 years where everything just seems to be getting better, so you tend not to try as hard, and you have much greater expectations about what society can do for you, and what it owes you.”…

Gibney puts forward the argument that boomers – specifically white, middle-class ones – tend to have genuine sociopathic traits.

He backs up his argument with mental health data which appears to show that this generation have more anti-social characteristics than others – lack of empathy, disregard for others, egotism and impulsivity, for example. [Rachel Hosie, “Baby Boomers Are a Generation of Sociopaths,” Independent, March 23, 2017]

That’s what I said.

Presidents and War

This post is prompted by a recent exchange with former think-tank colleagues about H.R. McMaster‘s Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’ve just started it, having until now steadfastly eschewed rehashes of the Vietnam War since its ignominious end. My assessment of LBJ’s handling of the Vietnam War is based entirely on my knowledge of the war as it unfolded and unraveled, and subsequent reflections on that knowledge. I’ll review McMaster’s book in a later post.

The president’s role as commander-in-chief is a two-edged sword. It was wielded ably by Lincoln and FDR (until the end-game in Europe), and badly by Truman, LBJ, Bush I, Bush II, and Obama.

Starting with Bush II, I believe that he made the right strategic decision, which was to bring the Middle East under control instead of leaving it hostage to the whims of Saddam. (Some will say that Saddam was contained, but — in my view — he was a threat to the Middle East if not to the U.S. as long as he was in power.) That may not have been what Bush intended, but that’s what he could have achieved, and would have achieved if he had committed the forces necessary to bring Iraq firmly under control. Instead, he followed Rumsfeld’s do-it-on-the-cheap advice for too long. Anyway, Bush got bogged down, much as LBJ had done with his “signalling” and gradualism in Vietnam. The 2007 surge might have turned things around, but Bush had run out of political capital and couldn’t commit the forces needed to stabilize Iraq for the long haul (and neutralize Iran), even if he had wanted to.

Obama then followed his anti-colonial impulses and converted potential stability into the mess that we see today.

Bush I set it all up when he declined the golden opportunity to depose Saddam in 1991.

Truman’s handling of the Korean War could be defended as making the best of a bad situation. But Truman’s decision to accept a stalemate instead of taking on the Chinese, as MacArthur urged, was a strategic miscalculation of the first order. It signaled to Russia and China the unwillingness of U.S. leaders to push back against Communist expansion. LBJ reinforced that signal in Vietnam. It took Reagan, who pursued a defense buildup in the face of chicken-little screams from the defeatist left, to push the USSR to its breaking point.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, you can pay now or pay later, but pay you will. I fear that the long-run price of the defense build-down under Obama will be high.

Civil War?

I follow American Thinker because the articles and posts there are usually provocative. A lot of it is wild-eyed speculation by right-wingers. But even the most wild-eyed stuff sometimes has a tangential relationship to a plausible idea.

This is from Robert Arvay’s “Will the Left Actually Incite a Civil War?” (November 21, 2016):

It is … not entirely impossible for me to peer into the minds of the anti-Trump protesters, since their dread has actually materialized – as a Clinton defeat at the polls.  So far, their angst has been manifested mostly in tears, whining, and cowering – but there is a violent element among them.  Their fears are enormous, some imaginary, some real, but in either case, those fears will motivate them.  The imaginary fears include the predicted assembly of illegal immigrants into concentration camps.  The real fears include loss of political power and all its perquisites, including the dictatorial ability to force bakers to serve cakes at same-sex ceremonies, an ability that portends much worse to come.

Be assured that every failure of liberal policies (such as the implosion of the Obama health care system) will now be blamed on Republicans, and particularly on the man they despise most, Donald Trump.  The Democrat ministry of propaganda (formerly the mainstream news media) will headline every unfortunate instance of a child suffering from disease, and loudly proclaim that the child would be in perfect health had not Trump cruelly withheld the funds to save that child.  Such diatribes cannot help but incite violent emotions.

Calls for assassination will be made, as in fact they already have been, including by educators.  God help us should something tragic result.

From my side of the front lines, I still view the republic as at risk.  From their side, many may now feel they have nothing to lose.  Had Clinton won, I would very likely feel the same.

I don’t know how any of the things that Arvay mentions would incite a civil war. It’s true (I hope) that Trump will clamp down on political correctness, and that a Supreme Court with the addition of a Trump nominee would reverse the anti-free speech laws that have sprung up in some States. But would violence ensue? I doubt it.

Yes, the MSM will continue to be the Democrat ministry of propaganda — nothing new there — and will double down on its portrayal of Republicans as heartless and cruel — nothing new there, either.

If Trump were assassinated by a leftist, or a cabal of leftists, would that lead to civil war? It might lead to anti-leftist violence by the kind of people who are drawn to Richard B. Spencer. But a violent response, if any, would most likely come from black militants, who are leftists only in the sense that they are loyal to the Democrat Party and its patronizing policies toward blacks. The resulting conflict would shed a lot of blood, but it could be mopped up quickly by police forces and National Guard units empowered to do so by the governors of States where violence erupts. And under a President Pence, they probably would feel empowered to do so, not constrained by the specter of a civil-rights investigations by the Department of Justice. I would expect Pence to do everything in his power (and perhaps more) to support local and State authorities in their efforts to quell violence. He would have nothing to gain and much to lose if it weren’t quelled. Failure to do so would undermine his authority as the newly fledged president.

What’s much more likely than a civil war is a growing secessionist movement on the left. As I argue in “Polarization and De-Facto Partition,” such a movement could be exploited to advance the cause of liberty:

Given the increasing polarization of the country — political and geographic — something like a negotiated partition seems like the only way to make the left and the right happier.

And then it occurred to me that a kind of partition could be achieved by constitutional means; that is, by revising the Constitution to return to its original plan of true federalism. The central government would, once again, be responsible for the defense of liberty and free trade. Each State would, within the framework of liberty, make its own decisions about the extent to which it intervenes in the economic and social affairs of its citizens.

How might that come to pass?

There are today in this land millions — probably tens of millions — of depressed leftists who foresee at least four years of GOP rule dedicated to the diminution of the regulatory-welfare state….

The shoe is now on the other foot. A lot of leftists will want out (see this for example), just as Northern abolitionists wanted separation from the South in the 1830s and 1840s. Let’s give them a way out while the giving is good, that is, while the GOP controls the federal government. The way out for the left is also the way out for conservatives.

Congress, namely, its Republican majorities, can all an Article V convention of the States….

The convention would be controlled by Republicans, who control a majority of State legislatures. The Republican majority should make it clear from the outset that the sole purpose of the convention is to devolve power to the States. For example, if a State government wants to establish its own version of Social Security to supplement what remains of it after future benefits have been scaled back to match projected future revenues, that State government wouldn’t be prevented from doing so. And it could design that program — and any others — as it wishes, free from interference on by the central government.

For more (much more) read the whole thing, and then read my version of a revised Constitution: “A Constitution for the 21st Century.”

 

Today’s Lesson in Economics: How to Think about War

David Henderson writes at EconLog about “Noah Smith on the Islamic Civil War“:

Noah Smith has a beautifully numerate discussion of wars being fought by radical Muslims. He does it in the context of analyzing Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and that analysis is not bad.

But what really struck me was his response to this claim of Bannon:

[I]t’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it…
. . .I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam…If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places… It bequeathed to use [sic] the great institution that is the church of the West.

Smith then reports on the numbers on deaths from some Islamic groups fighting others. H writes:

Let’s look at the main wars currently being fought by radical Islamic forces. These are:Syrian Civil War (~470,000 dead)
2nd Iraqi Civil War (~56,000 dead)
Boko Haram Insurgency (~28,000 dead)
War in Afghanistan (126,000 dead)
Somali Civil War (~500,000 dead)
War in Northwest Pakistan (~60,000 dead)
Libyan Civil War (~14,000 dead)
Yemeni Civil War (~11,000 dead)
Sinai Insurgency (~4,500 dead)

Smith adds:

This is a lot of dead people – maybe about 2 million in all, counting all the smaller conflicts I didn’t list. But almost all of these dead people are Muslims – either radical Islamists, or their moderate Muslim opponents. Compare these death tolls to the radical Islamist terror attacks in the West. 9/11 killed about 3,000. The ISIS attack in Paris killed 130. The death tolls in the West from radical Islam have been three orders of magnitude smaller than the deaths in the Muslim world.Three orders of magnitude is an almost inconceivable difference in size. What it means is that only a tiny, tiny part of the wars of radical Islam is bleeding over into the West. What we’re seeing is not a clash of civilizations, it’s a global Islamic civil war. The enemy isn’t at the gates of Vienna – it’s at the gates of Mosul, Raqqa, and Kabul.

And radical Islam is losing the global Islamic civil war. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is losing. In all of these wars except for possibly Afghanistan, radical Islamic forces have been defeated by moderate Islamic forces.

Sometimes that’s because of Western aid to the moderates. But much of it is just because a medievalist regime holds very, very little appeal for the average Muslim in any country. Practically no one wants to live under the sadist, totalitarian control of groups like ISIS. These groups are fierce, but their manpower is small and their popular support is not very large anywhere.

How tragic it would be if Steve Bannon’s innumeracy helped cause the U.S. government to embroil itself in the Middle East even more than Bush and Obama did.

Henderson’s counsel to avoid “embroilment” overlooks Iran.

There sometimes comes a point at which it makes sense to become embroiled in a distant war. Take World War II, for example. FDR’s economic policies were disastrous for the U.S. — of that there’s never been any doubt in my mind. But I give FDR credit for his ability to see that if Germany and Japan gained dominance over Europe and the Pacific, the U.S. would eventually be squeezed into submission, economically and militarily. My point is that not all “embroilments” are necessarily bad.

Which brings me to the Middle East. If the U.S. allows Iran to develop nuclear weapons — which seems to be certain given Obama’s supine attitude toward Iran — disaster will follow. Iran will be able to control the region through nuclear blackmail, and given its reserves of oil and the willingness of its leaders to accept economic isolation, it (meaning its leaders) will be able to disrupt life in the West because of its ability to shut off the supply of oil to the West.

To paraphrase Andy Granatelli, the U.S. can stop Iran now, before it has done what Obama is allowing it to do, or the U.S. can stop it later, after it has done great economic damage, which the U.S. won’t escape inasmuch as the market for oil is unitary. Nor will the U.S. escape human damage if the U.S. doesn’t act until after Iran becomes capable of attacking the U.S.

It doesn’t matter who did what to cause Iran’s leaders to view the U.S. as “the great Satan.” (Sunk costs are sunk.) There’s no longer an option to butt out of Iran’s affairs. Given the fanatical enmity of Iran’s leaders toward the U.S. (which isn’t dispelled by superficial cordiality), it’s beyond belief that Iran isn’t steadily striving to acquire the ability to strike the U.S. with weapons of mass destruction — nuclear missiles, perhaps delivered from off-shore vessels instead of by ICBMs; “suitcase” bombs; coordinated strikes on the power grid, oil-production facilities, and water supplies; and much more that the U.S. intelligence apparatus should but may not anticipate, and which the U.S. government’s leaders may in any event fail to prepare for.

I may be wrong about all of this, but it’s the kind of thinking that should be done — even by economists — instead of latching onto Noah Smith’s superficial numeracy.

Consistent Conservatism

[A] person’s political philosophy — if he may be said to have one — is likely to consist of a set of attitudes, many of them logically irreconcilable. This, I believe, is due mainly to the influence of temperament on one’s political views. It is a rare human being who does not interpret the world through the lens of his preferences, and those preferences seem to be more a matter of temperament than of knowledge and reason. Even highly intelligent persons are capable of believing in the most outlandish things because they want to believe those things.

Parsing Political Philosophy (II),” Politics & Prosperity

*       *      *

I offer myself as an example of the operation of temperament on political preferences. I am, by nature, a conservative person. For example, I’m cautious about change. It’s my view that if a thing works reasonably well, tinkering with it will probably cause it to stop working well, or at all. For that reason, I dislike meddling in the affairs of others. I don’t know what they know about their own circumstances, so I presume that they’re acting in their own best interests. And if they mess up their lives, it’s up to them to make things right if they can. And if they can’t, it’s not my responsibility to clean up the mess that they’ve made. But, in typically conservative fashion, I will try to help them if I’m attached to them by blood or another strong bond.

By extension, I intensely dislike government meddling because it can mess up so many lives, even (and especially) lives that would otherwise be well lived. It follows that government has only one legitimate function, which is to protect Americans from force and fraud. That implies a vigorous defense of Americans and their overseas interests against enemies, foreign and domestic. The purpose of a vigorous defense is to enable Americans to lead their lives (lawfully) as they deem best; it is not to make America safe for governmental meddling in social and economic affairs.

Government, in short, should be conservative in the way that I am conservative. Some would call me a libertarian, but it is my long-held position that conservatism is true libertarianism.

My consistent conservatism is reflected in my attitude toward WikiLeaks. I was gladdened by this recent news:

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange promised he’s not done leaking information that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton. During an interview this week with Fox’s Megyn Kelly he said the documents would be “significant” in perhaps turning the tide of the 2016 election by giving voters a better understanding who they’re electing.

Not that I’m a Donald Trump fan; I’m not, as you will know if you’re a regular reader of this blog. But I welcome almost any development that might keep that lying, hypocritical statist Hillary Clinton out of the White House.

Am I a hypocrite, too? My visceral (conservative) reaction to activists, protestors, and rabble-rousers is “go away and mind your own business.” That was my reaction to WikiLeaks when I first heard of it — and Julian Assange — six years ago, in connection with the release of documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When it comes to war-making in defense of Americans and their overseas interests, my conservative (i.e., cautious) view is that it’s better to kill enemies sooner rather than later. Delay gives enemies a chance to build their strength, and to use it in unexpected ways.

I know that the politicians and generals who wage war aren’t always or often brilliant about how they do it. But perfection is hard to come by, so I’m willing to tolerate mistakes as long as they err on the side of “too much” defense. (LBJ’s Vietnam vacillations were maddening to me; he should have gone all out or bugged out, but he did neither.) I was therefore angered by the revelations six years ago because it seemed to me that they put America’s war-fighters in jeopardy, or at least compromised America’s ability to wage war.

So, no, I don’t think I’m hypocritical in the least. Anything (non-violent) that helps to take down a domestic enemy like Hillary Clinton is acceptable. Anything (violent or non-violent) that damages America’s defenses against foreign enemies is unacceptable, and often treasonous.

Conservative in temperament, conservative in politics, consistently conservative. That’s my motto.

Khizr Khan’s Muddled Logic

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I’m not a fan of Donald Trump. The only thing worse than a Trump victory in November would be a Clinton victory. But the brouhaha over Trump’s response to Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC last week overlooks the vital truth that Khan’s speech was a load of propagandistic hogwash.

For the benefit of those of you who’ve been vacationing on Mars, Khizr Khan’s son was a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004. The point of bringing Khan before the DNC was to point up Trump’s supposed anti-Muslim views. Whether or not Trump is anti-Muslim is beyond my ken, but he is anti-terorist — which is something I find hard to discern in the rhetoric of Democrats, who can’t bring themselves to associate Islam and terrorism.

It is anti-terrorism that animated Trump’s suggestion that there should be no further immigration by Muslims. Such a ban would do no more to prevent terrorist acts, given the numbers of terror-prone Muslims (and others) already in the United States, than a no-gun zone will do to prevent mass shootings by a psychopath. Nevertheless, I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind Trump’s proposal, even though it was a fatuous one that could only draw accusations of xenophobia.

And so it did, both in Hillary Clinton’s recorded introduction to Khan’s brief speech and in Khan’s brief speech itself. Without further ado, here’s the full text:

First, our thoughts and prayers are with our veterans and those who serve today. Tonight, we are honored to stand here as the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, and as patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.

Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy — that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.

We were blessed to raise our three sons in a nation where they were free to be themselves and follow their dreams. Our son, Humayun, had dreams of being a military lawyer. But he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers.

Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son “the best of America.” If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities — women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country.

Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the U.S. Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. In this document, look for the words “liberty” and “equal protection of law.”

Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.

You have sacrificed nothing and no one.

We can’t solve our problems by building walls and sowing division. We are stronger together. And we will keep getting stronger when Hillary Clinton becomes our next president.

Khan wraps himself in the flag that draped his son’s coffin. But the tragic death of his son is irrelevant to the issue at hand. It gives Khan no authority to speak about efforts to combat terrorism.

By the same token, also irrelevant are Khan’s various “arguments”:

He is — he says — a loyal and patriotic Muslim-American. So what? There are evidently a lot of Muslims — American and non-American — who are neither loyal nor patriotic, and who would (and have) killed Americans in the name of their religion.

He claims to be an immigrant who came to this country empty-handed, and who shares in and contributes to its “blessings.” So what? A lot of people come to this country, and some of them share in and contribute to its “blessings” but then turn around and kill or try to kill Americans.

His son gave his life in the service of his country. And for that, his son should be honored, and has been honored. But what does that have to do with terrorism?

Ah, here it is. If Trump had his way, Khan’s son (and Khan) wouldn’t have come to America. By the same token, neither would have the perpetrators of the World Trade Center bombing (1993), the Brooklyn Bridge shooting (1994), the killings at the Empire State Building (1997), the New York terror attack (2000), the fire-bombing of a synagogue in Ithaca (2000), the massive attacks of September 11, 2001, the Los Angeles Airport shooting (2002), the Jewish Federation shooting in Seattle (2006), the Arkansas recruiting office shooting (2009), the Fort Hood shooting (2009), the Boston Marathon bombing (2013), the Chattanooga shootings (2015), the San Bernardino attack (2015), or the Orlando nightclub shooting (2016). It’s true that there have been many other acts of violence during the same span of time, but some acts of violence would nevertheless have been prevented had Muslims not been allowed to enter the United States.

Now comes the Constitution, which is like the flag and the Declaration of Independence in its emotional appeal. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t guarantee anyone the right to immigrate. Immigration policy is a matter for Congress to decide. “Equal protection of the law[s]” applies to “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States,” not to persons who wish to enter the United States and perhaps become citizens. “Liberty” is nowhere defined in the Constitution; it’s mentioned in the Preamble (which isn’t part of the Constitution), and twice elsewhere, in connection with due process of law. “Liberty” doesn’t encompass the right of an alien to enter the United States.

And it’s back to the dead who gave their lives for the United States and now lie in Arlington Cemetery (and other national cemeteries). Yes, there are all (or many) faiths, genders, and ethnicities among those dead. But their dying has nothing to do with whether Muslims should be allowed to enter the United States. In fact, there would be many fewer dead had Muslims not been allowed to enter, had terrorist attacks not ensued from their entry, and had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not followed from the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Whether or not Trump has sacrificed anything is beside the point. Neither has Hillary Clinton, by Khan’s standard. Yet, he ends by endorsing her because Americans will “grow stronger together” when she becomes president. Whatever that means.

And Khan to the contrary notwithstanding, Donald Trump is a piker when it comes to “building walls and sowing division.” Barack Obama has been doing it, metaphorically and actually, by rabble-rousing about “the rich”; destroying America’s health-care system; rewarding indolence with extended welfare payments, food stamps, and health insurance for slackers; stirring racial tension and fostering cop-killings by defending black thugs as “victims” and leveling blanket accusations of racism against cops; jerking the armed forces around with his on-again-off-again policies in Iraq and Afghanistan; caviling before Putin; failing to confront Chinese assertiveness; conspiring in the emasculation of the armed forces despite the obvious ambitions of Russia and China; signing (and ignoring) a treaty that will allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons; slighting Israel, America’s only true ally in the Middle East; slighting other true allies in Eastern Europe; pushing same-sex “marriage” and gender neutrality as if thousand of years of tradition and biological facts mean nothing; and leveling the power of the central government against religious liberty.

As I said, Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration policy is fatuous. And Trump, as usual, responded to Khan with bluster and name-calling when he should have responded with facts and logic.

But that doesn’t excuse Khan’s own fatuousness or Clinton’s exploitation of his son’s death.

It’s time for principled conservatives — whose number doesn’t seem to include Senator McCain, Governor Pence, and other mealy-mouthed Republicans — to go on the attack and quit retreating in the face of the enemy. That enemy is Hillary Clinton (and other so-called progressives), whose cynical use of Khan is in keeping with her cynical political career — the foundation of which is her partnership with a sexual predator.

*     *     *

Related reading:

Clarice Feldman, “Who Is Khizr Khan, the Father of a Fallen U.S. Soldier?American Thinker, August 1, 2016

Geoffrey P. Hunt, “Hillary’s Cynical Manipulation of Captain Khan’s Sacrifice,” American Thinker, August 2, 2016

J. Marsolo, “Khizr Khan Has No Shame,” American Thinker, August 2, 2016

William Murchison, “The Khan Con and Other Modern Discontents,” The American Spectator, August 2, 2016

 

Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead

Prudence…will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations…reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.… [A]nd such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history…is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Declaration of Independence
(In Congress. July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration
of the thirteen united States of America)

*      *      *

It is fitting, in this summer of discontent, to be faced with a choice between the spiritual descendants of P.T. Barnum and Lady Macbeth. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison are spinning in their graves, at high velocity.

The candidacies of Trump and Clinton are symptoms of the looming demise of liberty in the United States. There hasn’t been a candidate since Ronald Reagan who actually understood and believed that Americans would be freer and therefore more prosperous if the central government were contained within the four corners of the Constitution. (And even Reagan had a soft spot in his heart for Social Security.) Nevertheless, it is appalling but unsurprising that liberty’s end is in sight just 27 years after Reagan left office.

What went wrong? And how did it go wrong so quickly? Think back to 1928, when Americans were more prosperous than ever and the GOP had swept to its third consecutive lopsided victory in a presidential race. All it took to snatch disaster from the jaws of delirium was a stock-market crash in 1929 (fueled by the Fed) that turned into a recession that turned into a depression (also because of the Fed). The depression became the Great Depression, and it lasted until the eve of World War II, because of the activist policies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, which suppressed recovery instead of encouraging it. There was even a recession (1937-38) within the depression, and the national unemployment rate was still 15 percent in 1940. It took the biggest war effort in the history of the United States to bring the unemployment rate back to its pre-depression level.

From that relatively brief but deeply dismal era sprang a new religion: faith in the central government to bring peace and prosperity to the land. Most Americans of the era — like most human beings of every era — did not and could not see that government is the problem, not the solution. Victory in World War II, which required central planning and a commandeered economy, helped to expunge the bitter taste of the Great Depression. And coming as it did on the heels of the Great Depression, reinforced the desperate belief — shared by too many Americans — that salvation is to be found in big government.

The beneficial workings of the invisible hand of competitive cooperation are just too subtle for most people to grasp. The promise of a quick fix by confident-sounding politicians is too alluring. FDR became a savior-figure because he talked a good game and was an inspiring war leader, though he succumbed to pro-Soviet advice.

With war’s end, the one-worlders and social engineers swooped on a people still jittery about the Great Depression and fearful of foreign totalitarianism. (The native-born variety was widely accepted because of FDR’s mythic status.) Schools and universities became training grounds for the acolytes of socialism and amoral internationalism.

Warren Henry is right when he says that

progressivism is…broadly accepted by the American public, inculcated through generations of progressive dominance of education and the media (whether that media is journalism or entertainment). Certainly Democrats embrace it. Now the political success of Donald J. Trump has opened the eyes of the Right to the fact that Republicans largely accept it….

Republicans have occasionally succeeded in slowing the rate at which America has become more progressive. President Reagan was able to cut income tax rates and increase defense spending, but accepted tax increases to kick the can on entitlements and could not convince a Democratic Congress to reduce spending generally. Subsequent administrations generally have been worse. A Republican Congress pressured Bill Clinton into keeping his promise on welfare reform after two vetoes. He did so during a period when the end of the Cold War and the revenues from the tech bubble allowed Washington to balance budgets on the Pentagon’s back. Unsurprisingly, welfare reform has eroded in the ensuing decades.

Accordingly, the big picture remains largely unchanged. Entitlements are not reformed, let alone privatized. To the contrary, Medicare was expanded during a GOP administration, if less so than it would have been under a Democratic regime…. Programs are almost never eliminated, let alone departments.

The Right also loses most cultural battles, excepting abortion and gun rights. Notably, the inroads on abortion may be due as much to the invention and deployment of the sonogram as the steadfastness of the pro-life movement. Otherwise, political and cultural progressivism has been successful in their march through the institutions, including education, religion, and the family.

Curricula increasingly conform to the progressive fashions of the moment, producing generations of precious snowflakes unequipped even to engage in the critical thinking public schools claim to prioritize over an understanding of the ages of wisdom that made us a free and prosperous people. Church membership and attendance continues their long-term decline. A country that seriously debated school prayer 30 years ago now debates whether Christians must be forced to serve same-sex weddings.

Marriage rates continue their long-term decline. Divorce rates have declined from the highs reached during the generation following the sexual revolution, but has generally increased over the course of the century during which progressivism has taken hold (despite the declining marriage rate). Those advocating reform of the nation’s various no-fault divorce laws are few and generally considered fringe.

There’s more, but disregard Henry’s reification of America when he should write “most Americans”:

Meanwhile, America has voted for decade after decade of tax-and-spend, borrow-and-spend, or some hybrid of the two. If the white working class is now discontented with the government’s failure to redress their grievances, this is in no small part due to the ingrained American expectation that government will do so, based on the observation that government typically hungers to increase government dependency (not that the white working class would use these terms).…

In sum, while it is correct to note that elites are not doing their jobs well, it is more difficult to conclude that elites have not been responding to the political demands of the American public as much as they have driven them.…

The presidential nominees our two major parties have chosen are largely viewed as awful. But Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump offer two slightly different versions of the same delusion: that progressivism works, if only the elites were not so stupid. This delusion is what most Americans currently want to believe.

Sad but disastrously true. Dependency on government has become deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans. As Timothy Taylor points out,

[g]overnment in the United States, especially at the federal level, has become more about transfer payments and less about provision of goods and services.…

[There has been an] overall upward rise [of transfer payments] in the last half-century from 5% of GDP back in the 1960s to about 15% of GDP in the last few years….

The political economy of such a shift is simple enough: programs that send money to lots of people tend to be popular. But I would hypothesize that this ongoing shift not only reflects voter preferences, but also affect how Americans tend to perceive the main purposes of the federal government. Many Americans have become more inclined to think of federal budget policy not in terms of goods or services or investments that it might perform, but in terms of programs that send out checks.

What lies ahead? Not everyone is addicted to government. There are millions of Americans who want less of it — a lot less — rather than more of it. Here, with some revisions and an addition, are options I spelled out three years ago:

1. Business as usual — This will lead to more and more government control of our lives and livelihoods, that is, to less and less freedom and prosperity (except for our technocratic masters, of course).

2. Rear-guard action — This option is exemplified by the refusal of some States to expand Medicaid and to establish insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. This bit of foot-dragging doesn’t cure the underlying problem, which is accretion of illegitimate power by the central government. Further, it can be undone by fickle voters and fickle legislatures, as they succumb to the siren-call of “free” federal funds.

3. Geographic sorting — The tendency of “Blue” States to become “bluer” and “Red” States to become “redder” suggests that Americans are sorting themselves along ideological lines. As with rear-guard action, however, this tendency — natural and laudable as it is — doesn’t cure the underlying problem: the accretion of illegitimate power by the central government. Lives and livelihoods in every State, “Red” as well as “Blue,” are controlled by the edicts of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the central government. There is little room for State and local discretion. Moreover, much of the population shift toward “Red” must be understood as opportunistic (e.g., warmer climates, right-to-work laws) and not as an endorsement of “Red” politics.

4. Civil disobedience — Certainly called for, but see options 5, 6, and 7.

5. Underground society and economy — Think EPA-DOL-FBI-IRS-NSA, etc., etc., and then dismiss this as a serious option for most Americans.

6. The Benedict Option, about which Bruce Frohnen writes:

[Rod] Dreher has been writing a good deal, of late, about what he calls the Benedict Option, by which he means a tactical withdrawal by people of faith from the mainstream culture into religious communities where they will seek to nurture and strengthen the faithful for reemergence and reengagement at a later date….

The problem with this view is that it underestimates the hostility of the new, non-Christian society [e.g., this and this]….

Leaders of this [new, non-Christian] society will not leave Christians alone if we simply surrender the public square to them. And they will deny they are persecuting anyone for simply applying the law to revoke tax exemptions, force the hiring of nonbelievers, and even jail those who fail to abide by laws they consider eminently reasonable, fair, and just.

7. A negotiated partition of the country — An unlikely option (discussed in this post and in some of the posted linked to therein) because, as discussed in option 6, “Blue” will not countenance the loss of control over millions of lives and livelihoods.

8. Secession — This is legal and desirable — as long as the New Republic of free states is truly free — but (a) it is likely to be met with force and therefore (b) unlikely to attract a critical mass of States.

9. Coup — Suggested several years ago by Thomas Sowell:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

Glenn Reynolds, who is decidedly anti-coup, writes

that the American Constitution, along with traditional American political culture in general, tends to operate against those characteristics, and to make the American polity more resistant to a coup than most. It is also notable, however, that some changes in the Constitution and in political culture may tend to reduce that resistance….

The civics-book statement of American government is that Congress passes laws that must be signed by the president (or passed over a veto), and that those laws must be upheld by thejudiciary to have effect. In practice, today’s government operates on a much more fluid basis, with administrative agencies issuing regulations that have the force of law – or, all too often, “guidance” that nominally lacks the force of law but that in practice constitutes a command – which are then enforced via agency proceedings.…

[I]t seems likely that to the extent that civilians, law enforcement, and others become used to obeying bureaucratic diktats that lack a clear basis in civics-book-style democratic process, the more likely they are to go along with other diktats emanating from related sources. This tendency to go along with instructions without challenging their pedigree would seem to make a coup more likely to succeed, just as a tendency to question possibly unlawful or unconstitutional requirements would tend to make one less likely to do so. A culture whose basis is “the law is what the bureaucrats say it is, at least unless a court says different,” is in a different place than one whose starting impulse is “it’s a free country.”…

[P]ersistent calls for a government-controlled “Internet kill switch”49 – justified, ostensibly, by the needs of cyberdefense or anti-terrorism – could undercut that advantage [of a decentralized Internet]. If whoever controlled the government could shut down the Internet, or, more insidiously, filter its content to favor the plotters’ message and squelch opposition while presenting at least a superficial appearance of normality, then things might actually be worse than they were in [Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey’s Seven Days in May, which imagined an attempted coup by a Curtis LeMay-like general].…

[T]he most significant barrier to a coup d’etat over American history has probably stemmed simply from the fact that such behavior is regarded as un-American. Coups are for banana republics; in America we don’t do that sort of thing. This is an enormously valuable sentiment, so long as the gap between “in America” and “banana republics” is kept sufficiently broad. But it is in this area, alas, that I fear we are in the worst shape. When it comes to ideological resistance to coups d’etat, there are two distinct groups whose opinions matter: The military, and civilians. Both are problematic….

[T]here are some troubling trends in civilian/military relations that suggest that we should be more worried about this subject in the future than we have been in the past…

Among these concerns are:

  • A “societal malaise,” with most Americans thinking that the country was on “the wrong track.”
  • A “deep pessimism about politicians and government after years of broken promises,” leading to an “environment of apathy” among voters that scholars regard as a precursor to a coup.
  • A strong belief in the effectiveness and honor of the military, as contrasted to civilian government.
  • The employment of military forces in non-military missions, from humanitarian aid to drug interdiction to teaching in schools and operating crucial infrastructure.
  • The consolidation of power within the military – with Congressional approval – into a small number of hands….
  • A reduction in the percentage of the officer corps from places outside the major service academies.…
  • A general insulation of the military from civilian life…. “Military bases, complete with schools, churches, stores, child care centers, and recreational areas, became never-to-be-left islands of tranquility removed from the chaotic crime-ridden environment outside the gates…. Thus, a physically isolated and intellectually alienated officer corps was paired with an enlisted force likewise distanced from the society it was supposed to serve [quoting from an essay by Charles J. Dunlap, “The Origins Of The American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, Winter, 1992-93, at 2]….

[D]istrust in the civilian government and bureaucracy is very high. A 2016 Associated Press/National Opinion Research Center poll found that more than 6 in 10 Americans have “only slight confidence – or none at all” that the federal government can successfully address the problems facing the nation. And, as the AP noted, this lack of confidence transcends partisan politics: “Perhaps most vexing for the dozen or so candidates vying to succeed President Barack Obama, the poll indicates widespread skepticism about the government’s ability to solve problems, with no significant difference in the outlook between Republicans and Democrats.”

As a troubling companion to this finding, the YouGov poll on military coups…also found a troubling disconnect between confidence in civilian government and confidence in the military: “Some 71% said military officers put the interests of the country ahead of their own interests, while just 12% thought the same about members of Congress.” While such a sharp contrast in views about civilian government and the military is not itself an indicator of a forthcoming coup, it is certainly bad news. Also troubling are polls finding that a minority of voters believes that the United States government enjoys the consent of the governed.63 This degree of disconnection and disaffection, coupled with much higher prestige on the part of the military, bodes ill.

Or well, if you believe that a coup is the only possible salvation from despotism.

Military personnel (careerists, in particular) are disciplined, have direct access to the tools of power, and many of them are trained in clandestine operations. Therefore, a cadre of properly motivated careerists might possess the wherewithal necessary to seize power. But a plot to undertake a coup is easily betrayed. (Among other things, significant numbers of high-ranking officers are shills for the regulatory-welfare state.) And a coup, if successful, might deliver us from a relatively benign despotism into a decidedly malign despotism.

But unless there is a negotiated partition of the country — perhaps in response to a serious secession movement — a coup is probably the only hope for the restoration of liberty under a government that is true to the Constitution.

The alternative is a continuation of America’s descent into despotism, which — as many Americans already know — is no longer the “soft” despotism foreseen by Tocqueville.

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Related posts (in addition to those linked to throughout this one):
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
The States and the Constitution
And many more here