April 30, 2005
Six Tools to Keep China From Making Trouble
Just how scary is China? There's a new batch of articles you might like to read, but let's be honest about what we don't know. "Will there be war with China?" is not a question you should ever answer with "Yes" or "No." That's like asking "Will there be a big earthquake in California next year?" The honest answer is a probability, like "There's a one in five chance" or "Fifty-fifty." So the useful question is not "How scared should we be about China?" but "What can we do to lower the odds of China coming out scary?"
Most people are still writing on the "China problem" instead of suggesting "China solutions." So before we talk about solutions, a roundup of what's being written on the problem: Robert Kaplan has one of his usual marvelous essays (echoed for nonsubscribers here) on what the officers at America's Pacific Command are thinking about possible conflicts with China. John Mearsheimer has a Foreign Policy screed arguing that rising powers like China naturally make trouble; he thinks that faced with Chinese might, the United States will eventually have to retreat from Asia. Matthew Yglesias sides with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the Foreign Policy article: their argument is that China won't push America out of Asia, because without America, China's own neighbors could be even more dangerous to it. Daniel Drezner notes that China's been pretty growlsome at the world lately. Praktike observes that war between China and America would be stupid for both. Of course, stupid wars have happened before.
So here's the top six things the United States could do over the next decade to reduce the odds of China "going bad":
1. Push China for more democracy.
2. Get Europe and Japan to push for democracy too.
3. Build strong ties with India. (And with Vietnam, and with China's other neighbors.)
4. Push Taiwan to talk less about independence and spend more on its defense.
5. Get our Navy more invested in small underwater drones.
6. Get our Air Force more invested in cheap long-range missiles.
1. Push China for more democracy.
As we've discussed before, if China goes to war with us or anyone, it'll be because China's leaders want to seem more legitimate with China's citizens. But the more that elections continue to creep into Chinese politics, the less China's leaders are going to need to improvise more dangerous tools (like political war) to prove they're entitled to keep power. And if China gets all the way to being a true democracy, war with other democracies becomes much less likely.
So it's in our interest to encourage China to open up more of its political offices to competitive elections. Over the last twenty years, American pressure has been focused on human rights, and we've made a difference there. But now America's best use of pressure is to ask not for more dissidents to be released, but for more town and city officials to be elected. Since some of those officials already want to hold freer elections than the national government allows, quiet American pressure could make a real difference in making China more democratic.
There are circumstances in which partially democratized countries turn more aggressive than regular dictatorships. But in general, the more democratic China is, the less likely China will be to pick a needless fight with America. So if you want peace with China, push for more elections in China.
2. Get Europe and Japan to push for democracy too.
China depends for its growth on exports to the three economic superpowers: America, Europe, and Japan. If the United States cut off trade with China, China's growth would stopped for half a decade. But if America, Europe and Japan all cut off trade, China's growth would be stopped for half a century. Trade sanctions are just an example of a larger principle: when they show a united front, the Europe-Japan-America "Big Three" have far more influence on China than America acting alone.
We saw this just recently with the China arms embargo. America doesn't sell weapons to China, but the European Union was considering allowing it, and American complaints were't changing Europe's mind. Then China passed a law officially approving war as a means to retake Taiwan, and the Europeans got a bad taste in their mouth again about giving weapons to China. America alone couldn't limit China's weapons technology, but America, Europe and Japan together are slowing China's military.
That same cooperation can push China toward democracy. Japan worries about China even more than America does, but doesn't want to get in a military arms race with it, and knows it would backfire if Japan alone were pressuring the noticeably Japan-distrusting China. Meanwhile, the Europeans have long wanted to be world leaders like America, and they want to prove that their peaceful pressure can be as strong as American military influence. What's more, the Europeans have had a string of recent successes in using European Union access as a lever to get authoritarian countries to reform. So if America offered to let European leaders get the credit, the Europeans might well be persuaded to a joint European-American-Japanese initiative to push for more democracy in China.
In the last thirty years, China has done its best to play the big powers against each other. It's about time the big democracies tried ganging up -- politely -- to pressure China toward democracy.
3. Build strong ties with India. (And with Vietnam, and with China's other neighbors.)
China's military fantasies rest on the hope that America won't care enough about Asia to fight, while the other Asian powers will be too weak to fight. China's military nightmare is that America and China's Asian neighbors cooperate and combine Asian commitment with American firepower. The closer America is to India, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and China's other neighbors, the more China has to think twice about starting a new era of war in Asia.
A good example came a few months ago, when Japan for the first time joined America in expressing its "security interest" in "keeping the Taiwan Straits peaceful." China all but threw a fit: a joint Japanese-American commitment to keeping Taiwan defended from China is a lot stronger than either nation expressing that interest alone. It's a lot harder to intimidate groups than lone persons, because no one in the group wants to let down their buddies. This is as true of international politics as it is of kids on the playground. (In fact there's an alarming resemblance between the two situations.) So by pulling Japan closer, America made China's military calculations a lot more complicated.
Of course, China is growing, and "America plus Japan" may not intimidate China forever. So we should go for one more key alliance partner in Asia -- and that's India.
India is about the same size as China, and it's growing pretty fast itself. More than that, India is a democracy with a long record of rivalry with China. Right now, India doesn't much trust the United States, because we're so closely allied with Pakistan, for the sake of fighting the Islamic terrorists who hide out inside Pakistan. But as we approach four years since September 11 -- four years without an attack on American soil -- we need to look to our world after the Global War on Terror. Keeping China peaceful is a big part of what we want that world to look like. Keeping India as well as Japan close to us is a big part of keeping China peaceful.
We shouldn't abandon Pakistan to chaos, since they've got both nukes and nutcases -- a very bad combination. But we should start investing in a close alliance with India. And we should pull close as many of China's other neighbors as we can -- Vietnam, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, even South Korea and Russia if they can get over their current anti-Americanism. A China facing a solid coalition ready to fight against it is a China that isn't going to want to start a fight.
4. Push Taiwan to talk less about independence and spend more on its defense.
Taiwan, like Israel, Pakistan, and Egypt, is one of America's "strategic allies." And like most of our strategic allies, Taiwan often feels free to rely on American support even when it does things that make trouble for America. In recent years, Taiwan has been making a lot of gestures to say "we're not part of China and we like it that way" -- changing Taiwan's passports, altering Taiwan's constitution, and so on. These gestures delight Taiwanese voters. They also humiliate and infuriate Chinese leaders.
At the same time as Taiwan humiliates the Chinese leaders, it doesn't bother spending much to defend from Chinese attack. Taiwan's defense budget is about 2.3 percent of its GDP. The United States spends about 3.5 percent of its GDP on the military. China officially spends about 3 percent, and in reality is estimated to spend about 4.5 percent. So even as China threatens to invade Taiwan, Taiwan is proportionately making only two-thirds of the national commitment that America makes to defense -- while China, despite being poorer on average, commits twice as much of its economy to the military.
In other words, Taiwan is provoking China yet taking it for granted that American muscle will keep China from attacking. That needs to stop. Not because Taiwan doesn't deserve to be protected, but because the United States deserves to have its allies be at least as committed to preserving the peace as America is. More to the point, Chinese leaders are a lot more impressed by Taiwan's ability to defend itself than by America's ability to defend Taiwan, because they like to think they can convince us to let Taiwan go -- but they know the Taiwanese will fight if China comes. So dollars spent by Taiwan on its defense go a lot further to keeping the peace than dollars spent by America. At the same time, a Taiwan that officially is committed to joining China "eventually" is a Taiwan that's much harder for China to invent excuses to fight.
We don't want to let our alliance with Taiwan turn into an opportunity for an accidental war between America and China. That's about how World War I started, when Europe's leading countries felt obliged to fight each other, even though they hadn't done anything to each other. World War I was fought by the great powers, and nearly destroyed them all, for the sake of those great powers' alliances with much less important and much worse governed nations. We need to get a lot more serious about pushing Taiwan's government to turn down its anti-China rhetoric and turn up its defense spending. "Walk softly and carry a big stick" is a good motto for American policy. It's an even better motto for Taiwan. Peace with China will be easier to keep if Taiwan is quiet, polite, and armed to the teeth.
5. Get our Navy more invested in small underwater drones.
Most of China's excuses to start a war involve offshore islands, whether we're talking about the really big offshore island of Taiwan, or the much smaller Paracel Islands China disputes with Vietnam, or the Senkaku-shoto islands it disputes with Japan. You can't seize an island without boats, and China can't move boats if the American Navy gets in the way. So major Chinese military adventures depend on being able to keep the American Navy at a distance for long enough to seize whatever island China is after.
Embarrassingly, our current Navy is vulnerable to a lot of Chinese equipment. China has diesel-powered submarines, which are in principle capable of being quieter and stealthier than American nuclear submarines, and which could make enormous trouble for American ships in waters near China. China has vast quantities of antiship missiles, which are in principle capable of knocking out an American aircraft carrier; that missile threat could force the Navy's airpower to stay well away from Chinese military activity for vital hours or days. It's only a modest exaggeration to say China's entire defense investment for the last ten years has been geared toward exploiting every vulnerability that can hold back American power long enough for China to achieve a military success.
The American Navy would still defeat China's forces if it had to. But in order to keep the peace, it's not enough for China to believe that America could stop it -- China has to believe America could stop it easily. Otherwise, China can hope that Americans will decide we "value Los Angeles more than Taipei," and that we'll abandon our allies and let China have its way. So if we want a military that will keep China peaceful, we need a Navy with firepower that's immune to China's current "silver bullets".
We do have the beginnings of a new kind of Navy, one that China will be very hard pressed to match. It's a navy that you can see in infant form in the USN's latest anti-submarine warfare plan. It's a Navy built on robots.
Technically, the term to use is UUV -- unmanned underwater vehicle. Like the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator drones, the toys that have seen so much use over Iraq, today's UUVs are expensive and unintelligent. On the other hand, like the UAVs, they're getting smarter and cheaper very quickly. (Since unmanned systems' brains are just computers, they improve almost as fast as computers improve, which is very fast indeed.) Most importantly, UUVs are immune to almost all the weapons and tactics in China's arsenal.
UUVs break all the rules of ordinary ships, and weapons and systems deisgned to defeat ordinary ships tend to flunk against UUVs. UUVs are so much smaller than manned submarines that they can be far stealthier than even a diesel-powered sub; UUVs are so much cheaper than big ships that they can be sent right through danger zones where a manned fleet would have to slow down; and UUVs, being small, cheap and underwater, make really lousy targets for big, expensive, above-water antiship missiles. An anti-UUV operation would be in principle a lot like a mine-clearing operation; they're both about cleaning up a sea full of small machines that are trying to kill you. But mine-clearing is itself one of the most slow, difficult and painful modern naval missions. A manned fleet could sweep an area clean of UUVs with time and patience. But China can't afford to give the American Navy's regular manned forces time to close in. The one thing China won't have in any island-seizing effort is time and patience.
Right now, underwater unmanned vehicles are where unmanned aerial vehicles were ten years ago -- more experiment than arsenal. But UUVs happen to naturally combine the very traits the Chinese are least well able to work against. Even a primitive flock of UUVs would be enough to provide targeting information, or (if armed) torpedo or minelaying attacks, sufficient to derail a Chinese assault. And China won't be able to counter a UUV flotilla until it's gotten a lot closer to American levels of technology. So if you want to screw up China's military plans, have our Navy buy a lot of robots.
6. Get our Air Force more invested in cheap long-range missiles.
One reason we have to rely on the Navy to keep China tame is that Chinese waters are too far from most Air Force bases for the Air Force to do its job. Even the F-22 (or F/A-22) won't be able to do much over the Taiwan Straits when it has to pick up each bombload from an airbase on Okinawa (about 500 miles away) or Guam (1500 miles away). Worse, since China (unlike Afghanistan or Iraq) has a serious air force, any aircraft we send to drop bombs on Chinese installations or ships will need plenty of protection from other aircraft -- and big slow bombers like the B-52 will be sitting ducks. (Even the stealth bomber would be in trouble if China's radars were good enough, or if it tried to drop bombs amid hostile aircraft in the daytime.) RAND pointed out this "geography problem" in a study it did for the Air Force years ago. The Air Force's bombers don't have the protection and Air Force's fighters don't have the range, so the current Air Force has little value for America's strategy on China.
But the Air Force doesn't have to stay irrelevant. In fact, with the right investments, the Air Force could become more effective as a counter to Chinese adventurism than the Navy. The trick is to stop thinking about bombs and start thinking about missiles.
China's aircraft and air defenses are designed, understandably, to stop enemy aircraft from coming in to drop bombs. Like all air defenses, they're much weaker at stopping missiles than aircraft, because missiles are smaller and travel faster. Now, America's bombers were originally designed to fly right over a target and drop their bombs. But it's not too hard to fit them out to fly to a point a hundred or even two hundred miles away from a target, drop a missile into the air, and let the missile fly the rest of the way to the target. The Air Force has the technology, though not the current setup, to let its bombers do the "long haul" of carrying missiles from our airbases on Guam to the area of fighting, and then let the missiles take care of the "dangerous sprint" through enemy planes and missiles to the target.
Our current Air Force isn't designed for this, because our current Air Force was conceived back when bombs had to be dropped right over the target, and when missiles had to be given their exact destination at the moment they were launched -- and even the dumbest smart bombs were hugely expensive. Now, we have missiles that can change targets in flight; we have unmanned aerial vehicles like the Global Hawk that can provide targeting information from higher altitudes than most antiaircraft missiles can reach; we have, if we want, all the ingredients for an Air Force campaign in which no manned aircraft comes within a hundred miles of the enemy.
It would take building some new equipment, and modifying some old equipment. But the technology is there.
This is, in fairness, a big shift in concept for the Air Force, and not one they'd take for the sake of being relevant on China alone. Nor would we want to give up manned fighters when we can actually use them, simply because the human eye is a lot better than any existing robot camera. But if and when the Air Force does develop a "standoff arsenal" of long-range missiles trucked by long-range bombers and guided by high-altitude spotters, the US Air Force will be able to stop Chinese military adventures as or more effectively than the US Navy. After all, China can sink an aircraft carrier, but it can't very well sink Guam.
...so there you have it. Six tools to keep China from making trouble. Hopefully we'll never need any of them. But if you want to make war with China less likely, there's a start for how you'd do it.
[E1] Mudville OPL.
April 28, 2005
Democrats In Fifteen Words
The Democrats' 2008 platform is finally becoming clear.
Right now, the liberal blogosphere is having another go-round (Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Kevin Drum) at the question of "what can liberals identify themselves with that majorities will vote for?"
But fundamentally this amounts to asking, "What are things that lots of Americans would like, that the current Administration and Congress are not going to be able to deliver?"
Four easy Democratic answers come to mind, and you can bet something like these fifteen words will be part of the Democratic candidate's platform in 2008:
1) Community investment;
2) Cleaning up government;
3) Tax changes that help workers, not the wealthy;
4) Job security.
Of course our President doesn't wake up in the morning and say, "Gosh! I'd like to screw ordinary people out of their jobs, corrupt the government, leave struggling communities to fend for themselves, and give tax breaks to the rich!" But let's be honest: fair or not, the Republicans are now vulnerable on all those four points.
Do people worry about their local schools and governments? Yes.
Do they want honest government? Naturally.
Do they want lower taxes for themselves without busting the budget? Of course.
Are they worried about their jobs? Heck yes!
And are the Republicans going to be able to ease people's minds on these issues? No.
Despite having a majority in both houses of Congress, the Republicans haven't offered anything convincing to all the communities that are losing jobs to changing technology or never had good jobs to begin with. Nor are local schools much better now, for all the fuss over No Child Left Behind. And precisely because of the Republican majority, the Republicans are now getting hit with the corruption charges that stuck to Democrats during the Democrats' years in power. And it's no surprise that Republican tax changes tend to be easier on higher-income folk than Democrats' tax changes.
Beyond all that, for no fault of the Republicans' own, we're now entering a period where peoples' incomes are likely to be less secure, even as technology and globalization mean people have to switch jobs more and more often.
Community investment, government reform, job security, tax changes biased toward workers -- all four are popular things the Republicans haven't been providing and in many ways can't provide. And as the opposition party, the Democrats don't have to prove that they can deliver these things; they just have to convince people they'll spend more time trying than the people now in power.
So those are the four ideas to watch for. Investing more dollars in helping local community institutions; unionization laws, retraining grants and business hiring subsidies to help people be secure in their ability to get and hold good jobs; shifting taxes to help ordinary workers; and cleaning out the elected and appointed officials with cozy ties to industry groups or lobbyists. Those four are easy targets for the Democrats in 2008.
And if there's one thing politicians are good at, it's homing in on the easy target.
April 26, 2005
Europe's Secret to Make Dictators Reform: Sometimes It Just Takes a Really Big Carrot
We keep doing nothing when faced with countries that are too troublesome to invade, like Iran or North Korea, or too officially friendly to bomb, like Egypt or Saudia Arabia. But just because we won't bomb doesn't have to mean we're powerless. While the United States has mostly relied on threats and military force to make countries change, the Europeans recently have managed to pull several ugly governments into reform without a single weapon threatened or fired. We need to get smart and learn to use our own peaceful leverage as well as the Europeans do.
This recent article on Serbia nicely illustrates how the Europeans use two strong simple tools: the levers of prestige and economic incentive. The European Union is a $10+ trillion a year behemoth, and when the Europeans make their markets and blessing seriously conditional on governments' reforming, the governments in question get serious about reform. Of course economic and prestige levers aren't a perfect tool for world-changing, any more than bombers and infantry are. But if America got as serious about using nonmilitary leverage as it is about using military power, we could prevent many of today's not-quite-outlaw governments from becoming the Irans and North Koreas of tomorrow -- and we could do it without firing a shot.
Europe's newfound peaceful influence is basically an accidental bonus of the expansion of the European Union. Membership in the European Union, or even "candidate for membership" status, gives a country a huge economic advantage over its neighbors, and gives a government a big boost to legitimacy with its people. While we love to make jokes about French posturing or German unemployment, most of the world would love to be as well-governed as those countries, and so a European endorsement carries real weight with local elites. And that same seal of approval, plus the possible trade and subsidy advantages of EU members, means that an approved candidate country can get investment -- and therefore jobs -- that would otherwise go elsewhere. So governments like Serbia's or Turkey's or Ukraine's, who want to keep power despite unreliable economies and unstable politics, find the rewards of European endorsement too good to pass up. In fact, almost all the Balkan and west central Asian governments have been moved significantly toward moderation and democracy by the dangling carrot of the EU. It's not coincidence that the former Soviet republics with the worst human rights records, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are also among the most distant from Europe. And it's also not coincidence that when Turkey was pressed by the United States to allow troops to pass through to invade Iraq, and the French and Germans wanted Turkey to say no, Turkey sided with the Europeans. For all America's strong military alliance with Turkey, Europe's prestige and economic levers proved stronger than our military influence.
The United States could do something similar, and we wouldn't have to offer to admit countries as 51st or 52nd states; we would just need to get serious about linking economic and prestige ties with the USA to government reforms. Unfortunately, America usually ends up going for symbols instead of substance when we pressure allies (such as Egypt's recent token liberalization of its presidential pseudo-elections). It's just too hard for politicians to decide economic issues on the basis of anything other than jobs at home. It's worth noting that the European Union representatives who negotiate with countries like Turkey or Serbia on reform aren't elected officials; they're more like our Federal Reserve Board or the heads of the International Monetary Fund, a gang of appointees who are accountable to the European elected leaders but aren't on the leash of day-to-day politics. For that matter, the International Monetary Fund itself has a pretty good track record in getting governments to do things they don't like for the sake of economic incentives. If we ever want America to command that kind of peaceful leverage, we'll probably need a special organization to wield that leverage -- either that, or we'll have to somehow make the State Department into a trusted institution again. But as long as it takes the personal approval of the President and Congressional leaders to use serious economic or prestige levers on other countries, our nonmilitary influence will be pitiful next to the Europeans'.
And that's a pity, because the world-leading countries who made their power last have been the seducers, not the frighteners. Louis XIV of France invaded everybody until everybody ganged up on him; the Soviet Union's leaders threatened everybody until their most important Communist allies turned on them. In the end their armies weren't persuasive enough, because they couldn't afford to invade all the countries they needed to persuade. If we really want to make countries cooperate on terrorism, nuclear weapons, keeping the peace and the rest, we ought to learn from the "seducer" leaders. There's Great Britain, which used the sheer weight of tradition in its Commonwealth organization to get substantial cooperation from countries all over the world long after Britain lost its military power. There's the Roman Empire, which multiplied its strength by having a corps of officers skilled at raising local armies to fight in Roman causes, alongside a political system that rewarded foreign elites with Roman citizenship. And there's the United States itself, in our act of most extraordinary clever generosity, the Marshall Plan.
The Marshall Plan (and its counterpart effort in Japan) rebuilt Western Europe and Japan after World War II, and not only repaid itself in the form of new export jobs for Americans, but quite frankly bought Western Europe and Japan's loyalty for the next fifty years -- at a much cheaper price than the Soviets were paying to impose iron-fisted control over Eastern Europe. Like today's European Union leverage efforts and the IMF, the Marshall Plan was initiated by politicians but carried out by a professional organization, the Economic Cooperation Administration. And what the Europeans are doing to Serbia and Turkey today, the American efforts of fifty years ago did to Japan and Western Europe, tying them firmly into democracy, free markets, and American priorities. So we can do what the Europeans are doing; we've done it before.
(And fortunately, the going rate to buy democracy in a Serbia or Ukraine seems to be a lot lower than the cost we paid to rebuild Western Europe.)
Peaceful levers don't work on dictators who are both uncaring and secure in their power. But almost every dictatorship hits rough spots, simply because most dictators aren't very good at running their countries. When Kim Jong-Il of North Korea inherited his rule from his father, for a few years no one -- including the younger Kim -- knew whether he'd hold on to power. Iran today looks tolerably stable, if only because high oil prices are keeping the government rich, but that too may change. Most of all, peaceful levers are a tool we can use to stop countries from becoming tomorrow's Iran or North Korea. Iran was a cooperative repressive government under Shah Pahlavi before the 1979 revolution turned it into an implacably hostile repressive government; Iraq went through a series of only moderately bad rulers before Saddam Hussein took charge. Today, Venezuela or Egypt or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan or Nigeria could follow a similar slide. We aren't going to bomb these countries, so shouldn't we use our other tools well?
Ever since George Washington warned about "entangling alliances", we in America have been happy to think of all foreign policy as really military policy. That was not so bad in the 1800s, when we could mostly ignore the world; and it wasn't so bad in the Cold War, in which the top priority really was military deterrence. Now we've got enemies like terrorists that don't have governments to make war on, and problem states like North Korea (too dangerous to ignore yet too painful to invade) or China (too valuable to shut out, too opportunistic to trust). We really need some power over other countries that doesn't involve missile launches and troop landings. Yesterday's Marshall Plan and today's European example shows that we already have that kind of power -- if we can figure out how to use it.
[E1] Mudville OpenPostLink.
April 23, 2005
Modern War: Gentlemen Versus Bandits, Or the Return of Knights in Shining Armor
Strategists will tell you that these days most of America's wars are asymmetric: the enemy's tools and goals are not the same as ours. But one of the oddest differences in recent years has been between the enemy's fighting men and ours. American troops at home get pointed to as peacetime citizens who embody not just patriotism but also hard work, candor, self-sacrifice, and dedication to community. On the enemy's side, while there may be plenty of civilian sympathizers for violent campaigns of Serbian ethnic cleansing or Afghan hyper-Islamism or Iraqi insurgency, the actual troops of our enemies are increasingly often society's least respected: criminals, unemployed, and generically angry young men. America's wars these days are a matter of gentlemen fighting bandits. There's a "knights versus rabble" matchup in America's wars that hasn't been normal for war in five hundred years, and it tells a secret truth about how much the rest of the world has quietly accepted American priorities.
As Max Manwaring's recent Army War College paper points out, our enemies today often look more like casual urban gangs than popular or national armies. In Iraq, men often confess to having launched attacks for the insurgency because they were unemployed and needed the money; in the Serbian conflicts and in Sudan today, the "soldiers" for the ethnic militias were very often the local criminal or bandit gangs recruited for a suddenly government-approved purpose; in Somalia during the early 90's, and in Columbia's cities' poorer neighborhoods today, "the local militia" and "the local street gang" refer to the same people. American troops have to expect to often face enemies who think and operate like gang members, not soldiers.
Even when we look at organized armies, America's military is today a different beast from the rest of the world. America invests far more in training its ordinary servicemen than anyone except Britain. Hardly anyone else except the Europeans has an armed forces where so many sergeants have ten or twenty years of experience; fewer still try to make career soldiers of so many privates; no one else trains for so many kinds of missions, so often, under conditions so close to live combat. Writers like Dana Priest and Robert Kaplan have recorded how American military missions get far more respect than American diplomats in developing countries. In those countries the army is often the country's one well-organized and disciplined institution. Indeed, coups in poor countries are often initially popular out of hope that the less-corrupt military can clean up the civilians' mess. Instead, unfortunately, usually the mess dirties the military. But the military folk in a country like Nigeria are able to see at once that the American servicemen represent a different breed altogether, the kind of military they'd like to be.
America's research labs and America's businesses lead the world by only a modest and shrinking amount. It's easy to find particular kinds of science or business where the lead belongs to Europe or Japan. But no one (not even China, yet) has had the combined money and will to create an army or air force with training and equipment on par with the United States. And as far as I can tell, no other country thinks of its soldiers in peacetime as such respectable people as Americans think of theirs -- which is another reflection of the level of discipline and the relative selectivity of American troops. A Vietnam veteran said to me in a Mudville Gazette comment thread that he's seen would-be Marine enlistees put on waiting lists today when they would have been shunted into Officer Candidate School in his time. Today's American military really has a huge current edge man-for-man over any other force on the planet -- and that's unprecedented in the last five hundred years.
The normal thing has been for major war to be an affair of equals, where one nation's half-drafted half-volunteer citizens fight the same kinds of people on the other side. Draft-supported armies fought one another in the Korean War, in World War II, in the Civil War, in the Napoleonic Wars. Even in Vietnam the people on both sides were their country's most ordinary folk: while the Vietnamese Communists may have used "asymmetric" guerrilla tactics to fight our largely conventional army, and while plenty of Vietnamese had no liking for Communism, as an individual the typical Vietnamese Communist fighter who set booby traps to kill Americans was just as much in peacetime a perfectly "ordinary Vietnamese Nguyen" as his American enemy was an "ordinary American Joe."
And if we go back further in time, to the wars of the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s, the fighters on both sides were usually career warriors enlisted from society's most restless, least employable or most noble-blooded (the three often went together). Even in wars against technologically handicapped colonized peoples, the two sides' lead fighters were often social equals. The aristocratic British officers who conquered India and later put down the Indian Mutiny in 1857 were going up against native leaders who were from India's own upper crust; when Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico in the early 1500's, his Spanish knights were fighting Aztec warrior elites. For the last five hundred years of Western history, war has been fought mostly by people of the same social groups who happened to belong to different nations.
So what has changed that now the rest of the world will allow the American military to stand without real competition? Even China and Iran's military budgets come to far smaller fractions of their economies than the Soviet Union spent preparing against America during the Cold War. Why is it that so many of our enemies and potential military missions come from the sphere of street gangs and glorified mobs?
The answer may be that the America's military today has acquired a status last seen in the West five hundred years ago, in the days when there really were knights in shining (or at least not rusty) armor. In the medieval and Renaissance years, Europe didn't have much in the way of law and justice -- and because of that, a great deal of respect was given to those who could plausibly present themselves as public-minded enforcers of law and justice. Those, roughly, were the knights. Knights were often selfish, and even when they weren't, they were likely not to share or understand the ideals of the peasants and tradesmen and priests they protected. But if the knights did their job of protecting the rest of society from bandits and thugs, any amount of carelessness might be forgiven.
The original institution of knights, of quality fighters as a separate breed from ordinary folk, came about because in the disordered poverty of medieval times money and training were at a premium: in the Middle Ages well-equipped professional fighters were not just an occupation, but a distinct social class. In today's world, the money and national will to raise a modern professional army are again at a premium; today, the developed world's well-equipped professional fighters have not just an occupation, but a distinct nationality: American.
Like the medieval knights, the American military today is an elite that is grudgingly recognized by the rest of the world as serving a useful role, even when they aren't trusted or liked. For hundreds of years, no one but bandits and mobs rose against the knights, because everyone else in the "developed" fraction of woefully poor medieval Europe had too much of a stake in their own occupations to horn in on the knights. But eventually gunpowder technology and pike formations allowed effective armies to be made out of people who weren't career horsemen. Then kings and tradesmen and merchants assaulted the privileges of the knightly families. Likewise, if and when technology gives other developed countries a way to field armies that can match up to America's, we may see America opposed more seriously, maybe more violently, then it has been up to now.
But for right now, however much they complain, China and France and Germany and Brazil all see the United States, and especially the American military, as a force that maintains an order in the world that's convenient for them -- and because they benefit from that order, they don't invest in an arms race to overturn it. Even China is happy with the world order as long as it makes room for China to achieve rising status and prestige. Right now, the American military are the developed world's knights -- elite, set apart, not always trusted or liked, but granted a certain respect for the burden they spare everyone else and for the common order they preserve.
Knights are supposed to fight bandits, and that's what America's knights will continue to do. In fact, you can argue that one reason the terrorists were able to achieve 9/11 was that we put off dealing with those particular bandits for too long. As long as we're vigorous about fighting the little enemies, no one will see much need to invest in their own armies, which itself will keep us from having to face big enemies.
We should be glad as long as our enemies continue to be more like street gangs than professional soldier elites. If ever that changes -- if people start being willing to invest in armies serious enough to fight us on even terms -- it will mean both that America has acquired much more serious enemies, and that the post-Cold War world that we've come to take for granted is about to be thrown over for a new set of struggles. It would also probably mean that other countries had gone from liking to complain about America to seriously doubting America. And I like living in an America that ultimately people have to admit they respect. I like it that the America's uniformed services are full of people whom, even when America's policies aren't agreed with, can command the kind of grudging but genuine respect once held by knights in armor.
[E1] Mudville OpenPostLink
April 20, 2005
Our Military's Viagra Problem (General Inflexible Versus Corporal Dynamic)
Our four-star officers have a Viagra problem. I mean they're stiff -- really stiff. You see it in the F/A-22, the DD(X), the FCS, and more. Lately, so consistently that it's just plain eerie, all the military's good news has at its roots our professional and adaptable lower ranks, and all the bad news traces back to inflexible thinking in the upper ranks. Some organizations change from the top down, but the American military seems to be changing from the bottom up -- and not yet far enough up.
It used to be the seniors who were the brain trust -- back in Korea and to some extent in Vietnam, ordinary troops and junior officers were sometimes just completely out of their depth. See the sad tale of Task Force Smith, or the retreat from the Yalu River, or the total breakdown between drafted soldiers and undertrained junior officers in Vietnam War that made men using grenades on their own officers a frequent enough event that it got its own ugly new word -- "fragging." But today, it's the senior officers, in all the services, who most often show up as America's weak point -- not because they're dumb, but because they can't bend themselves enough to handle unfamiliar challenges.
Let's start with the ugly stuff, because it's more fun to end on an uplifting note. (Besides, what good is a military you can't complain about?) Here follow tales of astonishing stiffness in high places.
Torture In a Foreign Language: you may recall that the Defense Department more or less has asked the American public to accept that harsh interrogation methods, even with occasional breakdowns into outright sadism as in Abu Ghraib, are the price of getting the facts we need from prisoners to prevent terrorism. But it turns out these same generals, who are ready to ask the public to relax one of our toughest moral taboos and say yes to something like torture, have not been willing to train personnel as Arabic linguists to persuade or trick these same prisoners into talking! In fact, even already-trained and desperately overworked Arabic linguists have been dismissed from the Army -- for being gay; yet somehow I don't think the victims of 9/11 would have minded if the plot had been discovered by a gay soldier.
Read the recent book of an Army interrogator in Afghanistan, and two things rapidly become clear: that our interrogators take both their job and their morality very seriously, and that the military higher-ups aren't willing to spend one extra penny on giving them the resources to actually do their job. Make "human intelligence" a military priority and train Arabic linguists? It's just too different.
The Fighter Plane With No One Left to Fight: the Air Force's leaders are desperate to get Congress to build lots of F/A-22 Raptor fighter planes. The Raptor is a superb airplane for killing other airplanes, and it would be quite useful if we get into a high-intensity war with China or India or Russia -- and almost useless in any other scenario. The F/A-22 is to the Air Force what doubling the chip speed is to your computer: sometimes useful, but frankly you'd probably rather have smarter software. In fact, at the same time as the Air Force's leaders are lobbying for money for fancy fighter planes, other technologies that the Air Force could get a lot more use out of are being neglected.
From the Gulf War through Kosovo and Afghanistan to Operation Iraqi Freedom, the air assets most consistently in demand have been long-ranged missiles, sensor and communications aircraft, and unmanned air vehicles. All of these would be useful and sometimes vital in almost any future war, unlike the only sometimes useful and never vital F/A-22. (Yes, we could face superior fighters someday -- and we could shoot them down with old fighters with superior missiles. It's no coincidence that when India's pilots faced off against American ones in training recently, the American pilots were ordered not to launch missiles from long range.) The Air Force generals can't imagine an Air Force defined by strengths other than its fighter planes. The USAF delivering success through cruise missiles, reconnaissance planes, unmanned drones? It's just too different.
The Ship That Sank The Navy: the Navy's new DD(X) destroyer is so expensive that it may blow the whole fleet budget, yet everybody, even the admirals, agrees in principle that the Navy's new priority needs to be not open-sea destroyers but small craft for close-to-shore ("littoral") operations. Yet to reconfigure the budget to match the future Navy's direction? Just too different!
The Army Technology That the Army Doesn't Understand: The Future Combat Systems (FCS) initiative aims to transform the army by complementing our regular tanks and infantry carriers with what amounts to a 21st-century cavalry force: units that will be much quicker to deploy, understand, maneuver, and react. The FCS vision revolves around lightweight vehicles, precision RAM (rockets, artillery and mortars) and lots and lots of unmanned surveillance vehicles. Now when FCS was last in the news, the New York Times complained it amounted to a force designed for fighting conventional wars, not guerrillas. A few days later, the Times had an article about the heavy demand in Iraq for unmanned surveillance vehicles to fight guerrillas. Did the Army sources for the article point out that that was just what FCS could be good at? No. They didn't see the connection themselves. Compared to the tanks the leaders are used to, FCS is, well... just too different.
So there's a pretty broad tradition of sad and sometimes disastrous inflexibility at the top. But before we talk too much about hidebound military ways, let's take a look at our Viagra-free enlisted folk and junior officers, who have been displaying none of the seniors' stiffness:
Roger That, And How Many Bombs Do Your Horsemen Need?: Even while the Air Force generals prayed for an enemy they could have a dogfight with, ordinary Air Force pilots developed whole new techniques of operation to let them support ground troops in ways they never have before. In Afghanistan, pilots coordinated so closely with soldiers and marines that one analyst described our airpower as operating as "flying artillery." And, in fact, our pilots cooperated with a Special Forces officer in a tactic you won't find in any manual that nonetheless won the battle that ignited the collapse of the Taliban, when at Mazar-e-Sharif they managed to drop bombs in close support of a literal cavalry charge of Afghan horsemen.
We Train With Rifles, We Fight With Plungers: Our soldiers do whatever it takes, including drains. In Iraq, while the senior officers muttered that insurgents were "different from the enemy we wargamed against," sergeants and lieutenants, many with experience in peacekeeping in Bosnia and Kosovo, have adapted rather well to Iraq's mix of patrols, sewage repairs, and only occasional fighting -- the current level of 40 attacks per day works out to about one attack per 100 troops per month. Even units with comparatively offensive missions compare it less to Army training and more to Los Angeles gang neighborhoods. Yet the complaints about the strangeness of the mission come not from the juniors, but the seniors.
Who Needs A Fair Fight Anyway?: while newspaper reports have tended to focus on America's military's gee-whiz technology, analysis by Stephen Biddle of the Strategic Studies Institute suggests that even if the Iraqis and Americans had traded weapons, the Americans would still have crushed the Iraqi army in both the Gulf War and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In recent years, American troops have simply fired, maneuvered, covered, and otherwised practiced their soldierly skills far better than their enemies -- or than American soldiers in the early years of most of our wars (see, for example, Kasserine Pass).
So why are junior military men flexible where senior officers aren't? The easy answer to give is that the senior officers all got their hands-on combat experience from Vietnam and the Gulf War, while the juniors spent the 90's on peacekeeping work in Bosnia or enforcing no-fly zones to protect Kurds. But I suspect the real answer has to do with the different training -- or anti-training -- the services have provided our junior and senior ranks.
After Vietnam, the military services made major investments in finding ways to train and professionalize their enlisted folk and junior officers, including efforts that these days range from virtual-reality peacekeeping scenarios to simulated duels for fighter pilots in the air at Red Flag to "laser tag" matches for hundreds of tanks battling it out on the ground at the National Training Center. The Defense Science Board found that the data shows what good sergeants have always known: good training has huge impact. Today's enlisted troops and junior officers are simply operating at a higher pitch of skill and confidence than any army before.
But even as the lower ranks' training was improved, senior officers were given incentives to hunker down and mentally stagnate. During the 1990's, the end of the Cold War cut the military in half. Effectively, every four-star officer today is the survivor of years of continual huge layoffs. And any business executive will tell you that the first casualties of a layoff-threatened workplace are flexibility and initiative. Today's senior officers have largely survived the great purge by having "zero defects," by succeeding by the book, by avoiding unconventional approaches. Our generals and admirals have been trained to be inflexibly conventional -- just when our wars are becoming the opposite.
Some senior officers are as innovative as you could ask for (although they often work to hide it from their peers), and few four-stars are anything less than intelligent, motivated, and wholeheartedly committed to doing right by their country. But thinking outside the box has been trained right out of many of them, and all of us are paying for it. America's wars are only going to get more unpredictable, not less. Even right now the two most plausible interventions are deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and stopping genocide in central Africa, and neither of those is exactly a conventional smash-the-enemy-army enterprise.
Time will probably loosen up the four-stars' minds. The only obvious faster solutions would be either (A) evaluation systems that focused less on avoiding errors and more on achieving greatness or (B) a leadership decison to seek out and promote unconventional thinkers. But both of those are easier said than done. In fact, in an institution like the military, where errors get people killed, both of those could be cures worse than the disease. You want flexible leaders, not careless ones!
But the inflexibility problem in our senior military is real; we can see it costing us in blood and in billions these days, over and over, and it's a damn shame. If you have a good cure for the military's senior officers' Viagra problem, pass it on. They could use a little less stiffness.
April 19, 2005
China's Two Fates, or How Beijing is Like a Vibrating Piano Wire
Yesterday's analysis of Chinese military history might lead you to think that war with China must be inevitable as soon as China's leaders face a serious domestic crisis. Fortunately that's not the case: the Chinese leadership have another option to shore up their appeal with the population, and they know it -- democracy. China's leaders have decreed elections with some competition in a large number of villages and a small number of townships; that's pretty far from the center of power, but close enough that if a Chinese leadership faction thought that provincial or even national elections would make them more powerful than their rivals, the infrastructure would be in place to make the elections happen.
"There is still one-party rule in China but today every village must hold direct elections and this generates awareness of the individual’s democratic rights throughout the system. People think that if uneducated farmers are capable of voting, then why not everyone?" - Jian Yi
While China is no democracy now, all its leaders have imbibed the idea of democracy as "what developed countries do", and Chinese Communist Party politicians these days use "democratic reforms" as a cudgel to beat their opponents with the way their fathers and uncles used "Marxist reforms." Township governments have actually pushed to hold local elections that are more free than the national government wants -- either because they find they need it for their authority or because they see it as good for the community. Every year makes China more technologically developed and more ready for war, and every year also makes China more susceptible to democracy and consequent long-term peace.
We trick ourselves if we think about China as fixed in any particular shape, belligerent or awkward or helpful. If ever the image of a China set in its ways was true, now it's better to think about China as a country being remolded by two strong and often contradictory forces: the roaring development of its economy and the transformation of nearly all its institutions.
Imagine a piano wire being struck over and over by a hammer: will the wire take the blows or will it snap off its pins? To answer that question, you won't look at the up-and-down vibrations of the wire at any given moment -- those would just distract you. You'll look at how strong the hammer blows are, and how resilient the wire seems to be. The fate of the piano wire doesn't lie in its appearance at any moment, but in which of the forces acting on it, the driving force or the restoring force, will dominate over time. China's fate is the same.
April 18, 2005
For China, Foreign War Is Just A Tool For Domestic Politics
People misunderstand what's going on with China if they think their current threatening protests against Japan, or their earlier national law approving war to reclaim Taiwan, mean that we should start a military buildup. Maybe we should, but here's a strange fact: you can't necessarily ward off war with China by making it clear that their forces would lose. Of course China is not mad for territory the way Nazi Germany was, and it isn't a believer in an ultimate world-revolutionary war like the Russians under the Soviet Union. But whether it's talk of China someday going to war over Taiwan, or to reclaim the islands China disputes with Japan, or anything else, it's important to remember: Chinese leaders have a tradition of risking military defeats to score political victories.
One reason is that Chinese citizens, like Americans, think of their country as history's chosen winner. Chinese people know that their country has been the leading civilization in the world through most of about two thousand years of human history up to 1800. It's not surprising that modern Europeans see war as a good way to be terrified and ruined, because World War I and II and the Cold War terrified and (in two of the three) ruined them. That's today's European view, even as modern Americans figure based on the same history that we'll win almost any war we decide we really have to fight. And modern Chinese figure from their history that their country is fated to always bounce back from foreign oppression, and so it's better to fight than let foreigners screw you over -- and getting screwed by foreigners happened continually to China from about 1840 to 1945. 1898-1900 saw the breakout of the Boxer Rebellion ("United Fists for Justice"), an uprising whose members declared that the government was too weak against rapacious foreigners. Chinese citizens worry less that their leaders won't be prudent than that China's leaders won't stand up to foreign enemies and be properly tough. In China today, unlike Europe, it's easy for the leadership to make fighting with another country popular.
And since the Communists took over, China has waged "political wars" with almost all its neighbors, sometimes with an eye on territory but mostly just to show that China has to be taken seriously. In 1954 China bombarded the Taiwan-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu -- not because it was committed to seize them, but to make Taiwan think twice about using them as bases for action against China. In 1969, China provoked a series of fights on its northern border with the Soviet Union -- not because China thought it would win a serious war, but just to show the Russians that China couldn't be pushed around like the smaller Communist bloc countries. In 1979, China sent thousands of troops into the territory of its sometime ally Vietnam for a month -- not to take any specific prize from the Vietnamese, but just to push the Vietnamese into cooperating more with China and less with the Soviet Union. Chinese leaders have been happy to take territory when they think they can, as when they pushed India out of some Himalayan valleys in 1962, or when they tried and failed to push the American-led forces all the way out of Korea in 1951, but conquering territory has never been necessary for the Communist government to consider a war a success. In fact, the Communists' most useful foreign war was a moderately successful foreign invasion: when Japan went to full-scale conquering occupation of China in 1937, anti-Japanese popular sentiments sent the Communists' popularity skyrocketing, and paved the way for the Communist takeover of all of mainland China from the Nationalists in the years after World War II. With some exceptions, Communist China's wars have been about political leverage first, territory a distant second.
China's history, ancient as well as modern, teaches its leaders that whether you win or lose, war by itself rarely makes permanent changes. This contradicts the whole experience of every other civilization, in which war takes on a life of its own and can massively alter or even annihilate whole countries. The United States appeared on the map because of a war neither the colonists nor the British Parliament wanted in 1776, and the USA doubled its size by an almost casual war with Mexico in 1846-1848. Over in Europe, half the countries on the map at the end of World War II in 1945 didn't even exist on the map before World War I in 1914. Indians, Persians, and Arabs have all experienced huge territorial divisions and reallocations through war. But China is different. On the map, you see the same heartland of Han (the central Chinese cultural ethnicity) Chinese folk under a single rule with astonishingly similar boundaries whether under under the Han dynasty near 0 AD, under the T'ang in the 800s, or the Ming in the 1500s. China's river-linked agricultural zones tended to pull the Han Chinese heartland back under one government whenever it temporarily split; China's sheer size and cultural depth tended to assimilate or overthrow would-be outside conquerors; and most of all, China's geography made it hard for either China or foreign nations to make big territorial shifts. China is bordered on the west by Tibetan and Uighur/Turkic mountain zones, on the north by the Mongols' steppe grasslands, on the east by the Pacific Ocean and on the south by the jungles of Laos and Vietnam. Armies that were successful in China tended to fail in these border lands with such different terrain, and vice versa. Even in modern times, the Europeans were able to enforce special privileges for Europeans on China in the 1800s, but never were able to annex more than small enclaves of China as direct European territory -- unlike India and Vietnam, which were wholly British and French property respectively by 1900. And in the 1930s the Japanese, with a huge technology and training advantage, found their armies inadequate to secure even a fraction of China from continual rebellion when Japan tried to conquer coastal China. So China's leaders have good reason to think war won't give China major permanent gains or cost China permanent losses. China's history teaches that war really is just a very violent way of making a political point.
Going to war for political leverage without seeking decisive change seems deeply wrong and stupid to most Americans. Our last attempts at non-decisive punitive war came in the 90's when President Clinton ordered missile strikes on Osama bin Laden or sent bombing raids against Saddam Hussein, and those didn't impress anyone. Democracies, especially ours, seem to prefer wars to be decisive or not at all. But non-decisive political wars have often been used by autocratic governments to distract their citizens from domestic troubles. The Argentinian junta hoped to shore themselves up with their population when they temporarily seized the Falkland Islands from Britain in 1982. The Egyptian government pulled off a more successful political war with their surprise crossing of the Suez Canal to seize a piece of Sinai from the Israelis in 1973: as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat told his generals, it didn't matter if they could only seize and hold 100 square meters -- that would be enough to prove to everyone that Egypt was a power Israel had to respect. And back in 1914, one of the factors that drove the German and Russian Empires into war was their belief that leftist politicians would feel a patriotic duty to stop agitating for socialism and support the government and the troops. (The leftists did quiet down -- for a while.) Sadly, China today fits this "limited war for political purposes" template of an autocratic government troubled by increasingly frequent citizen protests. So both China's own history, and that of similar governments, suggest that China's warmaking decision will follow domestic politics more than the odds of traditional military success.
But Americans and Europeans still think that war always means decisive war, which means that a country like China should be willing to do almost anything to avoid war with a big country like America or Japan. We think of gains through war as, in the words of Norman Angell, The Great Illusion. Angell predicted that industrialized countries would not go to war; four years later, World War I began. It does seem that democracies rarely go to war with one another, but China is not a democracy. China's leaders don't have to worry about votes from war widows. And realistically, looking at their history, wars -- even losing wars -- have been a pretty acceptable gamble. So why should China's leaders take our attitudes about war when theirs have worked for decades and centuries? China thinks of war as usually limited and political; what Chinese leaders are watching is not the military balance outside China, but the domestic politics inside China.
This doesn't mean China's leaders think war is safe; it means they're watching a different set of risks from the rest of us -- the domestic political risks. The economic cost to China of a protracted war (or an economic blockade after a war) would be huge, and China's leaders firmly believe that a major recession could cost them their government. So war is not likely unless political tensions in China get extreme. But if China's domestic politics get rough, China may follow the path of Egypt in 1973, Argentina in 1982, and China's own leaders for a long time past, and launch a war that China's leaders may not intend -- and may not need -- to win.
April 17, 2005
The Return of the Special Interest Paradox
Brad Plumer wonders why so few people are defending free trade anymore, and on Kevin Drum's site people wonder both about free trade and why so few Congressmen are defending the estate tax; but really it's the same thing in both cases: the Paradox of the Special Interest. The paradox goes like this:
In a democracy, the fewer the number of people in a lobbying group, the easier it is for them to get a special giveaway from the government.
That sounds completely backwards, since in a democracy voters mean power -- but that's true of voters against a cause as much as voters for it. Laws that improve the lives of tens of millions of people usually also make life difficult for tens of millions of other people. But laws that put money in the pocket of 10,000 or 20,000 people, like the estate tax, can spread their cost over literally ten thousand times as many people as receive the benefit. Just as insurance companies work by collecting small amounts from five hundred people to cover large payouts to four or five people, special interest giveaways work by taking small amonts of money from all of us -- too small for most of us to write our Representatives or Senators -- to cover big gifts to a favored five or ten thousand people.
It's because so few people are now profiting from tariffs, because free trade has gone so far (economies are more trade-oriented now than anytime in the last century or so), that it's easy for those few to hang on to their trade protection.
Of course, really big special-interest giveaways require sympathetic excuses, like "protecting hard-working textile workers" for clothing tariffs (they are hard-working -- and so are all the people in all our other lines of work who accept foreign competition so that we can all have low prices at the store), or "not double-taxing the businesses built by entrepreneurs who've worked hard for the sake of their children" (it is double taxation, but so is the sales tax -- and most large inheritances are stocks and bonds, not personal businesses).
But it is precisely because free trade has covered so much of our economy that the beneficiaries of the last remaining tariffs (mostly textiles and farming) can rely on our sympathy to overcome the damage their tariffs do to the rest of our pocketbooks -- the cost to each of us is so small that we don't sit up and take notice. And something similar is true with the estate tax: there have been so many huge tax cuts since 2001 that ending the estate tax just doesn't seem like a big deal anymore. In fact, Grover Norquist of the Club for Growth at one point described this as a deliberate strategy -- to have a tax cut every year, regular as clockwork, until people would just plain take it for granted and not argue. It seems to be working, because now no one can quite summon up the outrage at includinng the richest few in the general flow of tax breaks.
Because these groups are small, they can persuade Congressmen to vote them big bucks, since few of us will notice enough and be shocked enough to push our Congressmen to stand against them. The smaller the group, the bigger the feasible giveaway.
There are government institutions that are largely immune to special interests and many other political shenanigans. They're the ones that are run by Congressionally appointed boards rather than directly by the President and Congress -- the Federal Reserve, the Supreme Court, the National Institutes of Health. But something tells me Congress isn't going to hand over its tax laws to an appointed board anytime soon. Power, after all, is awfully hard to let go. And what's more powerful than the power to take your property by force of law?
I seem to recall we had a revolution about that once...
April 16, 2005
Links You Need To Click
Joy to the libraries, the Greeks have come! Yes, infrared-assisted text restoration methods have finally enabled scholars to recover vast numbers of previously unknown ancient Greek texts from a mess of 400,000 papyrus fragments originally found in a 19th-century Egyptian trash heap.
The scholars expect to increase their stock of lost works by the Greek "masters" (Sophocles, Hesiod, etc.) by about 20% when they're done decoding this trash-heaped treasure trove. More importantly, it looks like we're going to double our supply of scripts from Greek popular light entertainment, pulp fiction and situation comedy.
I always wanted to see the ancient Greeks' idea of a trashy romance novel. Didn't you?
In other news, a whole zoo's worth of animals found hidden in the London Underground -- including a bald eagle, an elephant, a penguin...
Speaking of animals, the Italians have given a whole new meaning to "thoroughbred": they've cloned a champion gelding racehorse. He won races but was never able to breed: now he has a clone to breed for him. Lucky champion! Yet somehow I don't think that being told "Don't worry, your clone will breed for you" would make me comfortable having myself gelded. I must be looking at this the wrong way. Maybe if I were a triathlete? Do you suppose gelded triathletes will be the next big sport?
In China, proof that Shanghai has entered the 21st century: a deadly clash over the sale of a precious Dragon Saber for a mere $750. No, really, he sold a Dragon Saber.
And, to wrap up the passions of sex, death and ancient legend: to the great relief of I dare not guess how many happy, lustful, religious couples, Israeli rabbis have specified rules by which Jewish men can use Viagra without violating the rules of Passover.
Welcome to the 21st century!
Proof That Being Intelligent Is Just Like Being Blonde, Only Less Useful
Via Marginal Revolution I find this lovely article on dogs, wolves and foxes communicating with humans, in which among other things it turns out that wild foxes can be fairly easily selectively bred for the same skill at understanding humans that we take for granted in dogs.
Now, "social intelligence" is arguably a more complicated set of traits in the brain than simple abstract "develop new skill" intelligence. Yet breeding pulled social intelligence pretty easily out of foxes. Gene therapy on living humans is still just a set of experimental efforts. But once we know enough about gene-tinkering to let parents custom-design their kids' hair color, I get the feeling it may only take another few years to let parents "max out" their kids' intelligence.
What's it going to be like when every kid can be as tall as a baskeball star and as intelligent as Einstein? If the less-developed countries can't afford the technology, what will the world be like when the old racists' dreams come true, and the next generations of Americans and Europeans really are much smarter, stronger and healthier than most people in Africa or Asia?
One thing is certain: in a world where all that differentiates peoples' genes is voluntary fashion, everyone at school will take your being intelligent for granted -- but they'll still compliment you if you naturally have the 'right' hair color.
April 14, 2005
Southern Slaves, Japanese Atrocities: Is it Wrong to Teach Kids to Admire Their Ancestors?
In the American South today, it's still traditional to emphasize the positive aspect of Southern resistance in the Civil War -- that most Southern soldiers owned no slaves and fought not for money or power but to defend their fellow (white) citizens' self-government from power-seizing Northern outsiders. It's traditional to spend as little time as possible on the negative aspect: the fact that, as proclaimed in South Carolina's declaration of secession, the Southern political leaders' immediate motive for secession was to guarantee that 4 million of the men and women in the South, the ones who happened to have black skin, could be kept as slaves to be bought and used and sold by the other 8 million. Both aspects are real; many Southerners prefer to think about the uplifting aspect and not the chilling one. Is that wrong? There are still racists around, but no one prominent seems to be advocating slavery any more. You could argue that Southern kids should be taught a version of their history that will serve as an inspiring moral example, even if it underplays the wrongs of slavery or the extraordinary determination of Southern political leaders to preserve it. Are the "positive history of the South" teachers doing wrong?
In Japan today, students are taught a version of Japanese history that leaves out what Japan's leaders and soldiers did in the 1930's and 40's, when they set to carve out a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" founded on Japanese rule over China, Korea, and the rest of Pacific Asia -- a Japanese rule that included treating non-Japanese Asians as close to subhuman. Between 20,00 and 300,000 Korean women were forced to be prostitutes for the benefit of local Japanese occupiers. Chinese were subjected to orgies of loot, rape and slaughter, up to hundreds of thousands killed at a time, when Japanese generals thought the local population needed to be properly intimidated. Japan's behavior in the years leading up to World War II was not as bad as that of Nazi Germany's, whose facism they were in many ways imitating, but it was still horrible. Japanese textbooks today mostly just leave out Japan's behavior toward foreigners in the 30's and 40's, and leave their students knowing nothing about what Japan did in the 20th century except that there was a war that ended with atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaski. Is that wrong?
Now South Korea and China are lobbying against Japan getting a permanent seat on the Security Council, and a big part of the reason is that they feel that Japan can't be trusted, because it doesn't sufficiently acknowledge its past misdeeds, whitewashes its textbooks, and treats its dead soldiers from World War II as simple heroes. You notice far less antagonism toward Germany from France, Belgium, Poland and Ukraine, even though the Nazi occupations of those countries was often brutal. The tensions are real but much less. Is that because postwar Germany made a greater though still uneasy commitment to treating Hitler's reign as an evil to acknowledge and atone for? Is it because fifty years of the Cold War gave European countries reason to worry about America and Russia instead of each other? And is there really a difference between Germans today and Japanese today -- would one group be more trustworthy with power over other nations than the other?
Does the way we teach kids their history matter?
April 13, 2005
Will You Wait Twenty Years for Your Next Raise?
Basically, your paycheck is going to get smaller. We don't yet know it for certain -- the latest numbers could be just a fluke -- but it looks as if most Americans working at ordinary jobs may be in for twenty years of being left stranded even as the economy grows. You can get a taste of what's coming from this New York Times article.
Here's the problem: for the first time in decades, your average real salary has fallen in a year when the economy was strong. By the numbers, when you add in non-salary compensation (mostly health benefits), workers got less than half the gains that would be normal for this level of economic growth -- and much of the raises that were given out went to the top 5 percent of workers. Shrinking paychecks during a recession is grimly normal, but we're years past the 2001 recession. Of course, no one gets big raises when the economy is stagnant, like it was in the 1970s. But the economy as a whole is booming now. In 2004, most people in your community probably had their paychecks stay flat or shrink in real terms -- during a year when our economy grew by a strong 4%.
If you're thinking a strong economy should have meant big raises, you're right. Since World War II, about 75% of the country's growth has usually turned immediately into salary increases for ordinary workers. What's that translate into? Well, for an ordinary worker in a year like 2004 when the economy grows by about 4%, you could expect a real raise of about $1500. But last year, only about 30% of the country's growth went to salaries and benefits -- that translates into a typical real raise of $600. The worst part is those shrunken gains are likely to continue.
We tend to think that it's only natural for a growing economy to make workers better off, but the dirty little secret is that's not actually guaranteed. When it's easy for workers to switch jobs, then it's easy for workers to hold out for good pay, and ordinary people end up capturing a big share of economic growth. But when it's hard for workers to find jobs, and easy for companies to replace unwanted workers, then companies keep most of their profit growth for themselves and their investors -- and workers get screwed.
It all comes down to unemployment. The closer unemployment comes to zero without setting off inflation, the bigger the share of economic gains go to employees. A full-employment economy is a big-raise economy is a "rising tide raises all boats" economy. But if for some reason unemployment is stuck at a level of 6% instead of 4%, that doesn't just mean 2% of workers can't find jobs; it means 90% of workers find it very hard to get the leverage for a good raise. And that's where we're at now in America: unemployment is stuck at a higher level than it should be. Modern business practices made it possible in the 90s for the economy to run at 4% unemployment without inflation -- yet now unemployment is almost half again as large. As long as unemployment stays high, most Americans are going to see their paychecks stay flat or shrink.
So why is unemployment high? Because companies are running out of raw materials and customers before they run out of workers. There's no point in a construction firm hiring more workers when it can't afford to buy more concrete and steel. There's no point in a factory running extra shifts when it can't afford to burn the oil and gas it takes to keep the machines running. And there's no point in a hospital hiring more nurses if it doesn't have more patients. In the last few years, supplies and new customers have been scarce, while workers have been plentiful, and so companies have been expanding to the limit of their supplies and customer bases instead of to their limit of available workers; which means high unemployment, which means no raises.
There seem to be two big reasons for this paycheck-starving state of "scarce supplies, scarce customers, plenty of workers": one is China and India connecting themselves to the industrialized economy, and the other is the shift in America away from producing manufactured goods and toward producing services. If you add up the populations of the industrialized countries, you get about 2 billion people. China and India have another 2 billion people. Now that both China and India have finally gotten their laws, roads, and telephone systems to the point where all kinds of businesses can set up shop in those two countries, essentially the supply of workers in the world has just doubled. The same amount of new business and the same amount of raw materials are suddenly trying to spread themselves over twice as many workers. China and India represent for the rest of the world a drought of materials, and a glut of workers. Eventually China and India will become developed enough that their citizens will buy lots of consumer goods and services from the rest of the world, so that they'll create even more new businesses in other countries than they suck away. But that's going to take twenty years.
But there's another plausible reason that America has more workers than business openings is right here at home: we've shifted to a service economy, but haven't yet figured out how to quickly grow service businesses. When most Americans were in the business of making products that sat on shelves, it was straightforward for successful new businesses to grow rapidly: they bought or built more factories, turned out more goods, and sent them out to more store shelves to be sold. But now the typical new American job is as a nurse in a hospital, or a hairdresser in a salon, or a technician in a computer repair firm. Bringing in new business to a hospital, salon, or computer repair shop turns out to be a lot trickier and slower than putting more refrigerators or fuzzy dice into stores.
Consider the difference between "picking a good car" and "picking a good doctor." The average American uses several thousand dollars a year in (mostly insurance-paid) medical care, and by the time you're 40 it's easy to feel that a quality doctor is probably more important than a quality car. Yet between the two purchases, both important and expensive, you can get an absolute flood of information from Autobytel, Edmunds.com, Car&Driver, etc. about just what car will be best for you -- but almost no information beyond friends' recommendations about what doctor will be best for you. Or consider "picking the right TV" versus "picking the right plumber." Or "picking the best shirt" versus "picking the best hair salon".
As buyers, we're not able to research and hunt for a really good deal in services the way we take for granted when looking for physical goods. And that means that the successful service businesses, the ones that want to expand and hire more workers, can't expand their customer base that quickly, so can't hire those workers that quickly -- and so more people stay unemployed, and nobody gets a raise.
In the long run, we'll somehow develop a reputation system for services, an Amazon.com for doctors and cafes and hair salons, and then this country's next Starbucks will be able to expand just as fast as the next iPod. But meanwhile, our shift to a service economy means that we may have too-high unemployment for many years to come.
We didn't have these kinds of problems in the 90s, but in the 90s, the stock market was so juiced up that everybody could expand without worrying about an immediate profit. We paid for that devil-may-care expansion with the recession of 2001, but it now looks like that boom was covering up bigger problems.
So what can we do to get back ordinary people's share of economic growth? Well, there's a stupid answer, a leftist answer, and a technocratic answer. The stupid answer is to cut off trade with India and China. But that would bring huge price rises in all the ordinary goods Indian and Chinese businesses make for us, which give the average familly a trade benefit that amounts to about a ten percent boot to annual income -- so should we really give everyone a ten percent cut in family income now to get better pay raises later? The leftist answer is to raise taxes on corporations, investors and the rich to allow a corresponding lowering of taxes, and effective income increase, for the working and middle class. But it's been a long time since we had a tax measure that drastic, and it certainly won't happen unless there's a Democratic President, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House of Representatives -- which is three more than there are right now. The technocratic answer is to have the government make it easier for businesses to hire more workers, whether by taking up more of the costs of health care, or giving credits or low-interest loans to expanding businesses, or any of a number of policies. But historically politics tends to corrupt these kinds of government interventions and make them misfire. So there are no easy answers.
On the other hand, the 2004 numbers could be just a fluke. Maybe this will all go away. But maybe, with India and China providing tons of workers and using tons of materials, with American service businesses at home not yet able to expand their customer base the way manufacturing businesses could -- maybe we're in for a long nasty decade or two where unemployment is too high, and worker leverage low, and nobody but the top few get a good raise.
It's happened before. Back in England in the mid-1800s, an amateur economist looked at the historical data and observed, correctly, that the course of English economic growth had somehow made ordinary workers worse off: to take the crudest measure, an English peasant of 1700 could count on getting significantly more to eat than his descendant in 1840. As it happened, just at the time this fellow was writing a book on this apparently inevitable "immiserization" of the working class, things were changing around. From the mid-1800s on, new cheap-commodity businesses began to expand their customer base and soak up the available labor at a huge rate, and the Englishman of 1900 lived better than his grandfather. Today, the Englishman of 2005 enjoys medicine, entertainment, and even food and clothing options that are not only better than an English peasant of 1705, but better than even an English nobleman of 1805. But that author of political-economic books in the mid-1800s didn't know that things were changing; he thought that the workers' share of economic growth in the past he could observe was going to continue to be the workers' share in the future. As a result, this author made a bunch of confident economic predictions, all based on the future being just like the past, all disastrously wrong. We shouldn't make the same mistake.
The political economist's name? Karl Marx, author of The Communist Manifesto.
April 08, 2005
Taiwan's Secret Weapon Against China: Cameras. Lots of Cameras.
The bad news for Taiwan is that allegedly China might now be able to overrun Taiwan before America can come to the rescue. The hope of China's generals is that if they can just once get hold of Taiwan, Americans won't be willing to come to the rescue of an already-conquered little island whose people only speak English as a second language.
But Taiwan has a secret weapon that can let them guarantee American intervention. Taiwan's best defense against Chinese invasion isn't fighter planes or submarines -- it's cameras. Cameras, and camcorders, and satellite phones.
In 1989, just a handful of news reporters showing pictures of Chinese tanks going after Chinese demonstrators over just a day or two was enough of an outrage to freeze China's international relations for years. If China invades Taiwan, and Taiwanese citizens are able to get out footage of Taiwanese protestors being shot down by Chinese soldiers, day after day, then not all the trade contracts in the world will keep Congress and the President from declaring America obligated to rescue Taiwan.
April 07, 2005
Terrorists' Secret Weapon Against Us: Bureaucracy
Fred Kaplan in Slate is justifiably outraged at just how completely sluggish and unserious the Defense Department has been about getting more Arabic-speaking linguists for the war on terror. How sluggish has DoD been?
In the three and a half years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States built a massive arsenal, equipped an equally massive fighting force, and declared victory in a worldwide war over imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
Now, three and a half years after Islamic fundamentalists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Department of Defense is three months away from publishing an official "instruction" providing "guidance for language program management."
That's right, three and a half years after 9/11, the Pentagon folk have a plan to make a plan to get more Arabic speakers. They could have taken 10,000 Army soldiers and taught them Arabic from scratch by now. Instead, we have -- not even a plan -- a plan to make a plan to get more Arabic speakers.
How does this happen?
One of the two reasons is the absence of leadership from the top -- that would be Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld: the same man who let us go into Iraq without a backup plan in case we weren't greeted with flowers (argh). But the other reason is bureaucracy.
The Pentagon is an enormous organization. And the bigger the organization, the slower it generally is to do anything new or unfamiliar.
What Fred Kaplan might have added, when he pointed to America's quick reaction to Pearl Harbor, is that back then the Department of Defense had one headquarters staffer for every hundred it has today. One-hundredth the staff -- and a hundred times as nimble.
Incidentally, the CIA has the same problem. Fred Kaplan actually mocked the Iraq intelligence commision's conclusion that the CIA's internal bureaucracy was a major reason for bad intelligence on Iraq, but it happens to be true: if you deliberately designed an organization to suppress rapid development of original thinking, it would look a lot like the modern CIA.
But that's a rant for another day.
April 06, 2005
Iraq: And We All Slowly Lowered Our Guns, Watching Each Other
Kevin Drum worries that the new Iraq government will be ineffective because the regional ethnic leaders will be allowed to keep their militias (the Kurdish peshmergas, Shiite groups like the Badr Brigades, and so on). Will Iraq's brave new government be just a sort of make-believe façade giving polite cover to petty regional tyrants?
We've seen this movie before, in Afghanistan. When the United States brokered the Afghan national government agreement at the loya jirga a couple years ago, everybody complained that President Hamid Karzai was powerless and the real control belonged to warlords like Ismail Khan, who was at best an autocrat and at worst a theocrat like the Taliban. But over time, as people got used to peace, the central government was able to extend its authority, and men like Ismail Khan gave up power.
If there's an end to the insurgency, and the central government doesn't itself show too much of an ethnic bias, the Iraq militias will get disarmed not too long after. If the insurgency lasts, then the central government has bigger problems than the militias.
The only disaster scenario -- which could happen -- is if the militias themselves are wielded in a civil war by the ethnic leaders. There is real tension between the ethnicities. But right now the Kurdish and Shiite leaders seem to think that they can get more out of a peaceful Iraq than an Iraq turned into a Bosnia-style ethnic slaughterhouse.
In Other News, Eating Ice Cream Makes You Smarter
Now, if we can just get a study proving that playing computer games makes you more productive... oh, wait, we did!
I love the 21st century.
The Unmysterious Absence of Conservative Professors
Conservatives, by definition, are wary of new ideas. University professors, by their job, are there to try out new ideas.
Being a professor pays much less than private business for the amount of education and competition involved, and has a much higher reputation for "contributing to the public good." Conservatism is traditionally admiring of money earned through business success, and traditionally skeptical about claims that nonprofit jobs contribute especially to the public good.
The Democrats Don't Need More Values, They Need More Answers
When Ronald Reagan in 1980 led the Republican drive to regain power, every American knew what a Republican victory meant: lower taxes, the rollback of government regulations, and an aggressive foreign policy against Communism. It was easy to find people who disagreed whether those three policies would be good, but everybody understood the Republican answers to America's concerns.
Today, the Democrats want to take back power from a Republican Congress and White House -- but it's pretty hard to get a straight answer on what the Democratic politicians are promising to do if they get that power. It's clear they don't like the Republicans' answers for America, but "we're not the Republicans" is never going to be enough to win a majority. No, voters don't count Bible quotes and they don't check philosophical references; but voters sure do like to think they know what they're voting for, and not just what they're voting against.
The Democratic governor of Tennessee has figured this out:
In a recent speech to southern Democrats in Atlanta, Bredesen summed up the Republican party platform as follows: “A traditional view of family, no abortion, no gay marriage, a central role for faith, gun over the mantel, low taxes, an assertive and combative view of American interests abroad.”
He then challenged his colleagues to sum up the Democratic party in less than 30 words. Nobody could oblige. Asked what his 30 words would be, he replied: “I don’t have any yet. I’d be delighted to tell you if I did.”
How do we get a growing economy and good jobs? I know the Republican answer: less taxes and regulation on business. It may be a good answer or a bad answer, but I know what it is. What's the Democrats' answer for growth and jobs? Heck if I know. How do we give families safe and supportive communities? I know the Republican answer: support traditional moral stances, passing laws to underline the stigma of things like premarital sex or homosexuality. It may be an awkward answer, but I know what it is. What's the Democrats' answer to give families the kinds of communities they want? I have no idea.
Howard Dean seems to think it's enough to describe voters' sensitivity to things like gay rights as simply "not logical fears". But of course underneath the gay-rights issue, the underlying fear that important social institutions might fray isn't irrational at all: witness the crime boom of the 70s and 80s, or the rise in divorce rates from about zero to fifty percent today. Megan McArdle had a good post on this. You can argue that the Republicans' answer to "fears for society" is wrongheaded, but it's not irrational to occasionally fear the risk of bad social change. (This is why Bill Clinton put such stress on wanting abortion to be "safe, legal and rare": he wanted to show he sympathized with people who saw abortions as a sign of social decay, and that even if he disagreed with them on whether to make laws against abortion itself, he was with them on their larger concerns about social breakdown.)
I can find individual Democratic leaders and think tanks suggesting all sorts of things. But we all know that parties never get to implement half of what they promise. So a party's core goals, whether they're "lower taxes" or "more civil rights laws", are a lot more important. A grab bag of nice-sounding policies is not the same as a clear party identity.
Of course, in the 1960s, the parties were in the opposite position from today: the Democrats had a clear platform based on civil rights laws, new social welfare programs, and business regulation, while the Republicans (except for the then-wacky Goldwater minority) stood for nothing in particular except not being Democrats. And it's probably no coincidence that back in the 1960s, the Democrats routinely stomped the Republicans. Unfortunately, today's Democratic leaders haven't updated their core answers since the 1960s.
People vote for a party because they like what it stands for. The Democrats don't have to have short snappy plans on every issue -- Reagan certainly didn't. But unless and until today's Democrats can settle on a few things they do stand for, they'll be running on tradition, not excitement. And tradition is all too obviously not enough to win a Democratic majority.
[E1] Added link to the Traffic Jam.
April 05, 2005
Real Tyrants Eat Protesters for Breakfast
You'd almost think a new era had come, in which dictators felt they couldn't get away with oppressing their people -- at least that's how it feels in the afterglow of the peaceful resignations of the rulers of Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Then you look at Belarus, where would-be protesters were immediately beaten up and hauled off to jail. Or Zimbabwe, where Mugabe literally restricts food for opposition voters and has left them so intimidated that they felt it wasn't even worth trying to stage protests of the dictator's rigged elections. Or Burma (Myanmar), where the junta continues to promise but not deliver an end to the policy of imprisoning opposition politicians. Or Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the dictators practice such a thorough policy of crushing potential opponents that no one even bothers to protest. Unfortunately, protesters' success in places like Ukraine amounts to winning in the easy places, not the hard ones. Nonviolent action can turn token democracies into real democracies. But the world's real tyrants, from North Korea to Zimbabwe, still happily starve, jail and kill all their opponents.
The world seems to be dividing into two extreme camps: countries that really are democratic, and countries that operate by total fear and repression. The nations in the middle, with real but corrupt elections and real but repressed politics, are getting pulled over to the side of true democracy. But the extreme villains aren't moderating. The countries that have just recently gone democratic have all been pretty mild on the scale of tyranny; Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine earned much better scores for liberty in 2003 than their fellow former Soviet republics Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Even Syria's puppet government in Lebanon was nowhere near as harsh as Kim Jong-Il's government in North Korea. In fact the statistics of the world's countries as a whole show this as a pattern: the extremes of true democracy and unlimited dictatorship are both more stable than countries that mix democracy and autocracy. And that's been true for at least the last couple of generations. Indians were able to use protests to get Britain to let India be independent, and South African blacks used largely nonviolent demonstrations and strikes to get equality from the white South African government; but protests completely failed to deter China from locking down its control over Tibet in the 1950s -- or shooting student and worker protesters around Tiananmen Square in 1989. Protests only work when the police and army aren't willing to shoot large numbers of civilians. Even today, a government whose police or soldiers are willing to shoot their fellow citizens can be as tyrannical as it wants.
So how do hard tyrants fall? If they're not overthrown by force, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and if they don't lose the loyalty of the army and police, like the Gang of Four in China, and if they aren't dependent on some outside army's backing as the European Communist despots were, then basically the world's worst tyrants seem to have it easy: they get to rule unchallenged until they die in their beds, like Stalin in Russia or Kim Il-Sung in North Korea. As far as history can tell us, if you want a really nasty tyrant to change his ways, you either have to threaten him with serious force, or shake the confidence of his police and army so that they turn on him, or wait until he dies of old age.
I'd love to know a better answer. But it looks like there's no getting away from the truth: real tyrants eat protesters for breakfast.
[E1] Added a link to our favorite Beltway Traffic Jam.
April 04, 2005
America's Grand Strategy: Preemptive Democracy
Our ultimate world policy goal used to be "less Communism," but now it's "more democracy." Clinton lifted the budget for democracy promotion from $100 million to $700 million, and under the Bush Administration we've seen those programs bear fruit in Serbia, Georgia, the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Bush in turn declined to take the easy way out and appoint a Musharraf-style dictator for Iraq, but has instead held out for what may yet be democracy there, not to mention encouraging moves toward democracy in Egypt and among the Palestinians. Cynically or not, it seems that now American foreign policy is to preemptively spread democracy.
This is a big change: before Clinton and G.W.Bush, democracy was always a real but modest American goal in the world. Democratic Party presidents emphasized stronger democracy as a side effect of helping America's friends, whether with Wilson's idealistic promises of self-determination to follow victory in World War I, Truman's Marshall Plan to deflate the appeal of European communist agitation or Kennedy's Peace Corps to do the same for the developing world; Republican presidents preferred democracy as the natural replacement for enemy governments, as when Reagan chastised the Communist bloc or Bush Sr. restored elected government to Panamá. But sometime in the last 10 years, everyone seems to have come around to the view that promoting democracy abroad is not just good for America's soul, but helps America's interests.
Maybe it's because democracies hardly ever go to war with other democracies. A world with more democracies is a world with fewer countries that are likely to go to war with us. A world with a really large fraction of democracies is a world with fewer countries that are likely to go to war with each other and drag the United States in after them. In an age in which we no longer have a "permanent enemy," spreading democracy seems like a good way to create permanent friends. Even France, our most hostile established democracy, still does a much better job of cooperating with us than Pakistan, our current favorite dictatorship.
A second reason, and maybe just as important, is that democracy -- especially constitutional law-abiding checks-and-balances democracy -- seems to go along with prosperity and honest government and most of the other good things we'd like to see in the world. So if we make democracy our ultimate goal, and if we define democracy as something more serious than an occasional rigged election, then that gives us an excuse and a measure for most of the other good things we hope for abroad.
But the best reason for us to spread democracy is that it puts America in the position of acting instead of reacting. For decades now, we've been surprised over and over as some badly-governed corner of the world jumps up and bites us in the rear. The Arab countries, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Panamá, Vietnam too -- all of them were showcases of lousy government long before they were dangers to American interests or American lives. And in practically every case, the cost of improving the situation in one of these soon-to-be war zones before it came to war would have been a lot less than the cost we actually paid in blood and treasure after war broke out. Very often we already were spending quite enough money, but it wasn't doing any good because we were so obsessed with "stability" -- and very often that corrupt supposed "stability" was exactly the problem. If we commit to taking each opportunity to spread democracy, we might be able to avert some wars instead of fighting them.
It would have cost us far less blood and treasure if we had shut down al-Qaeda in the early 90s. It would be nice if we really did shut down our next enemy, whoever they are, before they were enough of an enemy that we had to fight a war against them. Without a crystal ball, we can't know who that next enemy would be, and we can't afford to preemptively invade everywhere. But we can afford to preemptively spread democracy everywhere.
People suggest that America is an empire, and an empire, more or less, means a country that's strong enough to make laws not only for itself, but for other countries. I'd say that "thou shalt move gradually but steadily toward democracy" would be a pretty good law for America's Empire.
[E1] David Adesnik of Oxblog is suspicious of Democratic commitment to promoting democracy, perhaps because of Kerry's "let's go home" isolationist rhetoric in 2004. But Republican opponents of Clinton's foreign policy used isolationist phrases too. When Democrats actually have one of their own in the White House, the foreign policy has been consistently more pacifist but also consistently more willing to invest in peaceful democracy promotion than under Republicans -- compare Wilson, Truman, Kennedy and Clinton to realists like Nixon and Bush Senior.
April 02, 2005
Actually, our Soldiers Do Enjoy Killing People
Matthew Yglesias and Shakepeare's Sister express disgust at a security-company memo from Iraq that says it's "fun" to shoot certain people. With similar horror, Josh Chafetz of Oxblog, alarmed that there are people who enjoy the violence-for-violence's-sake movie Sin City, says he'd be disturbed if people enjoyed the Iraq war for its destructiveness. All of which suggests it's time to recall an impolite fact about our troops. Surely you wouldn't be surprised to hear that firefighters are often men who find fires exciting? Well, most of our Army soldiers who've volunteered for front-line infantry combat positions, and even more of our Marine riflemen, and practically all of our Special Operations troops, are -- impolite as it is to say it -- men who enjoy violence. They love being in danger and they love being dangerous. There's an important truth about our democracy hidden in the fact that our front-line soldiers enjoy killing people.
It seems wrong to even suggest such a thing, doesn't it? But the taste for violence runs all through the culture of our close-quarters combat troops. I don't mean the ordinary Army soldier or Navy sailor. But the units whose volunteers actually expect to see a lot of up close and personal violence are filled with people who joined the military precisely to get that kind of legitimized danger and excitement. They don't seek killing as such, in the sense that they're just as happy if a bad guy survives and surrenders as if he dies when they shoot him. But the violence matters; they really do seek fighting.
Combat troops compare having to call off a mission to being a dog dragged back from leaping at another dog. All the combat-intensive units get incredibly macho about how tough and danger-loving they can be, with the Army Rangers envying the rougher and tougher Special Forces, and the Special Forces getting jealous of the even more action-intensive Delta Force, and so on. The original recruiters for Delta Force asked for men who wanted a job where they'd get "plenty of danger, and no recognition." Marines will call seeing combat "getting some". That's about it. Our combat-intensive units are filled with men who look forward to violence the way most men look forward to sex.
Of course, these men take enormous pride in the fact that the violence they do is legitimate violence. In fact, the more combat a serviceman trains for, the less likely he is to be violent stupidly or carelessly. He can't afford to: on the battlefield, he and his teammates have to be able to trust each other with their lives, and that means he has to be absolutely reliable about never shooting anyone who doesn't need shooting. Marines will tell you about training to fight the "three-block war", where in city block 1 they're shooting terrorists and on city block 3 they're feeding kids, and they take enormous pride in being able to switch at an instant from killing to babysitting. Green Berets say "Be polite, be professional, and always have a plan to kill everyone you meet." It sounds like a joke, and at one level it is, but in truth the "polite and professional" parts of that saying are as important as the readiness to kill. It's the control and professionalism that their training gives that lets these men be comfortable with their addiction to being dangerous.
But it's dishonest to pretend that somehow our front-line fighting men don't enjoy being in a business that lets them be violent. They do enjoy it.
People like to pretend that we're all saints, or should be, but our country works becauses it harnesses our animal selves instead of denying them. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," said our Founding Fathers, when they set up the Constitution so that a selfish Congress and a selfish President would keep watch on one another; and "private interest can be made to serve public interest" is the watchword laid down by Adam Smith that underpins our ridiculously selfish, ridiculously successful capitalist economy. Mind you, I'd prefer more altruism in Congress, and maybe a better safety net in the economy, and if we could have it a less bloody way of making dictators behave. But our system works not because we lie about our vices, but because we make them work like virtues.
And if we can accept this about our soldiers, maybe it will make us smarter about our politicians. Certainly if we're serious about adopting a grand strategy of spreading democracy, it'd be a good idea to remember that democracy doesn't make countries' leaders wise or unselfish. (France, anybody?) What good government needs is for leaders' selfishness to be controlled through checks, balances and the ballot box. What a healthy combat soldier needs are the trained skills and attitudes that give him control over his pleasure in fighting. Politicians aren't angels. Soldiers aren't monks. And that's just fine.
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April 01, 2005
Why Bomb Iran When We Can Tax It?
Iran's mullahs depend on oil profits to stay in power; their oil tankers go out through the Arabian Sea; and the Arabian Sea is completely dominated by the American Navy. If diplomacy fails, and if we really believe that Iran's hardline clerics are on their way to being proud owners of a nuclear bomb or two, we don't need to invade Iran or even bomb their nuclear research sites. We can tax their oil.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the United States started hijacking one in every ten tankers of Iranian oil, sailing them to the USA, depositing the oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and putting the dollar value of the oil in an escrow account -- to be returned to the Iranian government when it gave up its nuclear program. In other words, a ten percent "nuclear compliance witholding tax" on Iran's oil revenues.
Or a tax of twenty percent, or thirty percent, or as much as it takes to send the message: give up the nukes or you don't get to pay your supporters the salaries that keep them supporting you.
Of course there are big reasons not to impose a hijacking-based compliance tax on Iran -- number one, it's a violation of most international norms for states that aren't at war. Number two, it'd scare the heck out of the Europeans and the Chinese, who'd immediately start worrying about the USA doing the same to their oil supplies. Number three, Iran might try to retaliate with terrorist attacks or strikes against other Gulf countries' oil shipping. Number four, just because we start squeezing the mullahs' oil supplies doesn't mean they'll instantly give in.
Obviously a hijacking-based compliance tax is a lot less attractive than diplomacy. If we can get Iran to give up nuclear weapons peacefully, that's much better than any other option. But if diplomacy fails, and if you think that an Iran with nuclear weapons is a Very Bad Thing, then as military options go, forcibly taxing their oil is a far better option than bombing or invasion.
Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran is mostly immune to ordinary trade sanctions because they can sell oil, and the world relies too much on that oil to do without it. And like North Korea, Iran's nuclear weapons facilities are so spread out, and in many cases so far undergound, that we can't stop Iran's nuclear program just by bombing a few particular sites. And like either country, invading Iran would likely mean losing thousands of lives.
But unlike both Hussein's Iraq and Kim Jong-Il's North Korea, the mullahs' Iran is not a "hard" dictatorship run by total mass-execution terror, but a "medium" dictatorship where the clerical rulers rely on the willing cooperation and support of a few key constituencies -- notably the police and militia forces and the conservative merchant class. And both those groups rely on oil revenue, either to pay their salaries (for the security forces) or to sustain enough economic action for their business empires (for the merchant elites). If Iran's leaders start losing their oil money, their power goes with it.
We can't just take all their oil tankers hostage, because then the mullahs would have no reason to ship the oil the world economy relies on in the first place. But if we take a "tax" percentage, and leave them the remaining fraction, then the mullahs are in a bind: they have to keep sending out the oil, or their government collapses in weeks. But with less revenue than they expected, they'll have to lay off or cut the pay and kickbacks of their supporters, which slowly erodes their power over months. And because America can always increase the tax percentage, America has "escalation dominance" -- as bad as only having two-thirds of their income is, we could always reduce that to one-half, or one-third, or however painful we want to make it. We can shut Iran down without ever setting foot on Iranian soil.
If we start taxing their oil, the mullahs will face the choice of losing power slowly, or losing power quickly -- or doing what we ask, and getting out of the nuclear weapons business. Because of the United States' Strategic Petroleum Reserve, we can survive without their oil longer than they can. And while they could try retaliating with terrorist attacks or assaults on other countries' oil tankers (Iran has a big collection of antiship missiles at the Straits of Hormuz leading out of the Persian Gulf), we can put them on notice that we'll respond to any Iranian action by increasing our tax percentage another twenty or thirty percent. If we give them the choice of losing nukes and keeping oil, or losing oil while keeping a nuclear program, they'll keep the oil -- because without the oil, they lose the country.
Negotiations with the mullahs keep failing, because while they'd like more trade, what the mullahs really like is power, and they've got that already -- so we don't have anything important to offer. But if we put our power over their oil, then we have Iran's rulers by the throat -- without dropping a bomb or a soldier on Iranian soil.
Try diplomacy first: they're not that close to nukes yet, if the intelligence agencies are right (and I really hope they are this time). But if diplomacy fails, don't bomb, and don't invade: tax Iran's oil.