The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

No Win

As the Libyan war devolves into chaos, the Western word is faced with still another in a long line of no-win Middle-Eastern debacles. On the one hand, we have a certifiably insane, genocidal thug (Gaddafi) who clings to power. On the side of the Libyan “freedom” forces (the MSM's rediculous characterization) we have the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which according to ABC News is “the movement [with] an impressive history of supporting jihadist causes, having worked with al-Qaeda for more than a decade.

A commenter at The Belmont Club, “Subotai Bahadur,” states the situation rather eloquently. He’s talking about Libya, but his comments apply equally to any country in the Arab crescent. They should be pondered whenever you hear a naïve talking head (or our President) discuss the “freedom” agenda in the Middle East:
There is no burnoose-clad Thomas al-Jefferson waiting his opportunity. Nor a Libyan Locke or Adam Smith squatting in Benghazi pondering the relationship of man and the state, or the making of needles. The rise of a democratic and republican society requires a culture of both self reliance and general trust. You have to have a sense of self and self worth in a society, and at least a knowledge of what a rule of law means. These are people whose very religion literally is “submission”, which regards anyone who is beyond the bounds of immediate family and tribe as a hostile outsider, which regards anyone not Muslim and half of Muslims as chattel. They have a history not only of authoritarian rule as far back as it goes; they have not even had real exposure to what Western Democracy is. They were colonized, not by Britain; but by royal and Fascist Italy.

Any stability we may impose will be at great cost to ourselves and an even greater cost to the locals. It will be temporary. And whatever deluge that we arrest by our temporary presence will be merely pent up for later release. And those very entities that want us to undertake the heavy lifting, the UN and EU, will castigate us for over-reacting, under-reacting, and for the fact that we intervened in the first place; even though they themselves both asked for it and were unable to do anything themselves.

The thought of any sort of American intervention in Libya is an absolute no-win situation. Absent the appearance of a vital US national interest in Libya [and keeping the oil taps open for Europe does not constitute such in my mind], it is not worth the life of one US soldier; even if we had the strategic cushion to attempt it.

I have a very bad feeling that this will not turn out well. We live in interesting times.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Big Government Interests

Politico reports on an interview aired on Meet the Press:
CNBC's Rick Santelli on Sunday compared the budget crises affecting state and federal balance sheets to a Sept. 11-type attack on the nation.

"If the country is ever attacked as it was on 9/11, we all respond with a sense of urgency," Santelli said in a roundtable discussion on NBC's "Meet the Press" about the Wisconsin labor protests. "What’s going on on balance sheets throughout the country is the same type of attack.”

In response a commenter wrote: “Rick Santelli is an apologist for big corporate interests who haven't paid taxes and Republicans who have avoided paying fair taxes for generations while Beijing collects the interest on our debt.”

This sentiment is common among those who condemn attempts to reign in government spending and control the near monopoly efforts of public sector unions to set the conditions for their own generous benefits packages in ways that are unheard of in the private sector.

I find it fascinating that “big corporate interests” is always used in a pejorative sense among those on the Left. Why are they so angry at “big corporate interests” and so sanguine about “big government interests?”

After all, virtually every state government employs far more people than its largest resident corporation. Government exhibits a level of mind-numbing bureaucracy that sometimes works at counter-purposes to its citizens. Government extracts money directly from taxpayers whether they use its services or not. Government is rife with fraud and abuse, wasting millions if not billions of dollars that could otherwise be pumped directly into more productive economic endeavors.

And yet, corporations are evil … why? Because they sometimes earn a profit? Because they gainfully employ citizens who might otherwise require taxpayer assistance? Because they are the economic engine that drives this country?

To be clear, we need government at the local, state, and federal level. But do we need a government that is ever-expanding, inefficient, and downright rapacious? Many of us in the Center have begun to say “no” to big government interests. I have to wonder why those who are anti-corporate don’t think likewise.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Folly and Illegitimacy

In what is becoming an increasing common occurrence, the Obama administration has thrown another staunch ally under the bus, at least half-way. When the Palestinian Authority approached its friends at the U.N. with a resolution making Israel’s apartment construction in Jerusalem and housing development in Hebron “illegal,” the Obama administration vetoed it. So far, so good.

But the story doesn’t end there, although you’d think so given the lack of coverage in the MSM. Immediately following the U.N vote, something else happened.

William Jacobson reports:
… the U.S. was all too happy to sign onto a Presidential Statement from the President of the Security Council denouncing the "illegitimacy" of Israeli settlements. This proposed compromise was rejected by Abbas, despite a phone call from Obama. The U.S. was willing to throw Israel under the bus, but not all the way; throwing our friends only half-way under the bus is what passes for standing by our friends these days.

But it was far worse. The statement made by [U.N. Ambassador] Susan Rice immediately after the vote was outrageously one-sided, the type of pandering to the worst elements in the world which has become a pattern for Obama's foreign policy:
Our opposition to the resolution before this Council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace…

While we agree with our fellow Council members—and indeed, with the wider world—about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. We therefore regrettably have opposed this draft resolution.

In the telescopic view of the Obama administration, more than 60 years of Arab rejectionism means nothing.

The rejection of the 1947 U.N. partition plan never happened; the war to drive the Jews into the sea never happened; the terrorist attacks on Israel prior to 1967 never happened; the rejection of multiple attempts at territorial compromise during the Clinton administration never happened; the deliberate launch of "intifadas" after Israel proposed compromise never happened; Hamas in Gaza never happened; dozens of suicide bombings killing hundreds of Israelis never happened; continued anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the Palestinian territories never happened; and I could go on and on.

No, the only thing the Obama administration deemed worthy of condemning in Amb. Rice's statement was Israeli settlement activity.

Why didn’t Rice also condemn the near continuous violence directed by the Palestinians toward the Israelis or the virulently anti-Semitic culture that pervades Gaza and the West Bank, or the rampant corruption that keeps Palestinians in poverty? Nah, she’s against building apartments and houses in Israel ... all the other stuff—no matter.

Those of us who warned that Barack Obama would be the first President in history to take a decidedly anti-Israel tone were dismissed by the President’s adoring supporters. When Susan Rice presented a blatantly anti-Israel position, she tried to mask it with faux concern for Israel, using the tired meme that building houses and apartments “has undermined Israel’s security.” Oh yeah, the Obama administration is so, so concerned about Israel's future. It's positively heartwarming.

I have to wonder whether the President's shrinking number of supporters in the Jewish community will blithely disregard Rices' outrageous statements or whether they'll come to recognize that her words are representative of the President’s feckless attempts at foreign policy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


A groundswell of criticism, even from some on the Left, has greeted the President's budget proposal. Terms like "unserious" and "cynical" are bandied about, not by Barack Obama's enemies, but by his friends. Only the most delusional partisans have leaped to his defense and even they can't defend the math. Barack Obama wants to spend still more money and then promises to fix the problem 10 years out. If he's thwarted, he threatens a veto and a government shutdown. It's as if stopping granny's social security check is a viable political strategy. Incredible.

Richard Fernandez (Wretchard) of the Belmont Club answers a question that every MSM outlet should be asking every day. Can the President's delusional budget recommendations be taken seriously, and if they are, how much longer can big government spending and the resultant debt go on?
The obvious answer is ‘not much longer’. Obama’s budget isn’t in trouble with Congress. It’s in trouble with arithmetic. It’s in trouble with a shrinking tax base and rising energy prices. Maybe you can’t fight city hall, but not even city hall can fight reality.

At some point the realization that the system can’t deliver sets in. This has the curious effect of freeing people from having to defer to it. Who gives a damn about dissing the political boss if he can’t pay you anyhow? He becomes a windbag dispensing empty promises and stupid boasts. But everyone knows he’s got no more game because they saw his wife at the hock shop and they know it’s over.

This collapse of prestige is happening already. The President has become a bystander to events he pretends to control. But only the claques still affect to believe it.

Only when the public, the Congress, and the President process the notion that there will be pain, can we begin to solve these problems. When they have the courage to tell us the truth, can we begin to drag ourselves out of this economic morass.

The pain? No one wants to hear about it as evidenced by teacher strikes today in Wisconsin (echoes of Greece anyone?). But anger and mass demonstrations don't change reality. We've spent too much, provided too many entitlement to too many people, kicked the can down the road repeatedly, and now?

Half a government pension is a whole lot better than none at all. A 10 percent reduction in government salary is a whole lot better than mass public sector layoffs. Brutal winnowing of wasteful social programs is a whole lot better than no help for those who really need it. Reduced funding for the military represents a far better national security option than government default.

Or maybe, like Barack Obama and his ideological supporters, we can fight against arithmetic. Yeah, that'll work. Sure it will.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Voting 'Present'

In what amounts to a profound lack of leadership melded with a cynical political ploy, President Obama has submitted a 2012 budget that does absolutely nothing to cut spending this year or next. The Wall Street Journal comments:
From hard experience, we know that what matters are the cuts and reforms a White House is willing to make now. The Obama budget doesn't cut a penny from the deficit in the last seven months of fiscal 2011. Over the next three years—through 2013—the spending reductions in this budget add up to a paltry $20 billion net, out of a projected $3.5 trillion deficit. That's a 0.57% reduction in red ink and less than what the feds spend every two days.

As the President continues to kick the can down the road, it’s instructive to note that in the lead-up to the Obama’s budget, Democratic leaders and their media spokespeople roundly criticized Republicans for only cutting $100 billion from this year’s budget, suggesting that in a 3.7 trillion dollar budget, they could do much more. The Republican’s proposed cuts for 2011 are almost five times what Obama intends to cut in next 3 years.

It appears that Barack Obama does not understand that the President is supposed to lead, not follow. He’s afraid (that is the right word) to make hard choices for fear of alienating his big government base. Instead, he waits like a child for the adults in a Republican-majority House to make hard choices, and will then join the chorus of Democratic demagoguery that is sure to follow.

A year ago, Obama appointed a non-partisan commission to make budget reduction recommendations. In his budget, the President studiously avoided implementing a single one of the commission's recommendations, leading to criticism by Erskine Bowles, the commission's Democratic co-chairman.

The fact that current spending is unsustainable, that it will damage the country, and hurt the very people he purports to care most about, does not appear to penetrate the President’s ideological belief system. The fact that he’s saddling our children and grandchildren with unsustainable debt seems of no concern. The fact that he refuses to propose changes to major entitlements is to him a smart political strategy in the Chicago style. As a senator, Barack Obama often voted “present” whenever a tough vote occurred. Tells you something about the man.

He’s confident that by doing nothing—by voting present—he can cast the people who do make hard choices as the villains, and as a consequence, gain political advantage. One can only hope that the electorate sees past the hand-wringing that is sure to follow and sees the President’s lack of leadership for what it is—a venal display of political opportunism.

Whistling through the Graveyard

Who ever thought that a game show would be a harbinger for cataclysmic change? We’re witnessing it this week as “Watson”—IBM’s first generation semantic information processor (a.k.a. artificial intelligence)—goes up against past human champions on the quiz show Jeopardy. So far, Watson is holding it’s own, but at the end of the day, the winner really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that Watson is one noteworthy step in a long line of hardware and software achievements that will lead to strong A.I. and ultimately, what Ray Kurzweil calls—“The Singularity.” A quick description is in order:
The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence. There are several technologies that are often mentioned as heading in this direction. The most commonly mentioned is probably Artificial Intelligence, but there are others: direct brain-computer interfaces, biological augmentation of the brain, genetic engineering, ultra-high-resolution scans of the brain followed by computer emulation. Some of these technologies seem likely to arrive much earlier than the others, but there are nonetheless several independent technologies all heading in the direction of the Singularity – several different technologies which, if they reached a threshold level of sophistication, would enable the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence.

A future that contains smarter-than-human minds is genuinely different in a way that goes beyond the usual visions of a future filled with bigger and better gadgets. Vernor Vinge originally coined the term "Singularity" in observing that, just as our model of physics breaks down when it tries to model the singularity at the center of a black hole, our model of the world breaks down when it tries to model a future that contains entities smarter than human.

As Watson demonstrates, we are approaching the knee of the technology evolution curve, where change occurs exponentially, rather than linearly. Because humans are conditioned to observe the word in a linear way, we look at the rapid fire advances in computing and shake our heads in amazement.

And yet, because we are linear beings, we have trouble extrapolating into the near term future and understanding that exponential technology improvements will lead to profound, disruptive, and yes, even dangerous changes in what it means to be human.

That’s why Stephen Baker writes:
It's all too easy to see Watson do its thing and conclude that legions of such machines will soon relieve us of our brainwork and our jobs, if not our souls. In fact, machines like Watson will no doubt displace people who are paid to answer questions, probably starting with telephone call centers.

But humans will adjust, as we always have. When our inventions, from tractors and cotton gins to spell-checking software, take over certain chores, we move to niches beyond the range of these tools. And believe me, after watching Watson in action for a year, I can assure you that there's plenty of room in the work world for the still-peerless human mind.

You see, Watson isn't nearly as smart as it looks on TV. Outside of its specialty of answering questions, the computer remains largely clueless. It knows nothing. When it comes up with an answer, such as "What is 'Othello?,'" the name of Shakespeare's play is simply the combination of ones and zeros that correlates with millions of calculations it has carried out. Statistics tell it that there is a high probability that the word "Othello" matches with a "tragedy," a "captain" and a "Moor." But Watson doesn't understand the meaning of those words any more than Google does, or, for that matter, a parrot raised in a household of Elizabethan scholars.

Watson is incapable of coming up with fresh ideas, much less creating theories, cracking jokes, telling a story or carrying on a conversation. Its ability is simply to make sense of questions and then scour a trove of data for the most likely answers. It represents a dramatic advance in artificial intelligence, but like another famous IBM computer, Deep Blue, Watson excels on a limited playing field, in a game defined by clear, rigid rules.

Baker is whistling through the graveyard, mouthing all of the clichés that are a consequence of a linear view of technology and the world. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that our brains are biochemical “computers” that store information, establish complex relationships between information elements, receive inputs, and provide outputs.

Baker is correct when he states that Watson “is incapable of coming up with fresh ideas, much less creating theories, cracking jokes, telling a story or carrying on a conversation.” For now. But computing technology is improving exponentially, not linearly, and by the mid-point of this century, it is highly probable that strong A.I. will exist. That means an intelligence that is fully capable of “coming up with fresh ideas, much less creating theories, cracking jokes, telling a story or carrying on a conversation.”

And then … what? What happens as exponential improvement continues and the intelligence that is equal to ours becomes far, far superior to ours? Not in centuries, but in years. How do we evolve? Those are the questions that are yet unanswerable, but they’re coming … soon.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fancy over Fact

In light of the results of the November election, the looming budget crisis, and out-of-control federal spending, it would seem incomprehensible that the Obama administration would champion still more spending on a project that is doomed to become still another budget buster even before it begins. But the President never ceases to amaze.

Robert Samuelson reports:
WASHINGTON -- Vice President Joe Biden, an avowed friend of good government, is giving it a bad name. With great fanfare, he went to Philadelphia the other day to announce that the Obama administration proposes spending $53 billion over six years to construct a "national high-speed rail system." Translation: the administration would pay states $53 billion to build rail networks that would then lose money -- not a little, but lots -- and, thereby, aggravate the budget squeezes of the states or federal government, depending on which covered the deficits.

There's something wildly irresponsible about the national government's undermining states' already poor long-term budget prospects by plying them with grants that provide short-term jobs. Worse, the high-speed rail proposal casts doubt on the administration's commitment to reducing huge budget deficits (its 2012 budget is due Monday). How can it subdue deficits if it keeps proposing big new spending programs?

High-speed rail would definitely be big. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has estimated the administration's ultimate goal -- bringing high-speed rail to 80 percent of the population -- could cost $500 billion over 25 years. For this stupendous sum, there would be scant public benefits. Precisely the opposite. Rail subsidies would threaten funding for more pressing public needs: schools, police, defense.

Worse, it won’t work. Like Amtrac, high speed rail will require massive government subsidies (money we cannot afford), will do almost nothing to improve our transportation infrastructure, will do little if anything to improve the environment, and will be wildly expensive (e.g., one way from NYC to DC on Amtrac: $139.00; one way by bus: about $40.00, both originating from inner city locations.)

Samuelson summarizes nicely:
It [high speed rail] is a triumph of fancy over fact. Even if ridership increased fifteenfold over Amtrak levels, the effects on congestion, national fuel consumption and emissions would still be trivial. Land use patterns would change modestly, if at all; cutting 20 minutes off travel times between New York and Philadelphia wouldn't much alter real estate development in either. Nor is high-speed rail a technology where the United States would likely lead; European and Asian firms already dominate the market.

Governing ought to be about making wise choices. What's disheartening about the Obama administration's embrace of high-speed rail is that it ignores history, evidence and logic. The case against it is overwhelming. The case in favor rests on fashionable platitudes. High-speed rail is not an "investment in the future"; it's mostly a waste of money. Good government can't solve all our problems, but it can at least not make them worse.

Unfortunately, whether it’s domestic or foreign policy, President Obama’s first term is increasingly becoming “a triumph of fancy over fact.” Not good for him, and far more important, not good for the country.

Update: (2/17/11)

It appears that The Washington Post, certainly no adversary of the Obama administration, concurs with the above analysis and thinks that high speed rail is a boondoggle. The Post's editors write:
When it comes to high-speed rail, Europe, Japan and Taiwan have two natural advantages over every region of the United States, with the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor - high gas taxes and high population density. If high-speed rail turned into a money pit under relatively favorable circumstances [in Europe and Asia], imagine the subsidies it would require here. Every dollar spent to subsidize high-speed rail is a dollar that cannot be spent modernizing highways, expanding the freight rail system or creating private-sector jobs. The Obama administration insists we dare not lag the rest of the world in high-speed rail. Actually, this is a race everyone loses.

I sometimes get the feeling that Barack Obama idealizes any modern country that isn't the United States. The problem is that he seems intellectually incapable of objectively analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the foreign programs he idolizes (e.g., health care, high speed rail) in Europe and Asia and barrels headlong into emulation. Maybe its because he's never had private sector experience, but his uncritical rush to be like them (regardless of profound cultural, economic, geographic and population differences) is doing a disservice to the country he purports to lead.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Meat Cleaver

There’s little doubt that the political fight over deficit and spending reductions will have liberal-Left Democrats demonizing those who suggest that spending on programs, such as the earned income tax credit, can be cut. As you probably know, 47 percent of our populace pay no income taxes whatsoever. None. A significant percentage of those who pay nothing actually get something instead—a check, euphemistically called an earned income tax credit. The intent, however well intentioned, is nothing more than a transfer payment from those who pay taxes to those who do not.

Today, we learn that the Inspector General for Tax Administration issued a report with the following statement:
The GAO has listed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Program as having the second highest dollar amount of improper payments of all Federal programs. The IRS has made little improvement in reducing EITC improper payments since 2002 when it was first required to report estimates of these payments to Congress. The IRS continues to report that 23% - 28% of EITC payments are issued improperly each year. In Fiscal Year 2009, this equated to $11 billion to $13 billion in EITC improper payments.

Hmmm. $11 – 13 billion in “improper” payments in one year. $100 billion over the last decade! And that’s just one government program.

I’m beginning to think that the only solution to deficit reduction is to take a meat clever to the problem—a 10 percent across the board cut in every government program (including entitlements) for three consecutive years. The administrators of each federal bureacracy (along with Congress) would then be tasked by the President with prioritizing needs, reducing waste and fraud (which is rampant) and living with 10 percent less. If they do a poor job, the voters will have the last word at the ballot box by electing leaders who can get the bureaucracy in line. To do this, congress would have to modify the civil service system so that mid-level functionaries could be fired for non-performance. Given that hundreds of thousands of competent middle managers are out of work, it might not be a bad idea to replace incompetent public sector management with a people who have private sector experience.

Dream on.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

What, Me Worry?

When I was a boy, the premier comic periodical for boys in the 12 – 18 age group was Mad Magazine. Mad’s iconic spokesperson was Alfred E. Newman, a weird little kid who graced almost every cover of the magazine. His signature quote was: "What, Me Worry?"

When asked about the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in some future Egyptian government, President Obama channeled Alfred E. Newman. He all but dismissed the worry that over some period of time, the MB would become a dominant force in Egyptian politics. Adopting a meme that has permeated his administration and its legion of media supporters, he shrugged his shoulders and suggested that the MB was a small fringe in Egyptian politics and that there is little cause to worry.

For those who might not be aware of it, here’s the operative sentence in the MB charter:
Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, Jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu akbar!

Of course, those on the Left will find nothing troubling in this statement, insisting that it be interpreted in the “religion of peace” mold. Never mind that the MB is virulently anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic, and the progenitor of Al Qaida and other terrorist groups. Never mind that the MB advocates Sharia law, not just for Egypt, but for the entire world! Never mind that MB wants to abrogate the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, tried to assassinate Gamal Abd an-Nasser, is a backer of terrorist groups Hamas and Hezballah, and a key supporter of Chechen terrorists who just killed 30-plus people in a Moscow airport.

Our President seems convinced that the MB will either (1) sit this out and remain passive as the government changes or (2) become a reasonable and productive faction in the “new” Egyptian government. "What, Me Worry?"

Friday, February 04, 2011

What’s the Matter?

In an interesting article on “How Democracy Can Work in the Middle East,” Fareed Zakaria provides an outline of the potential for and impediments to a democratic Egypt. But then he writes:
I remain convinced that fears of an Egyptian theocracy are vastly overblown. Shi'ite Iran is a model for no country — certainly not a Sunni Arab society like Egypt. The nation has seen both Mubarak and Iran's mullahs and wants neither. More likely is the prospect of an "illiberal democracy," in which Egypt becomes a country with reasonably free and fair elections, but the elected majority restricts individual rights and freedoms, curtails civil society and uses the state as its instrument of power. The danger, in other words, is less Iran than Russia.

But in the preceding paragraph, Zacharia himself notes the results of an 8-month old Pew Research poll:
When the Pew Research Center surveyed the Arab world last April, it found that Egyptians have views that would strike the modern Western eye as extreme. Pew found that 82% of Egyptians support stoning as a punishment for adultery, 84% favor the death penalty for Muslims who leave the religion, and in the struggle between "modernizers" and "fundamentalists," 59% identify with fundamentalists.

He tries to nullify these data by citing a poll conducted in 2007, but a lot has changed in the Arab world since then. And in the end, he suggests that we roll the dice and support Egypt’s move toward “democracy.”
My hope is that Egypt avoids this path. I cannot tell you in all honesty that it will. But much evidence suggests that democracy in Egypt could work.

Democracy “could” work? Just like it “could” have worked in Iran in the late 1970s, or Gaza in the early part of the past decade, Zacharia’s gamble is very high risk, and the downside will be a disaster for U.S. foreign policy in the region. But what worries me isn’t Fareed Zakaria. It’s that the Obama administration seems more than willing to make the same catastrophic mistakes as the Carter administration did in Iran. I can only hope that Obama’s advisors are not as naïve as the President appears to be.

It seems as if Zacharia and many of his counterparts in the MSM and at the White House are shocked that Egyptian efforts to overthrow an autocratic ruler have devolved into violence. It’s as if they’re asking “What’s the matter with Egypt? Why can’t they do what we want them to do?”

Fareed Zacharia dances around those core questions, but Victor Davis Hansen answers them with his characteristically brutal honesty and insight:
So what’s the matter with Egypt? The same thing that is the matter with most of the modern Middle East: in the post-industrial world, its hundreds of millions now are vicariously exposed to the affluence and freedom of the West via satellite television, cell phones, the internet, DVDs, and social networks.

And they become angry that, in contrast to what they see and hear from abroad, their own lives are unusually miserable in the most elemental sense. Of course, there is no introspective Socrates on hand and walking about to remind the Cairo or Amman Street that their corrupt government is in some part a reification of themselves, who in their daily lives see the world in terms of gender apartheid, tribalism, religious intolerance, conspiracies, fundamentalism, and statism that are incompatible with a modern, successful, capitalist democracy.

That is, a century after the onset of modern waste treatment science, many of the cities in the Middle East smell of raw sewage. A century after we learned about microbes and disease, the water in places like Cairo is undrinkable from the tap. Six decades after the knowledge of treating infectious disease, millions in the Middle East suffer chronic pain and suffer from maladies that are easily addressed in the West. And they have about as much freedom as the Chinese, but without either the affluence or the confidence. That the Gulf and parts of North Africa are awash in oil and gas, at a time of both near record prices and indigenous control of national oil treasures, makes the ensuing poverty all the more insulting.

But what’s even more insulting is that the leaders of the politically correct West dance around these issues and never, I mean never, directly addresses their underlying causes. After all, it’s easier to blame the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s the reason that “gender apartheid, tribalism, religious intolerance, conspiracies, fundamentalism, and statism” are endemic in the Arab world, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s time for some straight talk from Western leaders … yeah, right.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Social Media

As events in Egypt turn ugly (a predictable outcome that was obvious to all but the most naïve onlookers), commentatators within the American main stream media seem shocked that the young, urban, mostly liberal Egyptians who used Facebook and Twitter to organize their protests would be drawn into violent confrontations on the street. In fact, the MSM seems more interested in vacuous discussion of the “impact” of social media than they are with the underlying issues and the real players who are vying for power in a now chaotic Egypt.

Marko Papic and Sean Noonan of STRATFOR provide an excellent analysis of the benefits and limitations of social media in a revolutionary environment. Unlike the wide-eyed blather that comes out of NBC or CNN, Papic and Noonan’s detailed analysis provides insight. They write:
The role of social media in protests and revolutions has garnered considerable media attention in recent years. Current conventional wisdom has it that social networks have made regime change easier to organize and execute. An underlying assumption is that social media is making it more difficult to sustain an authoritarian regime — even for hardened autocracies like Iran and Myanmar — which could usher in a new wave of democratization around the globe. In a Jan. 27 YouTube interview, U.S. President Barack Obama went as far as to compare social networking to universal liberties such as freedom of speech.

Social media alone, however, do not instigate revolutions. They are no more responsible for the recent unrest in Tunisia and Egypt than cassette-tape recordings of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini speeches were responsible for the 1979 revolution in Iran. Social media are tools that allow revolutionary groups to lower the costs of participation, organization, recruitment and training. But like any tool, social media have inherent weaknesses and strengths, and their effectiveness depends on how effectively leaders use them and how accessible they are to people who know how to use them.

Most Middle eastern countries access to the Internet is limited to a small percentage of the population—mostly young, educated, urban and relatively well-off. In Egypt, for example, less than 16 percent of the population has Internet access. The authors comment:
Eventually, a successful revolutionary movement has to appeal to the middle class, the working class, retirees and rural segments of the population, groups that are unlikely to have Internet access in most developing countries. Otherwise, a movement could quickly find itself unable to control the revolutionary forces it unleashed or being accused by the regime of being an unrepresentative fringe movement. This may have been the same problem that Iranian protestors experienced in 2009.

The conditions that lead to street protests have little to do with social media. In fact, Papic and Noonan write:
Shutting down the Internet did not reduce the numbers of Egyptian protesters in the streets. In fact, the protests only grew bigger as websites were shut down and the Internet was turned off. If the right conditions exist a revolution can occur, and social media do not seem to change that. Just because an Internet-based group exists does not make it popular or a threat. There are Facebook groups, YouTube videos and Twitter posts about everything, but that does not make them popular. A neo-Nazi skinhead posting from his mother’s basement in Illinois is not going to start a revolution in the United States, no matter how many Internet posts he makes or what he says. The climate must be ripe for revolution, due to problems like inflation, deflation, food shortages, corruption and oppression, and the population must be motivated to mobilize. Representing a new medium with dangers as well as benefits, social media do not create protest movements; they only allow members of such movements to communicate more easily.

So why are Western MSM outlets so focused on social media within the context of the Egyption revolution? To be frank, it allows them to be lazy, to observe the evolution of events in real time without having boots on the ground. The problem is that using social media as a window into the landscape of a revolution is like understanding the breadth and depth of the Grand Canyon by looking at it through a cardboard toilet paper roll. Papic and Noonan comment:
The popularity of social media, one of many outgrowths of the Internet, may actually be isolated to international media observation from afar. We can now watch protest developments in real time, instead of after all the reports have been filed and printed in the next day’s newspaper or broadcast on the nightly news. Western perceptions are often easily swayed by English-speaking, media-savvy protestors who may be only a small fraction of a country’s population. This is further magnified in authoritarian countries where Western media have no choice but to turn to Twitter and YouTube to report on the crisis, thus increasing the perceived importance of social media.

The MSM does us all a disservice by avoiding the underlying issues associated with the chaos unfolding on the streets of Egypt. But that’s nothing new. If the underlying events don’t fit the MSM’s narrative, they are discarded or muted and replaced with something that does.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Street Level

One of the problems I often encounter when watching main stream media outlets or reading what used to be the definitive national newspapers or magazines is that I’m only getting half the story—the part that fits the Left-leaning narrative of the vast majority of MSM editors and reporters. I have had that feeling over the past week as the unrest in Egypt unfolded.

If you are to believe CNN or The New York Times, the Egyptian demonstrators are a collection of peaceful, college educated activists who are striving for utopian freedom. They are revolting against a tyrannical dictator with no redeeming values who has raped and pillaged his country for 30 years. Power to the people!

Islamist thugs who lurk in the background biding time before they make their move are mentioned only in passing. The dangers of “change” in a major Arab country are discussed only in the abstract and illusions to the Iranian Revolution are muted even when they do occur (which is rarely).

But then, along comes Sam Tadros, an Egyptian student who is on the ground in Cairo. Tadros provides an unvarnished look at the revolution from street level—a look that the MSM cannot or will not provide. Reinforcing a meme that has been beaten to death my the MSM, Tadros agrees that social media tools have had a major impact. But unlike the MSM, he provides us with useful insight:
For an apolitical generation that had never shown interest in such events the demonstration [in Cairo’s streets] was unprecedented. More remarkable they were tremendously exaggerated. At a moment when no more than 500 demonstrators had started gathering in that early morning, an Egyptian opposition leader could confidently tweet that he was leading 100,000 in Tahrir Square. And it stuck.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that after 58 years of organized state propaganda, people would not believe for a second the government's media machine and its coverage of the events. Why they chose to believe the alternative propaganda needs more explaining. People believed the twitter messages and the facebook postings because they wanted to believe them.

As the situation on the streets devolved, Tadros describes the chaos which was noted only peripherally in the MSM:
Saturday was indescribable. Nothing that I write can describe the utter state of lawlessness that prevailed. Every Egyptian prison was attacked by organized groups trying to free the prisoners inside. In the case of the prisons holding regular criminals this was done by their families and friends. In the case of the prisons with the political prisoners this was done by the Islamists. Bulldozers were used in those attacks and the weapons available from the looting of police stations were available. Nearly all the prisons fell. The prison forces simply could not deal with such an onslaught and no reinforcements were available. Nearly every terrorist held in the Egyptian prisons from those that bombed the Alexandria Church less than a month ago to the Murderer of Anwar El Sadat was freed, the later reportedly being arrested again tonight.

On the streets of Cairo it was the scene of a jungle. With no law enforcement in town and the army at a loss at how to deal with it, it was the golden opportunity for everyone. In a city that is surrounded with slums, thousands of thieves fell on their neighboring richer districts. People were robbed in broad daylight, houses were invaded, and stores looted and burned. Egypt had suddenly fallen back to the State of Nature. Panicking, people started grabbing whatever weapon they could find and forming groups to protect their houses. As the day progressed the street defense committees became more organized.

And the future? Again, more insight from a Egyptian college student than Anderson Cooper, Nikolas Kristof and Cristianne Amanpour combined:
Security wise the situation is a disaster. It might take months to arrest all those criminals again. Moreover no one has a clue how the weapons that were stolen will ever be collected again or how the security will ever regain its necessary respect to restore public order after it was defeated in 4 hours. More importantly, reports indicate that the borders in Gaza were open for the past few days. What exactly was transferred between Gaza and Egypt is anyone's guess.

You seem to wonder after all of this where El Baradei and the Egyptian opposition are. CNN's anointed leader of the Egyptian Revolution must be important to the future of Egypt. Hardly! Outside of Western media hype, El Baradei is nothing. A man that has spent less than 30 days in the past year in Egypt and hardly any time in the past 20 years is a nobody. It is entirely insulting to Egyptians to suggest otherwise. The opposition you wonder? Outside of the Muslim Brotherhood we are discussing groups that can each claim less than 5,000 actual members. With no organization, no ideas, and no leaders they are entirely irrelevant to the discussion. It is the apolitical young generation that has suddenly been transformed that is the real question here.

Where Egypt will go from here is an enigma.

Sadly, bad people who have organization and brutal methods (a.k.a. the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood) tend to fill a power vacuum much more rapidly that urbanites with liberal goals. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen in Egypt, that the Army takes over and a stable transition of power occurs. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Two Paradigms

Pundits on both the Left and the Right argue that the regime of Hozni Mubarak must go, and many urge President Obama to take a hard line with Egypt’s strongman, including withholding all foreign aid. The purpose is to allow the Egyptian people to create a liberal democracy.

As I mentioned in the last post, these recommendations have an eerie similarity to those that were offered when the Shah of Iran was deposed in the late 1970s.

Caroline Glick is one of the few hard-eyed realists who recognize the dangers of these recommendations. She writes:
The problem with this recommendation is that it is based entirely on the nature of Mubarak's regime. If the regime was the biggest problem, then certainly removing US support for it would make sense. However, the character of the protesters is not liberal. Indeed, their character is a bigger problem than the character of the regime they seek to overthrow.

According to a Pew opinion survey of Egyptians from June, 2010, 59 percent said they back Islamists. Only 27% said they back modernizers. Half of Egyptians support Hamas. Thirty percent support Hizbullah and 20% support al Qaida. Moreover, 95% of them would welcome Islamic influence over their politics.

When this preference is translated into actual government policy, it is clear that the Islam they support is the al Qaida Salafist version.

Eighty two percent of Egyptians support executing adulterers by stoning, 77% support whipping and cutting the hands off thieves. 84% support executing any Muslim who changes his religion.

When given the opportunity, the crowds on the street are not shy about showing what motivates them. They attack Mubarak and his new Vice President Omar Suleiman as American puppets and Zionist agents. The US, protesters told CNN's Nick Robertson, is controlled by Israel. They hate and want to destroy Israel. That is why they hate Mubarak and Suleiman.

The naïve assumption that Mubarak’s pro-Western dictatorship will be replaced by a liberal democracy is fantasy. In all likelihood, any new regime will morph into an anti-Western, Islamist theocracy.

But why have both the Left and the Right jettisoned the Pro-Western Egyptian government so quickly. Again, Glick’s insight is worth noting:
Distressingly, the answer is that indeed, the US has no idea what it is doing. The reason the world's only (quickly declining) superpower is riding blind is because its leaders are trapped between two irrational, narcissistic policy paradigms and they can't see their way past them.

The first paradigm is former president George W. Bush's democracy agenda and its concomitant support for open elections.

Bush supporters and former administration officials have spent the last month since the riots began in Tunisia crowing that events prove Bush's push for democratization in the Arab world is the correct approach.

The problem is that while Bush's diagnosis of the dangers of the democracy deficit in the Arab world was correct, his antidote for solving this problem was completely wrong.

Glick describes the second paradigm in terms of the Left’s “anti-colonialist” world view. She writes:
Frustratingly, Bush's push for elections was rarely criticized on its merits. Under the spell of the other policy paradigm captivating American foreign policy elites - anti-colonialism - Bush's leftist opponents never argued that the problem with his policy is that it falsely assumes that Western values are universal values. Blinded by their anti-Western dogma, they claimed that his bid for freedom was nothing more than a modern-day version of Christian missionary imperialism.

It is this anti-colonialist paradigm, with its foundational assumption that that the US has no right to criticize non-Westerners that has informed the Obama administration's foreign policy. It was the anti-colonialist paradigm that caused Obama not to support the pro-Western protesters seeking the overthrow of the Iranian regime in the wake of the stolen 2009 presidential elections.

As Obama put it at the time, "It's not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling, the US president meddling in the Iranian elections."

Both paradigms have caused both the Left and the Right to lean toward regime change in Egypt. They should be very careful what they wish for.