brooksisadork

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Hawk vs. Hawk

David Brooks Likens Iraq War to "Vietnam":

"The lesson of Vietnam is that you can't win these wars via military means."

"These wars", David? So Iraq and Vietnam are fundamentally the same kind of war? Nice to see this finally acknowledged; let's keep it in mind for future reference.

Today's column is, by the debased standards of the Brooks oeuvre, a pretty good one. Brooks distinguishes between two camps of Iraq counterinsurgency strategists: the "gradualists" and the "confrontationalists". Gradualists would prefer to keep US troops out of rebel strongholds like Falluja over the next year or so, while helping the Allawi government build up its own military strength and political support for an eventual, Iraqi-led assault. They think attacking now only strengthens anti-US and anti-Allawi sentiment, and the US can't take and hold rebel territory alone. The "confrontationalists", on the other hand, argue that letting the insurgents control whole swaths of the country lets them build up their own strength and stymie stabilization efforts, and may prevent the Allawi government from ever getting a firm footing. They think we should go in now, guns blazing.

This is an okay characterization, as far as it goes. The problem is that it's kind of irrelevant. As Brooks says, the Iraq war resembles the Vietnam war, right down to the fruitless conflicts over tactics and strategy between bomb-em-all neanderthal generals like Westmoreland and hearts-and-minds enlightened junior officers like John Paul Vann. Ultimately, these arguments are just footnotes to history, because by the time the brass starts getting into these kinds of dust-ups, there is no longer a correct US strategy; the mistakes have been made, and every approach will fail. The biggest resemblance between Iraq and Vietnam at this point is that, barring a miracle, the US is going to lose.

Brooks says "the lesson of Vietnam is that you can't win these wars by military means. You have to build a political structure that organizes public support and mix it with military might." But he then spends his entire column talking exclusively about what the US military should or shouldn't do. He seems to have no more detailed notion of what "build[ing] a political structure that organizes public support" might entail. One might think that, having acknowledged that building a political structure is the most important task, Brooks might then take a look at the extant political actors in Iraq - religious, ethnic, and clan-based organizations and leaders, their strengths and interests - and talk about how the structure of the newly established Iraqi interim government interfaces with these forces, and what strategies it can pursue to grow roots and create stability. But such discussions are clearly too complicated and boring for Brooks. He's really only interested if it involves tanks and fighter jets - American ones, please.

Let's go to the play by play.

"The debate on how to proceed in Iraq is not between the hawks and the doves: it's within the hawk community, and it's between the gradualists and the confrontationalists."

Well, yeah, when you're in the middle of fighting a war, the debate on how to fight that war doesn't tend to involve people who don't think you should fight. It's not exactly clear what Brooks means by "doves" here, so it's not clear who he thinks he's dissing. If by "doves" he means those who didn't think we should invade Iraq, we actually have a very clear position on the war: we told you so. As for our position on gradualism vs. confrontationalism, we say: good luck, and it serves you morons right. In about six months, once it becomes politically acceptable, our position will probably change to: it's too late; Iraq is fucked. Bring the troops home now.

"The gradualists argue that it would be crazy to rush into terrorist-controlled cities and try to clean them out with massive force because the initial attack would be so bloody there'd be a debilitating political backlash.
The terrorists would fight as long as there were heart-wrenching scenes of dead children on satellite TV, then would melt away to fight another day. And if the U.S. did take control of, say, a newly destroyed Falluja, we would find that we didn't have enough troops to control the city and still hunt down terrorists elsewhere. We'd end up abandoning the city (as we have other places), and the terrorists would just take control again. We'd be back where we started.
There is a reason, the gradualists point out, that counterinsurgency wars have tended to take a decade or more. They can be won only with slow, steady pressure. The better course, they continue, is to allow some time to train and build up Iraq's own security forces, and allow some time for the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to build up a base of anti-insurgent political support. The lesson of Vietnam is that you can't win these wars via military means. You have to build a political structure that organizes public support and mix it with military might.
The gradualists point to what just happened in Najaf as their model for how the Iraq war should proceed. First, Allawi laid down tough conditions: that Moktada al-Sadr's militia had to go. Then he convinced many of the locals that their lives would be better without lawless thugs in their midst. Then the U.S. attacked and weakened the terrorists. Then Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brokered an agreement that led to the re-establishment of government control. Now development aid can flow to Najaf again. Aid projects worth roughly $6 million are resuming, and $37 million more is on the way.
Najaf, the gradualists argue, showed it's possible to marginalize the extremists and rally the decent majority. Now the task is to build on that success in other towns, and slowly rob the terrorists of sanctuaries."

That's the task all right - assuming the government does actually control Najaf now, rather than simply depending on the political clout of Sistani and the military clout of the US marines to claim a fictive sovereignty over the city. Slowly robbing the terrorists of their sanctuaries sounds nice. So did Ngo Dinh Diem's plan to slowly rob the Viet Cong of its sanctuaries. Perhaps, unlike Diem, Allawi will turn out to actually preside over a government that's more than a hapless and corrupt house of cards, propped up by US money and armed force. We'll see.

"The confrontationalists can't believe the Bush folks, of all people, are waging a sensitive war on terror. By moving so slowly, the U.S. is allowing terror armies to thrive and grow. With U.S. acquiescence, fascists are allowed to preen, terrorize and entrench themselves.
Moreover, they continue, there's no reason to think the Najaf model will work in Sunni cities, where we don't understand and can't exploit the local rifts, where there is no Sistani figure to come in at crucial moments.
In Sunni cities, the so-called moderates may make deals with Allawi, but they break them just as quickly - or else are beheaded by the terrorists. Members of the Falluja Brigade, who were supposed to take the city from the terrorists, switched over and joined the other side.
The gradualist approach, the confrontationalists conclude, has allowed terror to thrive. Now there are about 100 attacks a day. U.S. troops find themselves engaged in a modulated half-war in which they engage the enemy enough to suffer casualties, but not enough to win. The Iraqis are demoralized because it doesn't look as if the country will be pacified in time for full national elections, and because without security there can be no economic development - only more misery and more terror. U.S. troops are demoralized because if they are going to hit the enemy, they want to hit the enemy hard.
The gradualists clearly have the upper hand within the Bush administration. When administration officials talk about Iraq, they emphasize that this is a deliberate process, leading to elections in January but continuing long after. But when pressed, they tend to search for some compromise approach, emphasizing political solutions in places like Sadr City and the military approach in Falluja.
It's depressing to realize how strong the case against each option is."

Sure is. In fact, it makes you think: what if neither strategy works? What if Iraq turns into a bleeding, flaming, anarchic hellhole and a breeding ground for terrorism - permanently? What if it is simply impossible for the US to bring stability to Iraq? What would Brooks advocate doing then? Hm? How about the Lebanon solution - let a vicious, dictatorial, powerful neighbor invade and assume political control? How'd you like to see an Iranian-controlled Iraq, David?

Gosh, that decision to invade Iraq looks better all the time. The US sure is safer with Saddam Hussein out of power.

"But the weight of the argument is on the gradualist side. That's mostly because people like Ayad Allawi deserve a chance to succeed. These people in the interim government are scorned as stooges and U.S. puppets, but they're risking and sometimes giving their lives for their country. Let's take the time to give them a shot. "

After all, we haven't got any other ideas. Gosh, this nation-building thing is hard.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Ruling Class war

Earlier this week, Davie was in deep moral thoughts zone - a zone he is manifestly not comfortable in. Today he returns to more comfortable ground: off-the-cuff insta-sociology, slicing and dicing the population into niches gussied up with cutesy demographic monikers which are intended to hide the fact that they don't really make much sense.

Today's effort to further polarize the American political landscape (uniters, not dividers, anyone?) takes on "the information-age elite", the symbolic analysts who are, per Robert Reich etc., the new leading class of American society. (Since when do conservatives embrace political models based on economic class? Since now, apparently.) Brooks gives us the categories "spreadsheet people" and "paragraph people" as the red-blue divide within the information-age elite. Spreadsheet people, like CEOs and accountants, are pro-Bush. Paragraph people, like academics and journalists, are pro-Kerry. Brooks supports his claims with data from a survey of political donors broken down by profession, carried out by PoliticalMoneyLine.com.

Why is this cute idea so stupid? Let's put it this way. Brooks doesn't bother to mention one group you'd think would qualify as classic "spreadsheet people": economists. Who could possibly be more spreadsheet-oriented than an economist? Brooks leaves economists out of his column for a simple reason: in PoliticalMoneyLine.com's survey, the ratio of economists for Bush to economists for Kerry was...zero. No economists gave money to Bush. Thirteen donated to Kerry; the rest of the 61 economists surveyed overwhelmingly gave to other Democratic candidates or to the DNC. (Just 3 gave to GOP candidates; one gave to LaRouche.)

Let's go through the groups Brooks terms "spreadsheet people". Actually, there are just three: CEO's, bankers, and accountants. Not exactly a broad donor base, but what they lack in breadth, they make up for in depth...of pockets. Now, what do these three groups have in common? They're all heavily affected by federal tax and regulatory practices which the Republicans are trying to curtail or abolish. For example, the GOP is currently trying to eliminate taxes on corporate dividends, and prevent stricter government oversight of the accounting and banking industries. The reason CEOs, bankers and accountants are Republican isn't some mystical affinity of thinking styles; it's that the Republicans are in the pockets of bankers, accountants, and big corporations. Bankers, accountants, and CEOs give to the GOP because they are buying legislation that puts more benjamins in their briefcases. Or that allows them to deceive clients, form cartels and misuse insider information without being punished.

Now let's look at Brooks's "paragraph people": academics, journalists, actors (?), authors, librarians, lawyers. Does it make sense to argue that any of these people are voting their wallets? Trial lawyers, maybe. And I guess you could make a case that librarians are voting against tax cuts that force libraries to close. But for most of these people, it seems obvious that their opposition to Bush stems from conviction - or, especially in the case of economists, from EXPERTISE. Economists are just as much "spreadsheet people" as CEOs. The difference is, economists are impartial. CEOs support whoever they think is good for their business. Economists support whoever they think is good for America.

This, in sum, is a sneaky little column. Bush's donor base is overwhelmingly composed of the tiny business class - CEOs, bankers, and accountants - whom his policies directly benefit, at the expense of the rest of America. Brooks is trying to disguise this fact by making it look like just an innocent difference of intellectual proclivities, no more serious than the choice of majors in college. In fact, it's what the title of the column aptly suggests: class war. But only one class is fighting.

A few choice bits out of the column:

"Paragraph people work with prose, don't shine their shoes as often as they should and back Democrats."

Shine their shoes? Would that be while debarking from the 20th Century Limited, or perhaps exiting Ebbetts Field? Someone please alert Mr. Brooks that it is no longer 1956.

"Professors, on the other hand, are classic paragraph people and lean Democratic."

Would that include, like, professors of particle physics? How about professors of environmental biology? Or do spreadsheets only count when the data that's on them is money? How about professors of medicine - surgeons, say? "Paragraph people"?

"Academics have had such an impact on the Democratic donor base because there is less intellectual diversity in academia than in any other profession."

There may be little POLITICAL diversity in academia. But support for George Bush is not "intellectual diversity", unless you argue that, to be intellectually diverse, a group must include a fair proportion of stupid and greedy people.

"Why have the class alignments shaken out as they have? There are a couple of theories. First there is the intellectual affiliation theory. Numerate people take comfort in the false clarity that numbers imply, and so also admire Bush's speaking style. Paragraph people, meanwhile, relate to the postmodern, post-Cartesian, deconstructionist, co-directional ambiguity of Kerry's Iraq policy."

"Numerate people" could support George Bush only if the sole thing they're enumerating is the number of dollars in their tax refunds - and then, only provided they make more than $200,000 a year. "Numerate people" would have to recognize that an administration that turns a $397 billion projected surplus (for FY 2004 as of end 2000) into a $422 billion actual deficit has gone fiscally mad - and that, furthermore, an administration which deliberately issues wildly inaccurate , politically biased deficit estimates, over and over again, is not to be trusted. And to speak of the "false clarity that numbers imply", at a time when the numbers show that we are mortgaging our children's future to pay for billion-dollar tax giveaways to the richest people in the world, is simply evil. It's like the casino barker telling you not to pay attention to those scary thousand-to-one odds - that's just the false clarity that numbers imply. Go ahead! Put it all on 17! You might win big! Oh, you lost - too bad. Try it again! Maybe you'll win!

And then to contend that Bush's speaking style appeals to "numerate people" because he states things in short, declarative sentences, even though these sentences are frequently false, and never contain accurate or detailed numbers...this is just bizarre. Bill Clinton's speaking style was filled with numbers - percentages, budget amounts, population sizes, down to the last detail. But apparently "numerate people" aren't attracted to speakers who are actually numerate. They like speakers who say short, decisive things, which never actually include any numbers.

The "paragraph people" relating to Kerry's "postmodern" blah blah - apparently there were no progressive academics supporting the decidedly non-postmodern, unambiguous Howard Dean. Oh, wait - actually the campuses were for Dean; Kerry won the nomination because of a bunch of folks in Iowa. Gosh, those Iowans are so...postmodern.

"...people who majored in liberal arts subjects like English and history naturally loathe people who majored in econ, business and the other "hard" fields. This loathing turns political in adult life and explains just about everything you need to know about political conflict today."

Except for the fact that "hard" economists overwhelmingly support Kerry. Incidentally - business is a "hard" field? Funny, I thought physics and pre-med were "hard" fields. I always thought of business as a "bullshit" field.

"I myself am thinking of founding the Class Traitors Association, made up of conservative writers, liberal accountants and other people so filled with self-loathing that they ally politically with social and cultural rivals."

THis would be funny except that it touches on a truly upsetting, deeply held conviction of Republican thinkers: they actually feel that to do something political which would be good for anyone other than oneself is to be guilty of "self-loathing". This dismal Nietzschean heritage goes a long ways towards explaining the behavior of, say, Dick Cheney. Democrats, fools that we are, actually believe that human beings can occasionally help each other out without being guilty of self-hatred. What they call "self-loathing" we call "solidarity", or, sometimes, "patriotism".

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Cult of Death

Today Brooks is in his Big Tautological Pronouncements mode: nothing is as it was, all is now as it never was then, they are they and we are we, and so forth. Let's take a look.

"We've been forced to witness the massacre of innocents. In New York, Madrid, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Baghdad and Bali, we have seen thousands of people destroyed while going about the daily activities of life."

Hello, David, and welcome to Planet Earth, where various events sometimes cause large numbers of innocent people to be killed, almost always while going about the daily activities of life. (Seldom are people killed while not going about the daily activities of life, since such people tend to be already dead.) These events include earthquakes, aerial bombardments, epidemics, terrorist attacks, ships striking icebergs, famines, genocides and political purges, and the formation of the Black Sea in the early neolithic period as a result of rising sea levels. You may be surprised to learn that these events did not commence on Sept. 11, 2001 - indeed, some took place even before you were born!

"We should by now have become used to the death cult that is thriving at the fringes of the Muslim world. This is the cult of people who are proud to declare, "You love life, but we love death." This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergartners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder."

Which death cult was the one that sent waves of teenagers to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Somme, again? Well, okay, it's a quibble - the rest is fair enough so far.

"This cult attaches itself to a political cause but parasitically strangles it. The death cult has strangled the dream of a Palestinian state. The suicide bombers have not brought peace to Palestine; they've brought reprisals. The car bombers are not pushing the U.S. out of Iraq; they're forcing us to stay longer. The death cult is now strangling the Chechen cause, and will bring not independence but blood. "

Again, fair enough. But here comes the fun part...

"But that's the idea. Because the death cult is not really about the cause it purports to serve. It's about the sheer pleasure of killing and dying."

Ahhh - the sheer pleasure of killing and dying! Man, you just gotta love the refreshing flavor of killing and dying. Can't get enough of it! God knows I've had a hard time keeping my toddler from killing and dying. I try offering her favorite breakfast cereals, a trip to the zoo, a horseback ride, but she just keeps going on about killing and dying! "Daddy, can't I please kill someone? Can't I please die?" I guess it's just a natural human urge. Some people think killing and dying are gruesome and repulsive activities which humans aren't naturally prone to, that only complex organizations with strong political roots and broadly shared aims or grievances have the capacity to train people to overcome their natural aversion to killing and dying, in order to carry out acts of political violence. But that's just ignorance of human nature! Why, there's nothin' folks love better than gettin' them some good killing and dying.

"It's about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness. It's about experiencing the total freedom of barbarism - freedom even from human nature, which says, Love children, and Love life. It's about the joy of sadism and suicide."

Aha, the plot thickens. It looks like human nature is actually against the joy of killing and dying...which means the urge to kill and die actually stems from...uh...something. Hm. The urge to freedom! Oh, that's a terrible thing, that freedom. Oh no, wait. Isn't that what we invaded Iraq to bring people? Okay, not freedom...What about the joy of sadism and suicide? Not that I personally enjoy either one, you understand...Note to self: will have to work on this point further.

"We should be used to this pathological mass movement by now. We should be able to talk about such things. Yet when you look at the Western reaction to the Beslan massacres, you see people quick to divert their attention away from the core horror of this act, as if to say: We don't want to stare into this abyss. We don't want to acknowledge those parts of human nature that were on display in Beslan."

Wait -- now the urges to kill and die ARE "parts of human nature"? I can't keep this straight. On, off, on, off - very flip-floppy on this issue.

"Something here, if thought about too deeply, undermines the categories we use to live our lives, undermines our faith in the essential goodness of human beings. "

Note to self: do not think about it too deeply, as may undermine faith. In fact, better not think about anything too deeply.

"Three years after Sept. 11, too many people have become experts at averting their eyes. If you look at the editorials and public pronouncements made in response to Beslan, you see that they glide over the perpetrators of this act and search for more conventional, more easily comprehensible targets for their rage."

Like the authorities not having any ambulances present at a days-old hostage crisis. As if ambulances could have saved anyone! Wait, maybe they would have saved someone. But not more than, you know, a few dozen people. A hundred, tops.

"The Boston Globe editorial, which was typical of the American journalistic response, made two quick references to the barbarity of the terrorists, but then quickly veered off with long passages condemning Putin and various Russian policy errors.
The Dutch foreign minister, Bernard Bot, speaking on behalf of the European Union, declared: "All countries in the world need to work together to prevent tragedies like this. But we also would like to know from the Russian authorities how this tragedy could have happened.""

Damn those Dutch, always wanting to know how things actually happened. Can't they see it's WAR ON TERROR WAR ON TERROR WAR ON TERROR

"It wasn't a tragedy. It was a carefully planned mass murder operation. "

See you could tell it was a pure mass murder operation because, instead of taking the kids hostage and holding them for a few days, which is what they would've done if they had some political demands, they just immediately massacred them all. Oh, no, actually they held them for several days. Well, whatever.

"And it wasn't Russian authorities who stuffed basketball nets with explosives and shot children in the back as they tried to run away."

Though in Grozny, they did bomb entire apartment blocks flat while the residents were still in them, actions which I denounced at the time as "state-sponsored terrorism". Not.

"Whatever horrors the Russians have perpetrated upon the Chechens, whatever their ineptitude in responding to the attack, the essential nature of this act was in the act itself. It was the fact that a team of human beings could go into a school, live with hundreds of children for a few days, look them in the eyes and hear their cries, and then blow them up. "

And thus we know that the people who committed this act were very, very bad! And the further conclusion which this leads to is...is... They were very bad people! And any attempt to draw any political conclusion whatsoever, either about the Chechnya conflict or the nature of the Putin administration or the nature of other conflicts involving terrorism, is totally illegitimate, because the real point is - they were baaaaad!!!

"Dissertations will be written about the euphemisms the media used to describe these murderers. They were called "separatists" and "hostage-takers." Three years after Sept. 11, many are still apparently unable to talk about this evil. They still try to rationalize terror. What drives the terrorists to do this? What are they trying to achieve? "

They weren't 'separatists' - they didn't want Chechnya to become independent! Or actually, they did, but you know, whatever. And "hostage-takers" - how dare the press apply such a positive, complimentary term to them! Just because they took lots of hostages? Doesn't the media understand that these people have no goals - they're just mad killers, bent on the joy of pure destruction? That's why they just massacred those kids immediately, instead of holding them as hostages and making demands, which...oh yeah, that's what they did, but like we said before, whatever.

"They're still victims of the delusion that Paul Berman diagnosed after Sept. 11: "It was the belief that, in the modern world, even the enemies of reason cannot be the enemies of reason. Even the unreasonable must be, in some fashion, reasonable.""

Okay, here we drop the cutesy tone and instead address a basic failure of language and reasoning, both on Berman's and Brooks's parts. The words "reason" and "reasonable" are being bandied about in a confused fashion here. First, because something is unreasonable does not mean that it cannot be reasoned about. A bowling ball is not reasonable, but we can use the faculty of reason to think about what kind of force might have driven it to roll down the alley. Second, the phrase "the enemies of reason" is an ellipsis for a whole pile of ideas about European and Mideastern intellectual history. Berman uses "reason" here to stand for "Reason", or the European Enlightenment commitment to secular rationalism. The contention is that Islamicist terrorists are "enemies of reason" because they are enemies of secular rationalism. Now, nobody knows whether the terrorists in Beslan were in fact Islamic fundamentalists or Chechen nationalists. But more importantly, Berman is being slippery with words when he implies that the "enemies of reason", in the sense of enemies of Enlightenment-style secular rationalism, cannot be "reasonable". All human beings are "reasonable", in the sense of using reason to achieve goals. This, indeed, is one of the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment. If enemies of secular rationalism are impervious to reason, then ... well, that certainly helps us to understand a lot about President Bush. Anyway, Brooks is trying to use Berman's line to take things a step further - to claim that the terrorists in Beslan and terrorists in general are simply insane, that they are beyond human comprehension. This is just stupid.

"This death cult has no reason and is beyond negotiation. This is what makes it so frightening. This is what causes so many to engage in a sort of mental diversion. They don't want to confront this horror. So they rush off in search of more comprehensible things to hate. "

This is beneath commentary or contempt, and I think I've made the points already above. Let me just add that the return of the McCarthyite "they" in political speech heralds a new dawn for fascism in American discourse.

Onwards and upwards, Brooksie!

An Introduction: Why David Brooks is a Dork

This blog is motivated by two convictions. The first is a formal or structural one. I believe that the blog, as a form, is most effective where it is tightly focused on a subject about which the blogger is either knowledgeable or holds pronounced and well-thought-out opinions. With this in mind, I have let myself be prompted by my second conviction, one which I hold deeply and to which I have devoted much reflection: that David G. Brooks, conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times, is a dork. This blog will be devoted to making fun of the columns of the eminently ridiculous Brooks. I will try to respond to each of Brooks's columns as they are loosed upon the aether. Today, to inaugurate our blog, an initial stab, in response to Brooks's painfully error-riddled piece in today's Times, "Cult of Death"...