Monday, October 31, 2005

Notable

The connection between Iran and Al Qaida continues to be largely ignored even while the more intelligent observers such as Michael Ledeen attempt to draw attention to it. Of course, some people such as Leonard Peikoff have pointed out for some time that
Iran--not Iraq--is the primary threat to American interest in the Middle East and has been since it confiscated our oil fields in the 1950s. Iran is the major sponsor of international terrorism throughout the world and is the country most responsible for lethal attacks on American citizens. For these reasons, Iran fully deserves bloody retribution.
(from a 1997 op-ed). Peikoff
**
Meanwhile, while we continue to be engaged in Iraq, despite some calls for a larger military force, I have always been of the amateur opinion that what we lack in Iraq is not numbers but ruthlessness. While this article by an Army Officer on patrol in Iraq does not argue exactly what I had in mind, it does make the following relevant point
It is disappointing that intelligent people who are well versed in military affairs are capable of seeing a forest but fail to recognize that it is composed of trees, with some trees bearing more fruit than others. To put it in less abstract terms, we have enough troops in Iraq, but far too few of them are engaged in hunting down our enemies and training our Iraqi allies. Rather than maximizing the number of soldiers in Iraq, we should be focusing on maximizing the effectiveness of the soldiers who are already there.
The officer goes on to explain that
The so-called "tooth to tail" ratio is an issue that the military has always struggled to keep the lid on. Unfortunately, the lid is gone and the problem is out of control. Our tail is far too large and our teeth are far too small. Until we fix this, our problems will continue. We will continue to be frustrated by effectiveness well below our potential or we will pursue an economically unsustainable troop buildup. Neither is acceptable. We have more than enough troops in Iraq. We can and must use them more effectively.
And the last point certainly seems more in line with what I would like to see and would actually eliminate any talk of drafts or even recruitment targets.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Optimistic View

Having recently discussed some of the more pessimistic views on the present war, it behooves me to acknowledge that reasonable people have offered an alternative assessment of the conflict in general and the situation in Iraq in particular.

Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the October 27 New York Times claims:
AS the aggregate number of American military fatalities in Iraq has crept up over the past 13 months - from 1,000 to 1,500 dead, and now to 2,000 - public support for the war has commensurately declined. With the nightly ghoulish news of improvised explosives and suicide bombers, Americans perhaps do not appreciate that the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the effort to establish a democratic government in Iraq have been accomplished at relatively moderate cost - two-thirds of the civilian fatalities incurred four years ago on the first day of the war against terrorism.
and adds

Compared with Iraq, America lost almost 17 times more dead in Korea, and 29 times more again in Vietnam - in neither case defeating our enemies nor establishing democracy in a communist north.

Contemporary critics understandably lament our fourth year of war since Sept. 11 in terms of not achieving a victory like World War II in a similar stretch of time. But that is to forget the horrendous nature of such comparison when we remember that America lost 400,000 dead overseas at a time when the country was about half its present size.

Elsewhere, Hanson has written that

The United States military ousted Saddam Hussein from power in three weeks — in an effort designed to liberate Iraqis rather than aimed punitively against an entire nation. Some observers, however, on the eve of the war predicted a protracted effort to remove Saddam. Later, during the war itself, they warned further that we were supposedly bogged down in a sandstorm on the way to Baghdad.

In the ensuing 30 months, despite hundreds of horrific deaths and thousands of wounded, the military has never lost a single engagement with the terrorists. It has trained hundreds of thousands of Iraqi police and military units, and, now, with last week’s election, seen its hard work pay off in the ratification of the constitution. More parliamentary elections are slated for December.

Such relative optimism is not limited to conservatives such as Dr. Hanson. Objectivists associated with The Intellectual Activist, including Robert Tracinski and Jack Wakeland have argued along similar lines, most recently in a series of articles in TIA daily entitled "Iraq War Casualties" written by Jack Wakeland. After making similar comparison of American casualties to past wars, Mr. Wakeland writes
The good news about the war in Iraq is that it is Islamist militiamen, not American troops, who are taking losses approaching a debilitating rate.

How many of the enemy have we killed? American-led coalition forces have killed more than 15,000 enemy combatants, over 7,000 after the "End of Major Combat." (U.S. forces have accidentally killed about 8,000 Iraqi civilians.)

We have probably killed about 15% to 20% of all those who have taken up arms against us since the guerrilla war started. Another 15% or 20% have been captured, including many top leaders. Coalition forces have killed or captured at least 44 Baathists from the deck of 52, including Saddam Hussein and his two sons. About three quarters of the 10,000 Iraqis incarcerated in coalition-run prisons are insurgents. This includes more than 340 foreign terrorists who vowed to die in jihad, fighting.
Mr. Wakeland continues
Over the past 13 months, the insurgency has been damaged from Baghdad to Mosul, up and down the Euphrates from Fallujah to the Syrian border, and across the deserts of Anbar Province. It has been damaged to the point that American and Iraqi forces are now beginning to pick up or pick off top terrorist leaders. In the past month the enemy has lost the head of Baghdad's al Qaeda operations, their top financier in Syria, and the head of the Mujahedeen of the Victorious Sect Brigades (one of the largest of the dozen and a half major Iraqi insurgent groups, a group that has been active since June 2003).

The successful invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed the balance of power in the region, emboldening Rafik Hariri and the Lebanese to resist and then (after Hariri's assassination) to push out the Syrian occupation. The failure of the Iraqi insurgency to dislodge the United States has removed the only hope for the survival of Assad's regime. By doing the hard, bloody work American soldiers and Marines are accomplishing our nation's long-term anti-terrorism policy of moving the Arab world towards being a string of peaceful republics.
So the question remains, who is correct, the optimists or the pessimists? Since philosophy ultimately determines the course of history, the answer to this question hinges on how philosophically receptive the Arab/Islamic world and Iraq in particular is to the introduction of Western Liberal institutions such as representative government. Frankly, I remain more pessimistic because I still see the strong influence of religion and tribalism in the region, as witnessed for example in the continued hostility toward Israel. Therefore, I don't think that this experiment to create a "peaceful republic" of Iraq will succeed, at least in this generation. Of course I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Unintelligent Design

William Saletan has an excellent column in Slate on the absurdity of so-called "Intelligent Design" (ID) as an explanation of the origin of life. Here is a choice excerpt (Rothschild refers to Eric Rothschild, the lawyer opposing the school board in the Pennsylvania case, while Behe refers to Michael Behe, a proponent of ID):

Can ID make testable predictions? Not really. If we posit that a given biological system was designed, Rothschild asks, what can we infer about the designer's abilities? Just "that the designer had the ability to make the design that is under consideration," says Behe. "Beyond that, we would be extrapolating beyond the evidence." Does Behe not understand that extrapolating beyond initial evidence is exactly the job of a hypothesis? Does he not grasp the meaninglessness of saying a designer designed things that were designed?

Evidently not. "That is exactly the basis for how we detect designÂ?when we perceive the purposeful arrangement of parts," Behe declares. The essence of scienceÂ?that detection means going beyond perceptionÂ?escapes his comprehension. It also escapes his interest. He says his belief that the bacterial flagellum was intelligently designed could be tested, but he's never run the test. Why not? "I'm persuaded by the evidence that I cite in my book that this is a good explanation and that spending a lot of effort in trying to show how random mutation and natural selection could produce complex systems Â? is not real likely to be fruitful," he says. Who needs science when you've got faith?

Here's a relevant paragraph from Keith Lockitch, a Ph.D. in physics and junior fellow with the Ayn Rand Institute:
The insistence of "intelligent design" advocates that they are "agnostic regarding the source of design" is a bait-and-switch. They dangle out the groundless possibility of a "designer" who is susceptible of scientific study--in order to hide their real agenda of promoting faith in the supernatural. Their scientifically accessible "designer" is nothing more than a gateway god--metaphysical marijuana intended to draw students away from natural, scientific explanations and get them hooked on the supernatural.
The statistics regarding the U.S. public's belief in God vs. evolution betray a rather depressing ignorance of science, which was no doubt assisted by the new left's decades old assault on the foundations of scientific knowledge. Therefore it is in many ways no surprise that the public turns to religion for answers to the deepest question. They certainly won't find them from academics who claim there are no answers. But while religion may satisfy some, to anyone committed to reason and reality, religion's answers are always superficial and unsatisfying (and, needless to say, often carry with them consequences at times as oppressive on both a personal and societal level as those of the secular left). Hopefully the more rational individuals will become aware of the one alternative to both the skepticism and nihilism of the left and as well as the traditional religions: Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Frustration

I apologize for my absence. I was travelling recently and have since been quite busy at home and work.

There continues to be some fallout as the result of TV footage purporting to show American soldiers burning the remains of Taliban "fighters." I'm frankly frustrated by our continued appeasement of Moslem sensibilities. This is not a way to fight a war. My frustration is echoed in the following excellent essay by Bruce Thornton at Victor Davis Hanson's website. Here's his conclusion:
We may think we are projecting the strength of our values when we chastise our troops for sometimes resorting to unpleasant actions in order to win against a brutal enemy. But in fact, the message we send is that because we have doubts about our cause and our beliefs, we will second-guess and scrutinize our own behavior in the midst of a hard fight. Wars are ugly and cruel, as all violence is. To think that one can fight a brutal enemy within utopian parameters is to court failure and defeat. This does not mean that anything goes, obviously. But we have to be realistic about where those impassable limits lie, given the sort of irregular war being fought. We can argue about those limits later, but burning the bodies of dead murderers to my mind is a long way from actions completely out of bounds, especially if such actions will save the life of even one American and take us one step closer to achieving our goal. After all, we’ve had ample proof for decades that being nice and tolerant doesn’t cut any ice with those who fancy themselves the warriors of Allah.
All means cannot justify all ends, but some means can justify the right ends. Every war this country has fought employed terrible means that none of us would want to choose, but that were justified by the rightness and goodness of the end. If we truly believe that our goals in Iraq are just enough to kill and die for, then we should stop undercutting and second-guessing our troops in the field who are laying their lives on the line to achieve those noble ends. And if we don’t really believe in those goals enough to grit our teeth and do what must be done, as our fathers and grandfathers did in World War II, then we should pack up right now and go home.

The sentiment is also echoed at the Ayn Rand Institute where Alex Epstein argues that America's attempts to appease "Muslim opinion" are depraved and suicidal. Here's an excerpt:

So-called Muslim opinion is not the unanimous and just consensus that its seekers pretend. It is the irrational and unjust opinion of the world's worst Muslims: Islamists and their legions of "moderate" supporters and sympathizers. These people oppose us not because of any legitimate grievances against America, but because they are steeped in a fundamentalist interpretation of their religion--one that views America's freedom, prosperity, and pursuit of worldly pleasures as the height of depravity. They do not seek respect for the rights of the individual (Muslim or non-Muslim), they seek a world in which the rights of all are sacrificed to the dictates of Islam.

The proper response to Islamists and their supporters is to identify them as our ideological and political enemies--and dispense justice accordingly. In the case of our militant enemies, we must kill or demoralize them--especially those regimes that support terrorism and fuel the Islamist movement; as for the rest, we must politically ignore them and intellectually discredit them, while proudly arguing for the superiority of Americanism. Such a policy would make us safe, expose Islamic anti-Americanism as irrational and immoral, and embolden the better Muslims to support our ideals and emulate our ways.

Our war effort has certainly not been helped by the constant appeasement but I suppose to hope that the present administration will abandon it is pointless. It remains to be seen if we can win in spite of our lack of moral certainty.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Amazing (part II)

The first post in what may now turn out to be a series of posts entitled "Amazing" focused on a surprising editorial in the Los Angeles Times that blamed airline inefficiencies on government regulations. Today I noticed an editorial in the Washington Post that warns of Communists returning to power in Nicaragua and wonders why the Bush administration is not doing more about it(!). Here's how it starts:
MANY PEOPLE outside Latin America probably assume Daniel Ortega's political career ended 15 years ago when his ruinous attempt to install a Marxist dictatorship in Nicaragua ended with an election he decisively lost. The slightly better informed might suppose that his two subsequent electoral defeats, the allegations of corruption and child molestation that haunt him, or his single-digit rating in opinion polls have made him a marginal figure in Nicaraguan politics. Sadly, the truth is otherwise: Thanks to the weakness of the country's new democratic institutions, Mr. Ortega is close to regaining power and to broadening the Latin alliance of undemocratic states now composed by Cuba and Venezuela.
If true, this is indeed worrysome, particularly given the sympathy Cuba and Venezuela have had for Iran (for examples on Venezuela's contacts with Iran see here and here, for Cuba see here). The editorial details the recent machinations of Ortega and the Sandinistas to get back into power and mentions the support Chavez of Venezuela has given them. Toward the end the editors write:
Compared with Mr. Chavez's aggressive intervention, attempts by the Bush administration and other outsiders to save Nicaraguan democracy so far look feckless. The new secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, tried to broker a political compromise but pronounced himself frustrated when Mr. Ortega ignored his appeals to stop undermining Mr. Bolanos's government. The Bush administration managed to win congressional passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement this summer, but Mr. Ortega has blocked its ratification by Nicaragua.
These developments are worth watching.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Religion vs. Secularism in Society: The Consequences

It is a well known fact that Conservatives such as Dennis Prager insist that religious values are necessary for civilized society. Prager, in particular, in his "The case for Judeo-Christian values" series of columns, provides numerous examples of rather dubious moral positions supposedly the result of secular thinking (See for example here and here). On his radio show, Prager harps on Europe's moral spinelessness versus the relative moral courage of the United States to stand up against evil in the world and argues that the United States has moral clarity due to its religious values whereas Europe is morally confused due to its secularism. Furthermore, Prager and other Conservatives insist that only a return to greater adherence to religious values will solve the many domestic social ills that pervade our society such as crime and drug use.

However, a recent story in the London Times discusses an academic research paper (hat tip Paul at Noodlefood) which sheds some empirical light on the question of what exactly religious societies are like in comparison with secular ones. As discussed in the Times the research paper argues that:
RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.
Actually, the paper is a bit more cautious than that, though it does show the correlations implied. Keeping in mind that correlation does not equal causation, it seems nevertheless true that an absence of correlation would seem to be strongly suggestive of an absence of causation. The Conservative claim that religious values are necessary becomes a lot more dubious. Here's the relevant discussion from the paper itself:
If the data showed that the U.S. enjoyed higher rates of societal health than the more secular, pro-evolution democracies, then the opinion that popular belief in a creator is strongly beneficial to national cultures would be supported. Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developing democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.
And as always, it all depends on the data and here it seems that while the paper admits that the "study is a first, brief look at an important subject" and that it "is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health," the data used to establish the correlations does appear extensive.

Data sources for rates of religious belief and practice as well as acceptance of evolution are the 1993 Environment I (Bishop) and 1998 Religion II polls conducted by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP), a cross-national collaboration on social science surveys using standard methodologies that currently involves 38 nations. The last survey interviewed approximately 23,000 people in almost all (17) of the developing democracies; Portugal is also plotted as an example of a second world European democracy.
The rest of the data comes from the UN Development Programme and other sources. There is however one proviso:
Regression analyses were not executed because of the high variability of degree of correlation, because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, and because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions. Nor were multivariate analyses used because they risk manipulating the data to produce errant or desired results,<5> and because the fairly consistent characteristics of the sample automatically minimizes the need to correct for external multiple factors (see further discussion below). Therefore correlations of raw data are used for this initial examination.
I'm not an expert in statistics so I'm not sure how much this undermines any of the conclusion. The paper was written by Gregory S. Paul, a researcher based in Baltimore, Maryland who does not seem to be associated with any University. It was published in the Journal of Religion and Society, "a cross-disciplinary, electronic journal published by the Rabbi Myer and Dorothy Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University."