Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Barry Rubin on Iran

Lately Barry Rubin has been my favorite (non-Objectivist) political analyst. For a good example of why I thoroughly enjoy his analysis, see his blog entry on Iran in which he compares Iran to Stalinist Russia. Here's an educational excerpt:
The post-election trials of opposition activists in Tehran resemble the Soviet purge trials of the 1930s. They are one more sign that Iran is entering a new era, but one that is the exact opposite of the idea that the conflict over stolen elections will weaken the regime or lead to more active dissent.

Up to now, the regime has generally operated—or at least pretended to do so--on what in Iran is called the “Islamic Republican” philosophy which allowed a real margin of freedom. This is a combination of popular sovereignty and Islamism. The people were allowed to vote for candidates deemed to support the revolution. At times, the balloting was more honest; at times less.

Read the whole thing!

Torture and Interrogation

Am I the only one singularly unimpressed by the excerpts Salon posted of "enhanced interrogation" techniques (i.e., torture) and the fact that Cheney endorsed them? Here's a sample:
Sometime between 28 December 2002 and 1 January 2003, the debriefer used an unloaded semi-automatic handgun as a prop to frighten Al-Nashiri into disclosing information. After discussing this plan with [blacked out] the debriefer entered the cell where Al-Nashiri sat shackled and racked the handgun once or twice close to Al-Nashiri's head. On what was probably the same day, the debriefer used a power drill to frighten Al-Nashiri. With [blacked out] consent, the debriefer entered the detainee's cell and revved the drill while the detainee stood naked and hooded.
The "detainees" were either Taliban and thus active supporters of totalitarian theocracy or Al Qaeda and therefore terrorists. Both freely and cynically use kill civilians for terror purposes. I feel not sympathy for these individuals, nor do I think they deserve any better treatment than they got. I wish the rest of our war aims and strategy were as ruthless.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Robert Novak, the Late Terrorist Lover

Diana West seems to be among the few Conservatives willing to openly speak ill of the recently deceased Robert Novak. That's a shame because his support for Hamas and his claim that they are "freedom fighters" shows quite clearly where his sympathies lay and what the relevant evaluation should be. Perhaps with the passage of time some of us forget what Hamas actually stands for. Let's remind ourselves a bit. From a helpful link in early 2004 (there have been more atrocities since that time):

Since the beginning of the current wave of Palestinian violence, in September 2000, Hamas has perpetrated 425 terrorist attacks of various kinds, in which 377 Israelis were murdered and 2,076 civilians and soldiers were wounded.

Since the beginning of the current wave of Palestinian violence, in September 2000, Hamas has perpetrated 52 suicide attacks, in which 288 Israelis were murdered and 1,646 were wounded.

Among the more infamous Hamas suicide bombings and terrorist attacks were (the following is a representative, not exhaustive, list):

# The 1 June 2001 suicide bombing of a Tel Aviv discotheque, in which 21 people were murdered and 120 were wounded;
# The 9 August 2001 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem restaurant, in which 15 people were murdered and 130 were wounded;
# The 1 December 2001 double suicide bombing on the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, in which 11 people were murdered and 188 were wounded;
# The 2 December 2001 suicide bombing of a #16 bus in Haifa, in which 15 people were murdered and 40 were wounded;
# The 9 March 2002 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem cafe, in which 11 people were murdered and 54 were wounded;
# The 27 March 2002 suicide bombing of a Netanya hotel on the first night of Passover, in which 30 people were murdered and 140 were wounded;
# The 18 June 2002 suicide bombing of a #32A bus in Jerusalem, in which 19 people were murdered and 74 were wounded;
# The 4 August 2002 suicide bombing of #361 bus at Meron junction, in which nine people were murdered and 50 were wounded;
# The 21 November 2002 suicide bombing of a #20 bus in Jerusalem, in which 11 people were murdered and 50 were wounded;
# The 5 March 2003 suicide bombing of a #37 bus in Haifa, in which 17 people were murdered and 53 were wounded;
# The 17 May 2003 suicide bombing in Hebron, in which two people were murdered;
# The 18 May 2003 suicide bombing of a #6 bus in Jerusalem, in which seven people were murdered and 20 wounded;
# The 11 June 2003 suicide bombing of #14A bus in Jerusalem, in which 11 people were murdered and over 100 were wounded;
# The 19 August 2003 suicide bombing of a #2 bus in Jerusalem, in which 23 people were murdered and over 130 were wounded;
# The 9 September 2003 suicide bombing of a hitchhiking post near the IDF base at Tzrifin, in which nine soldiers were murdered and 10 were wounded;
# The 9 September 2003 suicide bombing of a Jerusalem cafe, in which seven people were murdered and 70 were wounded;
# The 29 January 2004 suicide bombing of a #19 bus in Jerusalem, in which 11 people were murdered and 44 were wounded;
# The 14 March 2004 double suicide bombing at Ashdod port, in which 10 people were murdered and 16 were wounded.
# On Aug 31, 2004 16 people were killed and 100 wounded in two suicide bombings within minutes of each other on two Beersheba city buses, on route nos. 6 and 12.

[emphasis added, note the most of the attacks were on buses, malls, cafes, and other civilian targets]

Anyone who thinks that the instigators and perpetrators of these vile acts are freedom fighters has left the realm of rational discussion, condemned himself as morally evil, and would ideally be subject to social ostracism by all individuals with a shred of decency.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Leadership in Iraq

Many people find the Middle East and its people difficult to understand (For an excellent introduction to the region listen to Scott Powell's The Islamist Entanglement). In particular one gets the sense that our former President George W. Bush was under the impression that there are no significant cultural differences between Iraqi Arabs and Americans (what our current President Barack H. Obama thinks is really too depressing to dwell on). Strategypage.com reviews the reality encountered by American soldiers in the field. Their experiences do not inspire much hope. Here are two examples:
# Most Arab countries are a patchwork of different tribes and groups, and Arab leaders survive by playing one group off against another. Loyalty is to one's group, not the nation. Most countries are dominated by a single group that is usually a minority (Bedouins in Jordan, Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq, Nejdis in Saudi Arabia). All of which means that officers are assigned not by merit but by loyalty and tribal affiliation. This continues in democratic Iraq, where political parties or powerful politicians strive to control individual police or army units.

# Islamic schools favor rote memorization, especially of scripture. Most Islamic scholars are hostile to the concept of interpreting the Koran (considered the word of God as given to His prophet Mohammed). This has resulted in looking down on Western troops that will look something up that they don't know. Arabs prefer to fake it, and pretend it's all in their head. Improvisation and innovation is generally discouraged. Arab armies go by the book, Western armies rewrite the book and thus usually win. Despite years of American advice on this matter, many Iraqi police and military personnel stick with the old, less effective, traditions.
A total of 14 examples of such difficulties are recounted. They are well worth reading.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Peter Schiff on the Choice Americans Face

Peter Schiff, as usual, gets it right when it comes to the economic and political choices that Americans face:
...I believe that we must restore the conditions that led to our economic preeminence. We must once again become the leader in economic freedom. This entails dismantling a significant portion of our federal and state governments, repealing countless unnecessary regulations, significantly lowering and simplifying taxes, and reinstituting sound money. If we accomplish these tasks, conditions will be ripe for a lasting recovery that solidifies our place at the top of the global economic totem pole.
Read the whole thing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Caroline Glick on Fatah and Obama

Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick has written an excellent, detailed op-ed piece of the results of the recent Fatah conference in Bethlehem. She highlights the utter corruption of the policies of the Obama administration with respect to the region. Here's a brief excerpt:
FOR THE Obama administration, Fatah was supposed to be the poster child for moderate terrorists. Fatah was supposed to be the prototype of the noble terrorist organization that really just wants respect. It was supposed to be the group that proved the central contention of the Obama White House's strategy for dealing with terror, namely, that all terrorists want is to be appeased.

But over the past week in Bethlehem, Fatah's leaders said they will not be appeased. To the international community whose billions of dollars in aid money and boundless goodwill and political support they have pocketed over the past decade and a half they sent a clear message. They remain an implacable terror group devoted to the physical annihilation of Israel.
Read the whole thing. A similar sort of denial is noted by ARC's Elan Journo with respect to Pakistan.

What is the proper response to Climate Change?

Keith Lockitch has announced the publication of an important paper by him in the journal Energy & Environment. The paper is entitled "CLIMATE VULNERABILITY AND THE INDISPENSABLE VALUE OF INDUSTRIAL CAPITALISM" and is available online. The abstract is as follows:
It is widely believed that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are increasing overall vulnerability to climate-related disasters, and that, consequently, policies aimed at cutting off these emissions are urgently needed. But a broader perspective on climate vulnerability suggests that the most important factors influencing susceptibility to climate-related threats are not climatologic, but political and economic. The dramatic degree to which industrial development under capitalism has reduced the risk of harm from severe climate events in the industrialized world is significantly under-appreciated in the climate debate. Consequently, so too is the degree to which green climate and energy policies would undermine the protection that industrial capitalism affords–by interfering with individual freedoms, distorting market forces, and impeding continued industrial development and economic growth. The effect of such policies would, ironically, be a worsening of overall vulnerability to climate.
I have read the paper and, somewhat reminiscent of Andrew Bernstein's excellent book The Capitalist Manifesto, it reminds readers that it is capitalism (in as near a form in which we live under it) that has been responsible for the elimination of much of our historic vulnerability to natural threats, including climate change.

This is a crucial point that advocates of restrictions on CO2 emissions, whether innocently or not, completely miss. Recently I engaged in an online exchange on the whole topic of environmentalism and climate change in particular with someone who is sympathetic to environmentalism. I decided that the crucial point to get across was not primarily that the science behind many of the environmentalist claims is suspect (though I mentioned that as well). Instead, I focused on man's ability to handle any potential natural or artificial changes voluntarily and technologically rather than by forceful imposition of restrictions. That shifted the discussion from the details of science which neither of us was particularly qualified to evaluate without much further research, to moral values, which it turned out my friend chose not to get into. I think that's exactly where the debate should be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Upcoming Books and Radio Appearances

In a review of this summer's OCON conference in Boston, the August issue of the Ayn Rand Institute's Impact includes a list of books by prominent Objectivist intellectuals that are expected to be published in the near future:
Dr. [Gregory] Salmieri is coeditor (with Allan Gotthelf) of the forthcoming Ayn Rand:A Companion to Her Life and Thought, and is a contributor to a book on Objectivist epistemology currently in review. Dr. [John David] Lewis’s Nothing Less Than Victory (March 2010) examines the requirements for victory in war by looking at six major wars, from ancient Greece to World War II.
Objectivist scholarship is booming, as evidenced by the number of forthcoming or newly published books discussed at the conference. In addition to those already mentioned above, these include Objectivism in One Lesson by Andrew Bernstein; The Inductive Method in Physics by David Harriman (forthcoming from Penguin Publishing); Winning the Unwinnable War, edited by ARI fellow Elan Journo (forthcoming from Lexington Books); Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, edited by Peter Schwartz and Marlene Podritske, a collection of Ayn Rand interviews released earlier this year; and a book on neoconservatism by C. Bradley Thompson and Yaron Brook (in progress).The conference included book signings for Essays on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” Objectivism in One Lesson and Objectively Speaking.
I'm presently reading and enjoying Dr. Mayhew's excellent Essays on Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" which I highly recommend. I'm looking forward to these upcoming titles.

In other news, editor Craig Biddle of the superb Objective Standard has made the following announcement at Principles in Practice:

I am pleased to announce that three members of the newly formed TOS Speakers Bureau, John David Lewis, Richard M. Salsman, and Raymond C. Niles, will be interviewed at separate times in coming days on “The Big Biz Show” (www.bigbizshow.com). Alex Epstein, a TOS contributor and an analyst with the Ayn Rand Center, will be interviewed as well.

“The Big Biz Show,” with Bob “Sully” Sullivan & Russ “T” Nailz, is syndicated via Business Talk Radio Network on 150 AM stations and heard on Internet Sites via BTRN, CBS radio, Chat-About-It, AOL radio, and wsRadio. The show can be heard live online from 1 to 3 p.m. Pacific Time (10–1 EST) at www.businesstalkradio.net (click on “Listen Live”).

The interviews are scheduled as follows:

Thursday, August 13
2:10 PST: Alex Epstein—Defending the Oil Industry
2:40 PST: Richard M. Salsman—Health Care, the Economy, and the California’s Financial Crisis

Monday, August 17
2:10 PST: John David Lewis—How Obama Care will Destroy Private Health Insurance

Tuesday, August 18
2:10 PST: Raymond C. Niles—Property Rights and Crisis of the Electric Grid

Please help promote these events by posting the information to websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Diana West on Iraq

One Conservative who did recognize the inadequacy of the Bush war is columnist Diana West. In her blog post "Was the Surge a Band-Aid?" she questions the conventional wisdom that Bush's strategy in Iraq was a great success:
I have always feared that pumping additional troops into Iraq could achieve no more than stop-gap success because the strategic formula of the surge depended on triggering impossible Iraqi reactions to US-created security -- namely, what we took to calling Iraqi "political reconciliation." It was rampant violence, the surge theory went, that prevented the warring sects of Iraq from achieving "political reconciliation." Remove the violence, our PC-Bush administration/PC-Pentagon fantasists said, and an Iraqi Republic of Kumbaya would break out.

Never mind that this formula made zero religious, historical, cultural or anthropological sense. We, Occidental hangovers that we are, so ordained this Occidental assumption about the Islamic peoples of Iraq -- that without car bombs in markets every day, Jeffersonian democracy or something would flower. Hence, La Surge, a strategy that was never more than a military catalyst for a Hail-Mary-hoped-for Iraqi political reaction.
Read the whole thing.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Conservatives and Afghanistan

Conservatives frequently portray themselves as the pro-defense alternative to liberals. It goes without saying, that it is very difficult to regard the current liberal administration as in any way representing the national interest of the United States as far as security is concerned. But are the Conservatives really substantially better?

In fact, Conservatives are frequently pragmatic and focused on non-essentials, and as a result despite some exceptions frequently fall short of a principled stand for national security. Let's look at the current situation in Afghanistan as described in recent instructive article in the Wall Street Journal appropriately entitled Taliban Now Winning:
The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict by increasing the number of troops in heavily populated areas like the volatile southern city of Kandahar, the insurgency's spiritual home.
The militants are mounting sophisticated attacks that combine roadside bombs with ambushes by small teams of heavily armed militants, causing significant numbers of U.S. fatalities, he said. July was the bloodiest month of the war for American and British forces, and 12 more American troops have already been killed in August.
Clearly the situation in Afghanistan is quite bad. Conservatives such as Stephen F. Hayes of The Weekly Standard, think this is Obama's problem:
For months, we've been hearing about deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan. Insurgent attacks are up. Coalition casualties are increasing. Poppy crops are flourishing. The Taliban is expanding its presence. Parts of the country are ungovernable. And where there is government, it's corrupt.

The public perception created by such reports is that Afghanistan is a disaster. The problem is that it's not a disaster. It's much, much worse.

And that's very bad news for Barack Obama. As a candidate, he argued that Afghanistan was the good war and that winning there was critical to U.S. national security. This fall, we will see whether he meant it.
The question to ask, however, is how could we let it get to this point, almost 8 years after the initial overthrow of the Taliban regime. A clue is provided by a column that Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote back in December 2004:
Before our astonishing success in Afghanistan goes completely down the memory hole, let's recall some very recent history.

For almost a decade before 9/11, we did absolutely nothing about Afghanistan. A few cruise missiles hurled into empty tents, followed by expressions of satisfaction about the ``message'' we had sent. It was, in fact, a message of utter passivity and unseriousness.

Then comes our Pearl Harbor and the sleeping giant awakes. Within 100 days, al Qaeda is routed and the Taliban overthrown. Then the first election in Afghanistan's history. Now the inauguration of a deeply respected democrat who, upon being sworn in as legitimate president of his country, thanks America for its liberation.

This, in Afghanistan, just three years ago not just hostile but untouchable. What do liberals have to say about this singular achievement by the Bush administration? That Afghanistan is growing poppies.

Good grief. This is news? ``Afghanistan grows poppies'' is the sun rising in the east. ``Afghanistan inaugurates democratically elected president'' is the sun rising in the west. Afghanistan has always grown poppies. What is Bush supposed to do? Send 100,000 GIs to eradicate the crop and incite a popular rebellion?

The other complaint is that Karzai really does not rule the whole country. Again the sun rises in the east. Afghanistan has never had a government that controlled the whole country. It has always had a central government weak by Western standards.

But Afghanistan's decentralized system works. Karzai controls Kabul, most of the major cities, and much in between. And he is successfully leveraging his power to gradually extend his authority as he creates entirely new federal institutions and an entirely new military.
The naiveté displayed by Krauthammer here in his enthusiasm at condemning the Liberal's lack of appreciation for the Afghanistan "miracle" would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. One would think that Conservatives, with their emphasis on tradition and history would know better. I would argue in fact that it is precisely such pragmatic, polemical thinking of clinging to the successful holding of elections as some kind of major achievement is exactly what got us into the situation we are in today.

What is missing from the the ideas of Conservatives such as Krauthammer is any concept of victory such as was used during World War II. Some better Conservatives, such as Daniel Pipes do recognize that such a concept is needed and were far more skeptical of Bush's war effort and overly ambitious democratic goals early on. However, even they at times fall short of a fully principled approach.

In fact, Conservatives do not present a real alternative to the appeasement engaged in by Liberals. The most consistent advocates for a principled foreign policy of self interest are Objectivists, who from the time of 9/11 attacks (and in fact long before) have advocated a policy of destruction for terrorists and their sponsors. Objectivists were also among the first to recognize that the nature of the enemy needed to be identified and that the goal ought to be victory.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Movie Review -- Casino Royal

Thanks to a recent generous 40th birthday present of a blue ray disk of Casino Royal, I finally got around to watching this 2006 production of the 1953 book. I had actually listened to the audio version of the book just a few years ago. Compared to the Roger Moore and Sean Connery movies that I had grown up with, the book is very violent and James Bond is portrayed in a far more "human" manner. The 2006 movie starring actor Daniel Craig as James Bond is an attempt to be closer to the original Ian Fleming books rather than the somewhat more flippant version of James Bond that was particularly evident during the Roger Moore years. However, I think the attempt fails.

The problem may be that despite the efforts of the writers and director to make this a more serious Bond, too many elements in this movie simply cannot be taken very seriously. Take for example, the extended opening sequence in which Bond chases bomb maker Mollaka in Madagascar. Mollaka, who apparently in addition to being a bomb maker, is a part time olympic athlete, is able to climb construction sites like a monkey and jump from building to building as if he were made some kind of superhero. Bond is barely able to keep up. I should mention that I have reached the point in my life where I find such extended physical action sequences not only pointless but actually a outright turn-off. There are other such extended sequences, particularly the final action sequence in Venice.

A second problem in the movie is that James Bond is portrayed inconsistently as being able to bleed and subject to poisoning (in a rather absurd scene) and then at same time remaining in many ways the supremely confident Bond that was portrayed by Moore and Connery. However, during the Moore and Connery days, the confidence was justified within the movie by Bond's clean successes. Here there seems to be little or no justification for such certainty. Furthermore, the climactic torture sequence at the end, which, if memory serves me right, was portrayed realistically in the book, came across as completely unrealistic in movie, with Bond basically acting as if Le Chiffre were just tickling him.

My wife thought the only redeeming features of the movie were Judy Dench's portrayal of M, and a certain appealing striped shirt worn by one of the women. While Casino Royal certainly has more violence than the classic Roger Moore and Sean Connery movies, and Bond makes fewer witty statements, I think this new supposedly serious James Bond portrayed by Daniel Craig is nowhere near as enjoyable as the movies I first watched over 30 years ago.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

I'm back... & Chimpanzee Intelligence

I have been blogging since 2003. Although in 2008 I had a high of 77 post, I have had only four posts so far this year. I aim to change that. I am setting myself a goal to make 2009 a new record for both quantity and quality of posts.

Let me start out with a link to an interesting review featured today at Arts & Letters Daily. Helene Guldberg reviews the book Not a Chimp: The hunt to find the genes that make us human, by Jeremy Taylor. Guldberg writes that:
...despite the dedication of a number of primatologists, the cognitive and linguistic abilities of the great apes have never surpassed those of a two-year-old child.

Taylor sets out to argue that it is ‘as wrong as it is misguided’ to ‘exaggerate the narrowness of the gap between chimpanzees and ourselves’: ‘It plays into the hands of our natural propensity to anthropomorphise our pets and other animals, and even our inanimate possessions, and it has allowed us to distort what the science is trying to tell us.’ His aim is ‘to set the record straight and restore chimpanzees to arm’s length’.[emphasis added]
This is a topic with greater implications than the somewhat obvious fact that man is the only rational animal. In the same way that communists were once able to pretend that they have a scientific answer to religion, so today, animal rights activists such as PETA, frequently claim to have a scientific basis for their belief that all animals should have legal rights. That fight is currently going on in the efforts to establish legal rights for primates. And of course, the religious opponents of such rights, such as Dennis Prager, are quick to point out that it is secular ideas that equate the value of human beings and animals:
9. If there is no God, humans and "other" animals are of equal value. Only if one posits that humans, not animals, are created in the image of God do humans have any greater intrinsic sanctity than baboons. This explains the movement among the secularized elite to equate humans and animals.
Strictly speaking, Prager approaches the topic from his belief that morality must have a divine origin. Nevertheless, if science claims that a chimpanzee's genetic code is 98.4% identical to man's, then Prager can claim that as far as secular science is concerned there is no significant basis for differing value judgments between the two primates. However, if secular scientists are arguing that there is quite a difference between man and chimpanzees, if they claim that:
...despite the very small difference in the gene coding sequence between humans and chimps, some of the important genetic differences are in genes that regulate a whole host of other genes. So a small change can make an immense difference. The genetic difference between us and chimps may be much greater than the 1.6 per cent figure implies, as our uniqueness is based on a powerful network of gene regulation, he argues.
Unlike any other animal ‘we build on very modest foundations and blow them up to extraordinary dimensions of power and complexity’, which has ‘led from the invention of the wheel, less than six thousand years ago, to the wheeling out of the latest passenger jet’.
then these significant secular differences could imply significant secular value differences. Of course, the full value implications require a proper identification of what values are and how they relate to man -- a topic on which Ayn Rand had a thing or two to say.