Archive for November 2006

The Limits of Revolution

November 28, 2006

Late in life, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson rekindled a friendship and a correspondence that had withered under the strain of political disagreements. “You and I ought not to die, before We have explained ourselves to each other,” Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1813. The topic was revolutions, past, present, and future.

Adams was keen to the pitfalls of political turmoil, which often gave way to utopian dreams of justice and equality that ended in oppression and massacre. Revolutions had a propensity to devour themselves and turn into their opposites. He detested and, rightfully, distrusted mob violence. Proponents of revolutions all too often misunderstood the limits of human nature and what Adams deemed the “science of government.”

Jefferson, on the other hand, believed that revolution was an inevitable and necessary feature of a healthy political order. As Michael Hunt explains in his fascinating study, Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy, Jefferson was fond of metaphors when explaining his position. He considered revolution as a manure essential to the healthy growth of the tree of liberty. Even failed revolutions are steps in the right direction, a necessity for social, economic, and intellectual progress: “At every vibration between the points of liberty and despotism, something will be gained for the former. As men become better informed, their rulers must respect them the more.”

(An Aside: In these words one may find as good an explanation as any for the uncompromising politics of Christopher Hitchens when it comes to the Iraq War. Hitchens – who has spent the last few years mining the early decades of the American republic, producing biographies of Jefferson and, forthcoming, Thomas Paine – is surely no stranger to these sentiments. The dedication of his volume on Paine is to President Jalal Talabani, “first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy; leader of a national revolution and a people’s army. In the hope that his long struggle will be successful, and will inspire emulation.”)

It was the French revolution that tested these stances. Jefferson was an early supporter of the uprising, seeing it as the logical extension of the cause of liberty from its cradle in the nascent American republic. “I have so much confidence in the good sense of man, and his qualifications for self-government, that I am never afraid of the issue where reason is left free to exert her force,” Jefferson wrote from France in 1789. By 1793, the revolution had taken an excessively radical turn. Assassination contributed to the erosion of moral and civic ties. Jefferson was forced to admit that “the cause of true liberty has received a deep wound.”

“Once begun,” Hunt writes, summing up Jefferson’s realization, “the ultimate fate of a revolution depended on a close adherence to a moderate course.”

This dictum echoes with obvious relevance in our own time. One cannot read about the Adams-Jefferson dialogue on revolution and not find your mind wandering to Iraq. Those of us who supported the war misunderstood not only how grievously Saddam had broken Iraqi society, but also the limits of man and the “science of government.” We were immodest and not sufficiently reflective about the dangers of intervening in other societies. An effort to ease human suffering has been drowned in a sea of blood. Matters are unremittingly bleak over there. As Marty Peretz notes over at his TNR blog, The Spine: “Does not calling it a civil war keep it from being a civil war? The death rates are worse than those in the Spanish Civil War and much worse than those in Bosnia. Why the hesitancy, both official and from others? Let’s face it. There is a civil war going on in Iraq, and it has been going on for months and months.” For what it is worth, Kofi Annan apparently agrees.

Iraqis who have been brave enough to stand for a democratic future, a liberal future, stand in peril of facing retribution similar to that meted out by the Khmer Rouge against any Cambodian deemed sympathetic to the West. Wholescale massacre. As the world crumbles around them, we owe it to them to make sure they are protected and, if need be, provided safe haven abroad.

Delta Blues

November 22, 2006

A troubling report, via a contact, from the conflict-riven Niger Delta region of Nigeria. According to Patrik Naagbanton and Stevyn Obodoekwe – the coordinator and head of the human rights program respectively of the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) – 27 year-old student Tombari Martins Berebon was shot by police at a Port Harcourt checkpoint on September 1st after the police attempted to extort a bribe from his party. His kidney “shattered” by the bullet, Berebon only survived thanks to timely medical attention.

In the words of Naagbanton and Obodoekwe, Berebon now “pants between life and death,” his assailants having “disappeared into thin air” after the incident. Berebon’s impoverished parents went to the police to implore them to cover his medical expenses. Instead, the police once again attempted to shake them down for a bribe. Summoning a wrathful eloquence in its letter to the police that perhaps can only properly be expressed in the vernacular, CEHRD demands “justice for this defenseless sufferer of your overventuresomeness.” After receiving CEHRD’s letter police officials are apparently hurrying to arrange some compensation. Berebon is undergoing treatment and will require major surgery.

Berebon’s case is no freak occurrence. The oil-rich Niger Delta is home to a volatile dynamic of corruption, vi0lence, tribal rivalry and state repression. Thanks to the region’s oil deposits, Nigeria is the eighth largest exporter of petroleum in the world and the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. But the oil wealth has been monopolized by a corrupt government and self-protecting elite (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), alienating the people instead of benefiting them and creating broad resentment. This dynamic is most acute in the densely populated Niger Delta region itself, where local tribal groups claim to have been dispossessed by the government and multinational oil companies and have taken up arms against both the government and each other. Kidnappings of foreign oil workers have become common. Government forces are notoriously corrupt and brutal, and ongoing conflict has resulted in civilian massacres, beatings and rape.

I’ll be trying to expand coverage of the troubles in the Niger Delta in the future. I believe it’s a conflict that merits closer attention, and a little more outrage, than the latest O.J. Simpson atrocity.

The Story of Angola

November 21, 2006

In 1975, the central African country of Angola cast-off the colonial regime of Portugal and declared independence. The country promptly descended into civil war. Because of the larger context of the Soviet-American struggle this civil war was rapidly transformed into a proxy war. As James Traub reports in a terrific piece from this past weekend’s New York Times Magazine, by the end of 2002 more than a million people had died and about a third of Angola’s population of 12 million had fled from their homes. Angola was a quintessentially broken country.

Angola is still a broken country. But Angola has oil, immense deposits of which lie under the South Atlantic Ocean in Angola’s territorial waters. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ruling regime’s longtime patron, the past decade found a war-torn nation adrift. America was not so keen to provide aid to an obnoxiously corrupt and brutal regime. In March 2002, the IMF reported that the nation’s finances remained hopelessly opaque despite efforts to reform Angola’s bookkeeping. Things were at an impasse.

Enter China. Though a long source of infrastructure development throughout Africa, the Chinese have for the past number of years been proactively on the prowl for oil and influence partners throughout the third world. And, perhaps most importantly, China extends its hands with no strings attached. Suppress the role of a free press? No problem, we do it too. Brazenly rob billion in oil revenues from the public coffers? No problem. Angola has replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s oil source.

China comes to Africa offering aid without conditions. As Traub notes, China’s official Africa policy seeks “a new type of strategic partnership [which] respects African countries’ independent choice of the road of development.” (Read: We do not care about human rights. We do not care about good governance. We abhor transparency.) This is how, as my thought-partner noted, China is positioning itself to become the 21st century’s illiberal superpower. The story of Angola overlaps with the stories of Sudan, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, and elsewhere.

And with $5-billion in Chinese oil-backed loans the Angolan economy is booming. Construction is everywhere. Conference centers are being constructed in close proximity to international airports that are being built. And yet, in Angola one in three children dies before the age of 5, and the life expectancy is 38. Development, Chinese style. – a process, as Traub describes it, “imposed from above and answerable to no one.”

The George W. Bush Research Institute

November 17, 2006

Buried deep within their weekly dispatch on political doings in the United States, Aluf Benn and Shmuel Rosner have this interesting nugget about outgoing (and ageless) Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon. Before departing Washington for good Ayalon, who has served tirelessly for an eventful four-and-a-half years, paid a visit to Bush and Cheney in the White House. He was apparently a slobbering fool. A sycophant, even stooping to the level of comparing Bush to Winston Churchill.

But wait. It gets better. He also asked for Bush’s blessing to establish a research institute in Israel that will bear Bush’s name. Ever modest, Bush complied. It would be funny if Ayalon’s private prostration were not echoed during Olmert’s recent visit with Bush. In the Rose Garden Olmert praised Bush for his “great operation” in Iraq and the “stability” it has brough to the region. And yes, he said this with a straight face. As The Forward editorializes, this was a good bit surreal for American Jews who witnessed the leader of the Jewish state shower affection on a president who just days before was on the receiving end of a decisive electoral “thumping.” And no group “thumped” him more decisively than Jewish voters.

Big Brother (In-Law)

November 17, 2006

Yet another example of how carbon energy resources are allowing repressive regimes to persevere, resisting pressure to become less odious from outside and within. Burma’s military junta, truly one of the most despicable authoritarian regimes in the world, takes little notice of American sanctions imposed to protest its jailing of democracy activists because it has its “brother-in-law,” China, to take care of it and exploit its carbon wealth. Note the rise of China as both a ravenous new consumer of carbon-based energy, thus raising its value, and the alternative customer of choice to the United States for those governments that would prefer not to have any questions asked about their human rights record.

Quite simply, China is positioning itself to become the 21st century’s illiberal superpower. Whether it can continue to grow in wealth and influence without its own authoritarian system collapsing from within is the attendant question. Meanwhile, America and the global economy’s reliance on carbon-based energy is empowering a creepy set of oleaginous authoritarians. For essential further reading see “Crude Awakening,” Joshua Kurlantzick’s superb article in The New Republic (sorry, behind subscriber wall) on the emergence of this “axis of oil.”

Not Reading Lolita in Tehran

November 17, 2006

The Guardian reports today that dozens of literary masterpieces and international bestsellers have been banned in Iran. Perhaps this comes as no surprise. Iran is, after all, a repressive theocracy in which men are executed for the “crime” of homosexuality. But apparently this is indicative of a a broader cultural freeze being orchestrated from the smelly office of Dinner Jacket and his mendacious cohorts. The intensified clampdown is apparently being orchestrated by Mohammed Hossein Saffar Harandi, a former revolutionary guard and close ally of Dinner Jacket.

The Iranian publishing industry is starving (or at least those, one can reasonably surmise, who have not seen fit to use all their ink to print hagiographies of the Iranian president). As The Guardian story notes, “The rise in book censorship mirrors repression in other spheres.”

Irony of ironies: this week is Iran’s annual national book festival. .

The Stain of Iraq

November 16, 2006

My partner in thought-crime brushed up against a very important thought a few days ago. While the debacle that is Iraq is a daily reminder of the grievous cost of intervention we must consider this cost in light of the alternative of non-intervention. Congo is a perfect case in point. It may seem an obvious idea that there is also a cost to not intervening, but the tenor of the debate around Iraq suggests that it is not as obvious as one might think at first blush. Indeed, I think the meta-question surrounding American foreign policy is this: How far has the liberal internationalist agenda been set back by the botched effort in Iraq? How chastened will America – and the larger Western community – be in the face of grievous human rights violations going forward?

The editorial that graces the forthcoming issue of The New Republic demonstrates the difficulty of advocating the importance of a moral foreign policy – if not rooted then very deferential to the idea of a “Responsibility to Protect” – in the shadow of Iraq.

Postscript: “Idealism — sometimes naive but usually inspiring — has always guided American foreign policy,” writes Gerard Baker in the Times of London. “Whatever the truth behind the fierce little human drama being played out now inside the Bush family, it would be an awful shame if it were to be abandoned.”