Archive for January 2007

A Moment of Shameless Self-Promotion

January 31, 2007

My weekly blog column for the fine people at Guernica magazine is up and folks, it’s a doozie. Well, it’s alright. Incidentally the apparent etymology of “doozie” is …

[Origin: 1925–30, Americanism; of uncert. orig.; sometimes associated with the Duesenburg, a luxury auto, though the var. dozy precedes the appearance of the car in 1920]

Did you know that in the musical Annie, Daddy Warbucks orders his butler to get the Duesenburg ready? Isn’t the internet wonderful? Reams of utterly useless information at one’s fingertips. And they said it wouldn’t last.


The Non-Intervention Alternative

January 29, 2007

William Pfaff, the long time international relations scribe and current columnist for the International Herald Tribune, has an essay in the most recent number of The New York Review that is sure to stimulate a great deal of chatter (in those tiny – primarily insignificant – precincts where such chatter can be stimulated. Like small-d).

Pfaff tells a story about American foreign policy since the end of World War II and argues for the path not taken. With an aged George Kennan as his guru, Pfaff argues that the notion that America has a mission to spread democracy is a dangerous fallacy that has set the country on a well-worn imperial path to self-destruction. Pfaff, quoting Kennan:

“To have real self-government, a people must understand what that means, want it, and be willing to sacrifice for it.” Many nondemocratic systems are inherently unstable. “But so what?” he asked. “We are not their keepers. We never will be.” (He did not say that we might one day try to be.) He suggested that nondemocratic societies should be left “to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate, asking of their governing cliques only that they observe, in their bilateral relations with us and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse.”

There are prudent consideration’s in the Pfaff essay that are well worth considering. And we can expect to see more of this sort of argument – recently popularized by David Rieff and similar to one offered at great length in a forthcoming book by the Tufts University political scientist Tony Smith – as Iraq continues to undermine American confidence in American leadership (more on the Smith book in the week’s ahead).

But Pfaff veers wildly off the mark when he explains what might have been had the US followed his non-interventionist policy (which he first articulated in Harper’s in 1961):

Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solution by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as has proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia, which precipitated the Khmer Rouge genocide. The tribal peoples of Laos would probably have been spared their ordeal.


The United States would not have suffered its catastrophic implication in what was essentially a domestic crisis in Iran in 1979, which still poisons Near and Middle Eastern affairs, since there would never have been the huge and provocative American investment in the Shah’s regime as American “gendarme” in the region, compromising the Shah and contributing to the fundamentalist backlash against his secularizing modernization.

I am skeptical of all such counter-factual arguments (to Pfaff’s credit, he does admit that such an exercise in “what-ifs” and “mights” is “otiose”) because they presuppose that had we not done “X” then “Y” would have been different. Perhaps. For instance, had we not orchestrated the overthrow of Mossadegh regime in Iran in the early 1950s, it is possible that Iranian history and culture would have been sent in an entirely distinct direction. Quite possible, in fact. But who is to say that this alternative course would not have been even more damaging to US interests? Counter-factual history is fun and interesting, but it often lacks a keen recognition that there is also a cost to inaction. That the intervention not undertaken can be as damaging than the ones we do (even when, short term, they seem like grievous errors).

In short, the logic of Pfaff’s argument is at best flawed and certainly unpersuasive.

ps. It is worth noting, as I believe this blog has many times, that the Pfaff essay appears in the pages of what is considered a left-liberal publication, while the David Rieff essay linked to above appears in the lefty Nation. Is it springtime for realism on the left?

Black Like Me

January 25, 2007


As a fellow black African I truly feel for Barack Obama as he faces his black support quandary. What’s that you say? A pasty-faced white boy like me claiming to be a black African? Yes, it’s true. Researchers conducting a new genetic study have discovered a rare West African Y chromosome in a group of white Englishman. They reckon the chromosome could have entered the gene pool as long ago as Roman times. Finally I have an explanation for my prodigious ‘fro. Then again, both sets of my father’s grandparents came from Galicia but … ah, hmm. Never mind.

I’m still a Palestinian though.

Obama’s Black Problem

January 25, 2007

I unfurled my Washington Post this morning and my eyes were met with an interesting front page story on Obama’s troublesome relationship with the African-American community (or at least the traditional leadership of the African-American community).

A particularly interesting nugget: “Black Democrats prefer Clinton 3 to 1 over Obama, and four out of five of black Democrats view her favorably, much higher than the 54 percent who have a favorable view of Obama, according to combined findings from two Washington Post-ABC polls taken in December and January.”

And, on cue, the inimitable Al Sharpton offers a very Al Sharpton quote: “Right now we’re hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle. I’m not hearing a lot of meat, or a lot of content. I think when the meat hits the fire, we’ll find out if it’s just fat or if there’s some real meat there.” (Translation: Expect a Sharpton candidacy in 2008 – should make the debates interesting. You can’t help but marvel at the man’s brilliant command of the English language.)

This article really highlights the difficulties facing Obama as he tries to establish his bona fides in the black community without becoming another Jesse Jackson (i.e. a marginal, sectarian candidate). It is really unchartered territory in American politics, there is no playbook for such a candidacy (much as there is no precedent for a candidate of Kenyan-Kansas descent).

ps. I have nothing coherent or insightful to say about the State of the Union except my shock – and occassional horror – at how many times Nancy Pelosi blinks per minute. It is astounding. I wonder if that is a side effect of Botox?

Better Left Unsaid

January 24, 2007

Our rivener of romance novels imagines that we here at small-d have something insightful to say about last night’s State of the Union address. I can’t speak for my PITC but I certainly don’t. I didn’t even watch the dratted thing. Instead, I spent the evening gorging myself on Sachertorte and then sipping ambrosia at a fine local establishment. I know that the pundicrati take ravenous interest in such things, trying to divine the political future from Bush’s words and Ted Kennedy’s head-bobs as though they were reading entrails, but this to me is something of a waste of time.

Bush has no majority in Congress and so will be unable to enact any legislative program. His political intentions are therefore broadly irrelevant. On the most important question facing the nation and his administration – Iraq – he has already set out his new policy (if you can call it that). The rest is smirking.

Picking through the newspaper reports, the one sensible idea Bush seems to have proposed is mandatory fuel efficiency and emissions standards. I’d be rather shocked if he matches rhetoric with action on this one though. Judging by the heavy emphasis on ethanol and a definition of “alternative fuels” that seems to include liquefied coal, the intent would seem to be to please the corn farmers and the industry lobbyists rather than increasing energy independence or warding off environmental disaster. I guess we’ll have to see how Arnie’s energy policy reforms go in California to see if the issue becomes an un-spinnable political juggernaut.

Sudan: The Crimes and the Heroism

January 23, 2007

The current issue of Newsweek brings word that charity workers operating in Darfur are being systematically assaulted, raped, and otherwise harassed in an effort to drive them from the war-torn Western region of Sudan. These attacks – on such venerable outfits as Medecins sans Frontieres, Oxfam, and Action Contre la Faim – are taking place in territory controlled by the Sudanese government and its allies. A dozen staffers from foreign NGOs have been killed in just the past six months, more than in the previous two years. And last week, 14 U.N. agencies working in Darfur issued a stark warning that “the humanitarian community cannot indefinitely assure the survival of the population in Darfur if insecurity continues.”

The bottom line is and remains that the current level of US inaction is morally unacceptable. We will see if this international disgrace gets any attention in the President’s State of the Union speech tonight. There are no pleasant options when it comes to Darfur. Which makes it imperative that innovative thinking on the matter – like the creation of a genocide prevention division within the US Army, proposed by Michael O’Hanlon in a recent issue of The New Republic – receive attention.

It is also worth drawing attention to a fascinating article in a recent number of The Chronicle of Higher Education about the Ahfad University for Women, Sudan’s only all-female institution of higher learning. As The Chronicle‘s far-flung foreign correspondent Megan Lindow reports, Ahfad was established as an elementary school in 1907 by a broad-minded soldier-turned-merchant named Sheikh Babiker Badri, who wanted to educate his 13 daughters at a time when most considered the idea deeply shameful. The institution has pioneered women’s education in Sudan for a century, weathering successive military coups and resisting vigorous state clampdowns on higher education.

Most remarkable is the heroic role Ahfad played during the near-interminable North-South Civil War that convulsed Sudan for years. Although the school is situated in the North, Ahfad lecturers would travel to the South and recruit promising women who they felt would be able to use a university education to bring benefits back to their beleaguered communities. Similarly, in Darfur (where most of the aid workers are hired local help) Ahfad graduates have been integral in getting aid delivered to those in need.

I present it as an optimistic anomaly on an otherwise bleak horizon.

Of Bodices and Brains

January 23, 2007

In a bourbon-soaked haze last week, I encouraged my good friend Faith to launch her excellent new blog and even supplied the title. Why Faith actually decided to use the name I came up with I’m not certain but I assure you her judgement is otherwise sound. How Faith finds time to ruminate with such profundity between excising the racy bits from romance novels is itself something of a mystery. Perhaps all this cutting of bodice rippers is good for the mind…

Speaking of which, it was during the same bout of bourbon-glazed gluggery that I met Faith’s charming and delightful housemate, Kate. Kate already had a blog, but it was shuttered to the world and you had to be a very special person, or an inebriated lout she’d never met before, to gain access. This was all until a certain self-proclaimed sporadic blogger bayed at the gates of Kate’s blog, convincing her to take down the shutters. Kate is a student of neuroscience, so you know she’s wicked smart.  Her blog is devoted to addressing scientific issues in a global context, which apparently has something to do with wearing a bandanna and baking cookies. But perhaps I’ve missed something.