Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Court Case Highlights Charitable Front

Life has been rather complex of late, and promises to be even more so as Thanksgiving approaches, so posting has been light, and may remain so in the coming days. Apologies and best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous Turkey Day.

Via the Counterterrorism Blog comes this article by Matthew Levitt, on the significance of the recent verdict against the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity which has been found guilty of serving as a front for financing terrorism (in this case, Hamas).

This verdict is important on several levels. First off, it sets an important precedent for eschewing the politically-correct cultural-relativist narrative which holds that organizations such as HLF should be immune from scrutiny because they serve the interests of a given group...even if it is widely acknowledged that their sub rosa dealings possess a far more sinister character. Financing terrorism trumps any other benefits which such an organization can claim, and must be dealt with accordingly.

Perhaps more fundamentally, though, this verdict highlights the way in which a Global Counterinsurgency like the Long War must be waged:

As I argue in my book, “Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad” (Yale University Press, 2006), Hamas’ charitable and social welfare networks are both the secret to the group’s political and terrorist success as well as its Achilles heel. A strategic approach to Hamas should include not only disrupting the group’s operational capabilities, but also targeting its financial and logistical support networks. Front organizations like the Holy Land Foundation should be shut and prosecuted, to be sure, but such efforts must be complemented by serious efforts to fund and empower accountable, nonviolent Palestinian entities -- public and private alike -- to assume the responsibility for (and enjoy the resulting public support from) public works and social and humanitarian services should be a central goal of counterterrorism officials, peace negotiators, economists, and development experts alike. The international community could and should beat Hamas at its own game of providing social services to build grassroots support, though in this case support for moderation not extremism.

A COIN force must operate in such a way to show itself a credible guarantor of the safety and security and prosperity of a host nation's population, in order to dislodge that population's loyalty from the insurgents who also vie for its allegiance (or at least acquiescence). So, too, on a larger scale, those who would delegitimize the radical/militant actors which seek to garner support among suffering people by co-opting their hopes for a better future must find ways of offering even more promising avenues toward those futures than the radicals can do. This is arguably the most vital front on which this Conflict is fought.

As covertly radical groups like HLF find it more difficult to secure the funding with which they funnel capital into the coffers of bombers and throat-slitters under the guise of charitable works, the resulting vacuums offer opportunities for more legitimately beneficent organizations to take up the mantle. This is yet another example of how we can do well by doing good, and I hope the free nations of the world (hopefully under the leadership of a US which keeps its eyes on this multi-generational prize) follow through.

This was a good start.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ground Beef

Found this vid on Strategy Page. Aside from being a pretty good site for military news and information, it is also a great site for photos and videos on those and related subjects.

In this case, a camera fixed on a De Havilland biplane records a joy-ride on a perfectly lovely day for flying. However, around 41 seconds into the clip, keep an eye on the lower-left wing (to screen right).

I expect the aftermath of the incident will be described as a real pain in the dairy air.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Clearing a Path for The One

Via Hot Air, I encountered this WaPo editorial on the implications of the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which was recently ratified by the Iraqi Cabinet, prior to being turned over to the Parliament next week. The main thrust of the editorial is the degree to which this agreement, if passed by Parliament (as is generally expected), would give cover to the incoming Obama Administration to adhere in general terms to its pledge to withdraw American troops from Iraq along a relatively fixed timetable, while allowing it a measure of flexibility as to the details.

The main objection to such timetables all along has been the degree to which they would broadcast a time horizon to the very active and unreliably opposed agents of chaos in the fledgling Nation of Iraq. They would only need wait us out before swarming on the unprotected and unready Iraqi military and police, with catastrophic effects.

That situation has now changed. AQI is smashed, but for scattered mayhem and a stubborn but sputtering stand in and around Mosul. Much of the Sunni Insurgency has dissolved or joined --officially or otherwise-- with the Iraqi government and its Coalition allies. Iran has let up on its active support for the Shiite militias, which have been largely de-fanged, owing to the increasingly competent and well-run Iraqi Security Forces, under the surprisingly resolute leadership of a Maliki government which is moving increasingly steadily toward a true Unity composition. The time for timetables can reasonably be said to have arrived, if ever there was to be one.

One irritating misstatement in the WaPo editorial deserves highlighting:
By agreeing to a fixed deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, President Bush contradicted years of promises that he would never agree to anything but a "conditions-based" plan for phasing out the American military role there.
As I said, the timetable incorporated into this agreement can only be seen as a "contradiction" if one posits that all other considerations have remained static. They have not. The editorial staff of the WaPo could not resist this subtle bit of revisionist Bush-bashing, but it changes nothing. President Bush has weathered far worse, and remained undaunted.

Contrary to the shrill ululations of the Left, President Bush has shown himself to be a man of consummate character, for whom the interests of the Nation come before any considerations of popularity or credit.

For Bush’s team to leave Iraq in a condition in which it is safe for Obama to glide in and implement an agreement purchased at the price of so much noble blood irks me mightily; it gives Obama the opportunity to hold himself up as the statesman who completed the mission and withdrew our troops (”see? no bloodbath!”). He can claim credit for Ending The War ™, while he and his media acolytes whitewash the calamity which would have ensued if he had had a crack at policy-making prior to this auspicious time.

Fortunately, however, I can see no evidence that President Bush gives a fig about who gets the credit, so long as the mission is completed, American interests are protected, and the region is left more stable and strategically viable than he found it. The unmistakable impression is of a POTUS who is scrambling to set as many pieces of the game along favorable trajectories as possible before lesser hands take control of the board…not in the interests of a vain clutching at “Legacy,” so much as for the greater good of the Republic.

So, from Fallujah to FATA, our forces are moving at a blistering tempo to remove as many obstacles as can be from before the stumbling feet of The One, like removing the breakables from a room before one’s toddler enters it.

I still hold out a non-zero quantum of hope that Obama’s access to classified information will blunt the edge of his naively dovish foreign policy. For all of his failings, a lack of native intelligence is not one of them. He may learn and grow and not rush foolishly into the most destructive policies to which his campaign promises appeared to doom us. May it be so!

But if it is so, then I also hope that he takes a moment to acknowledge the debt of gratitude he owes to a certain Texan gentleman for sweeping some of the mines from his course.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Farewell, Phoenix

I'm a few days late on this, but I wanted to mark what appears to be the end of the NASA Phoenix Mars lander's successful mission.

Launched Aug. 4, 2007, Phoenix landed May 25, 2008, farther north than any previous spacecraft to land on the Martian surface. The lander dug, scooped, baked, sniffed and tasted the Red Planet's soil. Among early results, it verified the presence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface, which NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter first detected remotely in 2002. Phoenix's cameras also returned more than 25,000 pictures from sweeping vistas to near the atomic level using the first atomic force microscope ever used outside Earth.
The Martian Winter has descended on the vast northern plains of Mars, with its bitterly cold temperatures and dwindling supply of power-generating sunshine. Phoenix recently sent what will likely be its final transmission before going quietly into that good night. It now sits as one more lonely monument to the inventiveness and curiosity of the human species, as we cast our senses skyward in search of our origins and our destiny.

Next up is the terribly exciting Mars Science Laboratory, a relatively gargantuan rover, which will use its plutonium power cell to range farther and dig deeper than any of its predecessors. Launch is scheduled for Fall of 2009, with arrival in 2010. This beast will be empowered to do some serious science, and woe betide any stubborn stones which get in its way. This fairly large video captures some of the promise and poetry which awaits us on this mission.

For now, though, I for one have raised a glass to the short but productive life of a Phoenix which is highly unlikely to rise from its own ashes. It may have gone silent forever, but its voice has added to a trove of data which may one day help to rescue Humanity itself from ultimate stagnation and death at the bottom of our ancestral gravity well.

Sleep now, Phoenix. You have amply earned your rest and our gratitude.

Friday, November 14, 2008

COIN of the Realm

I really need to get over to the Small Wars Journal more often. Sure, there are many articles which even a mildly-to-moderately conversant layman observer of military matters like myself will find hopelessly esoteric and specialized. But almost as often, one will happen across a gem like this article by Col. Robert C. Jones (.pdf), on the subject of counterinsurgency (COIN).

What sets this excellent little (3-page) article apart is the degree to which it is able to distill the extraordinarily complicated brew of COIN doctrine down to its most fundamental principles, yet do so in such a way that it serves as a very practical skeleton for a host of tactical decisions across a wide variety of disciplines, by showing how they are unified under the umbrella of a single overarching strategy. This is no mean feat of data compression, given the dauntingly dynamic complexity of COIN ops as they are executed in the real world.

The Populace

The populace is the center of gravity for both the insurgent and the counterinsurgent.
Both the governance and the insurgent arise from the same populace to compete for sovereignty. To attack the insurgent is to attack the populace, and only addresses a symptom of the greater problem.

Every populace has both the duty and the right to rise up in insurgency when governance fails, and those failures cannot be resolved through legitimate means (U.S. Declaration of Independence).

Insurgency is fundamental to man’s nature. While poor governance is always viewed through the eyes of each unique populace, virtually every man will become an insurgent when he cannot feed, clothe, shelter, and secure his family, and when he has no hope for a better future. Hope is directly linked to the powerful human emotions of pride and respect, and must not be underestimated. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is instructive for the counterinsurgent, and often it is failure high in the hierarchy that sparks insurgency.

The segment of the populace that one must focus on is the one that supports the insurgent. Design programs to address their concerns, and do not simply rely on the “loyal” segment of the populace to help suppress the rebelling segment. (Brits in U.S.; U.S. in Viet Nam and Afghanistan did it wrong; U.S. in Civil Rights movement did it right).
Here, Col. Jones opens with a shot which lands at the precise geometric center of the bull's-eye. A true insurgency is not something which arises out of nowhere, nor merely out of the narrow interests of a small group (or, if it does, it does not last long enough to be of serious the Weather Underground learned during the Sixties and early Seventies in the US). Instead, it emerges from a widespread and serious failure of governance to meet the needs of its populace. As such, insurgents perceive themselves to be fighting for the good of their community. The task of the counterinsurgent is to prevent the people of that community from feeling likewise, by demonstrating (not just declaring) that the insurgency can meet their needs less well than the government with which it competes for their loyalty and/or acquiescence.

By acting to shore up the essential functions of good governance (e.g., the provision of security, public health, infrastructure, and opportunities for prosperity), a comprehensive COIN operation acts to de-legitimize the claim which the insurgents can stake in the discontent of the people. Simply lopping off even key members of an insurgency can scramble its operational capabilities and degrade its effectiveness as a fighting force, to be sure. But, absent the undermining of the narrative through which an insurgency continues to recruit members from the host nation's population, such purely kinetic operations will do nothing save "reset the conditions of failure."

The last paragraph of the section I excerpted above speaks to a potential misunderstanding of COIN operations which is as serious as mistaking them for mere "Surges" in troop levels. Mounting a successful counterinsurgency is more than simply recruiting a cadre of "our guys" and pitting them against "their guys." Unless the underlying dysfunctions in a host nation's governance are addressed, then "their guys" will always have a renewable supply of recruits from among a population caught in the crossfire and hungering for a Change.

This is a lesson which we would do well to remember as we endeavor to implement COIN strategy in Afghanistan. Simply luring some tribes away from the Taliban and turning them loose may provide local pushback to the AQ-Taliban insurgency, and as such is not without value. But a counterinsurgent force must be able to insure the security and stability of communities which cooperate with it, facilitating improvements in the quality of life and providing a credible promise that those improvements will be sustainable over time (the "Clear-Hold-Build" policy), or else the insurgency will retain the ability to punish such cooperation, so no sane person would offer it.

Articles such as Colonel Jones' are essential because they provide a clear overview of a strategy which is all-too easily lost in a thicket of details and thus fundamentally misunderstood. At its root is an elegantly simple proposition: people long for security, justice, and opportunity, and will fight for them if they have to. Offer them realistic hope for these things, and they will judge you to be on their side in that fight.

And, lest any of you think that we are meddling unduly in internal matters when we engage in COIN operations far from our shores, let me remind you that local insurgencies like those in Afghanistan and (to a far lesser and ever-diminishing degree) Iraq are actively abetted by actors such as al-Qaeda and Iran, to serve aspirations which are ultimately global in scope. The work of counterinsurgency in any one theater is self-similar to and reciprocally linked with that global counterinsurgency which constitutes the core task of the Long War. We lose sight of that larger arc to our great peril.

So, read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Actionable Intelligence

Last week, shortly after his slim but historic victory in the US Presidential election, Barack Obama finally got a chance to peek beneath the veil. He has begun to receive classified intelligence briefings about the full range of the threats arrayed against the US and its interests at home and abroad, and about the responses to those threats which he will presently be entrusted to oversee. This is information which would not have been available to him as a senator and a candidate, and it appears to have been a sobering experience for him.

Obama can hardly be blamed for seeming a bit less ebullient as the full weight of the responsibilities he must bear begins to settle on his shoulders. In characteristically irresponsible fashion, the New York Times has reported (again!) on a portion of the covert operations which were authorized by the Bush Administration to pursue and harry al Qaeda across the globe. Depending on your orientation, this story reads like a Bush-Derangement fantasy of Imperial overreach, or as a sobering account of the hitherto (and appropriately!) unseen portions of the Long War in its far-ranging and valiant campaign to keep us safe from the murderous ideologues who would slaughter our children for the sake of piety. Either way, it is part of Obama's world now.

The full scope of the threat landscape in which our President-Elect must immerse himself is daunting in the extreme. However much he has staked his claim on the notion that the US must withdraw from Iraq with all possible speed, I strongly suspect that his access to the Full Story will (hopefully!!) act to stay his hand (no doubt to the considerable annoyance of his supporters):

Iran would cheer a quick American withdrawal, but as soon as the US leaves Iran will use its Shia proxies in Baghdad to create an Iraqi government manipulated like a puppet by strings that stretch to Tehran’s mullahs.

Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish minorities will feel disenfranchised by a quick withdrawal because they expect the Shia majority will then manipulate Baghdad’s government to deny them opportunities and resources. That could ignite a real civil war.

Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, al Qaeda’s [fictional] Iraq leader, offered President-elect Obama a truce in exchange for removal of all forces from the region. But American intelligence officials caution any step that could be perceived as a victory for al Qaeda, like pulling troops out of Iraq before the country stabilizes, would only strengthen the terror group’s ability to recruit.

A precipitous US withdrawal is opposed by important allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis fear that Tehran might take advantage of an early withdrawal to seize oil fields in the Shia dominated eastern Arabian Peninsula. Israel, which says it faces an existential threat from a nuclear Iran, wants the US to remain in Iraq in order to keep Tehran in check and hopefully deal with the mullah’s atomic weapons program.
To his credit, Obama has stuck by the theme that a nuclear-armed Iran is "Unacceptable." Indeed, it is. However, the path which he must walk to prevent this is far less than clear. Iran has gamed the international system most adroitly, and has scoffed at all attempts to rein in its nuclear ambitions. There is no reason to believe that this will cease as a result of Obama's much-vaunted willingness to engage in diplomacy with the Mullahcracy. Indeed, on its face, that willingness would seem to play right into the Persians' hands, offering the opportunity to play for time while its centrifuges spin inexorably toward the unacceptable. I expect that the most current intelligence estimates of Iran's capabilities and intentions have now become available to Obama. What will he do with them?

Much has been made of Obama's ill-advisedly public though essentially correct intention to violate Pakistani sovereignty in pursuit of al Qaeda Prime. Indeed, he has made it a cornerstone of his war plan to address the as-yet unfinished business in the shadow of the Hindu Kush. But I have long felt that he has glossed very badly over the complexities of the Af-Pak theater, and so painted himself into a perilously untenable corner:

Recently, Obama’s staff was briefed that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse – American casualties are up and the Taliban militias are gaining strength and now control large swaths of that country. That’s why the Bush administration told Obama’s people that they must come to office with a battle plan that addresses troops, Pakistan’s safe havens area (where as many as one million Islamic radicals have refuge) and whether to negotiate with the enemy.

Sending more troops to Afghanistan must be part of a winning strategy. But US forces are overstretched globally and that’s why Obama must ask NATO allies to provide more forces. Even though Europeans overwhelmingly endorsed Obama’s presidential bid they have no desire to increase their Afghan role. In fact, the Taliban’s recent campaign of violence has shaken European will to contribute any troops much less more to NATO’s Afghan mission.

Obama’s Afghan war plan must also address the politically sensitive issue of aggressively pursuing Taliban militias and al Qaeda terrorists that are taking refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In 2007, Obama promised that “…if we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan and that government “won’t act, we will.”

Recently, the US increased cross-border raids and drone missile attacks against enemy forces inside Pakistan. Those assaults have angered Pakistani officials such as Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s military chief, who promised to defend his borders at “all costs.” Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari said US attacks were “…counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government.”
Obama must now confront the reality of a precariously unstable Pakistan's domestically unpopular alliance with the West, the extensive infiltration of its military and intelligence services by Islamist radicals, the fractiously feudal composition of the populations along its border with Afghanistan, and --perhaps most poignantly-- the likely intransigence and apathy of our so-called "traditional allies" in Europe, whose military capabilities are only slightly more limited than their willingness to use them. He must thread multiple needles, with the growing knowledge that many lives will be lost if he should so much as drop a stitch.

Already, Russian puppet-president Medvedev (for the record, pronounced med-VYED-yev) has wasted no time in throwing down the gauntlet before the untried POTUS-to-be. Puppet-master Putin is banking on Obama's previous statements expressing skepticism about the effectiveness and desirability of missile interceptor batteries stationed in Eastern Europe, and, as usual, has masterfully scoped the table before playing his hand:

Medvedev said he holds no animus for Americans and hopes “…the US administration, will make a choice in favor of full-fledged relations with Russia.” But he didn’t backdown [sic] on any front to include expanding Moscow’s military activities in the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Caribbean where Russian bombers and warships recently visited Cuba and Venezuela.

President-elect Obama will need all the political savvy he can muster and allies to deal with a belligerent Kremlin. But he shouldn’t expect help from Europe because Russian energy markets tend to be European-based and Moscow will leverage them to make the European Union squirm.
That last point deserves special mention: the degree to which the Russian economy is based on its ability to leverage its considerable energy supplies to gain geopolitical advantage cannot be overestimated. A sharp drop in the cost of oil and natural gas on the global markets would be devastating to Russia (as indeed it would be for a host of our adversaries). Obama's laudable but ill-conceived reluctance to develop domestic hydrocarbon energy supplies in favor of renewable sources which are just entering a very long pipeline (if you will pardon the pun) indicates a degree of naivete of which I hope he is presently cured. The global economic contraction which has accompanied the recent financial crisis has already precipitated a steep reduction in demand (and thus a concomitant drop in price) for petroleum. If this opportunity were maximized through aggressive pursuit of additional supplies, it could signal a perfect storm for the economies (and accompanying capacity for global mischief) of our various foes.

It is entirely possible that Obama's recent briefings will apprise him of the manifold ways in which these multiple threads wind round each other and form the fabric of the geopolitical veil-dance which George W Bush has doggedly (if often clumsily) executed during these last seven-plus years. It is still my belief that history will vindicate the Presidency of George Bush, but that is out of my hands (maybe the Li'l Cyte will write a thesis on the subject someday...). It is no secret that Obama was not My Guy...but he will presently be my President. As such, I wish him well, and would be more than happy to research the best ways to prepare a hearty dish of crow.

In the meantime, Senator Obama has tasted of the unexpurgated menu whose aroma outsiders like myself can discern only through a probably-unhealthily obsessive daily sniff. I have little doubt that it has seared his taste buds something fierce. I can only Hope that the experience will help him to Change his mind about how he deals with the kitchen staff. It could happen; he is a very smart man. But as with Intelligence, intelligence is only as good as what you do with it.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Observations in the Wake of Change

[by Mr.Hengist]

American elections provide the electorate with a choice between two viable candidates, with “choice” being the operative word. We have a choice between the Democrat and the Republican, and although we could vote for a candidate from another party or write in someone else not on the ballot, those are protest (or vanity) votes – that is to say, you can vote for whomever you wish but the reality is that either the D or the R will win. McCain was my choice over Obama, but that’s not to say that I considered McCain to be a good choice – he was, in my opinion, the better choice between the two. McCain was a flawed candidate who would have made a flawed POTUS, but, alas, there is no Party of Mr.Hengist to reflect my views on policy. Obama may prove himself to be a better POTUS than I think he’ll be and I’m open to that possibility.

At any rate, I’d like to make a few observations about the political aftermath of the 2008 election.

First: The election of a black man to the White House is historic, but it does not fundamentally change America. Instead it reflects a change in America that has already taken place, just as passing a milestone is an indication of how far we've already come. America is not now “post-racial” and probably never will be; that is to say, there will always be racism in America – in America, and all over the world. What this election shows is that it is time to stop accusing America of being a racist country. Not only was a black man elected to be POTUS, but his political opposition did not run on racist hatred or fear.
Indeed, had Condoleeza Rice not made it emphatically clear that she was not interested in political office then she may very well have been the Republican nominee in this election for POTUS, which would have been an Identity Politics two-fer. As it is, Hillary Clinton almost made it to the Democrat nomination and Sarah Palin was on the Republican ticket as VP. I think that goes a long way towards demonstrating that sexism in American politics is also a dead issue.
It can't have helped that, during the Democrat primaries, proponents of the Obama and Hillary camps lobbed racism and sexism accusations at each other, respectively (but not respectfully). I found it both disgusting and amusing - when the going got tough, they used the ammunition with which they were most familiar, ammunition which had previously been reserved for use against Republicans. I hope Democrats and Liberals learned a lesson from that. Between that internecine slander and the field of candidates we had in '08, Democrat Identity Politics has had another couple of arrows taken out of their quiver. That’s not to say that they won’t use them again, but I think they’ve been rendered largely ineffective.

Second: The Democrats are now responsible. When they were the opposition party to the Republicans they had little by way of constructive alternatives to Republican policy – quick to object but largely absent were their alternatives. Case in point: Iran and their pursuit of nuclear weapons. For years the Democrats have warned that POTUS Bush was about to bomb Iran but I’ve not seen them come up with a policy alternative to what’s already in place, aside from the vague admonition to apply copious quantities of the magic pixie dust of diplomacy. Their political opposition hamstrung POTUS Bush, and what happens next will be entirely their responsibility, and fault, should they fail to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. The entirely predictable and inevitable resulting hegemony of Iran over the Persian Gulf states and the use of nuclear weapons against Israel (either directly or through their proxy, Hezbollah) will underscore the folly of relying on Democrats to reign in and quash evil. Between Iran, the Islamic Jihadists, the resurgent empire-building of Russia, and the rising world-power of China (and their coveting of Taiwan), POTUS Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress will have their work cut out for them. I wish them good luck with that – and I mean that sincerely. I would rather they succeed and I’m proven wrong in my pessimism about their competency than to be proven to have been correct.

Third: The Liberal accusations of stolen elections in '02 and '04 have been proven false. They always lacked proof, and now that the Democrats won resoundingly in '08 there can be no doubt that past accusations were complete bunk. The ability to rig election results is not arbitrarily abandoned; it's not as if whatever Republican means of stealing elections was discovered and rooted out, nor is it plausible that they had a change of heart and decided to let the electorate have their way this time around. Note that the gullible Liberals who fell for this meme should be slapping their foreheads in slackjawed amazement that their victory was even possible, as they should have done in '06 when they won a slim Congressional majority, and they should be demanding accountability of the Liberal politicians, pundits, and bloggers who misled them.

Fourth: Campaign Finance Reform will remain a dead issue until the Republicans start raising more money than the Democrats, at which point the Democrats will once again rail against the corruption of big-money in politics. That will be our cue to point and laugh at them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Our Turn in the Wilderness

Since I'm not a real journalist (I don't even play one on CNN), I have the luxury of letting things settle in my mind before commenting on them. I was thankful for that last night. Such a wide range of conflicting thoughts and emotions were swirling around in their tincture of Merlot that I would no more have trusted myself to go to the keyboard than to the steering wheel. I doubt an editor would have empathized.

As usual, when great events overtake me, my thoughts turn to Joseph Campbell. The literature of comparative mythology has been formative in my approach to life and my understanding of the human condition. We keep telling the same stories to ourselves, again and again, in different forms and different contexts, unfolding different facets of universal themes. One of those themes is that of the Fall and subsequent Redemption. Whether we speak of Jonah/Jesus/Moses (et. al.) in the Judeo-Christian mythology, or the European Troubador/Courtly Love literature, or the multiple avatars of the Hero's Journey which show up pretty much everywhere, there is a persistent motif of overreach, collapse, exile/quest, and Return.

There is little question that the Republican party has crumbled into a state of incoherence and decadence at least since 2004 (and arguably as far back as 1994), and last night was its moment to Fall.

I think what so often gets lost in our policy discussions (even the ones which manage to stay civil) is the fact that between the Liberal and Conservative positions there are clear differences between two more-or-less equally valid and coherent world-views:

Liberals believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the rational implementation of deliberate societal engineering which creates the conditions for an equitable access to society's resources, for the benefit of all. The role of government is to determine what will best serve its citizens, and to devise the means by which to make it so. It is, in essence, a revolutionary world-view, since it holds to the idea that you improve the lot of the individual by re-making society to serve him.

Conservatives believe in the perfectibility of humanity through the removal of as many obstacles as possible to the individual's ability to identify and pursue her interests and maximize her resources through her own industry and ingenuity. It recognizes that inequities will arise, but that they are the results of differential levels of inventiveness and effort within a given, fair marketplace of opportunities. The role of government is to stay out of the way, to be thrifty with the collective resources (since they will be put to the most good in the hands of individuals making rational decisions about how to deploy them for their own ends), and to address any systematic and unjust impediments to the availability of opportunities to compete in good faith. It is, in essence, an evolutionary paradigm (which, yes, is ironic, given some of its proponents' positions on the concept!), since it holds that any top-down societal engineering will be inherently inferior to the collective variation-and-selection which will emerge from the mass of decisions made by individuals to improve their own lots.

The Republican party has failed miserably in its mandate to be the champion of the Conservative world-view. It has allowed itself to fall prey to the allure of K Street lobbyists, to dole out pork like it was a never-ending state fair, and to operate the economy on logarithmically escalating deficits without breaking a sweat. And all the while, it has had the hypocritical temerity to drone on about the importance of "limited government" and "fiscal responsibility." Last night, the country cried "bullshit."

One of the things which had appealed to me the most about John McCain was that he had a long and proven record of fiscal conservativism (to the unending annoyance of his fellow Republicans!). It was my hope that his election would bring this issue to the front burner and restore the clarity of the contrast between the Liberal and Conservative perspectives, so that the people could make a more informed choice about which they preferred, when mid-term elections came around in two years. Alas, the damage was too extensive for such an on-the-fly retool.

Congressional Republicans had so tarnished the brand that there was no clear distinction between the top-heavy, spending-rich approach of Liberalism, and the lean, unintrusive, free-market approach of Conservatism. It is hardly surprising that so many Americans voted for a "change." The tragedy, in my eyes, is that they have voted for those who would do, as a matter of policy, much of what those they voted out have been doing out of sloppiness and greed. Again, this is not to say that Liberalism is inherently bad, any more than Conservatism is inherently good. It is simply that the distinction was so muddied that that the decision was in part based on corrupted data.

Still, this too is part of what happens in a marketplace of ideas, and therein lies the opportunity before us. The Conservative perspective has been forced out of the village and now must wander in the purifying wilds in search of a vision. Meanwhile, the Liberal perspective has its moment to make its case, largely uncontested (though, thankfully, the filibuster option is preserved in the Senate, where it will perform its function to thwart the perennial hubris of the long-frustrated conqueror). It is a thing fervently to be hoped that Conservatives will find their 'spirit guide' and return to the clarity of purpose which will enable them to make their case to an American electorate which will be able to discern the contours of these competing paradigms, and decide whether to let them back within the city walls.


While I'm on the subject of Hero's Journeys, though, it would be badly remiss of me not to note with considerable pride in our Nation that a Black man has just been elected president of the United States! Just about within my lifetime, American Blacks were getting sprayed down with fire hoses for demonstrating peacefully, and now a generation of kids (notably, mine) will have no objective basis for the idea that any door is closed to folks of color. The very idea will seem silly to them. Whatever else comes of this, I don't know that I would have much to say to anyone who failed to see that as a staggering advance in the evolution of our society.

I have very pronounced policy differences with President-Elect Obama, and grave concerns about the direction in which he may take our Nation. But that is for another day. Today, I am proud and impressed with our great Republic for taking an immense step toward a truly post-racial society. It's about bloody time!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

For What It's Worth

This evening, I made the last of what turned out to be approximately 500 calls over the last few days for the McCain campaign (wonderful and simple tech; sign up on the web site, get fed numbers of registered voters, and fill out some drop-down menu items documenting the results of the calls). They were all in PA (I got to pick that, too). I was fully prepared to get yelled at quite a bit.

The results were quite a bit more encouraging than I'd expected for a state which had gone Blue the last few elections. Now, the vast majority of these calls consisted of messages on answering machines, about whose reception I will never know. There were also a great many wrong numbers, disconnected lines, busy signals, and sundry fax machines. I would say that I actually got through to maybe 10% of the voters I called. Of those, however, I found that upwards of 75% expressed strong or average support for McCain...and most of these were from families multiple members of whom would be voting the same way. I spoke with two undecided voters. One of them was leaning slightly toward McCain, and I think I left him slightly more favorably disposed to vote McCain-Palin.

What is interesting about this is that my highly unscientific, low-power polling turned out to be much more in line with the most optimistic polls than with those which have been churned out for general consumption. Again, I was rather taken aback by the strong support I encountered, and not just in the rural interior of the state.

It will not be long now till the American people will render the final judgment about who will take the tiller for the next four years. In due course, power will slide smoothly (by any historical standard) into a new set of hands. I plan to continue my personal tradition of dressing professionally for what is the closest thing to a religious observance that remains to me (pretty much the only time I ever wear a tie these days), and proudly press the touch pad to register my preference on the best course forward for our Republic. The fact that I was able to add just a wee bit more volume to my vote with a few phone calls has been a curiously empowering sensation.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Crying Shame

Over at Pajamas Media the other day, I happened across this wise and poignant article by Michele Catalano. The title, "When Choosing a Candidate Means Losing A Friend," says it all. It made such an impression on me that I printed it out and put a copy in my waiting room. For all the fervor with which I believe that an Obama presidency would be a grievous setback for our Nation on a wide variety of fronts, I am nowhere near the Scary Place where one dismisses and ostracizes friends and acquaintances for holding different opinions in good conscience. Good thing, too; that would pretty much leave me alone!

This past week-end, at the birthday party for some very dear friends' outlandishly adorable son, I saw a mutual acquaintance, and extended greetings. Dead air in return. At first, I dismissed it as my simply not having broken through the ambient mayhem of a bouncy-gym filled with shrieking little humans and their multitasking parents. Several more iterations of attempted greetings, however, yielded the same lack of acknowledgment. Never having known her especially well myself (Madame Noocyte was quite a bit better acquainted with her), I didn't give it much more thought. It was only today that I was informed by Ma'me 'Cyte, who had spoken with our hostess, that the young lady in question had spied the McCain bumper sticker on my car....

Upon hearing this, I was irritated for approximately four minutes. Then I just got sad. Now, it's not that the absence of this young woman's esteem stands to leave a particularly large void in my life --she always seemed a pleasant enough sort, but in the end I saw her a few times a year and shared some light-hearted chit-chat at most. What got me grieving was this very direct --if modest, and thankfully unique-- experience of the human costs of letting the shrill partisan smear machine replace reasoned political discourse in this country.

Somewhere along the line, it became the norm to amp up the volume in our political conversation, to the point where passion and conviction have simply dissolved into an undecipherable blast of acrimonious static. Clarity of analysis and critical thinking have been immolated on the altar of partisanship, leaving raw sputtering nerve endings more suited to hate than debate. It's become a take-no-prisoners, zero-sum game, in which any 'inconvenient truth' must be crushed, lest it interfere with one's chosen narrative. To even concede that one's opponent's world-view has a scintilla of merit is to threaten one's purchase on 'Truth' and to awaken a kind of existential dread which brooks no compromise. So, people retreat into their respective echo chambers and glower at each other, launching talking points like mortar shells across a cratered no-man's land, littered with the corpses of basic human relationships.

I fear that this will only get worse, regardless of who wins tomorrow. If, as I earnestly hope, McCain squeaks to victory, the Left will resume its raging about "stolen" elections...only this time with an ugly racial overtone. If Obama crosses the finish line, then it may well be the Right's turn to go savage. Either way, damage will be done. For my part, however, I plan no mean-spirited victory dances if my side wins, nor any spasms of rage if it does not. Politics rise and fall with the tides, and we ride them out as best we can, knowing that this is America, where hope and change are far more than mere bumper stickers. As for my true and valued friends, I hope to have them in my life to argue with about many an election to come.


See also this eloquent little op-ed by "Instapundit," Glen Reynolds. Key quote:
I'm not an Obama fan, particularly, but a lot of people I like and respect are. To treat Obama as something evil or subhuman would not only be disrespectful toward Obama, but toward them. Instead, I hope that if Obama is elected, their assessment of his strengths will turn out to be right, and mine will turn out to be wrong. Likewise, those who don't like John McCain or Sarah Palin might reflect that by treating Palin and McCain as obviously evil and stupid, they're disrespecting tens of millions of their fellow Americans who feel otherwise. And treating a presidency held by a guy you don't like as presumptively illegitimate suggests that presidents rule not by election, but by divine right, so that whenever the "other guy" wins, he's automatically a usurper.

We don't have to agree on issues, or on leaders. But if we can't agree that a free and fair election can produce a legitimate president even when it's not the candidate we like, then we've got a very serious problem.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Bit of Perspective

Via Instapundit, comes this reflection on the man for whom I will be voting on Tuesday.

Haters are invited to engage in the exercise of imagination which the writer proposes. What would you have done?