Matthew Yglesias: anatomy of an intellectual crackhead
I hasten to say that I have nothing against Matthew Yglesias, though I have picked on him before. Perhaps my real problem with the man is just that he’s younger than me, but also more prominent and accomplished. In any case, I’m sure Yglesias is perfectly pleasant in person, although if he reads this he may want to at least fantasize about Macing me. (Let’s just hope he doesn’t team up with Tryfon Tolides.)
Needless to say, this crack thing will come as a surprise to him. It goes without saying that a successful blogger such as Yglesias, especially one with the skills to get hired by a genuine party organ such as The Atlantic, does not think of himself as being a crackhead, a crack dealer, a crackpot, or in any way, shape or form involved with the crack industry, the crack-rights lobby, grassroots crack organizations, etc., etc., etc. Intellectual, or otherwise. Oh, no! Yglesias is a fully-paid member of the reality-based community.
Of course, if you or I were good friends of Yglesias, people he met at an art opening or a reception for frequent NPR guests or a cocktail party for the Obama campaign, and we had all had a few drinks or toked up a little or whatever, at least enough to consider ourselves past the usual public decorum of pas d’ennemis à gauche, we could probably identify a few individuals and institutions, with names you would recognize, who while being very much à gauche, really impeccably à gauche, not even gauchely à gauche like Al Sharpton or something, do strike Yglesias as a bit acquainted with the Cocaine Badger. Or at least its progressive equivalent. (The Social-Justice Badger, perhaps?)
But Yglesias is a moderate, darn it. He’s not one of these Kos Kidz. He knows there’s crack on his side of town. He just believes that he’s not one of the ones ingesting. Of course, how he can maintain this belief while steam-shoveling these piles of snow up his beak is open to question. And indeed, it is this very question we shall answer today.
(Do you imagine a Yglesias in a sort of NPR-Malibu-Marin hot-tub dreamworld, doing organic lines off a naturally-finished sustainable redwood cokeplank, while beautiful interns from Yale caress his shoulders and tell him about their goals for environmental justice? Regardless of the actual facts, I feel this is exactly how we must see him. As Camus said: one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Yglesias’ work as a shill for the State will never be complete, any more than Sisyphus’ will, and if said State isn’t compensating him according to his actual talents it darned well should be. The man is a top-notch writer, for cripes’ sake.)
No—I have no information at all about Yglesias’ personal lifestyle. (And I’m not sure he’d indulge in this sort of puerile, pejorative drug humor.) But Yglesias definitely knows there is such a thing as a progressive moonbat. And he definitely doesn’t consider himself one.
And there is certainly no possibility that Yglesias has just drawn the line between pragmatic centrist and progressive moonbat in the wrong place. That not only he, but also almost all his so-called conservative opponents, are best defined as progressive moonbats and intellectual crackheads. Why, there is no possibility of such a thing! The line always goes down the middle! And as long as you’re in the middle, you’re sane by definition, not to mention sober. Right?
Well, okay, maybe not right. But I’m sure Yglesias has duly considered and rejected this interpretation of his pragmatic centrism. After all, he’s a very intelligent and obviously thoughtful young man. I exaggerate, of course. There really is no possibility that he is an intellectual crackhead. We are just going to run a few tests. Just to be sure.
First, a definition. An intellectual crackhead is anyone who happens to be engaged in the generation, incubation, or dissemination of intellectual crack. Intellectual crack is any nonsense that is widely and confidently believed by a large population of full-grown adults. Perhaps we can take this book as the original bible of intellectual crackology, in which case “intellectual crack” is just a snappy way to say “extraordinary popular delusion.”
There is only one procedure for dealing with an intellectual crackhead. First, identify him. Second, ignore him. Third, persuade others to ignore him. Fourth, if all these precautions fail, see if you can “borrow” some of his crack. Because it must be awfully good stuff.
Being an intellectual crackhead is sort of like being a zombie. When the zombie uprising happens, you stop worrying about zombie profiling. If someone displays the first sign of zombism—exposed muscle tissue, oozing eyes, partial amputations, etc., etc.—you assume he or she is a zombie, and react accordingly. You have two categories: zombie and non-zombie. There is no point scale, for degree of zombie-nature or whatever. It’s a binary flag.
Note that this is exactly how normal, sensible, educated people today think of the Nazis. Either you are a neo-Nazi, or you are not. If you allow as to any doubt about the matter, if you denounce the Holocaust but have a few good words for Hitler’s environmental vision, etc., etc., you are a neo-Nazi.
In other words, Nazism is a classic specimen of intellectual crack. This does not mean that every intellectual crackhead is a Nazi. It does mean that every Nazi is an intellectual crackhead. I really hope this is not an overly recondite distinction.
Using the example of Nazis, here is how normal, intelligent people avoid being categorized as intellectual crackheads. They simply use their normal social grasp of good manners, and take normal, sensible precautions to avoid allowing others to get the impression that they may, in fact, be Nazis.
They don’t plant tulips in their yard in the shape of a big red, white and black swastika. Even if they think it’s a very attractive geometric pattern. They don’t grow a mustache shorter than their upper lip. Even if they know it’d be dynamite in the back room at the Manhole. When they start startup companies, they don’t pick Nazi names, like Reinhard-Heydrich LLC, Iron Cross Linux, or Dr. Morell’s Fanatical Energy Juice. Even if the last would really stand out on the beverage rack. Etc., etc., etc.
They take these precautions, which may not even be justified by any actual moral imperative (is there really this community of young, tender-minded Holocaust survivors, whose fragile minds may be scarred for life at the sight of a swastika?), not because they are unusually good or moral people (any sufficiently large majority being average by definition), but because they happen to live in a society that considers Nazism, or anything even remotely like Nazism, shameful and embarrassing.
Which, in Theodore Dalrymple’s definition of the word, is a prejudice. And quite a sane and healthy one at that. (Of course, any prejudice can be taken too far—as we’ll see.)
Our Dalrymplean prejudice against Nazism is a sensible response to a well-known strain of intellectual crack. Nazism is especially dangerous because it can affect basically the whole population, even in a modern and civilized society, and cause them to set up a Crackhead Reich which is crazy and behaves in ways dangerous to itself and others. We know this because it happened. We may not be sure exactly how it happened, because any such understanding would require us to think hard enough about Nazism that it might accidentally unfreeze the virus, and cause a worldwide nuclear Nazi death plague heavy-metal holocaust, basic fourth-grade history informs us that Nazism did in fact happen and is therefore scary and dangerous. QED.
Of course, what’s odd is that the 20th century had another brand of 200-proof intellectual crack. Its name was Communism. And our society is not prejudiced against Communism, or anything even remotely like Communism, in anything like the way it’s prejudiced against Nazism. Unless you are reading this through some kind of 1950 Internet time warp, neither you nor I nor Yglesias finds any association with Communism shameful and embarrassing.
And yet life, somehow, goes on. Now isn’t that interesting? Why do you suppose that would be? How could one prejudice be necessary and the other not, and yet the difference between Communism and Nazism, at least as far as anyone in 2007 is concerned, is basically a matter of graphic design? I exaggerate, of course. Slightly.
I am by no means the first person to discover this weird crease in our moral reference frame. However, the good folks at GNXP have given it a sharp name: the blank-slate asymmetry.
I must stress that it’s entirely possible that the BSA is just a normal, benign moral asymmetry. That it has some sensible explanation that for some reason has eluded me and everyone else in the world. I have also seen plenty of non-sensible explanations for it. And I have seen plenty of people try to argue that it doesn’t need explaining at all. (I worry about this last bunch.)
But here is the interesting thing. People who are on intellectual crack do not know they’re on intellectual crack. (Eliezer Yudkowsky has a good bit on this.) Rather, they think they are perfectly normal. It is always you who are on crack. (If you doubt, try this movie.)
So—perhaps if you find a little, unexplained crease like this—how can you test whether you yourself are an intellectual crackhead? Obviously, if there was some trivial test, there would be no such thing as intellectual crack. Everyone would learn the test and remember it, and apply it to any doubtful intellectual material that seems to be headed in the direction of their nose. Perhaps it would be a liquid test, carried in a little eyedropper. “Wait!” you’d say. “I can’t snort this! The paper turned pink! It must be crack!”
No. In the real world, we are everywhere surrounded by crack. It’s in the water supply. (As the BMJ recently put it, “it does seem that Base Commander Ripper may have had a point.”) And in newspapers and on TV and in magazines and on the sides of buses and on everyone’s lips. (Spend a little quality time over at the EDF, then read this discussion. Crack, gentlemen, pure intellectual crack.)
Escaping from intellectual crack is almost impossible in general. With the purity of our modern neuropharmaceuticals, it’s basically inconceivable. As Tolstoy put it:
I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.
However, we can always give it a shot. And one way to practice is to try out your algorithm not on yourself, but on some hack intellectual for rent, some deputy-assistant wormtongue, some apparatchik NGO-blogger of the official press, some Yglesias. If we can’t explain to this man, in one post, that he is an intellectual crackhead, our litmus drops need some work.
An fun way to start the crack detection process is to find these little creases in the fabric, these small inconsistencies in commonly accepted reality, whose meaning is by no means obvious and which may just be natural color variations. Like the BSA, like water fluoridation, like overfitted circulation models and bogus paleoclimate series.
These kinds of mistakes are like continuity errors in a movie. They could mean nothing. Nothing at all. But, at least if your little neurological Truman Show detector is in proper working order, they should at least initiate a complete philosophical self-test. “Hey, wait a minute,” you should say. “Am I on crack? Maybe I’m just on crack here.”
If you’ve never had this reaction, let alone come to the conclusion that you actually were on crack, you must be an exceptionally dogmatic and stubborn person.
Which does not mean you are wrong about anything. On the other hand, nor does it make you right, and all I can give you is Cromwell. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Note that Christ lived in the Middle East, not a region known for its friendliness to the bowel.
On the other hand, while noticing these inconsistencies is a fun game, it is not really an effective approach toward addressing your crack problem. The trouble is that once you notice any such inconsistency, by definition you are no longer deluded by it. You can still investigate this little piece of rock in your hand, which is basically dead crack, and surmise that similar crystals, still pulsing with delicious cocaine vibrations, are embedded in the brains of those around you. But you yourself are cured—at least of this particular strain.
If the inconsistency is commonly suspected, after all, it must have skeptics and defenders, who are very likely to be on different sides of some political line. If you are a defender, and you are wrong, you probably have some tribal emotion wrapped up in your bizarre and indefensible explanation of this little piece of crack. Faced with the inconsistency, you will simply deny it.
No, what always gets you is the things you know that just ain’t so. And on that: back to Yglesias.
I thought of running a crack test on Yglesias when I saw this post of his. It was linked from this Julian Sanchez post. Please read both. Then read this post—including the comments.
Since Yglesias is a progressive whereas Sanchez is a libertarian, their approaches diverge a little. Yglesias is a little more articulate, at least on this subject. But I like Sanchez’s term, Care Bear Stare, and I’ll take the liberty of identifying it with Yglesias’ Green Lantern Theory.
And that other thing? Oh. That was just to remind us that while it’s wonderful to bandy slurs with libertarians and progressives on the Internet, there is a real world out there. And ideas do have consequences. And yes, there is a connection to the Care Bear Stare, but I’ll have to leave you hanging on that one. (Perhaps when the Care Bear Stare won’t do the job, the Care Bears have to resort to their pangas.)
What we’re going to do is dive into this Care Bear Stare issue. Give it a really solid historical working-over. We’re going to test it for crack, the little drop will be pink, indicating crack, and then we’ll decide what to do next.
We are not going to discuss any other beliefs or opinions that Yglesias may hold. We are going to focus entirely on this one issue. If we find crack, we will declare Yglesias a crackhead. If he wishes to argue that he is “only chipping,” or “only does it on weekends and holidays,” or “stays away from that brown shit,” he certainly has a platform from which to make that case.
Now, what’s interesting about this Care Bear Stare contretemps is that Yglesias and Sanchez are accusing their political opponents—in this case, Reuel Marc Gerecht—of being on crack. Without accepting or refuting this accusation (it’s certainly interesting to compare Gerecht’s style of thought to those of Sanchez and Yglesias), let’s try to abstract it slightly, separate it from its immediate political context, and construct a more general description of this strain of crack.
The Care Bear Stare or Green Lantern Theory is what a less hip writer might call an invincibility myth. An invincibility myth is a belief that, in any conflict, some faction is invincible and will prevail regardless of any material evidence. For example, said faction might have God on its side. Or it might have the Green Lantern. Or the Care Bears could show up and deliver their Stare. Or perhaps it just has a blessed +7 rustproof panga.
Regardless of the purported mechanism (this is crack we’re talking about here, after all), an invincibility myth is of tremendous military usefulness. After all, if you really are invincible, it’s obviously a pretty bad idea to oppose you. If your enemies are acting in their own best interests, they will surrender now, and get the best deal they can. And your allies certainly have no incentive to waver.
For example, let’s consider the faction that Gerecht represents: the Pentagon. (Yglesias talks about “American military might,” but we here at UR are sly and know that Washcorp is not exactly a single unitary actor.)
If the Pentagon’s adversaries believed that it was invincible, they would not even consider opposing it. They would just give up now, to avoid the trouble. Similarly, those of us whose attitude toward the Pentagon can best be described as “wavering” would find it profitable to overcome our doubts, and jump on the bandwagon while it’s still uncrowded. As Osama bin Laden once put it, everyone likes a strong horse.
So the situation seems quite uncomplicated. Gerecht is clearly a follower of the Pentagon. He is promoting, through the usual nefarious device of assuming it implicitly and then making an argument based on it, the idea that the Pentagon is invincible. Who does this benefit? The Pentagon. No surprises at all.
This is about the level of thinking you’d expect from the reality-based community. I’ve worked through it at some length to demonstrate that it is, indeed, thinking. (This may not be obvious to all UR readers.) So where is the crack?
The problem is that there is actually such a thing as invincibility. There are many conceivable conflicts whose outcome involves negligible uncertainty.
For example, the other day I was walking down 16th Street in San Francisco when I was confronted by a typical “only in San Francisco” scene: a large group of policemen, firefighters, and other public safety personnel, trying to convince a man to come down from a tree. (It was not a large tree, either.) It was not clear to me why the fellow was in the tree, but he was a full-grown adult male who even appeared to have had a shower in the last few days. Apparently he had been there since 2am. At the rate things were going, it seemed that he might remain until 2am again.
Doubtless Tree Man was thinking something. Perhaps he thought he could remain ensconced indefinitely. But you and I are aware that, in a conflict between the SFPD and a temporarily arboreal neohominid, the SFPD is effectively invincible.
So when reasoning about invincibility, we can make either of two errors. We can (a) detect invincibility where no invincibility is present. Or we can (b) fail to detect invincibility when invincibility is indeed present. Yglesias accuses Gerecht of (a). I suspect Tree Man of (b).
The only way to see who is right is to look at the actual facts of the matter. In other words: in a military conflict between the Pentagon and Iran, what will happen?
In case we are insufficiently armed against Pentagon propaganda, let’s select as our expert judge the world’s leading theorist of war. I refer, of course, to Major-General Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, director of the Prussian Kriegsakademie and author of the great On War. Not only does Clausewitz predate the Pentagon by a clean century, this paladin of the Hohenzollern state would have nothing but contempt for George W. Bush’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
So, General von Clausewitz, what is war?
We shall not enter into any of the abstruse definitions of war used by publicists. We shall keep to the element of the thing itself, to a duel. War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale. If we would conceive as a unit the countless number of duels which make up a war, we shall do so best by supposing to ourselves two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: his first object is to throw his adversary, and thus to render him incapable of further resistance.
War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.
Violence arms itself with the inventions of Art and Science in order to contend against violence. Self-imposed restrictions, almost imperceptible and hardly worth mentioning, termed usages of International Law, accompany it without essentially impairing its power. Violence, that is to say physical force (for there is no moral force without the conception of states and law), is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object.
Excellent, dude. Couldn’t have put it better myself. So—how exactly do you compel the enemy to submit to your will? What’s the procedure, man?
Now, philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are just the worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no means excludes the co-operation of the intelligence, it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the quantity of bloodshed, must obtain a superiority if his adversary does not act likewise. By such means the former dictates the law to the latter, and both proceed to extremities, to which the only limitations are those imposed by the amount of counteracting force on each side. […] If our opponent is to be made to comply with our will, we must place him in a situation which is more oppressive to him than the sacrifice which we demand; but the disadvantages of this position must naturally not be of a transitory nature, at least in appearance, otherwise the enemy, instead of yielding, will hold out, in the prospect of a change for the better. Every change in this position which is produced by a continuation of the war, should therefore be a change for the worse, at least, in idea. The worst position in which a belligerent can be placed is that of being completely disarmed. If, therefore, the enemy is to be reduced to submission by an act of war, he must either be positively disarmed or placed in such a position that he is threatened with it according to probability. From this it follows that the disarming or overthrow of the enemy, whichever we call it, must always be the aim of warfare.
Cool. And what determines the strength of each side? Who will disarm or overthrow whom?
If we desire to defeat the enemy, we must proportion our efforts to his powers of resistance. This is expressed by the product of two factors which cannot be separated, namely, the sum of available means and the strength of the will. The sum of the available means may be estimated in a measure, as it depends (although not entirely) upon numbers; but the strength of volition, is more difficult to determine, and can only be estimated to a certain extent by the strength of the motives.
Thank you, General von Clausewitz. “The sum of available means and the strength of the will.” That’s exactly what I was looking for.
You’re welcome, Mencius. Please feel free to pitch me softballs any time.
Now, let’s compare these factors in the case of Pentagon vs. Iran. First, the available means.
The Pentagon can produce an explosion at any point in Iran, any time it likes, as often as it likes, with no fear of retaliation. It can of course completely devastate the entire country. It has substantial ground forces, perfectly positioned for an invasion, which have twice defeated the ground forces of a country which defeated Iran.
Is it even worth discussing Iran’s “available means”? Barely. It is simply impossible to imagine a situation in which Iran survived for more than a month in a war with the Pentagon. At least if we are comparing only the “available means.”
Does the Pentagon really need the Care Bear Stare, when it has three carrier battle groups and a couple of armored divisions? Not to mention JDAMs? Against Iran? I mean, suppose we used our Ouija board to contact, say, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Against Iran? “Young man…”
But then there’s the will. Ah, the will. But this is precisely what both Gerecht and Yglesias are talking about.
Yglesias mocks Gerecht for thinking that, if the Pentagon had the will (for example, imagine if Congress actually—horrors!—declared war on Iran), it could dictate the law to Iran, just as the SFPD dictated the law to Tree Man, and compel it arbitrarily.
(This is definitely a caricature of Gerecht’s views. But no matter—even the caricature is more reality-based than Yglesias. It may even be more reality-based than Gerecht.)
Yglesias would probably do better to just mock Clausewitz. All hail, Major-General Matt von Yglesias, director of the Blogakademie! “Caesar. Napoleon. Clausewitz. Morons!” Because if you have the will and the means, what don’t you have? Nothing. According to Clausewitz. But not, apparently, according to Yglesias. Perhaps he should elaborate on these interesting military theories of his. Can we expect an On War, Part Deux? Perhaps we can.
Now let’s examine this fascinating strain of crack we’ve isolated. The truth is that I’m not terribly interested in Yglesias, who is the sort of cheap, fashionable writer every age produces in scads, or in the conflict between the Pentagon and Iran, which will presumably end in one of the usual military clusterfucks. What I’m interested in is crack, and how it works.
This variety is what might be called a counterintuitive mindfuck. Basically, you have a simple intuitive reality, which is that the Pentagon is way, way more studly than Iran and can turn it into Farsi-flavored mulch any time it manages to get the urge and sustain it. This reality is so obvious that it can be understood by a six-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome.
The counterintuitive mindfuck operates by constructing weird, Byzantine theories which explain why this obvious reality is “simplistic” and should be ignored. For example, in this case, it tells us that anyone who believes that the Pentagon can just kick Iran’s ass, any time, any how, in any kind of war, must be a victim of Pentagon propaganda.
Counterintuitive mindfucks are very common in the general progressive complex. The essential attraction of progressivism is that most smart, educated people are progressives. Therefore, any theory that posits that non-progressive people are simply too dumb or deluded to understand it, especially if the theory actually is hard to understand, has an open door to the progressive heart—a situation that lends itself perfectly to the mindfuck.
We treated this particular mindfuck by actually making a conscious effort to put aside all propaganda, from either side, and looking at actual military reality. Didn’t George Orwell say something about the front of your nose?
Now, interestingly enough, googling that Orwell quote produces this fascinating Paul Krugman column from 2004. (Aren’t we all happy to say goodbye to the NYT’s memory hole?) Krugman really goes beyond smugness. Searing arrogance is more like it. I am reminded of the tone of the famous Soviet humor magazine, Krokodil, which loved to parody the buffoonish, corrupt doings of the hooligan dissidents. Alas, Krokodil is no more. But perhaps we can remember the entire trope in which the smug and powerful mock the hooligans, peasants and barbarians as crocodile humor.
Yglesias is also a master of crocodile humor. In fact, I can’t think of a better example than his Green Lantern post. Which you’ve already read, but let me just quote the end again:
But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.
What’s more, this theory can’t be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will. Thus we see that problems in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t reasons to avoid new military ventures, but reasons why we must embark upon them: “Add a failure in Iran to a failure in Iraq to a failure in Afghanistan, and we could supercharge Islamic radicalism in a way never before seen. The widespread and lethal impression of American weakness under the Clinton administration, which did so much to energize bin Ladenism in the 1990s, could look like the glory years of American power compared to what the Bush administration may leave in its wake.”
I don’t even know what else to say about this business. It’s just a bizarre way of looking at the world. The wreakage that the Bush administration is leaving in its wake is a direct consequence of this will-o-centric view of the world and Gerecht takes it as a reason to deploy more willpower.
I love this passage. It is just a miracle of progressive crack. It displays the entire worldview in three paragraphs. There is no shame whatsoever, no belief that there is anything to conceal.
Now we know exactly what Yglesias is thinking when he says that it will take the Green Lantern or the Care Bear Stare for the Pentagon to defeat Iran. This is not really thinking in the sense that we normally use the word. It is more a series of semiconscious associations. But we can try to analyze it anyway.
The first association is with the Pentagon’s experiences in occupying Afghanistan, Iraq and of course Vietnam. I think we can agree with Yglesias—and probably also with Gerecht—that these experiences cannot be characterized as successful. The question is: why?
But let’s step back a second. Note that nowhere in his essay does Gerecht propose that the Pentagon occupy Iran and turn it into New Jersey. In fact, I read a lot of neocon material, and I have never seen anyone propose the occupation of Iran.
If you want a sensible, militarily plausible plan in which the Pentagon exercises Clausewitzian compellance over Iran (note that Safire’s plan was followed for Serbia, to a T, and regardless of your opinion of that conflict, it worked perfectly), try this approach by Arthur Herman. Note that this is far more aggressive than Gerecht’s “Osirak II” bombing strategy.
Note that Herman’s strategy is on the extreme militaristic wing of neoconservative opinion, which is on the extreme militaristic wing of American public opinion in general, which is on the extreme militaristic wing of world public opinion. On the other hand, by 19th-century standards, Herman is a pussy. In fact, by World War II standards, Herman is a pussy.
So Yglesias has constructed a completely fictitious strawman which involves occupying Iran, and trying to convert it into a normal, civilized Western state. He then sneers at this strawman in the grand old crocodile-humor style. Is this fair? Is a crocodile ever fair?
And you have to understand where Yglesias is coming from. Yglesias is a follower of the political movement which has ruled the US for the last 75 years, and the world for the last 60: the New Deal.
A New Dealer, or at least a postwar New Dealer, does not really see a place like Iran as an independent country, in the sense that that word was used in the 19th century. He sees it as a village in the new global community. He feels responsible for it. There is not a single spot on the planet which does not command the attention of a substantial number of officials in Washington whose job it is to feel responsible for it. The fact that American officials are elected only by American citizens often strikes them as a sort of anachronism, like the fact that DC itself has no senators or representatives. Policymakers in Washington feel the same basic paternal concern for Australians, Iranians, or Zimbabweans that they feel for Americans. It is not fiduciary responsibility, it is simply noblesse oblige. People with power always feel this way. It’s part of the human tribal instinct, and a damn good instinct it is, too.
So the thought of just bombing Iran, as if it was some kind of enemy, is deeply horrifying to a Yglesias. It’s a step away from the global community, from the Parliament of Man. These instincts are old, and they go deep.
When Woodrow Wilson stated that the US was at war with the German government, not the German people, he set the tone for the entire experience of American internationalism. The message was: German people, your true masters are in Washington, not Berlin. The Kaiser is a criminal who has kidnapped and enslaved you. Submit to our tender, fatherly care, and we will make you free and prosperous. It took a couple of wars—nasty wars, with real bombing and stuff—to get this message through, but in the end it worked quite well.
Obviously, I feel American internationalism is well past its sell-by date and needs to be taken out and shot like a rabid, fecally-incontinent dog. But let’s play along with it. I cannot find a single neoconservative hawk who proposes the occupation of Iran. Which is pretty pathetic if you ask me—given what Wilson did at Veracruz. But, okay, fine. I propose the occupation of Iran.
True, it is not consistent with my Carlylean foreign-policy instincts. True, I am no fan of the Pentagon or of Washcorp, and have no desire to see them expand—I would rather see them dissolved. True, I dislike violence in general, and while Iran’s government is obviously awful, it is not so awful that I would volunteer my life or even my pocketbook to improve it.
But I have no patience at all for the idea that it’s militarily impossible. Because that’s just BS. It’s crack, pure crack. I mean, for how many centuries have hominid tribes been conquering hominid tribes? If the Pentagon can’t conquer Iran, how in the name of holy Jesus could William I conquer England? Perhaps I’m not reading the Bayeux Tapestry right, but I don’t recall as the Normans brought along any flying laser beams of instant death. They were, on the other hand, pretty “will-o-centric.”
This is the real mental problem with a Yglesias. He really has no interest at all in any area of history that cannot be used to attack his enemies. For most progressives, history seems to start with the Kennedy assassination. Or maybe World War II. The idea that any analogy outside the postwar American period is at all relevant to current affairs strikes them as just plain wacky. Unless, of course, it implies something bad about conservatives.
But wait. Are we being reality-based? Isn’t the reality that the Pentagon, despite its laser beams or whatever, failed in Vietnam, and has at the very least struggled immensely in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I encourage you to read this fascinating little piece by one Edward Luttwak, who comes about as close as 2007 comes to a Clausewitz. If you are short on patience for some reason, just skip to the section labeled “The Easy And Reliable Way Of Defeating All Insurgencies Everywhere.”
Luttwak, of course, pulls his punches. “It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.” While I am not a fan of democracy, the contradiction between democratic election and effective martial law in an occupied territory is entirely beyond me.
Lincoln’s Unionist regime, which was not only a democratic country but fought its entire war under the banner of democracy, used Luttwakian techniques to a T and was marvellously effective. If you think the surprising paucity of Confederate insurgency and terrorism, and their near-complete cessation after Appomattox, is entirely a reflection of Confederate nobility, you may need to think again.
American forces also used Luttwakian techniques in the Philippines, where again they were remarkably effective. Between the Philippine Insurrection and the end of World War II, the Philippines were ruled as an American possession whose loyalty was proverbial. Note that the Lieber Code, under which both the South and the Philippines were governed, authorized (according to the traditional rules of war; see also Vattel) soldiers to shoot non-uniformed combatants on sight. Take that, Guantanamo-phobes. Furthermore, Americans were quite prepared to do the same in Germany and Japan.
And finally, for a complete and up-to-date instruction manual in how to defeat a modern insurgency, there is no better teacher than Roger Trinquier. Note that France, at the time that it defeated the FLN, was most certainly a democracy—for better or for worse. Probably the latter.
What’s fascinating is that here again, we detect our old friend—intellectual crack. Pentagon forces today operate by what are certainly the most strict rules of engagement in military history. Official doctrine is constantly informing Pentagon soldiers that any violation of these rules will endanger the mission by causing civilians to turn against them. And yet, the missions only seem to get less and less effective. Perhaps human nature has simply changed since the Norman Conquest, or at least the Philippine Insurrection? The results would seem to argue that it has not.
Let’s analyze this particular strain of crack with our usual attention to detail, taking Trinquier as a guide. (Remember also what Clausewitz said about philanthropic warfare. And I seem to recall old Billy Sherman had some thoughts on the matter.)
The goal of all counterinsurgency warfare is to capture and retain the support of the population. Counterinsurgency warfare can be seen as a sort of sedentary slave raid on a Wagnerian scale. The normal relationship between sovereign and subject, which applies in every stable country regardless of its formalities of government, is that the latter complies with all demands of the former and does not support or condone violence against it. In other words, whatever nice words you want to cloak it in, the relationship between government and citizen is the relationship between master and slave. Again, this is just the definition of government.
When this relationship breaks down, there are only two approaches to restoring sovereignty: massacre or deport the population, or recapture it. Stalin was a big fan of the former, and carried it out with impressive effect. However, as a sovereign, your subjects are your capital, and abusing them wantonly is seldom the best way to generate positive return on investment.
So, as Trinquier puts it:
We know that the sine qua non of victory in modern [i.e., guerrilla] warfare is the unconditional support of a population. According to Mao Tse-tung, it is as essential to the combatant as water to the fish.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Everyone believes this. In today’s Pentagon circles, the task of gaining popular support is generally known as winning hearts and minds.
But look at what Trinquier says next:
Such support may be spontaneous, although that is quite rare and probably a temporary condition. If it doesn’t exist, it must be secured by every possible means, the most effective of which is terrorism.
Yikes! Note, however, that Trinquier’s definition of terrorism is a little different from 2007’s. Please allow me to translate.
What Trinquier is saying is that winning hearts (“spontaneous” or emotional support) is really a secondary objective. The critical task of counterinsurgency is winning minds, i.e., persuading the population that it is in their rational interest to support you, rather than the enemy. As in any war, any technique that will lead to victory is effective.
Since reading Trinquier, I have been noticing this little phrase mentioned above, winning hearts and minds. Almost every time I hear it, it turns out to be in the context of winning hearts.
What a contemptuous view of the natives this implies! The winning-hearts approach treats them like six-year-olds, for whom affection is everything and rational decisions are impossible. Whereas if you or I were civilians caught in a war zone, who would we support? Whoever was most likely to win, and least likely to kill us in the process.
Now, you might think that the Trinquierian approach, while possibly more effective than “winning hearts,” is less moral. Of course, we cannot derive “ought” from “is,” and if you truly believe it is immoral for a government to handle its subjects using procedures that are not compatible with the US Bill of Rights, nothing I can say can change your mind.
When I think about morality, however, I think not about one alternative, but two. Suppose, for example, that the Pentagon had preemptively applied a Luttwakian or Trinquierian approach in Iraq, not in 2007 but in 2003. If Luttwak and Trinquier are right about their field of work—and I suspect few of my readers have the expertise to disagree—this would have saved thousands of lives and eliminated all kinds of mayhem. On the other hand, Iraqis would have been issued ID cards, organized in a pyramidal structure which reported to the Pentagon, and subjected in general to a system of fascist totalitarian control. And some, some of whom were probably innocent, would even have received electrical shocks to the nipples. Better, or worse, than massacre, mayhem and war? Only you, dear reader, can make the call.
But we have a further puzzle to unravel. After all, if I, whose closest connection to the Pentagon is that I get my car insurance from USAA, can understand these things, how can they be lost on the Pentagon itself? Wasn’t that Trinquier book hosted on a Pentagon site?
The answer is that the Pentagon is tactically right to do everything it can to avoid collateral damage. Moreover, its enemies are tactically right to do everything they can to try to trick the Pentagon into causing collateral damage (i.e., via the use of human shields).
But the reason that human shields work has nothing to do with winning hearts. In fact, the very existence of human shields completely negates the winning-hearts hypothesis, because it’s obvious that anyone hurt while serving (by definition, involuntarily) as a human shield will blame whoever put him in the way of the bomb, not whoever dropped it.
In fact, winning hearts is crack, pure and simple. As Trinquier points out, every successful “liberation movement” in the 20th century has terrorized the population into submission. Even Pentagon attacks on civilians in South Vietnam—with far more liberal rules of engagement than apply today in Iraq—were generally accidental and uncoordinated, whereas massacring their civilian opponents was standard operating procedure for the VC.
Explaining that Americans need to win hearts because they are white imperialists, whereas Taliban or Viet Cong or FLN guerrillas can cut them out and eat them because they are swarthy indigenous peoples, requires falling back on hoary nationalist cliches that really shouldn’t require an answer. I’m sorry, people—if you genuinely believe it is unnatural and impossible for a foreign military occupation to become a stable government and eventually an ethnically-distinct ruling caste, you know no more about human history than a cat knows about tennis. Go read about, say, India, sometime.
So the puzzle remains: why worry about civilian casualties? Isn’t collateral damage just the Air Force’s way of telling you not to hang out within the blast radius of insurgents? Didn’t we do a lot of collateral damage to Germany and Japan? And where are their insurgents?
The answer, which Trinquier would certainly have understood, although it would have appalled him and struck him as disastrous, is that the Pentagon does suffer as a result of civilian casualties, because any such event strengthens the Pentagon’s true enemies. Who tend to live not in Kabul, but in Bethesda or Silver Spring or maybe Manhattan.
Furthermore, all of the Pentagon’s adversaries in recent years have understood that their most effective strategy is to defeat the Pentagon politically, not militarily. Clausewitz would be proud, because of course the two are the same thing.
And finally, the ugliest trope of all is that everyone on the battlefield—Pentagon soldiers, their native adversaries, journalists, and even the local civilians whose support is so crucial—understands this perfectly. It’s war, after all. If you’re involved in war, you understand it.
The result is that even local civilians see civilian casualties as a point scored for the insurgents. So human-shield tactics, which cannot possibly do anything to win hearts, are winners nonetheless. Every time a human shield gets fragged and the fact gets to the press, the Pentagon’s chances of winning decrease. Every time the Pentagon’s chances of winning decrease, the insurgents’ chances of winning increase. Every time the insurgents’ chances of winning increase, rational civilians have more motivation to join the insurgency.
I assure you that although this seems complicated to you, it is not at all complicated to those in a war zone. Moreover, human instincts for collective action are deeply rooted (even chimpanzees have tribes which fight wars), and the human ability to construct a moral rationale for the decision to side with the strong horse is always impressive. In other words, martyrs are martyrs, even if someone forced them to be martyrs. As long as martyrdom is a militarily effective strategy, we will continue to see more of it.
One way to see this is to look at insurgent or terrorist movements which have no possibility of gaining the support of Western human-rights activists. A good example is the OAS in Algeria, founded by colleagues of Trinquier who knew exactly how to run an insurgency, and had a substantial local support base. It went nowhere, because it only alienated its supporters in France. The fate of the AWB in South Africa is even more pathetic—it had no foreign sponsors at all. Insurgency simply does not work without political protection.
If this analysis is correct, these Third World insurgent wars exist only because of Western human-rights activism. So why don’t Western human-rights activists recognize this? Why don’t they notice that they are creating violence and destruction, rather than suppressing it?
A simple explanation of this phenomenon is that Western human-rights activists are in fact political activists, seeking power by the only means that are available to them. It is not that opposing the Pentagon is a necessary method of their human-rights activism. It is that their human-rights activism is a necessary method of their opposing the Pentagon. The US military is as necessary to these people as drugs are to anti-drug warriors.
Thus, it is inconceivable that they would conclude that the best way to end the war in Iraq is for the US to impose martial law, dismiss the Iraqi government and suspend all civil liberties. We saw exactly how much Western human-rights activists cared about their swarthy mascots in the ’70s, when they finally managed to force South Vietnam to surrender to the North. As tens of thousands of Vietnamese were shot, hundreds of thousands imprisoned without trial, and millions fled on boats, these watchdogs of humanity uttered not even a meow. I’m sure most of the “peace” protesters of the ’60s sincerely believed that they loved their little brown brothers, but the real political motor of their movement was their hatred of their American enemies, and their desire to achieve power by defeating them. Same old, same old.
No, what’s truly amazing about these “liberations” is their assiduous avoidance of every technique for governing foreign populations that might, actually, possibly, work. This is because all of these techniques were practiced under “colonialism,” and we know colonialism is bad. Because we heard it in school.
For example, the Pentagon may not dissolve the corrupt, murderous, and dangerously ineffective “democratic” government it has installed in Iraq. It may not declare that democracy has failed in Iraq, and hand the place over to a Hashemite, Saudi or other Gulf prince, or even better split it into UAE-like emirates. Because that would be just too British Empire.
For example, the Pentagon may not under any circumstances create hybrid organizations, military or political, in which the leaders are foreign and the front-line employees are native.
Britain governed half the world, at costs which are negligible compared to the Iraq bill, by creating military forces with British officers and native troops. To call this a no-brainer would be an insult to the brainless. Yet it has not been done, nor can anything like it be done. Similarly, it is absolutely verboten to create an Iraqi government run by foreign executives with Iraqi personnel. That would be colonialism, and colonialism is wrong.
In fact, to the extent that the Pentagon has achieved any success in Iraq, it has been the almost accidental success of the Awakening movement. It is very unclear whose idea this was, although it may be traced to the late Capt. Travis Patriquin. It certainly did not come from Washington, and its inspiration may well owe as much to Iraqis as Americans.
And, most important, it’s a stone-cold ripoff of a classic colonialist technique. It worked immediately as soon as it was tried. Basically, indirect rule was to the Iraq war as penicillin was to gangrene. Unfortunately, because it is the only such technique the Pentagon is allowed to use, I suspect it will prove fruitless in the end. But whose fault is that? It is yours, my dear progressive friends, my lovers of humanity everywhere.
So here is my short proposal for a successful occupation of Iran:
- Invade Iran. Impose martial law.
- Declare Iran a United States territory. Use the Philippines as a model.
- Disband all Iranian military forces and governmental structures.
- Create a new military and government with Western officers and managers.
Is this bizarre? I’m sure Yglesias would find it bizarre. I’m sure Lord Cromer would find it perfectly normal and sensible. One of these two gentlemen is on crack, surely. And it’s a pity the other is not with us to make his case.
If we can summarize this hellacious strain of crack in one sentence, it might come down to the declaration that a people can only be stably, peacefully and lawfully governed with their own consent.
Note the complete meaninglessness, and in fact ungrammatical nature, of the word “a people.” What defines a set of individuals as “a people”? Are all the people whose names start with M “a people?” Where is my President of M? Or should we use geographical boundaries, and birth coordinates? Or linguistic boundaries? But what makes either of these divisions meaningful? And we haven’t even gotten into the definition of “consent.”
Remember, this statement is firmly within the boundaries of Hume’s “is.” It is not a moral assertion. It is a statement of military reality. Or rather, it would be a statement of military reality. If it wasn’t 100%-pure Andean high-test blue-powder crack, that is.
So here is a question for the reader: what does this brand of crack have to do with some poor woman in South Africa, whose face is hopefully starting to resemble a face again? If anything?
And if the answer is anything, can we associate this crime—which is certainly not unique, or even unusual—with Yglesias and his smug ilk, just as we associate the Holocaust with neo-Nazis? What a prejudice this would be! Would it be a good one, or a bad one?