Staring into the pit: Or, how we learned to love the Iranian bomb

captive sailors iran.jpg

 [Second of a series in which I stare into the pit of global politics, circa January 2016, and write down, without euphemisms, the horrible things I see.]

Sometime last week I came upon a disturbing image.  US Navy sailors, hunched and on their knees, groveled before gun-toting Iranians.  I wondered what it might mean.  Were we at war with Iran?

The Iranians certainly behaved as if they were at war with us.  They had captured two Navy patrol boats, claiming these trespassed on their territorial waters.  They humiliated the crews and took videos of the humiliation, then forced the commander of the unit to apologize on Iranian TV.  All of this was an egregious violation of the laws of war, but hey – it’s great propaganda.  They looked strong.  We looked pathetically weak.

Our response was even more disturbing than the incident itself.  Did we warn about a possible act of war against the United States?  No.  We did not.  Did we at least voice outrage because American servicemen had been ill-treated?  Just the opposite.  Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “gratitude” to Iran, because the captives were “well taken care of” and returned after one day.

In fact, Kerry tried to brag on the episode.  He said it showed “the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”  In the world according to the Obama administration, having US sailors attacked, detained, and paraded on TV was a propaganda point on our side.

America’s allies in the region must have gazed on this strange spectacle with a horror scarcely diluted by disbelief.


In The Revolt of the Public I described Iran’s system of government in the following way:

In theory, the Iranian regime is a Platonic republic, with wise guardians protecting the moral and material welfare of all.  In practice, it resembles a sterile hybrid begot on the mafia by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The men in charge of the system are ungainly creatures:  half revolutionaries, half gangsters.  For both sides of their divided selves, however, “Death to America” is a supreme necessity, not least to their survival.

As revolutionaries, they wish to overthrow the present order of the world, which they believe, with good reason, to rest on American principles backed by American power.  As gangsters, they wish to enjoy their regional vendettas and their big mansions without having to look over their shoulder at the global cop, Uncle Sam.

It doesn’t help that all are fanatical Shia, consumed by a sense of cosmic injustice presently focused on that Great Satan – us.

Nothing is forever in world politics, but the Islamic Republic’s conflict with the US is existential, part of its genetic endowment, so it’s hard to imagine peace breaking out without political change in Iran.  The patrol boat aggression took place during supposedly sensitive negotiations with the US.  The Iranians were making a point:  those negotiations were more important to us than to them.  From their side, the war continues.

As for our side – it isn’t.  We reject the reality of the conflict.  Our strength (as Bob Dylan sang) is not to fight.  Washington today abides on a higher plane of being, and the official view here is that affairs between nations are trending to happy.  Progress on this front is irreversible and beyond the possibility of debate.  Why so?  Because President Obama and the clever people of his administration, like John Kerry, desperately desire it to be so – and the charming eccentricity of our age is to confuse the wish for the thing.

The president, as might be imagined, holds definite views about the causes of Iranian hostility.  These hark back to a bunch of dead white guys.  They are irrelevant to the present.  So all he has to do is demonstrate that he, Barack Obama, represents a radical break with everything and everybody that came before, to make Iran’s bearded rulers smile and bring US-Iranian relations into his peaceable kingdom.

“The question now is not what Iran is against,” he told the gangster-revolutionaries of Tehran, who are passionate, as we now say, about being against a great many things, “but what future it wants to build.”

Accordingly, at the earliest opportunity – his January 2008 inaugural address – President Obama offered to “extend a hand” to these hard men if in return they would “unclench your fist.”  Here was an apt metaphor for the new approach.  Like the awkward boy at the party, the president has kept extending his hand, only to be met with the clenched fists and trash talk of the ayatollahs.

Policy, for Barack Obama, is never a question of trial and error, but of squeezing empirical reality into the framework of his desires.  At times he must perform acrobatic maneuvers around hard obstacles – like facts – but this is something he’s very good at.

He wants to deal with the hard-liners.  For all I know he believes in the justice of their anger, but he certainly wishes to prove that his new method, based on US generosity, can soften their hearts.  When massive pro-democracy protests erupted in Iran over disputed elections, President Obama refused to dignify them with even rhetorical support.  It was “up to the Iranians” to decide “who Iran’s leaders will be,” he shrugged, leaving it for the world to guess just how, under a system of clerical despotism, that was to happen.

The protesters were mowed down with fire and force.  Whether any hand extended toward the Islamic Republic happened to be stained in their blood, we have not been told.


We have known for some time that the Iranians are looking to develop nuclear weapons.  It makes strategic sense from their perspective:  the bomb will place them eyeball to eyeball with the satanic superpower they insist is oppressing the world.  That appeals to their revolutionary instincts.  No doubt the prospect of nuclear blackmail brings a gleam to the eyes of the more thuggish types in the regime.

For the ruling clique, a nuclear Iran would be a grand thing all around.

The US has responded by applying sanctions and engaging in negotiations.  Predictably, the negotiations, conducted in Vienna, have gone round and round for years.  We would like the Iranians to disarm.  The Iranians want us to go sleep with the fishes, and have rejected basic conditions – ending uranium enrichment, revealing the extent of their nuclear program – even the maniacal Muammar Qaddafi tolerated in his day.

On this dialogue of the damned, Barack Obama has imposed his dream of universal salvation.  At every step, he has treated Iranian truculence as a test of American inclusiveness and generosity.  Rather than hold fast to our positions, we have learned to live with rejection.  We have taken no for an answer.

Ronald Reagan once said that he negotiated with the Soviet Union on the basis of “trust but verify.”  The Obama method towards Iran might be characterized as “hug and hope”:  act extra nice to the other side, and accept whatever follows as proof that niceness has had the intended effect.  Even the Islamic Republic’s seizure of US patrol boats and bullying of American sailors, on this scheme, turns out to be proof of its good intentions.

The agreement that emerged from the Vienna talks lacks a mechanism to achieve its objectives, and may turn out to be the greatest foreign policy disaster of an era notable for many failures.  Kerry has defended the outcome, arguing that “there isn’t a better deal to be got” out of the obdurate Iranians.  That’s probably true so far as it goes – but in the present context, “better” looks pretty terrible.  The US traded strategic security in exchange for warm feelings among our elites.  The Iranians got the sweetest of all possible deals.  They can have their treaty, along with a $150 billion check for the end of sanctions – and they can build their bomb too.

We have bartered away even the pretense of surprise when they do so.


Kerry also said that the agreement was an assertion of US leadership and a first step to “a more humane world.”  But our strongest allies in the Middle East feel forsaken rather than led, and the effect has been an increase in turbulence and bloodshed in the short time since the deal was struck.

The princes of the House of Saud, flabby but mega-rich, defenders of the Sunni, in a panic of abandonment have assumed an unusual posture of aggression and bluster.  They have broken all diplomatic relations with the Shia bastion, Iran.  They have taken to bombing the Shia rebels of Yemen, to bad effect.  Certain that the Iranians will get the bomb, the Saudis now talk out loud about obtaining their own nuclear arsenal.  They can afford the price.  Mutually assured destruction in the Middle East, in a quite literal sense, may be a feature of our more humane world.

The Israelis, our stoutest friends in the region, also believe that Iran has been given a free pass to go nuclear.  They are aware that the bloody-minded anti-Semites who run the show in Tehran have pledged to “annihilate” them.  The Israelis already have their bomb:  if they strike before the Iranians get theirs, who can blame them?

The geopolitical structure of the Middle East continues to fly apart with appalling speed.  Syria, Iraq, and Libya are gone.  Egypt teeters on the brink.  Saudi Arabia and the mini-monarchies of the Gulf, so far protected by their oil wealth, may well be next.  Even in a time of cheap oil, the trauma to the global economy if that happens will make 2008 look like a walk in the park.

Where are we in all this?  We are stuck in a wonderland that very much resembles the inside of President Obama’s head.  While our enemies prosper and our friends strike out on their own, we see history trending to happy, and we preen about our leadership and the triumph of humane principles.  Bad actors, for us, are trials of our virtue.  Unreformed hostility is a challenge to our story-telling capacities.  All roads lead to inaction.

Reality is sometimes ugly, disheartening, unkind.  Here’s reality:  the United States, as a large object absorbing everyone’s attention, has acted as a dampener to the explosive local frictions of the Middle East.  This meant dealing with unpleasant regimes like Saudi Arabia’s.  It meant managing headstrong allies like Israel.  The result was near-universal criticism of our actions:  with great power comes great animosity.

The fatal fantasy of the present administration has been to take this criticism at face value, and to assume that peace and tranquility in the region will follow if only we tiptoe away.  In reality, the opposite has happened.  Chaos has swept in behind us.  Meanwhile the president and his advisors have punted terrible decisions, like what to do about a potentially nuclear Iran, to the next political crew that takes over Washington DC.

They will need all the good luck we can wish on them.

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Staring into the pit

kim laughing obama crying

I’m a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist.  Tomorrow and tomorrow may be a tale told by an idiot, but in the long run, I believe, sanity will prevail.  That is true at least of the American people.  I have lived among others in many ways more lively and gifted, but we, unlike them, historically have come to terms with reality and with ourselves.

That may mean turning a slave into three-fifths of a human being.  It may mean abolishing booze or abolishing the abolition.  In the long run, we come to terms with reality, with what is possible, and with ourselves.

But I confess to some trepidation over the present hour.  The moment we are living through, I believe, is one of unprecedented lack of seriousness and terrible peril.  Life and death matters are being settled around the world, often in bloodshed, while we are lost in a labyrinth of petty disputes.  The American people today resemble two persons fighting over a penny they found on the floor of the theater – only the theater is in flames, and the fiery roof is crashing down on their heads.

Prophecies of doomsday follow a customary pattern, ending with:  “Repent your sins.”  This post is not in that mold.  It’s an attempt at description, not prophecy.  Lack of seriousness is contagious:  sometimes I feel that I, too, have been infected, that, through sheer exposure to the trick, I now mistake subject for object, and will for reality.  So I want to avoid euphemisms and etiquette, even to myself.  I want to gaze steadily into the pit that is our moment in history, and write down what I see as faithfully as I can.

There will be no calls for repentance.  If you have eyes to see, you will know what to do.


A few days ago, North Korea announced that it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb.  I looked for our government’s response, and came on a photograph of President Obama crying.  What – was he devastated by the spread of apocalyptic weapons?  No.  He was crying about the lack of gun control.  What – gun control, here in docile America, preoccupies the president more than the power to end the world, placed in the hands of ruthless anti-American despots?  Yes.  It does.

Here’s news:  on the plane of empirical reality, gun control is an irrelevance.  For or against, it doesn’t matter.  If the extreme of one side or the other won today, nothing would be different tomorrow.  We would find ourselves then much as we find ourselves now.  To endow gun control with the aspect of a cosmic political question is a subjective derangement of our moment in time.

Later we were reassured by our government that, for technical reasons, the North Koreans couldn’t really have tested an H-bomb.  Kim Jung-Un, that naughty Millennial, was just listening to the voices inside his head.  That’s irrelevant too.  Kim and his ruling clique have the atomic bomb.  They told President Clinton they didn’t, and they told President Bush they didn’t, but now they do, and they have the missiles to deliver it.

The rickety nonproliferation regime that half a dozen US presidents struggled to keep in place has finally come undone.  The Indians and Pakistanis have the bomb.  The Iranians are practically being invited to get their own.  The Saudis won’t stand for that, and they have plenty of money to build one too.  Disreputable regimes on the model of Kim’s will seek a lifeline in nuclear weapons.  Nobody will push them around, if they possess the capacity to obliterate a continent.

A nuclear Islamic State is possible.  Why on earth should that shock anyone?  Like Saudi Arabia, the Caliphate has lots of oil.  Like North Korea, it’s disreputable and needs a lifeline.  With enough bombs in anti-American hands, the probability of nuclear terrorism increases exponentially.  If true believers are willing to self-detonate with TNT, why not go for a big bang?  The target will be us.  Why?  Because we play cop and daddy to the world, so taking us down will turn the contest between nations into a predator’s paradise.

Much of this is not President Obama’s fault.  Time worked against us:  a forever quarantine of the nuclear plague was never really possible.  But the president has earned his measure of blame by his abdication of responsibility and his blindness to the consequences.  A man who cries over nothing then shrugs off a potential holocaust of millions has lost contact with reality.

That’s my portrait of the president as an American statesman.  Immersed in a fog of fatuous ideas about history and progress, he’s walking confidently toward the abyss.


In February 2011, as Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak wobbled under a wave of protests, the Obama administration, in the person of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, demanded that he step down.  Mubarak was an old and trusted US ally.  He was soon gone, and Egypt toppled into chaos.

Later in the same year, as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad began mowing down his protestors, President Obama informed him that it was time to go.  Assad, a second-generation anti-American thug, gave the US the middle finger.  He’s still there, propped up by Russian forces – while Syria, never a pleasant place, has been transformed into a charnel house.

Between these misadventures, the president was persuaded by his NATO allies to intervene militarily on behalf of rebels who had risen up against Libyan dictator Muammad Qaddafi.  The aim was to avoid “the prospect of an imminent massacre.”  The method, famously described by the White House as “leading from behind,” led to months of indecisive war and thousands of deaths.  Qaddafi was a maniac, but he had been defanged during the Bush administration.  Five years after his death, Libya has cracked apart, and much of its surviving population is heading for Europe.

In January 2014, President Obama called the Islamic State “the JV” compared to Al Qaeda’s burly terror varsity guys.  He got that exactly wrong.  Osama bin Laden had been a charismatic figure, but Al Qaeda’s recruiting process was chancy, and the numbers were never large.  Yet tens of thousands of young people from all over the world have taken up arms for the Caliphate.  Those tens of thousands now control a territory larger than Great Britain, with a population of eight million, and a lot of oil under the ground:  they uphold a system of life that endorses slavery, female bondage, and crucifixion.

The Middle East today is an unforgiving dance of death – 100,000 killed in 2015 alone.  The bonds of human society are snapping under the strain.  Political structures that only yesterday towered over populations have been erased as if they never were.  Islam is less a community of believers than a bloody battleground.  Those not killing or killed are fleeing, a vast tide of cultural debris about to engulf the European Union.  Those not content with slaughtering their neighbors and smashing local museums seek to export their finest product:  death.  It’s coming our way.

The change is epochal, and it has scarcely begun:  there’s no telling what fresh horrors will emerge from the wreckage to torment a distracted world.

To this human and political catastrophe the present administration has been a major contributor.  In 2008, when Barack Obama was sworn in, the Middle East looked much as it had for 50 years.  That the region disintegrated so far so fast is due, in part, to the astonishing levels of cluelessness shown by the president and his people.

Every word from our government has been falsified by events.  Every policy has resulted in the worst possible consequences.  When we acted, as in Libya, the result was chaos and the triumph of terror.  When we abstained, as in Syria, the result was worse.  When we withdrew, as in Iraq, it was to cede large portions of the country to the Islamic State.

Few allies are left in a region that once looked to the US for protection.  Even the Israelis have been alienated.


How is this possible?  Incompetence is an obvious answer – but I think it’s more troubling than that.  I think failure on such a colossal scale entails a bad divorce with reality.  Parse the words of the president and his supporting cast:  they seem to originate in a place ruled by subjective urges, where will and truth are identical.  The world, for them, is not the world, but what they desire the world to be.

President Obama wants history to evolve towards a humanitarian global hug.  Events that contradict this desire get reinterpreted and minimized.  Russia swallows Crimea?  That must mean it’s “on the wrong side of history.”  Syria massacres hundreds of thousands and scatters millions to flight?  Condemnation falls on American politicians “scared of widows and orphans” fleeing to the US.

What about the Islamic State, with its tens of thousands of young assassins?  Good news:  it has been “contained.”  But what of the IS atrocity in Paris, carried out the day after that cheerful statement?  Not to worry:  the American people should “have a good holiday” because “we have hardened our defenses.”  So how are we to deal with the IS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14 innocent Americans on the very day of that presidential assurance?

Barack Obama knew exactly how to respond to San Bernardino.  First, he expressed his disappointment in the country over which he presides, for mass violence “that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”  This extraordinary assertion was made in Paris, a city in a country that, for the record, is not ours, where a far deadlier massacre had taken place only days before.  Then he warned us, as he often does, not to “turn against one another,” as we apparently often do, by going crazy on Muslims.

Finally the president proceeded to the heart of the matter.  Did it concern the Islamic State, the rise of domestic terrorism, the senseless violence in California?  No.  It did not.

He wanted to talk about gun control.

Posted in cataclysm, democracy | Leave a comment

Google looks on the face of the public, sees the pictures inside its corporate head

Caitlin Jenner and Donald Trum

Caitlin Jenner and Donald Trump

Enter Public and Elites, Fighting

In the struggle that defines our moment in history, the correlation of forces, I have argued, pits public against elites.  The public is any group of ordinary people that, in Walter Lippmann’s words, is “interested in an affair.”  The public is us, or some of us at least – and we are in a bad mood.  The elites are those highly-accredited, super-educated, starched-collar persons who run the great institutions of authority, including government.  They are nervous and demoralized.  They know the public is coming after them.

The public today speaks with the booming voice of Donald Trump, a billionaire but also a reality TV star, a political nobody, and something of a buffoon.  Trump utters plebeian nonsense that, in style and tone, sets him apart from the elitist nonsense of the other candidates.  His job seems to be to send the media and political establishments into a swoon every other day.  He does it well.  Trump has often been compared to Marine Le Pen of France, but a more apt evolutionary progenitor would be Beppe Grillo, the ex-comedian leading Italy’s largest protest party, whose name means “Jiminy Cricket.”

Public and elites dwell in mutually exclusive universes.  For elites, it’s always 1989 and the internet hasn’t been invented yet.  As for the public – which, let us note, is quite affluent, well educated, well fed, well dressed, and widely traveled – it believes the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and someone should pay for it.  To say that out loud in mixed company is the indiscreet charm of a Trump, a Le Pen, a Beppe Grillo.

Against elites, the public has wielded digital devices like the smart phone, and digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr:  source of the tsunami of information that has caused the great upending I call the Fifth Wave.  Although these devices and platforms are controlled by a business elite, the public, understandably, tends to give this clique a pass in its blanket condemnation of the established order.

Thus Steve Jobs of Apple was beatified soon after death.  Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, by giving away his possessions in the manner of St. Francis, is taking the first steps in the same direction.  One in three Americans think the government would be run more efficiently by Apple Corporation.

Yet the Palo Alto business elites, those “sovereigns of cyberspace,” turn out to be just as alienated from the bottom of the human pyramid as their political kindred in Washington DC, with whom they often consort.  They want the world to be the way they think it should be:  and when they gaze dreamily on the public, they see only the reassuring pictures inside their own heads.

Don’t See Evil:  The Techno-Elites Take a Bow

A good measure of the astronomical distance between the techno-elites and the public can be obtained from Google’s “Year in Search 2015.”

The material made public by Google consists of a hodgepodge of search data – arrayed separately for the world and the US – together with a video purporting to summarize it.  The search data captures the true interests of the public, unmediated by authority.  It’s fascinating.  The video is Google’s attempt to create a public in its own image and likeness.  It betrays the myopic vision of the elites, and it partakes, stylistically, of Stalinist propaganda films about smiling tractor drivers and of crude parody worthy of South Park.

In the hive mind of Google, the public resembles an almost robotic aggregation of socially progressive attitudes.  The public of the video lacks existential fears or trivial pursuits, but cares passionately about the refugee crisis, about Black Lives Matter and taking down the Confederate flag, about women’s place in the workforce, about ending the Cuban embargo, about allowing same-sex persons the right to marry, about hugging your transgender child.

The narration utters inanities that would embarrass a Viagra TV commercial:  “it’s not about one person – it’s about thousands of people,” “it’s about all of us, accepting one another,” “we’re all different – that’s not a bad thing – that’s a good thing,” “if we only do it together.”  Near the end, the narrator’s pleasant tenor voice is shown to emanate from the world-historical body of Caitlin Jenner.

The images are even more bizarre.  They depict a world that can exist only in the hallucinatory recesses of elite wish-fulfillment.

google search1 refugees

google search 2 blacklivesmatter

google search 3 women engineers

google search 4 gay marriage

goggle search 5 mechanical arm

google search 6 transgender

Like all successful corporations, Google nurses certain illusions about itself.  The founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, like to be characterized as “Montessori kids” who “disrespect authority.”  The company’s famous informal motto, “Don’t be evil,” asserts the aggressive, semi-hippie idealism of the Bay Area technical culture – also its neo-Victorian sense of moral superiority.  The “Googleplex,” near San Jose, with its lap pools and free food stations, feels like a corporate commune.  Google’s fond illusion is that it has transcended hierarchy and power in delivering innovative goods to the world.

Reality is less egalitarian.  Google’s valuation in 2015 was around $365 billion.  The company has muscled its way to the top of the global economy.  Page and Brin speak with enormous authority, and are seldom disrespected.  They and their upper echelons subscribe to a perfectly commonplace elite worldview:  the academic style of progressivism exemplified by Barack Obama.  High Google executives advised the 2007 Obama campaign for the presidency.  Several joined the administration in 2008.

Wealth and passage through elite schools helped shape the concerns of this crowd:  obsession with victim groups and “saving the earth,” coupled with indifference to pocketbook issues.  That obsession and indifference co-directed the “Year in Search” video.  Only a combination of progressive idealism and extreme alienation could have conjured a narrative so magnificently detached from the facts it sought to represent.

And Now, Data:  The Public Takes Center Stage

Problems of method obscure Google’s presentation of the search data.  The company selected the categories, and the selection criteria is by no means clear.  Some categories are accompanied by numbers, while others are reported in “most popular” lists relative to one another.  So we know, for example, the exact tally of searches for Adele, but not for Donald Trump – and no explanation is given for this disparity.  Google is famous for its reticence in sharing information:  the last global search totals we have are from 2012.

A major categorical omission leaps out from what has been revealed.  Nothing is said about economics:  buying, selling, making a living, investing money, looking to hire or looking for work.  We are entitled to doubt that, in 2015, the global public lost all interest in material advancement.  Google clearly didn’t wish to share this information – again, for reasons that are left unstated.

Even with these caveats, the public that emerges from the search data is a wholly different organism from the utopian creature of the video.

The public is anxious about Islamist terror.  By far the most-searched category concerned the January and December terrorist attacks in Paris:  897 million searches in total, more than double the next highest category.  The video, by contrast, contains none of the dramatic images of the attacks or their immediate aftermath, though it does show, for a few seconds and without explanatory text, a candlelight “I am not afraid” gathering.

The public is not particularly interested in the refugee crisis.  Although featured very prominently in the video, this issue received only 23 million searches.  The public cared more for Cecil the lion, whose untimely death inspired 32 million searches.  The public cared much more about the record-breaking length of Queen Elizabeth’s reign – it received 100 million searches.

The public favors entertainment and sports over social justice.  Adele was the object of 439 million searches – second place, right behind terrorism.  The 2015 Academy Awards received over 406 million searches.  The Cricket World Cup sparked over 323 million searches, the Rugby World Cup over 246 million, the Mayweather-Paquio championship fight 216 million.  These figures easily outshone the 189 million searches for “Black Lives Matter” and the 108 million for same-sex marriage.

As Cecil and the Queen illustrate, the public can engage in bouts of silliness, and pay attention to trivial things.  Royal births and that strange phenomenon known as “The Dress” received attention disproportionate to their importance.  But the public also focused on what was significant to its future:  the early stages of the 2016 presidential elections generated 338 million searches.  This data point receives zero footage in the video.  By far the most-searched-for candidate was Donald Trump:  he too is ignored by the video, and no numbers are provided to measure actual interest in him, in other candidates, or in specific issues.

Given an opportunity to throw light on those questions that matter to the American public, Google chose instead to present its data in a peculiarly opaque way.

Finally, we come back to that inescapable presence, the mellow voice of the video:  Caitlin Jenner.  That she was an object of intense interest by the public is beyond doubt:  more than 336 million searches attest to the fact.  The question we should ask is whether Jenner falls in the category of social justice or trivial pursuits.  The top five searches using Jenner’s name offer a pretty good indication of the answer.  Number two in popularity is “Who does Caitlin Jenner look like?”  Number five is “What do the Kardashians think of Caitlin?”  None of the top searches contain the term “transgender.”

Jenner, like Trump, is a reality TV personality.  Both have ridden social and political controversies to garner astonishing levels of attention from the public.  That attention, I suspect, has been lavished on their persons, not their causes.  The tectonic collision of public against elites has had consequences:  the battle over permissible speech, an inexhaustible hunger for rage and rant.  This chaotic, fiercely contested environment has camouflaged with meaning two individuals who are, at heart, professional celebrities, and who add up to nothing more than the sum of the attention paid to them.

Expect more of their kind to surface in future “Years in Search” – and expect Google, and their kind, to misread and misrepresent them utterly.

Posted in new media, the public | Leave a comment

Anti-terror policy and the Muslim black box

obama oval office

Last month, at a seminar in Washington DC, I gained access to a large body of raw data pertaining to global terrorism.  Although the chatter around me was mostly the professional jargon of the terror industry, the charts, I thought, told a sort of geopolitical horror story that looked certain to engulf the American public at large.  This is what I wrote on November 24:

Right now the data is saying that a quarter of the world is exploding in violence, while a quarter is blessed with relative peace – and the violent portion profoundly hates and wishes to destroy the peaceful one.  I’m not in the prophecy racket, but unless the trends lines drastically improve, the probability seems very high that there will be more terror attacks and more innocents killed, not just in France or Turkey or Lebanon, but here in the US.

Scarcely a week later, two heavily armed Islamist attackers, husband and wife, murdered 14 innocent persons and wounded 21 in the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center, before being shot to death themselves by the local police.

It was the deadliest terror atrocity in the US since 9/11, but it should not have come as a surprise.  The data had screamed the possibility out loud.  It wasn’t subtle.  The experts at the seminar acknowledged that nothing our government had done in this conflict had worked very well.  We were relying on an anti-terror bureaucracy – CIA, FBI, TSA, the various watchlists – and hoping for luck.  Bureaucracy, as always, caught some and missed some.  On December 2, in San Bernardino, we ran out of luck.

The reaction featured remarkable bits of media and political theater.  The New York Times produced a front-page editorial that positively shrieked with rage – aimed, curiously enough, not at the perpetrators but at “the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money and political power of an industry dedicated to profiting from the unfettered spread of ever more powerful firearms.”  In purple prose and apocalyptic tones, the NYT demanded an end to America’s “gun epidemic.”  This was a comfortable political hobby-horse, but marginal, if not irrelevant, to the bloody incident that had inspired the editorial.

Five days after the massacre in San Bernardino, President Obama addressed the nation from the Oval Office – only the third time in his tenure that he has done so.  He had no fresh measures to announce, little new to say.  The speech was in the nature of a defensive operation, a rambling justification of the administration’s “strong and smart” approach to the Islamic State and terrorism.  The president, like the NYT, called for gun control measures at home, but pledged to avoid “a long and costly war in Iraq or Syria.”  He also worried that we might “turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam.”

President Obama’s preferred political posture is that of the outsider condemning the corruption of the system:  on the question of terrorism, he sounded uncertain how much of the problem lay with the terrorists, and how much with us.


A bizarre claim made by the NYT editorial was that, in the commission of terror acts, “motives do not matter.”  The president clearly disagreed.  He spoke from the Oval Office as a man who was working to eliminate the motives that turn Muslims into terrorists.  The latter, as he described them, were inherently weak and marginal even in their own cultural context:  “a perverted interpretation of Islam,” “part of a cult of death” that “account for a tiny fraction of more than a billion Muslims around the world.”  Their strength and numbers depended on our mistakes, the president implied, and our chief mistakes were warmongering and insensitivity.

President Obama also allowed himself a moment of reflection, rare for him, on the links between terrorist savagery and religious belief.

If we’re to succeed in defeating terrorism, we must enlist Muslim communities as some of our strongest allies, rather than push them away through suspicion and hate.

That does not mean denying the fact than an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities.  This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.  Muslim leaders here and around the globe have to continue working with us to decisively and unequivocally reject the hateful ideology that groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda promote; to speak out not just against acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.

Here, at last, is an approximation of reality.  What is for us a fight against Muslim murderers must be seen, in a global context, to be a struggle without mercy for the soul of an ancient faith, Islam.  The data leaves little room for doubt.  Eighty percent of terror fatalities in 2014 took place in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.  Muslims are slaughtering one another at an even higher rate than they are non-Muslims.  This should offer little in the way of consolation.  The motives in both cases are the same:  a rise in bigotry and propensity to violence.

But in the great conflagration of Islam there are those who espouse recognizably Western values – not just religious tolerance and human dignity, as the president noted, but also, and more importantly, democracy and rule of law.  This is not about finding Muslim religious “moderates” to intercede for us, but about standing with people in Muslim lands who, in their politics, look to the US as a model and a friend.  Contrary to received opinion, such people exist.  Many of them are prominent and influential.  It should be the policy of the United States to promote our own interests by arming these people in their running battle against the bigots, bombers, and beheaders.

So I find myself partly in agreement with President Obama’s story regarding “the broader threat of terrorism, and how we can keep our country safe.”  The question to pursue is why so few of the policies and actions of his administration appear to be grounded in that story.


If the president were to listen to his experts, he would downplay the religious and ideological nature of the conflict, and frame it in terms of the personal pathology of those who are seduced by the Islamist message.  CIA Director John Brennan, for example, called ISIS followers “murderous and psychopathic,” and refused to utter the word “Islamic” in this context.  In a similar vein, Secretary of State Kerry affirmed that the Islamic State “has nothing to do with Islam; it has everything to do with criminality, with terror, with abuse, with psychopathism…”  This theory, if taken seriously, would lead to therapy and social adjustment instead of war.

In fact, the theory seems to be popular in part because it can’t be acted upon.  It’s a sterile academic fantasy to suppose we can conduct psychotherapy on an entire civilization.

Barack Obama, in any case, trusts his political instincts rather than his experts.  He does not exactly dissent from the clinical explanation of terrorism, but he reckons he can see deeper into the matter.  The reason lies in his background and history.  As he looks to a world wounded by sectarian violence, he discerns a pattern, familiar to an old community organizer, of oppression, rebellion, and progress.

In that world, non-Western geopolitical actors are motivated mainly by legitimate grievances.  Grievance, however, pertains to membership in a victimized group:  the pathologies involved are social, not personal.  And the group is impenetrable to analysis.  Each is a black box of victimhood, within which individuals from a shared consciousness of injustice rise angrily against their oppressors, in a struggle they are destined to win – because history, that righteous judge, is on their side.

Given the circumstances, the smart policy will assert, with great sincerity, that we are no longer among the oppressors, as we once were, and that we are eager to engage with the group, on its own terms, to mutual advantage.  President Obama believes his personal history qualifies him uniquely to bring about this reorientation.  The one remaining challenge is to identify who speaks for that impenetrable black box, the group.  Since the defining feature is victimization, the answer must be that those who are most enraged, irreconcilable, and extreme represent the group’s authentic voice.  They must be flattered and mollified.  Pro-American types, on the other hand, are something like cultural traitors.  To demonstrate our sincerity, we will keep them at arm’s length.

Under the weight of this conceptual machinery, it becomes virtually impossible to identify friend from foe.


Back on June 4, 2008, in a highly publicized outreach effort, President Obama spoke to Muslims from Al Azhar University in Cairo.  The Middle East has changed radically since that moment, but not the president’s thinking.  The arguments he made in Cairo he still repeats today.

In Cairo, the president treated a billion Muslims as a single entity:  a black box.  The problem concerned US relations with “Muslims around the world.”  The solution was a “new beginning” based on the principle that “American and Islam are not incompatible.”  Grievances were acknowledged:  a “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” a Cold War in which the “aspirations” of “Muslim-majority countries” were “disregarded,” the “daily humiliations” suffered by Palestinians.  Such grievances provided grist for “violent extremists,” who were bad but non-denominational.  They must be “confronted.” However, “Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremists – it is an important part of promoting peace.”

The president has faithfully pursued the policy implications of his worldview.  In Egypt, for example, his administration quietly stood by while US ally Hosni Mubarak circled the drain, and has remained cool toward the authoritarian government of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – a man who has called for a “religious revolution” within Islam.  In between, however, the administration embraced with some ardor the election to power of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The street protesters who, in July 2013, engineered Morsi’s overthrow, turned vocally against Barack Obama as well.  To this day, secular political activists in Egypt take it for granted that the Muslim Brothers are the chosen instruments of American policy in their country.

obama morsi protest

Egypt: Anti-Morsi protest (2013)

That may seem strange enough.  Stranger still:  they could be right.  The Brotherhood, modern in style and militant in religion, fits the president’s preconceptions of an authentic Muslim intermediary.  Evidence suggests that the administration placed a strong bet on engagement with it during the chaotic days following the “Arab Spring” – not only in Egypt but in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East.

If true, this would follow a familiar pattern.  In Turkey, our government has consistently favored the ruling Islamist party, the AKP, over secular forces in the country.  In Iran, we refused to support by word or deed the pro-democracy Green Revolution, but flattered and have sought to deal with the Islamic Republic of the ayatollahs.  President Obama personally has treated the Saudi royals with the kind of elaborate courtesy he has denied to leaders of our strongest ally in the region, Israel.

We should be clear about the consequences of such choices.  The Muslim Brotherhood is the prime ideological incubator of Islamist terror.  Iran under the ayatollahs is the most promiscuous sponsor of terrorist organizations of any nation-state.  The brand of Islam practiced by the Saudis formed the model for that of the Islamic State.  There is no tolerance to be found here, no respect for human dignity, no love for democracy or rule of law.  In the world-historical conflict that is now rending apart an ancient religion – and, by a sort of osmosis, spilling over our borders and killing innocent Americans – these forces represent the enemy.

So I circle back to the data showing an astounding increase in terror fatalities worldwide.  Speaking from the Oval Office, with this grim reality foremost on his mind, President Obama made the case for a strategy of alliance with liberal Muslims against Islamist “thugs and killers.”  But that has not been the policy of his administration.  He has instead presided over an effort to embrace those who glorify and subsidize the killers.

It sounds perverse, but is an effect of conceptual blindness.  Barack Obama perceives the world in terms of such opaque human categories, activated by such juvenile emotions, that he ends up trampling over those who would be his friends while rushing into the arms of those who wish him harm, all the while imagining that he has done just the opposite.  His conceptual delusions form the background to the chaos now swallowing the Middle East.  That chaos begat and enabled the current catastrophic rise in deadly terrorism.

If Islamist zealots triumph in the struggle to define their religion, today’s terror incidents will be remembered as the earliest trickle in a global Niagara of bloodshed.  That must not happen.  The United States, strongest power in the world, can’t escape a major part in not allowing it to happen.  But the conflict will not turn in our favor unless the president or his successor break open the Muslim black box, and, under the harsh light of grown-up analysis, discover our true allies.

Posted in analysis, cataclysm | 2 Comments

Data and terror

paris terror1

I recently attended a half-day seminar at the Institute of Peace in Washington DC, on what I thought was a provocative question:  “Does better data make for better counterterrorism policy?”

Only four days had passed since the attacks in Paris.  However, the event had been scheduled long before, and the presenters made it clear that they were pure of heart about their data, and had no wish to chase headlines.  The Parisian dead hovered over the proceedings like unquiet ghosts.

Because the presentations were not for attribution, I won’t name names, but will enter into the spirit of the thing and concentrate on the message – the data itself.  (The source publications for the material can be found here and here.)  As is typical of large data arrays, there were no dazzling revelations, but much that should clarify our picture of reality.

  • In 2014, terror attacks proliferated in regions already torn by violent conflict.  Eighty percent of all fatalities took place in five countries:  Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
  • Europe, which experienced severe bouts of leftist-oriented violence in the Seventies, is now enjoying a remarkable decline in domestic terrorism.  Into this peaceable kingdom the murderous practices of the Middle East are being drawn as if by a vacuum.
  • Individuals unaffiliated with organized groups are responsible for most terror attacks in the US, and to some extent in Europe:  the infamous “lone wolf,” refined into “lone actor” by a presenter.  Of great interest to me, as an indicator of our historical moment, is the fact that most of these individuals lacked coherent ideologies.  They acted from what I (but not the presenters) would call nihilism.

The most significant finding was dealt with, I thought, rather thinly.  The year 2014 turned out to be the deadliest on record since the US government began collecting this type of data.  The trend lines are sobering and don’t require sophisticated analysis:

terror fatalities1

It becomes even more difficult to avert our eyes from the emerging human disaster when terror attacks with at least 100 fatalities are charted.

terror fatalities2

So much for the data.  To me, at least, it spoke loudly and eloquently about our bloody hour, and threw a cold, harsh shadow over the future.


The people who presented this information, and much of their audience, were cast in a certain mold.  Most were highly educated and knowledgeable, fluent in the bureaucratic-academic style, and idealistic in a DC-institutional way:  they very much believed what they did mattered.  They took their data seriously, and relished finding “correlations” – whether “social cohesion” was more important than economic factors in the formation of young terrorists, for example.

At the same time, they spoke mainly to each other, and for each other’s benefit, at a great distance from the public.  Each belonged to and no doubt hoped to rise in some steep hierarchy of authority – the US government, the university, the advocacy world – and all projected a sense that they, with their data, were in the business of puncturing “conventional wisdom.”  While public opinion was never openly disparaged, eyes rolled on several occasions:  because people believed that terror was the scariest way to die, because few realized that thirteen homicides were committed globally for each terror fatality.

Data fired their zeal and mission, data provided them with a livelihood, and data allowed them to float, like gas balloons, above the common crowd.

In the end, I suppose, everyone in that gathering at the Institute of Peace behaved like what they were:  members of a thriving enterprise, the terror industry.  This happens in Washington whenever the government has an uncomfortable situation on its hands.  Great sums of money are spent, people and companies are hired, trained, and funded, solutions are debated in newly-minted jargon, and an industry is born.  Incentives work entirely against fixing the situation in question.  What would happen to all the jobs if such a thing happened?  Washingtonians tremble at the memory of the Sovietologists, who once lorded over the largest franchise in town.  Today, they are ashes and dust.

So the business of terror data gatherers is to gather data on terror, while that of terror analysts is to analyze the data, and at intervals they meet in half-day seminars, under the auspices of a grandly-named institution, to remark on how much progress has been made.  For there are always innovative methodologies, and there is always progress being made.  And if the proceedings seemed remote from ordinary concerns, by compensation (and as is the fashion) much praise was heaped on the sitting administration, which had bravely called for more “rigor and research” on terrorism.

Someone in the audience (I will let you, good reader, guess who) finally asked the obvious question:  “We have reams of data, yet all the charts show a huge spike in terror fatalities.  Can you name an instance, supported by good evidence, of better data making for better counterterrorism policy?”

I heard the audience gasp, and a flicker of consternation crossed the pale faces of the presenters.  They recovered quickly, however.

The data, said one of them brightly, shows that whatever we are doing isn’t working very well.


Data is only as good as the categories into which it is forced to fit.  As the clock ticked toward noon and lunchtime in the Institute of Peace, the categorical assumptions holding up the terror industry could be roughly discerned, like bone beneath the skin.

They went something like this.

Peace and tranquility is the normal human state, among individuals and between societies.  We are a species of natural-born humanitarians.  (Or how else could an Institute of Peace come to be?)  Violence is a deviation from the norm, which must be explained.  Systemic violence is a form of pathological behavior, like autism or bipolar disorder.  Political terror, therefore, is pathology, a sickness, a “cancer,” a morbid abnormality calling for intervention and, with luck, a cure.

The young men and women who massacred 130 innocents in the theaters and restaurants of Paris were carriers of a deadly but preventable virus.  Terror researchers stood in the same relation to that horror as pathologists in the Center for Disease Control would to a severe outbreak of avian flu.  They weren’t interested in spectacular events:  their job was to protect and immunize the population.

A cure was possible, at least in principle.  All we need is rigor and research.  Whatever we have done since 9/11 hasn’t worked very well, but that just means we should try harder.  We should gather more data, make more correlations, test more hypotheses, until the inevitable scientific breakthrough arrives.  (By then, inshallah, all the people in the room will have retired.)  Persistence, of the well-funded kind, is the key.

This, let me suggest, is the opposite of cynicism.  The sophisticated minders of terror data, like the most naïve Americans, looked on the placid surface of their social relations, and discovered universal forms.


There is another, older vision of human relations – one that would treat the Paris atrocities as one more episode in the ongoing tragedy that is the human condition, and explain US failure to stop terrorism as a case of looking for what can’t be found.

Aristotle held war to be the normal condition for the human race.  Violence, he observed, helped to sustain the social order and preserved the city from foreign attack.  The US government endorsed this grim vision to the extent of paying for a permanent War Department from the birth of the republic until 1947, when it became the Defense Department.  Since the name change, we have fought wars in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq – a far perimeter of defense.

We need only accept that war and violence are at least as natural as peace and tranquility for the entire project of the terror industry to come undone.  Our enemies must be seen to act from normal human motives, and are no longer vectors of psychopathology.  They promote a system that is morally monstrous, but so did the Third Reich and the Soviet Union before them, and few scholars, back in the day, imagined that Germans or Russians might be cured of their ideology.

The Islamic State wants what we have:  power.  That’s perfectly rational.  They strike at Western countries where we are most vulnerable, in the openness of our societies.  That’s also rational.  They slaughter innocents in their own territories to sustain a peculiar social order, and they murder civilians in famous cities like Paris to garner attention and strut before the world (and potential recruits) as dragon-slayers.  This may be morally repulsive but is a coherent strategy.  So far, it’s been successful.


If the dark Aristotelian vision is correct, all the data in the world, with all the correlations and contextualizations, won’t persuade IS supporters to abandon their cause.  In World War II, the Germans and Japanese fought to the bitter end.  They were not persuaded.  The Soviet Union collapsed because of economic weakness, but Russia remains a strategic opponent, and its ruler openly mocks our humanitarian pretensions.  He is not persuaded.

The “war of ideas” isn’t a geopolitical debating society, in which we demonstrate to Islamists the error of their ways.  It’s a contest of the tenacity with which each side holds its core beliefs.  If we fudge or lean in the direction of our adversary, he will interpret our behavior as a measure of his success.

The tragic outlook, however bleak and unforgiving, should feel like liberation to every member of the US government, from President Obama to the meanest keyboard-pusher in the terror bureaucracy.  They need no longer pose as therapists to perpetrators of political murder.  They cannot be expected to master a science that doesn’t exist.  They are now released from that illusion.

Their job, rather, is to nurse and deploy the power of the United States, in order to keep us safe and protect our way of life.  Since, on this view, the world of human affairs is a cockpit of ruthless competition, the task will be tough enough:  but it lies within the realm of possibilities.

Data-gathering is still important.  We need to know where we stand.  But if the data is to be meaningful, we must not impose our categorical fantasies on it.  Instead, we should accept every painful perspective, and let the data tell us what it will.

Right now the data is saying that a quarter of the world is exploding in violence, while a quarter is blessed with relative peace – and the violent portion profoundly hates and wishes to destroy the peaceful one.  I’m not in the prophecy racket, but unless the trend lines drastically improve, the probability seems very high that there will be more terror attacks and more innocents killed, not just in France or Turkey or Lebanon, but here in the US.

If the worst happens – if the tide of blood and death from the Middle East once again sweeps over our shores – I would like to think that our government has prepared a more effective response than therapeutic formulas.

Posted in analysis, cataclysm, democracy | 2 Comments

The method and madness of the internet mob

mob simpsons

Three Exemplary Tales

ONE:  Your teenage son tells you he wants to become a woman.  You confront this parental nightmare with the usual mix of bravado and bewilderment.  You hope it’s a passing phase, and you send the kid to a religious camp – maybe others can talk sense into him.  Instead, he commits suicide by walking in front of a truck, leaving behind a heart-rending note on Tumblr.

Suddenly the online moral police explodes with rage, and you are the target.  You are reviled for the crime of anti-transgenderism.  You hear no compassion for the tragedy, no sympathy for your terrible loss – only the roar of the digital mob, howling that you should be prosecuted because you “threw” your own child “in front of that truck.”

TWO:  You are a distinguished 72-year-old biochemist, a Nobel laureate.  While speaking extemporaneously at a conference of women scientists, you refer to yourself as a “chauvinist monster,” offer up a lame joke about the romantic distraction women present in laboratory research, and conclude with “I hope – I hope – I really hope that there won’t be anything holding you back, especially not monsters like me.”

Suddenly you’re at the center of a Twitter shitstorm.  Your words at the conference are twisted and falsified – you now embody the “typical pattern of oppression” that has kept women under-represented in science.  Your character, history, and past track record with women in science are ignored.  You stand condemned before the mob of the sin of sexism.  Your reputation is in tatters, and you are forced to resign from your faculty position.

THREE:   You are the developer of brilliantly successful software code.  You have just been promoted to CEO of your company.  Suddenly a swirl of online hostility erupts around you because six years before you donated a thousand dollars to an anti-gay marriage referendum.  This signifies that you “deny love.”  You “enforce shame, misery, and frustration.”  You deserve “nothing but failure.”  You are a homophobe.

Ten days after your promotion, you resign, with your company’s abject apologies for having considered you worthy ringing in your ears.

Locke on the Web

The internet functions in the state of nature.  Physically remote interactions between concealed identities means that anyone can say anything they wish, no matter how violent or repulsive, to anyone else.  Large numbers have pushed this freedom to the limit.  Death threats, on the web, are an everyday occurrence.

Not surprisingly, this environment offers asylum to many disturbed persons.  I’m not interested in them here.  My concern is entirely with the social and political dynamics that shape the digital mob.

John Locke believed that the state of nature promoted free association, and that free association engendered the laws and rules of behavior that ended the state of nature.  So far, this has not happened with the internet as a whole.  Free association occurs at an unprecedented rate, and voluntary communities have formed around an astonishing variety of shared interests.  But these communities never coalesced into a digital commonwealth – in fact, quite the opposite has transpired.

Between communities, a wild Darwinian struggle, utterly devoid of rules, is waged for the most precious commodity in a time of information overabundance:  attention.  A similar scramble, less ruthless but no less chaotic, occurs for influence and authority within communities.

Here is a new thing under the sun.  Influence and authority once belonged solely to great national institutions like the White House or the New York Times.  Now such qualities are shared with ephemeral actors, whose credibility must be earned anew each day.

Murder Is Clickbait

The external struggle for attention elides smoothly into the internal competition for influence.  Both are aspects of the same dynamic.  The political web is a mosaic of sites, each seeking to convert the public to a particular point of view.  Influence is gained by successful advocacy.

For reasons that bear looking into, however, the only acceptable form of advocacy – the only path to prominence – is negation.  Fine arguments won’t cut it.  The hero must slay the dragon.  Opponents must be annihilated.  Brutalizing the enemy gains the admiration of the tribe, and some degree of authority with its warriors.

Ambitious characters within a community have a personal stake in expanding and intensifying political conflict – that vicious struggle of each community against all.  Locked in a strange embrace of convenience with their most unhinged antagonists, they fear their own community’s pleaders for calm and toleration.  If peace were to break out over the political landscape, every aspiring zealot would be frozen out of the status quo.

That the object is to garner attention magnifies the pressure for extreme attitudes.  It isn’t enough for you to prove that a teen suicide’s parents were foolish or misguided.  You must accuse them of murdering their child, and demand prosecution.  The point is to stoke up rage – not only in the like-minded mob behind you and in the hostile mob ahead, but in the mainstream, the public at large.  To summon that tempest, you won’t hesitate to post praise for a racist murderer on Reddit or tweet under the hashtag #KillAllMen.

This may be about politics and ideology, but it’s also about numbers.  The mob, from a certain angle, can look a lot like clickbait.

Rage and Cute Cats

Certain moral and psychological traits must gain wide currency before the political rant can go mainstream – a naïve faith in utopia, for example, and a corresponding fury against reality.  But let’s put these aside for another time.  Far more interesting, to me, is the mustering of the mob at the haunted crossroads of politics and information.

The internet didn’t invent political rage.  It just lacks the power to compel good behavior, any more than it can compel good taste in all those millions of cute cat photos.  At the most meaningful level, politics today is an attempt to change this – but it hasn’t changed yet.  The forces stirring the pot of rage remain largely external to the web.



Some are commercial.  Political sites like Gawker and Jezebel on the left, and Drudge on the right, need advertisers to survive.  A look at Alexa shows sharp spikes and drops in their popularity, translating into profit and loss, or even life and death.  The big, ostensibly neutral platforms like Facebook and Reddit, which churn with vast volumes of political rant, also feed on traffic.

The lure of clickbait extends beyond personal ambition to the bottom line.  Scandal and controversy are time-tested, pre-digital marketing devices.

Truth by Terror

This is not to deny the sincerity of the outrage.  Ranters may be drama queens, but most are sincere.  The digital landscape, in fact, is rotten with sincerity.  The mumblers and fence-sitters, the doubters and questioners, have been marginalized or silenced.  So have the moderate voices:  they are afraid of retribution, afraid of the shitstorm, so they watch their words.  The epic contest on the web pits sincerity against sincerity.

The name of this game, of course, is politics.  When applied to information, the object is intellectual hegemony:  the triumph of your story above all others.  This can be accomplished by persuading the public or by terrorizing it.  Mainstream political organizations toil in the real world, face to face, vote by vote, to convert every last member of the public.  At some point, the diffusion of their story must reach a natural limit.  Persuasion grinds to a halt.

Precisely at that point, the mob is born.

The imposition of truth by terror is the reason for being of many online communities.  Anger, for them, is a permanent condition, and they come alive only when they lash out.  This is true for all denominations, though with unequal effects.  Like the left, the right will terrorize with abandon – heaping rape threats on feminist gamers, for example.  But the left alone seems able to destroy reputations and careers.  I am unaware of any case in which – say – a gay CEO resigned because of pressure from Christian groups.  (If such cases have happened, I’d be interested in hearing about it.)

On the darkling plain of information, power flows from rhetorical superiority rather than the barrel of a gun.

The left in recent years has elaborated an aggressive rhetoric around new political constructs like “hate speech” and “protected groups.”  By endowing these constructs with the force of law, it has aimed to erect an impregnable wall around its favorite stories while silencing the opposition’s.  To some extent it has succeeded, particularly among Millennials and in politicized institutions like government and the university.  Faced with a militant orthodoxy, the unpersuaded are intimidated and trim their opinions accordingly.

This takes place in the real world where flesh-and-blood people meet, work, and vote, while the internet mob hovers, immaterially, beneath the horizon.

Left – Right – Wrong

I also nurse the following suspicion:  that rage is our last unifying and organizing principle, and the mob is the only possible incarnation of this principle.

Let me explain.

I have already touched on the astounding growth of voluntary communities made possible by the new information environment.  There are over 850,000 subreddits alone.  The process can be understood to be one of fragmentation and disintegration.  Entropy is at work.  Great industrial entities like the political party and the daily newspaper have fractured along a vast number of fault lines, and the public is happy to pursue its true interests among the ruins.

To conjure “left” and “right” in politics, as I have done, is to perpetrate an analytic misdemeanor.  Left and right are 18th-century categories.  The landscape today teems with political war bands rampaging on behalf of their tribal topics of interest.  Many of them are loosely affiliated with the old left and right – in the sense that, say, PETA adherents pertain to the one and the anti-feminists of “Gamergate” to the other – but just as many escape these labels altogether.

Fragmentation is continuous, as anyone with insight into the sectarian mind would predict.  Schism inspires more schism, entropy builds on entropy:  at times the political web feels as if even the voices inside your head have staked out irreconcilable positions.

Massive levels of energy would be needed to reverse the tide of entropy and end the decay.  That energy used to be generated by the political process – but the political process depends on political institutions, and it is the institutions that are disintegrating before our eyes.  There is no help from that quarter, or from any other source within an established order that is bleeding away legitimacy and authority.

Anti-Entropy and the Mob

So I return to my suspicion.  Rage is potentially viral.  Condemnation, repudiation, negation, if conducted at a high enough pitch of intensity, can unify the patchwork of war bands, ignite the mob, and produce enough power to leap from the virtual to the real – to the material world where political action must occur.

This describes the first Obama presidential campaign.  It was a spasm of rage against the Bush administration.  It also describes the Tea Party in 2010.  It was fueled by anger at the Obama administration.  American politics now come alive only when rage provides a beating heart, and the mob is on the march.  The rest is just the grating sound of broken institutional machinery.

I called this a Darwinian struggle.  In natural selection, many are called but few are chosen.  For every enraged mob that comes to our attention – in the tales above, for example – we’ll find an untold number of sociopolitical shrieks and howls that sank without notice.  The angry din of the web has an organic cause.

Virality, that lightning-fast diffusion of a story, is baffling, and follows unpredictable paths through the digital landscape.  Online political players, however, clearly believe that sincere rage and strident tones are necessary ingredients of the viral formula.  Only by mobilizing and leading the mob, they perceive, will they fulfill their political and personal ambitions.

If I’m right in all of this, we should expect the intersection of politics and information to grow angrier, louder, and more prone to persecution with every passing moment – or at least until we realize Locke’s prediction and attain that happy state, the digital commonwealth.

Posted in cataclysm, democracy, web | 2 Comments

Foreign policy in the age of Obama: First principles

obama triangle

The Swirl of Events

Barack Obama has presided for six years and change over the government of the most powerful nation on earth:  time enough for decisions and revisions, and for consequences to be manifested.

During his tenure, the Middle East has lurched into revolt, repression, and brutal conflict.  An entity calling itself the Islamic State, which endorses slavery and crucifixion, now rules a territory larger than Britain’s.  Al Qaeda is on the march in Yemen and Syria.  The Iranians, we think, are trying to build a nuclear bomb.  Vladimir Putin’s Russia, we know, has swallowed the Crimea and seeks to impose a puppet regime on Ukraine.

Events, as always, have been in the saddle.

The Obama administration has tried to navigate the tempest by applying the usual instruments of American power in what I consider to be highly unusual ways.  It isn’t too early to ask how the president and his foreign policy team have fared in the attempt.

My plan of analysis is a simple one.  First, I want to understand the principles that have guided Barack Obama’s foreign policy.  That effort will consume the entirety of this post.

I will then examine how the president’s principles of action have worked in that swirl of global events, and compare administration expectations with what, in fact, transpired.  That I hope to make the subject of future posts. 

The Repudiation of Power

The foreign policy strategy pursued by the president has puzzled some seasoned observers, and worried others.  It seems disconnected from past US aims.

In their engagement with other nations, US presidents have struggled to balance the country’s interests with its ideals.  Because presidents are also politicians, they tend to fudge over the distinction, but in truth there are big choices to be made.  If the United States is really the strongest power on earth, it should defend the status quo everywhere and treat every change as a potential threat.  However, if the US is the champion of democracy and individual rights, then many changes are in order around the world.

Circumstances and temperament determine which side of the equation is given higher priority.  Richard Nixon was a master of realpolitik, for example, but had no time for fine ideals.  On the other hand, George W. Bush committed the US to “ending tyranny around the world,” but only after realism had failed him in the awkward matter of Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction.

From the first, Barack Obama rejected “as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”  Although the statement sounds like presidential boilerplate (President Bush:  “America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one”), I don’t believe that to be the case.  President Obama distrusts sharply-drawn differences – between nations, groups, ideologies – which he tends to represent in terms of false choices.  Faced with the tension between US power and American ideals, he has chosen to opt out, maintaining an unprecedented indifference toward both sides of the equation.

The pursuit of the national interest elicits a meaningful silence from the president.  The concept is simply absent from his rhetoric.  Even the word is used sparingly, and mostly in the context of how our interests coincide with those of other nations.  The reason for this neglect is never fully explained:  it must be pieced together from a patchwork of presidential utterances.

In brief, the world according to Barack Obama is a zero-sum place.  A nation can advance only at the expense of other nations.  This dark vision of our fallen nature underlies his judgment of history:  “For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes – and, yes, religions – subjugating one another in pursuit of their interests.”

The individual state, like the individual person in the Obama scheme, is naturally selfish and prone to bullying, unless constrained by a community.

The Hypocrisy of Idealism

Though he has repudiated power politics, the president has shown few signs of succumbing to foreign policy idealism.  Again and again, when presented with the opportunity, he has refused to commit the influence of the United States to the overthrow of tyrants or the promotion of democracy.  It has made no difference whether the authoritarian regime in question has been an ally, like those of Iraq and Egypt, or hostile to the US, like Iran and Syria.  In each case, the administration behaved like a detached observer, volunteering advice from afar but refraining from any action that might influence the outcome.

The one exception was Libya.  Intervention there, however, was justified in humanitarian terms, and was portrayed by the Obama administration as a rescue mission rather than taking sides in a revolt against a singularly brutal despot.  The goal was “saving lives.”  The overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi and the advancement of freedom, the president acknowledged, would leave the world “better off” – but he explicitly excluded both objectives from the Libya operation.

In part, such skittishness reflects Barack Obama’s ambivalence about the role America has played in the progress of freedom.  When he speaks about a favored cause like women’s rights, his rhetoric can elevate the United States into a model for the world.  Just as often, however, he will depict this country as a land of reactionary struggle and regression.  In general, whenever the president compares us to “our wealthy allies,” the point is rarely flattering to the home team.

But the rejection of idealism in foreign policy rests on a more fundamental conviction.  For President Obama, such idealism is hypocrisy – a pretext for interfering in the affairs of other countries.  The invasion of Iraq under President Bush was only the most recent example.  US promotion of democracy, in the president’s words, has aroused “much controversy” because it has been perceived, probably correctly, as self-interested.  Pious talk is thus part of power politics rather than an alternative to it.  The dichotomy is an illusion inviting a false choice.

President Obama’s indifference to foreign policy idealism separates him from earlier progressive presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson.  Yet he is even more averse to Nixonian realism.  His starting-point for action in the world isn’t love of freedom or lust for power, but an extraordinary confidence in his own ability to read the direction of the march of history.

The Importance of Smart

Barack Obama is deeply persuaded that he has cut the Gordian knot of great power politics.  This breakthrough, his rhetoric hints, has depended less on old-fashioned strategic maneuvers than on a cluster of personal attitudes and attributes, none more important than “smart.”  Hillary Clinton, his first secretary of state, called the new approach “smart power.”  The president, who is power-allergic, has preferred to speak in terms of “a smart foreign policy” and “a smarter kind of American leadership.”

To be smart means to discern how sharply the current moment has broken with the past.  President Obama is an unwavering historicist.  His rhetoric assumes that human events move in a predetermined direction, and that a select band of extra-smart minds, armed with masses of data, can shepherd the country and the world into the inevitable future, of which the president himself is a messenger and a representative.

With regard to Iran, for example, the president refused to “remain trapped in the past.”  With Cuba, “we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.”  Because of newfangled threats like foreign hackers and Ebola, “we’re looking beyond the issues that have consumed us in the past to shape the coming century.”  Similar statements can be found at will.  In each, President Obama speaks as the voice of tomorrow, with a unique awareness that “human progress cannot be denied.”

The mission of a smart foreign policy is to save the nations of the earth – ours included – from their own destructive history.  Under this scheme, everything old is mired in error.  Peoples and governments are irrationally shackled to the past:  their actions are driven by outmoded prejudice, not reality, and thus often end in disaster.  Among the prejudices clouding the judgment of those who are not smart, the president clearly includes the pursuit of national power and interest in an interdependent world.

It is hard to resist the conclusion that President Obama believes international conflict would cease if only the actors would open their eyes and perceive the new reality.  He preaches to the Israelis about the Palestinians:  “Sometimes the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change.”  He lectures the Arabs about Israel:  “choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.”  He himself stands neither here nor there, pro or con, but on the Platonic heights where all is revealed:  “If we come to see this conflict from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth.”

Conflict, on this account, is never a clash of interests, only a failure of intellect.  The president and his team, who are smart, thus understand the true interest of every nation.  They will represent Russian aggression in Ukraine as “not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe.”  When foreign rulers like Vladimir Putin persist in playing the power game, they will be told, more in sorrow than in anger, that they have committed an egregious blunder and placed themselves “on the wrong side of history.”

This is more than a persistent rhetorical flourish.  In Barack Obama’s universe, history is always on his side, because he has outgrown the irrational impulses of more backward times and embraced the inevitability of human progress.

The Avoidance of Stupid

Since history already favors the president’s cause, a smart foreign policy needs only one operating principle:  avoid mistakes.  To dive into Barack Obama’s pronouncements is to encounter a mind preoccupied to the point of obsession with the mistakes of the past.  The “painful chapter in our history” that was Vietnam, the “overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran,” and, hovering over everything, the “dumb war” in Iraq – this administration’s prime directive for dealing with the world has been never again to indulge in such a toxic cocktail of ignorance and aggression.

When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in the military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.

Or, in the more concise foreign policy mantra of the age of Obama:  “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Certain modes of interacting with foreign governments follow naturally from a strong focus on avoiding mistakes.  Most obvious is the urge to engage with those hostile to the US to “lift suspicion and fear” – that is, wipe away the legacy of earlier errors.  To Iran, Russia, Cuba, the Arab countries, the Muslim world, the administration has extended an open hand in the hope of coaxing an unclenched fist.  “America,” proclaimed the president at the start of his first term, “is a friend to each nation.”

I will postpone for the future a full accounting of the fruits of this benevolent policy.  Suffice it to say, here, that none of the regimes being engaged with have altered their behavior in a significant way.

One way to lower the cost of mistakes in the global arena has been to delegate to other countries the initiatives promoted by the administration.  President Obama is nothing like a builder of grand coalitions in the manner of, say, George H. W. Bush.  He holds international organizations like the UN in high rhetorical esteem, but unlike the second President Bush he has never sought their approval of his policies.  Rather, on an ad hoc basis, he has endeavored to shift responsibility away from the United States to governments that have been sometimes friendly, but sometimes not.

In Iraq, for example, the administration bet on an Iranian-backed autocrat over potential chaos:  in the end, it got both.  In the Libyan conflict, the president pledged the US military to “a supporting role” to NATO after the first bombing attacks:  a White House adviser famously explained the US posture on Libya as “leading from behind.”  Again, when the Syrian regime trampled on his own “red lines” forbidding the use of chemical or biological weapons, the president seemed relieved to outsource the crisis to Syria’s patron, Russia.

My guess is that these and other cases of stage fright are a reflection of policy rather than timidity.  Leading from behind may sound like a contradiction to traditional minds, but the phrase has that gloss of nuance and cleverness so important to the president’s people.  Their concern has been to avoid mistakes at all costs, while history does the heavy lifting.  In that context, it has seemed smart to yield the spotlight to less highly-evolved governments.

The logical conclusion of this outlook, of course, is utter inaction.  The Obama administration has remained determinedly passive in the face of events that have shattered forever the old strategic landscape:  the revolts in Egypt and Syria, for example.  When it stirs itself to action, as with Libya and the Islamic State, it acts under many self-imposed limitations and qualifications – and, as noted, it prefers, when possible, to shift responsibility to other shoulders.  Even in Afghanistan, that “war of necessity,” the president hesitated for months before committing to increased military involvement, then scheduled the date of withdrawal even as he was announcing the start of an offensive.

The remarkable fact is that, for Barrack Obama and his foreign policy team, there are no mistakes of omission.  His grim vision of history is tightly focused on the consequences of selfish aggression.  His rhetoric leaves no space for references to Munich or appeasement:  that was a quirk of the World War II generation, part of the dead hand of the past.  The president remembers Vietnam and Iraq.   These teach a different lesson:  that US intervention in foreign nations degenerates inevitably into recklessness.  Inaction is thus restraint.  To stand pat is to avoid disaster and incur no blame.

Experience hasn’t altered President Obama’s thinking on this score.  Failure to intervene in the Syrian uprising, for example, left the door open for the Islamic State, which in turn caused the near-collapse of an Iraq forsaken by US forces.  I find no evidence that the president would accept any linkage among these events.

The Dream of Different

The administration’s reluctance to act, together with its rigid information-processing requirements, leave it at the mercy of the speed of events.  By the time the data has been gathered and arrayed, and the discussions held, the world has often moved on.  A smart foreign policy has turned out to be a largely reactive one.

Faced with the crisis of the Egyptian regime, the administration never worked out whether to back old ally Hosni Mubarak, the attractive street protesters, the democratically elected Islamist Mohamed Morsi, or ultimate winner Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  Each player in turn felt betrayed by the vacillations of the US government.

Intervention in the Libyan civil war was delayed until after the rebels had lost the initiative, and Qaddafi’s forces were on the verge of victory.  Though the stated aim of US and NATO participation was saving lives, its effect was to prolong the conflict for seven bloody months.

Similarly, the current bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria began only after the Islamic State had conquered large chunks of territory, and threatened the city of Baghdad.  Previously, the president had proclaimed that in Iraq “the tide of war is receding,” rejected intervention in Syria on smart-policy grounds, and dismissed the Islamic State as a “JV team” to Al Qaeda’s full varsity squad.

Administration people would no doubt argue that, at a minimum, they have avoided foreign policy catastrophes of the magnitude of President Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  For this argument to be valid, however, two conditions must be met.  First, in the matter of catastrophes, sins of omission – that specialty of the Obama White House – must be shown to be harmless.  That depends on the second condition.

Barack Obama inherited a world order of which he plainly disapproved.  It may seem surprising that he has never tried to change it:  but he discerned in the depths, at the subatomic level of geopolitics, a world that was already changed.  His task, he thought, was to align the foreign policy of the United States with the elements of this irresistible transformation.  “For the world has changed,” he told us, “and we must change with it.”

The president perceives a world different in radical ways from that imagined by other heads of state.  He is smart.  They are blinded by ancient prejudice.  In his transcendent vision, power has little connection to security, and “bigger nations can’t bully the small.”  If this corresponds to reality, Barack Obama may indeed be the good shepherd leading his global flock to a peaceful new world order.  His mistakes of omission in that case have been, as he and his people insist, trivial in their consequences.

But if, as seems far more likely to me, the principles that govern today’s world are not much changed from yesterday’s, and power still matters greatly, and strongly-held ideals like nationalism still matter too, then over the last six years the president of the United States has been trapped in a naïve dream, and his policies have reflected his own fond hopes rather than reality.  This, if true, would mean that the new world order is being erected behind President Obama’s back, without US participation, consultation, or even awareness.  Our interests will form no part of the new scheme, and are likely to be at odds with it.

The probability of a catastrophe – or several – lurking behind our inaction and inattention would then be uncomfortably high.  Even now human disasters confront us in the Islamic State, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Ukraine:  there and elsewhere, a catastrophic decline in the ability of the US to influence events may be one passive moment away.

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