September 2, 2009

Where There's a Will, There's a Whine - UPDATED

Hatched by Dafydd

I rarely fisk anything; too often, it's like shooting drunks in a barrel. But I simply couldn't resist this David Harsanyi column... it's such a target-rich environment.

I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered he's a movement libertarian and an atheist; dang, you could have knocked me over with a wrecking ball: There is a certain je ne sais quoi about many contemporary libertarians and the "arguments" they propound. Oh, wait, I do know "what": smirkiness; that and a fantasy vision of the world that is naive to the point of delusional.

In the good old days of Ludwig van Mises and Fredrich van Hayek, Albert J. Nock and Milton and Rose Friedman, you could get some deep economic and philosophical ideation; some of the libertarian elders (defined as "making libertarian arguments in print before I knew what the word means") can still string thoughts and facts and rules of inference together for something that is truly worth pondering: I find examples in Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, William F. Buckley, jr. (well, when he was still sucking air), and even my erstwhile partner in crime (and especially punishment), Bradford S. Linaweaver. I even used to call myself a libertarian; my principles haven't changed, but the big-L backdrop has been repainted in Day-Glo pink, so I'm often too embarassed to admit my perverse predelictions anymore.

If you ask why I'm so down on the typical yute who thrusts out a beligerant lower lip and truculently declares himself a libertarian (he just discovered L. Neil Smith's books in the dorm library, thinks Bill Maher is a libertarian, and is still shaky about the precise difference between libertarian and libertine)... well, this post should loudly defend me.

In the instant case, Mr. Harsanyi joins the long line of people (two, counting Harsanyi) rushing to the aide of George Will's suggestion that we simply declare defeat in Afghanistan and pull out, leaving the country to the Taliban; and incidently handing the greatest terrorism victory ever to al-Qaeda -- by default. We join our broadside already in progress:

Tossing around the words "retreat" and "defeat"... is the rhetorical equivalent of the vacuous "chicken hawk" charge leveled at any civilian who supports military action. It's emotive and hyperbolic, and I probably have used it myself, but it's not an effective argument.

Oh, good. Let's all play Spot the Effective Argument in the Harsanyi harangue.

Judging from their harsh reaction to Will, it's not clear when, if ever, some conservatives believe the U.S. should withdraw from Afghanistan.

Now there's an original idea: Let's set a "date certain" for withdrawal from Afghanistan! (Why do I feel a sudden rush of déjà vu?)

As I patiently explained to the lefties who demanded to know exactly when we would just up stakes and pull out of Iraq, you cannot set a specific departure date and expect victory -- because the bad guys will just wait you out. What we need instead is an intelligent set of victory conditions, after which we phase out out engagement.

Even less clear is how the victory narrative is supposed to play out. Does this triumphant day arrive when every Islamic radical in the region has met his virgins? If so, after eight years of American lives lost, the goal seems farther away than ever.

I said an intelligent set of victory conditions, not a snide and risible straw man.

Or is victory achieved when we finally usher this primitive tribal culture, with its violent warlords and religious extremism, from the eighth century all the way to modernity?


If the goal is to establish a stable government to fill the vacuum created by our ousting of the Taliban and al-Qaida, we've done quite a job. Most Americans can accept a Marine's risking life and limb to safeguard our freedoms. But when that Marine is protector of a corrupt and depraved foreign parliament -- one that recently legalized marital rape and demands women ask permission from male relatives to leave their homes -- it is not a victory worth celebrating.

Sorry, Mac; three snides and yer out.

Why don't we see if we can construct a somewhat less hysterical (and more honest and heartfelt) set of victory conditions? How about a government that:

  • Does not support jihadist attacks against the United States or our allies;
  • Is strong enough to prevent its territory from being used to plot and train for such attacks;
  • Is honest and democratic enough that it's not in imminent danger of collapse;
  • And is not so depraved that we find ourselves supporting "honor" killers and marital rapers.

You know, kind of like we achieved in the Philippines in the early twentieth century against the Moros. And like we had achieved in Iraq by the end of the Bush administration, but might be poised to give back to the terrorists now under President Barack H. Obama.

These victory conditions are just a skosh more realistic and achievable than Harsanyi's accumulation of straw men -- so thick on the floor that I worry the fire marshal might show up. Why don't we run with them?

You know, idealism regarding Afghanistan's future begins to dissipate the first time we read the words "why don't we negotiate with the moderate Taliban?"

Funny, I've only read that in two places: (a) on lefty blogs, and (b) in this very Harsanyi column.

But while strict Shariah law is acceptable, illicit drugs are not. If most of us agree that America has no business foisting its notions of wrong and right on other cultures, why, then, did we spend hundreds of millions of dollars eradicating poppy crops (one of the only productive crops of the Afghan farmers)? Was it because our own war on drugs has gone so splendidly?
  1. Sharia law is not acceptable.

Nobody today holds up the Karzai government as an example of the kind of government that makes us feel secure about leaving. Or hadn't you noticed people like Gen. Stanley McChrystal arguing that Afghanistan is not yet transformed sufficiently that we can just leave?

  1. Most of us don't agree that "America has no business foisting its notions of wrong and right on other cultures."

Most of us don't even believe in absolute cultural relativism, and neither did Mises or Hayek; they had this cockamamie notion that a culture of liberty, Capitalism, and the rule of law was objectively better than a culture of oppression, slavery, socialism, and rule by whim.

That's why we were meddling in Hitler's dreams of a "tausendjähriges Reich" even before Hitler declared war on us (and why he did); that's why we fought the Evil Empire and broke its back; that's why we support democracy movements all around the globe -- which, one must conclude, Harsanyi thinks is arrogant and bullying... just as contemporary liberals think. (Does anyone detect a pattern here?)

Again, scratch a young, contemporary, metrosexual, atheist libertarian -- find a... a what?

  1. Finally, the reason we're trying to eradicate the poppy crop to defund the Taliban, not that we're torqued that Afghans are getting stoned.

Or didn't Harsanyi know that the Taliban forces Aghan farmers to grow opium poppies, seizes the crop (paying the farmer next to nothing), and sells the opium and heroin to finance bloody Islamic revolution and terrorism around the world? There was a time when libertarians at least rejected the use of naked force to seize money and power; but the lib times, they are a-changin'.

It is perplexing that advocates of a long-term engagement in Afghanistan -- folks who often reject social engineering as a tool of public policy -- accept the idea that a nation with scores of ethnic groups, widespread corruption, no industry and no bonding of language or nationality can be coaxed into constructing a stable and lasting democratic society.

Yes... like Turkey. Or India. Or the United States, for that matter. Now me, I find it perplexing that a libertarian would consider some people genetically incapable of building a reasonably stable, reasonably honest, and reasonably decent society. But perhaps I'm being un-Reason-able.

I also find it sad when libertarians consider an engagement of, say, five or six more years to be "long term." Helping the Filippinos suppress the Moslem terrorists took about a dozen years, and I consider even that to be short term. Long term is more like the British Raj, which lasted 89 years; or the Ottoman Empire, which limped along for more than six centuries, from about 1300 to its death and dismemberment in 1918. Backed the wrong horse in the Great War.

And if you once supported Operation Enduring Freedom, you apparently have cast your lot with Kabul forever.

Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky. But we do expect an attention span a whit longer than that of the caffeinated squirrel in Over the Hedge (the movie).

...Cast your lot with Kabul forever. Which makes sense, because it's going to take that long for American troops to find a puppet Islamic state that pretends to value any enduring freedoms.

We're not looking for "enduring freedoms," the futile quest for which seems to be the theme of the day with liberal anti-war activists -- and David Harsanyi. We only need stable and not externally aggressive... and there are a number of examples of that even among Islamic countries.

We'll try reforming the Karzai government. If that doesn't work, we'll try shaking it until a better steward falls out. If that doesn't work, maybe we need to restructure the country for them -- at least enough to crush the corrupters and awaken the latent desire in all tribes and cultures not to have to live like Klingons in the original (Kirk/Spock) Star Trek.

But if every military engagement includes an open-ended plan for nation building that pins our fortunes on the predilections of a backward nation, we are, indeed, setting ourselves up for failure.

Some "lightswitchers" live permanently on the extremes: Everything is either all one way or all the opposite way. If we have nation-building, it must necessarily be "open ended," meaning it could last a thousand years -- a million -- a quadrillion!

Yes, we've had many "military engagements" even just since September 11th. Such combat, patrolling, or liasing with local military or militia units happen constantly, year in and year out; if you don't believe me, pick up Imperial Grunts (2005), by Robert Kaplan (a fairly liberal journalist, by the way). Yet only two of our many military engagements require a small commitment to nation building.

What Harsanyi actually appears to be saying is that every military engagement that caught his attention for including nation building -- included nation building. This is a true, yet trivial, statement which he sees as profound and unanswerable. And I suppose it is... unanswerable, I mean.

And that concludes this rare display of Lizardian scorn and mockery. Oh, I almost forgot: Did anyone out there spot a bona-fide "effective argument" from Mr. H.?

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?

Instant update: Perhaps I should be more explicit why I write posts such as this: I am driven to a frenzy by vapid, lawyerly arguments that ignore substance for style; churlish, precious nitpickery; hysterical overreaction in one direction, followed in nigh bipolar extreme by an overreaction in the other; the inability to discover nuance or a gradient between black and white; fannish smugness; and the narcissistic certainty that the arguer is the smartest ass in the room. I had quite enough of such in my youth in science-fiction fandom, thankyouverymuch.

I associate such rhetorical self-pleasuring with liberals -- or with teenagers arguing that "you can't drive the car for two weeks" means it's all right to drive somebody else's car tomorrow.

I'm annoyed when liberals use such teen logic; but I'm infuriated when libertarians follow suit. Why the discrimination? Because I anticipate nothing better from liberals, so they only live down to my expectations; but I have much higher standards for people who call their magazine Reason, whose books use the word "Skeptical" in the title, who pose as eminently logical, level-headed, businesslike, and grounded in the real world.

I especially despise such arguments when in service to a position I hold myself... it cheapens my own hard-fought conclusion, much like "affirmative action" throws dirt on the real achievements of minorities and women who score in the 95th percentile all on their own, without getting freebie points due to skin color or reproductive organs.

I'm sure someone could make a strong, logical, and interesting case against nation-building; but it's too easy to make the lazy argument, the mocking thrust, so people just don't bother to do the heavy lifting anymore. I'm on a solitary crusade against intellectual mush and piggybacking on the tactics of Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden.

Brad rails against much of what I rant against here, though he prefers to apply it to knee-jerk social-conservatives than knee-jerk libertarians. He calls it the "Horowitz effect," after erstwhile radical leftie and Ramparts editor David Horowitz -- who converted to conservatism, yet carried all his old radical games and fancy dances to the new cause.

Brad swings too far in the other direction, however; he focuses so relentlessly on absolute internal consistency that he loses sight of the real world, which is messy -- yet remains the standard for truth against which all theory must be tested and survive.

All right, I'm finally done.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, September 2, 2009, at the time of 9:36 PM

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The following hissed in response by: MikeR

Dafydd, I'm not trying to defend Harsanyi's article; I'm just describing my own shift of position from the initial Iraq invasion.
1) I no longer feel that radical Islam is an existential threat. They caught us totally off guard once (9/11). But we've managed to contain them successfully since, and I think we could continue to do so. And in general, their societies are a joke compared to the West. I don't care if there are a billion of them. They just aren't the level of competition that the Nazis or the Soviets presented.
2) Therefore, I don't think it's worth it to spend a trillion dollars to contain them. Of course, I'd like to destroy the evil terrorist SOBs, but
3) I don't think it's worth it to be the world's policemen for anything less than an existential threat. There are loads of awful places in the world, and awful rulers. In fact,
4) I'd like to shift the nation's focus back to concentrating on some growth steps towards the future. Things like massive expansion of nuclear power and cheap access to space. Things essential for our future, but stagnating now because too much of our resources are tied up with stuff that doesn't really show a profit. (Of course, for this you'd need to get conservative control of the government again, otherwise they'll use the freed-up resources for something else that I don't think is a good idea at all.)

The above hissed in response by: MikeR [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2009 8:28 AM

The following hissed in response by: cdor

Why don't we just do a HUDNA. During the truce all the murderous, raping, shia loving Taliban can wander down out of the mountain caves back to the villages where we send big, loud bombs and blow them up...then we declare another hudna. We keep doing this until either there are no Taliban left or they forever stop coming out of their caves. Twenty or thirty years from now some future President who hasn't been born yet or maybe isn't even an Earth dweller walks up to the podium at a press conference and some very astute reporter (probably Dafydd's offspring) jumps up and asks, "Hey Mr President, what's up with Afghanistan?" The President smiles as he looks the camera in the eye and says, "My fellow err, uh, Americans, we have declared victory in Afghanistan. I am so glad that Dafydd's ofspring here asked me about it, because from now on the third moon of every new year will be Victory in Afghanistan Day."

And so it was.

The above hissed in response by: cdor [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2009 11:18 AM

The following hissed in response by: Davod

"Or didn't Harsanyi know that the Taliban forces Aghan farmers to grow opium poppies, seizes the crop (paying the farmer next to nothing), and sells the opium and heroin to finance bloody Islamic revolution and terrorism around the world?"

Sorry. The FEDS are now saying the Taliban do not play much of a role in the opium o

The above hissed in response by: Davod [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2009 1:01 PM

The following hissed in response by: BlueNight

Some people may not think America has the right to force our opinions on right and wrong on the rest of the world, but it's a darn sight better than them forcing their views on us.

The above hissed in response by: BlueNight [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 3, 2009 10:16 PM

The following hissed in response by: BigLeeH

The interesting thing about eccentric cometary orbits is that comets manage to race higgly-piggly all over the solar system -- sometimes nearer the sun than we are and sometimes way out past Pluto -- and yet they never do anything except accelerate consistently towards the sun in response to gravity.

Brad is by philosophy and conviction a traditionalist conservative -- admittedly of a very libertarian stripe -- but he is by temperament a radical and is most at home on the fringe. If you look at the direction of his argumentation at any point and triangulate, you will find that he is always pointing to a center that his excitability makes it impossible for him to visit, except for an occasional high-velocity fly by. This is absolute consistency to be sure, but of a rather odd sort.

As to your disaffection for the current crop of doctrinaire Libertarians, as something of a self-hating libertarian myself I quite understand. The metaphor I've always liked for their obstinate refusal to be helpful in the real world is the libertarian compass. It is a hand-held device which displays the words "Not North Enough" on its face. In theory, if you point it exactly due north it will display "North" but no one has ever been found with a steady enough hand to verify this.

The above hissed in response by: BigLeeH [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 4, 2009 1:16 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Big Lee:

You have Brad pegged perfectly, like a Monarch in a lepidopterologist's laboratory. I wonder if he'll ever read your comment?

If he does, will he feel compelled to take umbrage (or perhaps Kaopectate)?


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 5, 2009 9:37 PM

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