Lenin, Hitler, Bin Laden — and Iraq

In his speech yesterday before the Military Officers Association of America, President Bush focused on Osama bin Laden’s speeches and writings. “We know what the terrorists intend to do because they’ve told us,” Bush told the assembled crowd, “and we need to take their words seriously.”

For the president’s part, bin Laden’s words affirm that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. “For al Qaeda,” the president explained, “Iraq is not a distraction from their war on America – it is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided.”

We know of Al Qaeda’s intentions – to expel the Americans from Iraq, and then to establish a Caliphate there – but what do we know of their capacity for achieving such ends? History is littered with the names of kooks and fanatics who aspired to global world domination. In relatively recent times, Americans remember cult leaders such as David Koresh, and perhaps even Jim Jones, but the vast majority of these individuals merit barely a footnote in textbooks.

The president wishes us to focus on the exceptions, on the evil, tyrannical few who have managed to translate their grandiose intentions into reality. He pointed to Lenin, and to Hitler, men who laid out their plans in clear view, in published writings and in speeches, but who were all but ignored until after they had seized the reins of power.

President Bush further contends that bin Laden has much in common with Lenin and Hitler, and that “History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake.”

We must not underestimate bin Laden, but we would be foolish to fight a war on his terms. We must especially avoid the apocalyptic conclusion that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq will have the effect of handing all of Iraq over to Al Qaeda on a silver platter. For what differentiates the Lenins and Hitlers of the world from countless other megalomaniacal fanatics was their unique ability to marry their evil designs to the power and resilience of a modern state, complete with an industrial base and a functioning military.

As Justin Logan and I wrote last year, the claims that bin Laden can and will create such a super state in Iraq are absurd on their face. The Kurds will not tolerate Al Qaeda in their midst. Neither will the Shiites, including many of the factional leaders and militia groups that are outspoken in their hostility to the United States. Even many Sunni Arabs, the minority who have lost the most since Saddam Hussein was removed from power, are loathe to make common cause with the murderous jihadists perpetrating indiscriminate violence against innocent Iraqis.

Rather than empowering potential allies in the fight against Al Qaeda, the continuing U.S. military presence is discouraging Iraqis from stepping forward because it feeds into bin Laden’s cynical narrative – that the Western nations, with the United States in the lead, seek to humiliate and dominate Iraqis, and all the Arab peoples. Absent a formal pledge to leave, ideally by some date certain, President Bush’s repeated assertions to the contrary are seen as nothing more than rhetoric, in contrast to the proximate, physical reality of nearly 140,000 U.S. troops on sacred Arab lands.

The occupation is counterproductive in the war against Al Qaeda, but it is also ineffective in its other stated aims. Nearly three and a half years since American forces went into Iraq, the U.S. military presence has not delivered on the promise of establishing a stable and unified Iraq. And for those who say Americans must be more patient, that monumental change takes time, perhaps even generations, it is not too much to expect that the trend lines would at least be moving in the right direction.

But they are not. Three nationwide elections in 2005 have not delivered stability, nor have they contributed to it. If anything, the political process in Iraq has empowered some of the most radical elements in Iraqi society. The ethnic militias and the death squads have used the political process to infiltrate the Iraqi Interior and Health ministries, among others, and have subverted the good faith efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to establish order.

With no definitive milestones on the horizon – there are no nationwide elections scheduled for Iraq until 2009 – the occupation grinds on indefinitely. Beyond the sickening drip-drip-drip of American casualties, there is the torrent of violence against Iraqis, particularly sectarian killings of Iraqi vs. Iraqi. From this maelstrom of bloodshed, the president can offer only more of the same. “The road ahead is going to be difficult, and it will require more sacrifice.”

That it is, and that it will be.

NHS: Let No Good Hospital Go Unpunished

This one’s about a month old, but still worth comment. In early August, Telegraph.co.uk reported that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is punishing hospitals that don’t make patients wait for care.

Since the NHS is bleeding money, the bureaucracy wants hospitals to observe minimum waiting times for non-emergency care (e.g., 122 days) as a way of limiting expenditures. Hospitals that do not impose those minimum waits – i.e., that treat each patient as soon as they can – lose funding. According to the Telegraph, “One gynæcologist said that he spent more time doing sudoku puzzles than treating patients because of the measures.” One hospital was penalized £2.4 million for eliminating their waiting lists. All this is happening while the Labor government has promised to reduce waiting times.

It’s not that the minimum-wait policy is so outrageous – given the task of the NHS. It’s that the task itself is outrageous and guaranteed to produce such perverse results. As the Telegraph editorialized:

This bizarre situation arises from the Government’s pseudo-market system, which creates conflicting objectives for “purchasers” (PCTs) and “providers” (hospitals).

In a real competitive market, increased demand can allow prices to rise, thus increasing profits, which allow the market to grow. Efficient producers can then reduce their unit costs and their prices, and so give a better deal to the consumer. The prevailing logic is that the more customers who are served - or products that are sold - in a given period of time, the better the business does.

But PCTs have budgets that are predetermined by Whitehall spending limits, and there is no way for them to conjure extra revenue out of the air or to grow their market. As a result, the hospitals that are most successful in providing prompt treatment are running through the finite resources of their PCTs at an unacceptably rapid rate.

So the NHS is faced with a perverse outcome: hospitals providing precisely the kind of immediate access to treatment that patients want and that Government ministers profess to demand, are punished financially by another arm of the Whitehall machine. Any government that wants to reform NHS funding will have to address this conundrum that lies at the heart of a tax-funded monopoly healthcare system.

Britons are lucky that they can opt out of such a perverse system – but that’s only if, as Jacques Chaoulli observes, they are lucky enough to be able to pay twice.

State Department Stretched Thin, Too

For fear of revealing how tall the “to be read” stack on my desk is, this August 24 article from the Washington Post reveals how it isn’t just the military that’s stretched too thin as a result of the Bush administration’s policy of purposively destabilizing the Middle East; the State Department is feeling the crunch, too. Citing “increasing international turmoil,” Foreign Service Director General George M. Staples outlined a plan to push more FSOs into “hardship” postings, as opposed to cushy appointments in Europe and other traditional focal areas. The planned changes

are intended to shake up the State Department culture so that overseas service becomes more frequent and more focused on global hot spots.

The changes come as the number of overseas positions that prohibit accompanying children – and sometimes spouses – has increased from 200 in 2001 to more than 800 today. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who ordered the new approach, has already begun shifting personnel from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

More than 200 foreign service officers are required each year in Iraq, and already 1,000 of the roughly 11,000 foreign service officers have voluntarily served there. The number of foreign service officers needed in Iraq will grow as Rice pushes forward with a plan to establish provincial reconstruction teams across the country.

Moving folks from Brussels and Berlin into Baghdad and Basra makes sense on its face, but that ignores the fact that the administration is also currently hell-bent on trying to twist European arms into coming along with us to confront Iran over its nuclear program. Arm-twisting requires diplomacy, and diplomacy requires diplomats. Take diplomats out of Europe, decrease your chances for diplomatic breakthroughs.

And about those provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs): State’s been having a hell of a hard time finding folks to fill them. There’s been a long-standing dispute between DoD and State as to who is going to protect these folks (DoD finally acquiesced to doing it). Moreover, State made a pretty measly request for its folks to apply to PRTs in the first place–it posted 35 available positions early this year, and by April, it had only received applications for 12 of those positions, only one of which was deemed qualified. Even when State finds folks to staff a few dozen PRT positions, it’s hard to believe that 50 diplomats are going to fix Iraq.

All of this points in one direction: if you want to have an empire, you’d do best to put yourself together a colonial service and do it right. If you don’t want to have a colonial service, maybe you’d best pare back your imperial ambitions.

Schwarzenegger Will Veto Single-Payer Bill

In yesterday’s post, I worried about whether California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would follow through on his promise to veto a single-payer health care bill in that state. It now appears that he will do so. That’s good news for the people of California. But the fact that the nation’s largest state came so close to a government-run health care system should serve as a wake up call. Unless health care is reformed in a free market direction, a government takeover is only a matter of time.

Don’t Count on China

Following on from the visit last month of United States Trade Representative Susan Schwab, the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy, is visiting China this week to drum up Chinese support for reviving the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations. He appears to have been given the same non-response as the USTR.

The Chinese have put the ball squarely back in the court of the EU and the United States, saying it was up to the major developed countries to take the lead in reviving the talks. (full story here).

China has so far kept very quiet in the trade talks, limiting their participation to argue for a ‘time out’ from trade liberalization for newly-acceded members. Having given major “concessions” to join the club, they figure they’ve paid their dues and should be given time to soak up the atmosphere. And given the often poisonous rhetoric surrounding China’s role in the world economy (not least from certain U.S. Congressmen), one can hardly blame them from keeping their heads below the parapet in the negotiations proper.

It is true, as Ambassador Schwab and DG Lamy have argued, that China has gained a lot from joining the WTO (although many of those gains would have been realized anyway as a result of unilaterally liberalizing their economy) and would stand to lose from a failed WTO. Similarly, China should be held to account for the commitments it made upon joining the WTO. But expecting China to take a more active role in the negotiations, and reverse their stance of the past five or so years, is a bit much. And, as they have proved on the currency issue, the Chinese won’t be bullied.

The “quiet diplomacy” to revive the round will likely continue, including at the IMF and World Bank shindigs later this month. But if a miracle occurs and the Doha round is concluded, it won’t be because of China’s efforts.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for Tomorrow We Die

James Lovelock, the author of the “theory known as Gaia, which holds that Earth acts like a living organism, a self-regulating system balanced to allow life to flourish,” has a new message for us: Never mind, it’s too late, Gaia can’t handle industrialization. Earth will be at least 10 degrees hotter in a decade or two. It’s irreversible. “We are poached,” the Washington Post reports.

So we might as well enjoy ourselves. Burn those fossil fuels. Build those McMansions. Eat those cheeseburgers. We’re doomed anyway.

Or you could recall an earlier doomsayer, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, who wrote in 1968, “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He was slightly off. But he kept his job at the prestigious university, he made a bundle on his bestseller, and he still writes for publications like Scientific American. He’s even quoted praising Lovelock in the Post article.

As for Lovelock, he’s the subject of a huge, lavish, sales-boosting two-page profile in the Washington Post. Not to mention respectful reviews in major papers on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s speaking Friday at the respected Carnegie Institution of Washington. Why are people like Lovelock and Ehrlich treated seriously?

Crossposted from Comment is free.

Liberal Media?

Interesting to see that the influential Time magazine endorses an “all imperialist, all the time” approach to looking at the five year anniversary of 9/11.

Time draws on the broad range of experts from Max “Case for American Empire” Boot all the way over to Niall “The United States Is and Should Be an Empire” Ferguson, who is, frighteningly, a foreign policy adviser to John “Sophisticated Plan for Iraq” McCain.

Time really went out of its way to get at both sides of the issue there!  You can have it either way: Empire or Empire!