Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Cut 'em off

An all-star conglomeration of diplomats, heads of state and miscellaneous power brokers is descending on Annapolis, Maryland for a Mideast peace conference sponsored by the Bush administration. In addition to the the headliners, the Israelis and the Palestinians, a supporting cast including the Syrians, the Saudis and the Egyptians will be there. Just about everyone with a stake in the region will have a representative in Annapolis, all hoping to bash out some kind of agreement that will put an end to the festering conflict at the heart of the turmoil in the Middle East.

What are the chances? Hard to say. The problems in the Middle East go beyond Israel and the Palestinians. But it’s a starting point, so let’s look at it: the implantation of what is arguably a European state in the Arab territory of Palestine following the Second World War was, from the Arab point of view, a colonial invasion at a time when most Arab countries were freeing themselves from imperial masters. Whether the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in the wake of the establishment of Israel was a cold-blooded crime or an unintended consequence of a war provoked by Arab intransigence, it’s asking a lot of a Palestinian in a Lebanese refugee camp to embrace the state of Israel as a benign neighbor.

The trouble is, there’s a lot to like about Israel. In a region whose political culture is characterized by autocracy, obscurantism, hysteria and brutality, Israel is a functioning democracy with a free press, a lively opposition and a strong strain of the kind of masochistic internal dissent that is found only in the truly open society. Granted, its forty-year occupation and partial colonization of territory taken in war has placed that democracy under intense stress and led to abuses that no nation can be proud of. But for a country like Syria, whose unelected ruler in 1982 largely obliterated one of his own cities when provoked by rebellion, to criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories is, to say the least, a touch hypocritical.

The truth is that much Israeli brutality has been a direct response to outrageous provocation. The slaughter of schoolchildren and the suicide bombing of Passover dinners is not best calculated to win the high moral ground. The Palestinians could have been the poster child for persecuted minorities, and instead they turned themselves into the bogeyman of the 20th century. They needed a Gandhi and they got Arafat.

The state of Israel was midwifed by the United Nations, and insofar as nations recognize the legitimacy of the U.N., it is incumbent on them to recognize the existence of Israel. The United States has no need to apologize for its support of Israel, and it should be noted that the greatest gains achieved by Arab polities, the Camp David accord which returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1977 and the Oslo accords of 1993 which created the Palestinian Authority, were achieved under American sponsorship. Is defending Israel a legitimate American interest? Only insofar as defending a democracy is a legitimate interest of other democracies. It should be regarded as an international interest.

None of which, of course, means that the Palestinian grievance is illegitimate. There is little dispute that there ought to be a functioning Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. The question is how to get there.

A viable Palestinian state will require Israel to relinquish much of the territory it has colonized in the past forty years, which will entail a searing internal conflict in Israel, including possible civil strife. The sooner this conflict gets underway and is resolved, the better for the long-term health of Israel. The occupation is simply unsustainable. It has corroded and corrupted Israel. Details of borders and territorial swaps are trivial compared with the fundamental conflict between those who favor territorial concession and those who think that Israel can hold onto the West Bank forever. I believe the latter position is folly, and the greatest long-term threat to Israel, but it is the Israelis who must decide.

Relinquishing territory, however, will undoubtedly bring a whole new set of security problems, as demonstrated by the chaos in Gaza since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005. It is sadly predictable that sizable Palestinian factions will insist on exploiting any Israeli withdrawal to step up attacks on Israel. Extremism is endemic in Arab political culture, and Palestinian irredentism will not disappear with the establishment of a functioning Palestinian state. And on past form, the Palestinian government, whoever ends up constituting it, will be unable to restrain it, even if willing. (If not willing, they should not be allowed to form a government.)

That’s why any solution will require a sizable presence of foreign troops in the new Palestine to guarantee Israel’s security. It would be best if these troops did not come from the United States. However, they must come from some country that is willing to devote blood and treasure to policing the peace, whose military is willing to pull the trigger. Israel will not accept a token force that winks at rocket attacks and cross-border incursions. Serious military repression of insurgent Palestinians unreconciled to the peace will be essential. Just as Israel must deal with its internal conflicts, so must Palestine. And should serious Israeli irredentism lead to violence, that also will need to be suppressed, by international forces if necessary. What nobody wants to say aloud at the conference table is that peace is going to mean pain, on both sides. But somebody has to say it.

No solution is possible without a security guarantee that the Israelis will accept. This guarantee should be international, not American. Perhaps the countries of the European Union, traditionally better viewed by the Palestinians, could muster enough firepower and resolve to shoulder the burden of policing the peace. It would be an indication that Europe is serious about being a world power.

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians, of course, would not magically make problems in the wider Mideast go away. The region is a briar patch of oppressed minorities, suppressed dissent, unmet needs, unbalanced economies and sheer reactionary bloody-mindedness. And the situation has been enormously complicated by our clumsy destruction of Iraq. Even before the invasion, however, the fundamental problem in the region was social and political stagnation, as indicated in the U.N.’s 2002 Arab Human Development Report, which pointed out the fundamentally closed and illiberal nature of most Arab societies.

There is little the West can do to change this except to exert leverage where it exists. We could start by refusing to send any more money to autocracies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt until they consent to significant reform and liberalization. We could take the next step by refusing to send any more money to anybody in the region. Declare a five-year phaseout of all military aid to all countries in the region and see how minds get concentrated. This does not mean abandoning Israel. It means internationalizing the security of Israel. We should not foot the bill alone.

There are, of course, no guarantees that anybody can bring peace to the Middle East. But if we can’t solve all the problems, we can at least refuse to pay for the wars.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Pesky Amendment

The never-ending debate about gun control in the U.S. has been moved along, or at least stirred up a little, by the publication of a book called Out of Range, by Mark V. Tushnet, which is the subject of a lengthy review and discussion by Cass Sunstein in the current New Republic. Tushnet takes on the vexing question of what the Second Amendment to the Constitution really means. Yeah, that one. The only one the ACLU isn’t too crazy about. The one about guns.

The controversy over guns will never die, because it’s about a lot more than the Second Amendment. Whether or not you think the government should restrict or even abolish individual ownership of firearms goes to the heart of what you think about society, government, and human nature in general. But in this country a large part of the debate centers on that troublesome Amendment, which states, in case you’ve forgotten: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

The question, of course, is whether this establishes an individual right to own guns or only a collective right for the states to field their own militias. Partisans of gun control point to the introductory phrase and say, “What could be clearer? They’re talking about state militias.” Gun rights proponents retort, “Whatever that phrase says, the main clause is crystal clear. What’s to argue about?”

Unfortunately, as Tushnet discusses at length, when you look at the legal history, not much about the Second Amendment is crystal clear. Gun rights supporters may be dismayed to learn that the Supreme Court has repeatedly appealed to the collective-right interpretation to uphold federal firearms laws like the 1934 National Firearms Act. (That’s why the sawed-off shotgun you have under your car seat is illegal.) However, the legal ground may be shifting, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in March that D.C.’s gun ban was unconstitutional. The fight isn’t over.

Tushnet concludes that the amendment itself is too ambiguous for either side to claim victory on the basis of the text alone. His attempt at a plausible interpretation comes down to this: “We each have the right to keep and bear arms so that we can participate in the militia—the body of the people—and thereby keep governments from becoming tyrants.”

Which, I have a feeling, isn’t going to put an end to the debate. What does all this mean?

Maybe it just means that the world has changed since the Constitution was written, and that the Second Amendment isn’t a very good guide to firearms policy in the modern world. It wouldn’t be the first time that parts of the Constitution looked outdated. (I don’t recall a problem with quartering of troops any time recently.) I think Tushnet’s formulation is about right: the framers of the Constitution wanted citizens to have weapons, and the reason they wanted that was so that each state could raise a militia. That’s the way things were done back then, and the militias were seen as an important counterweight to federal power. The two parts of the Amendment are both there for a reason, but the burning political question that motivated it isn’t so burning any more. The Second Amendment is about the distribution of power, not the extent to which firearms should be regulated.

Now, before you gun prohibitionists pop the champagne corks, think about the fact that the Amendment takes for granted widespread private ownership of guns. The fundamental assumption is that most people are going to have guns around, certainly enough to raise a militia. If the Second Amendment has anything at all to say to us today, I don’t really see any way around that main clause. It assumes that people have guns and affirms that this is a desirable thing. I can’t see any interpretation that would support outright prohibition of private gun ownership.

However, that’s a far cry from saying that the government shall impose no regulations whatever on the private ownership of weapons. That leaves a whole lot of room for debate. And I don’t think the Second Amendment can take us very far in thinking through issues like licensing, registration or assault weapons bans.

Let’s start with first principles: I believe that self-defense is a fundamental right. Furthermore, I think that effective self-defense is a fundamental right. (Talk to the woman being stalked by an abusive ex-lover.) Unfortunately some people don’t agree, and they have made it illegal to own firearms in the city where I live and in numerous other places around the U.S. I think those laws are unjust and should be repealed. That woman should be able legally to own a gun for her protection.

But that doesn’t mean that no restrictions at all are admissible. I believe everyone has the right to drive a car as well, but I damn sure want to know that the person behind the wheel has undergone some kind of training and licensing procedure, because you can do a hell of a lot of damage with a car.

Rights come with responsibilities, and I’d like to see a comprehensive program of training and licensing of anyone who wants to own a firearm. Treat guns like cars, in other words; I’m not the first to say it. But that means recognizing an unequivocal right to own the things. There’s no significant movement to outlaw cars in this country. If there were, car owners would be reluctant to register their cars. There is a persistent and serious drive to outlaw firearms. Gun owners will not support licensing and registration schemes until they’re sure such schemes are not a prelude to confiscation.

Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s eliminate that pesky introductory phrase to the Second Amendment so that it reads unambiguously, “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Let’s repeal all the local laws that outlaw private ownership of firearms. And in exchange, let’s implement effective rules on training and licensing of gun owners and put in place registration regimes comparable to those for cars.

It’s going to require concessions from both sides.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lula sí, Chávez no

On November 2, Venezuela’s National Assembly approved a number of changes to the country’s constitution, proposed by President Hugo Chávez. The amended constitution will be submitted to the voters in a referendum on December 2. The changes would, among other things, abolish presidential term limits, allow the President to suspend some civil liberties by declaring a state of emergency, and allow expropriation of property without a court ruling. The stated intention of the reforms is “the construction of socialism.” Where have we heard this before?

Socialism continues to be a fatal temptation for a large segment of Latin American opinion, in part no doubt by reaction to U.S. meddling in the region through the years. There’s no question that the United States supported corrupt oligarchies in Latin America for decades. There’s also no question that socialism is a fool’s game. Reaction is a poor basis for policy, whether you’re a right-wing reactionary or a left-wing one.

If ever an ideology has been discredited by real-world experience, it’s socialism. No better system for institutionalizing penury and oppression has ever been devised. By 1989 it was clear that the most ferocious opponents of socialism were the people that had to live under it. Migration patterns are an infallible guide to quality of life, and it’s no accident that the migrant flow runs overwhelmingly out of socialist countries.

But capitalism by itself can’t provide the good life. All it does is ease the provision of material goods. You need a lot of other things along with capitalism, like the rule of law, sound institutions and social mobility lubricated by widespread education. In their absence, capitalism just gives you corrupt oligarchs and spectacular inequality. So people equate these things with capitalism and want to go back. The siren call of socialism is irresistible.

The problem is that you can’t have socialism without authoritarianism, because real thoroughgoing socialism requires the criminalization of independent economic activity, the very type of activity that provides the abundance that we take for granted. And that’s why Chávez knows he is going to need dictatorial powers in order to institute socialism.

It’s a bad bargain for Venezuela. What should we do? Nothing. Chávez is only going to hurt Venezuela, unless he gets serious about his alliances with people like Iran’s Ahmedinejad. Until Chávez makes some move that overtly harms our strategic interests, he is best left alone to get on with the business of impoverishing Venezuela. If he goes far enough down that road, the Venezuelans themselves will take care of him.

The worst thing we could do would be to make another Latin left-wing martyr out of Hugo Chávez. Because the C.I.A. aided Pinochet’s coup in Chile in 1973, you can’t get anybody on the left to admit that Salvador Allende was anything but a saint, even though Allende had trashed the rule of law by ignoring court decisions, creating parallel state organizations to rival any he failed to load with his supporters, decreeing expropriation of foreign property without compensation and allowing the creation of revolutionary militias under no lawful control. Martydom confers blissful oblivion.

So let’s not make a martyr of Hugo Chávez. Instead let’s watch him self-destruct, while meanwhile directing the attention of Latin Americans who want social and economic progress to the real success story in Latin America: Brazil.

Brazil is currently ruled by Luiz Inácio da Silva, nicknamed Lula, a trade union leader who was elected president in 2002. It was feared that the rabble-rousing Lula would give in to populist urges and socialist dreams and give away the store.

Instead, he chose a market-oriented finance minister and central bank chief, respected agreements with the IMF, maintained budgetary discipline and in short acted like a responsible head of government who understood how the world worked. At the same time, he instituted practical, intelligently designed programs to alleviate poverty, like tying welfare aid to education, consolidating hunger programs and strengthening infrastructure for small-scale farming.

The result? Economic growth, low inflation and the accompanying availability of credit are aiding the creation of a new middle class. Incomes for the poor are growing faster than those of the rich. Significant poverty reduction is occurring. This is happening because Lula is allowing capitalism to work.

Lula understands that socialism is candy and capitalism is vegetables. Candy’s more appealing, but it gives you a stomachache. It’s the vegetables that give you what you need. In Brazil, Mexico and yes, in Chile, where another nominally socialist president is also showing good judgment in not reversing free-market reforms, smart leaders are letting capitalism slowly bring people out of poverty. They know that there are no short cuts except to strengthen the institutional bases (like schools and fair court systems) that allow the poor to benefit from economic growth.

Meanwhile, Chávez and his protegés in Ecuador and Bolivia are offering poor Latin Americans the candy of socialism, financed by the oil boom. It will be interesting to see who’s better off in ten years or so.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Enola's Boy

Paul Tibbets is dead. The man who piloted the Enola Gay (named after his mother) on its bombing run over Hiroshima died on November 1st at age 92. Reaction around the world was mixed and muted, reflecting the uncomfortable ambiguity of his place in public awareness and, now, history.

Some people said Paul Tibbets was a hero; others that he was a war criminal. Which is it? How should we remember Paul Tibbets?

The bomb he dropped killed more than a hundred thousand people, almost all of them civilians, in a single horrific, world-changing conflagration. Together with a second bomb dropped on Nagasaki a few days later, it forced the military regime that had led Japan into a disastrous war to contemplate surrender.

The man himself was unapologetic to the end about what he had done, insisting that his action had saved lives by shortening the war. His uncompromising stance made him an easy figure for some people to hate, and a harder one to defend than if he had expressed sensitive, conciliatory second thoughts.

What you think about Paul Tibbets, of course, depends on what you think of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So what about that? Was our use of atomic weapons on two Japanese cities one of history’s great crimes?

Look it in the face, and a plausible first reaction is: how could it not be? How could the incineration of a hundred thousand men, women and children not be a crime? Sketch for me a philosophical position that excuses the purposeful killing of an entire civilian population, even in retaliation. Even given the Rape of Nanking and the Holocaust, even considering that the Axis powers had obliterated standards of civilized behavior, that six years of war had coarsened and brutalized the best of democracies, how can we not condemn slaughter on a scale like that?

And yet. An elderly gentleman of my acquaintance, a life-long liberal and an educated, humane man, who was sitting on Okinawa with the remains of his battered division contemplating the invasion of Japan when the bomb was dropped, told me, “Well, we were sure glad they dropped it.” And he said it with a smile. I doubt he took any pleasure in thinking of the hundred thousand dead Japanese civilians. But I doubt he loses any sleep over them, either.

Any argument justifying the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan must be a purely utilitarian argument. Utilitarian arguments take no account of rights. They are based on mere calculus: this number of lives versus that number, this bottom line versus that one. The notion of individual rights says that some things are wrong no matter what the reason. Rights are “side constraints”, in Robert Nozick’s term; they are supposed to trump utilitarian calculations. We are rightfully suspicious of utilitarian arguments precisely because they override rights.

Most of us, however, would concede that in an emergency we sometimes have to choose the lesser of two evils, and it is here that utilitarian arguments come into play. In an emergency, rights can be seen as a luxury.

So what it comes down to is asking whether we were in an emergency situation when President Truman made the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan. Were the circumstances so dire that there was no alternative to dropping the bomb?

The consensus that has allowed most of us to live with the way the Second World War ended is that they were. The war was a fundamental threat to civilized society, and we were close to the end of our tether. It was an emergency.

This consensus is not universally accepted, of course. There is a rival school of thought that holds that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indeed crimes, great enough to undermine the legitimacy of the United States as a law-abiding power. Maybe. But nations are not at their best under extreme stress. There are better things on our record than Hiroshima, like the post-war reconstruction of Japan. And all nations should be judged by the same standards. We were not the only ones to systematically attack civilian populations in the great moral collapse of the Second World War. We weren’t even the most ruthless. We were just, in the end, the best at it.

Paul Tibbets didn’t invent the atomic bomb. He didn’t make the decision to drop it, either. So I’m not inclined to regard Paul Tibbets as the great villain of the piece. But his passing ought to make us think hard about nuclear war and how we can avoid getting to a place where the cold hard calculus of numbers trumps our right not to be incinerated. There’s no magic formula—neither simple-minded pacifism nor reckless belligerence is going to insure our safety. All I ask is that whoever has the nuclear football should never lose sight of the stakes.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, November 1, 2007

So crazy it just might work...

Some things you get tired of writing about because after a while it’s like pounding your head against a wall.

The War on Drugs is one of them. But I can’t help it. I have to keep saying it. The War on Drugs is folly, a stupendous waste of resources.

The U.S. has just agreed to send Mexico $1.4 billion dollars to help fight drug trafficking. This comes in the wake of a serious escalation in drug-gang violence in Mexico that has taken a toll on journalists, politicians and law enforcement officers, not to mention innocent bystanders. The aid will go for aircraft, scanning equipment, communications systems, technical assistance, training, the whole panoply of material and know-how that has been deployed in the fight against the drug trade in the U.S. My guess is that all that equipment and training will have approximately the same effect it’s had here at home. Meaning, not much. Last time I looked, we still had a “drug problem”.

I put it in quotes because what it really is is a drug prohibition problem. That is, the violence and corruption are effects not of the drugs themselves, but of their illegal status.

It’s an old argument. It seems self-evident to some of us, but others are horrified that anyone could even think of legalizing cocaine, heroin and other harmful drugs. There’s a deep, deep conceptual divide between those who favor legalization and those who favor ever more intense prosecution of the drug war.

I’m not sure how to bridge that divide. It must go to the heart of our most basic assumptions. I’m one of the ones that thinks it’s foolish to try to police what people ingest in their pursuit of pleasure. I look at the historical example of Prohibition, which made Al Capone a millionaire, and see an irresistible analogy with the modern prohibition of cocaine, which turned a handful of Colombian street toughs into world-class tycoons. The violence and the corruption and the staggering enrichment of scoundrels which are the most flagrant evils associated with drugs have nothing to do with what happens to your brain when you snort cocaine or inject heroin. They are, exclusively, effects of the fact that to do so is illegal. And that’s easy to fix.

None of which is to deny that drugs can have disastrous effects on individuals. At this point the usual response of the drug warriors is to start cataloguing the horrific consequences of drug use—the addiction and psychosis and subversion of personality and all the rest. As if that settled things.

My shift in thinking about drugs started when I asked a friend who worked in drug rehab at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago what the most dangerous drug out there was, expecting her to say heroin or PCP or something similar. Without batting an eye she replied, “Alcohol.”

When I was in college, I could not help but notice that the most spectacular incidents of vandalism, aggression, impaired driving, sexual misconduct and general recklessness, not to mention serial vomiting, all involved alcohol. I have a brother who is a police officer; he estimates that ninety percent of his calls involve alcohol abuse. I have friends whose lives have been severely impaired by alcoholism, to the point of job loss, long stints in rehab, financial ruin, health collapse and family breakdown. Why isn’t alcohol illegal?

Because we tried that, and all we got was Al Capone. We came to our senses and realized that criminalizing a substance merely puts the traffic in that substance securely in the hands of the most ruthless elements of society. It transforms a public health problem into a public safety problem. It empowers thugs. It creates vast criminal fortunes. It creates failed states by requiring that a country’s most valuable crops be guarded by private armies.

None of these things is inevitable. They are direct consequences of our refusal to treat the harmful effects of cocaine, heroin and other drugs the same way that we treat the harmful effects of alcohol, namely, as health problems or problems of private conduct.

I don’t know why this isn’t obvious to everyone. Some people whose judgment I respect are strongly for the continued prohibition of drugs. I don’t understand their reasoning. But given the utter failure of our ever-escalating efforts in the extraordinarily expensive Drug War to erase or even significantly diminish the use of these drugs, what do we have to lose by giving legalization a try? We might have more addicts, but we’d certainly have less violence.

How much worse off could we be?

Sam Reaves