Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Strange Theories of Causation

One of the conservative columnists I read from time to time -- whenever I feel a need to kill some brain cells and up my blood pressure -- is Dennis Prager. Prager is a figure of fun in the left blogosphere, and for good reason. But his most recent column, "Why I Support John McCain", is overall more reasonable than is his wont. His basic point is that if you're a conservative you should vote for McCain, since he's more likely to do conservative things than Obama is -- which is pretty inarguable. (Whether anyone, having seen a conservative government's record over the last seven and a half years, should want to promote conservative ends is a different matter.) Oh, the specific claims Prager makes, both about Obama and McCain, are generally silly. But his overall point -- McCain is the best choice for conservative voters -- is true, which is more than you can say about most of his columns.

Prager does make a insuperable claim* that Obama will be our first "leftist" President, as opposed to Clinton, Carter, LBJ, JFK & Truman, who were all just "liberals". What issues Prager bases this on is unclear. Presumably he says this because he needs some way to distinguish Obama from Clinton, since otherwise people might look at the country during the Clinton years, compare it to the Bush years, and decide that Prager's warnings about liberal harm to peace and prosperity are pretty weak tea. (This distinction also contradicts all the times that Prager has blurred the liberal/left distinction in order to criticize his target dujour... but never mind, that's a different blog post.) Anyway, as far as Prager's claim that Obama will be a leftist not a liberal President -- meaning, presumably, that he'll oppose imperialist policies in foreign policy and be a LBJ-ish figure on domestic ones -- all I can say is that I wish he was correct, but that it's pretty clear he won't be.

But the real kicker is in Prager's paragraph about the benefits that will flow from the fact that McCain will "win" in Iraq. The word is never defined -- magically turn a sectarian bloodbath into a Jeffersonian Democracy through military occupation seems to be the basic idea, presumably with a side-order of indefinite occupation of dozens of military bases -- and, of course, how McCain will differ from Bush (who has even in Prager's view obviously failed to "win", or we'd have "won" already) is left totally unspecified. Ok. Set all that aside. Let's look at what Prager claims will be a consequence of this promised victory:
It will teach potential enemies not to attack America (whether Iraq did so directly is irrelevant to the point).
Wha' huh?

OK, first there's the implicit lie, that Iraq did attack America indirectly. This is, as we really should all know by now, simply false. We were attacked by Al Queada; Iraq had nothing to do with it. (In fact, Al Queada hated Saddam for their own reasons.) So Iraq is a country that did not attack America at all. Full stop.

But even aside from this, I am really at a loss to understand what Prager could possibly be thinking -- I use the term loosely -- here. I mean, a lot of his stuff just flows from premises that I find either silly or malevolent (if you start out with the premise that gay rights are a terrible thing, a lot of what he says about the Supreme Court makes a lot more sense). But I really don't understand what the idea is here. If you attack us, we will respond by invading an unrelated country with a dictatorship that both of us (albeit for varying reasons) despise is hardly the sort of threat that will get most people shaking in their boots.

Ok, to be slightly less snarky, I think the logic (again, speaking loosely) goes like this. If you presume that "Islamists" are a monolithic group, united in their goal of opposing Western Civilization, then attacking them in one area is a reasonable response to their attacking us elsewhere. No one thinks that, just because Germany sent bombers at London from a particular base, that a British attack elsewhere in Germany was not a response. The problem, of course, is that this premise is -- to put the matter politely -- blatantly untrue and mammothly uninformed.

It is, however, a belief with a long pedigree. Throughout the cold war, conservatives insisted that international communism was a single, unified, monolithic force which acted in concert towards a single aim. This was bollocks, of course, and caused us to miss all sorts of big, obvious, important things like the Sino-Soviet split or the fact that the Vietnamese communists were quite suspicious of the Chinese communists (a few years after abandoning our ongoing war in Vietnam, a war fought in part to keep the Chinese from 'taking over' Vietnam, the Communist government of a united Vietnam actually went to war with China). But in the cold war, at least you could say that conservatives were just falling for enemy propaganda in a (stunningly naive) way. I mean, the communists did claim to be a monolithic block devoted to the elimination of the West.

But do the Islamists even make that claim? I mean, I'm no more an expert in these matters than Prager, but my sense from reading the newspapers is that the Sunnis and the Shias don't make any particular secret of their disagreements; that Iraqi nationalism was pretty clearly articulated even before our invasion of that poor country; that Al Queada has a lot of enemies in the region, including a lot of governments and movements that we would think of (if we were being all monolithic about it) as "Islamist" -- although of course they are also opposed to a lot of the corrupt autocracies that we help to prop up too. Still, so far as I can tell, in this case, conservatives aren't even falling for enemy propaganda: they're just fighting phantoms in their own heads -- which wouldn't be so bad if the bullets they were shooting didn't hit real people.

I guess this is all just the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics: if we show the world our Indomitable Will, they'll be intimidated, even if we show that Will by invading unrelated countries in response to an attack by non-state actors located elsewhere. But it's always startling to think it through and see how stunningly detached it is, not only from the real world, but from any reasonable ideas about causation too.

* Yeah, okay, among many, many others. But this is one I wanted to talk about. Sue me.

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