Humpty Dumpty at the Kyber Pass

Posted in History, Politics by Arasmus on December 1, 2009

At the outset, it is worth mentioning that as I watched President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan tonight I realized that the luxury of not being governed by an idiot has yet to wear off. Obviously, the entire Iraq War has been a complete distraction from the efficient prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. On somewhat of an aside, I also appreciated Obama’s reference to Eishenhower’s principle that every issue of national policy must be placed in balance with every other issue. I thought his short-list of our present challenges as (1) the economy and (2) China, showed the proper focus, or at least one with which I agree.

Now with respect to Afghanistan, I see 2 challenges.

The first is the definition of success. In this speech Obama defined success as destroying Al Qaeda’s ability to act. He did not include in the definition of success building a vibrant and successful Afghanistan. That was wise. Although I am only half-way through Ahmed Rashid’s excellent book on the Taliban (Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia), I can already appreciate just how far behind Afghanistan is in terms of thinking of itself as a single nation and possessing national institutions that command the loyalty and support of the civilian population. The problem is whether you can quench Al Qaeda’s ability to operate and avoid having to suckle a fledgling Afghanistan. Didn’t Al Qaeda select Afghanistan precisely because it was unable to hold itself together? (By the way, there is no shortage of failed states, which has always led me to wonder why we define the theatres in the “War on Terror” with such a geographical emphasis). I agree no nation can afford to bankroll Afghanistan, especially the United States in its current condition. But the ability of Afghanistan to have a concept of itself as a multi-ethnic nation and rise up from the ashes of ethnic and tribal violence does not at this point look promising. There will have to be some nation-building, the question is how much time and how much money will it take to get to a critical mass that can effectively police disrupting influences like Al Qaeda.

The second issue is Pakistan. An Al Qaeda or Taliban leader watching tonight’s broadcast will probably go through the following considerations if he hasn’t done so already. An enlarged American force is on its way. The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to avoid all confrontations with a superior force and to instead wear that force down by hit and run tactics, draw it into situations where its size becomes a disadvantage and target its weaknesses. In his speech tonight Obama said that he would start pulling troops back from Afghanistan in 18 months. This weekend I briefly caught an interview with Reza Aslan who has written the book, How to Win A Cosmic War, God, Civilization and the The End of The War on Terror. He captures quite well the perspective that Islamist fundamentalists have of this conflict as one which they don’t see ending any time soon. So for them, it is a viable option to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, probably to Waziristan in Pakistan, wait there for 18 months and return once the Americans start to leave. The question then becomes whether Pakistan will attack them in Waziristan. Pakistan is an anemic state. Since partition it has failed to build up the type of democratic institutions that might have at this point afforded it greater economic growth, reduced poverty and inequality, rule of law, a military under civilian control and reduced corruption. It has none of these things so it has little ability to act. Pakistan is also disinclined to act because their number one priority is to counter their heightened sensitivity to Indian influence in Afghanistan. Given the precarious position in which Pakistan finds itself (specifically the the high water mark of concern re the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons during the Swat Valley insurgency) this obsession with India seems to me a poor choice of priorities. But Pakistan believes that the Americans are not in Afghanistan for the long haul. And they are right. So Pakistan sees the relationship between its security services and the Taliban as a potential pawn that they can use in a post-American Afghanistan to counter Indian influence in the region. If Pakistan does not prosecute the war on their side of the border Al Qaeda will not be neutralized in Afghanistan. They will merely move to Pakistan and lie low. Pakistan is key. And the key to Pakistan is India.


John Winthrop’s City upon a Hill (1630)

Posted in History by Arasmus on November 27, 2008

Below is the 1630 sermon by John Winthrop, locus within American culture, of the influential concept of the “city on the hill” (a perfected society).  I don’t subscribe to any of the religious invocations, and I am uncomfortable with the notion that any single immigrant’s story should speak for the rest of us that came in our own time with our own reasons.  I do however subscribe to the vision that our fates are more shared than they are separate, that history should be a progressive march to a higher, more civilized, more egalitarian, more humane way of living and that we are called to contribute to that progress.

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. John Winthrop is constantly (and subtly) made reference to in politics.

And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. “Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.  Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.

The Global Credit Crisis And How It Happened

Posted in Economics, History by Arasmus on September 17, 2008

Here is a transcript of a “This American Life” radio program examining the origins and progress of the current global credit crisis.  It examines the invention of the financial instrument that started the whole ball rolling and its subsequent unravelling.  To listen to the report click here.  For context, here is an excerpt from a September 17, 2008 interview with former head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.

Sincera Amicizia

Posted in History by Arasmus on June 13, 2008

At the end of the sixteenth century the Sultan of Turkey corresponded with Queen Elizabeth I of England. England had little interest in seeing the expansion of either Austrian or Russian interests at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and sought to further its own commercial interests by remaining in communication with the Sultan. In a letter from the Sultan to the Queen, the former wrote of how he expected the Queen to be “loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience …and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. In its translation into Italian, the language through which the two powers communicated this was translated as “sincera amicizia.”

Nature’s Changing Course

Posted in History by Arasmus on August 31, 2006

Last night I watched an inspiring documentary by British historian Michael Wood entitled, “In Search of Shakespeare.” With his characteristic passion and enthusiasm, Wood transports the viewer to Shakespeare’s world – that of a young man navigating an unlikely destiny through the treacherous waters of Elizabethan England. How delicate fate seems when viewed in episodes. England’s official religion changed four times in just twelve years and when Elizabeth I ascended the throne, Europe must have viewed her arrival as we do that of a gold-braided general in some dysfunctional banana-republic. William Shakespeare, a country boy from Wiltshire, a married teen with a pregnant wife and still living with his parents. But a chance wind that scattered the superior Spanish Armada and a chance murder of an actor in a traveling theatre group would afford both Elizabeth and William their respective shots at history.

Shakespeare has always occupied a special place in my mind, an exciting realm, at once bucolic and lethal, much like the England of his time. Wood’s documentary transported me to that inner domain, its deep ancient soils and fertile imaginings in stark contrast to the grey urgency of the modern world. My Grandfather first introduced me to Shakespeare as a very young boy and in doing so populated my thoughts with a world of images – the walking woods of Dunsane, the mad prince, the foolish king and the wise fool. At night I used to listen for Lady Macbeth outside my bedroom door, her insomniac pacing, whispering, “wash this filthy witness from my hands!” Later I found an old photograph of my Grandfather, dressed in chain-mail and I was agog at the thought that he had somehow met Lady Macbeth! I was hooked. The iambic pentameter and the unfamiliar English contributed to the fascination. I always knew what they meant even though I didn’t always understand what they were saying. Like an old Greek myth it touched some older part in me. Then came school. We studied Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caeser and King Lear. Today I file my childhood memories within the pages of Shakespeare’s plays. Like old English law books organized according to the reigning monarch, my awareness at different points in my childhood is filed under whatever Shakespearean play that we were studying that year. When I think of Julius Caeser I can recall what it felt like to start secondary school, King Lear guards the memories of my preparations for university. Romeo and Juliet was completely destroyed for me by a rote-learning nun who knew less about passion than she did about art. Macbeth and Hamlet were the mast and main-sail of my awakening. Shakespeare seemed to me to have that divine knowledge, that ability to appreciate both sides of the coin; the self and the not-self, the joy and the sadness, the glory and the pointlessness of all glory. I wondered what had he done and where had he been, to have accumulated such knowledge.

How wonderfully accidental then is this life. Darwin and Hegel have influenced us, unintentionally no doubt, to think that there is some pre-ordained logic to it and that history has some rhyme and reason. But this secular transcendentalism masks the truth that its all just a sloppy mess of order and random chance. Two drunken actors fall out of an alehouse in Elizabethan England, one kills the other, and a new player takes his place. The player dips a feather in ink and 400 years later my world is changed.