Friday, January 31, 2020

How To Think About The Coronavirus

Some people in the media want you to panic about the Coronavirus. Others want you to blame the Chinese government and reassure yourself that such a disease could never take hold here in America. But when you think about recent events in terms of the actual history and science of viral outbreaks, you’ll see a different picture.
Two days ago, on 30 January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international emergency on account of the ongoing Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. But judging by the headlines, you might have thought it was an emergency much sooner – and perhaps not just any emergency, but the next Spanish Flu. Different motives are at work here: the WHO is concerned about false alarms; the news media, as usual, just sounds the alarm all the time.

But now that everyone is on the same page about this being a big deal, I think it’s a good time to look at the facts dispassionately, with an eye on the history of how similar viral outbreaks have unfolded in the past, and paying due heed to the fact that, most but not all of the time, this year’s events wont be any more dramatic than last year’s.

To begin with: Coronavirus definitely won’t be anywhere close to as bad as the Spanish Flu. The Spanish Flu pandemic that spread around the world in 1918 and 1919 killed between ten and twenty percent of the people who got it. The Wuhan Coronavirus kills about two percent. Also, unlike the Spanish Flu (but like most infectious diseases) Coronavirus mainly kills old people – right now, the median age of victims appears to be 75. So while it has the potential to be the worst disease outbreak of my lifetime, it won’t come anywhere close to disrupting the course of global civilization.

From the virus’ point of view, killing the patient is not the ideal outcome. Natural selection optimizes for viruses that can coexist with the population they infect. Mild diseases like the common cold are the norm; deadly outbreaks generally occur when a pathogen optimized to infect some animal species makes the jump to infecting human beings (for which it isn’t optimized) and starts killing them.

Once the outbreak is in the news and everyone is talking about it, one of two things will usually occur. Either:

1)  The disease never gets good at spreading between humans, and despite some initial success it is eventually contained, as in Bird Flue, SARS, or Ebola, or

2)   It evolves to spread well between humans, and in the process becomes much less deadly, as with Swine Flu, which was hyped up as the next great pandemic when it appeared in 2009, but turned out to be less likely to kill you than the ordinary flu.

The natural host of the Coronavirus was probably a bat, because:

1)  The closely-related SARS virus, which killed 774 people during its outbreak in 2002 and 2003, is harboured by the Chinese Horseshoe Bat.

2)  Do you know anything about bats? They’re nasty. In addition to SARS, they’re also the source of hantavirus, Nipah virus, rabies, Marburg, and Ebola. No wonder the Book of Leviticus says that you’re not supposed to eat them.

Chinese officials have traced this year’s Coronavirus outbreak to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a grand outdoor mall where more than a thousand tenants sell both live and dead fish, chickens, pheasants, bats, marmots, venomous snakes, spotted deer, and every other kind of bushmeat. Whether the first human patients got the disease from a bat, or from some other animal that had been bitten by a bat, is anybody’s guess.

At present, about 250 people have died out of 12,000 confirmed cases, putting the maximum case fatality rate at some two or three percent. I say maximum because the milder a case of Coronavirus is, the less likely it is to be reported to the authorities, so nobody really knows the true case count, but the higher that number, the less dangerous the disease.

Coronavirus spreads very well among people; estimates of the infectivity rate range between 1.4 and 4.0. Doctors would have to get this below 1.0 to contain the epidemic, something which is looking increasingly unlikely: despite the quarantine on Wuhan, Coronavirus has by now been reported in every province of China and in 25 foreign countries.

So Coronavirus is probably going global. (Don’t listen to the people who say that Americans don’t need to worry because the whole thing is a result of China’s communism and backwardness – do you think that America is capable of responding to a disease outbreak by quarantining 11 million people? Neither do I.)

Also, the fatality rate is 2 percent. If it infects a third of the US population (which is what the Spanish Flu did) then we’re looking at 2 million dead. Not good.

But there are some major mitigating factors. One of the reasons that the Spanish Flu was so awful is that it killed mainly young adults. With Coronavirus, on the other hand, you are very unlikely to die of it if you were young and healthy to begin with.

When the Observer got a hold of profile data for 47 early fatalities, it turned out that only five of them were people under the age of 60 who didn’t already have a severe health problem. Of those, one was 36 and the other four were in their fifties. In other words, a demographic that makes up more than two thirds of the Chinese population accounts for only 11 percent of Coronavirus deaths. So for a relatively healthy person under age 60, the case fatality rate can’t be more than 0.3%. For someone under 45 or so, it’s an order of magnitude smaller.

Now, if this disease sweeps the United States, we’ll end up with nearly 2 million old people dying a few years sooner than they otherwise would have (along with the 2.5 million who die in a normal year), and then another 200,000 or so deaths among the young and middle-aged.

For comparison, the US loses about 500,000 people under age 60 in a typical year, mainly to cancer, though suicide, homicide, and car wrecks together make up about 15 percent of this number.

This is about the worst that could happen, though I still consider it rather unlikely, for the following reason: Right now, the fatality rate from Coronavirus is much higher in Wuhan than elsewhere in the province of Hubei, and higher in Hubei than elsewhere in China (5.5 percent to 1 percent to 0.3 percent). Outside of China, though 156 cases have been detected, nobody has yet died.

From this it seems that Coronavirus is following the second of the two likely outcomes I sketched out above – that is, after having found itself in a new host, it is yielding to the pressures of natural selection and developing ways to avoid killing that host. The strains of the virus that spread the furthest are the ones whose symptoms are least severe.

Or in other words, a man flying from country to country without ever showing enough symptoms to know he’s sick is going to infect a lot more people than a man dying in a hospital bed in Wuhan. Hence, due to evolutionary pressure, we’re probably going to get a lot more of the first than of the second

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Another Kind of Civil War

Many people like to compare America’s present political situation to that in the 1850s, predict an impending Civil War, and then boast about their desire to fight for liberty in said war. While I do expect the present order to eventually deteriorate into violence, I also believe that there are going to be some radical differences from what happened last time around.
There is a belief, prevalent among the American Right, that the United States is diverging into two nations, whose values are incompatible with each other. Within a generation or so, the country Ewill break into conservative and liberal halves. This process is likely to involve warfare; hence, among a certain community, crowing about one’s desire to fight for liberty in Civil War 2.0 is a good way to boost one’s patriotic credentials.

Since I’ve said before that I expect the United States to have its territorial integrity breached during my lifetime, you might expect that I follow the same line of belief. I do not.

It isn’t that we’re not headed for collapse – we certainly are. But when the breakdown comes, it won’t come because the Right and the Left decided to duke it out the way the Union and Confederacy did a century and a half ago. It will be quite a bit messier.

 On the surface, our time looks a lot like the 1850s. The parties hate each other. They can no longer find any common ground. Each is guilty, according to the other, of horrific human rights abuses.

Trump-haters wish that non-Trump-haters would just die. Seriously, when I published a letter in support of Trump in my local paper during the last election, I got online comments saying such things as “I’m glad that people like you are gracing the obituary pages more and more frequency.” Apparently the poor fellow on the other end thought I was a baby boomer; actually, I was just nineteen years old at the time. But I digress.

We have plenty of hate in this country. And the folks on the ground are waking up to the fact that what one of my readers calls the ‘basic doxa’ of conservative intellectuals, that “change, if it comes, will be slow, peaceful and not too bad,” is nonsense.

If that was all you knew about the present situation, you might say that war was on the horizon, that the patriots just needed to find their Sam Adams and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and then they’ll be well on their way toward restoring the Constitution.

But wait – I haven’t yet gotten to the differences between our time and 1860. And that’s where things take a weird turn.

Back then, the two ideological factions were neatly separated along geographic lines. Nobody in the North voted for John C. Breckenridge. And no one in the Deep South voted for Abraham Lincoln. Also, turnout in 1860 was 81 percent, higher than in any presidential election before or since.

Nowadays, things aren’t so clear-cut. In 2016, in 37 out of 50 states, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump got more than 60 percent of the vote. Nationwide turnout was only 56 percent. So in a typical red state, you’ve got 33 percent for Trump, 22 percent for Hillary, and 45 percent for “don’t care.” Blue states are the other way around. Neither side is going to mobilize an army to fight for its respective cause.

Policy is largely homogeneous throughout the country, and every part of it is moving leftward. When an ostensibly conservative state like Texas can’t be bothered to do something so basic as pass a law against changing children’s genders, you know that resistance isn’t in the offing.

Lots of conservatives like to say that abortion is the biggest moral issue in America today, as important to us as the slavery controversy was to our forefathers. Once again, there is a big difference between then and now. Back then, the states where the majority of the people were against slavery did not tolerate slavery. The same cannot be said about abortion in modern America.

“Well,” say most people, “the Supreme Court has ruled that banning it would be unconstitutional.”

Those of us who are historically literate know that the Supreme Court also tried to create a constitutional right to own slaves. That right was fairly short-lived.

In the North, resistance to the fugitive slave laws was the rule rather than the exception. Local law enforcement flatly refused to cooperate with federal mandates. When the federal courts ruled that this was illegal, their decisions got overturned in the state courts.

(What did you say? It doesn’t work like that? Well it does when the state militia outnumber the federal marshals a hundred to one. Lots of people get released from federal custody who, legally, shouldn’t be released. Just look up Sherman Booth.)

Nowadays, we have the March for Life. Yesterday, for the 47th time in as many years, half a million or so protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court and asked the Justices to pretty, pretty, please reconsider their decision to greenlight the nation’s largest program of mass-murder. As always, the Justices had nothing to say. And so the protesters put away their signs and went home, and will doubtless do the same thing next year.

One need not share these people's belief that abortion is murder in order to find the mismatch between their rhetoric and their actions disconcerting. One only need wonder whether they would be just as submissive if somebody in government decided to carry out a real, Nazi-and-Communist style genocide. Or to reinstate slavery. Or to do anything else along those lines.

A library could be filled with all the erudite prose arguing that Roe v. Wade was badly reasoned and has no basis in the constitution, and that America would be better off if its laws were still made by its elected legislature. And, of course, the people who write that stuff are correct. Also, none of that really matters when they're not willing to have a revolution because of it.

Methinks that these people are like the mathematician in the old joke, who wakes up to find that his room has caught fire, grabs a pad of paper, furiously rushes through a bunch of calculations, exclaims “I have proven that this fire can be put out,” and then goes back to bed.

Having the right ideas, and not acting on them, is a way of life these days.

I think that the reason a lot of people like to see the present situation in terms of hate is that it lets them think they’re in familiar territory. We’ve dealt with hate before. The trouble is, what we’re up against now isn’t hate, it’s indifference.

You can revolt against a government that hates you. You cannot revolt against an indifferent public. And that’s the reason why Civil War 2.0 is going to look so unlike the last one, and why it will require a very different strategy.

Indifference, not hatred, is what is presently doing us in. Consider, for instance, the fact that the majority of conservative Republican gun-toting Trump voters allow their children to get their education from the same leftist schools and leftist media that have been moving America to the left for the better part of a century. It’s not that they’re compelled to – we actually still have a lot of educational freedom in this country – it’s just that doing anything else would take too much effort.

 For those who are not yet convinced that America’s public schools are uniformly awful, I invite you to consider a different fact. It is increasingly common to see child custody cases, like this one, that hinge on the question of whether the child should be raised as a boy or a girl. In today’s America, there’s no telling ahead of time how such a case will be decided. But I have yet to see a single news story about a man with enough bravery to appeal his case to the venue where it belongs, namely, an asylum court in Moscow.

So what will become of America? What happens to a nation divided into two political factions, which thoroughly hate each other, yet which are distributed nearly evenly throughout the country, and which are too lazy to revolt, or even flee the country when their children are in danger of being castrated?

Well, for at least the next few decades, we’re not going to get a halfway decent war going. And we’re not going to reverse our decline. The federal government will eventually lose power, but it won’t be overthrown in an intentional revolution. We’ll just have a slow slide into anarchy as the government runs out of resources to keep order.

That includes natural resources like oil. I don’t expect to see global peak oil until sometime in the second half of this century, but the system of monetary gimmickry and military intimidation that lets the United States consume a quarter of the world’s oil will fall apart much sooner. With mass unemployment and decaying infrastructure, the country will become much harder to police.

The shortage will also extend to human resources. The military is struggling to recruit from a generation of youth who are increasingly unfit to be soldiers. Right now, we have garrisons in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Germany, Poland, and all over Africa. But there will come a time when we struggle to hold on to our own southern border.

Already much of the west has been settled by Spanish-speaking peoples who have little in common with the declining population of anglophones. As long as the central government can keep order and provide basic services, most of them will obey the laws and stay out of trouble. When the regime in Washington can no longer afford to do so, I expect them to shift their allegiance to local warlords, who will divide their corner of the country into rival chiefdoms.

The same thing will happen in much of English-speaking America, especially in rural places. Those whose convictions were never strong enough to pry them away from the regime in Washington while the comforts lasted will, in the end, be left to fend for themselves in a world of rampant crime, as drug cartels transform into independent statelets.

In short, America will become like Mexico. It will be a slow, uneven process. If you expect that when Civil War 2.0 comes, you can join the militia, fight for a few years, and then return to a country which is run according to your values, then you are quite mistaken.

While some people don’t realize it, Mexico is not, currently, a third world hellhole. Life expectancy there is 77 years. The mean income is higher than the global average. The universities are competitive at the global level.

Also, everything I just said is only relevant if you live in a part of the country where the central government still holds power. Much of Mexico’s territory isn’t actually Mexican; rather, it is run by various drug cartels. Military campaigns to retake this territory are liable to end in defeat: see Battle of Culiacan. As the cartels have gained territory, they’ve had to diversify out from their original line of business; much of their economy now consists of fisheries and avocado plantations.

The whole situation is closely paralleling the fall of Rome. As the Germanic robber bands who had been pillaging the empire found that their source of income was running out, they had to take up farming. Their agrarian enterprises eventually transformed into the proto-states that in due time became England, France, Spain, and Italy. For a while there was even a kingdom of Vandals ruling over Tunisia, headquartered in what was left of Carthage.

What happened in Rome back then is happening in Mexico now, and will happen in America eventually.

But even though the end product isn’t nasty, it still takes at least a century for a band of criminals to transform itself into the sort of dynasty that you would want to live under. So if the goal, in Civil War 2.0, is to avoid being ruled over by a hybrid of Atilla the Hun and Walter White, then the example to look to is the municipio de Cherán.

A decade ago, Cherán was a typical Mexican town of about 16,000; its people were, for the most part, indigenous and poor. They dealt with typical Mexican problems: the drug cartels, and corrupt police and federal officials who harassed them and looted their town, but were nowhere to be found when the drug cartels attacked.

In 2011, a local militia revolted and expelled the representatives of the central government. Cherán has governed itself as a de facto independent city state ever since. Neither the drug cartels nor the Mexican government have proved willing or able to recapture the city.

It will be a few decades before the United States is ready to have a Cherán. But we can prepare now. Own a rifle and know how to use it. Live frugally, and make your voice heard in local matters. If you have children, be choosy about where you send them to school. If you have land, learn to grow something on it: hunger as well as robbers will be an enemy in the times to come.

People on the Right have been talking about rising up to restore the constitution for half a century by now. If it was going to happen, it would have happened already. Civil War 2.0, when it comes, won’t be a nationwide campaign to recover our lost national glory. It will be waged at the local level, and it will be a war for survival. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Oppression at Home and Liberty Abroad?

Conservatives love to talk about government overreach and the myriad ways that the regime in Washington is violating our constitutional rights. But if our policies are bad for human rights here in America, then why assume that the regime is a force for good everywhere else in the world?
The airstrike that killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani and brought the United States to the brink of war is now two weeks in the past, most of the shouting has died down, and it now looks like my initial prediction was right after all: namely, that America would continued to avoid war with Iran.

It wasn’t easy: nothing riles up the Iranians like a good martyrdom, and when the martyr was so revered that sixty people got trampled to death in the funeral procession, Iran’s leaders were constrained to do something to preserve their national honor. So they launched a wave of ballistic missiles at two American bases in Iraq, and told the Iranian people that eighty Americans had been killed.

In reality, nobody was killed, as the missiles were carefully targeted to strike empty buildings. But America got the message – we can destroy your bases, if you keep pushing us – and Donald Trump chose not to escalate things any further. Meanwhile, most of America’s NATO allies are now withdrawing their troops from Iraq, with only the United Kingdom standing by the United States’ decision to blatantly violate Iraqi sovereignty.

While the Iraqi government itself will probably prove too pusillanimous to enforce its own resolution and expel the remaining foreign troops, the loosely organized Shi’a militias that make up the majority of Iraq’s armed forces are not so patient. They will muster their troops for battle, and methinks that the occupation force’s days are numbered.

Overall, this looks like a clear strategic win for Iran. It is an old principle of military scheming, going back at least to Sun Tzu, that to fracture the enemy’s alliances is better than a direct attack. And after what has happened in the Middle East over the past two weeks, America has very few allies left.

But now that the dust has settled, and most Americans have gone back to watching the Senate prepare to acquit Donald Trump, we are left with an important question: where were the constitutionalists when this happened?

I’m talking about the large faction of the Republican party which likes to complain about federal overreach, usurpation of the powers of Congress by other branches of government, and general violations of the constitutional limits that the Founders tried to set for the government they organized.

Just consider the case of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who ran for president four years ago on a bunch of pompous rhetoric about restoring the constitutional balance of power, but who now led the Senate in passing a resolution praising Donald Trump for his unilateral act of war.

Apart from Ron Paul, Tucker Carlson, and a few other dissidents, most of those who pass for small government conservatives today have no major disagreements with the present foreign policy, based, as it is, on neoconservatism, the Bush Doctrine of preventive war, and the unwritten axiom that the world has room for only one sovereign nation.

When you really think about it, this is a strange paradigm through which to see the events of our day.

On the domestic front, the typical right-winger sees a government which is too large, which exerts too much control over its people, whose policies are beholden to a variety of monied interest groups, and which shows a crass disregard for innocent life (for instance, by funding abortion).

But abroad, the United States is an unalloyed force for good. We are on the right side of every conflict we enter. Our wars, declared or otherwise, are always legal and just. Our soldiers are always liberators. Our enemies are always terrorists. Monied interests, like the arms industry and the oil industry, are never a factor. And civilian casualties are never numerous enough to lead us to question the justice of our cause.

In short, there is a particular worldview, prevalent on the American right, in which, here at home, the United States has spent nearly a century sliding away from its founding principles and destroying the liberties of its own citizens, while remaining a great defender of human rights abroad.

Then there is the level-headed view of people like Ron Paul, in which a government that acknowledges no constitutional limits will wreak havoc both at home and abroad. But that view represents only a small minority of the Republican party.

Now I want to make myself clear: just because I say that the last two decades of US involvement in the Middle East have been a disaster for human rights does not mean that I lionize Iran.

But I do believe in Iraq’s right, as a sovereign nation, to say yes or no to foreign military activities within its territory. And I think that the fact that most members of the anti-ISIS coalition considered Iran to be a valuable ally, which they could work with peacefully, means that the United States could probably have done the same. And I reject any claim that our bombing campaigns in Syria, Libya, and Yemen have led to any increase in those countries’ freedom commensurate with the human cost.

And I think that the demand for oil is a major driving force in all American involvement in the Middle East. How else do you explain how the usual indignation towards the “terrorists” is suspended when Saudi Arabia is involved? It’s hard not to admit that the people who killed a dissident journalist in Turkey and hid the body in the Saudi consulate had done more than enough to get themselves designated as terrorists and blown to smithereens in a drone strike, if they had been working for any other country.

And yet the United States still sells billions of dollars worth of armaments to Saudi Arabia every year.

Most American conservatives, while they are good at pointing out domestic violations of our inalienable rights, have refused to see all this.

Such cognitive dissonance isn’t born of rational thought; rather, it’s a tribal thing. If you’re a conservative in this country, then you probably identify as an American and a Republican. As a Republican, you look at all the ways that your rivals, the Democrats, have expanded the power of government over the past century, and you see rampant violations of various constitutional rights. But as an American, you look at the US armed forces, wherever in the world they may be, and whatever they may be doing, as liberating heroes.

By saying that this is tribal thinking, I don’t mean to imply that it’s confined to the unsophisticated masses. Just look at William J. Bennett, the man who served as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, and later wrote the US history textbook that I used in high school.

The text has two volumes: the first runs from colonial times to about 1913, and the second from World War I to the end of the Reagan Administration. The founders and the constitution they wrote are praised effusively. Abraham Lincoln is praised for saving the Union and abolishing slavery. Franklin Roosevelt is criticized for the New Deal, but praised for his leadership during World War II.

The man who comes in for the most criticism is Jimmy Carter: the chapter about him is titled “The Years The Locusts Ate,” and is all about how his weak leadership allowed Americas enemies, especially Iran, to win victories all over the world. (Nothing at all is said about the CIA-backed coup in 1953 that made the Iranian people hostile toward America in the first place.)

The man who comes in for the most praise is Ronald Reagan. His military adventurism is presented in a purely positive light. All the talk about the separation of powers from Volume 1 is conveniently absent. When the Russians shot down an airliner full of Americans and Koreans in 1983, Bennet waxes eloquent about what a tragedy it was. (When the Americans did the same thing to an Iranian airliner in 1988, it got no mention at all.) Finally, the whole book concludes with a speech by Reagan about how America is the “Shining City on a Hill” which the whole world should aspire to be like.

Oh, did I mention that, according to Bennett, this all happened while the US government was contributing to the deaths of several tens of millions of innocent people? That started in 1973 – Bennett takes the usual conservative position that abortion is murder, and quotes Byron White’s dissent from Roe v. Wade about “Raw Judicial Power” and how outrageously awful it is for the rights of so many people to be abolished in such a blatantly undemocratic manner.

You may or may not agree with Bennett’s take on abortion rights, but either way, doesn’t it seem a bit strange that a man can accuse his own government of mass murder, and then a few pages later go back to talking about how great and how free America is? Seldom does he question his country's status as the prime force for good in the world. ‘Right to life or no right to life,’ he seems to be saying, ‘we’re still the Shining City on a Hill.’

When Bennett wrote a slim third volume to bring the history up to 2009, he managed to work in justifications for both the first and second Gulf Wars, even though everybody knew by then that the Iraqi nuclear program had never existed. Go figure.

Even Matt Walsh, one of the few conservative bloggers that I actually take seriously enough to follow these days, can’t seem to see that there’s more to the situation in the Middle East than Fox News might be letting on.

Here’s the headline for his sole post discussing the death of Soleimani: Trump Just Killed One Of The Most Dangerous Terrorists In The World, And Democrats Are Upset About It.

Needless to say, he doesn’t spare any time discussing the intricacies of what actually happened and why. After one brief tirade, Walsh returned to his usual focus on domestic issues. His next piece was headlined: Michelle Williams Shouted Her Abortion At The Golden Globes. Here's The Most Disturbing Part Of What She Said.

If you read Walsh for a while, you’ll notice that he spends most of his time talking about abortion, sex changes for children, abortion, consumerism, internet porn, abortion, America’s awful public schools, Christians who go soft on abortion, and, well, you get the picture. About 95% of what Matt Walsh writes is meant to persuade his readers that the culture they live in is headed for the ash heap of history.

So how in the world does this man look at the wars going on in the Middle East and see a black-and-white situation in which the United States somehow occupies the “white” position?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. But then again, patriotic feelings are seldom governed by logic. People have deeply ingrained emotional ties to a concept of “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave” that has long since become untethered from the reality.

Chances are that if you’re reading this, then you are an old-fashioned constitutionalist who believes that the federal government is way more powerful than it was ever intended to be, that most policy coming out of Washington serves monied interests rather than the common people, and that any society that celebrates abortion the way ours does is a very selfish society with little regard for human rights.

And if you believe all that, then I think it’s time to admit that our foreign policy isn’t driven by a desire to protect the innocent, either.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

There Is Only One Sovereign Nation

The Trump Administration’s decision to almost start a war with both Iraq and Iran only make sense in light of the belief, shared by many in the foreign policy establishment, that the world only has room for one sovereign nation.
It’s a bit unsettling to make your New Year’s predictions, insist that they be taken more seriously than everyone else’s because they work from the assumption that the most mundane outcome is the most likely one, and then, the very next day, find that one of your predictions is on the verge of being dramatically disproven.

But that’s what happened last week when, among other things, I ventured to foretell that the Trump Administration would continue to avoid war with Iran.

Then, on the evening of 2 January, I heard that news that American forces had killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike in Baghdad.

Conservative pundits rejoiced. “President Trump has killed a notorious terrorist, avenged American blood, and made the world a safer place.”

Whether General Soleimani is a terrorist is debatable. The man had a long and illustrious career of travelling around the Middle East arming and training various Shi’a militias to fight in the endless proxy wars that dominate that part of the world. Sometimes, these militias fought on the same side as the United States; sometimes they fought on the opposite side.

Though don’t expect to get that impression from American news sites. Ever since last Friday, I keep going back to SputnikNews because it has offered detailed, day by day coverage of both sides of this controversy, unlike a domestic news source, which will usually give you one or two heavily biased articles before turning its attention back to football, or the Golden Globes, or what have you.

Back to the killing of General Soleimani: it was ostensibly done in retaliation for an attack on the American embassy in Baghdad by a Shi’a mob, in which nobody was killed. The mob attack was in retaliation for airstrikes on various targets in Iraq that killed 25 members of that country’s leading Shi’a militia. The airstrikes were in retaliation for a rocket attack on an American base that killed an American contractor. You get the idea.

A lot of Democrats are upset with what President Trump did because assassinating an Iranian general is a good way to start a war, something which the President is not supposed to do without Congressional approval. Few Republicans share that point of view. Ron Paul does, but Ron Paul was going to stand up for the Constitution no matter what.

But this gets even more disturbing when you look at the details. America is supposedly in a military alliance with Iraq against ISIS, which is why we have troops in Iraq in the first place. But we didn’t have the Iraqi government’s approval to assassinate Soleimani in Baghdad, or even to carry out the bombings that killed 25 Iraqi militiamen in the previous round of tit-for-tat.

Soleimani was in Baghdad at the invitation of the Iraqi Prime Minister. People who know a lot about the Middle East weren’t surprised by this, since the Iranian Quds Force and the local militias which it supports have been Iraq’s biggest allies in the fight against ISIS. And the fact that a senior Iraqi commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed in the airstrike alongside Soleimani only makes matters worse.

When Iraq’s parliament responded to the crisis by voting to expel all Americans from the country, Donald Trump insisted that his men would never leave, but if they did, Iraq would pay for it with even worse sanction than those under which Iran is suffering. Then he tried to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condoning what he did; Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif (another terrorist, according to the US) was prohibited from coming to New York to speak for his side. Nevertheless, the other members of the Security Council vetoed the hell out of Trump’s resolution.

I could keep on giving details of what has transpired over the last week, though there’s hardly any need. It’s already clear enough that these events only make sense once you have realized that the core doctrine of American foreign policy is that there is only one sovereign nation.

Just one sovereign nation – the world doesn’t have room for two or three or four.

Our nation is the greatest nation on earth. (And it’s also the freest nation.)

When we feel threatened, we strike back. We have no need to get the approval of our own Congress to go to war. And why should we even try? If we declare war, then we have to follow certain rules; if we don’t declare war, then whoever we’re fighting against is simply a terrorist, and terrorists have no rights.

We can kill them wherever we find them; there is no such thing as neutral soil. It doesn’t matter if our target showed up in Baghdad to meet with the head of government in a nation that we’re supposedly allied with. In fact, it doesn’t even matter that most of the anti-ISIS coalition – the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Russians, the Kurds, etc. – considered General Soleimani and his Quds force to be valuable allies.

If we said Soleimani was terrorist, then that was the last word anyone needed to hear. We didn’t even need to consult with Britain and Germany, both of which stand to lose lives if a new war breaks out, and both of which were quite upset that we proceeded unilaterally.

The one sovereign nation gets to regulate internal commerce, among its several constituent states, just like its constitution says it can, and just like any sovereign nation is expected to be able to do.

And it also gets to regulate commerce between all the other nations in the world. If citizens of two foreign nations do business with each other against its wishes, then no matter where in the world they happen to be, they will always be at risk of arrest and extradition to the one sovereign nation.

This is not going to end well for the nation that has set itself up as the world's overlord. Blindness to the rights and interests of other countries is a good way to isolate oneself and turn allies into foes, while adversaries who were once hostile toward one another are driven into each other's arms.

Russia has bad relations with China for most of the two countries’ history, but over the last two decades, American imperialism has driven them into close friendship. Iraq and Iran have experienced much the same thing.

Now I am sure that some of you, after reading all this, will be thinking about what an anti-American screed I have just written, and wondering how someone who calls himself a “patriot” could reveal his true colors as a terrorism apologist. Why doesn’t this man care that American lives were lost?

Well, I have friends and family in the US armed forces. And the events of the past few days are terrifying to me, because I don’t want to see any of them die in a war with Iran, a scenario which has just become a lot more likely.

Why do you suppose that a good friend of mine, raised in a family of lifelong Republicans, would join the military and, soon afterward, find himself admiring Tulsi Gabbard? Is there no reason for this, or is it because seeing the situation up close makes you realize that looking at the Middle East in the traditional way – where everyone can be classified as either a subservient vassal, or the villain of a James Bond movie – is a good way to get a lot of your comrades killed?

People who know the Middle East fairly well – like General Mattis, under whose watch the present events could never have happened – understand that neither the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, nor any of the other ancient and venerable ethno-religious  rivalries that divide the Middle East, has clear good guys or bad guys. If we choose to engage in proxy wars where that rivalry is at issue, then we’re looking at morally dubious ground as far as the eye can see.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and one man’s warmonger is another’s liberator. And one of the details of Soleimani’s death that you won’t hear on American news is that, the Sunday after he was killed, Christians in churches across Syria held masses in honour of the martyrdom of the man who saved them from being exterminated by ISIS.

America certainly has the right to defend its people, but if the goal is to preserve American lives, then we need to do so within the framework that Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and most other players in this conflict are working under – that is to say, we must act with the understanding that there is more than one sovereign nation whose interests are at stake here.

The sporadic attacks on America’s bases and embassy, by various Iraqi militias throughout the years, should not be taken lightly. They probably weren’t ordered from the top, but if the Iraqi government proves unwilling or unable to defend American lives from the rogue elements within its own armed forces, then we have certainly had the right to end our so-called alliance with Iraq, withdraw our troops, and leave the Iraqis to fight ISIS without our help. (Or without our hindrance, if that’s how they choose to see it.)

Because that’s the kind of thing that happens in a world with more than one sovereign nation. And I sure hope that it’s what will happen now, once tempers have cooled – after all, it is much better than the alternative.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Predictions for 2020

The beginning of a new year is a traditional time for pundits to test their mettle by forecasting future political events. My predictions will be less flashy than what most sites offer, but they’re also likely to be more accurate.
The beginning of a new year is a traditional time, among political commentators, for predicting the future. This task is often easier than one might think, especially when it comes to forecasting the outcomes of elections. Nevertheless, the internet is littered with the wrong predictions of even the most respectable pundits: you may remember how nearly everyone in the media, Karl Rove and Nate Silver included, thought that Donald Trump was going to lose back in 2016.

Accurate predictions rely on an understanding and acceptance of some basic facts: history isn’t linear, it usually moves either chaotically or in cycles, yesterday’s winners tend to rest on their laurels and become today’s losers, what can’t be sustained won’t be sustained, and proving your own righteousness to people who already like you isn’t what political victories are made of.

Also, the events of the upcoming year probably won’t be any more dramatic than those of any other year.

Granted, you won’t hear much of that perspective in the mainstream news, either right wing or left wing. People like to think that the present is a uniquely important time and that we’re all living just moments away from some sort of happening. Just what it is that will happen depends on who you ask: perhaps the President will be removed from office merely because one party doesn’t like him, or maybe America’s right-wingers will rise up en masse to make good on fifty years of talk about restoring the Constitution. Then again, the whole American experiment could just up and come to a fiery end under a rain of Iranian or North Korean warheads.

My predictions, on the other hand, will be less exciting. I refuse to fill the pages of my blog with talk of brokered conventions, unprecedented electoral landslides, sudden economic crashes, wars between nuclear powers, and other flashy events that don’t get around to happening in real life. But if you want a more mundane (hence more realistic) portrait of the future, then read on.

Normally, I would begin this post by evaluating last year’s predictions. But since I created Twilight Patriot in February of 2019, the current post is my first on this theme. Nonetheless, I must admit that if you look at my one serious attempt so far to foretell the future, my record is mixed.

Last March, I successfully predicted that the British parliament would find excuses to dodge multiple Brexit deadlines, and I explained this in terms of a larger trend, ongoing for a century or so, where the intelligentsia across the English-speaking world has exercised a newfound freedom to roundly ignore election outcomes, secure in the knowledge that spurning the voters will no longer spark civil unrest the way it did in the past.

What I didn’t expect is that the Tories would win again in the 2019 elections, with a bigger majority than they’ve had at any time since 1987.

Perhaps Brexit will still get scuppered. Donald Trump’s weasel Congress, even when it was officially controlled by his party, refused to pass most of his agenda; for all we know Boris Johnson’s new parliament will do the same thing. Even so, I think the odds are slightly in favor of an independent Britain by the end of 2020.

Meanwhile in the United States, Joe Biden is probably going to win the Democratic nomination for President. He’s a weak candidate, but he’s always held the lead in the polls, and none of the men or women running against him have shown any capacity to unite the progressive wing of the party.

Bernie Sanders comes close, but he has a big problem. Despite his voodoo economics, Bernie is ultimately a patriot who believes in his ideals and refuses to serve monied interests. The dirty secret of the Democratic party is that, despite all its talk about being the party of the poor, every policy it pursues is ultimately catering to the interests of affluent coastal liberals. And this class of people, which forms the spine of the American left, will make sure that Bernie Sanders doesn’t get the nomination in 2020, just like they made sure he didn’t get it four years ago.

Joe Biden will then lose the general election to Donald Trump. Actually, it’s a forgone conclusion that anyone the Democrats nominate will lose to Trump. History shows that it is very difficult to win against a party which has only been in the White House for four years. It has happened only once in the modern (post 1900) era, when Reagan beat Carter in 1980. (Other presidents who failed to get re-elected had just succeeded someone from their own party, i.e. Taft, Hoover, Ford, and Bush I).

Ronald Reagan, the one guy who did pull off a win under this adverse condition, did it by reaching out to forgotten middle Americans and convincing them that his party wouldn’t let them down the way the other party had. Today’s Democrats, on the other hand, seem to think that the key to success is to call the other side’s voters a bunch of racists. You don’t win elections by doing that.

The Republicans will keep the Senate, as nearly all of the seats they’re defending this year are in states which a Democrat has no realistic chance of winning. Also, they’re nearly certain to recover the Alabama seat which Doug Jones won by accident back in 2017.

Republicans will probably also take back the House of Representatives, as the party that wins the Presidential election tends to get the most votes down ballot as well. (The Democrats would have won the House in 2012 if the districts weren’t gerrymandered against them, a disadvantage which still exists today).

Nevertheless, the new Republican Congress will not build the wall, repeal Obamacare, or defund Planned Parenthood.

Officially, the US economy will probably grow somewhat in 2020. But if you replace the phoney consumer price index with an inflation estimate based on actual commodity prices, then America’s per-capita GDP will continue the downward trend that it’s been following since the beginning of the century.

Vladimir Putin will still be President of Russia at the end of the year, and Xi Jinping will still be President of China. Neither Russia nor China will go to war with the United States, nor will there be a war between the United States and Iran, or between Iran and Israel, as every one of those countries is led by a level-headed man who knows that he has nothing to gain from such a turn of events.

The protests in Hong Kong will eventually fizzle out. The Chinese government understands the commercial importance of Hong Kong, and will find a way to de-escalate the situation peacefully. Meanwhile, the western world will continue to ignore the much worse human rights abuses going on in Uyghuristan.

Nothing significant will come of Donald Trump’s trade war with China. Both sides know that America has lost too much of its domestic manufacturing capacity to function without cheap imports, so even though Trump may continue to throw a bone to his voters every now and then, he’ll be careful not to make any dents in the trade deficit.

The Yuan will continue to gain importance as an international currency, and the process of dedollarization will continue slowly but steadily throughout Eurasia. However, none of this will happen fast enough to threaten America’s trade dominance during the coming year.

 The major country which I believe runs that largest risk of collapse in 2020 is Saudi Arabia. But I would have said the same thing last year. The odds of King Salman or his son Mohammad sitting on the Saudi throne on 31 December are still better than even money.

In conclusion: electoral cycles will keep cycling, steady trends will keep steadily trending, and both America and its rivals will do their best to avoid dramatic conflicts from which they have nothing to gain. Meanwhile, most Americans will remain indifferent to the serious threats that undermine their country’s long-term stability.

Despite its near-term placidity, 2020 will bring us one year closer to the end of the present phase of our national history, the one which is known as Decline and Fall. But because Decline and Fall is typically followed by a rebirth of some sort, and because I am keenly aware of the severe injustices of the present order, I do not choose to be despondent about what the future will bring.