Thursday, February 16, 2006

Baghdad Surprise

In the Bush administration’s zeal to "democratize" Iraq and stop the growing body count of coalition soldiers, even former foes like the militant Islamist Moktada al-Sadr have been brought into the political fold. But, as Lee Harris points out, al-Sadr is no democrat, nor any ally of the US. And his ultimate ambitions may be disastrous for US goals in the region.

al-Sadr fomented a series of bloody, but short-lived uprisings early in the occupation. But he was allowed to enter Iraqi politics, probably because refusing him only guaranteed more violence. His rise to a powerbroker’s position in the new world of Iraqi politics is nothing short of breath taking. In recent weeks, al-Sadr engineered the election of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister.

Both al-Jaafari's re-election and Sadr's role in bringing it about came as something of a shock, both inside Iraq and outside. Most Iraqis felt that it was "time for a change," as we Americans say whenever we vote out of office a man who has proven incompetent to govern, as al-Jaafari has proven himself over the last year. But the assumption was that the change would be in the direction of a man more decisive and unifying than al-Jaafari, for example, the economist Adel Abdul Mahdi.

In fact, underneath the surface, there has been a profound and radical change. Though al-Jaafari continues to hold on to the title of Prime Minister, he is aware that his one-vote victory was entirely dependent on the political cunning of Moktada al-Sadr. As Robert F. Worth reported in his article in The New York Times: "Mr. Sadr's followers now control the largest bloc of seats -- 32 out of 130 -- within the Shiite alliance. They decided to vote for Mr. Jaafari after he promised to help implement their political program," according to a spokesman for the Sadr movement who is also a sitting member of parliament.

Expressed like this, the bargain between al-Jaafari and Sadr's followers would appear to be simply a case of political horse-trading. "We'll support your guy, if your guy supports our programs." Yet I fear that there is far more going on here than normal parliamentary politicking, and let me explain why.

Recall that al-Sadr has strong ties to Syria, and is generally considered Tehran’s man in Baghdad, and you see the very bad direction in which this all is leading.

Sadr not only controls the largest bloc within the Shiite alliance; he is also the head of a paramilitary organization, the Mahdi army. In this respect, his position is identical to that of Hitler, before he came to power. Hitler, on the one hand, had the Nazi party, a tight-knit organization that was happy to use the parliamentary system in order to bring about the destruction of the Weimar Republic, and thus to end the parliamentary system itself. On the other hand, Hitler also commanded his own paramilitary organization, the famous "brown-shirts" of the SA, whose membership, at its height, may have included between three to four million young German toughs, whose usefulness to the success of the Nazi Party Hitler himself repeatedly stressed. They were invaluable in their ability to intimidate and threaten anyone who seriously opposed the Nazi party.

Comparisons between Sadr and Hitler, though meant in terms of political machinations, as opposed to world threat, distract from the point. Neither al-Sadr, nor Saddam before him, are particularly comparable to Hitler since neither command the resources of 1930’s Germany, which at its 1980’s high-point (not to mention its 2002 condition of degraded mess) Iraq never even came close to. Iraqis aren’t as smart as early twentieth century Germans, make nothing of their own, and (formerly) possessed an army singularly lacking in any distinction save gross incompetence. Still, the point remains that al-Sadr is amassing, steadily, a dismaying amount of power in the new Iraqi government. Even worse, al-Sadr has also learned that violence against American forces has no consequence.

… Sadr did not spend a single hour in jail and, after leading two violent rebellions, was permitted to continue amassing the kind of "black market" power that is associated with his Mahdi militia -- a power that is all the more disturbing because no one can be sure when it is being exercised. For example, no one knows how far Sadr's followers have been able to infiltrate Iraq's police and military establishments, nor can anyone say to what extent Sadr's followers are behind various bombings and assassinations.

In addition, Sadr is seeking to find a unifying theme that can transcend the divisions within Iraq, both tribal and sectarian; and this unifying theme is anti-Americanism -- a creed that may be shared by both Sunnis and Shiites, and that is also capable of forging strong bonds with nations like Iran and Syria, as well as millions of Muslims across the globe. Here again, like Hitler, Sadr appreciates the fact that there is no better way to unite a divided people than to give them a common enemy -- and that common enemy is us. Indeed, all populist demagogues have always been aware of this fact, and they all have exploited the marvelous unifying powers that hatred of a common enemy is capable of providing their people.

Uniting the Shiites and Sunnis is probably less al-Sadr’s intention that continuing to consolidate power in Baghdad. The hatred between the two sects is so vehement and intransigent that peace between them seems unlikely, no matter who holds the reigns of power. Besides, the Shiites control all the critical oil-rich parts of the nation. As soon as the US and its allies are gone, they can excise the Sunnis at their leisure. And they know it. In the Middle East, people measure scores by the century, and the Sunnis in Iraq have it coming.

The goal for al-Sadr is to gain control of the Shiite dominated areas of Iraq for use by his masters in Tehran. They may not want direct annexation, but they certainly look forward to a vassal state on their border, and control over all that Iraqi oil. al-Sadr seems capable of pulling it off, right under America’s nose.

Al-Sadr, by throwing his support, at a critical juncture, to the weakest and most ineffectual candidate for the most important position in the government of Iraq, has thereby achieved a bloodless political coup that has virtually made him the most powerful figure in Iraq. He who makes a Prime Minister can also unmake him -- and this is a lesson that al-Jaafari's one-vote victory has made perfectly clear to him, and to every other player in the political game. The path is now open for al-Sadr's legal seizure of power -- the same path that brought Hitler and the Nazi Party control over the fate of Germany. All Sadr needs is patience and cunning -- and it appears that he lacks neither of these qualities.

Washington has already realized that the invasion of Iraq may have seriously restrained American options in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the US tries to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, expect a wave of suicide bombers to assail US forces in Iraq. Guess who will be directing that attack?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Islam and the Challenge of the Modern

The pseudonymous Spengler advances an intriguing explanation of why Muslims are so enraged by the Danish cartoons.

Muslims rage at affronts to their faith because the modern world puts their faith at risk, precisely as modern Islamists contend. [3] That is not a Muslim problem as such, for all faith is challenged as traditional society gives ground to globalization. But Muslim countries, whose traditional life shows a literacy rate of only 60%, face a century of religious deracination. Christianity and Judaism barely have adapted to the modern world; the Islamists believe with good reason that Islam cannot co-exist with modernism and propose to shut it out altogether.

While not overlooking the fact that many Muslim governments – Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia – are deliberately stirring up the street mobs to distract their people from the corruption, poverty and incompetence that are the daily hallmarks of life in the Middle East, not all of the outrage can be ascribed to such machinations. Historically, Christians have been just as willing to shed the blood of dissenters, or work themselves into histrionics and violence, when confronted by mockery or criticism of their beliefs. That sort of behavior is long gone in the West, where the Scientific Revolution and centuries of liberal democracy have undermined the former absolutism of Christianity and largely excised strict religious control from everyday life. Westerners have been conditioned to accept doubt. Law and political philosophy have tamed Christian churches, denying them political power or the right to use force to impose their dictates. Muslim society, on the other hand, remains bound to the same tradition and clerical control today as in centuries past. Throughout the Muslim world, illiteracy is shocking high; few books from non-Muslim sources are available; and the orthodox religious establishment can effectively check criticism and independent thought with threats of violence.

Modernity threatens that arrangement, exposing Muslims to a challenge to their religious absolutism that they have never previously faced. Oddly enough, Spengler argues, the sudden impingement of modernity into Muslim culture promises a demographic crisis. Modernity opens up access to information, which breeds doubt, and educates and empowers women, which leads to falling birthrates as women seek activities outside of the home. If Muslim women pursue education and modern opportunities, Muslim birthrates will plunge, throwing the Muslim world, which produces nothing and has no native industry of intellectual life of its own, into ruin.

With stable institutions and material wealth, the secular West evinces a slow decline. Not so the Muslim world, where loss of faith implies sudden deracination and ruin. In the space of a generation, Islam must make an adjustment that Christianity made with great difficulty over half a millennium. Both for theological and social reasons, it is unequipped to do so. Muslims might as well fight over a cartoon now; they have very little to lose.

Throughout the world, literacy erodes traditional society, and the collapse of traditional society leads to declining population growth rates. But in the Muslim world these trends hit like a shock wave. Both the traditional life of Muslims as well as Muslim theology have been frozen in time, such that Muslims are repeating in compressed time trends long at work in the West. The result is devastating.

Most members of religious groups adhere to their beliefs because they were born into a faith and learned no other way to live. Traditional society admits of no heresy or atheism because religion governs the socialization of individuals. Once a traditional people has the opportunity to choose its beliefs, however, the result most often is a sudden fall-off in religious practice. We observe a close statistical relationship between literacy and the percentage of non-religious people in a population in the cross-section of countries.

Once the literacy rate reaches 90%, the percentage of non-religious jumps into two digits. That is as true for Muslim countries as well as for non-Muslim countries. Because the Muslim literacy rate is so far below the average, though, few Muslim countries have a high proportion of non-religious people.

Globally, we discern a clear link among literacy, secularism, and birth rates; the high birth rates of traditional society fall sharply with greater literacy and weaker religious belief. In the non-Muslim world literacy alone explains 46% of variation in population growth.

In the Muslim world, however, the link between rising literacy and falling population growth is much more pronounced. In the Muslim, variation in literacy explains nearly 60% of the variation in population growth, not a surprising result considering that the Muslim world begins with extremely high population growth and extremely low literacy rates.

Spengler identifies Iran as potentially the hardest hit by these trends. This has led him to conclude that Iran’s hardline president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, is actively pursuing a confrontation with the West now, while Iran is still relatively strong, hoping to forge a Shiite Empire across the Persian Gulf, protected from Western intervention by nuclear weapons. Thus, Iran has infiltrated Iraq, gaining significant support amongst Iraqi Shiites. That support makes any US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities extremely dangerous for the US, since it will almost certainly spawn a massive Shiite counterattack on American forces in Iraq. That will throw Iraq into a downward spiral of civil war that Washington will be powerless to stop. Under this scenario, by invading and occupying Iraq, which had no weapons of mass destruction, Washington may have inadvertantly made it impossible to prevent Iran – which is well on its way toward nuclear arms – from developing them, and establishing a nuclear-backed hegemony over the Persian Gulf.

Monday, February 13, 2006

EU Delusions vs. Reality

The leaders of the European Union fancy their trans-national organization to be a future counterweight to the United States, both militarily and economically. But despite their grandiose visions and vaulting rhetoric, the likely future for the EU and its collection of aging welfare states is far less glorious than the legions of bureaucrats firmly entrenched in Brussels suppose. Than handwriting is on the wall, notes Fareed Zakaria and it spells decline very clearly.

It's often noted that the European Union has a combined gross domestic product that is approximately the same as that of the United States. But the EU has 170 million more people. Its per capita GDP is 25 percent lower than that of the U.S. and, most important, that gap has been widening for 15 years. If present trends continue, the chief economist at the OECD argues, in 20 years the average U.S. citizen will be twice as rich as the average Frenchman or German. (Britain is an exception on most of these measures, lying somewhere between Continental Europe and the U.S.)

People have argued that Europeans simply value leisure more and, as a result, are poorer but have a better quality of life. That's fine if you're taking a 10 percent pay cut and choosing to have longer lunches and vacations. But if you're only half as well off as the U.S., that will translate into poorer health care and education, diminished access to all kinds of goods and services, and a lower quality of life. Two Swedish researchers, Frederik Bergstrom and Robert Gidehag, note in a monograph published last year that "40 percent of Swedish households would rank as low-income households in the U.S." In many European countries, the percentage would be even greater.

For all the talk of the "success" of the "European model" (read: quasi- or outright socialism), the fact remains that across the continent, European economies remain stalled, stagnant or in decline. The only economic bright spots in the EU are the former East Bloc nations, which having emerged from the wonders of Soviet command economics, are notably reluctant to experiment with the same bad ideas because Brussels wants them to, and the United Kingdom, still energized by the reforms of Margaret Thatcher.

The stagnation in Europe has greater consequences than just the current economic data. Long term investment in society is falling too, as the best minds seek better compensation elsewhere.

Talk to top-level scientists and educators about the future of scientific research, and they will rarely even mention Europe. There are areas in which it is world-class, but they are fewer than they once were. In the biomedical sciences, for example, Europe is not on the map, and it might well be surpassed by much poorer Asian countries. The CEO of a large pharmaceutical company told me that in 10 years, the three most important countries for his industry would be the United States, China and India.

And then there is the time bomb. Native European populations are no longer replacing themselves, causing their numbers to shrink even as those same populations age. Fewer young workers to support teetering, costly welfare systems; fewer young minds with fresh ideas and the tenacity and boldness to pursue improbable dreams. A geriatric state doesn’t produce Silicon Valley. Worse, by importing millions of non-Europeans in a vain effort to hide their demographic collapse and prop up their welfare system, the Europeans have succeeded in deluging themselves with a burgeoning population of low IQ immigrants hostile to the European cultures that they are now colonizing.

In 25 years, the number of working-age Europeans will decline by 7 percent, while those over 65 will increase by 50 percent. One solution: let older people work. But Europe's employment rate for people over 60 is low: 7 percent in France and 12 percent in Germany (compared with 27 percent in the U.S.). Modest efforts to allow people to retire later have been met with the usual avalanche of protests. And while economists and the European Commission keep proposing that Europe take in more immigrants to expand its labor force, it won't. The cartoon controversy has powerfully highlighted the difficulties Europe is having with its existing immigrants.

What does all this add up to? Less European influence in the world. Europe's position in institutions like the World Bank and the IMF relates to its share of world GDP. Its dwindling defense spending weakens its ability to be a military partner of the U.S., or to project military power abroad even for peacekeeping purposes. Its cramped, increasingly protectionist outlook will further sap its vitality.

The global uproar over the Mohammed cartoons has probably convinced most Europeans that Islam is incompatible with Western values like freedom of anything. But it remains to be seen if they can take the next logical steps: banning further Muslim immigration and begin bribing, convincing, or forcing those Muslims already in Europe to leave on their own. The Muslim crisis in Europe is only going to get worse. And nastier.

But the Muslims are only taking advantage of Europe’s self-inflicted weakness. In order to stabilize their societies, Europeans need to extirpate the sources of their weakness: the socialist economics that have turned their countries into larger, more colorful versions of the AARP, and the multiculturalist poison that has taught them to hate themselves, their values and their civilization.

US foreign policy should be reoriented to aid such a change in Europe. Just as after WWII the US waged a campaign (covertly and not) to persuade the Europeans to disgorge their colonial possessions, now the US should focus its efforts on helping Europe regain a sense of itself. It is not in America’s interest to see a weakened and declining Europe. The loss of the homeland of Western Civilization would be a disaster for the West, and only deprives the US of its natural (if cantankerous) allies. Of course, that would require the US to abandon the multiculturalist, globalist crap that dominates its own thinking. That, unfortunately, isn’t likely any time soon.