Thursday, May 29, 2003

A report from the Congo - The Economist

This article makes for some pretty grim reading. If there is one thing that this and other conflicts in Africa are making ever clearer, it is that most African countries simply weren't viable entities from their very independence. Hardly any of them possessed the recquisite institutions, educated manpower or infrastructure to function as modern states, and even were all these things present, the artificiality and arbitrariness of the borders of the new states, cutting as they did across pre-existing ethnic boundaries, would have guaranteed that they would fall into strife sooner or later. I suppose one might even say that the miracle is that as little conflict has occurred as there has been.

How is this mess in the Congo to be resolved? I am convinced that the only real way out is to impose a United Nations mandate on the Congo, in the manner of the old League of Nations mandates, and to send in Western troops to forcibly occupy the country and disarm the various factions.

Those who are honest will acknowledge that the Congo simply isn't in any kind of state to govern itself, and that there is no point pretending that it is; but given the state of the Congo's neighbors, none of them are in any sort of shape to play the role of benovelent overlords either. All this points to one inescapable solution - the Western powers must take responsibility for the Congo, and that means more than just sending in a few soldiers to do a bit of firefighting, only to leave things to unravel again afterwards. If Iraq needs an interim American administration, as it surely does, why doesn't the Congo need something of the sort imposed from outside? The reality is that no Congolese government conceivable in the near future will have the power, the competence or the rectitude to do anything to better the lives of that country's citizens.

If it is human suffering we are truly concerned about, rather than mere sloganeering, then all talk of "neoimperialism" or "neocolonialism" must simply be brushed aside, and something along the lines of a 15 to 20 year mandate imposed, charging the administrators with the tasks of creating the institutions and infrastructure required for a viable state to exist on the administrators' departure. Where this would differ from the old colonial reality would be that this time the rulers would be held accountable for actually fulfilling the terms of their trusteeship.

I know that these proposals will not prove popular to most westerners, concerned as they are about the likely cost in terms of their soldiers' lives and their national wealth, but I think such concerns are both short-sighted and unwarranted. The invisible costs to western taxpayers of the ongoing slaughter are much greater than they like to imagine; established epidemics like AIDS and future threats like Ebola stem from the Congo, and who knows what else might emerge in the future? Then there are Congo's uranium reserves to consider - where better for terrorists to go looking for what they need? Finally, a prosperous, stable Congo would make a much better market for western goods than the war-torn hellhole that it currently is.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

Congo tragedy shows up the UN

I wonder how Jacques "War Always Means Failure" Chirac would propose to solve this particular mess. I also find it rather strange that none of those protesters who were in so much anguish over the impending humanitarian "disaster" in Iraq threatened by American unilateralism have anything to say about a conflict that is by far more catastrophic than anything that has unfolded in the middle east since the Iran-Iraq war. On the order of 5 million lives have been lost in the Congo and Sudanese wars in the last 5 years, and yet hardly anybody in the west has a word to say about them.

While the silence of conservatives on the Congo war (quite a few Republicans have advocated paying attention to the war in Sudan) is less than commendable, they have never deigned to claim the mantle of cheerleaders for the world's downtrodden. What is truly infuriating is the selective outrage so many self-proclaimed champions of the oppressed seem to display with regards to the conflicts in Israel and Iraq, when there are much bloodier disasters unfolding elsewehere in the world. How can any honest individual say that Israel is somehow uniquely bad, when more Congolose are killed in a single day than Palestinians have died since the Intifada began?

Which brings us back to the question - how exactly is the conflict in the Congo to be ended, if forceful intervention by the Western powers is to be ruled out? It serves no purpose to send yet more "peacekeepers" to the Congo to act as mere observers of atrocities in progress, and there is no reason to believe that yet more treaty-making will end this conflict when none of the parties to earlier treaties have thought them worth their while to keep. If France and Canada are honest in their evaluation of what is required, they will acknowledge that what is required is the imposition of peace by force of arms, which will require a hefty commitment of Western troops empowered to use force as necessary. There is just one problem with all of this: it would require Chirac and Chretien to admit that American intervention in Iraq was not without legitimacy, which they are both loathe to do.

At the same time, the Congo crisis poses a challenge for the Bush administration. Having justified the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of weapons of mass destruction, and having subsequently found none of any significance, the administration has fallen back on the humanitarian justification for acting. This is all well and good, but then it poses a question - if the human suffering in Iraq justified American intervention, why not that in the Congo? Seeing as no biological or chemical weapons have been found in Iraq, President Bush cannot fall back on national security considerations to explain a refusal to do anything about the Congo, which leaves him wide open to the charge that the Iraqi war really was all about oil after all.

It will be interesting to watch the contortions of logic that conservative commentators will be forced to perform to justify action in one case and inaction in another, assuming the left is willing to put them to the test; but I suspect that this is a task for which the left has no real relish, seeing as it defines itself purely in reaction against American activity, rather than American inaction.

Monday, May 26, 2003

Giscard joins calls for vote on new EU treaty

How is Blair going to justify subverting democracy now? Obviously the prime minister and hiis cabinet must take the British population for a bunch of fools, if he expects that sops like excluding the word "federal" from the proposed constitution will suffice to calm the people's concerns. One doesn't have to be a lawyer to recognize that a treaty can easily be drafted to create a strongly centralized federation without ever mentioning the word "federal" anywhere in it.

This isn't the first time Tony Blair has assumed the British population to be so stupid as to be taken in by mere gimmickry. Right up until the introduction of Euro notes in 2002, Labour ministers were publicly stating their certainty that all it would take to overcome the public's scepticism would be an opportunity to see the new notes for themselves, and that once they realized the Euro didn't cause spontaneous combustion, Britain would simply go wild for the lovely new currency.

Of course, nothing of the sort came true; if anything, the British are more sceptical now than they were before the introduction of the Euro notes. In light of this reality, why does Blair expect people to fall for the same caliber of persuasion on an equally important matter? Then there is this to consider: if Blair is sincere in his claim to be "fighting" to maintain Britain's soverignty (and let me say here that I don't believe that anything of the sort is true), why would he choose to oppose a referendum that could only strengthen his negotiating position?

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

On European Demographic Decline

The following comments originally appeared on Brad Delong's blog, in response to a posting he made with regards to immigration from North Africa as a solution to Europe's demographic decline. To quote Brad:

The MinuteMan (Just One Minute: Pension Reform in France) wonders what's going to happen to the social insurance state in western Europe if birth rates don't jump soon. At the moment western European populations look like they are shrinking at about 25% a generation.

I used to think that the answer was "North Africans": move across the Mediterranean and get a first-world standard of living and a real education for your children in exchange for having to pay high payroll taxes and having to listen to your children repeat their lessons about how "our ancestors the Gauls" had nearly defeated Julius Caesar at Alesia (or about how "our ancestors the Lombards" had kicked some Byzantine *** and conquered the Po Valley).

But now that the third millennium is almost 2 1/2 years old, it's no longer clear that this can happen...

My response:

Given my own background, I hate to say this, but there is a limit to the rate at which any society can absorb immigration, particularly when the immigrants in question have values so different to those of the host nation.

Not being exactly another face in the crowd myself, I don't feel the slightest bit bothered by the ethnicity of immigrants as such, but there are some cultural differences that strike me as unbridgeable. To illustrate, I've known very many honest and decent muslims in my time, but having lived in a society where they constitute half of the population, I don't have some of the romantic illusions about Islam as a political force that a lot of westerners tend to possess.

A society in which Islam constituted a powerful enough force to be accomodoted to any great extent is one that I have no interest in living in, and this aversion is one I certainly wouldn't feel if it were, say, Shintoism or Buddhism that were at issue. There is a real clash of values between Islam and western liberalism that cannot be brushed aside, and it means that large scale immigration from North Africa, of all places, is not something I would ever be willing to endorse.

Then there is the whole issue of just what sort of immigrants one should take in; the educated ones, at the risk of being accused of initiating a brain drain, or the unskilled sort, who will likely prove far more unassimilable and resistant to the values of the host culture? To be honest, this issue doesn't worry me to such a great extent - America has shown that it is possible to successfully absorb large numbers of relatively unskilled immigrants, given the right framework.

However, amidst all this blather, one mustn't forget that this is EUROPE we're talking about, where 3rd generation non-white immigrants are still regarded as foreigners, despite never having known any cultures other than the ones they reside in. One of the strangest things I have ever experienced is that in America hardly anyone questioned the assumption that I was an American just like they were (though I wasn't), while in Europe hardly anyone accepts that I am a European (even though, on paper at least, I am). If people like myself can't find acceptance here, who can?

Frankly, I don't see any realistic escape for Europe from the demographic decline it is experiencing. The consequences of this are clear: EU expansion or no, there is absolutely no chance that Europe will be a serious military or economic challenge to American "hegemony" in the long run. It just doesn't have the (young) men, the ships or the money either.

Saturday, May 10, 2003

Blogging in Iran

I'd long been vaguely aware that a blogging subculture seemed to be thriving in Iran, but I hadn't forced myself to pay it more attention until recently. Now that I have, I must say that what I have seen has been very interesting. Certainly, reading the thoughts of young people from that country helps to make them less of an alien quantity - one comes to appreciate just how important it is to distinguish between the rabid, apocalyptic pronounciations of the Ayatollahs, and the real aspirations of ordinary Iranians for mundane things like intellectual and social freedom.

One thing that comes across clearly, though, is that however much one comes to feel that the young people of Iran are similar to ours in many ways, in yet other ways an unbridgeable gap remains, and is likely to remain whatever changes for the better may occur in that country. On matters like the role of America in the world, and particularly on the issue of Israel's culpability in the Palestinian issue, the general sense one gets is that young Iranians do indeed share the views of their leaders to a great extent.

Alongside the admiration for American culture and technology, there is also a deepseated distrust of American intentions, even when these might seem to unbiased observers to be entirely benign. To a certain extent this attitude is understandable, given the history of Western interference in Iran's internal affairs, usually to the detriment of the country's people. Nevertheless, to empathize is not to justify, and such attitudes are often a great hindrance to those who hold them.

I intend to add a few links to some Iranian bloggers in the near future. One thing I must say I find odd though: with the exception of Salam Pax, there seem to be no Arab bloggers of any note to be found. Doing a Google Search turns up nothing but a single comment, while a variant search comes up with absolutely nothing. Why are there so many Iranian bloggers and so few Arab ones? Is it something political? If so, why aren't any Arabs living abroad involved, in the same manner that Iranian expatriates are? Is there some subtle cultural reason behind the difference?

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Zionists Behind Iraqi Cash Claims, Says Galloway

Ah, yes, that explains it all, doesn't it - it's the International Zionist Conspiracy at work again! Damn, these Zionists sure are hard workers! And resourceful too! To think they were able to create and transport all those incriminating documents just in time, and to just the right place, for the Christian Science Monitor and the Daily Telegraph to find them!

As bad this rubbish allegedly spouted by Galloway may be (if it is indeed true), given the man's career, I'm doubtful he really even believes in the worldview he's endorsing. What seems more likely is that he knows his audience well, and he knows that anti-semitic conspiracies are precisely the sort of thing they go in for. At bottom, Galloway is no more than a cheap demagogue, pandering to the basest notions of his audience for personal gain, a George Wallace with a brogue accent.