Pedantry - Moved to

Saturday, February 15, 2003
Greg Palast on Tony Blair

Palast is not the most unbiased member of the Britsh press, but so what? It is great mystery to me, and to quite a few others as far as I can tell, why Tony Blair is supporting this fiasco over Iraq. It is quite apparent that Blair is streching the limits of logic in his support. His electorate is certainly overwhelmingly opposed and he is contradicting his own earlier positions.

Now, Palast offers us a possible reason.

BUZZFLASH: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were very similar. They were centrists. They were able to get elected by being moderates to both sides of the aisle. And Blair, like Clinton, is known as an intelligent man, unlike George Bush. People are so surprised that Blair is not only supporting Bush's agenda, but is in lockstep, as if he's following the orders of the Bush administration. And I'm not kidding when I tell you that we've gotten a slew of e-mails from BuzzFlash readers that suggest Karl Rove must have embarrassing pictures of Tony Blair, and they're blackmailing him. And it sounds ridiculous, but how do you explain this intelligent man walking his country and his soldiers into hell following the orders of George W. Bush?

PALAST: You're getting warm. The answer is Irwin Stelzer. He is the guy who is a good friend of George Bush from the Hudson Institute, and the most powerful lobbyist in Britain representing British-American interests and, by the way, chief lobbyist for Rupert Murdoch. As soon as Bush seized the White House, Stelzer walked into Blair's office and said ‘we noticed that you were supporting Mr. Gore during the Presidential election' - even though clearly that didn't carry many states. Blair's effective endorsement of Al Gore did not go unnoticed. And there was a price to be paid. Blair was given a list of the things that would befall Britain from military subsidies and equipment, to a reduction of value in the dollar versus the pound, which would destroy England's exportability. And Blair was basically told get in line, stand up and salute or "here's your last cigarette, Tony."

Friday, February 14, 2003
How to get inside Steven Pinker's head

I'm not quite sure what motivates Pinker. I've never actually met him, but I have read quite a bit of his work.

As I promised at the beginning of the now nearly over Axis of Evil Week, I want to discuss Pinker's most recent contribution to the NYT's pundit pages.

Pinker, it seems, is concerned about public education. He is not a parent as far as I know and I am fairly certain that he has no background in K-12 classroom teaching. Certainly, there is no reference to any such experience on his CV. He does, however, claim some expertise in cognitive science which apparently qualifies him as an expert on education. In particular, I wish to highlight a key paragraph:

An important place to start [on education reform] might be in working to apply a scientific mindset to education itself - that is, to determine as best we can whether various beliefs about educational effectiveness are true. Classroom practice is often guided by romantic theories, slick packages and political crusades. Few practices have been evaluated using the paraphernalia of social science, such as data collection and control groups. We already know that some methods of reading instruction work better than others, yet many schools still use methods proved ineffective like "whole language" techniques.

Now, let me direct you to someone who actually does have some background in education. The man I'm thinking of is a scholar at the Hoover Institute (although I won't hold that against him this time) named E. D. Hirsch Jr. He's a conservative, intermittenty influential figure in education who despite being affiliated with the very powerful Hoover Institute receives quite little airplay in the conservative media, in part because he does not have simple beliefs about liberal educational theory but mostly probably because he won't flack for the American school vouchers movement. Suffice to say I have my problems with Hirsch, but I am at least obligated to take him seriously.

Hirsch addresses this very issue of "the scientific mindset" in education in an article for Policy Review - the in-house journal of the Hoover Institute - last October.

Classroom Research and Cargo Cults

The november 2001 issue of Scientific American includes an article called "Does Class Size Matter"? about the policy consequences of research into the beneficial effects of smaller class size. The centerpiece of the article is the famous multimillion dollar star (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study - considered to be a methodological model for educational research - which showed with exemplary technique that reducing class size will enhance equity and achievement in early grades.

But when California legislators dutifully spent $5 billion to reduce class size in early grades, the predicted significant effect did not result. Educational researchers, including the authors of the Scientific American article itself, complained that the California policy was implemented with "too little forethought and insight." Presumably this complaint implies that there are many factors that affect educational outcomes, and that we should not rely on a single one like class size. This after-the-fact criticism is valid. But if the California legislators had searched for useful "insight" in the star research they would have been disappointed. "Forethought and insight" cannot compensate for the deeper problem that the process of generalizing directly from classroom research is inherently unreliable. [Hirsches italics]

Hirsch spends a large section of the article, the parts entitled A tale of two studies, Difficult and undependable research and Changing the thought model discussing this very issue. His conclusion is that education is rife with Pinker's paraphernalia of social science, such as data collection and control groups. In fact, in an earlier incarnation, Hirsch was the champion of this kind of research. But you don't need to take my word for it. Education literature is compiled in the semi-free ERIC database, available on CDROM in any good university library. It is packed to the brim with just the sort of studies Pinker wishes you to believe will resolve the problems of education. Yet, as Hirsch so clearly points out, the conclusions drawn from this research fail time and again.

Why is this? The reason is fundammentally simple. Extracting information about cause from statistical data is difficult and extracting it from complex regression studies even more so. Educational outcomes are the product of too many diverse factors acting slowly over years. Finding statistical universes large enough to deduce reliable conclusions is hard. This is why research derived from purely statistical roots is so tentative and why criticising it is so essential.

But Hirsch highlights another factor as well: The lack of insightful theoretical models in education.

Traditionally, scientific work is considered "good" if its results foster deeper theoretical understanding. One of the most disdainful remarks in the sciences is that a piece of work is "a-theoretical." It's true that in common parlance the word "theory" has an overtone of impracticality. Scientists, however, regard the formulation of theories about deep causal factors to be the motive force of scientific progress - a view that has rightly replaced an earlier just-the-facts conception of scientific advance. The STAR study is a first-rate illustration of the way in which the a-theoretical tradition in education research hinders its utility. Wolfgang Pauli once remarked about a scientific paper: "It is not even wrong." That is exactly what can be said about the STAR study, and by extension many other classroom studies. Most of them are profoundly a-theoretical. They neither enable good policy inferences nor advance the research agenda.

This brings me to one of my major points in criticising the work Pinker in general, but also of much of the rest of the nativist community in the social and cognitive sciences: their lack of clear understanding about what a theoretical insight is, and why such a thing might need to be sought out. The essence of Pinker's work is to try to demonstrate that some behaviour or characteristic of the human mind has its origins in evolutionary necessity, and is hereditary and effectively indelible. He is, at times, willing to soften the edges of this ideology, but not by much. However, Pinker neither has nor believes that it is necessary to have a theory about how the mind actually works or by what means these characteristics are instanciated.

This leaves Pinker constantly having to refer back to primarily statistical, and often merely anecdotal research. Pinker does not conduct a lot of experiments anymore, he works by reasoning from characteristics to evolutionary necessity, backing his case up by claims to an empirical validity derived from some sort of (usually longitudinal) study. However, human development is as complex and multifaceted as education. Even when correlations can be established between actions and outcomes - which is rare enough - they are not alone sufficient to prove cause. This is the perential problem of social science research. It is all too easy to read into a study the causes you already believe in. But where most social scientists have some critical sense of statistics nowadays, none is evident among nativists. The bulk of the criticism of Arthur Jensen's work on race and intelligence focuses on just that gap in his reasoning, his willingness to attribute to hereditary sources a statistically significant difference without a theoretical model of how this might happen. In Pinker we find the same class of reasoning. Wherever a phenomena is widespread among people, we are to take it as hereditary.

Pinker, like Jensen and so many others, is compelled to invoke a particularly troubling intellectual construct in order to make a case: the default hypothesis. Arguing from a default hypothesis goes basically as follows. I believe X. In fact, I believe X to be obvious. However, there is only ambiguous direct support for X, derived from irregular and inconsistent statistical studies. Furthermore, I have no real theoretical model of how X could come to be true. So, I will try to convince you that X is the obvious conclusion any reasonable person would draw about the world, and move the burden of proof onto anyone who disagrees. Since all the studies are ambiguous, their inability to support alternative hypotheses will compel you to accept the obvious truth of X.

A "default hypothesis" is something you should never trust, and those compelled to invoke it to make their arguments are not to be trusted either.

This shift of topic returns us to the original article in the NYT, particularly Pinker's conception of proof. "Whole language" is an exlcusively political issue, although you would never know it to read Pinker. The studies of performance under whole language curricula are as ambiguous as all other educational studies. The thing is, from conservatives like Hirsch to the liberal National Council of Teachers of English, the verdict on whole language teaching is quite uniform. It is most directly expressed by Connie Juel in her study titled Learning to read words: Linguistic units and instructional strategies the October 2000 issue of Reading Research Quarterly.

The current study suggests that the self-teaching hypothesis [= whole language] works for children with some early literacy skills (Share, 1995; Share & Stanovich, 1995; Torgesen & Hecht, 1996). However, some upfront teaching is required regarding how to approach unknown words before self-teaching can manifest itself in children who have few literacy skills on entering first grade. In other words, the development of phonological sensitivity and lots of reading experience are not sufficient for some children. [...]

Rather than a broad-brush, either/or instructional approach that is applied to all children in a classroom, word recognition instruction is likely to be most effective if there is an emphasis on different linguistic units at different levels of reading development. [= use both phonics and whole language methods] Differential instruction requires a knowledgeable teacher.

As far back as when I first dropped out of graduate school, teachers like my mother and education-oriented linguists in my department claimed similar conclusions were common knowledge. Even the most radical "whole lanaguage" advocates claim that phonemic knowledge must play some role in the classroom. Some have done so for more than 20 years.

Pinker, in short, is taking advantage of a politically sensitive issue in public schooling about which he has not bothered to inform himself and uses it as a whipping boy to press an agenda for the social sciences. In fact, it becomes plain about halfway through what really bothers Pinker about "whole language" education: We should not assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak. Whole language advocates try to teach reading in more "naturalistic" way, by assuming that reading competence is part of language competence in general, and therefore not something very easily amenable to direct instruction. Pinker - like American nativists in general - see language as an exclusively verbal phenomena (except for sign language - they're okay with that) because that is language reduced to its most natural and fundamental. To claim that literacy can be acquired in a manner analoguous to speech is either to claim that literacy is innate (which is silly) or that speech is not.

Pinker's point, however, is far beyond the pedantic little world of reading curricula, where the question he so dismissively addresses has been resolved for years. Pinker's more general claim is that all of education is infested with this sort of unscientific thinking.

Finally, a better understanding of the mind can lead to setting new priorities as to what is taught. The goal of education should be to provide students with new cognitive tools for grasping the world. Observers from our best scientists to Jay Leno are appalled by the scientific illiteracy of typical Americans. This obliviousness leads people to squander their health on medical flimflam and to misunderstand the strengths and weaknesses of a market economy in their political choices.

The obvious solution is instruction at all levels in relatively new fields like economics, evolutionary biology and statistics. Yet most curriculums are set in stone, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language or the classics. But there are only 24 hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is a decision not to teach another. The question is not whether trigonometry is important - it is - but whether it is more important than probability; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important to know the classics than elementary economics.

It's hard to find a way to read this without coming to the conclusion that Pinker is advocating political education. He wants people to make what he considers better political choices, and he wants the schools to show them that his choices are better. Had he restricted himself to astrology and medical quackery, he might well have broad support for these sorts of remarks, at least among the scientifically inclined. Of course, schools have been pressured to improve science education at least since the days of Sputnik without apparent effect.

However, by adding economics and evolutionary biology to the list (and don't trust him on statistics either - see my remarks earlier about ideology in the interpretation of statistics), he has specifically placed on the agenda the most controvertial and politically driven social sciences. And worse - as a sign of how little Pinker knows about the actual state of schools - he seems to believe American public schools are currently teaching "foreign language and the classics."

I am impressed by the duplicity of a man who can both believe in the "critical period" hypothesis about language and simultaneously not much care if children receive foreign language instruction, but that is neither here nor there. I am even more impressed by a man who can spend much of his adult life trying to define what people learn easily and what they learn with difficulty, yet does not seem to consider the possibility that teaching statistics and economics in high school will have the same impact on them as adults as teaching Shakespeare and trigonometry does now.

Of course, Pinker's own public education was in Canada more than 30 years ago. They did teach classics, foreign languages and trigonometry in the Montreal school system in those days. The Montreal Protestant School Board considered itself very progressive, offering bilingual and mutlicultural education and using the very latest in liberal curricula and teaching methods. And Montreal anglophones were more than twice as likely to go to university than the Canadian average in those days. But Canada is not the same as the US and times have changed, although it appears that this would come as news to Pinker.

It is exactly this lack of critical thinking skills, this failure to take a more pratical view of the world, which much of liberal education theory combats. Material which is not immediately relevant to a child's life is easily forgotten, and often unlearned in the first place. This would happen as inevitably to economics and statistics knowledge as it does to unpracticed foreign languages. The whole point of "whole language" and the "new" new math was to make these essential and highly abstract skills as immediately relevant as possible. If they have failed, it is not because they weren't "scientific enough." It is not, however, clear that progressive schools have failed.

Saddam et la «solution lilliputienne»

Good editorial by Paul Kennedy in today's Figaro proposing exactly the kind of solution to Iraq, and perhaps other states, that would get my support. I doubt Kennedy writes in French, but I haven't managed to find an original English version.

Essentially, he outlines a plan to progressively dismantle Iraqi sovereignty through ever more intrusive UN resolutions, ultimately rendering Saddam Hussein little more than the figurehead President-for-life of a UN protectorate. A "Lilliputian solution" for those familiar with Gulliver's Travels.

Kennedy's conclusion:

Il serait inconcevable que, dans de telles conditions, Saddam puisse redémarrer un programme caché d'armes de destruction massive. Il lui serait impossible d'affirmer que femmes et enfants meurent de faim. Il lui serait difficile de violer les droits de l'homme et de persécuter les opposants au régime avec les inspecteurs du Haut Comité aux réfugiés de l'ONU sillonnant son pays. Il ne pourrait maintenir le secret sur les finances irakiennes si une équipe du FMI était sur place.

Qui plus est, il ne s'agirait pas d'une opération-éclair. Elle pourrait durer des années et serait moins coûteuse qu'une campagne militaire. Ce faisant, la communauté internationale répondrait totalement – et de façon imaginative – au bluff de Saddam. Au bout du bout, celui-ci pourrait accepter de jouer le jeu – ce qui serait une bénédiction pour les Irakiens. Observant tout le profit de leur retour dans la communauté internationale, ces derniers seraient en droit d'exiger rapidement des élections libres. Si tel était le cas, certains craignent que Saddam Hussein n'obtiennent une nouvelle fois 99% des voix en sa faveur. Mais si les «faucons» américains sont dans le vrai et que Saddam est aussi impopulaire que redouté, il y aura un changement de régime conduit pacifiquement et non pas par la 101e Airborne division. Que pourrait-on espérer de mieux, à moins de vouloir à tout prix la guerre ?

Saddam peut, bien sûr, refuser toute nouvelle résolution du Conseil de sécurité et se prêter à tant de violations de ses engagements qu'une opération militaire américaine, sous mandat onusien, s'avérera incontournable. Mais il aura alors perdu tout soutien. Des pays aux tentations neutralistes, comme l'Allemagne ou l'Arabie saoudite, seront soulagés. La France, la Chine et la Russie seront ravies de voir le statut du Conseil de sécurité confirmé. Tony Blair sera mieux compris chez lui. Quant aux Américains qui s'interrogent sur la nécessité d'une guerre précipitée, ils pourront mieux dormir.

My only complaint is that Kennedy "misunderestimates" the current regime in the US. Al Gore - an actual vet - might well have latched on to a solution like this. Almost everything is cheaper than war, and the Democrats have traditionally been supporters of international institutions. Bush, however, is a man of a different sort who, I fear and I suspect Kennedy fears, want war for its own sake.

My suspicion is that this isn't about oil, terrorism, Iraq or Saddam Hussein per se, it's about having a war. War reinforces the values of America's War Party. It justifies all of the Bush administrations monstrous policies, both the economic catastrophy they are building and the social agenda that they are pressing. Furthermore, I suspect they actually believe in what they are doing and feel certain of their correctness. This administration may well think that whoever the President of the United States is can and should be the final judge of all things by divine right, at least as long as he is a Republican.

And, there seem to be people, even quite a few outside of the United States, who appear to agree. I am shocked by some of my relatively liberal Belgian friends who firmly believe that the world will be better served by a benign dictator in Washington, even when the evidence keeps mounting that the man in Washington is not benign. It is, ironically, my most conservative friends who are the most opposed to this power-grab.

This isn't just about war anymore. Once again, people with leftist sympathies are being forced to support yet another important conservative value: power should have limits and absolute, unrestricted power shouldn't exist at all.

Update: An Australian reader has found an English-language version of Kennedy's article at INSTEAD OF BOMBING SADDAM, WHY NOT TRY “LILLIPUTING” HIM?.

Thursday, February 13, 2003
The US is certainly facing a crisis of credibility this morning. Even the American press hasn't failed to note the difference between Colin Powell's description of this new tape from Osama bin Laden and the tape itself.

But, I want to highlight a different issue where there is limited American government and media credibility this morning. Let me contrast two reports. The first from Knight-Ridder. You can read the whole article here.

Word surfaced Wednesday that chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix might deliver a tougher-than-expected report and will disclose that Saddam possesses a model of missile - the al Samoud 2 - with a range five times greater than U.N. resolutions allow.

Now, a Reuters article from here.

Security Council resolutions ban Iraqi missiles with a range of more than 93 miles, and the Al Samoud repeatedly tested up to 24 miles beyond that limit.


The inspectors first learned of the range of the missiles from test results that Iraq included in its 12,000-page arms [declaration] submitted to the United Nations (news - web sites) on Dec. 7.

In short, does this missle go 5 times further than resolutions allow, or all of 24 miles? The difference is significant. I'm inclined to believe the Reuters report more, especially considering that this sort of information is repeated elsewhere, like in this Guardian article.

The UN chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, who is due to report to the security council again tomorrow, revealed in his last report that Iraq had exceeded its permitted range while testing its missiles. One of the missiles was fired to 183 kilometres. Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement reached after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq had to destroy all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles with a range exceeding 150km.

So, according to the Guardian, not only does this missle have a range that is only slightly higher than the armistice allows but it only had such a range in a single test firing. Furthermore, it seems this test was reported by Iraq in its missle declaration.

So, did it beat the 150km limit in just one test or many? It's possible the press will never tell us with any clarity.

The Washington Post coverage in this article is just as bad. First we read that:

A team of international missile experts assembled this week by chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix has concluded that a major Iraqi ballistic missile program is in clear violation of United Nations mandates prohibiting Iraq from building medium- and long-range missiles, U.S. and U.N. officials said today.

However, the coverage at Le Monde reads somewhat differently:

"Le rapport des experts confirme la première conclusion que la portée de ce missile dépasse 150 km mais cette conclusion n'est pas définitive", a déclaré Iouri Fedorov, vice-ministre russe des affaires étrangères et membre du collège des commissaires de la Cocovinu. M. Fedorov, qui répondait aux journalistes à l'issue d'une réunion à huis clos du collège, qui a duré plus de quatre heures, a ajouté : "Pour le moment, la Cocovinu n'est parvenue à aucune conclusion". "Il y a de nombreux détails, à propos du carburant et de la charge, qui nécessitent une poursuite de l'analyse", a-t-il déclaré.

Furthermore, in the same press conference, we read that:

Le gouvernement irakien a reconnu développer des missiles pouvant dépasser cette portée mais a affirmé que ce n'était que lors d'essais à vide d'une fusée sans charge utile. M. Fedorov a refusé de dire si les experts avaient déclaré que l'Irak avait violé les résolutions du Conseil de sécurité en développant ce missile. "Il n'y a pas eu d'avis car les analyses continuent", a-t-il déclaré.

So, this Iraqi missle went further than the permitted 150km during unloaded tests! The probability that it could do so loaded is therefore most likely small to nil.

I'm hard pressed to see how that constitutes a clear violation. Iraq is allowed to have missles under the terms of the 1991 armistice, and it is allowed to test them. It is hardly a surprise that they would want missles able to go right up to the limit allowed, and they could hardly have predicted the results of a test firing. Furthermore, I don't know if the armistice terms specified under exactly what conditions that limit applied. Stripped down far enough or given a boosted fuel, many rockets can double their range or more.

But the more damaging aspect in terms of American credibility is that Iraq declared this test and missle. Even if UNSCOM concludes that Iraq needs to scrap the missle - which is not yet fully clear according to some of the coverage - it serves as evidence of the effectiveness of the inspections regime, not of its failure.

There is no coverage of the contention that these tests and missles were described in the Iraq arms report submitted to the UN in the Washington Post or the Knight-Ridder wire article. It is briefly mentioned in the New York Times coverage. It appears clearly in Le Monde, but not, as far as I can tell, in the Guardian.

The real test, according to the Guardian, will be to see if Iraq agrees to destroy the missles if UNSCOM demands it. If no, that may well constitute the sort of violation that will change minds on the Security Council. Otherwise, I don't see how this margin and ambiguity can be considered "a material breach" in the minds of anyone even remotely critically minded. The US has been talking about hidden chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. To go to war over a 33km overshoot by an unloaded missle beggars credibility.

But the worst part is that I can't figure out from all this any of what was actually said. There are a lot of "sources say" and "will likely"'s in these articles. The credibility of Iraq coverage is declining even in the best newspapers.

Update: AP now reports the following:

According to council diplomats, Blix reported last month that there had been 40 tests on the al-Samoud 2, and it went beyond the maximum permitted range 13 times, once to 114 miles.


During Blix's visit to Baghdad in January, he said the Iraqis suggested that when they fitted guidance and control systems and other devices to the al-Samoud and al-Fatah they would be weighed down and fly less than the allowed distance.

So, the actual data on the missle's range is old news that is only being dragged up now that the relevant expert's committee has - according to some reports - come to a conclusion. Still, it seems that all this was in the Iraqi declaration. It makes a farce of inspections to claim that something Iraq declared justifies ending them, and it reinforces the idea that the inspections are, in fact, accomplishing something.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003
I had to post this. I've been laughing at it for the last 15 minutes. I got it from Alas, a Blog

Not in the genes

Interesting science article in today's Guardian. Here's the frightening bit:

But starting in the 1960s, molecular biologists and genomics specialists took over biomedical science. Everything was to be understood completely at the molecular genomic level. Everything was to be reduced to the genome. Journals and grant-giving bodies came to be dominated by reductionists who were scathing about the complexity of whole-organ, whole-animal and especially whole-human studies which were seen as too full of uncontrolled variability to be interpretable. Clinical and physiological studies lost out and progressively their research communities were destroyed. Now we have an almost wholly reductionist biomedical community which repeatedly makes exaggerated claims about how it is going to revolutionise medical treatment - and which repeatedly fails to achieve anything.

The first genetic disease to be fully defined in molecular terms was sickle cell disease, the abnormality of the haemoglobin in human red blood cells which causes such devastation in African-origin communities. A single abnormality in a single protein causes the trouble. The abnormal protein was identified in the 1940s, the precise molecular defect was identified in the 1950s, and the three-dimensional structure of the protein was defined in the 1960s. Yet what has been the clinical impact of this wonderfully precise molecular knowledge? Precisely nothing. The clinical picture of the disease cannot yet be understood in terms of the molecular biology.

In only two areas - stomach and duodenal ulceration and organ transplantation - has medical treatment improved dramatically. In almost every other field, people are little better off than those receiving the best treatment in 1965. Take cancer. We have made dramatic progress in a very limited range of rare cancers: the leukaemias, lymphomas and testicular tumours. But even there many of the drugs used were introduced before 1965. We have simply learned to use them better.

Given what people believe has been a revolution in medical science over the last few decades, this is a shockingly contrarian attitude. Has progress slowed or even stopped for clinical work?

I could hardly not link to this:


The existence of the supposed European country of Belgium has been taken as gospel for years by members of the Liberati. It has long been held up as a shining example of Liberal philosophies in action. However, now is the time the truth be known. Belgium doesn't exist.

Belgium is, and has always been, a leftist ruse; a device applied to propagate the Liberal agenda throughout the world. Hijacking a real country for this use would be difficult at best; the people living there wouldn't stand for it (i.e. the fall of communism.) Thus the idea to invent an imaginary country, insert it into the global consciousness through the perversion of history, and use it as a tool of manipulation was born.

Three editorials from the morning's papers:

Vertiges franco-américains

This Figaro editorial recounts a somewhat distorted history of Franco-American relations, but still a far less distorted than the kind one finds in the American press. The author reminds us of an important point about France's Cold War relations with the US. Early on, France was completely subservient to the US, but even after de Gaulle broke away he did not equivocate in siding with Kennedy on Cuba. French relations with the US were also excellent during the Reagan years. It was very much the late 60's and 70's when things were bad.

I don't trust this editorial in its discussion of the causes of the ups and downs in France's relations with America, but I find it quite interesting to see it from the perspective of French mainstream conservatives.

One particularly interesting perspective:

Ce climat ambivalent des relations franco-américaines [in the immediate post-war period], marqué par une extrême subordination sur le plan militaire dans le cadre de l'Otan, ne cessera véritablement qu'à la faveur du retour du général de Gaulle, de la décolonisation réussie, et surtout de l'affaire de Cuba, en 1961. L'extrême résolution de Charles de Gaulle à ce moment-là, faisant connaître à l'URSS sa totale solidarité avec le peuple américain et le président Kennedy, sans aucune contrepartie ni marchandage, lui vaut une admiration enfin dénuée de réserve de l'Amérique officielle, celle de Kennedy tout autant que celle, encore discrète, de Nixon. Le cauchemar de 1940 semble en passe de s'évanouir. Malheureusement, la mort de Kennedy, l'emballement vietnamien et l'arrogance du complexe militaro-industriel américain, qui commence à s'inquiéter du succès des technologies aéronautique et nucléaire françaises, viennent contrarier cette première et brève embellie.

I find it quite amusing to see a conservative French pundit lay some of the blame for declining Franco-American relations in the late 60's on American jealously of French high-tech!

Having noted the other day that recognising American power to destroy its enemies does not imply that it has the power to pacify them, I see this strand being taken up elsewhere. In particular, in today's LA Times.

Power of History

The editorial's author, a former wonk at the CIA, tells us that:

We need to eliminate Hussein, taking all the time that's needed to get all the international backing we can. And once he's gone, we need to stay there long enough to prevent an orgy of internal vengeance-seeking and to lay the foundations of a more open political order.

We must especially ensure that neighboring states -- Turkey, Iran and Syria, in particular -- do not attempt to meddle in Iraq's internal politics for unilateral gain in the swirl of postwar uncertainties.


[W]e have the proposition so keenly supported by neoconservatives in Washington that the U.S. will be able to establish a long-term military base in Iraq from which it can engage in direct intervention as needed against other regional states. This is a pipe dream. There is virtually no way, over the longer term, that any credible Iraqi leader will allow his country -- steeped in nationalism, pride and regional suspicion of the U.S. -- to become the instrument of American power in the region.

In short, this will only work if we limit our goals to Saddamn Hussein, not to reconstructing the middle-east in our image. Yet it is precisely on this latter point that the war is being sold.

Present at . . . What?

Even that twit Friedman seems to get it. America, if I am to take these editorials at face value, actually does need those "Old European" allies.

We don't need a broad coalition to break Iraq. We can do that ourselves. But we do need a broad coalition to rebuild Iraq, so that the American taxpayer and Army do not have to bear that full burden or be exposed alone at the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. President Bush, if he alienates the allies from going to war — the part we can do alone — is depriving himself of allies for the peace — the part where we'll need all the friends we can get.


France, China and Russia have to get serious, but so do we. The Bush talk that we can fight this war with just a "coalition of the willing" — meaning Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — is dangerous nonsense. There is only one coalition that matters to the average American and average world citizen. It is one approved by the U.N. and NATO. We may not be able to garner it, but we need to be doing everything we can — everything — to try before we go to war.

Of course, according to Friedman, the current crisis is all their fault. He has managed to restrain himself from calling European governments hypocritical, foolish or stupid, which I can only consider an improvement over his recent stupidity. However, the idea that if America actually needs those allies, they might think they have a right to some say in matters still seems to elude the Pulitzer prize-winning hack.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003
So, I finally saw Bowling for Columbine last night. It was playing at "Studioke - de kleinste kino van Leuven", a tiny rep theatre that was clearly once a much larger theatre but had been cut up into a series of narrow cinemas.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Michael Moore. Really, I can't see how someone with my politics couldn't. It's not that I always agree with him, or even with the directions his work takes. It's just that it would be hard for me to make serious noises against someone with such an extraordinary sense of guerilla theatre.

Still, I had been repeatedly told in the press that this was a totally pro-gun control film. It wasn't. It wasn't even close. He repeats, over and over again, how many guns there are in Canada and how much lower Canada's murder rate is despite all the guns. He has no difficulty emphasising that he is, himself, a life member of the NRA and an expert marksman. I was hard pressed to see a simpistic gun control argument in this film.

He asks a real question: If "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is true, does that mean something is wrong with Americans?

He spreads the blame far and wide, as if none of the answers he advances is really convincing. And none of them are. He investigates blaming the media for sensationalist crime coverage. He looks into racism, historical and contemporary, as causes. He considers the possibility that social security and solidarity play a role. He looks at US foreign policy as an example of the state setting a violent example. Finally, he looks at the meaninglessness of suburban life and the day to day violence of public secondary education.

Yet none of these alone seems to cut it. I could take the easy way out here and say they all play a part, but I can't quite convince myself of that either. This phenomena is too interlinked and too self-reinforcing to be a coincidence of multiple causes. And I feel too much like the picture he paints of America is a picture of me, so I can not find satisfaction in a "default hypothesis."

There is really only one reason I left California: I wasn't happy there, and eventually managed to convince my wife that I never would be. However, explaining why I wasn't happy, and why I would rather be in Belgium is something very few people seem to get. Americans are either distraught at the notion that someone would quit America voluntarily, or else believe that I am making some sort of political protest. I am not making a political protest. If I turned in my green card, that would be a political protest, and I may yet do it. But so far I haven't. Belgians too, even though they usually think their country is pretty okay, can't understand why a well paid computer programmer would quit his job in sunny California to move to the middle of Flanders. The beach vs. the rain ought to be an easy choice. Santa Cruz vs. Oostende - even I have to admit they've got me there.

I can't quite tell you why I wasn't happy there. The most sense I can make of it is basically to repeat something I said in an earlier post: something valuable was missing, something that ought to be there, and I was getting angrier about it all the time. I still don't quite know what it was. My mother will tell you it's God. Well I've done God and I'm not interested.

I try, now and then, to figure out what I had in Montreal - before moving into suburban California - and now - after leaving it - that I didn't have then. It could be a social life. I have one now, but not much - I work instead. Not the flexible schedule. I actually get up earlier than ever and get home about as late. Not the money - God knows I had more of that in California. Why does this place make me mostly calm and okay? Why didn't the other?

I have the suspicion that whatever was eating at me ate at those kids at Columbine. It must of been worse for them, I mean it would have to be to make them do what they did. But I don't know how to identify it either.

The Wimps of War

Editorial of the day. Go read it. Today's teaser paragraph:

Meanwhile, here's how it looks from Paris: France was willing to put ground troops at risk — and lose a number of soldiers — in the former Yugoslavia; we weren't. The U.S. didn't make good on its promises to provide security and aid to post-Taliban Afghanistan. Those Americans, they are very brave when it comes to bombing from 10,000 meters, but they expect other people to clean up the mess they make, no?

I was, at one time, tempted to place Krugman among the "Axis of Evil" (on whom I will post, along with the post I promised on "where I stand" with regard to a number of issues in the cognitive sciences - alas, I have to work sometimes), but over time I have become convinced that this would be a disservice. At a time when even American commentators who are opposed to war in Iraq are calling French and German positions silly, childish or foolish, here is Krugman saying France is right, Bush simply can not be trusted to do this sort of work.

Monday, February 10, 2003
I've noticed someting odd and disturbing in press discussion of the new crisis in trans-Atlantic relations. Increasingly, I see statements - really tossed about most innocently - that the US actively desires European and UN support in order to defray the expenses and losses of running Iraq.

From today's Washington Post, for example:

But the administration is still signaling that it prefers to go to war with some kind of endorsement from the United Nations, which would relieve much of the political and economic burden of running a post-Hussein Iraq. While insisting that time is running out, U.S. officials have not yet set a cutoff date for the weapons inspections, and Britain would like to see them continue at least through the end of the month.

This makes a certain amount of sense, however, it raises an interesting point. Can the US actually keep peace? The great complaint of the pro-war pundits and the Administration is that allied militaries don't have the force to make a real difference in a war, but it seems the US depends on those same allies to run things after the war is over. I note that the US contingent in Kosovo represents roughly 15% of the forces there, and about 18% in Bosnia. Total US troop contributions to UN peacekeeping are currently under 100 soldiers.

Clearly, few if any American troops are trained with peacekeeping in mind, and not nearly enough are experienced at it. This is in remarkable contrast to Canadian forces, for example, where the bulk of overseas postings are peacekeeping related.

I have to wonder if there isn't a greater US dependence on allied forces than it seems. The US may have superior firepower, but if American soldiers make poor cops - and I suspect that is very much the case, firepower alone won't be enough. You can't take control of territory by bombing it from the air. You have to actually have some guy stand on the ground in order to hold it. Thinking back, that doesn't seem to be America's forte. The Gulf War ended in an armistice. Kosovo and Bosnia are run mostly by other people, and have been from day 1. I doubt anyone thinks the US actually holds any large part of Afghanistan outside the Kabul city limits. Going further back, Grenada was the last time the US simply took and held ground without any help.

I do wonder what "new Europe" is likely to think of their future role as Bushes enforcers in Iraq. Except for the UK, they don't have large peacekeeping forces to contribute or large budgets to fund them with, unlike previous peacekeeping operations, where US contributions are limited to a fixed, minority percentage.

With a UN resolution, the US can turn the peacekeeping bill over to the Security Council, where US contributions are capped at 22% of the total. With NATO, I imagine some similar distribution of expenses would occur, since all NATO bills are paid based on a schedule.

This brings French and German reluctance into a slightly different light. I would resent having someone else foist their bills on me too.