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Thursday, January 06, 2005


Credit where it’s due – but let us learn the right lesson

I have not posted on the Asian tsunami disaster; there really was nothing that I could sensibly add and no reader is likely to be unaware of the scale of the tragedy.

Of course, it has not taken long for the relief efforts have become overtly politicised, with Gordon Brown proposing to suspend debt repayments from the affected countries, Jan Egeland (UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs) describing the initial response of America (and other rich western nations) ‘stingy’, Jeb Bush beginning his 2008 Presidential campaign and gung-ho American commentators embracing, even celebrating the effect of the American response. No, not that it will save lives and rebuild communities, but that it will undermine the UN, the Great Satan*. With this tsunami diplomacy, comment becomes appropriate.

But credit where it is due; the US military has performed in a humanitarian role and it is likely that these actions, particularly the immediacy of these actions, will have saved many lives and alleviated much suffering.

Be wary, however, of descriptions of that categorise the cost of the US military actions as part of the total aid provision. They are not. The running costs of the two naval battle groups deployed to help in Sumatra are just that: running costs, and as such are costs that are incurred whether the battle groups are sailing in circles or performing humanitarian relief operations. The US Navy is not a commercial organisation; the sailors involved in the relief operations are not foregoing profit making activities. The cost of deploying these two battle groups to Aceh is not very much different to the costs of having them perform their planned exercises, with the benefit of exposing their personnel to a real, but low-risk training environment, winning friends in the Islamic and wider world, and very possibly gaining access to and suppressing a militant Islamic group. Colin Powell has linked the aid to fighting terrorism. In Aceh, efforts to “dry up pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity” might well mean aiding the Indonesian military in their operations against separatist rebels, who are already accusing the Indonesian government of using the disaster as cover for renewed military and security operations. I wonder if the costs of this support is included in the public boasts of aid packages.

When I question the need for such a large military – whether here in Britain or in the US, many people present examples of the humanitarian work that the military performs. Indeed, the recent recruiting campaigns for the British military have placed an emphasis on this aspect of the armed services. The example of the US Navy in Sumatra will be used to bolster this defence of militarisation. But it should not.

These tasks could be performed by an ‘army’ of what we might call civil or, forgive me, social engineers. This army would not need to be armed, and would not need to inculturate its members into an undemocratic psychology of faith in authority or an anti-humanitarian mindset of nationalism. The training in these brigades could be concentrated on the acquisition of the sorts of skills and knowledges that are required to rebuild communities. There would still be a role for the military, of course, a necessary evil, but there is no need to use the argument of humanitarian disaster response to justify the maintenance of large standing armies. Rather, it should demonstrate the need, even the obligation, for the rich nations to build demilitarised forces of humanitarian action.

*According the best-selling ‘Left Behind’ series of books – a cornerstone of Christian conservative popular culture.

If the usual way of US Government accounting is being used, there is no reasson to think other wise, the amount of money spent on relief is over and above the running cost of the military operation and even the cost of military stores that are being run down. In a week or two some one will add up these costs and report them separately.
I was, more than anything else, referring to columnists and editorials that react to the tag of 'stingy', by saying, 'how much do you think it costs to run the two battle groups?' The answer is, of course, not much more - on the scale of military budgets - than it was going to cost to run the battle groups planned manoeuvres. This is not to say that the aid from the US military is not vital, and that decent humanitarians should not be grateful for this peaceful use of the most powerful tool on the planet.

With regard to accounting, it was interesting listening to the panellists on the BBC programme 'Question Time', who not only pointed out that in the past countries have not met their extravagant pledges of aid - for example in the cases of the earthquake in Bam, Iran, and hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua - but that the method of accounting used to calculate what aid actually has been provided sometimes includes assistance that was previously (pre-disaster) earmarked for the country and some more dubious definitions of aid, such a military assistance.
hah! found my old blogger password, and now i can comment with my name.

you are correct in saying that the normal operation of the Navy is a sunk cost, and therefore not really appropriate to addition to the pledged money totals. what you are not thinking of is opportunity costs. the Navy has pressing demands in supporting Iraqi Freedom, and turning the carried group and the ARG (amphibious ready group, the USS Bonhome Richard and its group) into a humanitarian mission imposes costs of its own. the money over and above the day to day operation of the ships, extra fuel costs for sprinting onto the scene, fuel for the helos, fuel for the boats and hovercraft, etc. you might be surprised to know that there are significant extra costs associated with this operation. i used to operate one of the boilers on an amphibious ship, the USS Austin (LPD-4). the difference in activity from normal peacetime cruising to emergency operations is dramatic. remember also that a lot of what people like me were reacting to was the impression that Bush was doing nothing in the face of disaster, when in reality he was ordering the Navy into the breach. it incenses many of us to listen to the professional hand wringing class whine about stinginess when thousands of American Sailors and Marines are on their way to lend a helping hand.

as for the Great Satan, the UN, you can count me in the group that would like to see it fail totally, dramatically, and permanently. and i am not even all that religious. as you may have read on the blog, Diplomad,
the UN is primarily in charge of standing around and doing nothing while the US, Australia, India, New Zealand, and a couple of other places fix the problem. i can't see any real reason to maintain a debating society for dictators when they cannot even do the one thing that we all hoped that they would be good at, aiding disaster victims. basically the UN has reinvented itself as a wharehouse for overpaid bureaucrats whose salaries come 40% from the US government, and whose primary function is to write reports that no one but they will ever read. i think that you seriously underestimate the depth of revulsion the we have for the UN. i look forward to its ejection from our shores. luckily, however, the Tsunami survivors have the USA and our friends to pick up the slack.
Yes, and I am grateful that the means exists to save these people, but the main point of my post was that the use of the military in humanitarian operations does not, in itself, justify the existence of a large, expensively armed military. Rather, it points to the fact that we are being forced to jury-rig our tools. If we find that we can jerry-rig tanks to be used as earthmoving plant, and find we have a need for earthmoving equipment, we do not build more tanks, expensively armed and armoured. We build bulldozers, diggers and dumper trucks designed for the task at hand. A reduction in the size of the military and a vast expansion in the size of our civil and social engineering forces using the resources saved would necessarily shift our international response from the inhumane default of war and destruction (exemplified in angry challenges to the anti-war movement of 'what would you do') to a default of co-operation and construction. I am not so naive to imagine that war will disappear overnight, but neither am I too staid and conservative to imagine that the most powerful nations on Earth cannot organise themselves and their environment (economic, political, social, cultural and physical) to reduce the incidence of this greatest crime.
Furthermore, and with regard to your comments on the UN, the US undermining of the UN is one of the factors that leads to UN inaction and increases the risk of war. You seem to advocate a world entirely run by an elite of Anglo-European nations. Does not the rest of the world deserve a voice? Or only to be told what to do? And don't suggest that these small, relatively powerless nations can arrange their relationships with the powerful individually. We learn from the history of trade unions that the disempowered can only achieve any kind of bargaining power with the powerful through combining their voices.

Doing away with the UN, or allowing it to whither away, rather than enthusiastic engagement, will politically legitimise the domination of the world by the interests of the powerful few.
no one said that humanitarian missions are a justification for the large expensive military. the justification for that is the perceived need to blow things up and kill people. sadly, in this day and age, some people only respond to actual force. most of us are sophisticated enough to engage in a form of social contract. we uphold the basic expectations of those around us, and those around us will do the same. in the most basic form this means live and let live.

we even codify this behavior into law, which in the common law system in use in the USA, Canada, Australia, UK, and New Zealand (i think) is simply a legalistic redition of the basic attitudes of society. we write law that reflects the way we, as a whole, want everyone to act. that law, through the courts, police, and jail, is a polite form of force. if you don't believe me that law, at its base, is coercion based on threat of force, throw a rock at your nearest Constable.

for most people, chucking rocks is a bad idea, not because you might get clubbed, but because we were taught better. some people, however, need to be threatened with their heads being kicked in to prevent bad behavior. not you and me, of course. i am sure that you, like me, are more concerned with embarrassing Mom with bad behavior. sad to say that at 35 i am more concerned with my Mom's approval than i am with getting beat up by a cop. i would hope that most people are like that.

unfortunately, there are those both domestically and internationally, that need the threat of a good hiding to keep them in line. we might wish for, and even work for, a better way, but sadly, we live in the real world, where some people didn't get enough love from their mommies and daddies, and started to see other people as simply objects to be pushed around. at times like that, we need some method of explaining the error of their ways. domestically we ask the police to apply that force. internationally we use bigger, vastly more lethal tools, like aircraft carriers.

i wish you luck in your attempt to find a way around war. it is my life, the lives of my brothers in arms, and the lives of my (future) sons that will end up being saved when that happy day comes. but do not pretend that once the West abjures warfare that war will end. sadly, i believe that there is always someone somewhere trying to get more than his fair share.

as for the UN, how many of the General Assembly represent a government "of the people?" damned few. most of them are cronies of corrupt, autocratic or kleptocratic thugs. look at the security council. UK, USA, and France are all representative systems. China and Russia are not. what possible good can come from building a world governing body that starts off corrupted by autocracy? let us see the truth, and let us have the courage to speak that truth. complain all you want about the USA being a hyperpower that does not act in ways that you would like it to act. but do not expect to get anywhere by offering the UN as a counterbalance. it offers neither of the two things that might actually work. there is neither the force necessary to stop us from doing exactly as we please, nor is ther any sort of moral cause to be made that would make us stop ourselves. since you cannot stop us physically, you have only the moral arguement. do not waste that opportunity by appealing to a corrupt band of thugs masquerading as a serious deliberative body. we should scrap the UN and, if we are minded to, build something decent in its place.
The point about the UN is that it gives a voice to all nations. We can complain that their governments are not as democratic as we would like, but to say that their governments are not the ones that we would like, so therefore we will completely ignore that nation is to attempt to lead the nation by means of might alone. Indeed, people in the US, when complaining about democracies abroad and when using that as a pretext to ignore the interests of other peoples, should do well to remember that many in Europe take a dim view of American democracy, viewing it as a plutocracy in which corporate support is a necessary part of achieving power, both formally, in a legislative and executive sense, and informally, in terms of access to the the levers of persuasion. Many in Europe view such aspects of European democracy, such as the diversity of parties holding seats in their parliaments, voting systems such as proportional representation and transferable voting, and caps on electoral spending, as being superior to the European model. You may disagree, but I hope you see the problem of simply invalidating the views of governments and nations that do not share the foreign policy or trade aims of the US. This view of US dismissal of the UN is accentuated when we consider that the US would be perfectly happy to deal with governments that meet no standards of democracy whatsoever. It is not their legitimacy that seems to trouble the US State Department, but their stance vis a vis US interests. Understandable perhaps, but do not cloak this in a distaste for undemocratic regimes in general.

I didn't advocate the abolition of all militaries. But I did advocate their significant downsizing. The West faces no realistic conventional threat. China? Perhaps, but we must face the fact that a war against China would pretty much end civilisation, and this end would not come from conventional forces but from nuclear weapons. Furthermore, as with the USSR, there is little realistic evidence that there is any intention of conducting a campaign of conquest. The fact that the US is militarily capable of acting completely without an ally in the world and would meet very little resistance to its conventional forces should it choose to act should trouble even Americans. For the US, there is not even a disapproving mother to hold it back. From your analysis of human nature, the world should pray that the power of the US is reduced, and that it binds itself to acting with allies, of finding some kind of consensus for action, else it is only fortune that prevents it falling into the role of global tyrant, whatever political system it practices at home. And this is the role of the UN.
these are wothwhile points to discuss, but i think they all three (US vs EU politics, deomcracy vs. national interest and US military size) deserve their own blog entries. we are pretty far down the page even on this blog, which moves fairly slow. (not a criticism! it's kind of homey, more like a living room discussion than a lecture hall shoutfest)

if i may, i'll get you started.

1. the lack of proportional representation in the US has the effect of reducing the power of small political parties. this is a feature rather than a bug. the last thing we in the US need is a situation where we have to nominate some know terrorist ally and supporter as forign minister (not to mention names, but Germany) in order to keep an opposition party out of power. from your point of view, it could hardly be better to see Pat Robertson as US Secretary of State.

2. Nations have no eternal allies. they only have interests. should the UK abandon us in our chosen path, we will drop them like a hot rock. for details on how this works, see the History of France. no allies at all, only interests. they take it a bit far, as they also seem to have no morals. we compromise ours a bit, but they don't even bother having any

3. the US military is too small. we need to return to the size military we had before Bill Clinton's unwise drawdown. another two or three full divisions would make the rotation plan in Iraq less a burden, especially one the reserves. we need a military big enough to make happen whatever we need to make happen in the world. should we decide to forgo the forceful option, we will end up hostage to the designs and plans of others.

that should give you a bit to work with. btw, what is "transferable voting?"
Sean, I will address some of these in greater detail at a later point. But for here:

1. If we imagine that 49% of people had voted Democrat in every US state and district, and 51% had voted Republican in every US state and district, then there would be no Democratic representation in Congress, the Senate or the White House. This would not reflect the views of the country. With a proportional representation slate, the minority voice stands a better chance of achieving some seats in government.

Now, that is an example were the majority voted for the party that would hold 100% of the power. Now imagine that in each state and district, 40% voted Republican and 30% voted for two different wings of a split Democrat Party. The Republican Party would still have 100% of the power, while the majority would probably prefer to see either one of their second Democrat choice in office. This is a clear flaw in the electoral system that it is possible to rectify with proportional representation, but a 'transferable vote' is a better option. This allows the voter to specify his second choice, third choice and so on. The winner of each district, state or whatever has to have over 50% approval, found by eliminating the lowest rank candidates and redistributing their ballots according to their second choices, and so on. This way, the district, state or whatever cannot be given a representative that the majority would disapprove of.

Both proportional representation and transferable voting allows for a much more vibrant and representative democratic system. It works against the ossification of political parties, and prevents the political debate centering on the interests of a few swing voters, as happens in the UK. And most of all, it prevents the blatantly anti-democratic assertion that a vote for Nader, for example, is a vote for Bush. No doubt the vast majority of possible Nader voters would prefer to see, say, Kerry in the White House. Unfortunately, by being bold with their vote they put someone they are ideologically opposed to into power. Everybody's vote should count, pushing or pulling the political character of the country accordingly. Both the American and British systems prevent this in spite of there being alternatives demonstably working in other nations.

It rubs both ways, before you think I care only for 'left-wing' (there is no real American left-wing, in the sense understood by Europeans and the rest of the world, outside of Bernie Sanders), this would also allow conservative Christians to vote for Pat Robertson without thinking that they are helping godless John Kerry into the White House.

2. "Nations have no eternal allies. [T]hey only have interests." Which, in order to prevent international chaos, we have systems of treaties, which should give way to international law. Individuals could be described as having 'only interests', but our social arrangements give us duties, obligations, rights and prescribe, through both law and culture, how we deal with other individuals.

3. "[T]he US military is too small... should we decide to forgo the forceful option, we will end up hostage to the designs and plans of others." On this, as you would expect, I disagree. Part of being in a community is to be, in some way, 'hostage to the designs and plans of others'. If, as individuals, we lived in a community where one member saw only instrumental value in the others, and had the force to behave without reference to the wishes of others, we would call him a bully, even a tyrant. Is this what the US wants*, to effectively be the 250 million strong party that rules a world of 6.5 billion? In an individual nation, we would describe the system as totalitarian, especially when a prime source of the power of the minority party was its ability to cause violence. Add in the power of wealth and we arrive at a vision of the world strangely similar to Mussolini's 'Corporatism', also known as 'Fascism'.

*possibly it is.
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