The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Monday, March 16, 2009

Science, the State and Unknown Unknowns

Tom Friedman's latest article bandies out an idea we haven't heard in a while: fusion. In this week's article he ore that, there is the mandatory colorful half/joke half anecdote.
You’ll hear about someone who’s invented a process to convert coal into vegetable oil in his garage and someone else who has a duck in his basement that paddles a wheel, blows up a balloon, turns a turbine and creates enough electricity to power his doghouse.
I love how Tom writes the way he speaks..

This might not be the best way to open a column arguing that fusion researchers are not crackpots, but I am nonetheless inclined to agree with his sentiment. History is full of examples of hare-brained schemes succeeding, though often not at the initial mission they set out for. There is Christopher Columbus's successful lobbying of the Spanish monarchy for funds to go round the world to India. There is the Manhattan Project which led to a less bloody victory over Japan, made WW3 simultaneously less likely and unimaginably more destructive. The internet was created as an offshoot of the many billions spent in the Space Race and technological competition with the Soviet Union.

All these projects involved a supreme act of imagination to foresee their consequences. What European in 1491 could guess that a New World could be found, a world they would flock to in the millions to find better lives, and eventually return to the Old to save it on more than one occasion? Who until Einstein could imagine the human ability to end the world, an act which had previously only been conceived of in texts such as the Book of Revelation? In 1930, Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset expressed amazement that he could read in his newspaper about the ongoing expeditions to the North Pole and 'that icebergs passed drifting against the burning background of the Andalusian landscape.' How would he respond when today hundreds of millions (billions?) of people communicate with each other at a moment's notice, through text, Skype, video, music?

This is why Science Fiction is so important. It allows us to speculate on hypothetical situations, that may seem perfectly implausible to us today, but which have features that may well characterize the future. There are too many, as Donald Rumsfeld so eloquently put it, "unknown unknowns" for us to assume anything will remain constant is foolish. The whole of human history attests to that, and with emergence of science and industry, that has grown exponentially truer.

For all this, we need to keep an open mind and invest human and financial resources into projects like space exploration, stem-cell research (recently re-approved by Obama), the Joint European Torus and CERN are so important. It is not that by pumping billions we'll end up with a Mars colony or ditch fossil fuels in favor of cold fusion. The vast majority of these kinds of projects will in all likelihood amount to nothing. The advances some would make however, in knowledge and ability, would in fact be greater than our ability to imagine.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Obama/Brown: Phoning It In

I initially sent this to WaPo a couple days ago as an op-ed application. They didn't accept it, but at least they got back to me, which from their auto-response seemed rare enough ("if you don't get a response in a week, you can assume we didn't publish it.."). Here it is:

Gordon Brown’s visit to Washington last week Tuesday has been nothing less than a media disaster for the embattled British Prime Minister. These things are usually relatively innocuous – President Obama’s meetings with Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Taro Aso were unremarkable – but things have conspired to make the British press treat Brown’s visit as a continuation of a national joke at his expense.

Obama, it seems, snubbed Brown. He did not hold a grand press conference in the rose garden, that was canceled due to the snow, in what one British journalist has called Obama’s ‘diplomatic version of the coitus-declining headache hinting that the "special relationship" has already progressed, after that quick stop at "special partnership", to "special marriage".’

Did I mention? White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s casually terming his country’s ties with the U.K. It has also brought on an onslaught of unflattering romance analogies. The BBC noted that 'Gordon Brown looked as nervous as someone on a first date in his meeting with the president.' Politico summed up the British press's attitude to the whole affair: 'He's just not that into you.' Brown's dignity has not been helped by the fact that after speaking with Obama on British sacrifices in Afghanistan and the dire need for a 'Global New Deal', the President's next meeting that afternoon was with the Boy Scouts of America.

It’s all mostly harmless meanness, though obviously chastening for Brown to have his big moment meeting with the First Black POTUS and addressing the U.S. Congress in the midst of a global crisis (an honor relatively few British PMs have) ruined by the jeering British commentariat. Was it really too much to hope for the painfully-dreary-eyed-looking Brown to bask in a little of Obama's reflected glory? A Nixon or a Chirac could always count on foreign leaders and crises to give them statesmanship points..

As though all this wasn't bad enough, it has recently come out that Brown gave the President a penholder made from the timber of the 19th Century anti-slavery gunship the Gannet. Nice! How did Obama return the favor? With a 25-DVD set of classic American movies including Star Wars and the Wizard of Oz. Now, if Obama really doesn't care for Brown to think of something not totally half-assed, don't they have, like, people in State whose job it is think of stuff like this?

However trivial these 'snubs', people have found signs that Obama's coldness is not merely towards Brown personally, but to Britain itself. Obama unceremoniously returned that hideous bust of Winston Churchill in the White House (put their by George Bush) to the British and replaced it with one of Abraham Lincoln. Obama’s grandfather, they say, was tortured by the British, no less.

Is the Anglo-American magic gone? The Daily Telegraph ominously warns as much. The Heritage Foundation warns of the dire consequences of undermining the Special Relationship (including heightened Euro-Franco-German influence in NATO). At the risk of aligning myself with the forces of evil, I agree that Obama, whatever his own feelings, is appearing a little too cavalier. It is not good diplomacy.

I have no inordinate respect for British foreign policy. It has an almost wholly destructive role in Europe and lacks any kind of international ambition beyond shadowing U.S. foreign policy. From a U.S. point of view, however, this is nothing to complain about. The fact is, militarily at least, the British are the only allies worth a damn in Europe. The French are unreliable due to their own ambitions. The other Europeans, whatever the merits, have decided that their national security is not contingent on them seriously investing in forces that can be projected overseas. In terms of manpower and equipment, British contributions to U.S. missions are greater than the whole of Continental Europe.

It is not clear to me why Britain so different in that way. The British public doesn't give two hoots about U.S. foreign policy. Frankly I think the reasons are really base. British and French leaders live on the illusion of touching History. French Presidents (used to?) get their kicks by contemplating the power of their Bomb (Eg: blowing up Mururoa). British Prime Ministers – Churchill, Thatcher, Blair – get misty-eyed when Americans raise their glasses to them. All rather queer. But it is not the President's role to question why, but to cultivate this sort thing. Obama is an international superstar in many countries, but that glory is fleeting, you don't keep friends by being inconsiderate.

Friday, March 06, 2009

America, the Middle East and 'Respect'

In response to Charles Krauthammer's January 30th piece. I meant to send this to the Washington Post but at 500 words, it is way above their limit for letters-to-the-editor. I am thinking of sending it anyway or using it as the basis for my own Op Ed.


I can’t say that I was impressed by Charles Krauthammer’s January 30th piece in which he claims that President Obama is ‘defensive’ and ‘apologetic’ on account of his saying to Muslims that ‘we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect’. Was this really the best example of Carteresque repentance and self-pity Krauthammer could find? More gravely, he presents an extremely selective and distorted picture of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The Muslims of the region have plenty of reasons to feel ambivalent towards the U.S.A. Our policies have been chiefly determined by the needs for stable supplies of oil, a commodity of so much importance to the world economy, and the fact that Israel, which Americans have a strong sentimental attachment to, happens to be there. U.S. policy in the Middle East, whatever its merits, has always put these two priorities ahead of the will of the region’s inhabitants or, indeed, their well-being.

U.S. actions in the Middle East have repeatedly been conducted in flagrant disregard of the will of its inhabitants. One thinks of the Anglo-U.S. coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953 or Franco-U.S. support for the military takeover of Algeria in 1992 following the electoral victories of the Islamic Salvation Front. (Can one void a democratic election in the name of democracy?) Muslims were appalled at the excessive use of force during the Gulf War (recall the ‘Highway of Death’), the no-fly-zones established over Iraq in disregard for its sovereignty, and the sanctions regime that killed thousands of Iraqis. And, needless to say, Muslims were overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion of Iraq.

On big issues affecting the Middle East as a whole – whether it is Iraq, the Palestinian Question or the role of religion in their own countries – the U.S. has no regard for the opinion of the region’s people. Who can blame Middle Eastern Muslims if they come to the conclusion that the U.S., or rather its government, does not respect them?

This is not to say that the U.S. has never helped Muslims or is driven by prejudice against Islam. One need only cite America’s noble opposition to the Anglo-French operation at Suez in 1956, support for Bosnian Muslims or America’s record of integrating Muslim immigrants more successfully than the Europeans. However, it remains no less true that the American Empire, so uniquely democratic and consensual in Western Europe and Northeast Asia, has a deeply troubling character in the Middle East. I frankly doubt Obama can change this state of affairs any time soon, but one can only praise his declared intention to move in a new direction.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Le rôle du militaire français

In response to: "Le future de l'armée française ?" at La Plume et le Sabre.

Il faut bien admettre que le modèle britannique a ses avantages. Il suffit de se retourner sur les problèmes français lors de la Guerre du golfe: on envoi une force un tiers de la taille des britanniques, l'aviation se confond avec celle de l'Irak, les problèmes d'inter-opérabilité sont immense. Au final, la contribution française a un caractère strictement symbolique, chose que le président François Mitterrand a pleinement conscience, mais qui sert à poursuivre les illusions de sa diplomatie (« Notre siège à l'ONU à tout prix! »). Les britanniques ont réussi à créer, avec une armée mince et professionnelle, une capacité a projeté des forces considérables dans le monde. Ceci leur permet d’apporter un soutient non- négligeable aux américains, représentant un « boost » de 10-20%.

Reste à savoir quel est notre objectif. Le fait est que le militaire occidental joue un rôle de moins en moins utile dans le système international. Il se trouve que tous, Nord-américains, Européens ou Japonais, ne connaissent aujourd’hui aucune menace de nature existentielle. Or, les américains sont les seules à maintenir une puissance militaire capable de grandes opérations outre-mer. Cela leur est d’une utilité : dissuader les chinois dans le détroit du Taiwan, libéré le Koweït en combattant Saddam Hussein. Mais la taille de leur établissement militaire, la military-industrial complex, encourage aussi la poursuite d’aventures déconcertantes. Leur investissement massif leur mène vers un déséquilibre hyper-technologique qui ne sert pas a grand-chose dans leurs guerres actuelles. Les porte-avions nucléaires, les F-117 et les smart bombs sont impuissants face à l’insurrection…

Quand à la France, elle est trop petite pour que ses capacités militaires aient une influence décisive sur les événements. L’Europe de la défense est mort-née. La France, peut au plus aider ou s’abstenir de tel ou tel projet américain. Ceci est le modèle politique anglais. Cela leur donne une certaine influence sur les Etats-Unis, mais elle n’est sûrement pas décisive. La situation des autres européens est lamentable. Et on se demande pourquoi les américains s'en moque de l'Europe. C’est simple : comme alliées, nous ne valons rien.

Voila nos dilemmes. Le rôle de la défense se réduit chaque jour. La France seule est trop petite, l’Europe est inachevée, l’Amérique est impériale. Les militaires restent là, n’ayant même plus le spectre de la Guerre froide ni le mythe gaullien pour se réconforter. Ils ne leurs restent plus que de poursuivre leurs aventures méconnus dans quelque coin oubliée d’Afrique…