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Monday, March 21, 2011


During my week away, a good deal happened in the world, needless to say. A godawful earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, triggering a nuclear disaster, and the United States launched yet a third war in a Muslim country. I feel a need to say something about these events, although I am no kind of expert on either of them. By the way, the cable television service in our room [at something called The Excellent Guest House -- no kidding] carried Al-Jazeera English, which turns out to be the best straight news channel I have ever watched. I read the print version on line here in the States, but the television show is not available -- a real shame.

All of you have watched the horrific pictures of walls of water rolling over Japanese villages, so I need not expatiate on them. But as the problems developed at the nuclear power plants, an old question posed itself in my mind: What is the right way to weigh the pros and cons of a controversial public policy? Nuclear power is clean energy. It does not spew hydrocarbons into the atmosphere day in and day out. Hence, it does not contribute to all manner of environmental and medical evils. But inevitably, predictably, unavoidably, every so often there is a nuclear accident, the consequences of which, as we see, can be horrendous. The rational course seems to be to make careful estimates of the long-term harm of oil and coal, and compare that with the episodic harm of nuclear energy, always of course pushing for maximum safety and minimum harm in both cases. Surely any satisfactory theory of rational choice leads to that conclusion. And yet, I am for some reason not entirely comfortable with that way of making social policy. I welcome your thoughts.

As for the Libyan adventure, it seems wrong to leave the Libyan rebels to be slaughtered by Ghadafi, and wrong to launch yet another war. My own belief, suggested several times on this blog, is that the United States should not have an enormous imperial military establishment in the first place. It ought to have a force only large enough to protect the United States from the -- at this point minuscule -- threat of invasion. Once we build a military establishment that dwarfs that of the entire rest of the world, it is inevitable that we will find all manner of excuses for using it. The Libyan case is actually one of the very rare instances in which the United States can be said to have entered a foreign conflict on the right side, but it would be far better if we had a military force quite incapable of playing that role on the world stage. Sixty-five years of experience since World War II demonstrates that this nation is quite incapable of using its enormous military force wisely or well.

Well, I must prepare to teach the REPUBLIC later this morning. If I manage to get some pictures of the events in South Africa, I will post one or two.


Chris said...

My thoughts on the Libya conflict mirror yours up to a point. When you close your thoughts by stating that:

"The Libyan case is actually one of the very rare instances in which the United States can be said to have entered a foreign conflict on the right side"

Don't get me wrong, I know Qadaffi is a vile person, who should take a shot between the eyes; preferably by his own people. However, when the exact same scenario is going on in Yemen - dictator with a civil war rebelling against him - and we (according to al jazeera) send him $200million in military aid to quell the uprising, I have trouble concluding we are doing the "right" thing in Libya. If two almost identical situations give rise to two starkly different responses, it leads me to believe our military, clandestine services, president, etc, fundamentally have an alternative motive in entering Libya. A motive that isn't based on ethics.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I didn't say we were doing the right thing for the right reason!

Chris said...

So we entered the wrong side for the right reason? Somewhere, the means and ends here are going to get caught in a moral hazard...

I believe they already have actually. The President basically took us into this without serious consent from Congress, and no discussion, or reading of polling data, of the American populace. This of course continues to exacerbate the moral hazard of just letting our President's be war mongers whenever they want. At least in the gulf of tonkin the people were lied to, now we're not even confronted (terrible on both counts!).

For all the potential good that can be done in Libya, does it outweigh this hazard? I'm not sure it does.

Glad you're back!

GTChristie said...

Welcome home. Glad you're safe & sound.

On Libya: The interventionists clearly view it as a humanitarian issue. Gadhafi was moving towards a massacre in Benghazi, even the Arab League was calling for intervention, and the "rebels" were pleading for it. Well invited is well-attended, let's say. We'll see whether the mercenaries scatter now, and if they do, only the die-hard "loyal" native military will protect the man -- until they see defeat written on the walls. Then, if all goes well, they'll turn. Such is the hope.

The reality will likely be different. Unless the great majority of currently "loyal" citizens switch sides (meaning they were not that enthused to begin with), there will be a split in Libyan politics for the next several years (even for decades). Seeds of civil war, in other words. The only prescription for that is a truly just and pluralist government, in which no tribe or group is favored over others. That's how tyrants stay in power in the first place: they create a constituency dependent on the corruption of the regime, which people are willing to fight to defend (against all reason). Only true democracy can fix this -- but it has to be a clean and untainted democracy, which not many countries (perhaps none) actually achieve.

It's going to be messier than people hope. So far, Egypt is defining the model and I'm hoping most nations now in turmoil will follow that path. The problem really is human nature. Somebody always comes out on top, and eventually the process starts all over again.

Ultimately, Gadhafi must go and the remaining tyrants must take note of the fact that the West DOES act on its values. I think in this case, messy around the edges though it may be, what we are doing is justified. It's just not going to be pretty.

Chris said...

If the West does act on its values (interesting everyone in the west has the same values...), why is it our response in Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya are fundamentally different. In Yemen we armed Saleh with $200million in military aid.

Approximately six months ago we made a $60 billion deal with Saudi Arabia to sell them military aid. Obviously this country is a heinous monarchy, and they've been using that $60 billion to quell the uprising in Bahrain.

Only in Libya is anything, presumably humanitarian going on.

Ergo, the west does not act in its values the majority of the time. Whatever those values are...

English Jerk said...

Since previous purportedly benevolent military interventions by the US have usually resulted in an extension of the US sphere of influence (or some other strategic or economic benefit to US corporations, obtained at great cost to the local population), doesn't it seem plausible that the result will be much the same here? Preventing Quadaffi from slaughtering his own citizens sounds pretty good, but what if the longer-term outcome of our intervention also results in, say, the imposition of a US client state like the Greece under Papadapoulos (a former Nazi, depraved torturer, and employee of the US government)? Maybe we should at least hold the applause until we can see the angles?

Chris said...

Mildly off topic question. Know any good books on that Greece incident post WWII? I know that it happened, but I've always wanted to read a history of how.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Wolff, you said: "But inevitably, predictably, unavoidably, every so often there is a nuclear accident, the consequences of which, as we see, can be horrendous."

And I ask: do we really see that? Or are we seeing the horrors of a tsunami, while mixing it with feelings of anxiety for nuclear radiation (maybe from Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki)? So far some 10,000 people have died as a consequence of the tsunami (and maybe to some extend the earthquake itself), but no one has - so far - has died as a consequence of radiation. For the sake of rationality, I think we have to be careful not a assign more to the nuclear radiation than it truthfully deserves.

All the best,
Stefan Hansen

GTChristie said...

Comparing our policies on Libya with policies on Saudi Arabia or either of these with Yemen, the rule of thumb appears to be "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." This was true in the Cold War and it's true now. I don't think there's anything morally wrong with creating client states or satellite states or spheres of influence; that's part of international politics. What's immoral (if ever) is propping up regimes just because they're willing to become client states, regardless of their legitimacy otherwise. The thread that runs through policy since 9/ll is: if it opposes al Qaeda, support it. Even if it just pretends to oppose al Qaeda, support it. And almost everything we're doing now, we're doing with our al Qaeda glasses on. It's the only consistent perspective we have.

Chris said...

I typed a reply and it didn't show up so this one will be brief.

A states rule of thumb does not make it moral, or legitimate, nor ideal. See the massacre by Atlacatl Battalion in El Salvador, backed by Reagan, for a perfect example of how my enemies enemy is my friend, is rather heinous and myopic.

Fine, you support legitimate client states. Well the states in Yemen and Bahrain aren't legitimate anymore. Nor is Saudi Arabia. We are backing all three, in murdering their own population against civil war. But we are taking a different approach in Yemen. Hence, as I said, the US is not acting in "western values." Whatever those are...

As far as that Al Qaeda speak, it's bunk. We support Saudi Arabia, the location where Al Qaeda derived from, still derives from, and often receives funding from.

Your rules of thumb are crossed.

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that Al Jazeera is not carried in the US. Here in the UK it is easily available to everyone on the free digital service and on all cable/satellite services. However, I believe that you can watch it in the US via this link:

Perhaps with Secretary Clinton's recent endorsement it will get picked up more!

Chris said...

Well interestingly enough on PBS every morning, in some world news program, they end up just parroting and citing Al Jazeera for all their coverage. So to a degree we can kinda-sorta watch it.

English Jerk said...


The Greek dictatorship is not something I've studied in much detail. You can find a brief leftist treatment in William Blum's handy book Killing Hope, and, as I'm sure you've noted, there are various brief discussions in books by Chomsky and others. But thanks in part to films like Z, there was pretty sustained interest in the details, so I'm guessing there's a lot of scholarly work on the topic. I'd suggest asking someone in the history or political science departments (whoever does 20th century European stuff). Sorry I can't be more illuminating.

GTChristie said...

Those are not my rules of thumb. Empirical observations. I didn't say we're doing the right thing for the right reasons. LOL. I just said this is what we're doing.

GTChristie said...

What's really going on in Libya? I have no idea how reliable this is, but it makes sense to me:

Eye-popping perspective. Have a look.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

GT, I read the article you provided a link to, and I must say, judging purely on internal literary criteria, without any knowledge at all of the facts alluded to, it strikes me as pure propaganda. I would not believe a statement of that sort if it were made about America, or Soviet Russia, or England, or Cuba, or Switzerland, or Venezuaela, or Togo, and I do not believe it about Qadaffi.

Here is just one sentence from it: "Brother Leader, Guide of the Revolution and King of Kings are some of the titles that have been bestowed on Qaddafi by Africans."

That sentence makes my flesh crawl.

English Jerk said...

Here's a recent Chomsky interview on Libya:

GTChristie said...

Well yes it's obviously apologetics for Gadhafi, but it does point out some facts between the lines that help reveal why the Arab League, the League of Nations -- er, UN -- and "the West" agree so uniformly. His "Pan-Aftricanism" is obviously a demagoguery meant to poke a stick in the Western eye at every opportunity, he's considered "un-Islamic" to boot and his power base is to a large extent outside his own country. If he didn't have all that oil, he'd be Idi Amin or Baby Doc Duvalier. So you're right, the article is propaganda but it does reveal several dimensions of our motives in opposing him that are not discussed in the mainstream media.