Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Bright Side of Obama's "Strategic Patience"

Everyone is worrying that the 2010s is the 1930s all over again. They want to get up and deal with the Islamic menace before it gets any worse. And maybe they are right.

President Obama, of course, advocates "strategic patience," which means what, exactly?

Should "the West" follow a forward strategy, and whack the Islamic State right now? Or should we stand back from the Middle East and let the chips fall where they may?

I'm a conservative, so I've tended to support the forward strategy, memorably enunciated by Ronald Reagan at the time of the Cold War: "Here's my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose."

But the funny thing about Ronald Reagan is that he won the Cold War with hardly firing a shot. He talked a good game, he cranked up the Defense budget, he got the spies helping the Lech Walesas behind the enemy line, he got the US economy out of its stagflationary Keynesian slump, he whacked the dime-store Commies in Grenada. And the rest is history.

One of the things that liberals harped on about during the Cold War was US support of right-wing dictators. It forced US apologists like Jeane Kirkpatrick to insist that there was a difference between right-wing authoritarian dictators and left-wing totalitarian dictators. And maybe she was right, in the bipolar days of the Cold War.

The reason to support authoritarians is usually "stability." We support right-wing dictators because they are a lot better than lefty totalitarians. But what about the Middle East? Should we support, e.g., Saudi Arabia, because they are a bulwark against radical Iran?

The problem with "stability" according to the Black Swan guy, Nassir Nicholas Taleb, is it tends to freeze things in place. What happens in the spring when the ice breaks up? You get a world war.

Now the West has basically kept the Middle East in a fast-frozen mode for the last century, ever since the Ottoman Empire broke up at the end of World War I. And the reason, of course, is Oil. The Middle East, ever since Winston Churchill switched the British Royal Navy from coal to oil, has been the source of the world's cheapest oil. So the West has wanted to dominate the region to make sure that the oil keeps coming.

That's why we were meddling in Iran in the early 1950s. That's why we've supported the Saudi family dynasty since whenever. That's why we cared about the thug Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile the Middle East has been seething under the western knout. One day it will explode. And then what?

President Obama recommends "strategic patience." We conservatives assume that this is merely a cover for the left-wing argument that the West is to blame for everything, because of its racist colonialism and imperialism. For Obama, we assume, the West has it coming, and has no moral right to interfere in the Middle East.

But suppose President Obama is right for the wrong reasons. Suppose that the best strategy is the good old Cold War strategy of "containment." Let the Middle East become a cauldron of hate and blood, but establish a clear perimeter, starting at Israel, at the Bosphorus, at the border between Pakistan and India. We will contain the fire at the borders: thus far and no further.

This is a good time to switch strategies, from the Bush forward strategy to the Obama strategic patience, because of the fracking revolution. Instead of the left's prophecy of "peak oil" it looks like there is an ocean of hydrocarbon out there from natural gas to oil.  That means that we don't care as much about Mideast oil as we used to do.

Right now, it looks like there is plenty of fracked hydrocarbon at $50-60 per barrel, and it puts the "stability" regimes and the radical regimes of the Middle East in a quandary. They can use the oil weapon, but in doing so and raising the price they will just make it easier for Big Oil and little oil to do more fracking. But if they cut production they get less money and they need the money. All the big oil-producing nations, from the Saudis to the Iranians to the Venezuelans "need" the oil price up at $100 per barrel or more.

Various critics of Islam argue that it is ill adapted to the modern age. It retains a pre-trading mentality, a philosophy of global conquest in jihad that doesn't work any more than the nostalgic global totalitarianism of communism and socialism can work. Since it was impossible to convince the true-believers of the left that socialism could not work until communism crashed and burned in 1990-91, there is no reason to believe that the Islamists will abandon their jihad for world domination before its catastrophic collapse.

It's at this point that I like to invoke the Chinese Christian from David Aikman's Jesus in Beijing. Here is what he said.
At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. 
OK. So what is it about Christianity? I suggest, following Rene Girard, that Christianity, more than any other transcendental or secular religion, has articulated a philosophy of human comity. It directs every human to serve before they collect. It tells people to love their enemies. It tells that that in service is perfect freedom. This goes against the basic human instinct to strike first before the other guy gets his chance. It goes against the ancient instinct of the border war, the escalating feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. And of  course it goes against the modern totalitarianism of basic conflict of interest between the races, between the sexes, between the classes, between religions.

The modern totalitarianisms are cunning. They understand how to get people riled up. First, in the 19th century they got the working class all riled up against the bourgeoisie. Then, with "cultural Marxism" they got all kinds of other groups riled up: the blacks in Ferguson, the women in college, the gays in their urban ghettos.

From a tactical political point of view, these totalitarianisms are brilliant. But there is a problem. These political tactics wall up groups into resentful ghettos. They prevent people from surrendering to the market and making the profoundly social and altruistic decision to find something in this world that contributes to other peoples' welfare, and then doing it.

That is what the Islamists are doing to Muslims worldwide. They are telling Muslims that the way to the future is to conquer the world, not to serve it.  Maybe they are right, but if they are the whole history of the past 500 years has been a terrible mistake.

The only way to demonstrate who is making the mistake is to step back from the Middle East and let the chips fall where they may, except in Israel. Sorry, jihadis, no messing with Israel. And in the rest of the world, we enforce our Judeo-Christian doctrine of service. Muslims that want to thrive in the West are welcome. But they must show by their actions that they accept the fundamental principle of the modern economy. They must seek to serve before they demand to collect.

On my theory of the world, the history of the last two centuries has been the story of various foolish attempts to rebel against the new world order of markets, exchange, and service to others. On this view, radical Islam is merely the latest and hopefully the last such rebellion.

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