The horror of foreign policy

I’ve not said much about the whole Gaza / Israel thing since October. I have a pretty strong dislike of islamic terrorists, and no equivalent antipathy to Jews, although I do worry from time to time about their understandable but inconvenient tendency to oppose any kind of nationalism (except their own). So my inclination is towards the Israeli side. However, I try to stifle this on the grounds that I don’t know all the facts, though I’m swimming in propaganda, and it isn’t really any of my business.

While discussing yesterday’s General Election, yesterday, it became clear that the main way that that terrible, bloody conflict affects me is through its impact on British politics. Specifically, if British Muslims become estranged from the Labour Party over it, that will significantly change national politics, and will completely overturn local politics where I live.

Now, I don’t generally concern myself with practical politics, for a number of reasons explained at length on this site. I paid attention to the election for entertainment value rather than because I needed to know anything about it. But that’s just me, it’s an unusual view to take. For many people deeply concerned with politics, these questions of party alignment are among the most important things in their lives. Most people with influence over policy fall into that category.

For those people, the most important question about any actual or potential thing that could happen in the Middle East is: would that help me or my enemies in my local political struggle?

Think about that for a while. Peace talks, escalations, terrorist attacks, blockades — how do they affect my department, my constituency association, my party, parliament? Are they good for me, or bad for me?

I have written before that intervention in foreign conflicts tends to be harmful in humanitarian terms, even when specifically predicated on humanitarian aims.

I have seen it alleged (and don’t know whether to believe), both that Hamas intended a vast catastrophe to be inflicted on Palestinians, and that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu intended atrocities to occur against Israelis, in both cases because their political positions depend on the conflict continuing and escalating. If true, these are instances of the same thing, but less clear cut because the participants are much more connected to the direct harms of the conflict than remote foreigners. If someone in Ramallah or Tel Aviv is willing to stir things up in order to strengthen his position, then it is surely much easier for someone in Birmingham or Hendon to come to a similar conclusion.

So expecting the foreign policy directed by people in that position to be humanitarian in effect is very optimistic.

Sunk Moral Costs

I don’t understand Syria, and I’m not going to, and I’m OK with that. Trump’s pullout may be bad for America for all I know.

The concrete harmful impact of Russia having a lot of influence in Syria (as it did in the 1980s) isn’t spelled out, instead we just get innuendo.

I tweeted that Kurds will always be allies in destabilising, and always be enemies of peace, because of their situation as a stateless cross-border group. That’s simplistic, but if it’s not true someone needs to explain how. Peace in any of the countries in which they have large populations has to include either (a) they give up their claim to statehood, or (b) they achieve their own state, and I have never heard anyone suggest that (b) is a realistic possibility. There is a chance in any one country that you could get an autonomy-based settlement short of statehood which is beneficial for them, but while the other countries in which they have large populations are unstable, that can’t be a peaceful settlement, because they will still be fighting in the others. As I tweeted, none of this is their fault — it seems they were completely screwed in the 20th Century but this is the position today.

If there’s any coherent view coming from the US establishment, it’s anti-Iran. They may have a good reason for that, but I don’t know what it is. The reason probably has a lot to do with either Israel or Saudi or both, but I don’t expect to ever find an answer I can be sure is true.

Syria has been a bloodbath since the beginning of the Arab Spring attempt to depose Assad. Anyone suddenly upset about the humanitarian impact this week can be dismissed out of hand.

“Kurds were our allies”. How is that, exactly? I asked on twitter, sarcastically, for links to the announcements of and debates of this policy. It was made ad-hoc by the military and civil service. The president never talked to the electorate about it. Quite possibly the president (Obama) never even knew about it. Which is perfectly OK. But there is sleight of hand here. The line we are getting is: “We allied with the Kurds and relied on them, now we need to stand up for them”. The two “we” in there are two different groups. The opaque Washington foreign-policy establishment allied with the Kurds, without input from or notification of the general public. Now the voters are being asked by the media to stand by some implied commitment they played no part in making.

1) So much context has been lost and recent history revised in the coverage of this growing crisis between Turkey and Syria. US always assured Ankara that their support for the YPG was ‘temporary, tactical and transactional’ – a US diplomat quoted here in my new book on Erdogan


From around 14th October, the Kurds have made some kind of arrangement with the Syrian Government, and the narrative has switched from “it’s terrible to abandon the Kurds” to “Now the Russians are winning”. This is utterly disgraceful. It entirely proves that the complaints about the fate of the Kurds the previous days were insincere. Had the concern really been for the Kurds, then Monday would have been a day of rejoicing at their safety. Instead, the opposition to the withdrawl policy stays the same but the reasons change.

It is because of this sort of thing that I automatically disregard all foreign policy arguments that are made on humanitarian grounds. I don’t even consider the possibility that they might be well-founded. The concept of intervening internationally to protect civilians is 100% discredited in my eyes.

Around 500,000 human beings were killed in Syria while Barack Obama was president and leading for a “political settlement” to that civil war Media has been more outraged in the last 72 hours over our Syria policy than they were at any point during 7 years of slaughter
Ask why


Kinda telling that the intensity of Online Outrage expressed by Smart People today over the Kingsman-meme isn’t any perceptibly different than the Online Outrage they were emoting yesterday or the day before over, like, The Kurds being slaughtered
it’s all a video game


Trump, though I find him amusing, I consider no more trustworthy than the rest of them. I am not able to judge whether his policies are good or bad, but he is the only person who makes arguments for his Syria policy which make sense. The arguments against are always obviously dishonest (like the ABC gun show footage), insincere, or rest on vague unstated assumptions (such as that nothing that Russia wants can be allowed).

The FSA leader who John McCain took a picture with is now part of the invasion of Northern Syria, which the hawks are insisting we must oppose.


There’s another related point, more subtle but much more general. Modern thought does not admit of a distinction between crimes of commission and crimes of omission. To a naive rationalist, causing harm and allowing harm to happen are equivalent. But like so many arguments you hear today, the equivalence rests on an entirely unrealistic level of certainty towards the assumptions that are being made about the results of action or inaction. The potential for very large unexpected harmful effects is very much greater in military action than it is in inaction, and the expected benefits of action have to be large enough to outweigh that category of risk. That is equally true whether the harms and benefits in question are political, financial or humanitarian.

Tweet links:


Democracy and Hacking

The New York Times has published a long analysis of the effects of the hacking of Democratic Party organisations and operatives in the 2016 election campaign.

The article is obviously trying to appear a balanced view, eschewing the “OMG we are at war with Russia” hyperbole and questioning the value of different pieces of evidence. It does slip here and there, for instance jumping from the involvement of “a team linked to the Russian government” (for which there is considerable evidence) to “directed from the Kremlin” without justification.

The evidence that the hackers who penetrated the DNC systems and John Podesta’s email account are linked to the Russian Government is that the same tools were used as have been used in other pro-Russian actions in the past.

*Update 4th Jan 2017: that is a bit vague: infosec regular @pwnallthethings goes into very clear detail in a twitter thread)

One important consideration is the sort of people who do this kind of thing. Being able to hack systems requires some talent, but not any weird Hollywood-esque genius. It also takes a lot of experience, which goes out of date quite quickly. Mostly, the people who have the talent and experience are the people who have done it for fun.

Those people are difficult to recruit into military or intelligence organisations. They tend not to get on well with concepts such as wearing uniforms, turning up on time, or passing drug tests.

It is possible in theory to bypass the enthusiasts and have more professional people learn the techniques. One problem is that becoming skilled requires practice, and that generally means practice on innocent victims. More significantly, the first step in any action is to work through cut-out computers to avoid being traced, and those cut-outs are also hacked computers belonging to random victims. That’s the way casual hackers, spammers and other computer criminals work, and espionage hackers have to use the same techniques. They have to be doing it all the time, to keep a base of operations, and to keep their techniques up to date.

For all these reasons, it makes much more sense for state agencies to stay arms-length from the actual hackers. The agencies will know about the hackers, maybe fund them indirectly, cover for them, and make suggestions, but there won’t be any official chain of command.

So the hackers who got the data from the DNC were probably somewhat associated with the Russian Government (though a comprehensive multi-year deception by another organisation deliberately appearing to be Russian is not completely out of the question).

They may have had explicit (albeit off-the-record) instructions, but that’s not necessary. As the New York Times itself observed, Russia has generally been very alarmed by Hillary Clinton for years. The group would have known to oppose her candidacy without being told.

“It was conventional wisdom… that Mrs. Clinton considered her husband’s efforts to reform Russia in the 1990s an unfinished project, and that she would seek to finish it by encouraging grass-roots efforts that would culminate with regime change.”

Dealing with the product is another matter. It might well have gone to a Russian intelligence agency, either under an agreement with the hackers or ad-hoc from a “concerned citizen”: you would assume they would want to see anything and everything of this kind that they could get. While hacking is best treated as deniable criminal activity, it would be much more valuable to agencies to have close control over the timing and content of releases of data.

So I actually agree with the legacy media that the extraction and publication of Democratic emails was probably a Russian intelligence operation. There is a significant possibility it was not, but was done by some Russians independent of government, and a remote possibility it was someone completely unrelated who has a practice of deliberately leaving false clues implicating Russia.

I’ve often said that the real power of the media is not the events that they report but the context to the events that they imply. Governments spying on each other is completely normal. Governments spying on foreign political movements is completely normal. Governments attempting to influence foreign elections by leaking intelligence is completely normal. Points to Nydwracu for finding this by William Safire:

“The shrewd Khrushchev came away from his personal duel of words with Nixon persuaded that the advocate of capitalism was not just tough-minded but strong-willed; he later said that he did all he could to bring about Nixon’s defeat in his 1960 presidential campaign.”

The major restraint on interference in foreign elections is generally the danger that if the candidate you back loses then you’ve substantially damaged your own relations with the winner. The really newsworthy aspect of all this is that the Russians had such a negative view of Clinton that they thought this wouldn’t make things any worse. It’s been reported that the Duma broke into applause when the election result was announced.

The other thing that isn’t normal is a complete public dump of an organisation’s emails. That’s not normal because it’s a new possibility, one that people generally haven’t begun to get their heads around. I was immediately struck by the immense power of such an attack the first time I saw it, in early 2011. No organisation can survive it: this is an outstanding item that has to be solved. I wouldn’t rule out a new recommended practice to destroy all email after a number of weeks, forcing conversation histories to be boiled down to more sterile and formal documents that are far less potentially damaging if leaked.

It is just about possible for an organisation to be able to adequately secure their corporate data, but that’s both a technical problem and a management problem. However, the first impression you get is of the DNC is one of amateurism. That of course is not a surprise. As I’ve observed before, if you consider political parties to be an important part of the system of government, their lack of funding and resources is amazing, even if American politics is better-funded than British. That the DNC were told they had been hacked and didn’t do anything about it is still shocking. Since 2011, this is something that any organisation sensitive to image should be living in fear of.

This is basically evidence-free speculation, but it seems possible that the Democratic side is deficient in actual organisation builders: the kind of person who will set up systems, make rules, and get a team of people to work together. A combination of fixation on principles rather than practical action, and on diversity and “representativeness” over extraordinary competence meant that the campaign didn’t have the equivalent of a Jared Kushner to move in, set up an effective organisation and get it working.

Or possibly the problem is more one of history: the DNC is not a political campaign set up to achieve a task, but a permanent bureaucracy bogged down by inferior personnel and a history of institutional compromises.  Organisations become inefficient naturally.

Possibly Trump in contrast benefited from his estrangement from the Republican party establishment, since it meant he did not have legacy organisations to leak his secrets and undermine his campaign’s efficiency. He had a Manhattan Project, not an ITER.

The task of building–or rebuilding–an organisation is one that few people are suited to. Slotting into an existing structure is very much easier. Clinton’s supporters particularly are liable to have the attitude that a job is something you are given, rather than something you make. Kushner and Brad Parscale seem to stand out as people who have the capability of making a path rather than following one. As an aside, Obama seems to have had such people also, but Clinton may have lacked them. Peter Thiel described Kushner as “the Chief Operating Officer” of Trump’s campaign. Maybe the real estate business that Trump and Kushner are in, which consists more of separate from-scratch projects than most other businesses, orients them particularly to that style.

Soft Power

On the question of Islamic terrorism in the West, the narrative of the right has been that letting in large numbers of immigrants from Islamic countries is dangerous. The narrative of the left has been that the terrorism is a result of the West’s invasions and destabilising of the Islamic world.

Very few people seem to have noticed that there is no contradiction between the two narratives.  They can both be correct, and in my opinion they probably both are.

I do have one issue with the “left” narrative however; not that I disagree with it, but I think it carries with it some associations that are interestingly wrong.

The associated idea is that sending in armies, special forces, cruise missiles and drones to other countries is particularly likely to stir up violent response in your own country, as if by some kind of justice or karma.

That is, on its face, quite a plausible thing to believe, which is why it gets carried around as the mostly-unspoken associate of the concrete argument that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in Islamic terrorism in America and Europe.

The problem with the idea, plausible as it is, is that it leads to the conclusion that aggressive military interventions are particularly dangerous, and that it is preferable to act in a more restrained way, using “soft power” to achieve foreign policy objectives by encouraging or giving aid to sympathetic factions. (I think the original meaning of “soft power” was a bit more subtle than the heavy-handed but non-kinetic activities I am talking about, but I don’t have a better term).

That sounds plausible too, but the history of the last few decades seems to me to demonstrate the opposite.  Way back in 2003 I argued that the major error that led to the necessity (or near-necessity) of invading Iraq was not the 1991 invasion, but the actions taken after the 1991 invasion to try to overthrow Saddam Hussein via “soft power” and the Kurds.

In a similar way, while the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did much to stir up terrorism in the West, they are not the biggest cause. Much more damage has been done by the “Arab Spring”, the attempt by the West to replace dictatorships with democracies through propaganda and funding for activists, with only a tiny little bit of bombing in an extreme case.

My view is that these kind of soft power interventions are particularly dangerous. Of course, there is the chance that they will be totally ineffective, which would be OK, but that possibility itself lends a reckless attitude to the decision-makers behind the interventions. When starting a war, even twenty-first century politicians make some small effort to anticipate consequences and problems. When intervening without military force, image and sentiment take over entirely, and no attempt at all is made to predict what the concrete consequences are likely to be, even when it is very easy to do so.

As I argued in 2003, I’d rather see military action, thought through and taken seriously, than the kind of gesture politics behind the Arab Spring, or, for that matter, the Ukrainian coup.

A Scale-Free model of reactionary order

@Outsideness asks for
a scale-free model of reactionary order. What
he means by this is, why do neoreactionaries of the Moldbug variety
recommend central authority within a single state, but many small
independent sovereign states in the international realm. If one
central authority is good for the state, why isn’t it good for the
A case for independent sovereign states can be made on
ethno-nationalist grounds: there is such a thing as a people, and the
customs of one people are not the customs of another people. If
another people’s customs are incompatible with my people’s customs,
then put a border between us and minimise the conflict.
The Moldbuggians are
not primarily ethno-nationalists,
however. Patchwork
is not a vision of distinct nations, but of distinct states, small and
potentially multi-national.
Why small states? @Outsideness suggests:
Is it not Moldbug’s ultimate conclusion that domestic authority is parasitic upon global anarchy, which trains it through exit?
Meaning, the absolute rulers of states are required to make their
realms attractive to live in, in order to compete for productive
inhabitants with rival states. If a state grows large enough that exit
becomes difficult—through effective border control, or non-existence
or scarcity of rivals—then rulers will be more extractive towards
their populations.
Hence the request for a scale-free theory. If two (or more) sovereigns
within the Kingdom of California are a bad thing, but several
sovereigns within the continent of North America are a good thing,
where is the line drawn, and why?
My take is that, attractive as Patchwork is, a world of small states
would not be stable or sustainable. The Moldbug post linked above, and
the three preceding it, describe a world-system of joint-stock
sovereign authorities enabled by mechanical, cryptographic enforcement
technologies, which I see as not fundamentally impossible, but fragile
and highly implausible. If you reject the internal state structure of
Patchwork, as most neoreactionaries do, you probably lose the external
structure also.
Historically, small states have tended to be swept up by empires. The
surviving small states, have survived as compromises between
empires—buffer zones or bargaining chips. Thereafter, they have often
been exceptionally successful, but their integrity has depended either
on agreements between others of the “if you don’t try to annex it, we
won’t either” type, or on being a de facto protectorate of an empire
that simply can’t be bothered with ruling it actively. That situation
assumes that there will be empires; in a world of only small states,
some will, by union or conquest, become empires, and the independence
of others depends on the action of the empires.
Why not one empire then? That is what the logic of neoreactionary
monarchy suggests.
The prediction of rational rule leading to world government is
parallel to the old Marxist one of capitalism leading inevitably to
monopoly, and I think the flaws of the one argument are essentially
the flaws of the other—Change and Diseconomies of Scale.
The Marxist argument is actually correct, in isolation. The example I
always used to use to discuss this was zip fasteners. Two companies
making zip fasteners will make less profit than one, because the one
will be able to extract monopoly rent, and reduce inefficient
duplication. And indeed it came to pass, ten years ago when I used to
talk about this, that practically every zip fastener in the world was
made by one company. I would ask whoever I was talking to about the
subject to check the clothing they were wearing, confident that they
would find the letters “YKK” on the handle of the zip.
The punchline was that the world zip-fastener monopoly was so
economically insignificant, that it was run as a sideline by a
Japanese architectural manufacturing company. Because the industry fit
the Marxist model—everyone knew how to make zippers, they had been
made the same for decades, they were the same in every country—the
profit margins had become negligible, and there was little incentive
for anyone to compete with YKK for the market. In fact, the argument
doesn’t even work any more: zippers are more often plastic than metal,
and more variety of products and of manufacturers have emerged.
I think the same considerations apply to states. Microstates suffer
from economies of scale in external defence, and outside a variety of
niches, are likely to fall to larger, more efficient states. But the
returns to scale diminish, and while a state with a population of a
billion may still have an advantage over one with a population of a
hundred million, other factors could very easily outweigh that
advantage. (The ethno-nationalist considerations alluded to earlier
serve as one of those other factors).
If the world develops in a way favourable to neoreaction, I would
expect the international climate to remain recognisable. There will
still be empires, still largish states which have factors such as
physical geography or ethnicity preventing them from enlarging or
being absorbed, still small states surviving because it’s not worth
the cost or inconvenience of annexing them. Probably there will be
a good deal less wars fought for the sake of warm fuzzy feels.
Finally, while the option of exit is desirable and beneficial, the
neoreactionary argument does not absolutely require it. A world state
would presumably be secure enough that he would have no reason to
diversify his assets by extracting value from his subjects and
investing that value elsewhere; rather, his returns would be maximised
by allowing the value of his subjects to grow, which is a good
situation to be in for the subject.


When I wrote the essay “Kingdom 2037” last year, describing a hypothetical future restored English Monarchy, I paid relatively little attention to international relations. My line was that the realm would follow a cautious foreign policy, maintain armed forces for defence, and resist foreign-backed rebel groups if they appeared within the country.
My unspoken assumption was that the existing “international community” was no longer in force, or at the very least was enormously weakened in comparison to the situation today.
That is an essential assumption. In simple terms, any kind of successful reaction in a significant Western country is currently completely impossible, no matter what happens inside it.
It is not simply that the offending reactionary country will be bombed, although that itself is quite probable. Even without that (in other words, even if the reactionary country has nuclear weapons), it will be subjected to constant pressure through every conduit of international activity.
Every international company that does business there, every NGO, every embassy, every media organisation, will be taking whatever opportunities exist to support rebels and to undermine the sovereign.
It is possible to resist this pressure — all you have to do is limit foreign influence wherever it arises. Foreign business must be done only through local trusted partners. Foreign NGOs are excluded or subject to extremely close surveillance and inspection. 
This can work. It is what Russia does, and China. The problem is that the effort of resisting the international community ends up dominating the state. In Russia, particularly, the decision to exclude foreign commercial competition gives such lopsided power to a handful of domestic industrialists that they become the dominant figures in the state. Rather than being the sovereign who stands above internal disputes and arbitrates them, Putin is inextricable tied to the oil and gas companies. True, he runs them instead of them running him, but, ultimately, what’s the difference?  It doesn’t have to be that way: Russia could grow economically in plenty of other areas, but the power of the resource extraction industry in the absence of meaningful foreign competition means that they cannot let that happen. The alternative paths to prosperity all pass through exposing the country to being taken over by the international community.
In fact, the measures necessary to fend off the international community are very familiar: they have gone by the name of Nazism. All foreigners and foreign influences are subject to intense suspicion — any groups of people who have strong foreign ties, such as immigrants and Jews, are necessarily treated as enemies of the state. Autarky is aimed for as a defence, and in the absence of international trade, collectivisation of industry or corporatism becomes the essential approach to managing the monopoly power of domestic industry. These are the deliberate steps the original German Nazis took — their movement was explicitly, first and foremost, about becoming independent of the international community so that Germany could escape subservience.
When I floated this idea with some actual self-described Nazis, they disagreed: “National Socialism was literally born out of the will to attempt to revert modernization and to revive Germany from its death … as time grew and National Socialism fostered an actual ideology, it began to exist solely for the purpose of the creation of a new man.”  I don’t think it’s a large disagreement, but I wouldn’t want to unfairly misrepresent any Nazis.
Thus, by the way, the endless question of “is Nazism left or right?”. Nazism in my theory intends to be right, but if you take all the steps necessary to fend off the international community, you are not going your own way; you can go only one way — to totalitarianism, which means that the results are barely distinguishable from the progressive totalitarianism of communism. Though I have to say, that “new man” idea does sound more than a little progressive to me.
What this all means is that if the World Order survives, if the Cathedral retains control of the United States and its commercial and military power, then true reaction anywhere in the world is impossible. A disappointing conclusion, but, after all, that is what hegemony means.
It doesn’t bother me that much, because I don’t think the World Order will survive. The strategy I advocate is to prepare for its self-inflicted demise and to cause the next World Order be a reactionary one. The demise might be catastrophic, or it may be a shifting to new powers: though I’m not really keen on Nazism in itself, one thing to be said in its favour is that it is less ideological and less aggressive than liberalism is. If power shifts from the US to a non-Western centre — China, say — they are quite likely to refrain from imposing the same ideological hegemony that the US does currently, at least for a few decades.
Is that shift of power likely?  I do not take the view that China, or any other non-Western power, is presently on a course to simply grow stronger than the West. The power shift would only happen if the West were to seriously cripple itself, gradually or suddenly. There are a number of plausible paths by which that could happen. Even a balance of power would permit much more freedom to other countries than exists under the current Pax Americana

Obama’s Way

Michael Lewis’s piece in Vanity Fair, based on spending time with President Obama last year, is absolutely essential reading.

I’ve seen some comments on twitter to the effect that the piece is basically out to make Obama seem like a nice guy. Well, that’s Michael Lewis’s schtick; he blends the big story with a feel for the personalities of the subjects. He does it very well; I got held up writing this, because it reminded me I never got around to reading The Blind Side, and that caused me to waste a day.

Obama probably is a nice guy, but that’s not the big story, and it isn’t all that important either way.

There are two stories in the article; first the atmosphere of the presidency, and second the decision to overthrow Gadaffi.

The atmosphere is familiar, particularly reminding me of Nick Clegg saying he feels “lobotomised” by working in government, with the “frenetic” pace of politics leaving him with no time to think. Lewis says Obama “has the oddest relationship to the news of any human being on the planet. Wherever it starts out, it quickly finds him and forces him to make some decision about it: whether to respond to it, and shape it, or to leave it be. As the news speeds up, so must our president’s response to it”.

An incidental point is Lewis’s judgement that “He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them.” To me that is just a sign of someone who doesn’t understand politics very well. (Some have suggested that Obama is some kind of cynical political operator, based on his participation in the famously grubby Chicago political machine. But that may overestimate his role there — he may well have been a piece on the board there, rather than a chessplayer).

Lewis represents as exceptional and courageous Obama’s refusal to make a snap decision on whether to support a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011. Rather than deciding in one meeting, he demanded a second meeting with alternative actions suggested that, unlike a no-fly zone, would actually work.

And so to the second big story. If Lewis’s account is to be believed, the decision to take out the Libyan army on the road to Benghazi, thereby destroying the Libyan state and producing a revolutionary government, was made entirely on the basis of the humanitarian issue caused by the steps Gadaffi would be likely to take to regain control of Benghazi. The arguments made against decisively taking the rebel side in the civil war were purely based on the cost and the risk of tying up further US military resources. The question of who would take over Libya and what they would do afterwards doesn’t seem to have arisen; rather, “The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room.” The mind boggles.

But, from Obama’s position, the decision was made in a few hours here and there. I have put more time into deciding whether to buy a DVD.

The overwhelming fact is the constraint of available time. Any person, of whatever ability and whatever theoretical power, can be made impotent just by keeping them busy. And if the only decisions which are referred to the top level are the ones which are so well-balanced as to be 50-50, the leader might just as well toss a coin.

Therefore, the only real way to gain power is as a group: one leader and a few loyal sidekicks. The sidekicks have the real power, because they have time to think. The leader is effectively their frontman.

Alternatively, the leader can take one issue, allowing a sidekick to handle everything else. That’s the setup described in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon, and referred to by Fred Brooks in The Missing Man-Month.

Monarchism and Stability in the Middle East / North Africa

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution posts a link to a paper by Victor Menaldo, The Middle East and North Africa’s Resilient Monarchs.

It’s well worth a read; it’s not long, though frankly I’ll need to spend more time with it than I have this evening.

First and foremost, it’s a challenge to the Bueno de Mesquita theory that all that matters is the size of the ruling coalition and the selectorate — a theory that I found valuable but simplistic. Menaldo addresses political culture, observing that the political culture serves to distinguish regime insiders from outsiders. He finds that monarchical governments have less conflict and better economic development.

Particularly interesting to me is the account of elites within the monarchical society. These kingdoms are not the absolute autocracies of my “degenerate formalism”, but actually existing monarchies, in which the extended royal family and other important groups hold significant power. Menaldo’s argument is that the fact that the political culture defines who shares in power, the struggles between in-groups are limited. Unlike a faction in a revolutionary republic, you can lose a power struggle and still be an insider with some power.

In my view, this is also the strength of our somewhat corrupted democracies: if you’re an insider but you’re losing, it’s still not worth being extremely destructive. Better to admit defeat and preserve the system that keeps you an insider even as a loser.

Because of that, this paper doesn’t really make my argument: it shows that monarchy is better than a revolutionary republic, but not that it is better than a western democracy. Still, it’s useful that it’s showing some of the strengths that monarchy has.

It’s not without weaknesses, either. As with other work of this kind, I don’t really take the mathematics seriously. Checking that a statistical analysis bears out the impression you get from drawing a couple of graphs and watching CNN is not what I call verifying a testable hypothesis. And a relatively small data set of somewhat subjective categorisations of events seems inadequate for the amount of analysis being done on it.

Also, the paper, as far as I have seen, does not explore the possibility that foreign influence is the explanation for the difference in violence. Bahrain faced nothing like the outside pressure that Libya or Syria did. I don’t think foreign action is affected directly by whether the regime is monarchical or republican, but there might be an indirect link with foreign policy stance.

Froude on Democratic War

The newspapers and popular orators, accustomed to canvass and criticise the actions of statesmen at home, forgot that prudence suggested reticence about the affairs of others with whom we had no right to interfere. The army was master of France, and to speak of its chief in such terms as those in which historians describe a Sylla or a Marius was not the way to maintain peaceful relations with dangerous neighbours. Neither the writers nor the speakers wished for war with France. They wished only for popularity as the friends of justice and humanity; but war might easily have been the consequence unless pen and tongue could be taught caution.

– “The Earl of Beaconsfield“, J. A. Froude, Chapter X

I have a half-written post on Amina Arraf, but that about covers it.

On the next page, an echo of Mogadishu and Manhattan:

The indirect consequences of fatuities are sometimes worse than their immediate effects. It was known over the world that England, France, Turkey, and Italy had combined to endeavour to crush Russia, and had succeeded only in capturing half of a single Russian city. The sepoy army heard of our failures, and the centenary of the battle of Plassy was signalised by the Great Mutiny.

Theology of the Arab Spring

A few thoughts arise from whyiamnot’s latest.

The first is to restate the huge benefits that Western democratic governments get from the illusion that the people are actually in control. People can go out in the street, change politicians, and think they’ve achieved something, while at the same time accepting that the establishment will carry on ruling with a passivity and fatalism that is the envy of every generalissimo-turned-president-for-life.

But it is the comparison with the demonstrations of the “Arab Spring” which really got me thinking.

There are two kinds of mob, and at first it’s sometimes hard to tell which kind one is.

First is the real revolutionary mob. It is a simple fact that if a large number of people are allowed to congregate in a capital city, they can physically overthrow the government. The government is, after all, right there. All they have to do is break the doors down and take it.

The second kind are demonstrators. If the same number of people just wave banners, they can cause traffic delays, but that’s about it. They can only get rid of the government if they choose to, by becoming the first kind. That can happen, because just demonstrating does prove that the government hasn’t got the will to stop them, and that indicates that a revolution is possible where previously it was assumed not to be. That was largely the mechanism in Eastern Europe twenty-five years ago. In some cases the mob actually happened (Romania), in most as far as I recall the proof that it was possible was enough for the regime to quit before any actual lynchings started.

In a state ruled by fear, then, the fact of a mob in the street is the end. Everyone knows that, if allowed, the mob will remove the government, so proving it to be possible makes it inevitable. If the state has wider support, though, a demonstration can be a bluff. Mubarrak seemed quite willing to just let the demonstrators hang about Tahir Square, and they showed no signs of actually taking advantage of their position.

They won anyway though. That is because they were playing a different game altogether. Their banners were not for Egyptians, either in their houses, in the army, or in the ministries. The banners were in English — they were for Americans to read.

The democratic religion says that all governments everywhere ought to be subject to the will of the people. Given a clear demonstration that the people oppose a government, democrats have a religious duty to assist them, even if they themselves actually like the government in question.

The actions of the US and EU in Egypt and Libya only make the slightest bit of sense when seen as the fulfilling of an unwelcome religious obligation. Mubarrak was shoved out easily enough, but Gadaffi required a bit more action. However, it is obvious that nobody’s heart is really in Libyan regime change. Reluctantly, a few planes were flown over, a few missiles shot off. The Americans have apparently now done their bit and gone home. There was never a plan for victory, because there was never a desire for victory, only a duty to “help”, fulfilled with the same enthusiasm as dropping a fiver into the collection plate at the end of the service.