West Village to West Bank

Tony Judt is an intellectuals' intellectual. To review a book composed of his book reviews, which are often about other people who wrote a lot of book reviews, you feel you really ought to be sitting in a caf' on the Rive Gauche, smoking Gauloises and sipping Pernod.

In fact, you are more likely to encounter Judt in downtown Manhattan, where he directs the Erich Maria Remarque Centre at New York University. Readers of Postwar, his recent, critically acclaimed history of Europe since 1945, will know that he is a highly readable authority on sometimes unreadable west European (and especially French) intellectuals. What this new collection reveals, however, is how the Left Bank looks viewed from the West Village.

A regular reviewer for the unwaveringly liberal New York Review of Books, Judt is accustomed to writing for an elite American audience. At times, he is content to lead that audience in a liberal singalong. On page one of Reappraisals, he laments the years between the fall of the Berlin wall and "the catastrophic American occupation of Iraq" as "the years the locust ate: a decade and a half of wasted opportunity and political incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic". His parting shot is a call for "the left in Europe ... to reconstruct a case for the activist state". Ho hum.

Thankfully, Judt says these boring things only so his liberal readers drop their guard. Then he delivers the intellectual equivalent of a left hook. "The Jewish intellectuals of interwar and postwar Central Europe", he writes, "were especially drawn to Marxism ... 'Zydokomuna' ('Judeo-communism') may be an anti-Semitic term of abuse in Polish nationalist circles, but for a few crucial years it also described a reality." It takes nerve to write a sentence like that, especially in the NYRB.

The uppercut soon follows: "After 37 years of military occupation [of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967], Israel has gained nothing in security; it has lost everything in domestic civility and international responsibility; and it has forfeited the moral high ground forever."

And finally, a knockout punch: "Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian of our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and the shame of the age."

Judt is by education (King's, Cambridge, 1966-1972) a man of the left. But, as his devastating verdict on Hobsbawm suggests, he reserves his harshest words for Marxist intellectuals, especially formerly line-toeing communists. Judt now understands what some people knew all along: "Some version of liberalism that accords the maximum of freedom and initiative in every sphere of life is the only possible option."

Judt is also by birth and upbringing a secular Jew; the descendant of Lithuanian rabbis, he spent his gap year on a kibbutz and even volunteered for the Israeli Defence Forces during the Six-Day war. But in this volume he bestows his highest praise on Edward Said, for decades the Palestinians' most vociferous spokesman in the US.

He even endorses Said's view that Israel should recognise the Palestinian refugees' "right of return" and become a "binational" state, shared equally between Jews and Arabs.

Many of the "rootless cosmopolitans" about whom Judt writes were uprooted by forces beyond their control. Judt is a cosmopolitan who has uprooted himself. He has lapsed not just once but twice: as a socialist and as a Zionist.

It is not surprising, then, that so many of Judt's heroes are what the Germans call Querdenker or contrarian thinkers: Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt and, especially, Albert Camus. The thread linking these intellectuals, in Judt's mind, was their readiness to question dogma, especially when they saw it used to justify violence. "Mistaken ideas always end in bloodshed," he (twice) quotes Camus, "but in every case it is someone else's blood."

As a rule, the Querdenker ends up with more enemies than friends. Certainly, Judt lost friends by criticising Israel. But he is clearly a man with the courage of his (new) convictions. He abhors bloodshed but relishes a verbal fight. You sense that he rather admires Koestler for (as one contemporary recalled) being "capable of reciting the truths of the multiplication table in a way to make some people indignant with him".

Judt certainly has a wonderful eye for the telling quotation. Here, in all its awfulness, is the snobbery of the London left circa 1970, as exemplified by Sonia Orwell at a dinner party: "Auschwitz, oh dear, no! That person was never in Auschwitz. Only in some very minor death camp."

Also beautifully captured is the pompous, overblown style that EP Thompson favoured in debate: "There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts," he wrote to the great Polish political philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, author of the definitive (and damning) Main Currents of Marxism. Kolakowski's withering riposte was entitled "My Correct Views on Everything".

Judt's deepest fear is that this world - that of the "free-standing intellectual" - is fading as fast as the Marxist ideology that was its principal talking point. Nothing, in his view, can be done to salvage Marxism. But Judt would love to preserve the milieu within which it was discussed - though I can't help feeling that intellectuals without Marxism are a bit like jazz musicians without cigarette smoke.

Like all collections of essays, this one has its duds. On the fall of France in 1940 Judt is beta-double-plus at best. Ditto the piece on the Cuban missile crisis. There is disappointingly little insight in the 1998 critique of Henry Kissinger. And, apart from one slightly funny line ("Blair ... is the gnome in England's Garden of Forgetting"), the piece on New Labour's Britain is off-key.

The discrepancy between these and the many straight alpha essays is easily explained. When Judt writes about generals, politicians and statesmen, he is playing away from home, far from his familiar bohemian haunts. Try as he may, he simply cannot empathise with the men of action who actually make history.

It is only as a reviewer of those who themselves review - the denizens of the caf's, not the situation rooms - that the intellectuals' intellectual excels.


April 13, 2008

War Plans


The Wars for the Twenty-First Century.
By Philip Bobbitt.
672 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.

The age of "Atlantic man" is conventionally thought to be over. Some, like Parag Khanna, foresee the rise of a "second world" to challenge American hegemony. Others, notably Fareed Zakaria, are harbingers of a "post-American world." The rapid economic rise of China (and India) suggests to many that the geopolitical center of gravity no longer lies somewhere between Washington and London. The embarrassments of the Anglo-American "special relationship" in Iraq have encouraged others (myself among them) to predict a decline of American empire.

Philip Bobbitt, however, is homo atlanticus redux. A dapper Southerner, renowned almost as much for his sparkling literary allusions as for his acute thinking, he divides his time among Austin, Tex.; New York, where he teaches law at Columbia; and London, where he has lectured in war studies. His new book, "Terror and Consent," is in many ways a manifesto for a new Atlanticism, not just a reassertion but a reinvention of the dominant role of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It will be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan's Upper East Side to London's West End.

But "Terror and Consent" is much more than that readership might suggest. This is quite simply the most profound book to have been written on the subject of American foreign policy since the attacks of 9/11 - indeed, since the end of the cold war. I have no doubt it will be garlanded with prizes. It deserves to be. It is more important that it should be read, marked and inwardly digested by all three of the remaining candidates to succeed George W. Bush as president of the United States.

Bobbitt's originality lies in his almost unique ability to synthesize three quite different traditions of scholarship. The first is history. The second is law, particularly constitutional law. The third is military strategy. This synthesis owes as much to the corridors of power as to the sequestered groves of academe. Bobbitt was an associate counsel to President Carter, legal counsel to the Senate's Iran-Contra committee and a senior director on the National Security Council under President Clinton.

In his last book, "The Shield of Achilles" (2002), Bobbitt advanced a bold argument about the history of international relations since the time of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). His central argument was that, in the aftermath of the cold war, the traditional post-Westphalian ideal of the sovereign nation-state had become obsolescent. In the increasingly borderless world we associate with globalization, something new was emerging, which Bobbitt called (and continues to call) the "market-state." This state's relationship to its citizens resembles that between a corporation and consumers. Its counterpart - and enemy - is the terrorist network. The central problem raised in "The Shield of Achilles" was how far the market-state could and should go to defeat such networks, particularly when they were in some measure sponsored by traditional nation-states.

Read as a tract for the times, "The Shield of Achilles" seemed to exemplify the change in American attitudes to foreign policy that began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, accelerated during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and came to a head after 9/11. Some reviewers took it to be a neoconservative work, and Bobbitt's support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 lent credence to that view. However, read as a work of history, it was no such thing. Rather, it was a reflection on the decline of national sovereignty in an age of globalization.

"Terror and Consent" is less historical; indeed, it is more concerned with the future and how best we should anticipate its challenges. Did I say "the future"? Bobbitt has learned from the scenario-builders of Royal Dutch Shell the essential point that there is really no such thing as the future - only futures (plural). The task he has set himself here is to challenge nearly all our existing ideas about the so-called wars on terror (note, once again, the plural), in the belief that only a root-and-branch rethinking will equip us to deal with the problems posed by "the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mass terrorist atrocities and humanitarian crises that bring about or are brought about by terror."

Bobbitt's central premise is that today's Islamic terrorist network, which he calls Al Qaeda for short, is like a distorted mirror image of the post-Westphalian market-state: decentralized, privatized, outsourced and in some measure divorced from territorial sovereignty. The terrorists are at once parasitical on, and at the same time hostile toward, the globalized economy, the Internet and the technological revolution in military affairs. Just as the plagues in the 14th century were unintended consequences of increased trade and urbanization, so terrorism is a negative externality of our borderless world.

The difference, of course, is one of intent. The rats that transported the lethal fleas that transported the lethal enterobacteria Yersinia pestis did not mean to devastate the populations of Eurasia and Africa. The Black Death was a natural disaster. Al Qaeda is different. Its members seek to undermine the market-state by turning its own technological achievements against it in a protracted worldwide war, the ultimate goal of which is to create a Sharia-based "terror-state" in the form of a new caliphate. Osama bin Laden and his confederates want to acquire nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction. Precisely because of the nature of the market-state, as well as the actions of rogue nation-states, the key components and knowledge are very close to being available to them - witness the nuclear Wal-Mart run in Pakistan by A. Q. Khan. With such weapons, the terrorists will be able to unleash a super-9/11, with scarcely imaginable human and psychological costs.

In short, we are in a war. Those who say that you cannot fight an abstract noun have misunderstood that "terror" itself is being deployed as a weapon against us by a hostile and calculating nongovernmental organization. To refine his argument, Bobbitt introduces a distinction. Both the market-states and the nation-states of the West are democratic; they are "states of consent," in which the rule of law exists to uphold individual liberty and rights. Our adversaries aim to replace our consent-based order with a "state of terror."

So how should you fight terror? Like the British soldier-philosopher Rupert Smith, Bobbitt argues that the Bush administration blundered in Iraq by waging the wrong kind of war. As a victory over a suspected rogue nation-state, Operation Iraqi Freedom was a triumph. But the "war amongst the people" that then had to be waged to convert Iraq into an ally in the war on terror was a fiasco. Bush had wanted an old-style victory-with-parades. In these new wars there can be no such resolution (hence Bobbitt's earlier coinage, "the long war," which a more sober Bush briefly adopted).

To make matters worse, the Bush administration has seemed to glory in its contempt for the rule of law, even as it has posed as the exporter of freedom. A member of the Democratic Party (and nephew of Lyndon Johnson), Bobbitt is damning about the deficiencies of the Patriot Act, the "prison colony" at Guant

Lost in translation

It was the arch Anglo-American Sir Winston Churchill who gave currency to the phrase "English-speaking peoples" as shorthand for the inhabitants of Great Britain and the US, not forgetting Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Last year, British historian Andrew Roberts sought to revive it by adding a 20th-century volume to Churchill's four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Now comes the American Walter Russell Mead whose contention is that people such as himself - here usually referred to as "the Anglo-Americans" - "made the modern world".

Mead is a scintillating writer who greatly adds to the gaiety of the often monotonous debate on US foreign policy. His last book, Special Providence, was a persuasive typology and history of the four main currents in US strategic thinking since 1776. However, a cursory visit to Amazon.com reveals that there are currently more than 30 books in print with the phrase "Making of the Modern World" in their titles or subtitles (one of them by me). Everything from the British Empire to Genghis Khan - as well as clocks, drugs, dynamite, English naturalists and war - is now said to have made the modern world. Mead's first challenge is therefore to convince the reader that his Anglo-Americans have been the real transformers of the globe.

His case is a remarkable hybrid: apart from Churchill, its identifiable ancestors include Alfred Thayer Mahan, Max Weber and Lord Macaulay. According to Mead, a defining characteristic of the Anglo-Americans is that "they keep on winning", and that the key to their victories has invariably been command of the seas.

Second, the English speakers had the benefit of the Protestant ethic. Theirs was a spirituality that was not merely compatible with capitalism; it positively encouraged hard work and the accumulation of wealth. (Hence God and Gold.)

Third, the Anglo-Americans arrived by trial and error at a political via media, in which individual liberty was reconciled with the existence of an externally strong state.

When Mead talks playfully about the "golden meme" - a way of reconciling political differences that migrated from Amsterdam to London to Washington - he is offering an international version of Macaulay's Whig interpretation of history.

The US today, he suggests, is like Britain in the time of Queen Anne (1665-1714): poised between "reason, revelation and tradition". Mead argues that it is their ability to strike this balance that sets the Anglo-Americans apart from the other civilisations of the great monotheistic religions.

The trouble with Anglo-Americans, he laments, is that they don't appreciate how lucky they are. Addicted to "permanent revolution" in the realm of economics, they constantly agitate to make the world more like Adam Smith's vision of a perfectly free market.

This elicits resistance from peoples who gain less from applying the theory of comparative advantage. Yet these periodic backlashes are invariably defeated. No rival power, it seems, can hope to overcome the magic Anglo-American "trifecta" of free markets, evangelical Protestantism and representative government.

When Special Providence was published in 2002, Mead's timing was good. The cold war had been won, the war against radical Islamism had just begun and Washington was in the market for historians who knew precedents for pre-emption and unilateralism. God and Gold, however, comes at a less propitious moment.

The resurgence of China and India as global economic powers - to say nothing of the "energy empires" of Iran and Russia - means that in relative terms, the Anglo-American hegemony is already on the wane.

Above all, Mead overlooks the extent to which the very un-Weberian culture of consumption, which has become the motivating force of the Anglophone economies, has rendered them as dependent on foreign capital as were the moribund empires of the Ottomans, Qing and Romanovs a century ago.

Meanwhile, over the situation in Iraq, fissures have opened within the English-speaking world. There is abundant evidence, not discussed here in this book, that other Anglophone peoples feel a diminished affinity with their US counterparts. Mead is quite wrong to assume, for example, that religion is as "persistent" in the rest of the Anglosphere as it is in the US.

While there's no harm in celebrating what we English-speaking peoples have in common - and Mead does it well - the differences between Anglos and Americans are much greater than he implies. Divided by more than just a common language, it will take more than a hyphen to reunite us.

We can see the causes of Cho’s rampage now, so why not before?

It was predictable. Cho Seung-Hui was a taciturn, moody loner. Four of his professors expressed concerns about the content of his work or classroom conduct. After complaints by two female students, the campus police and a college counsellor tried to have him committed to a mental institution. But a doctor didn't agree with the judge that he presented a danger to others. And guns are easy to buy in America (though banned on Virginia campuses). As a result 33 people are dead.

Journalists' efforts to explain the Virginia Tech massacre perfectly illustrate one of the central points of an idiosyncratically brilliant new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Penguin/Allen Lane). Having been completely caught out by some random event, we human beings are wonderfully good at retrospectively predicting it. In reality, however, Cho was what Taleb calls a "Black Swan".

Why a black swan? Taleb's starting point is what philosophers call the problem of induction. Suppose you have spent all your life in the northern hemisphere and have only ever seen white swans. You might very well conclude (inductively) that all swans are white. But take a trip to Australia, where swans are black, and your theory will collapse. A "Black Swan" is therefore anything that seems to us, on the basis of our limited experience, to be impossible.

Over 20 years of university teaching, I have seen my fair share of taciturn, moody young men. Many have had difficulties with girls. Some have needed counselling. A few have required psychiatric treatment. The risk that one of my depressive students might commit suicide is one I have often contemplated. But the risk that one might run amok and kill 32 people? Never.

Why, Taleb asks, do we tend to confuse improbability with impossibility? Partly, he suggests, it's because evolution did not favour complex probabilistic thinking. Honed by centuries of hunter-gathering, we are disposed to make snap decisions on the basis of minimal evidence and facile theories - presumably because those who glimpsed a lion and started running, on the crude assumption that all wild animals always eat humans, were more likely to survive than those who preferred to test this hypothesis experimentally. There are friendly lions, just as there are black swans, but better safe than sorry.

Our flawed way of thinking also reflects the development of Western philosophy, social science and history. The Platonic school of philosophy encouraged us to prefer simple theory to messy reality; it also inclines us to select only the data that fit our theories. Taleb especially abhors the tendency of economists and others to assume that everything conforms to what is sometimes called the normal distribution or "bell curve", associated with the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss.

Sure, says Taleb, a chart of the heights of all college students would look like a bell, with most clustered around the average height and only a negligible minority taller than seven feet or shorter than four feet. But it's a fatal mistake to look for bell curves everywhere. The statistical distributions of earthquakes, financial crises, wars and book sales - to name just four examples - obey a quite different set of rules (sometimes known as fractal distribution or "power laws").

In each case, when you plot a chart, there is much less clustering around the average, and there are many more data points at the extremes. Compared with the standard bell curve, these curves have "fat tails" at each end: there are many more really big quakes, economic crashes, wars and bestsellers than the normal distribution would lead you to expect. Put differently, there are many giants (and also many midgets). I suspect a similar pattern would be observed if it were possible to plot all the violent incidents that have taken place at US universities in the past half-century. Clearly, massacres of 32 are less likely than murders of one, but not as much as 60ft tall men are less likely than 6ft tall men.

Yet it is Taleb's assault on traditional historiography that is most relevant here. Since Thucydides, it is true, historians have encouraged us to explain low-probability calamities (like wars) after the fact. Such story-telling helps us to make sense of a random disaster. It also enables us to apportion blame. Generations of historians have toiled in this way to explain the origins of great calamities like, say, the First World War, constructing elegant narrative chains of causes and effects, heaping opprobrium on this or that statesman.

There is something deeply suspect about this procedure, however. It results in what Taleb calls the "retrospective distortion". For these causal chains were quite invisible to contemporaries, to whom the outbreak of war came as a bolt from the blue. The point is that there were umpteen Balkans crises before 1914 that didn't lead to Armageddon. Like Cho Seung-Hui , the Sarajevo assassin Gavrilo Princip was a Black Swan - only vastly bigger.

The same flaw is obvious in the stories currently being told about the Virginia Tech massacre. If we can see the causes of Cho's rampage now, why was it not anticipated at the time? Negligence is not the only possibility. The reality is that for every Cho who runs amok, there are hundreds of thousands of depressive, misanthropic students who don't.

Taleb's central point, then, is that we are too much influenced by instinct, history, Plato and Gauss. We assume the entire world is "Mediocristan", whereas in reality large swathes of it are "Extremistan".

The trouble is that it is much harder to live with this insight than to live without it. As Taleb's critics in the financial world will tell you (and he himself admits), merelyinsuringyourself against fat tail events does not constitute a profitable trading strategy. Knowing that world wars can happen roughly twice a century is like knowing thatastudentcanrun amok roughly once a decade: it doesn't allow you to predict which diplomatic/personality crisis will be the lethal one.

For practical purposes, it turns out, we humans prefer to work with predictions and forecasts, even when theyarenearlyalwayswrong.Weprefertoregardfinancialmarketsascasinos (what Taleb calls "the ludic fallacy" that odds are always calculable), even when they clearly aren't. And we resist payingexcessiveinsurancepremiumstocoverourselves against very remote contingencies. Forcibly committing every disturbed student to a mental hospital might avert another Virginia Techmassacre.Butthehospitalswould be overflowing.

In any case, as President Bush has learned, you don't get rewarded for trying to stop bad things from happening, precisely because if you're successful they don'thappen.Onhis watch, after all, there hasn't been another 9/11 (a classic Black Swan event). And Saddam Hussein will never invade Kuwait again. But is anybody outtheregrateful?Noteven Bush himself can be certain that his strategy of pre-emption deserves the credit for non-events.

Perhaps the most provocative of all Taleb's many provocations is his hypothesis that, as a result of globalisation and the speedofelectroniccommunications,theworldisbecoming more like Extremistan and less like Mediocristan.

Yes, the integration of international markets seems to reduce economic volatility. But by magnifying the effects of herd-like behaviour (anotherofourevolvedtraits),italsoincreases the tendency for winners to take all - the Harry Potter phenom-enon - and for disasters, when they strike, to be comparably huge.

Just as there will be fewer but bigger bestsellers, Taleb argues, so there may also be "fewer but bigger crises" in the realms of finance and geopolitics. Ihavenotquitemadeupmy mind if the Virginia Tech massacre supports his hypothesis.

But it is surely significant that Cho was consciously mimicking the behaviour of the Columbine killers, while at the same time exceeding their toll of victims. Now,thatsuggestsa really chilling possibility: of more and bigger Black Swans.

Not to mention metal detectors in the lecture halls.

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