Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On Consciousness 2

The Easy Problem, then, is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.

A path there might come (and I am certainly a universe away from the expertise that Pinker has) from the initial distinction he made between the conscious and unconscious “computations”.
The fundamental of gran mal epilepsy is a loss of consciousness. That arises from the degradation of “orderly” brain processes to chaotic. That degradation is the primary cause of “loss of consciousness”, and is also evidenced by the involuntary (chaotic) movement of muscles normally under “conscious” control.

What is not affected in the same way (otherwise gran mal seizures would be immediately life threatening) are the “unconscious” processes of breathing, heart, and other involuntary processes.

So, there is another patth to examining the division within the “Easy Problem”.

Perhaps it is a case of the brain comprising not one but two quite separate organs – closely associated, one far more ancient in evolutionary terms than the other. One, the unconscious processor, providing the mechanical life support systems; the other, the conscious processor, providing the cognitive.

The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head--why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, "That's green" (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn't reducible to anything else. As Louis Armstrong said in response to a request to define jazz, "When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know."

The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.

There is a small point of philosophy here that I want to toss into the ring. It comes out of the second paragraph and the subjective “definition” of colour. Pinker puts it this way –
TO APPRECIATE THE HARDNESS OF THE HARD PROBLEM, CONSIDER how you could ever know whether you see colors the same way that I do. Sure, you and I both call grass green, but perhaps you see grass as having the color that I would describe, if I were in your shoes, as purple. Or ponder whether there could be a true zombie--a being who acts just like you or me but in whom there is no self actually feeling anything. This was the crux of a Star Trek plot in which officials wanted to reverse-engineer Lieut. Commander Data, and a furious debate erupted as to whether this was merely dismantling a machine or snuffing out a sentient life.
Pinker’s summary is telling -
Although neither problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis"--the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.

And there is little I can find that would dispute his conclusion that-
Identifying awareness with brain physiology … is a kind of "meat chauvinism" that would dogmatically deny consciousness to Lieut. Commander Data just because he doesn't have the soft tissue of a human brain. Identifying it with information processing would go too far in the other direction and grant a simple consciousness to thermostats and calculators--a leap that most people find hard to stomach.

… the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can't hold a hundred numbers in memory, can't visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can't intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius--a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness--comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.

There are innumerable ways in which past “evolution” can be illustrated. Perhaps the most succinct way of expressing it is in the progress of science. As our brains have “evolved” to accept understanding of new and more complex systems, our ability to create and to use new tools has led a lucky few into the next level of “understanding”. But that is a process, one which will I am sure will lead to the Darwin or Einstein of “consciousness science”. Pinker again -

Whatever the solutions to the Easy and Hard problems turn out to be, few scientists doubt that they will locate consciousness in the activity of the brain. For many nonscientists, this is a terrifying prospect. Not only does it strangle the hope that we might survive the death of our bodies, but it also seems to undermine the notion that we are free agents responsible for our choices--not just in this lifetime but also in a life to come.


To go straight to TF Sterns blog. Sorry TF, I can not link to the specific article but if others are interested it is titled (as he has said) "Evolution or Eternal Progression" and is dated February 1st 2007.

I commend the article to passing readers, not because TF and I are of the same mind - we are more at opposite poles - but for its honest approach and appraisal.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On consciousness

Thanks to ALD again for yet another interesting contact...

How often have we read - or at least tried to read - those obscure and convoluted tracts upon the evolution of morality, and the relationships between morality, self and god?

Steven Pinker, writing in Time, ponders "The Mystery of Consciousness".
The young women had survived the car crash, after a fashion. In the five months since parts of her brain had been crushed, she could open her eyes but didn't respond to sights, sounds or jabs. In the jargon of neurology, she was judged to be in a persistent vegetative state. In crueler everyday language, she was a vegetable.

So picture the astonishment of British and Belgian scientists as they scanned her brain using a kind of MRI that detects blood flow to active parts of the brain. When they recited sentences, the parts involved in language lit up. When they asked her to imagine visiting the rooms of her house, the parts involved in navigating space and recognizing places ramped up. And when they asked her to imagine playing tennis, the regions that trigger motion joined in. Indeed, her scans were barely different from those of healthy volunteers. The woman, it appears, had glimmerings of consciousness.

Try to comprehend what it is like to be that woman. Do you appreciate the words and caresses of your distraught family while racked with frustration at your inability to reassure them that they are getting through? Or do you drift in a haze, springing to life with a concrete thought when a voice prods you, only to slip back into blankness? If we could experience this existence, would we prefer it to death? And if these questions have answers, would they change our policies toward unresponsive patients--making the Terri Schiavo case look like child's play?

Some while back I put down my own thoughts in a similar vein...
How can I have such an attitude to life, and more particularly to death? By simple co-incidence one reason was brought home to me just in the past few days. Our Saturday paper featured the start of “Epilepsy Week” with an article on well known Aucklanders who have this condition. It is an article which I read with particular interest, and I was surprised to find (was I?) a reflection by at least two others of the same idea.

In my teens, I had gran mal seizures over the period from puberty through to about age 19. The point in common from those people in the article I mention, to my own experience is the sudden, in my case immediate, shift from “being” to “not being”.

There is no half way house. There is no “tunnel of light”. There is “being”, then there is “nothing”. There is no consciousness of the “nothing”. The only “memory” of the “nothing” comes with the return to consciousness. That, I regret, is about as plainly as I can express it. It is not “imaginable”. To give an idea of how hard this is;

Think of sitting in a very dark room. Now, turn on the light. Can you describe “no light”? Remember that you have experienced “no light”. If you had not had that direct conscious experience, how much more difficult would it have been to describe “no light”. That momentary confusion when the light is turned on; the contrast between “light” and “no light”; holds a key to the experience of waking from a gran mal seizure.

As a more direct parallel, see if you can describe “what it was like before you were born”? Certainly I know that I can not, without direct reference to this idea of “being” and “not being”, and without the benefit of conscious knowledge...

As an aside here, Pinker further on in his article makes an identical contention, that " when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence... near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain."

Pinker puts it this way -
WHAT REMAINS IS NOT ONE PROBLEM ABOUT CONSCIOUSNESS BUT two, which the philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed the Easy Problem and the Hard Problem. Calling the first one easy is an in-joke: it is easy in the sense that curing cancer or sending someone to Mars is easy. That is, scientists more or less know what to look for, and with enough brainpower and funding, they would probably crack it in this century.

What exactly is the Easy Problem? It's the one that Freud made famous, the difference between conscious and unconscious thoughts. Some kinds of information in the brain--such as the surfaces in front of you, your daydreams, your plans for the day, your pleasures and peeves--are conscious. You can ponder them, discuss them and let them guide your behavior. Other kinds, like the control of your heart rate, the rules that order the words as you speak and the sequence of muscle contractions that allow you to hold a pencil, are unconscious. They must be in the brain somewhere because you couldn't walk and talk and see without them, but they are sealed off from your planning and reasoning circuits, and you can't say a thing about them.

On that latter point, there was a brief item I heard on the radio in the past couple weeks to the effect that the unconscious circuits of the brain actually begin operating "a measureable period" before the conscious decision to move. So, the act of moving a hand begins BEFORE the decision to move is consciously commenced. It is (as I heard it) almost a matter of "My hand is going to move" rather than "I am going to move my hand".

There is also the (documented) examples of people with the ability to influence, if not directly control some unconscious physical processes - specifically heart and breathing. First to mind are those who train and participate in "free diving" competitions.

Pinker continues...
The Easy Problem, then, is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.

The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one's head--why there is first-person, subjective experience.

- To Be Continued -

Monday, January 29, 2007

Waitemata dreamin...

Taken mid to late afternoon, October 06. One of those typical Auckland winter/spring days. Rain not far away, windy and cold.

Thoughts of Afghanistan...

There is a strange propensity that seems to run right through the blogiverse. Yeah, my hand is up as being guilty as well.

It begins with an idee fixe that suits a particular point of view, a political stance. It becomes, after a time, an inability to apply the central principle to a similar event or situation.

I had a discussion some while back about the relative “reliability” of news sources. I have both weekly and daily tours that I do through the internet media. That includes google news as well as specific stops (The Independant, NYT, WaPo, The Economist, Time etc). GoogleNews is useful for finding “topics du jour” that have not reached the three or four pages that comprises Granny Herald’s “international pages”. In that discussion I rather rashly (or so Robert from Robertopia thought) opined that there were stories that FoxNews either failed or consciously refused to cover.

There is a case in point in this morning’s Herald. It is a story that seems (judging by the level of coverage) to have originated from Canada though the by-line of the Herald story is the Telegraph in London. There is no sign of it thus far in the US media as yet. So, for a start I shall be keeping an eye out for this story there, and particularly the slant that it takes.

There is also a parallel between this story and another that was among the “idee fixe” blogiverse cliches that eminate especially from the US right wing during the past two or three years.

The “corruption in the UN”, Food for Oil scandals, that were synonymous with Kofi Annan are now hopefully going to be consigned to the dustbins of history. At least, that is, until the UN under its new leadership treads on the toes of certain of the leading members. But that is not the subject that I want to follow. It is the one side of the idea I want to follow. A very large part of that accusation and political attitude toward the UN and Anan came from mismanagement and corrupt practices in the Iraq Food for Oil programme. That many of those involved in the corruption and fraud were from the same nations as those making the accusations (Australia’s Wheat Board is a marvellous case in point) is quietly and conveniently glossed (whitewashed?) over. But please, leave the detail there because the connection is a principle rather than the muck. The principle is –
People - including me, the news media, you the reader – are much less prepared to present or to listen to news that runs against our preconceptions than that which supports those preconceptions.

Yes, it is very little more than a recycled version of “confirmation bias”. Exactly.

So, how does that connect with the Herald story? Well, here is it as published in the Melbourne Age.

Corrupt police and tribal leaders are stealing big amounts of reconstruction aid that is intended to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans and turn them away from the Taliban.

Defence officials in the United States and Britain estimate that up to half of the aid in Afghanistan is not reaching the right people.

NATO forces say some Afghan police are guilty of corruption and will steal the aid if it is handed out. Tribal and mosque elders have also been accused of seizing goods, including building materials and fuel, and selling them in markets.

A Pentagon official said thousands of cars and trucks intended for use by the Afghan police had been sold instead.

Last week, the US and European Union announced plans to spend another £7 billion ($A17.7 billion) on help for Afghanistan, of which £1.5 billion will go on reconstruction.

The article concludes –

A joint report by the Pentagon and the US State Department, circulated to congressional committees last month, concluded that the Afghan police force was corrupt to the point of ineffectiveness. One Pentagon official said that police officers had stolen and sold at least half of the equipment supplied by the US.

Now, if I google “Afhan aid corrupt” I should flick something out from US news sources? Yes? No?

No. Not a sausage. There is much about the success of the various aid and development programmes and more especially the changes that result from the military intervention. There is much about the Talib and the problems that the religious fundamentalists are causing. There is very little written on the actual “success” in the rebuilding of the Afghanistan.

That latter point is a continual cri de couer (about both Afghanistan and Iraq) of the right hand side of the blogiverse. I understand why that is. They have to keep the faith. They have to bolster their own beliefs as much as they do try to persuade others of the right, rather than the liberal, right.

And now the news that US/Europe (or is it NATO now?) is throwing another seven billion pounds (in money, not avoirdupois) into the Afghani warlords’ pockets.

And where is the outcry about corruption and waste in those aid programmes?

Update -

A passing thought... The additional aid funding, if all of it reaches Afghanistan, represents -

A 50% increase in income per head of population

a 60% in GDP (over 2005 estimate)

Base numbers from CIA World Factbook and AUD:USD of 0.75

Friday, January 26, 2007

The importance of body language...

There is a political analyst here in NZ who has drawn attention to a very small but perhaps important detail regarding SOTU, and more particularly the President himself. I do not know if this has been even noted in the US or not.

Apparently, according to this particular scribe (he was talking on radio, not in print so I can not give you a link to support this) Bush has a nervous tic of licking his top lip just before he says something that is (or might be) untrue.

He counted 49 times in SOTU that Bush licked his lip.


The importance of labels...

Over the years that I have tried (however vainly) to try and contribute to debates on religion and philosophy I have never met with a great deal of success. Of the few worthwhile terms that have been applied to me and my outlook has been that of “existentialist”. The general move from that point is to combine that label with “atheist” and, as has at least one commenter, conclude that I must lead a very sad and pessimistic life.

Now, I have always had difficulty in translating emotion and feelings into satisfactory prose. I have never had any training in the art of philosophy, nor in the subtleties of “formal thought” – I accept quite readily that in these areas I am truly a “bear of small brain”. It does not stop me from trying, but does not in any way increase my success…

So, as a result of all this labeling and disputation about just what the probligo is… no, there never really has been any dispute there, it is more a matter of my knowledge of myself never really matching with the preconceived definition of the labels.

Until now.

My old mates at ALD put this up… thanks be to The Chronicle Review and Robert C. Solomon.

The truly important parts…

I do not disagree with the diagnosis, but I am disturbed by the continued reference to existentialism as a pessimistic, negative philosophy. It is often considered such. Only a few weeks ago I heard a radio commentator declare that the "nothing really matters" lyric from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" was truly "existential." And I still hear pundits and some of my university colleagues decry existentialism as the source of our nihilistic gloom, the reason why our students don't vote and why they experiment with dangerous drugs. I listen to such comments with a mix of amusement and horror because I like existentialism and I think that existentialism, not pessimism, is what America needs right now.

Existentialism is said to be all about "the death of God," the meaninglessness of human life, and the anxiety those provoke. It is in the face of such anxiety that one needs the courage to make meanings, to be oneself. ...

It is my contention that the whole movement has been misinterpreted, turned upside down by three generations of critics and commentators. Needless to say, the perception of existentialism as an atheistic philosophy has had a lot to do with that, since there have been a lot of people with a vested interest in the idea that a world without God could not possibly have meaning. But apart from that dubious contention, such interpretations display real ignorance of the fact that one of the leading existentialists, Kierkegaard, was a devout Christian, and many existentialists since — Karl Barth and Martin Buber, to pick just two — weren't atheists at all. [the probligo notes here – yes, I combine the atheist and existentialist outlooks. I would have loved to see who holds the “vested interest”. I have my personal suspicions but I will not put words in Mr Solomon’s mouth.]

Why does existentialism have so much trouble shaking its nihilistic and gloomy mage? To be sure, its leading promoters are rarely pictured with happy faces, but then how many philosophers in history have ever been depicted as smiling?

Yet few philosophers have displayed such unmitigated joy in their writing as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The latter wrote: "At long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again. Perhaps there has never been such an 'open sea.'"

Even Sartre, not only in his plays and novels but even in his heaviest philosophy, seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. But when it comes to understanding the content of what they are doing, interpretations of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seem utterly wedded to the thinkers' supposedly intimate concern with despair and nihilism. A perennial question (students love it for both term papers and doctoral theses) is whether Nietzsche was a nihilist or not.

The answer is a straightforward no. Nietzsche warned Europe of the encroachment of nihilism, which he associated with the Christian denial of life. Nevertheless, the association of Nietzsche and nihilism lingers, despite the fact that his whole philosophical effort is to provide an alternative to nihilistic thinking.

Kierkegaard — dutifully cited as author of The Concept of Dread — is often considered the modern inventor of the Absurd — a century before Camus. However, the ultimate indeterminacy of human existence and the need to make genuine choices (including the decision to believe in God, Kierkegaard's famous "leap of faith") lay at the heart of his whole philosophy, and those concepts were anything but negative. "Christianity is certainly not melancholy; it is, on the contrary, glad tidings — for the melancholy," he wrote. Furthermore, Kierkegaard never lets us forget that it is only through such acts of choice that we make ourselves into authentic "existing individuals." He even talks of "bliss."

So, too, in celebrating "the open sea" of possibilities that greets us after the death of God, Nietzsche aspires to a mood of unmitigated cheerfulness. Even Heidegger and Sartre, the grand old Mr. Cranky and Mr. Grumpy of German and French existentialism, respectively, aim not at despair but at a kind of rejuvenation. Sartre, in particular, claims, in response to a question about despair, that he has never experienced it in his whole life. (That may throw into question his credibility, but it's nonetheless instructive as to his broad philosophical outlook.)

Perhaps the wartime experiences of Mr. Cranky put him beyond the reach of any celebration of life, but Mr. Grumpy insists that existentialism provides an experience of incredible freedom, a feeling of responsibility that is not so much a "burden" as a matter of finding one's true self-identity. If nihilism and despair play any role in this picture, it is only as background against which existentialism is the ecstatic resistance. Responsibility and choice, picking oneself up by the bootstraps, are what this positive version of existentialism is all about.

We hear so much about "the burden of responsibility" that we forget the basic lesson of existentialism: that responsibilities enhance rather than encumber our existence. Call me naïve, but most people take on responsibilities because responsibility puts them in charge of their lives and defines just who they are. Most people who enter public service, for example, do not do so because of a selfish lust for power and wealth. They usually want to change things for the better, make a contribution, and even the most corrupt and vile politicians will confess a lingering hope that that is how they might be remembered. As Sartre constantly reminds us, we are what we do. [the probligo notes – I recall using that as a justification for becoming a local authority bureaucrat… at the age of 22.]

In short, existentialism is not a philosophy that allows us to feel sorry for ourselves in the midst of our malaise. It is a philosophy with which we can come to grips with these terrible times and actually change them. The recent midterm election was encouraging. What it suggests is that America is collectively recouping its existentialist roots, not because of national pessimism but because of what I hope is the beginning of a cooperative optimism and the sense that things as they are cannot stand. [the probligo notes that he almost left these last two sentences
out – as they do nothing for the overall thought]

Why does existentialism matter? Who cares about the viability of a European
philosophy that may have once been the fetish of sophisticated poseurs and profligates but has little relevance to anything today? My answer is that philosophy is always relevant, that, as the proto-existentialist Johann Fichte once said: "What system of philosophy you hold depends wholly upon what manner of man you are." And if I am right that existentialism defines an important stream of American life and thought, especially its individualism and insistence on self-reliance, that means that we should become both aware of and critical regarding what that philosophy is and what it portends.

I must sit and read Kierkegaard – perhaps when I am laid up for 4 weeks later in the year… then might be a good time. Satre might be a good way to bring on an attack of the despairs.

Until then, I am now quite happy that the combination of atheist and existentialist that I apparently be is a fair and reasonable set of labels.

On whatever level of “reality” I exist, I shall continue to strive for the best that I can achieve, and to take responsibility for what I leave.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Is this "The New Way" for the Middle East?

Now this is interesting. Why? Well quite simply of course…

First contact was through ALD – that most venerable of news blogs – which listed this article in the National Journal

The Nonwar War Against Iran while the Iraq debate was gripping Washington over the past few weeks, the Bush administration was also shifting its policy toward neighboring Iran -- in a more confrontational direction.

U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified, say that the Iran policy has expanded from focusing chiefly on Iran's nuclear ambitions to challenging Tehran's suspected misbehavior across the Middle East. Indeed, one source said succinctly that the new policy is geared to "confront Iran in every way but direct armed conflict, using all means short of war."

Today, within the past few hours in fact, comes this interview with Gary G Sick in Council for Foreign Relations.

Gary G. Sick, a former National Security Council adviser on Iran, says an “emerging strategy” is developing that brings the United States, Israel, and Sunni Arab states in an informal alliance against Iran. He does not believe the United States would launch a military attack on Iran at this time because it lacks the military ability to be in Iraq and Iran at the same time.

Sick, founder and executive director of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project that conducts research on Persian Gulf countries, also says a “very serious opposition” to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is developing in Iran. Because of this, he says the Iranians will soon be willing to seek a deal on their nuclear program.

Going back a few days there is this little piece from the Jerusalem Post
A quiet Sunni Arab strategic realignment was the topic of conversation among senior American and Israeli analysts - both official and unofficial - gathered
Sunday at the Herzliya Conference run by the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the IDF Herzliya, the opening day of the conference. Many were cautiously optimistic that Iranian influence in the Middle East could be curtailed, and that this process has already begun. The causes: isolation in the international system, economic mismanagement and a growing opposition to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Now whether this is policy or strategy matters little to me. That is mere semantics. What is becoming apparent is (at least I hope this is so) the evolution of a change from gun-boat (or gun-aircraft?) diplomacy as evidenced by GWB’s Iraq adventure to a far more subtle approach.

So, if we start here with NJ -

Bush's new emphasis on Iran's suspected role as a destabilizing force in the region articulates what Middle East experts say is a growing conviction among Washington's Sunni allies that Iran poses an immediate threat to their regimes' interests and stability.

"The administration believes that the Saudis had an epiphany, that Iran is the lens through which they now view all their security concerns," says Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert and the deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "And that means the Saudis may be prepared to do a variety of things which previously they were not prepared to do."

Gary Sick puts it this way –

First, all three parties—the Sunni states in the Gulf, plus Jordan and Egypt—are very worried about Iranian expansion in the region and of Shiite expansion in the Middle East. And of course Israel is very worried about Iran and makes no bones about it quite openly. For the United States, I think there’s a perception that by focusing on Iran, you can remove some of the emphasis on Iraq, which of course is a catastrophe. So there are some advantages to all sides and there also have been real contacts among all of the parties, which I think go beyond just casual talk.

(Interesting little sideline there regarding Iraq, given the SOTU address yesterday – but that is a different story).

And from Jerusalem –

"The Saudis have stopped hiding the fact that there are joint interests for Israel and Saudi Arabia, and [Saudi officials] are telling the media that the Iranian threat is greater than the Israeli one," Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, director of the Israel/Middle East office of the American Jewish Committee and a former senior IDF intelligence analyst, told The Jerusalem Post

According to Robert Einhorn, a former US assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation and a member of the American Council on Foreign Relations, "there's a Sunni Arab-Israeli commonality of interest in containing an ideologically agressive Iran."

Einhorn even told the Post that the recent Gulf Cooperation Council declaration that the Gulf states would seek nuclear technology was "a message to Iran that others can do what they are doing and a message to the United States and the West that they had better stop Iran."

There seems to be general agreement on the birth of this new way – Lebanon and Palestine. The support for Hezbollah and Hamas coming out of Iran in particular is creating and or widening the political rift between Sunni and Shia. There are many pressures behind that, especially when you add the impact of Sunni refugees on Saudi Arabia and Jordan. But as these various articles point out the over-arching factor is the threat posed by Iran. NJ again –

The emerging Washington-Saudi-Sunni-Israeli alliance to counter Iran "makes perfect sense," says Kenneth Katzman, a veteran Iran and Iraq analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "It is something that is evolving based on commonality of interests of the Saudis and Israel and other Gulf states to counter Iranian triumphalism. The Saudis are facing Iran in Iraq and in the Gulf states. Israel is facing Iranian-backed Hezbollah on its northern border with Lebanon. The Saudis are interested in their long-standing client in Lebanon, the Hariri family."

Gary Sick is a bit more direct –

I do believe the whole Lebanese situation was the galvanizing moment for this emerging strategy. The action by Hezbollah in attacking Israel [last summer] was seen as an extension of Iranian power and an extension of its influence in the region. And the outcome of this, which is taking the form of Hezbollah challenging the Christian/Sunni government of [Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora, I think, is also perceived as an Iranian plot. I personally think that’s an exaggeration, at least in terms of Iranian direct control or involvement in this. But if you look at Hezbollah as an Iranian creature—which I don’t, but many people do—you come to the conclusion this is a battle between Israel and Iran or even, by extension, the United States and Iran, and that Lebanon is the battlefield where this is being fought out.

That final qualification is telling, and it needs to be remembered. But in terms of politik real for all of the participants it can easily be overlooked. It is telling because it comes as a reservation (which as I read it) is a direct consequence of the US approach to Iraq2 and its justification.

That there is a need to deal with Iran, as there was with Iraq, there is no question. I have had a major difficulty with the sabre rattling that has taken place in the past few months; with the sequence of events in all of the various theatres of international politics; and with the Iranian insistence on developing nuclear weapons capability. Given the Hollywood Western approach that Washington has seemed commited to until now; given the total lack of international support and enthusiasm for a repeat of Iraq2 in Iran; and given the current standing of the US Presidential Administration with the American electorate...

I can only say that the development of this "New Way" is about five and a half years too late.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Goody, the Baddy, and the Fugly - the true face of latent racism

What a storm in Britain! All over a few chance remarks in the midst of one of these time-waster tv programmes - the kind that relies upon the prurient interest of the audience in how personalities interact in confined circumstances.

But, given the hooha that has blown the latest series into the limelight -
mebbe I will have to change my mind somewhat.

Regulars here will know that I have had a fairly unique life - including experiences that would be limited to very few. For example being one of only 12 pakeha in a school of 120 gave me an idea of "culture shock" long before Toffler (was it his?) came up with the idea. That does not give me the right to claim that I have no prejudices. The proof of that pudding is in the hands of everyone else. For that reason I am loath to judge individuals.

What this Goody hooha has shown in very cold and sharp light is that the attitude we might have toward others - prejudice, preconception, and acceptance - is far more deeply ingrained and insidious than many of us would be prepared to admit.

Who remembers old Alf Garnett? He of "curry muncher" fame? A very biting and cruel portrayal of the British character of the 60's and 70's. "Nah! I'm not like that!" came with the just slightly embarrassed laughter.

And it is the cringe that is coming through on the wires now that make no better of the situation. Not that Dan Sabbagh's thoughts are in any way inconsistent with the several op-eds I have read.
What has happened to Shilpa Shetty, a genuine megastar, in the past few days has been deeply uncomfortable — but also compelling — viewing. It will divide opinion, offend many, and it will also get people thinking. To believe that Britain in 2007 is a uniformly nice place is to display staggering naïvety; if it takes reality television to remind us of that, so be it.

There are limits, of course, but there is no need for intervention in the programme at the first whiff of controversy. Intervention should be required only when the law (in this case against inciting racial hatred) has clearly been broken. Channel 4 is just about right when it says that “no overt racism” has occurred, although that does not absolve the broadcaster of a duty to warn housemates if that does occur.

Sabbagh's statement that "...the programme will ("should" would be a much better word I suspect) get people thinking..." deserves to come true. I suspect that in fact the number who "think" will be relatively small. The 10,000 objectors/complainers might comprise 20% of that number. That is still a very small slice of the population.

I would suspect that the far more common reaction will follow the kind of "review" that followed each week's programme of Alf Garnett - "Did ya see... Wasn't it hilarious!!" followed by instant brain-death on the topic until the morning after the next programme.

The truth of that is supported by the synopsis from the Guardian revealing that Goody was not the only participant with similar views...
In one exchange, Goody was heard saying of Shetty: "She makes me feel sick. She makes my skin crawl", while her now evicted mother Jackiey continually referred to her as "the Indian". Later Lloyd claimed that the Bollywood star "wants to be white" and called her a "dog".

After Shetty cooked a roast chicken dinner, Lloyd had said: "They eat with their hands in India, don't they. Or is that China?" She added: "You don't know where those hands have been."

The complaints were further fuelled when Tweed was reported as calling Shetty a "Paki". Channel 4 insists that in fact the word he used, which was bleeped out, was "cunt".

So while the Goody might be the whipping-girl for the hooha that has developed, there is an even deeper current running within the microcosm of the programme.
In Bangalore, Gordon Brown faced journalists questioning him on the merits of a reality show he claimed not to have seen. "I understand that in the UK there have already been 10,000 complaints from viewers about remarks which people see rightly as offensive," he said. "I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything that detracts from that I condemn."

Later Tony Blair's spokesman added: "What clearly is to be regretted and countered is any perception abroad that in any way we tolerate racism in this country."

That would seem to point to a level of denial that has even wider implications.

Who remembers the introspection and intent navel gazing that took place in Britain after the 7/7 bombings. How could people from England contemplate doing such a thing - after all they are part of our society and we treat them as equals. They are nice people...

That they may well be. What about the rest of us...

Monday, January 15, 2007

The reductio ad absurdum of American foreign policy...

There is an interesting aspect to watching American politics. For all of their tub-thumping about their (self-appointed) position as the bastion of freedom, the home of democracy, there is still the occasional hole that appears in the fabric.

One of those came this morning, with my morning radio news.

The United States government has admitted the Department of Defence and the CIA have been spying on the financial dealings of Americans.

The military and the CIA are restricted in their spying activities inside the United States and are barred from conducting traditional domestic law enforcement work in the country.

Vice-President Dick Cheney has confirmed the main outline of the report, and defended the activities as legal. He told Fox News on Sunday the spying is necessary to protect military installations inside the United States.

He called the spying "a perfectly legitimate activity" that the military and CIA had authority to carry out going back "three or four decades" and more recently confirmed in the Patriot Act adopted following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Hmm… So, the first stop is Fox News. Here y’go…

The Pentagon and to a lesser extent the CIA have been using a little-known power to look at the banking and credit records of hundreds of Americans and others suspected of terrorism or espionage within the United States, officials said Saturday.

"It is our understanding that the intelligence community agencies make such requests on a limited basis," said Carl Kropf, a spokesman for the Office of the National Intelligence Director, which oversees all 16 spy agencies in the government.
The national security letters permit the executive branch to seek records about people in terror and spy investigations without a judge's approval or grand jury subpoena.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency on domestic counterterrorism and espionage, has issued thousands of national security letters since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The New York Times reported on expanded use of the technique by the Pentagon and CIA in an article posted Saturday on the Internet.

The vast majority of national security letters are issued by the FBI, but in very rare circumstances they have been used by the CIA before and after 9/11, said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

None of the officials reached by the AP commented about the extent of use by the Defense Department agencies, but the Times said military intelligence officers have sent the letters in up to 500 investigations.

Now in the side-bar to that article was a link to the video of the interview with Cheney. No mention of the comments and confirmation of the story as stated by the Herald. Another “hmm” perhaps? Nah. Only joking.

Also on the side-bar was the “latest” RealClearPolitics poll averages. No need to comment there other than to observe that FoxNews did not poll in January. Will they in February?

Following the sidebars again led to Tom Bevan. Now he is a columnist who at least writes with a level of cogency even if I disagree with his politik.

It is rather strange to hear Bevan in one of his recent op-ed RCP pieces suggest…

In general, if I sound pessimistic about the president's "new way forward" in Iraq, it's because I am. That being said, Bush's plan does have a chance of succeeding, and we should all cross our fingers and hope that it does.

I think that I can sympathise with Bevan, at least from the point of view that if you are seeking a life of certainty and security, wealth and happiness, then the current international situation - US vis a vis ROW - would leave much to be desired. After all, it is apparent that the enemies at home are as plentiful and as dangerous as those in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Iran.

It gets even worse when, with all of the best intentions in the Middle East, Ms Rice starts talking to the Palestinians - how is THAT for a totally new approach!!. Not worse in that she is ding that, more power to her arm I say. No, when the Administration - in the form of John Bolton - announces to the world that her efforts are not only doomed to fail but are a total waste of time. When a leading member of your diplomatic team is sabotaging the best efforts for some while to break the Israel/Palestine impass then one really does have to wonder at the level of management and control... the enemy within as well. I wonder if the CIA has a "John Bolton" on its lists for a security letter.

Most galling of all, though, must be the knowledge that US foreign policy has been reduced to "cross your fingers and hope it works".

Friday, January 12, 2007

US strategy in Iraq

Why do I recall that (apochryphal (?sp)) story of the race horse owner with a very slow horse...
"That horse has cost me $100,000 already. It is going to win something if it costs me another $100,000".

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Oooo! What a nasty piece of cynicism! :D

Been reading the background to the Ethiopian attacks on Somalia over the past couple weeks. Most recently the news has contained references to a suggestion that the US and Europe (let's hear it everyone - The Concert of Democracies!!!) should provide funding for a pan-African force to try and resolve that conflict. Research is slow, but I have come across this editorial out of Kenya.

Read the whole thing - it provides some interesting analysis and parallels on Somalia. But the conclusion is like a scorpion - with a real sting to it...
Prior to 9/11 as Bush enjoyed his extended vacation and bug-digging excursions with his dogs, the man had no work concept less speak a clue on terrorism, international development and America's role in both. He had no idea he was to be the self-professed "War President". But just what are these wars we are fighting?

After bombing and shredding Afghanistan following his "smoke-em-out-of-holes" threat, the Taliban exist if not with more momentum.

Saddam Hussein is dead despite still missing Al Qaeda links and the absence of weapons of mass destruction. Somalia seems next and there can only be one reason: to give Bush (the war president) a new assignment so that to those that believe him, he worked to the bitter end.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Hey!! Wha' happen!!

Not often that I can keep the old mouth shut for more than a few days. OK so it is our holiday season down here, but that ain't all...

My lovely wife and I took ourselves off up to the bach for Christmas.

We had a delicious roast lamb for our Christmas lunch, all the trimmings, gazpacho soup to begin, and a well rounded feeling of goodwill to all at the end.

A walk down to the store was called and on the way back up the hill, yours truly - the unbreakable old probligo - hit the wall. Not I hasten to say in the form of a heart attack but in a major recurrence of the old mitral valve problem.

So as I consequence the probligo spent his "holidays" in three hospitals - starting with Rawene, moving immediately to Whangarei on Boxing Day, and then after four nights to Auckland.

I am now at home. I am now part of NZ's dreaded "hospital waiting list system". The day that I get the call for my op (valve replacement) I am going to buy a lottery ticket.

Insurance? JOKE!! I have insurance and everything and anything to do with heart and mitral valve is excluded. I had a similar episode about 15 years back - nothing major then, nor since, other than the insurance company removing all cover for the problem unless I paid three times the existing premium.

Merry Christmas!!!

p.s. don't forget the email has changed to the_probligo and that the base for him is now - addresses may need to be changed.

The neo-diplomacy of the US?

The Bush revolution in foreign policy is over. After September 11, the Administration acted on the conviction that an America that dared to shake off the constraints of international rules, laws and institutions could remake the world for the better. What they found instead was that an America unbound alienated allies, empowered adversaries and divided Americans. Faced with an overstretched military and multiplying threats, the Bush Administration in its second term has acknowledged through its deeds what its critics have long argued: The United States, powerful but not omnipotent, needs to work closely with others if it is to solve the foreign policy challenges now confronting it. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we’re all multilateralists now.

While the Bush Administration’s renewed commitment to cooperate with others resolves one major foreign policy debate of the past six years, it doesn’t resolve another—namely, what kind of multilateralism do we need? President Bush’s conversion to multilateralism has been of a particular sort. It mostly involves traditional diplomacy, typically only with close U.S. allies, and almost always on an ad hoc, problem-oriented tactical basis—as with the decision to take Iran’s nuclear program before the UN Security Council. There is no strategic vision of how international institutions can be shaped to serve longer-range American interests. In many ways, then, President Bush’s second-term multilateralism is a kinder, gentler version of his first-term unilateralism.

As most will already know, those are the opening two paragraphs to Ivo Daalder’s & James Lindsay’s treatise on the direction of American diplomacy published in “The American Interest”. As most will already know it has been picked up by several groups as an almost gospelic statement of future American Foreign Policy. It must be said that there are also those who have panned, dismissed, and trashed the piece.

There is one sentence in the second paragraph which I see as the executive summary definition of the “problem” to which the authors take most of the report to suggest a solution.

There is no strategic vision of how international institutions can be shaped to serve longer-range American interests.

That problem is expanded –

In an era where dangerous developments anywhere can have devastating consequences everywhere, including here at home, we need international institutions capable of prompt and effective action both to prevent and, when necessary, respond to threats to international security. We need institutions that bring together the most capable states that share common interests and perspectives on the dangers confronting us. .
and a solution provided...
A Concert of Democracies, which brings together the world’s established democracies into a single institution dedicated to joint action, fits that bill.

OK, so can I summarise to this point –
 America, and Bush’s America in particular, is still getting its foreign relationships all wrong.
 Bush prefers to act on an ad hoc problem basis, rather than as part of a group.
Culminating with
 There is no strategic vision of how international institutions can be shaped to serve longer-range American interests.
The start of the “solution”
 . We need institutions that bring together the most capable states that share common interests and perspectives on the dangers confronting us.

I need not go any further. The development of the argument is predicatable, slanted to a specific end, and that end has already been spelt out.

I can not overlook the name of the publication – “The American Interest”. That certainly sets the scene well. That is the one over-riding factor. That is the one thing that must, at all costs, be preserved. No other interests, unless they are an unanticipated by-product of the process of the “American Interest”. Remember that as you read both the original paper and my thoughts.

But, in my inimitable fashion, I want to put the “problem” into a slightly different focus.

It is a run of events that did not start with Iraq2. It tracks back further; to Bosnia, to Rwanda. It is not a single “problem”, but a linkage of one organisation – the UN, its charter, the power of veto, and one man – Kofi Annan. Now before the right starts crowing about that small piece of what I am saying I want to be VERY CLEAR. This is not about any allegations of impropriety or wrong doing. This is not about the man, but about his position, the job that he had to do. In the view of many, and especially the American right, Annan has done his job very badly. That criticism I will allow in part. I do not believe that Annan alone is at fault. But I want to draw a comparison between Annan and another powerful individual – George W Bush. Not so that I can criticise him, but to merely point out that BOTH have been doing their own extremely difficult jobs to the best of their abilities. Putting it slightly differently, both men have their supporters and their detractors.

Out of the various linkages at the UN came two events.

First was the total failure of the UN to act against the genocide in Rwanda. That failure came from the reticence of major players, including the US, to accept that their was imminent or actual genocide taking place.

Second was the total inability of the UN to actively support any solution to the Bosnia crisis.

Both failures stem in part from Annan’s strict and pedantic interpretation of one section of the UN Charter preventing that organisation from acting in “the internal affairs of a nation”. (His inability to accept the true place of the UN is evident in his continuing and continual refusal to allow the UN to get involved in Sudan. As long as the Sudanese government says that it is trying to bring the problem undercontrol it is “still an internal matter of governance”. There is absolutely no assistance from the UN membership to get him to change his mind...) There are exceptions, amongst which is the action of genocide. Both failures stem from the inability of nations to act in anything like the coherent manner that the Charter originally foresaw.

The reason for that brief reprise is NOT, as I said earlier, because it is the crux of the debate. It is NOTHING of the sort.

It is the genesis of the idea of the “Concert of Nations”.

So, the “problem” can be restated in the following form –

 The US is desirous to realise its maximum potential, to ensure the safety of the nation, to advance its interests to the full. (See quote above)

 Those desires can not be met or satisfied in a global climate where there is significant opposition to the path that the US wishes to follow. Very frequently that opposition is the result of other, less powerful perhaps but powerful none-the-less, nations being desirous of following their own interests.
One obvious problem is that great powers often refuse to cooperate. Washington may think Beijing should use its economic clout to shut down Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, or that Moscow should halt its nuclear dealings with Tehran, but China and Russia see their interests differently...

So, as I stated earlier, the solution is presented in the form of “Like attracts like”. As the authors point out so clearly it happens that the “like the US” also attracts most of the wealthy nations and none of the most poor.

As the authors develop their idea, they approach the question of “international legitimacy”. Their example of Iraq2 not having the legitimacy of support from the UNSC is given as the problem and dismissed thus –
But should international legitimacy rest on universalism, or at least on the widespread support of the international community as a whole? This notion reduces the criterion of legitimacy to a procedural question: The number of states or votes one can marshal in support of a given action will determine that action’s legitimacy. The nature of the action itself—or the nature of the states consenting to it—matters little, if at all.

...and again with this old chestnut –
...equating legitimacy with the number of states that support a given action ... assumes all states are equal. States may be equal in a procedural sense, but they are not equal in fact. Most states in the world today, including a majority of UN members, do not represent the interests or perspectives of the people they rule. So when it comes to determining international legitimacy, why should states with no legitimacy at home have an equal say as states with such legitimacy? Real legitimacy, like real sovereignty, resides in the people rather than in the states—which is why state decisions to confer international legitimacy must rest in the democratically chosen representatives of the people, not in the personal whims of autocrats or oligarchs.

Now remember that little gem. It returns later.

Obviously, the most important element of the idea is that of “inclusion vs exclusion”. That much is obvious to anyone who has lived with the Commonwealth of Nations. Now perhaps Daalder and Lindsay might have begun to see the flaws in their idea had they taken the time to study this example of “exclusive” international club with even just a passing glance at Wikipedia.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the flaws that exist in this example of the “international concert” would be the total inability of the Commowealth to move on Zimbabwe. The question was simple – should Zimbabwe be kicked out? A committee comprising (from memory) Australia, Nigeria and ??Botswana spent so long trying to make up their minds that Zimbabwe more or less left of their own accord in frustration (Mugabe would have enjoyed telling everyone who was responsible for the exclusion).

Daalder and Lindsay pick a different example –
Would Chinese leaders view the creation of a Concert of Democracies as an effort to encircle and constrain it, thereby setting the stage for a new cold war? They might—especially if Washington sought to use the Concert and other foreign policy tools to isolate China. But such an outcome is hardly inevitable (or likely to win the support of other democracies). To suggest that members would have to choose between the Concert and China is to present a false dilemma. The Concert of Democracies is not a substitute for all other forms of multilateral and bilateral cooperation, but a complement to them. At the same time, democracies should not be shy about pursuing their vital interests by working together to build a global order conducive to their political principles. China’s regime certainly has no inhibitions about shaping the global order to suit itself. From Asia to Africa to the Americas, it has been aggressively using its newfound economic strength to advance its interests at the expense of others.

Now that is an extremely interesting bow to draw, given the response and attitude of the US to a “very very good friend” and treaty ally to a small and independently minded country of 4 million people who decided (horror upon horrors) to effectively ban US warships from their waters. Do not imagine for a moment that the US would hesitate to use similar tactics against any dissent from within the Concert of Democracies.

The question of China is also too easily (and glibly) passed over. One of the first challenges to the COD would be not the military challenge from China, but the economic. That is recognised at the end of that last extract. And, it is noted, the thought goes no further. Should that challenge impact upon the form and function of a COD? Yes, IMO, of course it should. I have little doubt that was in the minds of the authors as well.

At this point we should consider the impact of the formation of a COD at the global level. Daalder and Lindsay make no secret of the fact that a large proportion of nations would be excluded (they predict a nice cosy 60 members), and equally as important, the “representation” of some 60% of the global population. The justification for the exclusion is “rational” – those excluded are not “democracies”. More to the point though, they are nations that either can not be relied upon, or would actively oppose, the American direction. Why else was the question raised in the first place?

I have debated this question of “American Interest” in a number of different fora and (regretfully I believe) it does nothing more than raise the ire of Americans, especially those from the right. The debate has come from such beginnings as the invasion of Iraq; or the imposition of a ban on joint defence training exercises between US and NZ forces; or the “free trade” agreement with Australia that allows US agricultural products immediate access to Aussie markets in return for the Aussies waiting some 5 to 7 years before their existing quotas start to expand; or the fact that the greatest part of US aid to poor nations is contracted from US businesses and valued at the purchase price rather than the value to the recipient... the examples are easy to find - look to anything that the US does in the name of “American Interests”.

This “problem of exclusion” raises one other (final) thought.

The US has, since the late 1800’s, occasionally withdrawn from the “real world”. The debate has flared through the blogiverse from time to time over the past four to five years; usually taking the form of “should we or should we not...”.

It strikes me that this idea of the “Concert of Democracies” is not much more than isolationism with a different name, and in the company of a few close mates.

I make no apology for using NZ repeatedly in a discussion like this – think of “New Zealand Interests” as being as important to me as “American Interests” to an American or “British Interests” to a Brit. I make no apology for using history to judge the likely response of one nation to the actions of another. When there is a relative consistency in the nature and reactions of the US to changes in NZ policies, then I would anticipate that consistency to continue into the future...

So, what happens when the US calls together those “friendly democracies” in joint protection against the dangers and threats that are posed by the outside world – the international equivalent of “things that go bump in the night.” What happens when li’l ol’ NZ turns up, a very lucrative FTA with PRC tucked in the back pocket. Or perhaps it is a deal with Iran to provide sheep meat in return for an “understanding” with the Muslim world. Past indications suggest that there would be a polite “leave that at the door” before admission were allowed. Or, to take the idea just that little step further – the threat of expulsion if such an agreement were to be negotiated after formation of the COD.

No. It will not work.

Read “1984” again. The division that Orwell used was between Europe/America and “Oceania/Asia”. Not too far removed from the idea being discussed here when you think about it.