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Why Do Americans Care So Much About Sex and Politics?

Guest post by Sarah Alaoui

Just as French playboy and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn — or DSK as he is known to the masses — seemed to be off the hook, his escapades came back to haunt him. While a public prosecutor wanted to drop the case in June that would likely implicate Strauss-Kahn in a prostitution scheme at the Carlton Hotel in Lille, France, prosecutors announced on Friday that he would go to trial after all. The charges? “Aggravated pimping”, or in other words, facilitating prostitution – with lots of prostitutes. If convicted, he could face up to ten years in prison and a heavy 1.5 million euros fine.

His lawyers complained that he was being unfairly singled out because of the hoopla surrounding a certain hotel stay and a certain hotel maid in New York back in 2011, further inflamed by the ‘perp walk’ Strauss-Khan was then made to perform. Concerning Friday’s developments, one of Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers, Frederique Baulieu told BFM TV that “no offense has been found to exist. So there can be no conviction in this affair…we should be focused on the law, not morality. Sadly, in this affair, investigating magistrates have been led astray by morality.” Henri Leclerc, another of his lawyers, told Reuters, “We’re not in the realm of the law, we’re in ideology. We’re sending someone to court for nothing.”

Four months after the Sofitel debacle, DSK, once a presidential front-runner, appeared on French television to admit he had committed, “a moral error with regard to my wife, my children, to my friends…also an error with regard to the French people, who had placed in me their hope for change.” His saga did not include any awkward press conferences or forced public apologies to the public. Unlike their American counterparts, the French seemed to be more concerned with the legality of his acts than with his womanizing ways.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Anthony Weiner’s at it again – as if you hadn’t already heard the million phallic jokes being generated by the minute this week. Merely months before the New York mayoral race, new information leaked on Tuesday about Weiner’s ‘sexting problem’. As a demure Huma Abedin publicly stood by his side for the first time, Weiner held yet another press conference expressing his apologies. The New York Times and New York Daily News editorial boards both released statements on Tuesday demanding that the former congressman withdraw from the mayoral race.

Those who weren’t focusing their energy on pubescent, that’s-what-she-said-style jokes about Weiner’s name were fetishizing Abedin in almost poetic language, orientalizing her beauty as if they’d never seen an “ethnic brunette” in politics – or real life – and further derailing public discourse. Exhibit A from National Review:

“Huma is Kennedy glamour resurrected. She brings exotic beauty and a hint of Oxbridge intelligence — and of course cosmopolitan liberalism — to a town full of heartland men in ill-fitting brown suits and southern women in fire-engine-red blazers.”

Everyone has taken on the role of confidante and therapist, offering their two cents on what she now should and shouldn’t do, on what’s best for her and her toddler, on how she should move on from this scandal that they continue to help perpetuate with their speculations and unsolicited prying. In Slate, journalist Hanna Rosin rightfully noted that “the idea that a woman has to leave her husband in order to be considered brave is left over from a 1980s Dolly Parton movie.”

Why do we care so much? Do the American people have to be subject to an embarrassingly painful, yet predictable press conference every time one of our politicians hits the ‘send’ button with dirty fingers? As a teacher would make a student apologize publicly to another child so he can earn back his recess time, we are turning the political sphere into a playground, a public confessional of sorts for those who have wronged in private to offer publicly broadcast prayers of contrition.

Let’s use the simple metaphor of the tree falling in the forest: is the big fuss over the actual act or because the act was revealed? If President Obama held a press conference tomorrow announcing he had sexted another woman who was not Michelle, how would we react? Would our views of his leadership, assuming they had been positive before, become completely negative? Would former supporters immediately retract their endorsement on the grounds that he had deceived them, thus reducing their approval of him to how he behaves as a husband? Does the American public want to be led or bed by its politicians? There are many more questions that could be raised, but they correspond to the many inconsistencies and bouts of hypocrisy in the American relationship with its elected officials.

There have been intelligent articles written about Weiner’s political capacity to lead New York as mayor listing many valid reasons to oppose his candidacy, dirty texts aside: his destructive narcissism, abysmal record in passing legislation during his tenure in congress, questionable comprehension of pertinent issues such as what’s going on in the West Bank, and the list goes on… Ironically, until this week’s press conference Weiner was leading the polls for the Democratic primary of the mayoral race – he had 25 percent of the votes among registered Democrats. Now, he’s dropped to 16 points. What was the basis of these voters’ support prior to the surfaced texts? Pure name recognition? Is the 9-point drop the result of feeling sorry for Huma, who according to New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson, has brown eyes that are, “pools of empathy evolved through a thousand generations of what was good and decent in the history of the human race.” Cue violins here.

In an interview with Le Figaro, lawyer Christopher Mesnooh says that in France, “We don’t mix the lie to our wife with the lie to our country.” In the States, we attribute our expectations of the publicly orchestrated mea culpa to our Puritan roots which we so deeply value (will we ever be able to dissociate these roots from our politics?), but can we extend these same self-righteous expectations to our own homes and relationships? In a 2011 survey that polled over 100,000 people and published in the book The Normal Bar, data shows that 33 percent of men and 19 percent of women admitted to being unfaithful. Many participants also pointed out that the frequency of the sexual infidelity changed its gravity.

The Weiner jokes will die down soon enough, but they present us with a timely opportunity to examine ourselves and our politics. The cheating individuals in The Normal Bar study may not be running for office, but if they are projecting their own moral beliefs through the ballot box, perhaps they — and we — should step back and think about practicing what we preach… or toss the Puritan hats once and for all.

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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Chinese Qing Dynasty, 'Procession by a Lake', 19th century. Via the National Gallery of Art.

Chinese Qing Dynasty, ‘Procession by a Lake’, 19th century. Via the National Gallery of Art.

What I read this week:

In Egypt, Wayne White sees political turmoil growing more ominous, and Ehsan Abdoh worries about the precedent set by Morsi’s ouster.

In Tahrir Square disunity now dominates. Marc Lynch deems US policy towards Egypt the best it could realistically be, and I’m inclined to agree. As writers like Daniel Larison have noted the US has very little leverage, and committing to any one position within the country’s internal politics is likely to further alienate the overall population for no clear gain.

When America leaves Afghanistan how will the Taliban justify its violence?

Joshua Foust on American political nostalgia, and the tendency to appeal “to some falsely purified fairy tale of what American values really were 237 years ago.”

Battling the world’s light pollution: “People think they know darkness, and that they experience darkness everyday, but they don’t, really.”

Early this week I collected links for Political Violence @ a Glance.

Dakota Suite – The Hearts of Empty.

Syria, Hindsight, and Difficult Choices

By Taylor Marvin

As I have before, today I wrote the weekly discussion question feature at Political Violence @ a Glance: given what we know today about the costs of the Syrian conflict, imagine you could advise President Obama at the outset of the conflict. What would your advice be? How would this differ from the policy options you favor today?

I think this is an interesting question, and one I can offer no real answer too. If policymakers in 2011 knew the Syrian war would eventually kill at least 100,000 people, there would likely have been a much stronger push for an international intervention to stop the violence. But today, with neither side apparently capable of gaining control over the entire country, it appears likely that the war will kill many more people before it is over, and there is still little real international desire to intervene.

Alternatively, the optimal strategies for ending the violence could have shifted between 2011 and now. It’s arguable that opportunities for a diplomatic solution existed then, before the conflict radicalized into the general sectarian war it increasingly resembles today. But then again, it’s very unlikely that the Assad government and its sectarian power base would have ever accepted any form of power-sharing agreement. Similarly, it is also arguable that arming the rebels with the heavy weapons necessary to make them competitive with regime forces was more politically feasible early in the conflict, before the ideological fracture of the opposition and overt entry of al Qaeda, Iran, and Hezbollah into the conflict. The same logic applies to an international military intervention — but again, the Syrian opposition never appeared to be a united force able to serve as a military partner to Western airpower as in Libya.

Thoughts?

Do Constitutional Monarchies Lead to Stability, or the Other Way Around?

By Taylor Marvin

Allan Ramsay, 'King George III'. Via Wikimedia.

Allan Ramsay, ‘King George III’. Via Wikimedia.

At the Washington Post’s Wonkblog Dylan Matthews provocatively argues that constitutional monarchies are a sounder form of government than presidential republics or parliamentary democracies with a largely-ceremonial head of state. Constitutional monarchy is, Matthew writes, “at worst, fully compatible with representative democracy, and, at best, makes representative democracy stronger.” In his excellent blog Suffragio Kevin Lees pokes holes in Matthews’ pro-monarchical argument, noting that many of Matthews points make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation. In particular, Lees attacks Matthews’ comparison highlighting constitutional monarchies’ above average GDP per capita and life expectancy:

“There are a lot of historical and economic reasons that explain why constitutional monarchies, which are predominantly located in Europe, are so much richer and healthier. North America and Europe are, well, richer than Africa or the Middle East or South America, in general terms, but it seems like ‘having a constitutional monarchy’ is not incredibly high on the list of reasons why Europe’s standard of living is so much higher than Africa’s. The legacy of colonialism, for one.”

Of course Lees is correct, and his piece is very much worth reading. But even within Europe, I think you can take this point farther. As Lees notes, Matthews’ (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) analysis isn’t simply misattributing contemporary Western Europe’s high development levels to its relatively common monarchical forms of government, it also mistakes monarchies’ survival as a cause, rather than result, of historical social stability. Only the rare monarchy has survived to the present, and in Europe only in constitutional form. Generalizing, this political continuity is more likely to occur in European countries with greater historical stability — in more unstable countries, early modern era monarchies were gradually screened out by revolution or political instability.

The two metrics Matthews cites — life expectancy and GDP per capita — are both typically dependent on historical trends. Countries with leading per capita incomes today tend to have seen relatively constant, steady growth for decades, growth that is often indicative of stable public institutions, growing human capital, and durable market economies. In addition to steady growth and rising incomes, these same social institutions are also associated with political stability.

At the risk of oversimplifying the various national contexts that allowed surviving monarchies — those of Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK — to avoid the (often literal) guillotine, monarchical continuity is a proxy for historical social stability. Later in the piece Matthews admits that constitutional monarchy doesn’t cause higher development levels, but is merely compatible with them. But really, it’s again the other way around: monarchies are more likely to survive in European countries with the same historical traits associated with higher development levels today.

Of course, in Europe at least the monarchies that survived were constitutional monarchies, while absolutist rulers were more often overthrown. But again, this is more likely an effect rather than a cause of social stability — the independent institutions and alternative political power centers able to coerce monarchs to cede power were conductive to later economic growth.

Rebel Public Relations and Military Intervention in Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Last week Erica Chenoweth highlighted an interesting McClatchy story reporting that CIA officials warned Hezbollah, through Lebanese government intermediaries, of an immanent al Qaeda attack on political targets in southern Lebanon. Reportedly American intelligence was able to listen in on encrypted calls detailing the planned attacks — “America might hate the NSA right now, but they were able to actually hear the calls and warn us what was said,” a Lebanese intelligence official remarks — and tip off Hezbollah, allowing the Iranian-backed group to arrest the conspirators. Perhaps ironically, al Qaeda’s reported motivation for the planned attack was Hezbollah and its Iranian patron’s support of the Assad government in Syria, who both the United States and al Qaeda wish to see ousted.

Even more thought-provoking is a pair of quotes from a Lebanese laborer and Hezbollah commander:

“We all think that the (Syrian rebels) are al Qaida and backed by the CIA and Israel,” said Abu Ibrahim, a 53-year-old day laborer from Haret Hriek, which hosts Hezbollah’s main complex of offices and homes for officials. “So why would they help us? Maybe they’re realizing how crazy their friends in Syria are.”

The Hezbollah commander said he thought the warning was more pragmatic.

“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”’

First, it’s entirely possible that the commander’s opinion doesn’t represent Hezbollah or the Assad regime’s strategic thinking and is simply spin. It is reasonable to suspect that publicly benefiting from the CIA’s superior intelligence in their own backyard is deeply embarrassing to Hezbollah — in a potentially deft bit of ass-covering the commander is earlier quoted claiming that Hezbollah had previous knowledge of the attack — giving it an incentive to save face by claiming that the CIA’s links to Syrian rebels is even more embarrassing. Similarly, individual Hezbollah members likely view the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels in the harshest terms possible, an ideological bias that potentially leads them to unreasonably underestimate the opposition’s ability to gain international support.

But this does raise an interesting puzzle: Does the Assad government and its allies truly believe that American support for the Syrian opposition will necessarily decline as international perceptions of the rebels dim?

Importantly, it is extremely difficult for even specialists to try and divine what informs the Assad regime’s thinking, and I certainly don’t have the expertise to do so. Additionally, even if the Assad regime does believe that the rebels will eventually alienate potential international backers, it is difficult to say that this would induce it to behave any differently than it would otherwise. The belief that serious international aid to the rebels is not forthcoming could make the regime even less likely to consider a negotiated solution to end the conflict, but the regime also has a strong incentive to outlast the rebellion anyway, so it is unreasonable to suspect that this belief would have any practical affect on its behavior.

That said, there are reasons to find this theory credible. The strongest is that we have already observed it in action. The opposition has been unable to prevent news of gruesome atrocities and violent political fragmentation from reaching Western media, as recent high-profile coverage of a rebel commander accused of ritual cannibalism shows. As Fred Kaplan wrote in a Friday column, Britain is already backing away from its previous push to supply the rebels with arms, citing “the reports that the Syrian rebels were killing one another with more gusto than they were killing soldiers of the Syrian regime.” Similarly, support among the American public for intervening in the conflict has fallen over time, an aversion at least partially due to opposition infighting and the popular conception that the opposition is dominated by radicals.

As the bloody conflict in Syria drags on, the rebels’ reputation is likely to grow more internationally tarnished. This is unsurprising, on multiple levels. Most obviously, the rebels entered the conflict with a largely ‘clean slate’ and a longer war simply gives them more time to commit high-profile atrocities, which anti-Assad foreign fighters and opportunists appear prone to committing. Secondly, as the war continues it has grown more ideological, increasingly morphing into a general sectarian conflict. Irrespective of ideology, as the war’s horrors continue combatants on both sides can be expected to grow more radical, a radicalization process on clear display in a BBC interview with the rebel commander accused of eating a regime soldier’s heart:

“In the beginning, when we captured an Alawite fighter, we would feed him, make him feel comfortable. We used to tell him we were brothers. But then they started raping our women, slaughtering children with knives.”

Of course, this same logic applies to the regime, whose artillery, armor, and airpower allow it to threaten greater atrocities than the opposition. But importantly, international public opinion is less important to the regime than the rebels. The regime entered the war as an international pariah, and its Russian and Chinese support in the UNSC appears to only be risked by much graver atrocities than it has so far perpetrated. Similarly, the conflict’s status quo favors the regime, especially in diplomatically: the Assad government already receives more practical support from its international allies than the opposition. The rebels, however, appear unlikely to favorably shift the conflict’s balance unless they are able to gain further international support. As instances of rebel atrocities unavoidably grow, they become another barrier to a prospective international military intervention on their side.

This logic is particularly important because, despite its fragmentation, the anti-Assad opposition is to some degree viewed as a unified body by its prospective international patrons. Despite Iran and Hezbollah’s increasing entry into the conflict America has no core national interests at stake in Syria, and the Obama administration has framed its interest in the conflict on humanitarian grounds. While the American public may not care about foreign policy, the administration is not likely to pursue a military intervention into the conflict with public opinion firmly against it, and atrocities committed by some rebels affect public perception of them all. Lionel Beehner recently wrote that ‘more violence means less support for intervention,’ but this can be more precisely stated as more evenly-distributed violence means less support for intervention, because violence — and accompanying atrocities — suggests that both sides “are just as bad” in the public consciousness. Whether this is true or not, this perception is a barrier to elected leaders looking to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Domingos Sequeira, "Portrait of John VI of Portugal", 1806. Via Wikimedia.

Domingos Sequeira, “Portrait of John VI of Portugal”, 1806. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Barry Blechman on why nuclear arms are the weapons of the weak: “Putin’s emphasis on nuclear forces is reminiscent of President Dwight Eisenhower’s emphasis on massive nuclear retaliation — a posture he adopted to mask the inferiority of US conventional forces to those of the Soviet Union in the 1950s” (via Louis M Wasser).

Speaking of nuclear weapons, the USAF National Air and Space Intelligence Center’s Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat report is out. Hans M. Kristensen runs down the report’s findings. Daryl G. Press also discusses why nuclear terrorism is the “sham of all fears.”

Eight sub-Saharan African elections within nine weeks highlights region’s fragile democracy.

Complexity theory in peacebuilding initiatives and mass atrocity prevention (via Danny Hirschel-Burns).

Are Brazil’s world class events a catalyst for growth or misallocated public spending?

Why America’s unpopularity in Egypt dramatically limits the US’ ability to influence its political upheaval, and why the recent coup was, as coups go, nothing out of the ordinary.

Is Egypt’s “second revelation” a blow to the Erdogan government?

As always, I rounded up writing on conflict and crisis for Political Violence @ a Glance.

Hindi Zahra – Music.

Are Drones More Likely to Inflict Civilian Casualties?

By Taylor Marvin

MQ-9. US Air Force photo by Kristi Machado.

MQ-9. US Air Force photo by Kristi Machado.

At Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter highlights a recent Guardian piece by Spencer Ackerman relaying the claim by a classified Department of Defense study suggesting that drone strikes over a yearlong period in Afghanistan “caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.” The study suggest that this higher incidence of civilian casualties is due to insufficient training of drone pilots compared to their in-the-cockpit counterparts. Carpenter notes that if this is true, the argument that drones are a more humanitarian option than crewed aircraft would be substantially weakened.

(Though, importantly, drones strikes within Pakistan are often held up as the more humane option compared to Pakistani military action, not US airstrikes conducted by crewed aircraft, so the study’s findings would not necessarily affect this higher-profile controversy over the ethics of drone strikes.)

There are numerous reasons to doubt the validity of these findings: First, as Carpenter remarks, the study itself is classified — making its data and methods impossible to verify. Secondly, as Dan Nexon argues, there are many within the DoD, and particularly the US Air Force, that find the prospect of a future where fighter jocks take a backseat to drones deeply unattractive and have an incentive to discredit UCAVs. Finally, there’s an obvious potential bias here: as other commenters noted, in the last decade the United States has disproportionately used drones to conduct signature strikes in civilian areas, while crewed aircraft are more often used in more traditional combat strike roles. It’s entirely possible that the manner in which drones are used, rather than operator training or anything inherent to remotely piloted aircraft, is more likely to cause civilian casualties. Unless the study in question is made public we won’t know if this bias is accounted for.

But beyond these issues it’s important to remember that this study has little relevance to the debate over drones themselves. There is little reason to suspect drones are inherently more prone to collateral damage than crewed aircraft, at least in the manner which they have recently been utilized. After all, when conducting signature strikes in undefended airspace — drones’ signature mission in the last decade — there is little qualitative difference between remotely piloted aircraft and crewed strike aircraft. Instead, what makes drones different is their political baggage, which is typically understood as less restricting than crewed strike aircraft. In many situations — in particular, contested airspace — remotely piloted aircraft will likely suffer more from limited situational awareness and other operational limitations than crewed aircraft, limitations that may make them more prone to killing civilians. But there is again little reason to suspect that the limitations of contemporary unmanned platforms have affected drones’ propensity for inflicting civilian casualties today. Instead these civilian casualties are more likely due to the United States’ division of labor between crewed and uncrewed strike aircraft, rather than the inherent qualities of each platform.

Drone strikes will remain controversial, as they should. But it’s important to untangle debates over the consequences of UCAVs themselves, and of their applications. I’d argue that this study is more relevant to the latter than the former.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Cariani, "A Concert", 1520. Via the National Gallery of Art.

Cariani, “A Concert”, 1520. Via the National Gallery of Art.

What I read this week:

Tom Nichols reminds us about the truth of BMD: “This system, even if were 80 or 90 percent effective, will have no impact on decision-making during a crisis, because the President and his advisors will have to assume that any failure rate means, in effect, that the system does not, for any practical purpose exist.”

I missed this at the time, but a fun rundown of the winners and losers in a nuclear-free world.

A brand-new U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan. How the US built an unused $34 million dollar state-of-the-art headquarters that will “will probably be demolished.”

Sudden improvements in Egypt’s electricity availability and policing suggest a concerted campaign (and, importantly, a successful one) to undermine the Morsi government.

Why isn’t separatism or regionalism more dominant in the politics of Bretagne?

Iran’s president-elect signals he’s on young people’s side.

How the bin Laden case shows that Pakistan’s ISI is either duplicitous or shockingly inept. Most money’s on the former.

Earlier this week I rounded up links of conflict at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Pale White Moon- The Wolf Peach.

Rehabilitating Pinochet?

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

Image by Archivo Clarín Argentina, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Following the recent coup in Egypt, the Wall Street Journal posted a fairly run-of-the-mill editorial in favor of President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Arguing that the polarizing and Islamist Morsi government necessitated a military coup, the Wall Street Journal expressed hope that the Egyptian military would wisely steer Egypt back to democracy and resist the urge to govern the country directly. Accusing it of “trailing events at every turn,” the op-ed’s authors also denounced the Obama administration’s foreign policy, while neglecting to admit that the US has little ability to positively influence events in Egypt, and even less ability to foresee them — again, a fairly typical argument from the Journal.

However, in its last paragraph the op-ed veers into what can only be considered at best wildly historically myopic, or more likely simply deeply offensive:

“Egyptians would be lucky if their new ruling generals turn out to be in the mold of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who took power amid chaos but hired free-market reformers and midwifed a transition to democracy. If General Sisi merely tries to restore the old Mubarak order, he will eventually suffer Mr. Morsi’s fate.”

This is, to put it mildly, insane. After participating in and then subsuming the military junta that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet personally ruled Chile for nearly two decades. In that time he oversaw the deaths of 3,000 people (in a country of 13 million in 1990) and torture and execution of democratic activists, fought all meaningful democratic reform, and nearly fought what would have been an entirely-preventable conflict with Argentina. Ultimately, Pinochet left power not out of some respect for democracy, as the Journal seems to believe, but when he was essentially forced out. If the Wall Street Journal’s editors had any respect at all for Pinochet’s victims — or, perhaps more pertinently, any understanding of the legacy of his regime — they would not hold Pinochet as an example for Egypt’s newly re-empowered generals.

As Colin M. Snider writes, this argument is “vile, disgusting, repugnant, vulgar, and ignorant.”

But perhaps more interesting is what this op-ed represents. The Pinochet regime has long enjoyed some cachet among American conservatives, both for the regime’s anti-Communist stance and neoliberal economic reforms, and during his tenure Pinochet enjoyed close ties with the both the US government and neoliberal economists, notably Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. With the end of the Cold War American elites had much less incentive to support anti-leftist Latin American military dictatorships, and generally turned away from previously-favored right-wing autocracies. But due to his free-market reforms and Chile’s subsequent economic growth the Pinochet regime continued to enjoy some degree of respect that other, once similarly favored regimes like the pre-1982 Argentine junta and Paraguay’s Stroessner regime gradually lost. This respect continued beyond Pinochet’s ouster, with American conservatives especially often rhetorically conflating arguments highlighting the regime’s economic success with some nebulous endorsement of it, while downplaying Pinochet’s crimes and the growth in Chilean inequality he oversaw.

But American economic conservatives ready to celebrate the Pinochet regime’s economic policies are usually quick to denounce its autocratic nature, even while implicitly endorsing the regime overall. This position stems from a somewhat understandable dilemma. In the American elite imagination the Pinochet regime is most often offered as clear-cut economic success story — acknowledge the regime’s crimes and the whole narrative edifice threatens to come crashing down. Some commentators attempt to streamline this historical narrative by insisting that while Pinochet was a brutal dictator the Communist-leaning Allende government it overthrew would have been worse. While this plays into American Cold War biases and draws on the specter of leftist insurgencies elsewhere in Latin America, it’s also a counterfactual, and ultimately not very convincing.

Given this rhetorical challenge — the contemporary conservative need to condone Pinochet’s economic policies while also denouncing its abuses — the Wall Street Journal simply elected to avoid the narrative bind entirely, drop the qualifications, and endorse the Pinochet regime whole-heartedly. Admittedly the op-ed only mentions Chile in the last paragraph and is focused on another issue, but this failure to qualify its celebration of Pinochet at all remains noteworthy.

Pithily noting that “anyone familiar with the political views of the WSJ’s editors couldn’t have been too surprised,” Daniel Larison sees the Pinochet reference as a predictable repurposing of American foreign policy tropes to fit a new situation:

“On one level, it was just an old rehashing of Cold War-era justifications for U.S. support for anticommunist authoritarian rulers, except that Islamists were now filling the role that communists and socialists used to play. On another, it was a fairly predictable expression of support for perceived ‘pro-American’ forces abroad even if they happened to be military officers engaged in a coup against an elected government.”

This is of course correct. But it’s possible that there’s something else here. The Pinochet regime is now nearly a quarter century in the rearview mirror. With this growing historical remoteness, it would be unsurprising if American conservatives gradually drop their qualifications when arguing in favor of the regime’s economic policies. After all, noting that a regime best-known (in the United States I don’t think this is an exaggeration) for its arguably-beneficial economic policies was also a reprehensible, anti-democratic dictatorship complicates the narrative. Given that the Pinochet regime is most often mentioned in the US as an appropriated tool in American economic policy debates, this complexity is relevant, and unwanted. As time goes by I would not be surprised if explicit endorsements of the Pinochet regime like the Wall Street Journal’s become more and more common.

Correction: This piece originally misidentified the Wall Street Journal editorial as an op-ed.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Josefa de Óbidos, 'Still Life', 1676. Via Wikimedia.

Josefa de Óbidos, ‘Still Life’, 1676. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

On the coup in Egypt, read Shadi Hamid, Marc Lynch, and Jeremy Pressman.

Jay Ulfelder looks at the causes of mass protests.

David Brooks paints those wary of the coup as ’emphasizing process over substance’; Daniel Larison is reasonably disgusted with this ends-justifies-the-means logic, which sends a firm message to political Islam that democracy is not in their interests.

The Wall Street Journal also uses Morsi’s ouster as an opportunity to praise Chile’s brutal Pinochet dictatorship; Colin M. Snider is shocked.

Emile Nakhleh urges the US to put pressure on the new government, arguing that despite the Morsi government’s myriad failings it did “not signal the defeat of Arab democracy or a failure of political Islam.”

An interesting look at the US next lightweight fighter, maybe (via Dave Majumdar).

Central America’s drug cartels turn their attention to trafficking people.

Image of Shakira on Iran TV causes controversy: “We decided to enter into negotiations with Cuba to work together culturally to have the audience members at the Iran and Cuba volleyball game wear sweatshirts and pants so that this problem does not come up again.”

Mahmoud Ahmed – Fetsum Deng Ledj Nesh.