Sunday, June 01, 2014

Do democracies start wars?

It is often said that democracies do not wage war on one-another.  The idea is that populations as a whole are justly wary of war  -- because it is they who die in them --  so a democratic government can only get popular consent to a war if the country is attacked by an external enemy -- presumably a despot of some kind.

Students of ancient history will immediately recall the Athenian attack on Syracuse as a counter-example but Athens was not much like democracies as we know them today (only a minority of Athenians had a vote, for instance) so that does not take us very far.

I have recently come across what could be seen as a confirmation of the usual claim:  The Austro-Hungarian democracy at the onset of WWI.  The Austro-Hungarian empire (Germany's great Southern ally) WAS a democracy but it was a greatly decayed democracy.  The Austrian Reichsrat (parliament) had degenerated to complete unworkability.  Filibusters were common and disruptions by deliberate noise were routine.  Parties that were not getting their way would shout, blow whistles, blow toy trumpets, bang drums and generally deploy so much noise that speeches could not be heard and very little work could be done.

It was such a spectacle that ordinary Viennese  -- including Hitler -- would go to the vistor's gallery overlooking parliament just for the entertainment.  Hitler started out with a considerable respect for democracy, particularly British democracy,  but his observations of the Reichsrat considerably eroded that.

So Austria entered the war solely in the power of the bureaucracy, the military and the Emperor.  It is conceivable that a mature democracy might have produced a leader who told the emperor firmly that a dead Archduke was insufficient to justify hostilities with Serbia.  So WWI could  perhaps have been avoided if Austria had been a functioning democracy.

As it happens, even the German Kaiser thought that war with Serbia was unnecessary -- but Austria had declared war before the Kaiser had got to make his views known.  But once war had been declared, treaty obligations ruled subsequent events.

But the big hole in the conventional case is Imperial Germany.  The German empire was thoroughly democratic and the formal powers of the Kaiser were little different from the powers of the British monarch.  The Kaiser was certainly influential for a time and often expressed views that were widely held in Germany but nothing much could be done without parliamentary consent.

Wikipedia has a reasonable short summary of the German parliament of the time:  "The Reichstag had no formal right to appoint or dismiss governments, but by contemporary standards it was considered a highly modern and progressive parliament. All German men over 25 years of age were eligible to vote, and members of the Reichstag were elected by general, universal and secret suffrage. Members were elected in single-member constituencies by majority vote."

And Germany's predecessor State, Prussia, is an interesting example of the role of the German parliament:  The King could not get the Prussian parliament to vote him the funds he wanted for his army so he commissioned Chancellor Bismarck to bypass parliament and rule solely in the King's name.  Bismarck carried it off with the aid of an obedient Prussian bureaucracy and parliament was ignored for four years.  But parliament did not flinch and, after four years, Bismarck had to apologize to the parliament and reinstate it authority.  So even in Prussia, parliament was the ultimate authority.

And in  Germany of the Edwardian era, it was parliament's power of the purse that regulated and limited what the Kaiser and his ministers could do.  So it is no good blaming the Kaiser for WWI.  He was largely a figurehead for the will of the German people as expressed in their Reichstag.  It was essentially the whole of the German democracy that went into WWI.

And the U.S. democracy has its own history of initiating war. Robert Kagan of the Brookings institution has an extensive historical survey which shows both that the America people are isolationist and that American leaders repeatedly talk them out of that.  On some occasions, where America has been attacked, as with the 9/11 atrocity, retaliation is completely reasonable but on others the pretext used to initiate war was very thin.  For starters, the alleged attack in 1898 on the battleship "Maine" in Havana harbour was a very thin reason for the invasion of Cuba by TR and his cohorts.  To this day there is no clarity on what sank the "Maine".

But even the "Maine" episode shows that American declarations of war have to be dressed up as defensive or retaliatory.  But finding such garb has not been difficult for at least the Democrat side of American politics.  Isolationism was from the earliest days the stance of American conservatives but with their insatiable lust for meddling in other people's affairs, liberals have been very keen to involve America in wars abroad.  It may be noted that TR was the founder of the "Progressive" party (popularly known as the "Bull Moose" party) when the Republicans became too wishy washy for him.

So when WWI broke out it was a great frustration for Democrat President Wilson that he was not part of the councils of war.  So peace-minded were the American people that it actually took him years to find a pretext for declaring war  -- the main pretext being the "Lusitania" sinking.  The loss of the liner and her people was an undoubted tragedy but Germany had posted warning advertisements in NY newspapers prior to the sailing which warned people not to sail on the "Lusitania".  It was thought to be carrying munitions to Britain -- which it was  -- making it a prime target.  So accusations of German perfidy or barbarity were simply wrong.

And FDR in WWII was just as bad.  His sanctions against Japan had pushed Japan into economic crisis and desperate Japanese attempts to open negotiations were repeatedly rebuffed.  So, against much of their own expert advice, the Pearl Harbor attack was planned by the Japanese leadership to break through American opposition.  That was essentially what FDR wanted and he made no attempt to stop it.  Both Britain and the U.S. had cracked the Japanese naval code so Japanese ship movements were known.  But not a whisper of any of the intelligence concerned was transmitted to Pearl Harbor.  FDR did however make sure that his carriers were not in port when the Japanese attacked.

And so FDR got his "date that will live in infamy".  "A date that will live in hypocrisy" would be more apt.  Robert Kagan  is also of the view that FDR was itching for war.

And as for Bill Clinton's attack on the Christian Serbs on behalf of Muslims....

So democracies do start wars  -- but they usually have to be a bit sneaky about it

UPDATE  -- A point of clarification about WWI:

It could be argued that I have undermined my own argument by pointing to Austria as undemocratic.  It could be argued that the war was started by Austria's attack on Serbia and since Austria was a failed democracy, the events there show that democracies do not start wars.

My main point was however the role of Germany.  If Germany had not mobilized there would have been no WWI.  The Austrians were not much concerned by the prospect of a Russian invasion and they were probably right about that.  Given the backward and chaotic Russian military and the large modern forces available to Austria, only a minor punch-up would probably have resulted from the Tsar's actions.  Austria might even have gained some territory.

So it was Germany's move that started the big war.  And Germany was democratic.  So why did Germany get involved?  Because they wanted to.  And there were several reasons why.  See here

UPDATE 2  -- about the Lusitania

A reader has pointed out that my graphic above is a collage. The Lusitania sailing details and the embassy warning did not originally occur side-by-side.  So why did I say that passengers on the Lusitania specifically were warned?  Because the Lusitania was the ONLY liner left on that route.  Other liners had been grabbed by the British government for war use.

I can't resist mentioning WHY the government did not use the Lusitania:  Because as a large fast ship it would use heaps of coal -- and the admiralty wanted to conserve its stocks! -- JR


Economic Growth, Texas Style

With a record 92 million Americans out of the work force and the labor force participation rate under 63% – matching a 36-year low – at least one state is actually seeing a jobs boom. The Lone Star State, which has always marched to its own drumbeat, is now bucking the trend in the downward growth spiral. And the reason is a lesson the rest of the Union could learn.

But first, the facts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas' preliminary unemployment rate for April 2014 was 5.2%, notably below the national 6.3% headline unemployment rate. Of course, these numbers can easily hide the true story. More important – and more impressive – is that Texas' labor force participation rate for April was 65.1%, significantly above the national average.

Additionally, comparing red-state Texas with blue-dyed California, economist Stephen Moore notes that over the last 20 years, Texas has had four times the job growth of California, has an unemployment rate far lower than California’s, has income growth greater than California’s, and regularly ranks in the top five states for business climate while California consistently lands in the bottom 10.

Is it any wonder that people are fleeing states like California and moving to Texas? For example, Toyota recently announced relocation of its U.S. headquarters, along with some 3,000 jobs, from Torrance, California, to Plano, Texas.

But what’s behind the good news? Several things – none of which you’ll find in California.

First, the oil and gas boom. While Washington regulators are spouting energy independence with one breath and trying to regulate the growth out of the oil and gas industry with the other, Texas is, well, drilling away. The Heritage Foundation notes that already in 2014, year-over-year drilling has doubled, with 10,000 new wells being drilled this year alone. (North Dakota, the other ‘oil boom’ state, is also seeing tremendous job and population growth – coincidence?). And when it comes to dishing out dough, Texas doesn’t do much to subsidize solar and wind energy, which are invariably more expensive and less reliable than oil and gas. California, meanwhile, has a Hollywood love affair with subsidy sprees.

Additionally, Texas actually welcomes business growth, charging no state income tax and avoiding many excessive regulations.

Of course, this isn’t to say Texas is the new Promised Land. As the Texas Public Policy Foundation noted in a recent report, the state’s economic development programs allow local governments to use taxpayer money to support “private interests,” meaning private business. That practice of cronyism has rightly drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.

Yet, looking at the larger economic and regulatory landscape, it’s impossible not to notice the land of the Alamo is making a stand for Liberty, while the Left coast of solar utopia simply isn’t.



The vaunted 'competence' of Barack Obama

by Jeff Jacoby

AS A candidate for president in 1988, Michael Dukakis famously proclaimed: "This election is not about ideology; it's about competence."

It wasn't a winning argument. Dukakis had run as the architect of the so-called "Massachusetts Miracle," the state's mid-1980s economic boom. But the miracle was turning into a fiscal meltdown, and as it did Dukakis's once-commanding lead went down the drain. On Election Day, he lost to George H. W. Bush in a 40-state landslide.

Dukakis played down ideology because he didn't want to be tagged as a liberal, and he played up competence because that's what all candidates do. Twenty years later, Barack Obama did the same thing, but with far greater success. Running to succeed the deeply polarizing George W. Bush, Obama held himself out not just as a leader who would never "pit red America against blue America," but as a natural-born manager whose hallmark was smarts and competence.

Voters — encouraged by newspaper endorsements that saw in Obama's campaign "a marvel of sound management" (The Boston Globe) and backed him because he "offered more competence than drama" (Los Angeles Times) — ate it up. An astonishing 76 percent of respondents in a CNN/ORC poll shortly after the 2008 election agreed that Obama could "manage the government effectively."

Five years of Obama's presidency have certainly shattered that delusion.

The scandal now boiling over at the Veterans Administration, where at least 40 patients have died while numerous VA hospitals reportedly falsified data to hide unconscionable delays in medical care, is only the latest in a long series of government shambles under a president whose managerial prowess turned out to be a mirage.

Abuses at the VA have been a problem for years. As a candidate back in 2007, Obama claimed that 400,000 veterans were "stuck on a waiting list," and he promised "a new sense of urgency" to "make sure that our disabled vets receive the benefits they deserve." But that urgency never materialized. In a letter to Obama a year ago, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee detailed some of the "serious and significant patient care issues" in the VA system, imploring him to address the worsening problems before even more veterans died. Yet nothing happened. The president showed no interest in the matter, and seemed to have no grasp of the scandal's lethal magnitude, until he learned about it on the news.

Obama came to the White House with a carefully cultivated image for almost preternatural competence — an image no one esteemed more highly than he did. "I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters," he had told campaign staff. "I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that . . . I'm a better political director than my political director."

He may still believe it, but most Americans no longer do. When respondents in a CNN/ORC poll this spring were asked once again about the president's ability to "manage the government effectively," a solid majority — 57 percent — said that description does not apply to Obama. Other surveys get similar results. In four Quinnipiac University polls taken since November 2013, respondents have been asked: "Do you think that in general the Obama administration has been competent in running the government?" Each time, a majority has said no. Asked whether the president is "paying attention to what his administration is doing," only 45 percent say he is. None of those polls reflects recent coverage of the VA; presumably the numbers would be even harsher if they did.

Every presidency has its scandals and messes. George W. Bush's included the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, the calamitous post-Saddam administration of Iraq, and the misbegotten policies that stoked the subprime mortgage crisis. But Obama went out of his way to contrast himself with the supposedly bumbling and hapless Bush. He put effectiveness and smart governance at the very core of what Americans could expect if they elected him.

It hasn't worked out that way, or even come close. The Obama administration hasn't been distinguished by cool, cerebral, sure-footed professionalism, but by something closer to amateur hour. From the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act to the bloody aftermath of the intervention in Libya, from enabling political witch-hunts at the IRS to being repeatedly outmaneuvered by Russia's Vladimir Putin, from swelling the debt he was going to reduce to embittering the politics he promised to detoxify, Obama's performance has been a lurching series of screw-ups and disappointments.

The 44th president — who once said that his accomplishments could compare favorably with those of any of his predecessors with the "possible exceptions" of Lyndon Johnson, FDR, and Abraham Lincoln — has always had a huge opinion of his executive gifts. The American people no longer share it. As a political creature, Obama's talents are undeniable. When it comes to competent governance, they turned out to be anything but.



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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A comment on your analysis of WWI. Could Austria have defeated Russia-possibly but the question remains why Russia would go to war in the first place. Maybe you could write about the reason the French cabinet was in St Petersburg just before Russia's decision and why the French have sealed their achieves on this matter.

After forty years of beating the war drums what oh what could the French have been wispering into the Czar's ears?

The French were clearly the villians of the piece and no amount of revisionism will hide that.