Starting from basic principles

Writing that piece about Libya on Friday put me in mind of a couple of articles I flagged months ago but never did anything with. The first was this June Politico piece by Philip Gordon, who was the Obama White House’s coordinator for the MENA region until earlier this year. Gordon is admittedly biased toward defending his former boss’s record, but he makes a pretty decent argument here for reducing and realigning America’s role in the region:

Given the stakes, the desire to “do something” is understandable but this approach is potentially even more dangerous than walking away. Only recently, we saw that U.S. interventions in the region (Iraq) can be enormously costly ($1 trillion, 5,000 U.S. lives, half-a-million Iraqi lives and the United States’ global reputation) and only bring unintended consequences—like the exacerbation of the Sunni-Shia divide and the creation of ISIL. Using force to get rid of Assad is a noble goal and no doubt would remove one real problem—but it would surely create many others, including potentially even more instability and sectarianism in Syria, as well as creating genuine U.S. ownership of the problem. The notion that limited airstrikes would lead Assad to abandon power—and turn leadership over to moderates—would be a particularly egregious case of placing hope over experience.

When implying the United States can “fix” Middle Eastern problems if only it “gets it right” it is worth considering this: In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster. This record is worth keeping in mind as we contemplate proposed solutions going forward.

Granted, the US has actually intervened in Syria, but that intervention came well after the situation there had become a “costly disaster,” and that’s Gordon’s point. If there’s some correct calibration of American policy that can make things better in the Middle East, rather than worse, we haven’t figured it out, and we’ve been trying since the end of World War II.

Not intervening at all feels impotent and callous. The desire to Do Something is powerful both for people who see war as the only answer when confronted with perceived threats to American interests and for the “Responsibility to Protect” crowd, people who want America to alleviate humanitarian suffering by force, if necessary. Obviously real threats need to be countered, but the definition of a “threat” and of “American interests” always seems pretty broad. On the other hand, I sympathize with the humanitarian interventionists and kind of used to be one of them myself back before I’d really started thinking about these issues. But now I believe that, as in bioethics, there’s a powerful case to be made that “first, do no harm” should be the guiding principle behind all foreign interventions.

“First, Do No Harm” is the title of the second piece I thought of on Friday, a 2010 essay from analyst David Reiff in The New Republic. Reiff also went from being a liberal/humanitarian interventionist to a skeptic of intervention altogether, and he addresses the question of whether the US has an obligation to aid people who are suffering in places like Darfur, Iraq, Syria, etc. head on: Continue reading

On a break for real now

Just a reminder that after an uneven week of posting this past week, I am on a real vacation from bloggering this week. I have a few mostly historical pieces in the can that will post over the course of the week, but that’s all you’ll be getting from me until sometime around Labor Day. Thanks for reading and I’ll catch you in a week or so!

Saturday Night Tunes: Lester Young Trio

Thursday was Lester Young’s (1909-1959) birthday, so it seemed appropriate to focus on him this week (Tuesday was Wayne Shorter’s birthday, but you get one of these a week and we’ve already done Shorter before). As one of the most popular and influential musicians to come out of jazz’s swing period, Young holds an important place in jazz history; he was, for example, one of Charlie Parker’s acknowledged influences. Born in Mississippi, Young got his start playing in the family band before leaving home and winding up in Kansas City; it was there that he wound up playing for Count Basie, and it was while playing for Basie that he achieved his fame. Young was known for his light, fluid style on the tenor (he’s often contrasted with his tenor contemporary, Coleman Hawkins, who was known for his powerful sound and technical proficiency), his warm tone throughout the instrument’s range, and his ingenuity in phrasing and harmony when he was improvising, which influenced bebop as well as the later “cool jazz” movement.

He was also, unfortunately, known for his prodigious drinking problem. Drafted into the army in 1944, Young was assigned to the regular infantry despite the fact that plenty of lesser white musicians were put into army bands like Glenn Miller’s. He lasted less than a year, and spent much of that time in detention, thanks to his drinking problem and some pot that was found in his possession. After his dishonorable discharge, he went back to playing professionally, but his drinking only got worse, and his playing started to decline as well. He died in 1959, ostensibly of heart failure, but the truth is that he drank himself to death. The esteem with which he was held in the jazz community is evident from the tributes he inspired, like Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” and Wayne Shorter’s “Lester Left Town.”

Young is perhaps best known for his work in Basie’s bands or for his lifelong (and mutually self-destructive) friendship and professional collaboration with the legendary Billie Holiday, but Lester Young Trio (recorded in 1946) showcased him in a small group setting alongside Nat King Cole (another frequent Young collaborator) on piano and Buddy Rich on drums. As an aside, I figure most people who’ve heard of Cole are familiar with his singing, but he was a tremendous piano player whose abilities in that regard get overshadowed (it seems to me) by his singing. The list of great jazz pianists who were influenced by Cole is enormous: Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, and many more. And he’s so good on this particular album that you don’t really miss the absence of a bass, which I usually find jarring.

These tracks cover two albums that were both recorded in 1946: Lester Young Trio was released in 1951 and Lester Young Trio No. 2 was released in 1953. Both records were re-released in 1955 as The Lester Young Buddy Rich Trio, which shorts Cole, but then Cole was under contract to a competing record company when these things were recorded, so he doesn’t even appear on the album under his own name (he takes the alias “Aye Guy”). Putting his name in the album title probably would have been problematic.

Young really sings on the this cover of the standard “I Cover the Waterfront,” written by Johnny Green in 1933. Cole also gets a chance to shine:

“I Want to Be Happy” is off of Lester Young Trio No. 2 and was originally written by Vincent Youmans in 1925 for the musical No, No, Nanette. It’s a nice uptempo number that heavily features Rich’s drumming:

In contrast, “Peg o’ My Heart” doesn’t feature Rich, because he’d apparently left the studio to go get something to eat. Cole and Young kept noodling around with this 1913 Alfred Bryan-Fred Fisher standard until it got tight enough that they decided to record it without Rich:

“Back to the Land” is a blues written by Young himself. It really showcases the quality of his tone on the tenor:

Let’s close out (there are a couple more tunes from these albums out there, but you’ll have to track them down yourselves) on something uptempo, this cover of the 1926 Jack Palmer-Spencer Williams standard “I’ve Found a New Baby.” Everybody gets a chance to show off on this one:

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Today in European history: the Battle of Mohács (1526)

First of all, let’s not confuse this battle with the 1687 Battle of Mohács, which we’ve previously mentioned. Aside from the fact that the two battles are ~160 years apart, they also led to two completely different outcomes. That Battle of Mohács was a decisive Ottoman defeat that caused Hungary to come under the control of the Habsburgs, cost the life (thanks to a subsequent Janissary mutiny) of the Grand Vizier at the time, and ultimately resulted in the deposition of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV. This Battle of Mohács was a decisive Ottoman victory that brought a big chunk of Hungary under Ottoman control for the next 160 years, ended the royal line of the Jagiellonian dynasty that ruled Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia, and ultimately brought those kingdoms into the Habsburg orbit (at least nominally, since Croatia and much of Hungary were under Ottoman control). Basically, Mohács saw both the beginning and the end of Ottoman control over Hungary, which is something to be said for a town that numbers about 18,000 residents today. But the truth is that Mohács, located in the extreme southern part of Hungary right on the Danube River, is an obvious place to meet an invading army, or to drive an invading army out of Hungary altogether.

The Ottoman Empire in the 16th century was very much an expansionist enterprise, so there’s no mystery why Sultan Suleyman I (d. 1566) wanted to conquer Hungary: it was there, on his frontier, waiting to be conquered. He’d already taken some Hungarian-controlled territory, in particular the city of Belgrade (now in modern Serbia) in 1521. But Suleyman (AKA Suleyman the Magnificent, if you’re wondering about his later reputation) also wanted to get after the Habsburgs, both to counter their competing expansionism (which he rightly saw as a threat) and because Suleyman was engaged in serious diplomacy with King Francis I of France (it should have been a medieval European law, maybe a Church law, that no king of France could ever be named “Francis,” but I digress), which would eventually lead to a formal alliance in 1536. The French were entirely opposed to the Habsburgs (the fact that they entered into an alliance with the Muslim Ottomans shows how deep their enmity ran), and Francis agitated for Suleyman to attack them. Which Suleyman was happy to do, because, again, he was running an expansionist empire.


Suleyman I, in one of the most disturbingly oversized turbans I’ve ever seen, as immortalized by the Italian painter Titian sometime around 1530 (Wikimedia)

The Hungarian (and Bohemian and Croatian) King, Louis II (d. — SPOILER ALERT — 1526), had married Mary of Habsburg in 1515, the sister of Charles V, who became King of Spain in 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. I mention that only because it will come up again later. He called up the royal army and then proceeded to deploy it so incompetently that you have to wonder if he was affected by low blood sugar.

You know, because he was the king of HUNGARY! Get it?

No, that’s OK; I’ll show myself out. Continue reading

The good war

Atrios reminisces about the days when Libya was the war everybody liked instead of the war nobody wants to talk about:

I was talking about this with a friend who knows a bit about such things (I mostly don’t) yesterday. There was a time when we had to do something in Libya, and doing something of course meant bombing the shit out of someone because what else do we know how to do. Eventheliberals were saying 1) bomb 2)???? 3) humanitarian miracles!!!. Nobody talks about Libya anymore. I guess we just got bored?

I’m one of the people who doesn’t talk much about Libya, which is a glaring omission given the general focus of this blog. But I’ve got a historical post about Libya in the can for next week, so now’s probably as good a time as any to make a troubling admission: I was one of those Do Something people back in 2011. There, I said it.

At the risk of making this All About Me, let me explain. I could pretend that I wasn’t OK with the Libyan intervention. The whole thing happened before I had this here blog, and I don’t think I’ve ever written anything here that could be construed as strong praise for the operation. But the truth is, I thought it was a good idea at the time. I contrasted Libya with Iraq, and Libya seemed to check off a lot of boxes that the Iraq didn’t: there was strong international support for the mission, we would be stopping an ongoing humanitarian disaster while also preventing a much bigger one, and there was an active rebellion going on against a brutal dictator, whose leaders were openly asking for international assistance. I was skeptical that the US and its partners would be able or willing to stick around after the intervention to help stabilize the country, which proved correct, but all in all I was in favor of intervening. I hope I’ve learned my lesson, but I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve mostly avoided writing about Libya all this time.

The dilemma in both Libya and Iraq is that criticizing the intervention can sound like nostalgia for the days when a bloodthirsty madman was running the country, and obviously that’s not what most critics are saying. It’s amoral and unfair to the people of Libya and Iraq to say that they’d be better off with Gaddafi or Saddam still in charge, right? But this is an argument that pro-intervention folks use a lot: “oh, so you’re saying everything would be better off with the dictator still in power?” That’s a false choice, though. I don’t believe the people of Iraq would be better off with Saddam still in power, or that the people of Libya would be better off with Gaddafi still in power, but I do believe a couple of things: Continue reading

Brownie’s still doing a heckuva job

Remember how when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the head of FEMA was some disgraced (really) Arabian horse judge who turned out to be pretty incompetent at running a disaster relief agency?

That’s the guy!

And then everybody wondered why he was so bad at his job? Was he just in over his head? Completely unqualified? Or was he actually, proactively an idiot?

Welp, 10 years later, I think we’ve got an answer:

Michael D. Brown, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director who resigned in disgrace after criticisms of how he handled the storm, is also a climate change science denier, particularly on the idea that seems most relevant to his former profession: sea level rise.

But in the ThinkProgress interview, Brown actually did doubt some of the data that says disaster risk is increasing — namely, sea level rise. The way Brown sees it, the sea levels will not rise the way scientists predict they will. This is partially proven, he said, by the fact that people are still buying and developing big properties on the more vulnerable areas of the East Coast. If Brown could be convinced that sea levels were rising, though, he did said he would support adaptation measures.

See, when it comes to climate predictions, some people like to rely on “experts” who have “actually studied” the “relevant science” and “make informed predictions” based on the “latest available hard data.” Maybe that’s your thing, and, whatever, I’m not going to judge. But the rest of us? We prefer to go to the guys who really know what’s up: real estate developers. After all, when’s the last time the real estate market led the entire industrialized world astray? Clearly the fact that people are still buying land proves without a doubt that said land will never be affected by rising seas. And we’re definitely not already seeing the impact of sea level rise on housing markets.

Someday, guys like Brownie here are going to be standing neck deep in the rising Atlantic Ocean, insisting that water levels are the same as they’ve always been and, anyway, if the seas were really rising then the invisible hand of the market would be personally lifting them all to safety. I recommend investing in high-altitude properties so you’ll hopefully still be around to see it.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Thank you!

Europe’s handling of its migrant situation is ugly, and probably illegal

Refugees are coming to Europe in huge numbers, fleeing horrific conditions in Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. These are not migrants looking for welfare, or to “take” somebody’s “job,” or whatever other racially-charged stereotype that frequently gets attached to migrants. They’re refugees fleeing war and persecution, and as such they are specifically entitled to legal protections under international law, and to moral protections because they’re human freaking beings who desperately need help.

Here’s how several European nations have chosen to express their commitment to those legal and moral protections:

Police in Hungary used tear gas on refugees trying to cross into the country from Serbia on Wednesday — the latest in several recent incidents in which member states of the European Union used force against asylum seekers, in what experts say may be a violation of international law.

Hungarian politicians resolved to send mounted police, dogs and even helicopters to the area in order to stem the tide of refugees pouring in each day, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said the lawmakers would debate a possible military deployment next week.

Hungary is not the only European country to turn its refugee crisis into a law-enforcement issue. On Wednesday, Macedonian police fired stun grenades and tear gas at refugees to drive them back from their border into Greece. In July, French police used tear gas against thousands of refugees and migrants who attempted to enter Britain via the Eurotunnel in the French port city of Calais. And earlier this month, Greek police struck refugees with batons to control a crowd of 2,000 people, sparking small riots on the island of Kos.

Today’s discoveries, of as many as 50 71 dead refugees in the back of a truck headed from Austria to Hungary and hundreds of primarily Libyan refugees dead at sea, are only the latest and most shocking events in this ongoing story. Continue reading