The Failure of Intelligent Design Creationism

On Monday I attended the talk given by intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocate Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) at Strosacker. The program consisted of a talk for about an hour by Behe followed by a 20-minute response by Professor Hillel Chiel of the Biology Department at Case.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite familiar with the IDC program, having read Behe’s book and other IDC literature, written about the topic extensively, and debated Behe and other IDC advocates in 2002 in Kansas and again in Michigan. So I was curious to see what new developments had occurred since my last encounter with him.

Michael Behe gives good talks and the full auditorium had an enjoyable evening. He has an engaging manner, good sense of humor, and presents his ideas in a clear way. But I already knew that having heard his talks before. What disappointed me was that there was absolutely nothing new in his talk, which was entirely a rehash of the same things he was saying five years ago. The examples he gave in support of intelligent design were the same as in his book that was published in 1996. The only new things since that book were his rebuttals of some criticisms of his book, but even those were things that he said in his 2002 talks. I recognized all the quotes and examples.

Behe made the familiar line of argument of IDC: 1. We immediately know when we see designed systems. (The Mount Rushmore example, a standby of IDC advocates, was once again evoked. See here and here for my earlier postings about this.) 2. There seems to be clear appearance of design in many biological systems. 3. Some of these systems are “irreducibly complex” in that if you take away any single component, the system fails to function. (He brought out the familiar mousetrap analogy and the flagellum and the blood-clotting examples). 4. Evolution by natural selection and its gradual approach to change cannot explain these phenomena and evolution advocates resort to implausible and hand-waving explanations. 5. Hence the existence of such systems implies a designer.

In his brief response, Chiel addressed all these arguments. Chiel said that the reason IDC is not science is that it does not provide any hypothesis to be tested and thus does not provide the basis for any research program. (The very fact that IDC has not produced anything new for over a decade is evidence of that.) On the other hand, evolution by natural selection is the basis of research in almost all of biology. He gave the example of his own research and also how bacteria, in order to develop drug-resistant strains, actually generate more random mutations so that there is a greater chance of producing a resistant strain that will survive due to natural selection. Scientists try to prevent these mutations from occurring as part of their struggle to prevent these strains from emerging. Thus Darwin’s theory provides the basis of such scientific work.

Chiel also made a very important point about the whole irreducible complexity argument. Behe’s “irreducibly complex” systems are those that have many interlocking parts so that taking any one component away destroys the functionality of the system. Since it is unlikely that all the parts could have evolved separately and then come together in one fell swoop to create the functioning system, Behe infers that they must have been designed in some way.

Chiel pointed out the flaw in this argument. How a system gets built cannot be inferred from what happens if you take away something from the system after it is built. It is quite possible for a complex system to be built gradually, piece by piece, such that when you take something away from the final object, it fails completely. To use an example of my own, it is like a house of cards. You build it up carefully one card at a time. But once built, take away almost any card and the whole system collapses. This is because in the process of constructing complex things, some parts initially play the role of scaffolding or some other auxiliary purpose. But with a change in functionality in the final system, a part that was initially an option can become essential.

For another example, take cars (this is also my example, not Chiels’s). They have evolved gradually to be the complex machines we now have. Currently, GPS guidance systems in cars are an auxiliary device that are sometimes installed as a convenience but are not essential. If you have one in your car, you can remove it and the car is still functional. But in the future we could have a transport system where cars do not need drivers but run under their own remote controlled navigation and steering systems. Suddenly the GPS device is no longer an option but becomes crucial to the functioning of the car. Chiel said that complex biological systems are like that, co-opting things as needed to perform desirable but optional functions which can later become essential components.

Kenneth Miller’s review of Behe’s book provides a detailed example of how systems that satisfy Behe’s description of being “irreducibly complex” actually evolved.

The three smallest bones in the human body, the malleus, incus, and stapes, carry sound vibrations across the middle ear, from the membrane-like tympanum (the eardrum) to the oval window. This five component system fits Behe’s test of irreducible complexity perfectly – if any one of its parts are taken away or modified, hearing would be lost. This is the kind of system that evolution supposedly cannot produce. Unfortunately for “intelligent design,” the fossil record elegantly and precisely documents exactly how this system formed. During the evolution of mammals, bones that originally formed the rear portion of the reptilian lower jaw were gradually pushed backwards and reduced in size until they migrated into the middle ear, forming the bony connections that carry vibrations into the inner ears of present-day mammals. A system of perfectly-formed, interlocking components, specified by multiple genes, was gradually refashioned and adapted for another purpose altogether – something that this book claims to be impossible. As the well-informed reader may know, creationist critics of this interpretation of fossils in the reptile to mammal transition once charged that this could not have taken place. What would happen, they joked, to the unfortunate reptile while he was waiting for two of his jaw bones to migrate into the middle ear? The poor creature could neither hear nor eat! As students of evolution may know, A. W. Crompton of Harvard University brought this laughter to a deafening halt when he unearthed a fossil with a double articulation of the jaw joint – an adaptation that would allow the animal to both eat and hear during the transition, enabling natural selection to favor each of the intermediate stages.

Chiel also debunked the notion that there is a “controversy” over Darwin’s theory and that therefore the controversy should be taught. He said that there was no scientific controversy among scientists and that therefore neither IDC nor “the controversy” belonged in any science curriculum. However he said that IDC should be taught as part of a humanities or social sciences curriculum

He pointed out that scientists practiced methodological naturalism as a necessary element of their work but that did not entail philosophical naturalism (which is atheism). (See here for an earlier posting on this.) He pointed out that if in the future Darwinian evolution turns out to be an inadequate theory, there was still no requirement to adopt IDC because there would be other alternative naturalistic theories.

In his talk he also made the point that IDC is not only not science, it is also bad theology because linking one’s religious belief to one scientific theory is dangerous. He posed the hypothetical question of what would have happened to someone whose religious belief was based on Newtonian physics (or to its flaws). When relativity and quantum mechanics came along, their faith would have been seriously undermined.

What was interesting is that Hillel Chiel, in addition to being a first-rate scientist, is a very observant Orthodox Jew, who is extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and its commentaries. I have known him for many years and he and I are in almost perfect agreement on almost everything about the nature of science. This illustrates my point that amongst scientists, their position on religious beliefs (or philosophical naturalism) is totally irrelevant. All that is required of a scientist is a commitment to methodological naturalism in their work. Some scientists like Chiel choose to reject philosophical naturalism and are devoutly religious, while others (like me) choose to accept it and become atheists. But those choices have no effect on the scientific work of either group. Chiel is far more religiously observant than most scientists I know, including (I suspect) Behe. And yet I think Chiel and I have far more in common that Behe and me, because we both share a commitment to methodological naturalism in science, which Behe does not.

The problem with IDC is that it is a sterile theory, producing no mechanisms or predictions or research programs. I suspect that most of the people who were in Strosacker Auditorium on Monday probably agree with Behe that god somehow acts in the world in some mysterious way that they do not know. Where Behe gets into trouble is in trying to assert that this belief has a scientific basis. That claim is simply not credible.

The forces pushing for war with Iran

Most rational people view the idea of the US going to war with Iran as downright insane. To create another horrific situation for the people in Iran similar to what the Iraqi people are currently undergoing would seem to be unthinkable to any humane person. But even for those lacking in such humanitarian impulses and who only think in terms of political calculations (especially when the suffering is borne by others), it still would not seem to make any sense. Here we have the US military bogged down and stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US government isolated internationally. Why would Bush take on Iran as well, knowing that it would, at the very least, alienate large segments of the Shia community in Iraq when it desperately depends on that group to prevent the anti-US insurgency initiated by largely by the minority Sunni groups to become a full-scale and widespread revolt which the US would be unlikely to withstand?

For these reasons, some suggest that the war of words against Iran is just that, talk, and that it is meant to find a scapegoat for the lack of progress in Iraq as well as keeping Iran on the defensive about its plans for developing its nuclear technology. That is the most optimistic explanation.

But we should not forget that the neoconservative forces that pushed for an invasion of Iraq have also been pushing for an actual attack on Iran. While a ground invasion of Iran is unlikely simply because the US does not have troops even for its missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, let along open a new front in Iran, these forces are advocating air strikes with the goal of destroying Iran’s nuclear power plants or even hoping to cause the overthrow of the Iranian government.

Gary Leupp, professor of history at Tufts University, examines how the rhetoric for an attack on Iran is being ratcheted up. Leupp quotes Gen. Oded Tira, chief artillery officer of the Israeli Defense Forces, as saying: “An American strike on Iran is essential for our existence,” so “we must help [Bush] pave the way by lobbying the Democratic Party (which is conducting itself foolishly) and US newspaper editors. We need to do this in order to turn the Iranian issue into a bipartisan one and unrelated to the Iraq failure.” Tira urges the [Israel] Lobby to turn to “potential presidential candidates. . . so that they support immediate action by Bush against Iran.”

Neoconservatives like Michael Ledeen make the extraordinary charge that Iran has been at war with the US since 1979 when the US Embassy people were taken hostage and that thus an attack on Iran would merely be part of an ongoing war, nothing to be alarmed about. Of course, they avoid addressing the embarrassing question that if Iran and the US have been at war since 1979, then almost the entire administration of former President Reagan, including the father of the current president, is guilty of treason because they covertly supplied arms to Iran in the 1980s to fund their support for the Contras in Nicaragua.

The irony is that these are not the only groups trying to provoke a US attack on Iran. Adam Elkus argues that a 20-year plan published by al Qaeda theoretician Ayman al Zawahiri also gleefully seeks such an escalation by the US in the Middle East. The reason is that apparently Zawahiri is a great admirer of Paul Kennedy’s book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in which Kennedy says “Power can be maintained only by a prudent balance between the creation of wealth and military expenditure, and great powers in decline almost always hasten their demise by shifting expenditure from the former to the latter.” So the goal of al Qaeda is to lure the US into an even wider and deeper involvement in the Middle East, with the aim of bleeding it and weakening it.

By committing the US to shift to more and more military spending, Zawahiri sees the eventual destruction of the US from the inside and by itself, just the way the Soviet Union was undermined by its military adventures in Afghanistan and by trying to maintain military parity with the US during the Cold War.

Next: How the improving relationship with Iran was sabotaged.

POST SCRIPT: Cleveland Orchestra

On Sunday, thanks to getting tickets from a friend, I went to see the Cleveland Orchestra perform. The program consisted of Tchaikovsky’s overture to Romeo and Juliet and his first piano concerto, along with another selection from a composer I had not heard of.

The concert was magnificent and made me appreciate the fact that Cleveland has such a wonderful orchestra that performs in this beautiful Severance Hall right across the street from my office.

For those not familiar with this piano concerto, you can listen to the first movement here, performed by soloist Lang Lang, accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle.

Or, you can watch Monty Python doing just the famous opening bit in its usual silly manner:

Another Gulf of Tonkin coming up?

If there is to be an attack on Iran, the Bush administration will have a harder time selling it to the US public, mainly because of the growing realization that the public was willfully misled about the reasons for going to war against Iraq. Some observers argue that convincing the skeptical public to go along will require the equivalent of a ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ incident. This was the infamous event, manufactured by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, when he falsely alleged an attack by North Vietnamese forces on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin to push through a resolution in Congress that gave him almost unlimited powers to wage war in South East Asia. It was later revealed that the ‘retaliation’ launched by the US was actually a plan that had been created some time earlier and needed a trigger which this ‘incident’ conveniently provided. The media then, like the media now, did not critically evaluate these claims but joined the rush to escalate the war, resulting in a quagmire that caused immense suffering for the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian people and led to the eventual US defeat in 1975.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo asks his readers what characteristics such a ‘Gulf of Tonkin’ event for Iran must have in order to meet the requirements. This is what he and his readers came up with:

1. Despite being fake, the incident must seem reasonably credible.

2. It must appear serious enough that discounting its importance or questioning its veracity appears the height of unseriousness.

3. It must place the majority of us in the odd and unexpected position of granting to President Bush the unfettered discretion to launch a war against Iran at the time and place of his choosing, despite our desire that he start it right now.

4. The incident can’t be quickly falsifiable. It will have to take a long time and a lot of effort to be revealed as bogus. Weapons of mass destruction were perfect: we had to get into Iraq to show them to be false, and by that time, of course, it was too late to stop the war. The sort of same thing will be needed to commit some sort of act of war on Iran.

This seems like a reasonable set of criteria.

One of the key developments to watch for is the shift to a legalistic approach to questions. For example, the Bush administration has started to allege that the Iranians are ‘interfering’ in Iraq. The reasonable response to that is “So what?” After all, the US is occupying that country illegally and is hardly in a position to throw stones at others. The US has a long and well-known history of interfering in other countries (Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Dominican Republic, Panama, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Congo, Iran, El Salvador, to name a few). Some of these ‘interventions’ were actual invasions. But the media accepts the bait put out by the government and the discussion then shifts to whether the allegations that Iran is interfering are true. So when at some point there is evidence that people from Iran are somehow involved in something, which is very likely given that Iraq and Iran share a long border and history and traditions, this will be trumpeted as being enough of a cause to justify an attack.

Some candidate events for Iranian provocation have already been suggested. It is clear that the Bush administration is looking to pick a fight with Iran: “The administration announced two weeks ago, as part of its new strategy on Iraq, that it would move more forcefully against Iranian and Syrian agents in Iraq. The White House also then moved Navy warships and fighter jets into the Persian Gulf in a display of determination to maintain its influence in the region.” The more forces you put into a region, the more likely it is that there will be some sort of minor clash that can be magnified into a major incident.

There are other developments. We had the most recent story that Iran was supplying Iraqi insurgents with specially shaped IEDs (called EFPs for “explosively formed projectiles”), although the evidence in support of this is thin, the briefers were anonymous, and other observers have said that this technology is simple and easily available to anyone who wants it. But some news reports give the impression that the allegations are true by downplaying by downplaying all the caveats. Nicole Belle summarizes other allegations that have been made against Iran recently.

In an ironic twist, there have also been recent explosions inside Iran and anonymous Iranian officials are claiming that their evidence suggests that these were made by the US. These allegations gain support from a report in the British newspaper The Telegraph that the US is funding terrorist ethnic separatist groups in Iran.

Bush has also recently authorized the killing of Iranians inside Iraq, a move suggesting that he may be trying to provoke the Iranians into doing something that might give the US an excuse to attack. The recent arrests of Iranian officials in Iraq and the kidnapping of a senior Iranian diplomat (which the Iranians allege the US was behind) are other examples of potentially triggering events. Another provocative allegation was that Iranians were behind the the capture and killing of five US soldiers in a daring attack in Karbala on January 20, 2007.

So are all these things signs that the US is determined to attack Iran fairly soon and is just waiting for the right time and a triggering event? Veteran journalist John Pilger believes that the groundwork is definitely being laid for an attack on Iran but analyst Steven Zunes suggests that there might be other reasons for the US sabre-rattling than preparation for an attack on Iran: “Most speculation has centered around the possibility that the Bush administration is trying to divert attention from the failures of its policies in Iraq by blaming a foreign government. More disturbing still would be U.S. efforts to lay the groundwork for a U.S. attack on Iran. It may also be an attempt to provide cover for President Bush’s rejection of the growing bipartisan consensus – as exemplified by the Baker-Hamilton Commission Report – of the importance of engaging Iran on issues related to Iraq and regional security.”

Another possible reason for the Bush administration’s allegations of Iranian involvement within Iraq is that they have decided to attack Iran but think it unlikely that they will get another blank check from Congress for Iran like they did with the Iraq war authorization. They may try to argue that this attack on Iran is just a continuation of the war in Iraq and thus does not require fresh authorization.

Whatever is behind the rising war of words against Iran, it is good to pause and remember that if and when the US bombs Iran, it will be destroying another country in which reside people just like you and me. I came across this little photo montage of everyday scenes inside Tehran, titled What Iran looks like before the bombing, set to the music of the Cat Stevens/Yusuf Ismail song Peace Train.

It is good to be reminded what a place and its people looks like before it is destroyed. Baghdad too was once like this.

POST SCRIPT: Talk on intelligent design

Michael Behe, an intelligent design creationist advocate and author of Darwin’s Black Box, is speaking tonight in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm.

For those who might want to know something about the things he is likely to talk about and why I think it is not convincing, I selected these three posts from the past: post 1, post 2, and post 3.

But instead of reading all my words, here is a link to an excellent figure by Wellington Grey that succinctly shows the main difference between science and faith. (Thanks to Daniel for the information.)

The war of words against Iran

There has been an escalating war of words by the US against Iran. The latest was the allegation that the top Iranian leadership is directly involved in supplying the Iraqi insurgency with refined IEDs called EFPs (for ‘explosively formed projectiles’) that can penetrate even the armored US vehicles. What is interesting is that the ‘evidence’ for this allegation was provided at a briefing where the US officials insisted on anonymity, recalling the infamous days before the invasion of Iraq when major media outlets, especially the New York Times, uncritically reported unsourced allegations by administration officials and Iraqi exiles saying that Saddam Hussein possessed all manner of dangerous nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. After the Colin Powell UN speech fiasco, it seems as if no one wants to be fingered if this too turns out to be bogus. The actual PowerPoint presentation that was shown by the anonymous Pentagon briefers in Baghdad can be seen here.
[Read more…]

Disentangling the key players in Iraq

To make better sense of what is going on currently in Iraq, we need to identify the major players. Everyone is by now is familiar with the Shia-Sunni religious divide in Islam, one of those hair-splitting and absurd enmities between sects that plague religions. The extreme devotion of each of these groups to their particular form of religion, and their willingness to see members of the ‘other’ side as an enemy, is typical of the insanity of the tribal mentality. We now see a process by which militant members of each group are seeking to drive wedges between them even deeper to the extent of eliminating mixed-residence regions. Already it is reported that 10 of the 23 mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad have become exclusively Shia. So the Sunni faction of the insurgency is fighting the US while at the same time attacking the rival Shia, or defending the Sunnis from the Shia, depending on your point of view.

But a complicating factor that is emerging is that there is an important split within the Shia group that makes this into a three-way conflict.

One of the major Shia political groupings is the SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) which has its own armed militia called the Badr Brigade. The SCIRI group, led by cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has long been affiliated with Iran and, according to A. K. Gupta writing in Z Magazine (February 2007), is conspiring to form a Shia ‘super-region’ in southern Iraq adjoining Iran, where the major oil reserves are concentrated. When Saddam Hussein was in power, SCIRI leaders spent their years in exile in Iran and were recognized as the Iraqi government-in-exile by Iranian clerics. Also, the Badr brigade was formed and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The other major Shia group is the more publicized (at least in the US) one led by the cleric Muqtada al Sadr and which also has its own armed militia called the Mehdi Army. This group has historically not been close to Iran and in fact has opposed increased Iranian influence in Iraq. Furthermore, Sadr has great credibility in Iraq as a nationalist. As Patrick Cockburn writes, Muqtada’s father and two brothers were fierce opponents of Saddam Hussein and were murdered by him because they were perceived as threats, and while many other Iraqi leaders left for exile, Muqtada al Sadr stayed behind. Like his father, he was angry at the US because the economic sanctions on Iraq by the US had brought ruin to the people of his country. All these factors give him an immense nationalistic credibility.

So given that the US considers Iran part of the ‘axis of evil’ and is currently making warlike noises against it, if the US had to choose between allying itself with the Iranian-backed SCIRI and the nationalist Sadr group, you would think that it would support Sadr. But you would be wrong. Every indication is that an important part of the surge strategy is to crush Sadr politically to the extent of even killing him, and destroying his Mehdi army militarily. Why? Because as a fierce nationalist who opposes all foreign occupation, including that of the US, he represents a more immediate threat to US. His group in the Iraqi parliament has managed to get almost half of that body to sign a petition calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Since, as I have argued before, the US is clearly intent on occupying Iraq permanently, Sadr and all he represents has to be destroyed, since it seems hard to co-opt him to be fully subservient to US interests.

So what has emerged is a de facto alliance between the US and the Badr brigade against the Mehdi army. The Badr brigade has deeply infiltrated the Iraqi military and police forces under the patronage of the Interior Minister and are operating ‘death squads’ that operate with impunity, carrying out attacks on Sunnis and the followers of Sadr, with the US giving them political and even military cover.

So as part of the current offensive, we can expect to see a full-fledged assault on Sadr’s stronghold in what is known as ‘Sadr City’ in Baghdad, an enclave of about 2 million people. What happens then depends on the response of the Mehdi army. On two previous occasions in 2003 and 2004 when the US army went into Sadr City, the Mehdi army directly confronted it and received heavy losses. Since then, the militias seem to have learned the lesson that it is better to fight the US indirectly. The next time the US confronts the Mehdi army in Sadr city (which is likely to happen very soon or some reports indicate is already underway) what is likely to happen is that the Mehdi army will melt away and not offer much direct resistance. Sadr himself, expecting to be targeted for killing has reportedly gone into hiding.This would result in a lull in the level of violence but it is unlikely to be permanent as long as the basic instability exists in the political structure of that country.

Another strategy being adopted is for the militia members to sign up to join the Iraqi security forces that the US is creating and training and arming. That way, they can gain access to weapons and supplies and intelligence as well. But this results in the Iraqi military not serving the government (shaky though it is) but advancing the interests of whatever sectarian groups make up its caadres.

As a result, the security forces are not seen by the population at large as protecting the people but as extensions of the death squads that are terrorizing the population. It has also led to criminals and thugs getting access to the Iraqi security forces and acting with increasing impunity such as this case where they force their way into people’s hopes, brutalize them, and take their valuables.

So in a nutshell, the US strategy seems to be to ally itself with one faction of the Shias (the SCIRI and its Badr Brigades) to try and crush both the Sunni insurgency and the Shia opposition led by Muqtada al Sadr and his militia, the Mehdi army. Meanwhile, the US is taking an increasingly confrontational tone with Iran, which is the very sponsor of the US allies in Iraq, and it is not clear to what extent the US’s other allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan all of whom are Sunni) will tolerate the assault on their Sunni kinsfolk in Iraq. Bush seems to be trying to appease them by playing up the threat posed by the Shia Iranians

It seems as if the US is succumbing to the danger that befalls all occupying armies when they stay too long and that is getting more and more entangled in local politics, forging short-term alliances of convenience and getting mixed up in shifting regional conflicts.

This is the mess that the US finds itself in, all of which will likely lead to long-term complications.

POST SCRIPT: Another Johnny Cash classic

This song Sunday morning coming down has some wonderful lyrics.

The Spring of Our Discontent

As spring approaches in the northern hemisphere, we had better brace ourselves for some bad news in the various wars that the US is currently involved in.

In Afghanistan, as is well known by now, the Taliban has its strongholds in the northwest frontier territories of Pakistan that borders southern Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has pretty much relinquished any attempt to control this area and has left it under the control of the local warlords, many of whom have long-standing ties, ethnic and even familial, with the Taliban. This is rugged, mountainous territory and it is believed that the Taliban has been regrouping and strengthening its cadres in that region and that as the snow thaws, it is expected that cross-border infiltration will increase leading to a spike in violence. It is clear that the Afghan government in Kabul and the US and NATO forces in that country are waiting to see what is going to happen.

Furthermore, it is now reported that after being disorganized and fragmented and rudderless for awhile, al Qaeda leaders are rebuilding their operations in that same region, re-establishing a chain of command with their loose federation of foot-soldiers around the world.

Meanwhile, we have the escalation of US troops in Iraq (especially in Baghdad) along with the appointment of a new commander of the forces in that country General David Petraeus. Petraeus is a student of counter-insurgency, being the main person responsible for writing the manual that is being used to train US troops. He has also been very adroit at self-promotion, using as his main vehicle reporter Michael Gordon of the New York Times, the very reporter who jointly authored with now-discredited Judith Miller all the fantastic allegations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that led to public acceptance of Bush’s illegal attack on that country. Gordon is now doing exactly the same thing with the escalating rhetoric against Iran (more about that later).

The shape of the new Iraq operation is becoming clear. Petraeus seems to be a believer in a ‘clear and hold’ strategy, which he carried out in his earlier stint in Iraq where he was in charge of the Mosul region. In this strategy, you divide up a region into small units, then send in troops door-to-door to ferret out fighters and weapons caches. Once a region is cleared, then you move to the next region while stationing enough troops in the cleared region to prevent re-entry by the insurgent forces. While Petraeus managed to get favorable publicity for his approach to that city, the plan itself failed and “the town reverted to insurgent control within hours of his division’s departure.”

But this approach is going to be repeated in Baghdad, with the city being divided into 11 zones:

The soldiers will aim to create mini “green zones” – cut-down versions of the area in the capital where US and British officials, and the Iraqi government, take refuge – guarded by checkpoints, sandbags and barbed wire. Residents would be issued with ID badges, and their every entry and exit logged.

To do this the US and Iraqi government forces will have to win back these areas from the militias. In particular they will have to take on the Shia fighters, many of them government backed, who have been accused of operating death squads.

The response of insurgents and guerillas to this type of US strategy is fairly obvious to anyone who has followed this type of warfare. They will likely not directly challenge the much better armed and organized US troops and will move away from that region and either launch attacks elsewhere or lie low until the occupying troops eventually leave. This is always the problem faced by an occupying foreign force. The local fighters know that you have to leave at some point and the question then becomes who has the most patience.

The key to the success of this strategy lies in two things. One is to have enough troops to both clear new areas while holding on to the old ones. The second is that since a key goal of insurgencies is to create instability, to keep the troops in place long enough to allow a normal life to develop in those areas, thus causing the insurgents’ momentum to dissipate and become discouraged.

How many troops are enough for this? Classic counter-insurgency theory has a rule of thumb that says that in an occupation you need one soldier for every 50 civilians in the region. This works out to 500,000 troops for the Iraq population of over 26 million. This is the basis on which former US Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki stated in 2003 that the US would need about “several hundred thousand” troops to occupy Iraq, for which prediction he was eased out of office since that was not the answer wanted by the Bush administration. Baghdad alone has a population of about 5 million, which would require 100,000 troops, and yet currently there are about only 15,000 combat troops there. And the numbers are worse than it looks since the 50-to-1 estimate of troops is based on a fairly peaceful occupation, not a raging insurgency/civil war like what we are seeing. Clearly even the current ‘surge’ is not enough.

Recall also that even though there are about 150,000 US troops in Iraq, only about a third of them are actual combat troops, the rest being support personnel (engineers, mechanics, cooks, medics, clerks, and the like). This ‘tooth-to-tail’ ratio of combat troops to support personnel is a surprisingly hard figure to pin down, which is why estimates of how many troops are necessary seem to vary wildly. But under all calculations, the numbers currently in place are insufficient and already there are hints of a further escalation in the works to meet this deficiency. This is also why re-creation of the Iraqi military is such a high priority for the US, since there will never be enough US troops for a successful counter-insurgency.

As more US troops go on patrol and engage with the insurgents as part of this clear and hold strategy, they are likely to suffer additional casualties from snipers and IEDs. But even allowing for this, it is quite likely (for reasons to be given in the next posting) that the current policy will produce a short-term reduction in the overall levels of violence, as the forces opposed to the occupation scatter to parts outside of Baghdad and regroup. This will likely occur soon and extend into the spring and the lull will be interpreted by the Bush administration as a vindication of its ‘surge’ strategy. The question is whether this lull can last and what political strategy the Bush administration is pursuing in parallel. And this is where things start to get messy.

Next: Disentangling the key players in Iraq

POST SCRIPT: I Walk the line

Johnny Cash had a great voice. Here he is singing his big hit I walk the line.

This is a difficult song because each verse shifts to a higher key, until the final verse is back in the original key. Between verses you can sometimes hear him humming the starting note so that he comes in correctly.

Peter O’Toole

Seeing as I have been spending my time watching old films, for the first time in some years I have not seen any of the films that have been nominated for this year’s Academy Awards. But that does not mean that I don’t have a preference in at least one category, and that is for best actor. At the risk of offending purists who believe that the awards should be based strictly on the performance in the film for which the person has been nominated, I hope, for purely sentimental reasons, that Peter O’Toole wins the best actor award this coming Sunday for Venus, just because he is one of the greatest actors ever.

I have been a big fan of Peter O’Toole ever since I saw him in the stunning Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which was his big break as a star. I watched the film again recently when it was re-released as a DVD in the ‘director’s cut’ version. The power of the film can be measured by the fact that it runs almost four hours long and for some reason I started watching it at about nine at night, thinking I would stop halfway and continue the next day, since I usually am in bed before 11:00pm. But once I had started, I just could not tear myself away and had to see it through to the end, hardly noticing the time. It is undoubtedly director David Lean’s masterpiece, and O’Toole’s performance was amazing. I wish it could be shown on the big screen again (perhaps at the Cleveland Cinematheque?) because Lean’s panoramic sweeps in the magnificent desert scenes really deserve to be seen in their full splendor.

After that, there were other fine performances from O’Toole in dramas such as Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969). And if you want to see an absolutely brilliant satire of the hypocrisy and decadence of the British upper classes, The Ruling Class (1972) cannot be beaten.

O’Toole also showed a deft touch in light comedies like How to Steal a Million (1966), and that very silly and funny film What’s New, Pussycat (1965).

After a period of decline, partly due to his heavy drinking, he returned to give an acclaimed performance in The Stunt Man (1980) (which is one of the few good films of his that I have not seen yet but will soon) and a wonderful performance in My Favorite Year (1982) where he played an aging, drunken, erratic, womanizing, fading star of swashbuckling films (supposed to be based on the life of actor Errol Flynn) who is invited to appear on a live TV variety show in the 1954. The show’s producers assign a young writer to watch him like a hawk to make sure that he arrives on the set sober and on time and his desperate attempts to rein in the star’s penchant to get into trouble forms the basis of the film. O’Toole clearly relished playing a caricature of himself and this made for a very endearing film.

When his old drinking friend Richard Harris died, O’Toole was considered to take over his role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. He was eventually passed over for Michael Gambon and although Gambon is a fine actor, I think O’Toole would have been better suited. O’Toole brings with him an air of frailty and yet wiry strength, sternness and yet with a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and a voice that can be soft and yet commanding. When I read the Potter books, the mental image I had of Dumbledore matched O’Toole almost exactly. Gambon seems just a little too vigorous and robust for my tastes.

Although O’Toole has been nominated for an Academy Award for best actor seven times before (Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, and My Favorite Year) he has never won.

It is time for him to get his due.

POST SCRIPT: And now, awards for the Bush Administration

Meanwhile, on the subject of awards, there is no question that the current Bush Administration can sweep the historical awards for politics. I think that there can be no doubt that members of the current administration are the clear winners in the following categories:

Worst President Ever: George W. Bush
Worst Vice-President Ever: Dick Cheney
Worst Secretary of Defense Ever: Donald Rumsfeld
Worst Secretary of State Ever: Condoleeza Rice
Worst National Security Advisor Ever: Condoleeza Rice

Rice winning in two separate categories is a record unlikely to be ever broken.

Perhaps these awards should be called the Bushies in their honor.

How low Bush has sunk in the public esteem can be seen in the most recent results of the Pew poll (scroll down) that asks people (without prompts or a list of options) to suggest one word that they feel describes Bush. It seems like a free-association test.

The general dissatisfaction with the president also is reflected in the single-word descriptions that people use to describe their impression of the president. While the public has consistently offered a mix of positive and negative terms to describe Bush, the tone of the words used turned more negative in early 2006 and remains the case today. In the current survey, nearly half (47%) describe Bush in negative terms, such as “arrogant,” “idiot,” and “ignorant.” Just 27% use words that are clearly positive, such as “honest,” “good,” “integrity,” and “leader.”

As was the case a year ago, the word mentioned more frequently than any other is “incompetent.” By comparison, from 2000 through 2005 “honest” was the word most frequently volunteered description of the president.

The detailed results of the poll over the period 2004-2006 can be seen here. One thing that I noticed was that the description ‘Christian,’ which usually had a fairly good showing in the past, has disappeared completely in the latest list. I am not sure what that means.

The odd response to global warming warnings

The recent release of the latest IPCC report on global warming gives a comprehensive review of the current state of knowledge and represent an overwhelming scientific consensus on the nature of the problem confronting us.

The report’s conclusions paint a gloomy picture:

The report states in unequivocal terms that the climate is warming globally and that since the middle of the 20th century, human industrial activity – the burning of fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, land-use changes – is warming’s main driver. Since the last report in 2001, confidence in that statement has risen from “likely” (greater than a 66 percent chance) to “very likely” (greater than 90 percent).

• Temperatures are “likely” to rise 2 degrees to 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, if CO2 concentrations reach twice their preindustrial level. Within that range, the most likely result is 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). That additional warmth will distribute itself unevenly, with the highest increases in the Arctic and progressively smaller increases farther south.

• Sea levels could rise by century’s end from 28 to 58 centimeters (11 to 23 inches) above 1999 levels globally. That’s a narrower range than the IPCC offered in 2001, when it projected a range of 9 to 88 centimeters. Even if CO2 concentrations could be stabilized at twice preindustrial levels by 2100, thermal expansion of the oceans alone could raise sea levels an additional 1 to 3 feet by 2300. But recent research also suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is losing mass faster than expected, leaving open the possibility that sea-level increases will be higher if the melting trend continues to accelerate. If Greenland’s ice cap continues to lose mass over the next 1,000 years, the entire ice cap would vanish, raising sea levels by some 23 feet.

What is interesting is the response of the global warming deniers. The Guardian newspaper reports that the so-called ‘think tank’ the American Enterprise Institute is actually trying to bribe scientists to dispute the report. Funded with $1.6 million from Exxon-Mobil, the AEI is offering scientists $10,000 each “for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” They are also willing to pay for travel and other perks. (Stephen Colbert comments on the bribes.)

Ben Stewart of Greenpeace is quoted as saying: “The AEI is more than just a thinktank, it functions as the Bush administration’s intellectual Cosa Nostra. They are White House surrogates in the last throes of their campaign of climate change denial. They lost on the science; they lost on the moral case for action. All they’ve got left is a suitcase full of cash.”

That sounds like an accurate description to me.

The Guardian report also says that an Exxon-funded organization in Canada will launch a review that will challenge the IPCC report. One of the people involved is Nigel Bellamy. Some of you may recall an earlier posting of mine that discussed how his sloppy work was exposed by George Monbiot.

There is one thing about the global warming debate that puzzled me and that is the vehemence of the opposition by some ordinary people to the idea. I can understand why the big emissions-producing industries and their allies in the Bush administration are fighting the idea that global warming is occurring. They do not want to take any action that might cut into their profits.

But why are some ordinary people so emphatically opposed to this finding of the scientific community? It is not like evolution or stem-cell research where science is treading on religious toes. As far as I can tell, there are no Biblical issues here, no eleventh commandment to the flock to, yeah verily, go out and emit CO2 in abundance until the glaciers melteth into the seas.

I am not talking about people who are simply skeptical about the scientific case being made that global warming is a real threat and that it is largely caused by human activity. That kind of skepticism is understandable but does not usually create the level of passion that is characteristic of the global warming deniers.

On global warming you find what seems to be ordinary people going out of their way to ridicule the emerging scientific consensus. This is surprising because most ordinary people do not go to great lengths to ridicule those areas in which there is scientific consensus. You do not find passionate opposition to, say, scientific community suggestions on reducing transfats or warning about the dangers of smoking.

It is almost as if the members of the public who are skeptics think that the scientific community is trying to pull a fast one on them. But why would they think this? There is no advantage to scientists in global warming. Scientists get no benefit from warning about the danger. At most they can be accused of being over-cautious.

So why this unusual level of hostility to the idea that global warming might be real? Is this coming from people who are angry with scientists about other things that do offend their religious sensibilities and are now out to attack anything that scientists say that might affect their lives? Or are these people part of an “astroturf” (i.e. fake grass roots) movement funded by the oil industry and polluting companies? Or are these people who, for ideological reasons, will side with Bush and big corporations come what may, whatever the issue? Or is there some other reason that I am missing?

These are not rhetorical questions. I am genuinely puzzled as to why this is so. Any suggestions?

POST SCRIPT: Talk by Israeli academic and peace activist

Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University and an Israeli peace activist, will be talking today at Case. The talk is free and open to the public.

When: 4:30pm, Monday, February 19, 2007
Where: Clark 309

I have written before about Professor Halper’s last visit to Case in May 2005 and how his talk was a revelation to me about what was happening in the occupied territories.

The flyer for his visit this time says:

Dr. Jeff Halper, the Coordinating Director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions was a 2006 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is an Israeli-American peace activist, professor of anthropology, distinguished author and internationally acclaimed speaker. The 3rd edition of his popular book, “Obstacles to Peace: A Reframing of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” was released in 2005. Halper has forged a new mode of Israeli peace activity based on nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to the Israeli Occupation. Through its resistance to the demolition of Palestinian homes and other manifestations of the Occupation, including the rebuilding of demolished homes as acts of political solidarity, ICAHD has developed a relationship of trust and close cooperation with Palestinian organizations. Believing that civil society and governmental forces must be mobilized if a just peace is to emerge in Israel/Palestine, Jeff also directs ICAHD’s extensive program of international advocacy. His popular book Obstacles to Peace is to be followed by a forthcoming work: An Israeli in Palestine: Reframing the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Pluto Press).

The CliffsNotes Bible

In my house we have something called The Children’s Bible which we got for the children when they were young. I flipped through it when preparing the earlier series of posts on the historicity of the Bible and compared it with a real Bible and noticed some interesting features.

As might be expected from a book aimed at children, it skips over the gruesome details of murder, genocide, sex, incest, and so on. It also understandably omits things that are not graphic but are still truly disturbing, such as the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his own child Isaac at god’s command. One can see how the thought that your own parent might decide to kill you on god’s command might give a child nightmares. Hardly a suitable bedtime story.

The Children’s Bible is essentially a CliffsNotes of the Bible, giving just the main outlines of the Biblical stories. What I found interesting is that what it talks about corresponds pretty much to what most adults vaguely know about the Bible. In other words, adults never seem to have outgrown the understanding of the Bible they acquire as children.

This limitation of knowledge of the Bible has advantages and it becomes clearer why the religious establishments do not seem to make great efforts to have their members read the Bible closely and analyze it in the light of scientific and historical evidence. The main benefit of letting people be content with a superficial and big-picture sweep through the Biblical narrative and history is that by omitting all the telling details, it enables the faithful to believe practically anything, by allowing them to fill in details as they see fit. This makes Christianity an enormously flexible religious doctrine, capable of adapting itself to almost any person’s preferences.

If, as is the case with many people, your idea of god is of a loving, forgiving, laid-back, deity who is merciful, you can fill in the details to meet the need. If your taste runs to a stern but just god, that too can be accommodated. If you prefer a ruthless and vindictive god, who wreaks vengeance on anyone who dislikes the things that you dislike, that can be believed too. If your idea of god is someone who wants his believers to be rich and successful, then presto, the CliffsNotes Bible allows for that too.

As a result of this looseness, the mainstream religions can operate as a big tent, enabling people who have widely divergent and even contradictory ideas about the nature of god to consider themselves to be part of the same religion. See this Russell’s Teapot cartoon (you need to scroll down) as an example of what I mean.

It is helpful to think of this superficial version of the Bible as the initial sketches of a novel that just outlines some of the key characters and their relationships. If all you have are the bare outlines of a story, you can fill in details about character and motivation to suit your tastes. But the more details of the story that are known, the harder it becomes to impose your own preferences on it.

And that is precisely the problem that arises if people really look at the Bible closely. It becomes increasingly hard to continue to believe in the loving, forgiving god or even a just god. What emerges is a fairly unambiguous portrait of a god who is stern, strict, vengeful, murderous, genocidal, and, oddly enough, obsessed with the most petty details.

The interest that god has with petty details is interesting because of its dramatic contrast with the early image of god portrayed as the grand creator of the universe in six days. So after starting out as a big picture kind of guy, we quickly arrive at a god who condemns people to death for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), sets rules by which a man can sell his daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), who forbids people from wearing clothes made of a mixture of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19), and who, amusingly, warns people not to climb steps since people might sneak a peak up your clothes (Exodus 20:26).

Most modern people simply ignore these passages but it is a hard to understand the basis for doing so. Why should these things be taken less seriously than, say, the ten commandments? These seemingly trivial prohibitions cannot be dismissed as metaphors, the way you can dismiss the creation story, or the story of Adam and Eve or their ‘fall’ and banishment from Eden, or the resurrection. So why are they there?

These baffling things become easy to understand if we accept that the Bible was the creation of a clique of priests who were the products of their times and were trying to make their own pet obsessions into the rules by which everyone was governed. They were the Christianists of their time.

If a committee of Christianists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were given the task of assembling some texts that they believed reflected god’s will, they would probably have come up with a book that was similar in spirit to what is in the Bible, long on harsh rules, and short on kindness and forgiveness.

POST SCRIPT: Celebrity coverage

I have always been a little bemused at the fascination people have with the lives (even to the minutest details) and deaths of celebrities. The Daily Show looks at the way the death of Anna Nicole Smith was covered.

The Iraq dilemma

I have written before of the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq for American military involvement. Some (including Bush) have used the similarity to draw what I believe are false conclusions, to argue that the reason that the US was defeated in Vietnam was because the politicians and the public lost their nerve and caved. This is the argument given now for the current escalation with the increase in troops.

Of course, no historical analogy is perfect and there are differences as well. But this analysis last month by Martin Jacques in the British newspaper The Guardian struck me as being very perceptive and worth quoting extensively.

But the Iraq moment is far more dangerous for the US than the Vietnam moment. Although one of the key justifications for the Vietnam war was to prevent the spread of communism, the US defeat was to produce nothing of the kind: apart from the fact that Cambodia and Laos became embroiled, the effects were essentially confined to Vietnam. There were no wider political repercussions in east Asia: ironically, it was China that was to invade North Vietnam in 1979 (and deservedly got a bloody nose).

The regional consequences of the Iraq imbroglio are, in comparison, immediate, profound and far-reaching. The civil war threatens to unhinge more or less the entire Middle East. The neoconservative strategy – to remake the region single-handedly (with the support of Israel, of course) – has been undermined by its own hubris. The American dilemma is patent in some of the key recommendations of the ISG report: to involve Iran and Syria in any Iraqi settlement (including the return of the Golan Heights to Syria) and to seek a new agreement between Israel and Palestine. In short, it proposes a reversal of the key strands of Bush’s foreign policy.
. . .
Far from the US being in the ascendant, deeper trends have moved in the opposite direction. The US might enjoy overwhelming military advantage, but its relative economic power, which in the long run is almost invariably decisive, is in decline. The interregnum after the cold war, far from being the prelude to a new American age, was bearing the signs of what is now very visible: the emergence of a multipolar world. By misreading global trends, the Bush administration’s embrace of unilateralism not only provoked the Iraq disaster but also hastened American decline.

An increasingly multipolar world requires an entirely different kind of US foreign policy: far from being unilateralist, it necessitates a complex form of power-sharing on both a global and regional basis. This is not only the opposite to neoconservative unilateralism, it is also entirely different from the simplicities of superpower cooperation and rivalry in the bipolar world of the cold war. The new approach is implicit in the ISG report, which recognises that any resolution of the Iraq crisis depends on the involvement of Iran and Syria. Elements of this approach are already apparent on the Korean peninsula and in Latin America. The ramifications of the Iraq moment will surely influence US foreign policy for decades to come.

The US is now digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole in Iraq, and making matters even worse (if that were possible) by confronting Iran. What worries me is that when a situation gets desperate, desperate people do foolish things. One does not get the sense that this administration is the kind that, when faced with overwhelming evidence that its military policy is not working, will switch to a diplomatic effort. Instead one gets the sense that they will up the stakes, seeking to burst out of the prison of their own creation by an overwhelming show of force.

And the current “surge” plan and the rhetoric about Iran all give me the uneasy feeling that we are about to witness some unpleasant events in the very near future, as suggested by this Tom Toles cartoon.

toles.jpg

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity and Lucifer

Mr. Deity tries to mend fences with a seriously ticked-off Lucifer.