Triumph of the Will

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Matthew Yglesias wins the coveted Metaphor-of-the-Day Award with this compare-and-contrast of last-throes neoconservative philosophy and the powers of Hal Jordan.

As you may know, the Green Lantern Corps is a sort of interstellar peacekeeping force set up by the Guardians of Oa to maintain the peace and defend justice. It recruits members from all sorts of different species and equips them with the most powerful weapon in the universe, the power ring.

The ring is a bit goofy. Basically, it lets its bearer generate streams of green energy that can take on all kinds of shapes. The important point is that, when fully charged what the ring can do is limited only by the stipulation that it create green stuff and by the user's combination of will and imagination.

Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.

The source of Yglesias' ire is this Reuel Marc Gerecht essay, which is predictably nutbar. What's less predictable is the entry of a liberal pundit onto well-trod Reason turf. Nick Gillespie used superheroes to discuss culture and plenitude in 2003; two weeks back, Jesse Walker unpacked his many thoughts on Superman in America and in his new blockbuster movie.

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  1. To continue the metaphor, illustrator Kyle Rayner (replacement Green Lantern for the temporarily power-mad Hal Jordan, who had turned into the villain Parallax and collected all the power rings in the universe) showed that imagination was just as important as willpower. Hal was content to use giant green boxing gloves to fight Starro and Vandal Savage, but Kyle used more inventive constructs. At least, that’s what I vaguely remember from reading Grant Morrison’s JLA ten years ago.

  2. So wait, does this mean that Colin Powell is John Stewart and the 2003 UN presentation on Iraq’s WMD is the Xanshi holocaust?

  3. I should add that it’s painfully obvious that John Bolton is Guy Gardner. It’s all too easy to picture Bolton leveling a house with a power ring on the suspicion it belongs to a Mafia boss without bothering to check the address first.

  4. “Predictably nutbar”? What’s with all the name-calling around here these days? Just what did Gerecht write to make deserve the sort of insults Hit & Run usually reserves for prominent female conservative commentators? In sum Gerecht makes three basic points:

    1. Diplomacy is pointless, because the entire Iranian leadership wants nukes.

    2. To quote: Would you rather have the mullahs get a nuclear weapon or would you rather have the United States try to militarily stop them from acquiring the bomb through preventive air strikes? Do you fear the repercussions of a nuclear Islamic Republic more than you fear the repercussions from an American attack? As I have written elsewhere, I think the risks to us and others from a nuclear-armed clerical regime are too great and that we should make every effort, including repeated military strikes, to thwart the clerics’ quest for the bomb.

    3. He concludes by predicting the Bush administration will not choose the military option and will acquiesce to an Iranian bomb.

    Now, one might disagree with any or all of that, but I found no assumptions of superhero-like powers (note the words “try” and “make every effort” in the quote above), so it’s hard for me to see this piece as “nutbar.”

  5. Not only that, but the ring’s vulnerability is yellow, the color of fear. In this context, anyone who opposes use of military force is a coward.

  6. Ahh, so it’s the yellow sand of Iraq that’s got us down. MAkes sense now.

  7. My recollection is that whatever came out of the power ring was powerless against anything colored yellow. (Like yellowcake?)

  8. Well, acccctualllly, after Jordan went mad and destroyed the Central Battery on Oa and wiped out all but one of the Guardians, the last remaining power ring had no weakness beyond the bearer’s will. The yellow weakness was gone, due in part to Hal Jordan/Parallax.
    Now, as far as the libertarian/military/foreign policy symbolism, I have no idea.

  9. Gene Healy had a similar thought three years ago, when some people were saying Bush might send troops to Liberia:

    Do you ever get the feeling that our foreign policy is being conducted on the same principle as the Superfriends cartoon? Sit up in the Hall of Justice, scanning the monitor for Troublalerts, and send the team out to smash the bad guys! “Their mission: To fight Injustice. To right that which is wrong. And to serve all mankind!”

  10. Aside from the great allusion ‘twixt the Green Power Ring and U.S. Military might as imagination-limited panacea, I have to bow to PapayaSF’s post.

    I wonder if the reality here is that – and I’m not saying I like this, by the way – clerics, at some point are going to get a nuke. Not a matter of if…a matter of when. As a result, Terrorists, at some point are going to use a nuke on a western city. Again, not a matter of if…a matter of when.

  11. To further my previous statement, I really wonder why I don’t hear some more direct rhetoric regarding the elephant in the room regarding Iran & Company when the subject rolls arund to nuclear stuff.

    I’d like to hear something like this from one of our presidents…

    “It’s like this, see. We respect your religion and all. But it’s our considered opinion that if we let you have a nuke, you’ll use it on us – or give it to someone else who will. Why do we think that? Well, you’ve already done it with conventional weapons and from everything we can tell, you’re about as crazy as shithouse rats.”

  12. Now if only he’d generalize to the “Green Lantern Theory of Government”…

  13. I wonder if the reality here is that – and I’m not saying I like this, by the way – clerics, at some point are going to get a nuke.

    The cats already out of the bag. Pakistan has had nukes for years, and the country is full of Wahabis.

  14. Papaya —

    Where to start? How about the bit where he takes it for granted that bombing will work? All other options he puts to the test of, “what will happen if this option fails?” Gerecht catalogues how each diplomatic and political option might fail to alter the status quo.

    Bombing gets no such analysis; it is presumed to succeed. What? You or I or anyone with even a pathetic American high-school knowledge of chemistry and physics could set up a uranium enrichment lab in the basement without anyone being the wiser (these are not, after all, nuclear reactors that we are talking about, breathless comparisons to Osirak aside), but we are to assume that Iran’s enrichment program is in huge well-marked targets susceptible to airstrikes?

    In fact of all the options bombing is the one whose failure would be worst by far. Given the demonstrable tendency of the government to fail at what it attempts, in matters military as much as civilian, it seems an odd sort of benefit of the doubt.

    And how about that Osirak parallel? I can’t help but notice that (1) The Osirak bombing was the last of a series of attempts, covert, diplomatic, and political, to stop the reactor; (2) It basically didn’t work — Iraq moved its program to more dispersed sites, and switched its emphasis to chemical weapons; and (3) It was a single target, too large and air-breathing to be effectively hidden or buried, full of delicate and irreplaceable equipment.

    Finally, the diplomatic consequences of wiping out an Iranian nuclear program would be profound. The US has happily allowed more than a dozen countries to interpret the treaty as allowing development up to “a screwdriver’s-turn away” from a bomb. When the US wipes out such a program, you can expect most or all of those countries to withdraw from the treaty (as the treaty specifically allows!) and go nuclear in a month. The US cannot deal with Iran as if nobody else is watching.

    I’m as vexed by the Iran question as anyone. But Osirak-envy is just not a believable answer here.

  15. In brightest day, in blackest night.
    No Terr’ists shall exscape our sight.
    Let those who would for Islam fight
    Beware our Unitary Executive’s Might.

    (If this is a duplicate posting, I apologize. The server has been very unresponsive.)

  16. The cats already out of the bag. Pakistan has had nukes for years, and the country is full of Wahabis.

    You’re right, of course…but on the balance, Pakistan seems a sight less of a “crazy, repressive muslim country” compared to Iran – or even Saudi Arabia, which is also full of Wahabis.

    In general, I’m against repressive, lunatic shitholes having nukes of any kind. But what to do that doesn’t make things worse…

  17. I get the same vibe from people of all political persuasions who seem to think that if only we’d not invaded Iraq, we could save Darfur with a snap of our fingers and a few airdrops.

  18. Gee whiz, I want a power ring.

  19. I especially like the folks who think that Special Forces can (a) do anything and (b) can be ordered up like a cheeseburger with fries.

  20. Pet theories of international relations are like this. Another version of the power ring is (perversely) The UN. If only they issue enough writs of condemnation, a giant green boxing glove will emerge!

    Libertarians are guilty of this too, but in a negative way. The libertarian version is Blue Jeans and Coke. You don’t need to do anything active in international relations because free trade cures all ills. Unlike the UN, there is quite a bit of power in that ring, but it is not as potent against the entrenched dictator as I often see assumed.

  21. RC:

    Yes. I agree. There is, in my view, a gross overestimating in some camps of three supergroups:

    1) Intelligence. There is a lot of talk that if we just did it right, we’d know exactly whose house we needed to knock on. We’d know exactly what is or isn’t sitting in the desert. And so on. There are a lot of limitations to what is knowable, and a lack of appreciation for that fact leads people to assume that things could be much easier than they are.

    2) Police investigations. Similar to the intelligence situation, there is a great misconception of what law enforcement can and can’t do – and where it can and can’t function.

    3) Special Forces. I hear that so and so could be accomplished with all special forces all the time. The limits of mission are not appreciated. Sometimes you need heavy armor. Sometimes you need an established base of operations in theater. Sometimes you need to have visible presence, and so on.

    I also find it odd that many of the same people who would prefer to have the special forces doing everything object to military modernization that makes small units function more like special forces and attaches special forces grade firepower to these small units of maneuver.

  22. Grant, Gerecht doesn’t “presume” bombing will succeed. Yes, Osirak was easier, but he thinks it can succeed in this case based on the fact that we know the locations of the major nuclear sites. However, as I noted, he uses words like “try”, so it seems to me that he’s not minimizing the difficulty.

    As for high-schoolers setting up uranium enrichment labs in the basement, well, my understanding is that it’s a heck of a lot more complex than that. And turning enriched uranium into a bomb is even more difficult. I recommend the fascinating book Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb by Stephane Groueff, which focuses on the incredible engineering challenges they faced.

    Indeed, the diplomatic/PR fallout would be bad, given that the Iranians have no doubt built orphanages and whatnot next to or atop these sites. So it is an incredible conundrum. Do we wait until they have nukes and have handed them out to Hezbollah and whoever else? Heck, even if one went off in NYC, then what exactly do we do? Nuke Tehran and kill a bunch of civilians while the Mullahs proclaim they had nothing to do with it? Hit Iranian military sites, which are probably filled with the only organized groups that are a possible replacement for the current regime? Take out their oil facilities and send the world spot market price sky high? I really don’t know, and I am defending Gerecht not because I think he’s made an airtight case, but because I think he’s made a reasonable and thoughtful case, and doesn’t deserve a nutbar label.

  23. I, for one, would enjoy seeing a modern president hold a press conference and introduce the “Next Step in American Defense.” Out would walk a team of folks in matching jumpsuits wih big futuristic weapons strapped on. In my mind they would look like S.H.I.E.L.D., but in reality they probably just look like Megaforce.

  24. “Now if only he’d generalize to the “Green Lantern Theory of Government”…”

    I was thinking the same thing. Yglesias believes Congress could accomplish any task and solve any problem by passing more legislation. I’d have more faith in the military than Congress.

    Also, I remember reading Jonah Goldberg posting about DC vs. Marvel long before Reason had a blog, so I don’t think it can be said superhero comics are a libertarian thing.

  25. And why would the Iranian leadership carry out a pointless one-off attack on NYC that would result in the glassing of their country?

  26. I recommend the fascinating book Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb by Stephane Groueff, which focuses on the incredible engineering challenges they faced.

    They faced those challenges because they were the first people in human history to produce an atomic weapon. Comparing a bunch of physicists in the 1940s who were working without a manual with trained nuclear engineers who have 60 years of experience to draw on to build their bomb is just wrong.

    Can somebody tell me what it is about the Iranians specifically that makes good old-fashioned Cold-War style MAD not an option? I mean, back then the government would have had us believe that the Soviets were at least as batshit crazy and willing to sacrifice their population in some demented suicide pact as the Iranians are, yet the threat of overwhelming nuclear fire raining down from the sky was always enough to keep the the Commies reigned in. Does anyone doubt that Tehran would still be a smoking hole if we found out that we were hit by a bomb that was produced in Iran? All this talk about how the leadership of Iran is so wrapped up in fundamentalist rhetoric that they’re incapable of acting in their own long-term (or indeed, even short-term) self-interest seems paranoid and, to be perfectly frank, more than a little xenophobic.

  27. For the record, the U.N. was once tricked into outlawing GL and his Justice League buddies.

    Then there’s Dick Cheney….

    Kevin

  28. And why would the Iranian leadership carry out a pointless one-off attack on NYC that would result in the glassing of their country

    I know you posted in response to Papaya but I’lljump in here…Because they’re crazy as shithouse rats. Also, if you buy the rationale put forth by the hawks, they think we’re pussies and won’t commit. And (as I also made the point) they don’t have to do it themselves…they can give it to someone else who will. AND they don’t have to do it to New York…they can do it in Paris, Rome, London, Lisbon, Madrid. Pick a target.

  29. SR-
    Why would the Taliban government continue to protect a group being sheltered within their borders that had carried out a pointless terror attack on NYC which would result in the elimination of their rule over Afghanistan? I think the president should bet all of our lives on the hope that the sort of thing which has already happened could never happen.

  30. Dave and madpad,
    But based on our last two moves, Afghanistan and Iraq, no one doubts our response to an attack will be swift and vengeful. Prior to 9-11, this was not the case. Also, nuclear weapons are different and everyone knows it. Kruschev was nuttier than a shithouse rat too, but he never nuked us. Same goes for the rulers of Pakistan after they got the bomb. To say that our current enemies are uniquely crazy is a completely unsupported assertion.

  31. madpad: “It’s like this, see. We respect your religion and all. But it’s our considered opinion that if we let you have a nuke, you’ll use it on us – or give it to someone else who will.”

    Refresh my memory.
    Has any state in history ever transferred nuclear weapons to a non-state actor?
    Has any state in history ever transferred nuclear weapons to another state?

    No to both, huh? So why should things change now?

  32. Has any state in history ever transferred nuclear weapons to another state?

    Yes. The United States provides about 180 tactical B61 nuclear bombs for use by Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey under a NATO nuclear weapons sharing agreement.

    Pakistan got most of their nuclear technology from China and continues to work closely with them to further develop technology in both countries.

    The current issue with Iran is about them getting the technology to develop a bomb, not giving them one. The current issue with North Korea has to do with them getting nuclear technology from Pakistan and missiles from Russia.

    None of this stuff happens in a vacuum, ajay. Giving states technology and even uranium and saying “but hey, at least we didn’t actually give them a working bomb” is pretty disengenuous.

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