Bryan Caplan  

Absurdist Passages of the Year

Economic Advice ... The Cost of War...
How many of you don't find the following passage from the NYT utterly bizarre?
Admiral Hueber also said that the coalition was communicating with rebel forces. But later, when he was pressed on whether the United States was telling rebels not to go down certain roads because there would be airstrikes there, he said he had misspoken. American military officials have said there are no "official communications" with the rebels, which remains a delicate issue. Contact with the rebels would reflect a direct American military intervention in the civil war of another country.
Attacking Libyan armed forces isn't "direct American military intervention," but talking to the rebels is?  Is there really anyone on Earth who uses this focal point?

Not quite as bizarre, but still jaw-dropping:
Taken together, the actions in Berlin demonstrate anew Germany's increasing willingness in a post-cold-war world to act like other countries, subordinating relations with allies for the sake of national interests -- and even for domestic political reasons.
The implicit public choice model seems to be that politicians' priorities are NORMALLY:

First: Relations with allies
Second: National interests
Last: Re-election

In fact, given the slightly incredulous tone of the article, the article's position is apparently that its model of politicians' priorities isn't merely true, but common knowledge.  This isn't just Political Romance; it's Political Amour Fou.

COMMENTS (10 to date)
nazgulnarsil writes:

less bizarre when you regard the NYT as a branch of civil service.

David R. Henderson writes:

Well done, Bryan. And note also that the good Admiral Hueber pretty clearly lied. "Misspoken" is the euphemism they use in D.C. when someone says something that's true that he "shouldn't" have said.

Mark Brady writes:

The first passage is indeed bizarre. The second less so - if we consider the decision makers are the permanent staff of the foreign ministry, and not elected politicians.

Kevin H writes:

The 2nd quote isn't bizarre at all. It implies the opposite of what you say it does - Germany now acting more like a normal state where re-election is more important than national interest which in turn is more important than ally wishes. The psychological hangover amongst German elites from WW2 tended to work in the opposite direction.

Bryan Caplan writes:

To Kevin H: Good point. Still, the "even" suggests that there's something odd about *any* country (or maybe any Western country) basing its foreign policy on domestic politics.

Doc Merlin writes:

'Attacking Libyan armed forces isn't "direct American military intervention," but talking to the rebels is? Is there really anyone on Earth who uses this focal point?'

1. Yes. I don't think you realize exactly how removed from common sense government is, Bryan. This is probably the least idiotic of the many idiotic things I have heard from governments lately. All this comes from thinking at medians instead of margins.

"First: Relations with allies
Second: National interests
Last: Re-election"

The actual decision makers in government (bureaucrats) aren't up for election, so this makes more sense than you claim.

"This isn't just Political Romance; it's Political Amour Fou."

You do realize that the NYT staff wants to metaphorically fellate Obama? Its rather embarrassing how in love they are with this administration.

David C writes:

It reads like standard journalism to me. They point out all the things they think are unusual about the situation without actually calling them out on being unusual. It's ridiculous on the surface, but makes sense when you consider that a journalist has more to lose from an error than they have to gain from a correct argument especially since a correct argument might be interpreted as an error.

Damien writes:

The first passage makes more sense in light of the UN mandate. What the coalition forces are *supposed* to do is prevent any party to the conflict from attacking civilian populations. Even though, in practice, this means targeting the Libyan armed forces, it could still be defended as a neutral humanitarian operation. The goal being neither to topple Gaddafi nor to help his forces quell the rebellion. That is, the coalition might argue that they are attacking the Libyan armed forces because they are the ones targeting civilians, not because they want to see the rebels defeat them.

However, if the coalition forces are communicating with the rebels (and not the Libyan armed forces), this means that they have effectively sided with them against Gaddafi. Which is taking sides in a civil war (vs protecting non-combatants).

Doc Merlin writes:

can't we just quit pretending that war is illegal? We get lies and absurdist results such as these when we do.

WRT interference, understand that the US military is stating a very subtle position.

We can attack country A because we don't like them.

We can help country B defend themselves against country A because we like country B and/or don't like country A.

HOWEVER, it is inappropriate for us to support a faction within country A in their struggle against a rival faction within country A.

This is because of occupational concerns related to sovereign rule. We must be EITHER invading or invited within the borders of a sovereign nation, but being both is outside of our ethical boundaries.

This subtlety is often difficult for civilians to grasp. Think of it like going to your neighbour's house to take sides in a domestic dispute between a husband and wife; that's clearly outside the bounds of good taste, even if you might go to Bob's house and badmouth Joe behind his back, or go to Joe's house and badmouth him in person. The domestic dispute case is simply a different kind of issue, and even if you're willing to accept badmouthing Joe as something that might sometimes be reasonable, taking sides in a marital argument is usually WAY over the line.

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