Sunday, August 27, 2006

Unified Iraq: A Political (dis)Solution?

About five or six paragraphs into this weekender from the New York Times, one of those random, “call me crazy, but …” thoughts crept into my head: Exactly why is a unified Iraq so important to the United States? Judging by quantitative and anecdotal data, unification appears to be a political solution desired by few, if any, Iraqis. And the U.S. has been perfectly content to let other nations splinter into factions, reference Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Republics and much of sub-Saharan Africa. If it's permissible for those groups to splinter into countries the size of Rhode Island, why are we so obsessed with keeping Iraq glued together?

Historically, Iraq has been a synthetic country, with outsiders frequently drawing its political borders for it. The Umayyads ruled it from Damascus from the seventh century until 1258, when the Mongols devastated Baghdad. The Ottoman Turks ruled it until World War I, when the Ottomans bet on the wrong horse – Germany – and were driven out of the area by Great Britain. The League of Nations then made the area a mandate of Britain, which granted independence in 1932. Between then and 2003, the area was under the thumb of the Hashemite monarchy and Saddam Hussein’s regime, with a few military coup d’etats sprinkled in between.

In essence, Iraq has been a Mexican standoff of warring tribes that have only ever been united under the thumb of remote or domestic dictatorship.

The party line from the Bush Administration has been that a unified Iraq promotes the spread of democracy in a region that has never known democracy. Right. Because, as soon as despots to the right and left of Iraq see how well democracy is working there, they'll happily hand over power to the people and not give a second's thought to destabilizing a viable threat to how they've done business for decades. Regardless, there are innumerable reasons why the optimal conditions that have nurtured democracy in the West aren’t apparent in Iraq or the Middle East, but that’s a separate debate. Instead, let’s look at what democracy has borne out so far:

In October of last year, over 63% of eligible Iraqis voted on whether to accept or reject the new constitution, which passed with a 78% overall majority. So far, so good. But support varied widely between the country’s three ethnic territories, with Shia and Ķurdish communities overwhelmingly backing it and the Sunnis overwhelmingly rejecting it. For reference, Shiite Arabs make up 60% of Iraq’s population and the Kurds and Sunnis take 20% apiece.

Two months later, per the terms of the new body of law, the country conducted nationwide parliamentary elections, in which the overwhelming majority of all three major ethnic groups in Iraq voted along ethnic lines. Resembling more of an ethnic headcount than a competitive election, the vote set the stage for the division of the country along ethnic lines. So if you’re looking for clear, quantifiable evidence that unification is not a preferred solution in the minds of most Iraqis, the December 15 election should serve as a credible data point. Some will note that desegregation's prospects in the Deep South didn't seem so promising in Reconstruction's immediate aftermath and that worked out alright. Yeah, and it only took roughly a century for the cross burnings and mass lynchings to stop.

An equally glaring data point is Iraq’s roughly $130 billion external debt, which creditors are considering rescheduling or even writing off. The Paris Club, an informal group of financial officials from 19 of the world’s richest countries (including the U.S.), was owed $42 billion before agreeing to write off 80% of that total in November 2004. Oil has traditionally provided roughly 95% of the Iraq’s foreign exchange earnings, which makes oil doubly important in Iraq: the world has a lot of cash sunk in Iraq and, if it is to get any of that cash back, Iraq needs to be able to sell its oil.

As an aside, one of my reasons for questioning the strategic benefit of a unified Iraq had to do with maintaining a diversity of oil suppliers. Surely, I reasoned, our Harvard MBA President recognizes the risk of one supplier gaining leverage over us by becoming the source of a disproportionate amount of our oil (see Venezuela and Saudi Arabia). But it should be noted that the U.S. has derived between 4-7% of its crude oil imports from Iraq between 2000 and 2005 and thus isn’t particularly dependent on Iraq for its oil per se. A unified and thus more competitive Iraq could drive down oil prices, so there goes that argument.

So a case could certainly be made that the rest of the world needs Iraq to be unified so that its oil supply chain can be optimized, such that reserves in the oil-rich Kurdish north can flow undisturbed down a major oil pipeline through the oil-poor, Sunni center of the country and the oil-rich, Shiite south and finally out for export via the Persian Gulf. (See image; source: Stratfor) With that economic backbone intact, the country can attempt to rebuild its economy, stimulate foreign direct investment and pay down its debt.

Certainly, allowing Iraq to be split three ways would make for a messy debt resolution process. What portion of the balance should be placed on the shoulders of each faction? How would the oil-poor Sunnis pay their share?

Privatization could lead to a solution, as taxes on the assets and income of companies that harvest and sell Mesopotamian oil could go towards debt service, but, again, according to what split? Amer Ziab el-Tamimi of Beirut’s Dar Al Hayat offers one possible solution:

“This debt could be resold to investors as proprietary rights in a number of Iraqi companies in major fields. This way the privatization process could go on in line with the process of developing these companies and without any harm to the national interests.”

In other words, turn Iraq's debt into a proxy for equity in one or more for-profit oil companies operating there. By resolving the debt issue, the three tribes under its yolk could go their separate ways if it were in the national interest, as it appears to be.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Chasing the Trout

“I don’t think I do music. I think I do spells.”

Don Van Vliet to Lester Bangs, 1980

For about 10 years, Captain Beefheart’s music has fascinated me, which is not to say that I’ve ever been able to appreciate it. Until now and, even now, I’m not sure that I’m there yet. An appreciation of Beefheart, for me, has been like a trout in a stream: a fleeting shiny thing that catches your eye, but, then again, it could’ve been the sunlight reflecting off the current. I blink, and then again, I swear I see it bathing in the bubbles churned up by the tiny rapids.

For those who otherwise couldn't be bothered, the Captain, née Don Van Vliet, is a virtuoso on at least a half-dozen instruments with a vocal range that covers about as many octaves (although, from my listening experience, I mostly hear him ricocheting in the same range of Howlin’ Wolf). A linear description of his music is that it’s free-association poetry set to a hurdy-gurdy combination of R&B, blues, garage rock, free jazz and avant-garde experimentalism.

But we’re talking about a guy who directed his musicians (a coterie known as the Magic Band) by drawing the songs as shapes and diagrams and who admires the bleating of a goose as much or more than he does the skronk of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler or Eric Dolphy. So a linear description isn’t going to get us very far. Whatever you think of this music, it’s impossible to be neutral about it. But even if you love it, there’s no way you can put this music on and leave it anywhere but in your primary focus. Trying to clean your house with this stuff on would drive even the tweediest music professor up the walls. This music demands that you sit down and deal with it directly.

I first got introduced to the Captain by a band mate, the same guy who put me on to Tom Waits, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Pavement. And in spite of how central those recommendations have been to my music listening over the past decade, my trepidation about investing in Beefheart has been considerable. Consider that, in those years, I’ve plunked down for Free Jazz, Ascension, Spiritual Unity, Blank Generation, Out To Lunch! and loads more in the CASTBOTU (Critically Acclaimed Shit That Borders On The Unlistenable) genre. Seriously, there’s enough wailing squawk in my music collection to give the dogs in my neighborhood seizures for weeks.

“A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?”
Captain Beefheart, “Pachuco Cadaver”

Today I dialed up Trout Mask Replica, reputedly his masterpiece, for the second time this week, and sat down to write this with the intent of proudly proclaiming that I finally “get” this music. My first effort at Beefheartian appreciation was 1967’s Safe As Milk, which was his first album (featuring a then-teenaged Ry Cooder, who was already sitting in with Taj Mahal and the Rolling Stones). In sonic terms, Milk was Howlin’ Wolf wandering the Mojave Desert with only peyote and tequila to guide him. Even still, Milk was Beefheart’s last drive-by in the same area code of anything resembling convention. Saying you get Beefheart because you dig Safe As Milk almost seems like a copout, like saying you appreciate the lyrical genius of Lennon-McCartney and then citing “She Loves You” or “Please Please Me.”

But Trout Mask ain’t no copout: if you can dig this, you’re drinking the Beefheart Kool-Aid straight from the chalice. One angular time signature tumbles into the next with enough randomness to tie Dave Brubeck’s fingers in knots. As a rhythmic reference, think of a box of dishpans being spilled down the stairs to the basement. Harmonically, you wonder whether if anyone in the studio was paying the slightest bit of attention to any other musician, there’s so much dissonance. Seriously, would it be too much if at least two players were playing in related keys? And then, in an instant, harmony, melody and rhythm all come together like three countercurrents suddenly resolving themselves. To the newcomer, those doses of the familiar and palatable are what make plausible the legend that Beef and his band spent a year practicing this clattering racket before committing it to a tape liberally spliced with non sequiturs like the one quoted above. Which is not to say that his verses are a refuge for making sense:

No more bridge from Tuesday t' Friday
Everybodies gone high society
Hope lost his head 'n got off on alligators
Somebodies leavin' peanuts on the curbins
For uh white elephant escaped from zoo with love
Goes t' show what uh moon can do

- Moonlight On Vermont

Edit1: Courtesy of "fattyjubbo" and the magic of YouTube, here's the Captain and the Magic Band performing "She's Too Much for My Mirror" and "My Human Gets Me Blues" in Belgium in 1969:

He came by his weirdness honestly. A Lester Bangs interview in the Village Voice from 1980 opens with a "highly urbane, slyly witty" dialog between the Captain and a gila monster:

“GRAAUUWWWKKK!” says the big slumbrous (sic) reptile, peering out its laser-green lidless bulging eyes and missing nothing.

“Brickbats fly my fireplace,” answers Van Vliet. “Upside down I see them in the fire. The squeak and roast there. Wings leap across the floor.”

“KRAAUUAUUWWWKKK!” advises the heat-resistant gila. Van Vliet the Captain nods and ponders the efficacy of such a course.

But you don’t stake a career on being weird. You don’t suffer just for the sake of being weird. You don’t live with your wife in a trailer in the desert in order to afford the luxury of being as weird as you can possibly be. Or, then again, maybe that’s exactly what you do.

Edit2: Courtesy of “crushingdeath” and YouTube, here's an interview with the Captain on Letterman where he discusses, among other things, his formal schooling, which entailed about a half-day's worth of kindergarten:

Regardless, “weird” is a completely subjective description. From an artist’s perspective, the site of the rest of us careerists all working furiously to make commodities of ourselves surely must seem weird. And “weird” isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just problematic for the rest of us, like a streaker at High Mass.

Presumably, when you’ve had your moment of clarity and decided that anything is better than being a commodity, you start to welcome the weird. Embrace it, bring it into your home and make it your mantle. And maybe, when you’ve turned that corner, that’s when a goose squawking sounds more beautiful to you than Miles Davis’ solo in “Concierto De Aranjuen,” because the former is a truly ego-less expression, rather than a performance.

If there’s a hint of elitism in what I’ve just written, I want to dispel it, at least as it relates to Beefheart. I don’t think of his music as insular or as an expression of indifference to his audience. Both Beefheart and the goose are squawking, first and foremost, because they want to be heard. Whether the subsequent intention is to provoke, offend, annoy or inspire is secondary and has as much to do with the audience’s interpretation as it does the artist’s intention.

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

Consider Trout Mask a 28-song yawp, although Beefheart had more yawping to do, under outré titles such as Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Is yawping music? Hell, I don’t know. I’m not even sure that acknowledging Beefheart’s yawp is the same thing as getting his music.

And I’m not sure there’s anything to get. In Zen scriptures, there’s a story of a master who is confronted by a monk on the subject of living in accord with the Tao. The master simply pulls the monk’s nose and laughs out loud. Suddenness, unpredictability and unending change: All of the analysis and doctrine in the world isn’t going to help you get your fingerprints on those elements. The moment simultaneously arrives and passes, like the trout effortlessly squirming through my hands. As with Beefheart's music, there is no getting it.