A War by Any Other Name


Juan Cole articulated exactly my feelings about the casual use of the word “war” by so many people who are supposed to be smart [“No Cause for War,” Dec. 14]. It’s a disgrace to the memory of anyone who fought and died in a real war to elevate the cutthroats in ISIS to comparable status when there is no comparison. Thank you for an excellent article.
Jerry Mobley
st. cloud, fla.

Exceptionally well stated by Juan Cole, who I’ve come to believe might be the only person who really understands what’s happening. He’s quite right: These petty thugs can hardly be raised to the level of soldiers. And what state? Certainly not anything “Islamic,” nor any other form of state as we generally understand the term. Still, I’m not entirely sure that at least two states aren’t on the edge of history’s dust bin—namely, Iraq and Syria.
Charles Jacoby

What is it, then, when innocent people are slaughtered? It is war, whether Juan Cole likes it or not. War has been declared, and you better get ready. In San Bernardino, police forces had to use armored vehicles to take out two terrorists. What if, instead of two, there had been a dozen, as in Paris? What if there had been a thousand terrorists? The scope of such an attack Juan Cole cannot imagine, and neither can I, but it is coming.

Worldwide, terrorists number in the hundreds of thousands, armed to the teeth—jihadis of all sorts: ISIS (or is it ISIL?), the Taliban, Boko Haram, and others as yet unnamed. These are not biker gangs, as Cole seems to think. They are not going away with a change of social conditions. They are ideologically driven fanatics.

The president of France gets it. I get it. Why doesn’t Juan Cole get it? O, that Christopher Hitchens were still here!

W.W. Aylward
san jose, calif.


Debtors’ Prism


I was surprised and puzzled by The Nation’s November 2 article on US government debt, written by Mike Konczal [“Debt-Fix and Chill”]. It is not only that the numbers cited are wrong, but that they give comfort to Republican efforts to undermine citizens’ trust in their government. I expect such from left and right newspapers alike (The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal use the same numbers for their own purposes), but not from The Nation. I can forgive its writers on the grounds that they know not what they do.

Just two examples. The phrase “debt we ultimately owe to ourselves” is not just meaningless in itself but disguises the truth that the government debt is real money that the mass of American citizens owe to rich Americans and to institutions globally. The disguise is intentional in the Times and the Journal; I can’t believe it is so in The Nation.

Also, the schematics accompanying the article make it appear that the debt-to-GDP ratio barely changed between 1974 and 2005. In fact, 20 years of Republican administrations drove the ratio from 35 percent in 1980 to 85 percent in 2008. (The ratio actually declined over Clinton’s eight years.)

It is not hard to explain how these numbers are falsified. The subterfuge involves Social Security financing. I’ve been writing for years on that subject and the effort to break Americans’ faith in the system, an effort that began in 1936 with the Republicans and The New York Times (among many others). I know The Nation is on the right side in that debate, but it doesn’t want to help the other side with misleading financial articles.

Malcolm Mitchell
new york city

Mike Konczal Replies


I agree completely that deficit hysteria can do nothing but hurt progressive goals. But this is why I emphasize the benefits of the national debt and am skeptical of the advantages of paying it down.

First, the national debt rose mechanically to fight the Great Recession. The important governing tool of automatic stabilizers—the extra spending that kicks in when the economy stumbles—was a major reason the carnage was limited compared to the Great Depression. This is a natural and important role for the state, and we should accept the subsequent debt as an appropriate cost.

That the federal debt is owed to ourselves is not meaningless; it provides an important financial instrument crucial to stability, one Wall Street has tried to replicate with bad mortgages and failed. Meanwhile, paying down the debt aggressively—as many want the United States to do—adds virtually no advantage to our situation and imposes a large opportunity cost as well.

The debt will be with us for some time, and it’s important that we can communicate, as my column did, the strengths and weaknesses of our situation. Otherwise, the forces of reaction will control this debate for their own ends.

Mike Konczal
washington, d.c.

Trump in Poetry and Prose

Inspired by Calvin Trillin, “Trump Explains His Muslim Registration Project in Detail,” Dec. 14: The GOP has reached new lows / I’m really sick and tired / Of The Donald’s messianic pose / I’d love to say, “You’re fired!”
Bobbi Halpin

“At the quantum level, reality does not exist if you are not looking at it,” according to Dr. Andrew Truscott of the Australian National University, who this past year conducted quantum experiments to demonstrate just that. The physicist John Wheeler—a colleague of Albert Einstein’s and the man who developed the delayed-choice experiments upon which this conclusion was based—posits the idea of genesis by observership. Our observations, he suggests, might actually contribute to the creation of physical reality—a notion that brings us to Donald Trump, the political equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat.

If one were to take a quantum view of this man, it stands to reason that he would not exist if he were not observed (and reported on). Yet a search of The New York Times on December 11 revealed 50 articles mentioning him over the course of 24 hours.

So, as Mr. Trump continues to build momentum and gain the endorsements of neo-Nazis, the KKK, and David Duke, as well as the support of Republican leaders who sell xenophobia and hatred to the white, uneducated, lower-middle classes, and as his candidacy becomes less of a joke and more of a national nightmare, the solution may just be found in… The Simpsons, of course! In the episode “Treehouse of Horror VI” (1995), Lisa joins with Paul Anka to provide a Wheelerian fix to a similar problem—that of giant, rampaging advertisements come to life. In a musical duet, the two advise: “Just Don’t Look.”
Joseph J. Dalluge
delano, minn.

Reimagining Restoration

Eilís O’Neill’s article “When Planting Trees Hurts the Environment” (posted December 9, 2015) draws attention to the social and environmental impacts of plantation forestry in Uruguay. I was surprised and disappointed, however, to see her associate these practices with Initiative 20×20, an effort to restore degraded and deforested landscapes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Our objective is to restore functionality and productivity to landscapes (including forests, grasslands, pastures, and agricultural land), to ensure ecosystem sustainability, economic growth, and social benefits. Each landscape requires a different approach, but our focus has never been monoculture tree plantations with exotic species. We frequently emphasize that landscape restoration is about much more than tree planting, and includes natural regeneration, avoided deforestation, and integrated landscape management.

The article makes a valuable point that, despite good intentions, poor implementation can hurt people and the environment. Learning from experience is important, which is why we’ve compiled guidance in the form of The Restoration Diagnostic, which reviews restoration successes and failures across 16 case examples stretching 150 years, and the Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology. The Initiative 20×20 partnership also benefits from the guidance of a dozen of the most experienced research organizations in the region and an alliance of impact investors that have strong social and environmental safeguards.

Yes, there will always be risks associated with restoration. But the cost of inaction is much greater. Forests are still being cleared at an alarming rate. Poor land management is depleting soil and water, putting stress on rural and urban-dwellers alike. And the demands on our natural systems are only going to increase. By investing smartly in restoration, we can give everyone a brighter future.

We encourage readers to dig deeper at www.initative20x20.com.

Walter Vergara
Senior Fellow
World Resources Institute

Eilís O’Neill Replies

As Walter Vergara rightly points out, Initiative 20×20 aims to sequester carbon through a variety of methods, while also attracting foreign investment, creating jobs, and providing ecosystem services such as improved water quality. Those are all important goals that need to be pursued if we are to mitigate the extent of climate change. Furthermore, as both the article and letter indicate, policy-makers have learned a great deal about sustainable forestry since Uruguay first began its experiment in reforestation in 1987, and this is reflected in the initiative’s focus on planting native species and fostering holistic landscape restoration.

That said, Uruguay’s experience reveals that planting trees can have unintended consequences and that, when policy-makers focus on global benchmarks—such as hectares planted—the on-the-ground effects can get ignored. It is thus crucial to devise a mechanism that would ensure that the investors backing the initiative are fulfilling their promises, and that the projects included in the initiative are having their intended benefits—without causing unforeseen problems. The World Resources Institute is currently developing a tool that would measure above-ground vegetation, but it plans to leave more detailed monitoring to individual governments and the investors themselves. What’s needed are locally relevant standards and actual inspections. Initiative 20×20 already has great potential; now it needs teeth.

Eilís O’Neill
new york city