The Overwhelming Power of Self-Interest

I can barely identify a single aspect of Con Coughlin’s piece at The National, reflecting on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 30 years ago, with which I agree:

One of the more memorable features of the global reaction to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 30 years ago, in August 1990, was the almost universal condemnation that followed.

In a response that would be almost unimaginable today, countries with diametrically opposed outlooks and political systems came together to form a truly multinational coalition – one that would eventually succeed in achieving its ultimate objective of liberating Kuwait from Saddam’s brutal occupation.

That’s true as far as it goes but I think you should look a little more deeply. Our notional European allies, China, and the Arab countries of the Middle East will all come together when what we’re doing furthers their own national interests. When what we’re doing doesn’t, they won’t.

Let’s start with the Arab countries. In their entire history as a people the Arabs have only been united in goals for about 500 years and that was a millennium ago. Over that millennium they’ve been occupied by the Turks, the Russians, the French, the Brits, the Germans, and, most recently, the United States. The reason? When they’re not ruled by someone else, they’re at each others’ throats.

Saddam was a threat to all of his neighbors and they knew it. Of course they’d join an effort against him after he invaded Kuwait. Similarly, Kuwait was a major source of oil for European countries and they were concerned about an increasingly powerful Saddam Hussein disrupting that. Most did not join us in our invasion of Iraq because they were more worried about instability in the Middle East than they were about Saddam Hussein. In other words they didn’t see it as in their interests.

22 comments… add one
  • Tarstarkas Link

    The Arabs weren’t united for even fifty years. In fact some Muslims supported Ali over Abu Bakr after Muhammad’s death in 632 (which I didn’t know until I looked it up just now, I thought Abu Bakr had been chosen unanimously by the other Companions to succeed the Prophet). The next three Caliphs after him were all murdered, which shows you how contentious politics could be back then.

    IMO the tribal orientation of the Arabs and their harsh environment is responsible for their internal quarrelsomeness, having to constantly battle each other over scarce resources. Oil riches haven’t changed that mindset one bit.

  • IMO the tribal orientation of the Arabs and their harsh environment is responsible for their internal quarrelsomeness,

    I agree with your point about tribalism and have written along the same lines myself. I think it’s one of the reasons for Africa’s problems, too. It’s a “which came first” problem. Is Africa a mess because it was colonized or was it colonized because it was a mess?

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Good salesmen know that the customer needs two reasons to buy. The first is self interest, (you’ll look good driving it). The second is justification,
    ( it get great gas mileage).
    H.W. was a good salesman.

  • Nah. Napoleon had it right: there are only two great motivators—hope of gain and fear of loss.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    Napoleon wasn’t a salesman, he took what he wanted.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    ‘Is Africa a mess because it was colonized or was it colonized because it was a mess?’

    If Africa hadn’t been a mess it wouldn’t have been colonized. And one can’t blame the transatlantic slave trade for the political fragmentation of the continent, it had been over for many years before the Scramble for Africa started. An environment hostile to technological innovation and large-scale farming throughout much of Africa may be partly responsible.

    Africa had an advantage over the New World (and Oceania) in that its native disease organisms were much more hostile to outsiders than the other way around. But of course that advantage didn’t last forever.

    Intact polities are resistant to long-distance colonization. Successful colonization of the East Coast of North America wasn’t possible until many of the tribes inhabiting the thickly settled shores of the Atlantic seaboard had been wiped out by Old World diseases. Pizarro took advantage of a succession struggle caused by a European plague. The political vacuum in India caused by the collapse of the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb’s death allowed the English to establish a foothold on the subcontinent and eventually subdue it.

    And for all the atrocities the various colonial powers perpetrated on the natives, the horrors of King Leopold’s regime in the Congo and the Germans’ attempted extermination of the Hereros being among the worst, the massacres that have occurred since independence IMO have been least an order of magnitude greater. And you can’t even blame it all on improved technology, witness the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. However on the other hand without colonization these mass slaughters would likely not have occurred.

    Yeah, I’m a know-it-all who blathers on. But I know it, and don’t mind being corrected when I make factual mistakes. It’s how I learn.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    ‘Napoleon wasn’t a salesman, he took what he wanted.’

    And because he was never satisfied with what he already had, because he was too greedy, he eventually lost it all. Unfortunately much of Europe paid the price for it.

  • Grey Shambler Link

    I can’t remember the title, but a book that I scanned stated there has never been an advanced civilization within a 2,000 mile wide band around the equator. Something to do with the prevalence of insect borne disease.
    If you find modern exceptions, remember insecticides and air conditioning are new.

  • there has never been an advanced civilization within a 2,000 mile wide band around the equator

    Mostly self-congratulatory twaddle. A quick list off the top of my head: Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Inca, Benin, Songhai, Axum, Sheba, Sabaean, Dilmun, the many civilizations of South India, Funan, Chenia, Mon, the list goes on and on. I’m missing dozens, hundreds.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    The Inca IMO created one of most impressive empires that ever existed. No iron tools, no system of writing unless you call their quipu that (I think it was more of a numbering/accounting system), no riding animals or wheeled vehicles, no beasts of burden other than the lightly built lama, yet they conquered and held a stretch of territory that extended from Colombia to central Chile. Who knows how long it would have lasted had it not been for disease and the Spanish. It and the other nations Dave mentioned only get passing mention in history because it’s the victor who gets to write the narrative, and our narrative is US-centric and Euro-centric.

  • Drew Link

    We interrupt this learned discussion on civilizations for a report from a doctor on the front lines in Sweden.

    “As Dr. Malcolm Kendrick, an ER doctor at a hospital in Stockholm, writes on his blog, “COVID is over in Sweden. People have gone back to their normal lives and barely anyone is getting infected anymore.”

    Unlike so many other countries, “Sweden never went into complete lockdown,” Dr. Kendrick writes. Non-essential businesses remained open, people continued frequenting restaurants, the kids stayed in school, and “very few people have bothered with face masks.”

    Basically, Sweden did the exact opposite of what most Americans tragically still believe are the necessary requirements to reach the outcome that Sweden has achieved.

    He argues what should now be obvious to any rational, thinking person, which is that “the size of the response in most of the world (not including Sweden) has been totally disproportionate to the threat.”

    Naysayers may point to Sweden’s mortality rate to discount its success. But the virus has taken nearly 6,000 people in a country of 10 million, and one which tallies about 100,000 annual deaths each year. Given that 70 percent of those who died with COVID were over the age of 80 and very unhealthy, he argues, “quite a few of those 6,000 would have died this year anyway,” making COVID a “mere blip in terms of its effect on mortality.” And, while Sweden will likely continue to see deaths from COVID, it will likely never see anything close to those numbers again. The large number of deaths can be clearly attributed to a “complete lack of any immunity” to this novel coronavirus.

    A few months ago, Dr. Kendrick says that “practically everyone who was tested had COVID,” even if the presenting symptom was a “nose bleed” or “stomach pain.” Today, he reports that he hasn’t seen a COVID patient in over a month, and even when he tests patients with fever or cough, the “tests invariably come back as negative.”

    To be clear, Sweden’s economy is wide open. No one is social distancing or wearing a ridiculous mask. Life is back to normal, and the infection rate is still falling. It’s pretty safe to say the population in Sweden has now built some level of immunity to the virus, and all signs indeed point to the pandemic being over in Sweden.

    What is the obvious takeaway from this? Perhaps Dr. Kendrick sums it up best, saying that he is “willing to bet that the countries that have shut down completely will see rates spike when they open up. If that is the case, then there won’t have been any point in shutting in the first place.”

    That is, time shifting.

  • steve Link

    Drew’s article needs some corrections, which makes me think this is an ideologically based piece rather than data driven. First, the young kids stayed in school. Those over 14 were pulled out. Universities went online. They banned groups of more than 50 and they banned congregating at the bar, you needed to be seated. Add in that Sweden has more single member households than most countries and you can make a case for their partial lockdown. People also altered individual behavior quite a bit per reports. So I dont think we will know if they are a success or failure until we get through the fall and we see their economic numbers. If their projections are correct and they have the same drop in economic activity as everyone else then they just killed off a few more people for not much gain. Probably best to compare them with similar counties like Norway and Denmark.


  • steve Link

    Since Sweden into a helpful example when talking about Covid, Tabarrok has a nice piece on testing in case you missed it. This along with the research piece on nursing homes is the kind of useful stuff we want when addressing the spread of Covid.


  • Drew Link

    As Sweden ticks along relatively nicely, steve nit pics because it doesn’t fit his ideology.

    Cost benefit: Sweden vs USA The slaughter rule was invoked……..

  • steve Link

    Drew, you just make up stuff to make it fit. The fact is that they had lockdown lite in a society that already had a high level of built in social distancing. When you compare them with their neighbors the big difference is a lot more deaths in Sweden.


  • steve Link

    Nice look at heterogeneity and how it affects Covid. Discusses some actual science so not sure conservatives will be interested.

  • It’s a good article. Maybe I just like it because it supports my suspicion that differences in cases and outcomes from one country to another are mostly not dependent on public policy.

  • Andy Link


    As I alluded to in previous comments, one of the problems is that we’re guessing about cause and effect. It’s a completely valid hypothesis that Sweden’s current low-level of Covid compared to the US is due to their light lockdown and built-in social distancing due to cultural reasons. Same thing for the “herd immunity” hypothesis. If Sweden tapped out at 6k deaths per 10 million then the US should tap out at ~250k deaths. Only about 80k more deaths to go!

    The problem is that neither of these theories are proven as -the- explanation or even the largest factor that can definitively explain the rise and fall of covid over time.

    You look around the world and covid effects vary considerably and there isn’t a neat pattern and the lack of empirical data frustrates our attempts to understand what actually works.

    My frustration is too many are too confident and reliant on expert opinion which is, after all, still opinion.

    This op-ed comparing Italy and Sweden touches on this. The problem is the US is neither Italy nor Sweden. Do we really understand which set of policies and practices will work best here? If we’re going to base that on empircal data, then I’d argue that we don’t know.

  • The problem is the US is neither Italy nor Sweden.

    Sort of my point in noting the great disparity independent of age, occupation, income, access to health care, etc. of outcomes by race. We’re not Italy or Sweden and treating us as though we were is not particularly enlightening.

  • Drew Link

    Denying Sweden is to deny reality. Steve can’t come to grips with that for political reasons.

    To say the US isn’t Sweden is a valid point. Things are situational. And that alone lays the lie to the one size fits all strategy Dr Fauci and his lackeys have advocated. However the literature is rich: spread cannot be contained, only delayed. The only real strategy is to protect the vulnerable……..and hope. If spread reaches a point it will overwhelm the medical system, ok, ramp up. Cost vs benefit is overwhelmingly, in the context of other risks including regular flu, toward minimal disruption. We have become hysterical due to media.

    Just stop the contortionist arguments, people. This isn’t science anymore, it’s politics.

  • Andy Link


    Yes, things are situational, to include cost-benefit analyses. Your conclusion that the cost-benefit overwhelmingly favors minimal restrictions here in the is one opinion and I think it’s a valid opinion. But it’s not the only one and it certainly isn’t the only valid one. To accuse those who share your confident conclusion of engaging in hysteria and politics does your argument no favors.

    In other news, our local schools have a plan now and they are pretty good considering the circumstances. HS and middle school will have a choice between hybrid (1/2 in person and 1/2 online), online only synchronous (basically attending class in real-time via teleconference), or a more self-paced online option through an actual virtual school. Elementary will get in-person learning (full time) or attendance at the district’s virtual school.

    Students can change options at the end of each quarter.

    We’ll see how it works out. I think they need a certain number of students to opt-in to the online/virtual versions to make the in-person classes small enough for some social distancing.

  • steve Link

    Andy- Mostly I just want Drew and his fellow conservatives to be honest about what SWEDEN really did and acknowledge their built in characteristics that would favor or oppose lockdowns. So Drew and company make the case that Sweden had a wide open economy and didnt do anything to address Covid. Wrong. They banned gatherings of over 50 people. Older elementary students and college students went online. They limited behaviors in bars. They really did have lockdown lite. THEN, add in that they have a high percentage of people living alone. Their version of a lockdown PLUS that demographic suggests that they probably didnt need a full lockdown to have an effect. What we dont know yet is if this approach gave them a better economic outcome and if they have more or less or the same number of deaths.

    “However the literature is rich: spread cannot be contained, only delayed. ”

    Nope, that literature does not exist at all. A lot of people guessed that was what would happen, but they assumed a constant rate of death for those infected. But feel free to cite some stuff that supports your claim. Since you just read political sites to get your info let me remind you that in the medical literature there has been a lot of attention on why we are now having a lower rate of deaths. Clearly, we are better at treating Covid now. Steroids help. We have better ventilation strategies. Remdesivir probably helps some. But beyond that we are seeing lower rates that we cant account for. Seasonality has been proposed as a factor as has been heterogeneity, T cell based immunity, etc. I am sure you wont read that above article, it didnt come from Breitbart, but since I think public policy matters a lot please note that it kind of undercuts my argument. My gut feeling is that it will turn out to be a factor, but not the only one, but I am at least willing to consider arguments when supported by some literature and/or sound reasoning that doesnt 100% support what I believe. Not that interested in the politics of Covid, but what is really happening with the disease.


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