Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fred Halliday, 1946-2010

Scholar of the Middle East and international relations. Obit from The Guardian here.

[Hat tip: The Virtual Stoa]

Update: More here.

Strategy against al-Qaeda

Via this blogger, I came across Nicholas Lemann's review in The New Yorker of various recent books on terrorism. One of the books Lemann discusses is Audrey Kurth Cronin's How Terrorism Ends (Princeton Univ. Press). According to the review, Cronin urges, among other things, trying to separate local grievances from al-Qaeda's global ideology:
" 'Bin Laden and Zawahiri have focused on exploiting and displacing the local concerns of the Chechens, the Uighurs, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat in Algeria, and many others, and sought to replace them with an international agenda,' Cronin writes. The United States should now try to 'sever the connection between Islamism and individualized local contexts for political violence, and then address them separately.' It should work with these local groups, not in an effort to convert them to democracy and love of America but in order to pry them away, one by one, from Al Qaeda. ('Calling the al-Qaeda movement "jihadi international," as the Israeli intelligence services do,' she writes, 'encourages a grouping together of disparate threats that undermines our best counterterrorism. It is exactly the mistake we made when we lumped the Chinese and the Soviets together in the 1950s and early 1960s, calling them "international Communists." ')"
Cutting the connection between al-Qaeda's international agenda and its local affiliates sounds sensible, especially since the affiliates already appear to be at least partly driven by local concerns. Take the recent suicide bombing aimed at the British ambassador in Yemen, presumably carried out by al-Qaeda-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula. The intended target was a high-ranking Western diplomat, but that in itself does not mean that the motive for the attack was a grandiose global ideology, as opposed to a desire to strike at a perceived ally and patron of the Yemeni government. And the recent bombings against Shias by al-Qaeda-in-Iraq seem more like a response to the killing of that group's two top leaders than part of an effort to further the establishment of a new caliphate.

The U.S. press, citing intelligence sources, has drawn a portrait of al-Qaeda's central leadership as increasingly isolated somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and increasingly unable to communicate effectively with its various branches. The connections that Cronin calls for severing on the plane of ideology may thus already be tenuous on the level of organization -- and that in turn may furnish an opening for pressing forward with a strategy of "address disparate threats separately."

Friday, April 23, 2010

Quote of the day

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."
-- T.S. Eliot, Philip Massinger (1920)

[Hat tips: HC and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 14th ed.]

Thursday, April 22, 2010

UK election: the second debate

Here and (a pre-debate post) here.

If I'd been writing the letter

Harvard College recently sent admissions notices to 2,110 of the 30,489 applicants to its Class of 2014 -- an admissions rate of 6.9 percent. The linked article notes that applications have doubled since 1994, with half of that doubling coming since the university introduced a series of financial aid initiatives, aimed at students from middle- and lower-income families, in 2004.

If I'm not mistaken, an applicant to Harvard 30 or 35 years ago had roughly a 1-in-5 chance of getting in. Now the odds are roughly 1-in-15 (or 1-in-14). This year, as has no doubt been the case for a while, far more students than the total admitted had perfect SAT scores and ranked first in their high school classes.

Some of the 28,000-plus applicants who got the "we regret" letter from the Harvard admissions office at the beginning of this month are probably mature and self-confident enough to have shrugged it off; but others of these kids, maybe especially the ones with amazing records, were perhaps quite disappointed (and at least a few, eighteen-year-olds being what they are, were probably crushed). Now, I don't know what the Harvard "we regret" letter says, but I'm willing to bet a fair amount of money that it doesn't say what, IMHO, it should.

If I'd been writing that letter, I'd have said something like this:
"Dear Sally/Tom/Peter/Julia/Jason/Alberto/whoever:
We regret [etc.]. We know this is not the letter you wanted to receive from us. We had an enormous number of exceptional applicants and could only admit one in fourteen. We have to consider all kinds of things in making our decisions, and although we could have admitted, for example, a class comprised entirely of high-school valedictorians, that would not have resulted in the diversity that Harvard, like every other institution, aims to have in its student body. So while we considered each applicant very carefully, in the end you should take our decision not mainly as a reflection on you, but rather mainly as a reflection of the constraints under which we were operating.

"Since we work here, the undersigned obviously think that Harvard is a good university. But we also know that, as the country's oldest university, it is shrouded by a mystique which obscures the reality that Harvard is not better than many other institutions whose faculties, students, and programs are just as good and just as distinctive. In any case, the quality of your college education and experience will depend principally on you, not on the particular institution you attend. There are no automatic or guaranteed tickets to success (however one might define success), and you will come to realize sooner or later that the institutional name on your diploma is less important than what you did in the course of earning it. Even in a status-conscious society such as ours, reputation goes only so far, and in the end it cannot substitute for individual efforts (or, for that matter, cover up our own shortcomings). We hope that these observations will help you put our decision in proper perspective.

With all best wishes for your future [etc.]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I thought it was Hallmark

"...as Plato said, I just want to remind you to be nice to one another...."
-- Sarah Palin, in a speech in Hamilton, Ontario

[HT: House of Substance]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Be wary of labels

D. Drezner draws attention to a recent NYT article that describes Obama's foreign policy as "more realpolitik" than G.W. Bush's. I don't think this description illuminates much, but could any minimally sane foreign policy be less "realpolitik" than G.W. Bush's? With a few exceptions that I've discussed before, Bush's foreign policy was pretty much a disaster, and the action that historians will mention first, the Iraq invasion, was the antithesis of realpolitik. So in this context "more realpolitik" means "less crazy."

R.P. Wolff's (online) memoirs

My blog-reading circuit has gotten pretty restricted lately, but I happened to glance earlier this evening (well, it's technically morning now, isn't it) at Brian Leiter's blog, which I rarely look at, and as a result I discovered Robert Paul Wolff's blog with his memoirs, which apparently a lot of other people have already discovered. There's a lot of it (the memoir, that is) and I've only been able to look at parts of it very quickly, but it appears to be well worth a look for those who have the time and are likely to be interested (and the best way to find out whether you're in that category is to go over and take a look).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wherein the break is briefly interrupted

The local PBS station just aired Daniel Goldhagen's film about genocide, Worse than War (made to accompany his book of the same name). It has some powerful and emotional moments.

It also has an argument and a set of policy recommendations, none of which I have the time or inclination to go into, at least not now. But one or two reactions may be worth noting. Most of Goldhagen's scholarship (including his prize-winning undergraduate thesis and his Ph.D. dissertation, which became the famous and controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners) deals with the Nazi genocide of the Jews. This film however deals with genocide in general, focusing on various instances of it, especially fairly recent ones (e.g., Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s; Guatemala in the '80s; Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge; and Darfur).

Goldhagen argues in the film that genocidal political leaders are not "crazy" but are "rational calculators" (his phrase) who weigh costs and benefits; if they are made to realize that genocide will not 'pay' because they will be punished swiftly, then they will not order it. This description may very well apply to Slobodan Milosevic or Omar al-Bashir. Goldhagen does not say explicitly, however, that this description applies to Hitler. And whether the "rational calculator" label applies to perpetrators, as opposed to leaders, is less clear still. (As Goldhagen mentions at one point, surviving concentration camp inmates were sent on forced death marches in the very last days of Nazi Germany, even after officials in the Nazi hierarchy had ordered killings to stop; the organizers of the death marches ignored those orders.) Goldhagen also observes that genocidal leaders mobilize and play on prejudices that people already have; of course, since such prejudices are usually irrational, "rational calculators" have to know how to mobilize and harness irrationality. In the process, however, isn't it possible that these "rational calculators" may come to believe the myths that they start out by exploiting? If so, does that make them less rational? These questions were not really addressed in the film; perhaps they are addressed in the book.

[The break from posting will now resume.]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Another break

The press of other things means that I must take another longish break from posting.

Friday, April 9, 2010

On this day in 1865...

...Lee surrendered to Grant, ending the Civil War. The NYT front page from 145 years ago, with the generals' correspondence leading up to the surrender. [Hat tip: HC]

Justice Stevens

Justice Stevens's announcement that he will be retiring at the end of this Supreme Court term prompts the reflection that he changed fairly dramatically (and for the better, in my opinion) over the course of his tenure on the Court. He was not always firmly in the Court's liberal wing. He had a somewhat restrictive view of the First Amendment in his first years on the bench, writing for example the 1978 "seven dirty words" opinion (FCC v. Pacifica) that upheld regulation of broadcast "indecency."

In more recent years he could be counted on to vote with the so-called liberal bloc (a somewhat misleading shorthand, but one that seems to be entrenched in media usage). His dissenting opinions in Bush v. Gore and in the recent campaign finance case (Citizens United v. FEC) will surely be remembered as two of his finest hours.

(For my post on Citizens United, type "Citizens United" into the search box, upper left corner. For a list of highlights from Stevens's opinions, by USAToday's Joan Biskupic, click here.)

P.S. If you want a comment thread on this, you can go to The Volokh Conspiracy blog, where a one-sentence post "Justice Stevens to Retire" already has more than 100 comments. Of course some of them appear to be odious, hateful, ill-informed garbage, but hey, it's the Internet...

Update: There was a fairly informative discussion of Stevens and his legacy on the NewsHour tonight (which I saw after writing the post). The participants know much more about the subject than I do, and I found only one or two of the remarks questionable.

Second update: A column by a former clerk to Stevens.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Haiti, Pakistan, and education

Now here's a bit of a twist: reading a piece of online writing in a hard-copy newspaper. In the Wash. Post for April 1, which happens to be in front of me at the moment, there's an excerpt on the op-ed page from Lee Hockstader's entry for that day on Post Partisan, the paper's opinion blog. He writes about last month's UN conference on Haiti called to receive pledges of support and to discuss reconstruction. $5.3 billion was pledged for the initial two-year recovery program.

Hockstader notes among other things that Haitian president Préval's speech at the conference called for help for Haiti's educational system, "which even before the earthquake had produced an illiteracy rate of almost 40 percent for adults and a quarter of all children with no experience of school whatsoever." In January I had written a brief note about a W.Post article on Pakistan's public schools; the article referred to half of all adults in the country not being able to sign their name. Since it's too late to look up the exact figure, I'll interpret this as meaning that Pakistan's illiteracy rate is (roughly) 50 percent, higher than Haiti's. Pakistan is of course less poor than Haiti, so this is further evidence if any were needed that you can't infer facts about 'human development' just from GDP per person.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wikileaks video

Assuming it's authentic, this is very disturbing. Even though the quality of the video is somewhat poor and it's difficult to discern some details, it shows a July 2007 attack by U.S. helicopters on people in a Baghdad street who the helicopter crews seemed to think were armed (and a few of whom may have been carrying weapons -- hard to tell), but which ended up killing civilians, including two Reuters employees, and wounding two children.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


The Preacher of the Pontifical Household, in a sermon delivered in the Pope's presence and printed on the front page of the Vatican's official newspaper, read from a letter apparently sent to him by a friend that compared recent criticisms of the Pope to anti-Semitism. The Vatican has said that the sermon does not represent its official view and that such an analogy could "lead to misunderstandings."

This might be funny if it were not so absurd and outrageous. For one thing, the letter writer has a deficient grasp of anti-Semitism and of prejudice in general.
"The use of stereotypes and the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," the letter said. The writer was no doubt trying to say that the sins or errors of some Church officials should not be attributed to all of them or the institution as a whole, but the attempted analogy doesn't work. That's because anti-Semitism and racism usually start and end with attributions of collective guilt: there's no need to "pass from" a putative individual guilt to collective guilt because the evil nature of the entire group is simply assumed. "Misunderstandings" indeed.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Quote of the day (2)

"Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine together inherited more than 4,000 strategic nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991. As a result of negotiated agreements among Russia, the United States, and each of these states, all of these weapons were returned to Russia for dismantlement. Ukraine's 1,640 strategic nuclear warheads were dismantled, and the highly-enriched uranium was blended down to produce low-enriched uranium, which was sold to the United States to fuel its nuclear power plants. Few Americans are aware that, thanks to the Megatons to Megawatts program, half of all the electricity produced by nuclear power plants in the United States over the past decade has been fueled by enriched uranium blended down from the cores of nuclear warheads originally designed to destroy American cities."
-- Graham Allison, "Nuclear Disorder," Foreign Affairs, Jan./Feb. 2010, pp.82-83

Quote of the day (1)

From W.L. Burn, The Age of Equipoise (Norton, 1965), p.56:
"Harriet Martineau's two volumes, The History of England during the Thirty Years' Peace, covering the years 1815 to 1846, were published in 1849; by 1855, but for the Crimean War, it would have been possible to speak of forty years' peace. Within that period British troops had been in action against Gurkhas, Pindaries, Mahrattas, Sikhs, Afghans, Burmese, Chinese, Kaffirs, Ashantis and Boers. Ships of the Royal Navy had bombarded Algiers, routed the Turks at Navarino, operated against Mehemet Ali, underwritten Latin American independence, blockaded Buenos Aires and the Piraeus, captured slavers and waged war on pirates from the Caribbean to the China Sea. Assam, Sind, the Punjaub [sic] and a great part of Burma had fallen to British arms. Quae caret ora cruore nostro? [What coast does not know our streams of blood? -- Horace; translation courtesy of a loyal reader.] It was natural that a country which lived by its foreign trade and its foreign investments should protect and extend them, in the last resort by force; it was remarkable that so many of its inhabitants did not realize that this had been done for years and treated the Crimean War as something different, not merely in scale but in kind, from anything that had happened since Waterloo."
(Actually, not so remarkable if one accepts a distinction between wars that involve more than one Great Power and wars that do not.)