Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why is the U.S. Senate (and one Senator in particular) so dismissive of the rights of terrorism suspects?

Update: The original post has been changed to correct an error (or two).

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...


I meant: a long time ago, i.e. before 9/11, one could assume that an ideologically middle-of-the-roadish Democratic Senator would support the notion that those suspected of crimes, even of terrorist activity, had certain rights, including the right not to be detained indefinitely without trial.

No longer. The Senate yesterday kept in the defense authorization bill provisions on detention that Pres. Obama has threatened to veto. According to this NYT article:

The most disputed provision would require the government to place into military custody any suspected member of Al Qaeda or one of its allies connected to a plot against the United States or its allies. The provision would exempt American citizens, but would otherwise extend to arrests on United States soil. The executive branch could issue a waiver and keep such a prisoner in the civilian system.

A related provision would create a federal statute saying the government has the legal authority to keep people suspected of terrorism in military custody, indefinitely and without trial. It contains no exception for American citizens. It is intended to bolster the authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which lawmakers enacted a decade ago.

Among the supporters of these provisions is Sen. Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to an Agence-France Presse article which I saw at Raw Story (and which I'm not linking to because my browser is having trouble with it), Levin denied the provisions would harm civil liberties (!) and (the NYT story also has this) cited a Supreme Court ruling that a so-called enemy combatant, even if a U.S. citizen, may be held indefinitely without trial (this must be Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, but that case also said the detainee had to have the right to challenge his designation as an unlawful combatant).

Interestingly, the Pentagon itself is opposed to these provisions, according to the AFP piece, and the NYT says even some former Bush admin counterterrorism officials oppose them. Why is Levin supporting them? Why did he agree to their being part of the defense authorization package? He's not up for re-election until 2014, so immediate political considerations would not seem to be the answer. Has he always been this bad on these issues?

Friday, November 25, 2011

How not to think about the obsolescence (or non-obsolescence) of "industrial" war

Scott Wolford argues, in effect, that we aren't seeing traditional interstate wars because big "industrial" armies are "cancelling each other out," not because interstate war is obsolete. (H/t Phil Arena, here, for directing my attention to this post.)

(Update: Scott Wolford writes in the comments to this post that I have misconstrued his point. I may well have. One of the hazards of blogging.)

This ignores several things. First, states are simply less interested now than they used to be in territorial conquest, which is what big armies have traditionally been used for. Look at the figures: Between 1945 and 1996, the percentage of armed conflicts in which territory was redistributed -- i.e. conquered -- was 23 percent; by contrast, between 1648 (I don't like to use this over-emphasized date btw, but anyway) and 1945, the percentage was in the range of 80 percent. This strongly suggests, although it admittedly doesn't definitively prove, that post-1945 armed conflicts have mostly been about matters other than traditional territorial acquisition. (Source: M. Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention, p.126, citing Robert Jackson & Mark Zacher, "The Territorial Covenant," Univ. of Br. Columbia Inst. of IR, working paper no.5, 1997; see also Zacher's Int'l. Org. article on the territorial integrity norm.) For the period since 1996, I believe the figures would be even lower though I don't have them to hand.

Second, Wolford's post ignores the argument that (at least some) states have progressively internalized norms against permanent territorial acquisition and conquest, and that great-power war has become progressively unthinkable as a live policy option for leaders -- so much so that Mueller (Retreat from Doomsday) argues it doesn't even appear in their minds ("subrationally unthinkable").

Third, Wolford's point that big wars aren't obsolete because you have to consider what would occur in the absence of "industrial" armies is a bit weird. It's weird because there's no proof that if A and B are having a territorial dispute, A would take the disputed territory by force if B didn't have a big industrial army. I'm not sure it's even likely. But to make his point convincingly Wolford would have to cite an instance or two where this has actually happened in fairly recent years (and surely it's possible to find cases of territorial disputes between very unequally armed adversaries), not just speculate about what might happen.

P.s. Off the top of my head, possible examples supporting Wolford's view are the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (except that Saddam was hardly a typical leader) and maybe the Russia-Georgia war of '08. I don't find either too convincing. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in '03, although a very bad idea, is not directly relevant here because its major aim was forcible regime change not territorial acquisition.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Pepper spray and Seurat: a Pointillist Event (Pointillist or pointless?)

Pablo K at The Disorder of Things has a long post on "body politics" which reproduces, toward the end, several "meme-ifications" of the "pepper spray policeman" -- in Guernica, in Tienanmen Square, in Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, and so forth.

(Click here for the Seurat image.)

What is the point of this particular juxtaposition? The linked post refers to it and similar images as "jovial and sardonic in the face of callousness, but also now repeated for their own sake." I think the post and comments are worth reading, though written in a style not everyone will take to. The author asks parenthetically in comments: "Does someone want to theorise this in terms of the Event?" Thanks, but I think I'll pass on that. For now, at any rate.

Is Walt right about China?

Short answer: I don't think so. (Hat tip here for drawing my attention to Walt's post.)

Elaboration: Walt says that if China were to establish a secure sphere of influence in its region, that would free up China to devote more attention to the stirring up of trouble in the western hemisphere. It could forge closer ties with countries in the U.S. backyard and ratchet up tensions. Remember the Soviet missiles in Cuba. Etc. I'm not convinced by this notion that the U.S. must prevent any other great power from achieving a regional sphere of influence. (Walt reaches back for authority to Kennan's American Diplomacy but a more recent statement of this view is in Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.)

In my view, this is the most misleading paragraph in Walt's post:

... this logic reflects the realist view that it is to U.S. advantage to keep Eurasia divided among many separate powers, and to help prevent any single power from establishing the same sort of regional hegemony that the United States has long enjoyed in the Western hemisphere. That is why the United States eventually entered World War I (to prevent a German victory), and it is why Roosevelt began preparing the nation for war in the late 1930s and entered with enthusiasm after Pearl Harbor. In each case, powerful countries were threatening to establish regional hegemony in a key area, and so the United States joined with others to prevent this.

The problem with this analysis is that Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were not just seeking "to establish regional hegemony in a key area"; they were expanding by military aggression and conquering and occupying other sovereign states. Nazi domination of Europe was unacceptable not only on strategic but also on moral grounds. Until someone comes up with a more detailed, convincing scenario about how a Chinese sphere of influence or regional hegemony threatens the U.S., I will remain skeptical.

However, I will concede this much to Walt's view: intentions are difficult to read precisely and there is a case for hedging bets by maintaining U.S. alliances with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and other countries in the region. But does the U.S. need to send Marines to northern Australia? Does it need to sell advanced F-16 jets to Indonesia? For that matter, does it need as many as 28,500 soldiers in South Korea?

Views that emphasize a "contest" between the U.S. and China (see e.g. W.R. Mead's recent post) can be self-fulfilling prophecies, as Walt himself acknowledges in passing. In the lingo of contemporary bureaucratic diplomat-ese, this is unhelpful.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Clichés 101: "a tense time in the region"

The opening graph of an AP story in WaPo headlined "Hezbollah unravels CIA spy network in Lebanon as agency contains damage":
Hezbollah has partially unraveled the CIA’s spy network in Lebanon, severely damaging the intelligence agency’s ability to gather vital information on the terrorist organization at a tense time in the region, former and current U.S. officials said.
Two questions:
(1) When is it not "a tense time" in that region?
(2) What "vital information"? Well, of course we don't know because the article's sources, "former and current U.S. officials," no doubt wouldn't say. The result is an article about a putative intelligence disaster that never really explains why it's a disaster -- except insofar as some people working with the CIA may have gotten killed. But the article doesn't even confirm that since, as someone quoted toward the end mentions, Hezbollah treats different captured spies differently: some it "disappears," some it apparently doesn't.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Why has the Obama admin avoided major scandals (so far)?

A piece by Jonathan Alter in The Washington Monthly, deploying political science as well as the author's own experience and insights to speculate on the reasons why the Obama administration has been largely free of scandal. Also included is a quick tour of scandals of past administrations (remember Anne Burford? I didn't think so). One scandal that, on a fast reading of the piece, I didn't see mentioned is the substandard-facilities-at-Walter-Reed story -- but I'm pretty sure that broke under G.W. Bush not Obama, so it doesn't undercut the premise.

P.s. Of course there are those on both left and right who consider some administration policies to be criminal (e.g., use of drones, targeted assassinations) or unconstitutional (or what have you), but that's not what this is about.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Quotes of the weekend

(1) From Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (via):

"Well, I was there. They wasn't no agitators. What they call reds. What the hell is these reds anyways?"

Timothy scraped a little hill level in the bottom of the ditch. The sun made his white bristle beard shine. "They's a lot a fellas wanta know what reds is." He laughed. "One of our boys foun' out." He patted the piled earth gently with his shovel. "Fella named Hines - got 'bout thirty thousan' acres, peaches and grapes - got a cannery an' a winery. Well, he's all a time talkin' about 'them goddamn reds.' 'Goddamn reds is drivin' the country to ruin,' he says, an 'We got to drive these here red bastards out.' Well, they were a young fella jus' come out west here, an' he's listenin' one day. He kinda scratched his head an' he says, 'Mr. Hines, I ain't been here long. What is these goddamn reds?' Well, sir, Hines says, 'A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we're payin' twenty-five!' Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an' he scratches his head, an' he says, 'Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain't a son-of-a-bitch, but if that's what a red is - why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever'body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we're all reds.'" Timothy drove his shovel along the ditch bottom, and the solid earth shone where the shovel cut it.

Tom laughed. "Me too, I guess."

(2) From the beginning of another post at the same blog:
My brother-in-law graduated from Freeport High School in Freeport, Illinois, and my favorite part about this rather mundane fact is that the school's mascot is the Pretzel. The Freeport Pretzels. At sporting events the students liked to chant "You can eat us but you'll never beat us."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Competitive authoritarianism and oligarchical democracy

Political scientists love classifications, of course. This is the opening paragraph of Michael Bernhard's review of Jonathan Steinberg's Bismarck (in the current Foreign Affairs):
Over the last two decades, a distinctive regime type has emerged across the developing world, one that scholars have come to call competitive authoritarianism. This sort of political system allows for the contestation of power among different social groups, but with so many violations of electoral fairness and so little regard for liberal norms that it cannot be called a true democracy. From Russia to Peru, Cambodia to Cameroon, such regimes are now located in almost every region of the world, and how they develop will determine the shape of the twenty-first century.
Maybe it's time to recognize yet another new regime type: oligarchical democracy. Exemplar: the current United States. Features: Severe inequalities of wealth and income; grossly disproportionate power in the political process exercised by the wealthiest; polarized parties masking a fairly narrow range of "respectable" policy debate; money enshrined as constitutionally protected speech. Etcetera.

"Oligarchical democracy" sounds contradictory and no doubt goes against Plato's and Aristotle's classifications of regimes (and many subsequent classifications). Well, tough s**t.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bizarre remark of the day

From a comment in a CT thread:
OWS is, it is not a Leninist Vanguard Party such as dominated both the Old and New Left movements in the US."

Excuse me? What was the "Leninist vanguard party" that "dominated" the New Left in the U.S.?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chinese "aggression"?

English is a funny language. You can be a competent native speaker and still not grasp anywhere near all the nuances.

Item: I just heard a brief three-minute top-of-the-hour NPR news broadcast. The announcer said that the new U.S. 'security arrangement' with Australia is widely seen as a response to "growing Chinese aggression." My inner antenna switched on: What Chinese aggression? Nothing China has done recently (or not so recently, for that matter) amounts to aggression as I use the word -- that was my reaction.

Then I went to my dictionary. (Dictionaries are not deities, of course, but they're better than nothing.) The first definition of "aggression": "an unprovoked attack or warlike act; specif., the use of armed force by a state in violation of its international obligations" -- yes, that was the sense of the word I had in mind. There is also a second definition: "the practice or habit of being aggressive or quarrelsome" -- that's somewhat looser or broader. Then I went down to the adjective "aggressive"; one of the definitions is: "full of enterprise and initiative; bold and active; pushing." Then there is a little further section which draws fine distinctions among aggressive, militant, assertive, and pushing.

Bottom line? Where I might have said "growing Chinese assertiveness," the NPR guy said "growing Chinese aggression." Is that wrong? Strictly speaking, perhaps not. But I think it's misleading, since "aggression" triggers in most hearers the first sense of the word (unprovoked attack, etc.).

As is well known, China is a rising power in terms of economic and demographic weight (though it also has many problems, which I won't go into here). Rising powers tend to be somewhat "assertive". It's par for the course. That doesn't mean China is going to start a war. Its military is still well behind technologically. Chinese leaders have shown no evidence of exceptional bellicosity. Yes, there are a few possible flash points, but it's nothing to get one's knickers all in a bunch about. Scholars who study Chinese foreign policy closely, like Taylor Fravel of MIT, have shown that China's stance on territorial disputes has been one of compromise more often than not.
Btw, I think having U.S. Marines in northern Australia is not an especially good idea.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Keep him far away from us

Hard to find the right words to describe Rick Perry. In the interview linked in the previous post, Joshua Cohen says Perry wants to "roll back the twentieth century" in terms of domestic policy. That may be, if anything, too charitable. Kate Weaver at Duck of Minerva mentions Perry remarking in a recent debate that the U.S. ought to "zero out foreign aid." A commenter says this remark occurred in a discussion of Pakistan, so maybe all Perry meant is that the U.S. should cut aid to Pakistan. This raises the question: Does Perry himself know what he means? Maybe he's just flailing around -- abolish this, cut that, zero out the other -- in what one hopes is the soon-to-be-end-game of a losing candidacy. Texas apparently likes him, and one hopes that Texas will keep him... far away from the rest of us.

(Apologies to the author of that line from Fiddler on the Roof: "God bless and keep the Czar -- far away from us.")

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Packer on the broken U.S. social contract

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs (here); looks like one has to register to get the whole thing.

Excerpts: or around 1978, American life changed.... It was, like this moment, a time of widespread pessimism -- high inflation, high unemployment, high gas prices. And the country reacted to its sense of decline by moving away from the social arrangement that had been in place since the 1930s and 1940s....

This is a story about the perverse effects of democratization.... Once Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and Walter Wriston of Citicorp stopped sitting together on Commissions to Make the World a Better Place and started paying lobbyists to fight for their separate interests in Congress, the balance of power tilted heavily toward business.

Of course the move to neoliberalism occurred across much of the world, not just in the U.S., but the consequences in terms of inequality were worse here.

Update: See also Zakaria in today's WaPo on social mobility in U.S. compared to Europe. (Link to be added later)

Housekeeping note

With apologies to those who were listed, I've deleted the 'followers' feature because, in non-technical language, it was screwing things up.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Guest commentary by HC: Obama 'gave' too early on the deficit

Re the Dem-Rep deadlock over deficit reduction and Obama’s strategy: his grand-bargain offer to cut entitlements (compromising a basic Dem principle, and indeed embracing a Rep one), if only the Reps would raise taxes (compromising their basic principle), was a bad mistake for at least two reasons.

First, it relied on a strategy of public shaming ("look, we are being flexible, now it is your turn") that does not work with stubborn and proud people, indeed only makes them more so.

But more important, once the offer to cut entitlements was out there, the public soon forgot that it was a great sacrifice by the Dems. The result was an asymmetry in perception whereby it was only the Reps who ever had a clear and principled position, so why should they abandon it? Plus their position is three words ("no new taxes" or "starve the beast") while the Dem position involves more and longer words.

If Obama had hung just as tough as the Reps, at least in public, the stage would now be set for a private deal in which each party could save face with its constituents by saying it was only giving something because the other was. But since the Dems "gave" too early, and too publicly, the Reps will just look weak if they give now. And the reason Obama gave too early, as we know from inside accounts, was that he was unwilling to take things to the brink. Bad way to negotiate with someone intractable. If he had never offered anything but a populist line about changing an unfair tax structure that benefits the rich and corporations at the expense of working people and the safety net and stimulus, he would be in a much better bargaining position. Instead, he has come to that message too late, and it is now muddied by his standing offer to cut social programs, so instead of looking bold (which his offer actually was, but only a great rhetorician, not Obama, could have sold it as such), he has both emboldened the Reps and alienated his base.

(Underlying dynamic: libertarianism is historically stronger than populism in the USA, or at least so Obama believes, and believing is what counts.)

So no matter how many experts and reasonable Reps point out that Boehner and company are holding the country hostage, the latter have no reason to compromise. Instead they can just hang tough and look strong while Obama looks weak and unprincipled (which is always the fate of the premature compromiser). And everyone knows that a "weak" president is to blame for everything.

Obama looks so weak at this point that if the Reps do give in at the last minute, they might look like heroes in comparison. But even that will not tempt them, because they are looking strong now and the economy is going to hell "under Obama" so why fix it if it ain’t broke?

-- HC

Pakistan reacts to charges about the security of its nukes

Via WaPo's Karen Brulliard:
...a story in this week’s Atlantic magazine...cast strong doubt on the security of [Pakistan's nuclear] weapons. According to the article, Pakistan moves its nukes in unmarked trucks on public roads – the same used by militant groups that have attacked military bases – while a worried United States hones plans to secure them in the event of a terrorist takeover.

In a statement on Sunday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry slammed the article, dismissing it [as] “pure fiction, baseless” and “part of a deliberate propaganda campaign meant to mislead opinion.”

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Diamonds are forever; or, Institutional arrogance, 1970s edition

[title revised on 11/7]

A Crooked Timber thread about a recent student walk-out from Harvard's intro economics course (Ec 10), currently taught by Gregory Mankiw, elicited comments from a number of people who had taken the course in the past, sometimes the quite distant past. I was one of those commenting, having taken Ec 10 sometime in the mid-1970s (no need to get too specific for these purposes).

Late in the CT thread, one commenter suggested that having so many students in one course, albeit with numerous TA-led sections, was evidence of institutional arrogance. My response, which I'm posting here rather than at CT: if you think Harvard officialdom is arrogant today, you should have been there in the late 60s -- which I did not experience but have read a bit about -- or a decade later in the 70s.

Emblematic of the latter period for me, and no doubt for others, is a statement by the then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Henry Rosovsky. I remember this statement one way; I just discovered that Google (or, more precisely, an article I found via Google) remembers it slightly differently. Thus I'm going to give it in two versions. As I recall it, Rosovsky, probably responding to a question from a probably disgruntled student, intoned: "You are here for four years, I am here for life, and the institution is here forever."

Typing "you are here for four years..." into Google produces, among other things, a Feb. 28, 2005 NYT piece by Adam Cohen about the controversy then raging over Lawrence Summers's remarks about women in science. Here is how the piece opens:
"You are here for four years," Henry Rosovsky, who long served as Harvard's dean of faculty, once told a group of students. "The faculty is here for life. And the institution is here forever." The quote became part of Harvard lore: a campus film society promoted a James Bond movie with the slogan, "You are here for four years; Dean Rosovsky is here for life; and Diamonds Are Forever." But it also came to embody, for my generation of students and alumni, Harvard's imperious view of its place in the world.
It hardly matters whether my version or Cohen's version of the Rosovsky quote is correct. The point is that one would be rather unlikely to find a university administrator making a comparably patronizing, dismissive statement today, not because administrators necessarily have become more benign and enlightened but for reasons of survival in a changed climate in which, among other things, student opinion probably matters more than it used to. Btw, if you read down to the end of Cohen's piece you'll see that he managed to riff neatly on the statement in his last paragraph.

Will gets something right

It's fairly unusual for me to agree with George Will, but this column rightly insists that the Republican presidential candidates should spell out how many American soldiers they would keep in Iraq and for how long. He also expresses proper skepticism about some current U.S. troop deployments, such as the 54,000 soldiers the U.S. has in Germany. What purpose are they serving?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gaddis's Kennan bio due out next week

Following a tip from a friend, I see that J.L. Gaddis's biography of Kennan is scheduled to be published by Penguin on Nov. 10. Long in preparation, this should be the definitive biography.
Note to readers: I have a long post in the works and I hope it will be up sometime in the next two or three weeks.