Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A debate on Syria

The PBS NewsHour has its ups and downs but this discussion from last Friday with Slaughter, Haass, and Malinowski is an example of the program at its best.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On the cost of aircraft carriers, perceived threats, democracy, etc.

Phil Arena, never losing a chance to take a dig at Reiter and Stam (two scholars with whom he disagrees), mentions Jay Ulfelder's post on threat inflation and comments: "Clearly, Jay hasn't read Reiter and Stam on how democracy promotes a healthy marketplace of ideas."

Yes, the incentives of the press in a less-than-healthy marketplace of ideas can lead to distortion and exaggeration of threats, but I'm inclined to think that bureaucratic and economic interests, also mentioned by J. Ulfelder, play a larger role. Example: I learned from a recent Walter Pincus article in WaPo (here) that the U.S. navy has two aircraft carriers under construction (one about half finished) at a cost of roughly $12 billion [sic] apiece. The U.S. already has 11 aircraft carriers, in my view probably more than it needs, and to justify adding two more someone, somewhere -- and not only the press -- is going to have to do some pretty serious threat inflation. Maybe Phil could consider taking an occasional break from criticizing Reiter and Stam's enthusiasm about democracy and focus on the particular forces that drive bad, suboptimal policy in the particular democracy known as the United States. There are, after all, varieties of democracy, just as there varieties of capitalism. The problem isn't so much democracy per se as the particular form it is taking in the U.S. today.

Addendum: See here and here (and the comments attached to those posts).

Friday, February 24, 2012

Are Pakistan's generals right to fear 'encirclement'?

In Steve Coll's article "Looking for Mullah Omar" in the Jan. 23 New Yorker, there is a passage (at p.52 of the hard copy) which contains a statement that I've been reading for a long time now, in one place or another and in one form of words or another:
...Taliban influence in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan has...served Pakistan's cause against India. The [Pakistani] generals fear that India will use economic aid and political support for Afghanistan to encircle Pakistan, establishing consulates and business outposts, and use these to funnel aid to separatist groups such as those fighting to achieve independence for the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. The [Afghan] Taliban offer a counterforce in this proxy struggle.
What evidence is there that India has actually tried to "encircle" Pakistan via aid to the Karzai government, setting up "business outposts," etc.? I know that India funded an elaborate road-building project or two in Afghanistan but I don't follow developments closely enough to know the answer to the question. Fears of 'encirclement,' however, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The news today that the Pakistani prime minister is urging the Afghan Taliban to enter peace talks with the Afghan government (which have been in the 'feeler' stages for a while) may indicate that the proxy-against-perceived-encirclement strategy is becoming less attractive and that Pakistan is beginning to realize that its interests will be served if the Afghanistan war comes to some kind of a settlement.

On Baluchistan, btw, I have bookmarked
this piece by Akbar Ahmed (h/t The Yorkshire Ranter), but haven't yet read it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Kathy Ferguson on 'understanding Santorum'

On the longish side but interesting and worth reading, I think: here.

Update: This poll would seem to reinforce Ferguson's point.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I find Rick Santorum genuinely frightening. This Dana Milbank column properly takes Santorum to task for comparing his political opponents to Nazis. I parted company with Milbank only at the very end:

In his unsuccessful 2006 [Senate re-election] campaign, he [i.e. Santorum] often invoked Churchill’s “gathering storm” phrase and compared Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler. He also called for more active use of the term “Islamic fascism.” Last year, Santorum warned that if the Muslim Brotherhood prevails in Egyptian elections, it would be like the Nazis winning in 1933: “That was the last democratic election.”

When used on Ahmadinejad or the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nazi talk is provocative, but defensible. When used on an American president and a rival political party, it shows an alarming lack of perspective.

Milbank is too generous to Santorum here: his "Nazi talk" is not defensible, period. Comparing the Egyptian party that won the most votes in the recent parliamentary elections to the Nazis is ridiculous.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Trita Parsi on the U.S. and Iran

Yesterday evening I heard Trita Parsi talk about his book A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale U.P.). Rather than summarizing the whole hour-long (including Q&A) talk, I will report what seemed to me to be the nub of his argument. This is thus a distillation and paraphrase (except where I use quotation marks):

Obama came into office in January '09 promising a new diplomatic approach to Iran. By the end of November '09 the approach had been abandoned, unwisely, for a "pressure track," i.e., escalating sanctions, which, unless changed, now puts the situation on a trajectory toward a war. Although there were various reasons for the change in policy (and the tale of course involves several key players other than Iran and the U.S.), Obama's main mistake was that he never tried to "create political space," in terms of U.S. domestic politics, for the diplomatic approach that the administration tried for less than a year. G.W. Bush gave 16 major speeches between Jan. '02 and March '03 making the (flawed) case for war with Iraq. By contrast Obama, although he spoke "passionately" as a candidate about the need for a diplomatic approach with Iran, as president publicly made the case for that approach only once (in a May '09 press conference with Netanyahu). The administration's unwillingness to spend political capital to defend its initial policy more or less guaranteed that the policy would have a short life and would not be given enough time to see whether it might have worked.

There was more in Parsi's talk (and obviously there is more in the book), but the above seemed to me to be the take-away message. He also has a recent short piece in The Nation along the same lines.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Quote of the day

I rarely read Danger Room, but I happened to see this piece by David Axe about a U.S./Romanian Special Forces team training an Afghan police unit in a province east of Kabul. This passage in particular struck me:

Tom says he quickly began to appreciate the extent to which Afghanistan is a “man-culture,” big on pride, physical bravado and reputation. Offending that sense of masculinity can be counter-productive — even deadly. Since the war began, no fewer than 70 American troops have died at the hands of their Afghan trainees. Almost all of the killings can be traced to “personal issues,” according to David Sedney, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Did containment pull the world "back from the brink of nuclear destruction"?

Added 2/19: Two other relevant items: here and here.

Readers of this blog -- all one-and-a-half of them -- may recall that I earlier made some reference to Gaddis's biography of Kennan (and reported briefly on a talk that I heard Gaddis give about the book). Since then I have had a chance to half-read half-skim Kissinger's very long review of the book in the NYT Bk Rev (which contained some sonorous generalizations and, while saying admiring things about Kennan, argued that his effectiveness as policymaker/diplomat was undercut by his "innate perfectionism" [something no one would ever accuse Kissinger of, I think]).

I also printed out but never properly read Louis Menand's review of the book in The New Yorker (to which a commenter here had earlier taken exception).

Just now I ran across another, shorter review of the book at the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) blog (this review in turn references Kissinger's and Menand's reviews and also a review by Fred Kaplan in the NYT, which I haven't read). All this throat clearing is a preface to saying that the NBCC review, by Mary Ann Gwinn, opens this way:

The best biographies teach signal lessons about the mysteries of human nature. Here’s one of my favorites: even great men and women are to some degree, as we all are, at war with themselves.

George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis is the story of just such a conflicted man, an American diplomat who by turns inspired, exasperated and appalled his superiors, never held high office and hated the necessary insincerities of the diplomatic trade. And his brilliant strategizing arguably kept the Soviet Union and the United States from going to war with one another in the chaotic years after World War II, pulling the world back from the brink of nuclear destruction.

Did the containment doctrine really pull "the world back from the brink of nuclear destruction"? This seems to me dubious (to put it mildly). Gwinn apparently got this from Kaplan, who writes that Kennan's strategy, which (don't forget) was implemented in ways of which Kennan disapproved, "arguably prevented World War III." Well, "arguably" is a nice word. I use it myself quite a lot. But it may be cracking under the strain in this context.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life paths

If there is such a thing as an American creed and if you had to pick one statement that comes closest to encapsulating it, the most likely candidate would be Jefferson's assertion that all persons ("men" in the original) are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...."

Although the pursuit of happiness is an old notion, its translation into the idea of personal fulfillment is arguably more recent. The material precondition for this is the existence of a group of people whose (relative) affluence allows them enough leisure to worry about being 'fulfilled'. Needless to say, this observation is far from original. It was made, to take only one example, by Andrew Hacker some forty years ago in a book called (rather presciently) The End of the American Era.

In a chapter titled "The Illusion of Individuality," Hacker cast a skeptical eye on the notion that most people have hidden capacities and potentials waiting to be unleashed, if only given the right setting and opportunity. On the contrary, he wrote, "most people are ordinary...regardless of the time or society or setting in which they live." Most people, he continued, lack "any special qualities of talent or creativity" and "prefer the paths of security." They are "not terribly clever or creative or venturesome."

That may sound harsh, but what Hacker went on to say about education is, I think, still apt, more than forty years after it was written. "Middle-class Americans," he observed,

remain persuaded that with just a little more effort and some added insight they may discover their true selves. Thus the growing commitment to education, and the conviction that with schooling can come not only worldly success but also an awareness of one's own potentialities.... Yet, on the whole, the educational process has surprisingly little effect in determining how people will finally shape their lives.... [T]he overwhelming majority of college graduates...despite their exposure to higher education and their heightened awareness of life's options...nevertheless take paths of least resistance when faced with critical decisions throughout their lives.
While this was and remains a considerable overgeneralization (like virtually all such social criticism), it does bring to mind the large numbers of graduates of elite colleges and universities who have gone into investment banking, fancy consulting firms, hedge funds, private equity firms, etc., in recent years. Lately the numbers have started to decline, but for many it is still the preferred option. Of course today the majority of young people, including no doubt the majority of college graduates, face economic uncertainty, high levels of student debt, and a job market in which getting any kind of reasonably remunerative employment is a challenge. In that respect the picture is different from what it was when Hacker wrote the above-quoted passage. But it is interesting that in the late 60s and early 70s, a period one thinks of as full of experimentation and rebellion by the young (especially the 'privileged' young), at least one observer found more evidence of conformity and rationalization. Also interesting is that Hacker's The End of the American Era was published in the same year, 1970, as Charles Reich's The Greening of America, which took a quite different view of the rising generation.

P.s. (anecdotal): Back in December the NYT ran a piece about a 30-year-old American with an MBA who had decided to make a career in the slums of Rio singing hard-edged Brazilian funk. No 'path of least resistance' there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bacevich on "new American way of war"

Here (h/t S. Walt).

Robert Kagan & Norman Angell

Yesterday I heard snatches of a call-in radio show in which Robert Kagan was talking about his new book The World America Made. One caller apparently (I say "apparently" because I missed the question itself) made a point about economic interdependence and its connection to the unlikelihood of war.

In response Kagan trotted out the old, inaccurate Norman Angell story. It goes like this: About five years before WW1 Norman Angell published The Great Illusion (which was a huge best-seller) making the very same case about economic interdependence and war that the caller made. Then WW1 happened. Therefore economic interdependence (actually Kagan said economic "rationality," if I recall correctly) cannot be relied on to prevent war. People are motivated by many things, Kagan went on: hatreds, passions, questions of honor, not just economics.

Well, there are still hatreds and passions around, no doubt about that. But there are two problems with Kagan's reply: (1) Norman Angell did not say that economic interdependence made war impossible; he said it made war futile (a lose-lose proposition); (2) certain things have changed since WW1, and one reason they have changed is precisely the impact of WW1 itself.

In the opening pages of his book Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace [Amazon; Powell's], Christopher Fettweis makes the point about Angell very clearly:

It is hard to believe that anyone who has actually read Angell's work would come away with the impression that he believed the age of major war had come to an end. Angell was hardly a naive, utopian pacifist.... War with Germany was not only possible, he wrote, "but extremely likely." He argued that "as long as there is danger, as I believe there is, from German aggression, we must arm," and that he "would not urge the reduction of our war budget by a single sovereign." In order for war to become obsolete, Angell realized, a revolution in ideas had to occur. His book [The Great Illusion] was an attempt to spark that revolution. It was "not a plea for the impossibility of war...but for its futility."
Kagan is a popular author and a think-tanker but also a historian -- his book Dangerous Nation was his Ph.D. dissertation at American University. Everyone makes mistakes, including credentialed historians, but this one, made on national radio, was unfortunate.
On Angell, a good starting point is:
J.D.B. Miller, "Norman Angell and Rationality in International Relations," in D. Long and P. Wilson, eds., Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis (Oxford U.P., 1995), pp.100-121. There is also now a full-length biography: Martin Ceadel, Living the Great Illusion: Sir Norman Angell, 1872-1967 (Oxford U.P., 2009; here). See also Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age (Yale U.P., 1993), pp.150-51, for several interesting quotes from Angell's 1915 pamphlet The Prussian in our Midst.
P.s. I recently ran across a conference paper which argued that because there is a statistical correlation between growing interdependence (or globalization, to use the paper's word) and growing international tension in the years before WW1, we can infer that the former caused the latter (!). Well, perhaps it was a bit more nuanced than that but not much. I'm not giving the link because I may blog about the paper properly later on.
P.p.s. I just looked at the brief Wikipedia entry on The Great Illusion. The entry claims the 'futility' argument was added in the 1933 edition. I believe this is incorrect and that the argument was in the original edition.
P.p.p.s. I have changed the Wikipedia entry.