Monday, July 28, 2008

Link to S. Power review

David Kaiser in this post links to Samantha Power's review of two recent books on U.S. foreign policy by a journalist and well-known journalist/blogger, respectively. Haven't had a chance to read the review yet.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Of umbrage and 'press lords'

Jonathan Alter's recent Newsweek column "All Umbrage All the Time" has some perceptive things to say about the impact of blogs in an election year, though I don't buy his implication that any blogger is the equal of a Newsweek columnist in the proverbial marketplace of opinion. We're not all 'press lords' now: some are still more equal than others.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

'The Dark Side'

Jane Mayer's just-released book about the 'war on terror,' The Dark Side, makes reference to a report given by the Intl. Committee of the Red Cross to the CIA last year, concluding that interrogation methods used against certain top al-Qaeda detainees constituted torture. The New York Times reported this on July 11, in advance of the book's publication. Hat tip: the blog Elected Swineherd.
p.s. Mayer had apparently revealed the existence of the Red Cross report earlier, in one of her pieces in The New Yorker.
p.p.s. See also this post at Neither Property nor Style.

Friday, July 18, 2008

UN report on sanitation

On a day when Nelson Mandela, celebrating his 90th birthday, called for renewed attention to poverty in South Africa and the rest of the world, it's worth noting this recent U.N. report on access to clean water and basic sanitation. Although the number of people without access to clean water has been cut in half since 1990, roughly 1.2 billion people still lack basic sanitation, and this causes a significant part of the daily toll of child mortality. Even in a time of economic uncertainty and recession, most people (not everyone to be sure, but most) who live above subsistence level can do something constructive about extreme or 'absolute' poverty, even if it's just contributing something to Oxfam or a similar organization every month or every year, signing up for the One Campaign's email list, or something comparable.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hurry over there

I did say "very little" (see previous post). Anyway, I think this must be the blog post of the day: hilzoy's "Keeping your moral bearings".

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Note to readers

I expect to be posting very little, if at all, from now until the end of the month.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Webster's to the rescue

A spokesman for the Obama campaign has denounced the cover of the current New Yorker, showing Barack Obama dressed in the garb of an observant Muslim and his wife carrying an assault rifle, and the two of them doing a "fist bump" in the Oval Office, as "tasteless and offensive."

From the BBC story: "Obama spokesman Bill Burton dismissed the cartoon, saying: 'The New Yorker may think [sic]... that their cover is a satirical lampoon of the caricature Senator Obama's right-wing critics have tried to create, but most readers will see it as tasteless and offensive. And we agree.'"

Contra Mr. Burton, the New Yorker does not think it is satire; it is objectively a satire, which a standard dictionary (Webster's New World College Dictionary, 3rd edition) defines as (among other things) "the use of ridicule, sarcasm, irony, etc. to expose, attack, or deride vices, follies, etc." Whether it is tasteless or requires too much interpretation to be altogether effective can be debated, but to suggest that it is not a satire, that the New Yorker merely "thinks" it's a satire, is absurd. It is clearly sarcastic and therefore it is "the use of...sarcasm to expose...follies." In other words, it is satire.

P.s. Michael Eric Dyson (Georgetown Univ.) and Eric Bates (Rolling Stone) discussed the cartoon with Gwen Ifill on the PBS NewsHour tonight. Its website will have the transcript.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Enderlin affair

The Weekly Standard is not one of my usual browsing stops, but this piece by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet about the long-running journalistic and legal controversy in France surrounding an iconic image from the second intifida is worth a glance if you're interested in journalism, France, and/or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Caution: she has a definite point of view, and without having read anything else on this case I'm not in a position to endorse what she says.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

India-Russia sub deal

Starting with this post of Rob's at LGM, I learned that: (1) India is leasing a Russian nuclear submarine for 2009, and (2) leasing nuclear subs is permitted by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (to which Russia but not India is a party) whereas selling them is not. Who says you don't learn anything by reading blogs?

Changing the subject somewhat and following up on an earlier post, it appears that the Indian government is going ahead with the signing of the U.S.-Indian civilian nuclear cooperation deal. For the political ramifications in India, see e.g. the BBC's coverage.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Niall Ferguson on WW2

I've had a mixed reaction to the first two installments of Niall Ferguson's three-part television lecture-with-pictures (for that's basically what it amounts to) The War of the World, based on his book of the same name. (I think it was shown in the U.K. last year, but it is just now being broadcast in the U.S.)

The second installment, 'A Tainted Victory,' dealt with the run-up to World War II and the main events of the war itself. Though much of it covered familiar ground, the opening segment on Stalin and his minorities policies (a "pioneer of ethnic cleansing"), and the closing segment on the war in Pacific, emphasizing the barbarity and dehumanization of the enemy on both sides that characterized it (including footage of American soldiers shooting wounded Japanese soldiers -- I don't think we saw that in Ken Burns's The War), were effective.

The middle part focused on the German-Soviet war (from the June 1941 invasion) and more briefly on the 'Final Solution'; here Ferguson, I thought, had some trouble finding new or particularly interesting things to say. He emphasized the battle of Kursk, known to all military history aficionados as the most massive tank battle in history, and noted that U.S. supplies and planes contributed to the Soviet victory. Basically, though, it was a huge bunch of tanks ramming into each other over a period of more than several days and a big land area. Update/correction (February 2015): I have crossed out the preceding sentence because it is not an accurate description of the battle. A glance at the Wikipedia article on the battle of Kursk, which seems to be an umbrella designation for several engagements with their own names, and then following some further links, makes this clear. Tanks did not ram into each other: this is a misconception popularized by a book on the battle that is mostly inaccurate, apparently.

At one point Ferguson asked why the police battalions made up of 'ordinary Germans' showed, on the whole, apparently so few qualms about participating in the mass shootings of Jews on the Eastern Front. His answer: It was partly a matter of self-preservation (easier to shoot at civilians than at Russian troops who were going to shoot back). He also noted that not long after V-E Day the Soviets started housing political prisoners in the former Nazi concentration camps they had liberated, the suggestion being that it is at least slightly ironic to refer to the Soviets as having "liberated" the camps. To the Jews and other camp inmates they freed, however, the Red Army's soldiers were liberators, a point he could have acknowledged.

At the end, Ferguson took care to note that he was not drawing a moral equivalence between Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but he went on to conclude that the Allies' victory was a "tainted" one, inasmuch as they adopted some of the same tactics (notably, targeting of civilians) as their opponents. In this sense, the war, he said, was not "good vs. evil" but "evil vs. lesser evil." In the longish view of history, I think this conclusion is defensible (though I would say "much lesser evil"). But I am also aware that Ferguson was born well after the end of World War II, and I suspect that many of those who lived through and directly experienced the events of the period will have a somewhat different perspective.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Does Tilly's thesis travel to the third world?

"War made the state, and the state made war." The late Charles Tilly's adage neatly captures some of the dynamics at work in the formation of states in late-medieval and early modern Europe. As Tilly himself recognized, the slogan does not embrace all the complexities involved or the fact that there was no single, unilinear path to sovereign statehood. Still, it points to the synergy that sometimes existed between war-making and state-building in early modern Europe: embryonic "states" -- meaning a variety of polities, including "composite monarchies" and other forms -- that managed to extract resources effectively were able to build armies, often largely composed of mercenaries; the armies often made further extraction of resources easier, with those revenues in turn strengthening nascent bureaucracies. Luck and the quality of leadership, among other things, played a considerable role in determining which "states" succeeded, but Tilly's factors were important.

What about the contemporary 'developing world'? Does Tilly's thesis apply there in the same way as it does to the history of state formation in Europe and elsewhere?
Yes and no, according to Brian Taylor and Roxana Botea in their article "Tilly Tally: War-Making and State-Making in the Contemporary Third World," International Studies Review, March 2008, pp.27-56.

They observe that the quasi-Darwinian logic of competition in early modern Europe, where weak polities were often swallowed up by stronger ones, no longer holds in a world where the norm against conquest is widely observed and "state death" (T. Fazal's phrase) is almost nonexistent. Consequently, weak states persist, and war often weakens them further.

This is what happened in Afghanistan, one of the two main cases the authors examine. Although the article contains some large-N evidence about the relation between state strength and ethnic fractionalization, most of the article is a comparative analysis of Afghanistan and Vietnam, third-world countries that "experienced multiple, lengthy, and deadly armed conflicts with a significant external component" (p.28). Why did decades of war drastically weaken the Afghan state but strengthen the Vietnamese one? The authors argue that there were two elements present in Vietnam that were missing in Afghanistan: (1) ethnic homogeneity and (2) a unifying revolutionary ideology, or more specifically "a revolutionary movement that successfully combined nationalism with communist ideology and state-building strategies" (p.48).

Ethnic homogeneity in Vietnam meant that the problems of national identity and cohesion were already half-solved or three-quarters solved, in contrast to Afghanistan, where ethnic and tribal fragmentation never allowed the formation of a real sense of national identity, and where more than a quarter-century of war (from 1978 to the present) only deepened the divisions. And while the Vietnamese Communists melded nationalism and the transnational ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in the service of statism, the Taliban's "neo-fundamentalist" Islamic worldview worked against effective state-building (p.48). Moreover, unlike the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, the Taliban, both before and after their seizure of power in 1996, relied heavily on external funding sources (plus smuggling and the opium trade) for much of their revenue.

In sum, war is apparently no longer an effective path to state-building, except under quite unusual circumstances, e.g. Vietnam. One hopes that this will in turn contribute to a continuing decline in the overall amount of armed violence in the world, as would-be state-builders come to realize that war usually hinders rather than furthers their aims.

p.s. (added 10/25/12): see also this post.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Belarus bomb

Was the explosion of a homemade-style bomb in Minsk on Thursday night an act of "hooliganism," as the Lukashenko regime says, or does it reflect perhaps an intra-regime power struggle, or are elements of the opposition, frustrated by Lukashenko's iron grip, taking to extra-legal, violent action, or what? The BBC's man in Minsk isn't sure, but he speculates here.

P.s.: In the spring, Belarus expelled the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats following U.S. sanctions against the state-run oil and chemicals company.

The 'new' Obama: a bad idea

From forgoing public financing, to reversing position on immunity for telcom companies that might have been involved in warrantless eavesdropping, to criticizing a Supreme Court death penalty decision that made sense, the Obama campaign recently has been enacting something of a caricature of the "move to the center" that often follows successful primary campaigns. The New York Times, hardly a beacon of wild-eyed radicalism, was moved to criticize these developments in an editorial today.

The Obama campaign is in danger of moving onto a course that risks jeopardizing the enthusiasm among supporters that is, in great part, responsible for its success to date. If I may be forgiven for mixing aerial and nautical metaphors, the campaign had better reset the tiller and fly right (not Right). And the sooner the better.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Coming on Monday:
Does Tilly's thesis travel to the third world?

China-Taiwan direct flights

China and Taiwan are set to begin weekend-only non-stop direct flights for tourists and others, the first direct flights since the Communists won the civil war and established the PRC in 1949.

Peak oil

During the current run-up in the price of oil, you may have heard commentators referring to "peak oil" and may have wondered, as I did, exactly what this meant. A prescient article published a year ago -- Ashley Dawson, "The Return of Limits," New Politics, Summer 2007 -- puts the answer succinctly:
... [P]redictions by a group of leading geologists suggest that we are quickly approaching the global peak in oil reserves.... While the exact date is a matter of extremely heated dispute, there is an emerging consensus among geologists that the peak will occur close to 2010.... [T]his does not mean that wells in Saudi Arabia, Angola, and other oil-rich countries are nearly empty of oil. Instead, the bell-curve pattern described by M. King Hubbert, who accurately predicted the U.S.'s own oil peak in 1970, indicates that we will soon be extracting the greatest amount of crude that will ever be extracted. From this point on, reserves will begin to diminish and the oil that remains in the ground will be both far more difficult to extract and of inferior quality to the oil already extracted. Since the American economy is based on constant expansion [as is capitalism generally--LFC] and because...countries like China and India are industrializing at a hectic tilt, the economics of supply and demand suggest that this increasingly scarce resource will very quickly become dramatically more expensive. It is not so much the age of oil that is over, then, but rather the era of cheap crude.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Miliband on EU security policy

The Guardian is reporting that in a speech scheduled for delivery July 2, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband will indicate support for French president Sarkozy's proposals for stronger European military, "conflict prevention," and "crisis management" capabilities.

Pertinent brief excerpts from the article:

[Miliband] will...praise the French for saying they are willing to reintegrate into Nato's command structure, and will insist that a stronger European defence policy does not mean Nato stops being the cornerstone of European defence.

But he will add: "As the Balkans wars in the 1990s demonstrated, unless Europe can develop its own capabilities, it will be consigned always to wait impotently until the US and Nato are ready and able to intervene." ...

He will highlight the role of EU troops in training Palestinian police in the West Bank, adding "the countries of Europe need to be better at using their hard power."

Miliband will point out that Victoria Nuland, the US ambassador to Nato, welcomed a stronger European defence policy in a speech in February, reversing a decade of American fears that strong European defence would undermine Nato. The US position has been changed by Sarkozy's election because he has agreed to reintegrate France into Nato's command structure as well as send more French troops to Nato's operation in Afghanistan.

Perhaps those analysts who have been predicting for some time a more assertive European geopolitical and military policy are finally going to see their predictions start to be vindicated. The full text of the Guardian article is here.

Gandhi in English

Gandhi was recorded speaking in English only twice, the second time some ten months before he was assassinated. Shankar Vedantam has a piece in the Post today about this second recording, which has been in the hands of a former president of the Nat'l Press Club.

GAO: U.S. aid to Africa is 'fragmented'

The Secretary of State's defense of the Bush administration's foreign policy, which I wrote about last month, mentioned that U.S. development assistance to Africa has increased four-fold since 2001. The glass-half-empty part of this, however, is that U.S. aid efforts in Africa are ill-coordinated and have slighted long-term agricultural development, as have multilateral lenders. The GAO said this in a report released at the end of May: see Anthony Faiola, "Food Relief for Africa 'Insufficient,' GAO Says," Wash Post, 5/29/08. With food prices rising sharply, the World Bank is taking steps to re-emphasize agriculture, the article notes, but U.S. efforts in this area probably will remain inefficient (because they rely on American-grown food) and focused too much on the short term.

Will he or won't he?

The approaching G-8 summit may push Indian PM Manmohan Singh to sign the U.S.-India nuclear deal, which has been hanging fire for quite a while now. This could lead to the withdrawal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from the governing coalition and the calling of early elections.

Even if this happens, the deal will still not be ready for implementation, as the IAEA and Nuclear Suppliers Group need to sign off on it, and Singh has said that he will "place the details" before the Indian parliament. Nonetheless, Singh's proceeding with the formalities would allow the Bush administration to start moving the deal to the "done" side of its end-of-term ledger.