Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodbye to October -- and not a minute too soon

This has been a more than slightly wild month here, with the increasingly fevered commentary on the election forming a descant over the ground bass of the economic crisis and the stock market's gyrations. The right has worked itself into a frenzy over Obama's alleged "socialism," while some on the left expect the anticipated Obama victory celebration in Chicago's Grant Park to mark symbolically the emergence of a new Democratic majority. A deflation of rhetoric on all sides should follow November 4, since no one can be expected to keep up this level of intensity. The rhetorical deflation will be welcome, as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Afghanistan: Can "a disastrous situation" be salvaged?

I've just finished watching the excellent Frontline (PBS) program "The War Briefing" about the situation in Afghanistan. (That is, I was watching when I wasn't twisting the antenna and cursing the picture on my non-cable TV.)

The quotation in the title of this post is from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who declared in an interview in the program that Afghanistan is "a disastrous situation for the U.S." It's hard to disagree with him on the basis of the evidence summarized by Frontline. Here are some of the essentials: 1) a weak central government widely perceived as corrupt, opposed by 2) a resurgent insurgency taking advantage of sanctuaries in Pakistan and benefiting from support by the growing Pakistani Taliban movement, with 3) a grossly insufficient number of U.S. troops on the ground (33,000) given the size of the territory (larger than Iraq), leading to 4) an over-reliance on airstrikes that have produced significant civilian casualties (civilian deaths generally have doubled in the past two years), which in turn 5) increases support for the insurgents. There's a lot more going on, but that boils it down to a few of the basics.

You don't need to be a strategic studies or counterinsurgency expert to realize that the current U.S./NATO policy is failing and that one or two more brigades, as Scheuer said, are unlikely to solve the problem. Nor, probably, will getting rid of the so-called 70 caveats -- the current restrictions on rules of engagement (see earlier post and comments). Nor will more monetary support from non-fighting NATO countries, though I'm sure it would be welcome.

Someone should be, and perhaps is, asking: What will be the security consequences for the U.S. of a re-takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban? Maybe the consequences will not be as dire as some suppose. In that case maybe the best course is to try to negotiate with the Taliban, with a view perhaps to either some power-sharing arrangement with Karzai or even a de jure division of the country into separate spheres of control. That might allow the U.S. and NATO to cut their losses in Afghanistan and focus more attention on the situation in Pakistan which, as Colin Kahl says in the program, is potentially a much more serious situation for the U.S., given the recent increase in strength of the Pakistani Taliban and the fragility of the current Pakistan government. That this is not a totally crazy thought is indicated by very recent reports that the U.S. is considering the possibility of negotiating with at least elements of the Taliban. Moreover, as David Ignatius discussed in a recent Wash Post column, Saudi Arabia has begun to host a mediation effort involving the Karzai government and the main Afghan insurgent groups. Obviously it's too early to say whether anything will come of these developments.

In the meantime, it seems unfair to the 33,000 U.S. troops, and British, Dutch, Canadian, and other NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, to continue under-resourcing their operations. Of the roughly 15,000 additional U.S. troops slated for (or requested by generals for) Afghanistan, only 4,500 are currently available, according to the Frontline program. This at a time when 28,500 U.S. troops are sitting in South Korea, and thousands more are in Japan and Germany. It creates at the very least a perception of skewed priorities. I'm sure someone at the Pentagon might have a reasonable-sounding explanation for this, but few members of the public have heard it because no reporters, as far as I'm aware, have bothered to ask the question. And as I've indicated before, I do not think "reasonable-sounding" means a simple appeal to our alliance with South Korea. There is no reason the alliance cannot survive a reduced U.S. troop presence there.

Update: The exchange in the comments has got me re-thinking this last paragraph.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Civilians flee fighting in DR Congo

UN troops have joined Congolese army forces in fighting soldiers led by "renegade general" (as the BBC calls him) Laurent Nkunda, north of Goma, a provincial capital in the eastern DR Congo.

Active engagement by forces of Monuc (as the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo is called) is unusual but not unprecedented. They joined the fighting as angry civilians fleeing Nkunda's advance attacked Monuc HQ in Goma, shattering windows.

An excerpt from the report:

"Gen. Nkunda has threatened to take control of Goma.

The UN accused his soldiers of firing rockets at two UN vehicles on Sunday, injuring several troops. A spokesman for Gen. Nkunda denied the rebels were involved.

His rebels attacked Goma last December. Hundreds of them died as the UN used helicopters under its mandate to protect civilians.

A peace deal was signed in Goma between the government and various rebel groups at the end of January. Although he signed the deal, Gen. Nkunda has always refused to disarm while Rwandan Hutu rebels still operate in the area [he claims to be protecting Tutsis in the region--LFC].

About 200,000 people fled their homes after fighting resumed in the area in late August. The United Nations says many refugees are malnourished and some are dying of hunger."
Also, the Spaniard who's been commanding Monuc forces has resigned "for personal reasons" after seven weeks on the job. A replacement is being sought.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A death in Fallujah

As is well known, things in Iraq have improved somewhat in the past months, particularly on the security front. Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria have recently sent ambassadors to Baghdad. But people are still being killed and we are constantly told that the situation is "fragile and reversible."

Case in point (from the BBC):

The largest Sunni party in Iraq says it is suspending all official contacts with US civilian and military personnel after the killing of a man in Fallujah.

The Iraqi Islamic Party said the dead man was one of its senior members and that he had been killed during a joint US-Iraqi raid on Friday.

The party alleged that the raid had been politically motivated.

The US military acknowledge that one man was killed and another arrested during a raid in the city.


In a statement on its website, the Iraqi Islamic Party said that a senior party member had been killed in his bed, and five others had been arrested, during a raid in the Halabsa area of Fallujah.

"The hidden political motive behind this incident is clear," it said.

As a consequence, the party had "decided to suspend all official contacts with the Americans, both military and civilians, until the party receives a reasonable explanation about what happened, along with an official apology".

It also demanded an assurance that those responsible would be punished, compensation for the victims and the release of the five detainees.

According to the US military, US-backed Iraqi soldiers killed an armed man who had opened fire when they went to arrest a "wanted insurgent leader suspected of training roadside bomb cells," the Associated Press reports.

Endorsement watch

Partial list of notable Republican endorsements of (and, in one case, early votes for) Obama: Scott McLellan, Douglas Kmiec (see earlier post), William Weld, Charles Fried, Kenneth Adelman, Colin Powell.

Friday, October 24, 2008

More on sleep

And as long as we're on the subject of sleep:

For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

-- (excerpt from) Robert Frost, "After Apple-Picking" (1914)

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters

If you still have a place to live and haven't lost a job, yet you nonetheless have a dream about the financial crisis, it means that:

(a) the sources of your unconscious are running dry
(b) the media have colonized your mind
(c) you should sit right down and write yourself a letter
(d) if you have a broker, you should have called him (or her) yesterday
(e) you will never have that dream about sex with [fill in the blank] on an island
(f) you are just a tiny bit pathetic
(g) all of the above

And the correct answer is...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Barbara Ehrenreich rocks

Her post "Report from the Socialist International Conspiracy" is funny. Also read "The Communist Manifesto at 160." Here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the Great Powers

Nick at Worlds Apart has two thoughtful posts on great powers in the early 21st century. Reading these posts reminded me that there is no consensus among scholars about exactly how to define 'great power' or exactly which states count as great powers. To a large extent, however, the disagreements are probably more terminological than real.

Nick argues for three categories: 'global great power' (a category currently occupied only by the U.S.), 'regional great powers,' and 'global middle powers'. To be a 'global great power', he says, a state must meet five criteria: 1) dominate its region; 2) have a first-class military, including secure nuclear second strike capability, and an economy to support the military establishment; 3) wield 'soft power'; 4) have a political system that major domestic actors see as legitimate; and 5) be recognized as a great power by other states, as reflected in holding key positions in international institutions. Of these criteria, the only one I might quarrel with is number 4, though I would not want to press the point too hard. Two of these criteria, numbers 3 and 5, suggest that being a 'global great power' requires a certain amount of prestige. Prestige is itself a contested concept and there is disagreement about whether and how states compete for it (whatever 'it' is, exactly).

So, who counts as a regional great power, to use Nick's phrase? I would say China, India, the EU, Japan, and Russia. These five plus the U.S. account for a bit more than half the world's population, three-quarters of global GDP, and 80 percent of defense spending (R. Haass, "The Age of Nonpolarity," For. Aff., May/June '08, p.45). Of these five, China and India are 'rising powers,' while the positions/trajectories of the EU, Japan, and Russia are more uncertain.

There is one other aspect of the great power role that deserves mention: great powers have, or traditionally have been thought to have, special rights and responsibilities with respect to the maintenance of international peace and security (H. Bull, The Anarchical Society, p.202). Several of the great powers arguably have not been discharging these responsibilities as they should in recent years. The U.S. invasion of Iraq; China's actions in Sudan/Darfur and Tibet and Xinjiang; Russia's war with Georgia -- while these are not 'equivalent,' and while the rights and wrongs of each particular case can be argued, it does seem to be time for the great powers to reacquaint themselves with what one writer (R. Jackson, The Global Covenant, p.173) calls "the moral significance of what is involved in being a great power."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Craddock: Afghanistan not winnable "by military means alone"

Gen. John Craddock, a U.S. officer and one of the commanders of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has echoed, in a speech in London, earlier remarks by Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, the outgoing British commander in Helmand province. Here.

Update: For remarks by Craddock in an interview with Sky News, see here.

Kmiec for Obama

By now virtually everyone must know about Colin Powell's eloquent endorsement of Obama. I've just become aware that another Republican, albeit one less well-known than Powell, has endorsed Obama: Douglas Kmiec, professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University (Calif.), former head of the Office of Legal Counsel under Reagan and Bush I, and also formerly, for a relatively brief time, dean of Catholic University Law School (Wash., D.C.). Anyone who knows anything about Kmiec, or who has heard him on the airwaves in recent years, will find this nothing short of astounding.

Update: After writing the above, I googled "Douglas Kmiec Obama endorsement" and discovered that this endorsement is old news, though it was news to me. Kmiec endorsed Obama back in March in a Slate column. The link is here.

Wealth and inequality: what McCain doesn't understand

McCain argues that Obama wants to "spread the wealth," not create more of it. What McCain doesn't understand is that in the current context high levels of inequality are an obstacle to wealth creation. A society/economy that wastes human capital on a profligate scale, by depriving people of decent education for instance, cannot be competitive in a world increasingly driven by technology and returns to human capital.

So, practically, McCain doesn't grasp that inequality is detrimental to wealth creation; and, morally, he doesn't understand that stratospheric levels of inequality are offensive to basic notions of human dignity. As Jonathan Cohn at TNR's blog reminds us, Adam Smith did understand that. (For more on Adam Smith's views about inequality and poverty, see Samuel Fleischacker's excellent A Short History of Distributive Justice.)

How will Virginia vote?

The polls say Obama is leading in Virginia, but polls are not infallible. Can he really win the state? One scenario: Run up large margins in northern Va., especially in the areas closest to D.C.; hold his own in the northern exurbs; carry Richmond; win in Charlottesville (home of UVa) and Blacksburg (home of Va Tech) by substantial amounts; and make at least a respectable showing in the southwest and in the Shenandoah valley.

A half-century ago, Virginia was in the grip of the Byrd machine and in many parts of the state there was bitter 'massive resistance' to implementation of the Brown decision. The state has come quite a long way since then. Living in neighboring Maryland, and having spent a recent Sunday afternoon canvassing for Obama in Virginia, I feel more than a casual interest in how Virginia votes. It will be very exciting if Virginia rises to this occasion.

HC on Frost's 'The Road Not Taken'

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth,

Then took the other as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh I kept the first for another day
But knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost

I dusted off this old chestnut recently for a sad occasion (the unveiling of our uncle’s gravestone) and my brother asked me to do a bit about it for his blog, so why not? It’s a sweet little fall poem, and what else do I have to do, as Frost might say, but sleep? I’ll take the lines in order.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. A pure premise, simply stated and strong enough to propel twenty lines. It makes us think about the word diverge and its root, which is from the Latin vergere, to bend or incline – an etymology that Frost will bring back (to his poem and to good old English) in the last line of the stanza with the verb bend, which is almost straight from the Old English bindan, to bind or fetter, which is what the whole poem is about (fetters of time and choice and causality) – but enough dictionary games. The next line beckons: And sorry I could not travel both / and be one traveler. The concreteness of the dilemma is stated with Zen-like symmetry across the line break (travel both / one traveler), and it conveys an unspoken ethical axiom -- self-splitting is unthinkable -- by (quietly, negatively) questioning it: How nice it would be to have two selves, and to send one down each road. How nice it would be to rewind history. Alas, we have to keep moving. But not before standing long, a word that sounds the way it means, and which Frost drives home rhythmically by allowing himself a rare and almost quaint (in its literariness) inversion of adverb and verb – long I stood. The next line – and looked down one as far as I could – is the least remarkable of the stanza, which is perhaps appropriate to the rhyme scheme (ABAAB), for it is that line, the fourth, that is the repetitive or “extra” one. I’ve already said something about the last line, but I’ll add that undergrowth has nice associations of unwanted complication and impediment.

The next stanza moves forward abruptly, almost brutally: Then took the other as just as fair. We wish the poem would stand longer, but this is not a speaker to worry decisions, especially such a small one (the direction of a walk), as we learn further in the rest of the stanza, in which the rationale of the choice, which was uncertain to begin with (as having perhaps the better claim), is undone, shown to be a toss-up (though as for that the passing there). Here Frost uses that fourth line subversively, not to extend a thought but to retract it, a retraction that is smuggled in or given cover by the way (in the rhyme scheme) it comes right after, literally under, the previous line, as an afterthought. Before we move on again, let’s linger on the word fair, with its suggestions of beauty, honesty, and (when it comes to the weather) promise. Note its rhyme two lines later with wear, a kind of opposite in meaning, a word that then gets underscored and moved into the past two more lines down: worn. Sad translation. And note the also (sad) felicity of the passing there, a phrase that treats all past human traffic distantly, as a single, summable thing without agents, a quantity. I didn’t say much about the third line: grassy is wonderful (you can almost smell it), and so is wanted wear, which suggests that roads have desires.

And both that morning equally lay. Suddenly, a ray of sunlight. The scene is given a time, at once simply specific and symbolic: morning, naturally. The verb choice (lay) is inspired, both for its alliterative surroundings (equally lay / in leaves) and its counterintuitive sense: we think more of leaves lying on a path than a path lying in leaves. In leaves no step had trodden black. We realize, now that it ends, that we have been reading a single sentence, almost Miltonic (for Frost anyway) in its length, throughout the first three stanzas. (Unlike Milton, Frost does not extend his sentence through elaborate syntax; he relies on the simple joining performed by the word and, which has it own drama as it moves through the poem, initiating three of the first five lines and then starting a single, different line in each of the next three stanzas.) This same line (In leaves…) also marks the second and final appearance of a color in the poem, so that the arc of the sentence is from yellow to black (symbolic, yes, but they are also two colors that just go together well, as Piet Mondrian knew). After our necessary intake of breath following this long sentence, the rest of the poem starts with an exhalation (oh), a sigh that sets the tone for the remainder. Oh I kept the first for another day. The verb kept is perfect, reminding us how useless keepsakes are, and the rhythm conveys the tossed-off nature of the thought. But knowing how way leads on to way: another fourth line, and my favorite line in the poem, with its oh-so-simple statement of the ineluctability of causation: way, way. A sighing word, especially when said twice, in fact a near rhyme for sigh. Way has both Old English and Latin sources (weg, via) but it is closer to the Old English, where Frost’s heart lies. I doubted if I should ever come back. He might have written that I would but if I should is both more colloquial and less absolute, which, thanks to the rhetorical trick of understatement, makes it even more absolute.

I realize my take on the last stanza is not everyone’s cup of tea. It seems to me that the speaker is making fun of his future, aged self, full of inflation and high sentence. Frost often likes to mock the vanity of the ego (e.g. “For Once, Then, Something”), but let’s look at the internal evidence. The speaker has simplified the story in retrospect (the way we all do) to redound more to his own credit: I took the one less traveled by. Hold on a minute: we know that at most he had a mild impulse to make that choice (perhaps the better claim) and that in fact the roads were really indistinguishable (about the same). The high-toned exaggeration of ages and ages hence is further evidence of this interpretation, and what seals the deal is the overdramatic pause across the next line break, with its insistence on the heroic self: and I -- / I took the one. Don’t you hate it when people talk like that? In this reading, all the difference comes across as almost stupidly vague. What difference? The point of the poem is that there is no difference: the speaker is not special. He is you and I. But what you and I do is precisely to think, when we look back, that we were different. The saving grace of the poem is that at least the young speaker knows that he will think that way.

I’d rather end on a note of form than content. Check out the rhythm. Iambic tetrameter (de dum de dum de dum de dum) but sprinkled with anapestic exceptions (de de dum), which gives the whole thing a nice skipping quality: how light-hearted! And note where the anapests appear: most often on the third foot (i.e., And be one traveler, long I stood) (10 times), but also on the second foot (5 times), the fourth (3 times), and the first (once). These exceptions add variety and attract attention, especially in those lines with two anapests, like Oh I kept the first for another day. But the most marked lines of all are the three with no anapests. “In leaves no step had trodden black” is one of them, and it gains a little extra sobriety and darkness as a result – as if it needed it.

-- HC

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Grim food situation in Ethiopia

Aid agencies are estimating, according to the BBC, that as many as 8 million people in Ethiopia may be affected by the severe drought in the country; adding to that figure the 7 million who are always short of adequate food makes for nearly 20 percent of the population.

"Oxfam has just released a fresh appeal. It says the aid required is $260m short of its target.

But figures produced by the United Nations office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs show that $772m has already been pledged, the vast majority from the U.S., which has nearly trebled its aid to Ethiopia this year."

Ethiopia is a U.S. ally in the current geopolitical troubles in the Horn of Africa, which gives the U.S. multiple motives for trying to ensure that the current food situation in Ethiopia does not become a widespread famine of the kind that has afflicted the country more than once in the past. (Ideally, of course, humanitarian motives alone should be sufficient, but two motives are usually more effective than one.)

Almost everyone is a Keynesian now...

...except the journalists asking the questions, as Peter Howard observes.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

P.s. on the U.S.-India nuclear deal

When Bush signed the bill on Oct. 8 (see earlier post), he also issued a brief signing statement (a frequent, and frequently controversial, practice) that some critics are charging undercuts promises he made to Congress about the U.S. stance on India's processing of spent nuclear fuel and other matters. The issues get rather technical and I don't claim particular expertise; however, since I've been following the U.S.-India nuclear deal in a casual way for a while, I may make at least a sketchy effort to sort out what (if anything) is going on with the signing statement, and why The Times of India is hailing it as a repudiation of U.S. "proliferation hard-liners." Stay tuned.

Friday, October 10, 2008

When economic isolation doesn't seem so bad

In recent years, most (not all) mainstream economists have argued that developing countries do best when they are integrated into the global economy to the greatest extent possible. That might have been true when the global economy was, after a fashion, working. Now that the global economy is in crisis, however, the advantages of not being fully integrated are becoming apparent. An interesting article in the Wash Post today, somewhat provocatively titled "The End of American Capitalism?," includes the following passage in which the head of the IMF notes that African countries are relatively insulated from the most damaging effects of the crisis by virtue of their comparative lack of exposure to the world economy:
"'Obviously the crisis comes from an important regulatory and supervisory failure in advanced countries . . . and a failure in market discipline mechanisms,' Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF's managing director, said yesterday before the fund's annual meeting in Washington.

"In a slideshow presentation, Strauss-Kahn illustrated the global impact of the financial crisis. Countries in Africa, including many of those with some of the lowest levels of market and financial integration and openness, are now set to weather the crisis with the least amount of turbulence."

Of course, there are virtually no truly autarkic economies, so all will be affected, but it's a matter of degree. There are other interesting passages in this article, but I'll let readers ferret them out for themselves.

p.s. What the article says about China is particularly worth noting. See also this post from D. Rodrik.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

France to sell reactors to India, with Russia in the wings

With the ban on civilian nuclear sales to India having been lifted by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and with the U.S.-India nuclear accord a done deal (see previous post), it may now be full steam ahead for the Indian civilian nuclear power sector. In late September, France and India reached an agreement paving the way for the sale of French reactors.

Russia is apparently also interested in getting a piece of this action. McCain is fond of saying that he looked into Putin's eyes "and saw three letters: a 'K', a 'G', and a 'B.'" Is he sure he didn't see five letters: M-O-N-E-Y?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bill on India-U.S. nuclear deal signed

Bush has signed the bill finalizing the India-U.S. nuclear deal. More on it later, perhaps.

"The innate structures of her discourse"

Camille Paglia on Palin: a new level of the ludicrous.
From The G Spot (via LGM): here.

The editor with the action-packed rolodex

HC, who reads the New York Times for me (just kidding), draws my attention to this article about the launch of the new Tina Brown web thing, The Daily Beast (the name's from Evelyn Waugh, naturally).

The article mentions her "gilded e-Rolodex." For some reason I immediately thought of the 1950s radio figure Johnny Dollar, "America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator," the "man with the action-packed expense account." (No, I hadn't been born yet in the early '50s when Johnny Dollar was really in his heyday -- I'm not quite that old -- but I've heard the show on old-time radio revival hours.)

Anyway, Johnny Dollar had an action-packed expense account; Tina Brown has an action-packed rolodex. I already do not read Huffington, Daily Kos, TPM, Sullivan, Yglesias, Douthat, etc. Now I can add The Daily Beast to the list of hip sites that I do not read.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Yes, Virginia, there is a lunatic fringe

Courtesy of Marx and Coca-Cola, an amusing round-up of the minor party candidates.

Hoarding and panicking

Watching coverage of the financial crisis some hours ago, I heard one or two commentators say that people are "hoarding cash." The verb "to hoard" has a somewhat old-fashioned ring to my ears, conjuring up images of misers in Victorian novels mooning over their gold and silver. Presumably what it means in this context is that people are withdrawing cash from their banks and storing it (or secreting it) in their homes. If this is indeed occurring, it suggests that "panic" (from the Greek panikos: of sudden fear, as supposedly inspired by the god Pan [to quote my dictionary]) may be the right word to apply to the current situation. (Alternatively, "people are hoarding cash" could just be a dramatic way of saying "people are not spending as freely as they ordinarily do.")

On a somewhat although not totally unrelated note, the PBS news program 'Worldfocus' made its debut in this area today. The idea -- a half-hour program drawing on the reporting of various news organizations -- is a sound one, though I thought the first show's execution and content were uneven. It did include a good report on the impact of rising food prices on the poor (and the not-so-poor) in Kenya.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Those were the days...

"Those who today proclaim that the United States is in decline often imagine a past in which the world danced to an Olympian America's tune. That is an illusion. Nostalgia swells for the wondrous U.S.-dominated era after World War II. But although the United States succeeded in Europe then, it suffered disastrous setbacks elsewhere. The 'loss' of China to Communism, the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the Soviet Union's testing of a hydrogen bomb, the stirrings of postcolonial nationalism in Indochina -- each was a strategic calamity of immense scope, and was understood to be such at the time. Each critically shaped the remainder of the twentieth century, and not for the better. And each proved utterly beyond the United States' power to control or even manage successfully. Not a single event in the last decade can match any one of those events in terms of its enormity as a setback to the United States' position in the world."
-- Robert Kagan, "The September 12 Paradigm: America, the World, and George W. Bush," Foreign Affairs (Sept/Oct '08), p.38.

Well, the rise of "postcolonial nationalism in Indochina" was not "a strategic calamity" until the U.S. turned it into one. And if you don't find the last sentence of the quoted passage at least debatable, I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you.

p.s. For a link to the Kagan article, see the first comment.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Israel/Palestine: some signs of hope?

A friend drew my attention a while back to Ethan Bronner's Sept. 12 NYT article about what's been happening in Jenin, the West Bank city that was the site of fierce fighting in 2002, during the second intifada, when, as a center of militant activity, it was partly razed by Israeli tanks and occupied by IDF soldiers.

Now, Bronner reports:

"newly trained and equipped Palestinian security officials have restored order. Israeli soldiers have pulled back from bases and are in close touch with their Palestinian colleagues. Civilians are planning economic cooperation — an industrial zone to provide thousands of jobs, mostly to Palestinians, and another involving organic produce grown by Palestinians and marketed in Europe by Israelis. Ministers from both governments [Israel and the Palestinian Authority] have been visiting regularly, often joined by top international officials. Israeli Arabs are playing a key role."
Moreover, the neighboring Israeli area of Gilboa is something of a model of cooperation between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, Bronner writes, with the local high school staging a Bible/Koran contest featuring teams of two, a Jewish student and an Arab student, answering questions in Hebrew and Arabic.

"The head of the Gilboa regional council, Daniel Atar, is a Jew and his deputy, Eid Salem, is an Arab. Together they have built a warm relationship with the Palestinian governor of the Jenin area, Qadoura Moussa....

"One result of the discussions among the three leaders is a decision by the Israeli authorities to allow some Israeli Arabs into Jenin on a daily basis for the first time since the intifada. It has been a delicate move made with little fanfare because in principle it is illegal to allow certain Israeli citizens to do something others may not and also because movement across the boundary invites the possibility of security breaches.

"It is delicate for another reason. In recent years, Israeli Jews have grown worried that among the 1.3 million Arabs who are Israeli citizens, there is a growing radicalization and identification with the Palestinian national cause and militant Islam. Increasing their contact with the West Bank could add to those concerns.

"But Israeli Arabs have relatives here and want to do business here, and the Israeli authorities say they want to encourage that as a means of helping the Palestinian economy. If Israeli Arabs are permitted to do that in large numbers, that could represent an important change in their status in the eyes of Israeli Jews — from potential fifth column to bridge builder."

However, the situation is still a far cry from what it was in 2000, before the second intifada.
"Today the main crossing point, then the site of a sprawling market, is a maze of security towers and checkpoints. Israeli soldiers refrain from cruising Jenin by day but still carry out occasional night raids and maintain overall security control of the region. And while Israeli Arabs are now being let in, they may not yet bring cars, greatly limiting the appeal of the trip and the shopping.

"There are other concerns. The Palestinians have asked to base their newly trained battalion for Jenin in an abandoned Israeli settlement, a good spot in terms of location and infrastructure. But Israeli officials are worried about how it will play in Israel and have so far said no.

"Israeli security officials say their Palestinian colleagues are good at law and order but not at stopping terrorist groups. They say that Islamic Jihad used to be strong here and is no longer because Israel spent years destroying its infrastructure and killing its militants, setting the stage for the Palestinian security takeover. But if they relax their vigilance, the Israelis say, the situation will deteriorate. Early on Wednesday morning [Sept. 10], for example, Israeli soldiers and security men raided a home in Jenin and detonated a 30-pound pipe bomb.

"The Palestinians complain that they are often urged to arrest someone just because he wears a beard. They add that as long as they are seen as puppets of the Israelis, the project is doomed. The key is for Palestinian security officials to be seen as agents of state building. Then the population will cooperate. This requires the kind of discretion that the Israeli Army has not been known for [my italics--LFC]."

So, many problems remain, and the conditions that have enabled what progress there has been in this part of the West Bank, such as Hamas's weakness and the removal of Israeli settlements in 2005, as well as an absence of territorial disputes aggravated elsewhere by the barrier wall (this last factor is mentioned in a passing and not entirely clear way by Bronner) are not necessarily replicable. Still, this is on balance a hopeful article, as is the piece that Bronner wrote on Sept. 30 about his interview with Ehud Olmert. More on that later, perhaps (or those who are interested can look it up themselves).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

VP debate: painful

I predicted to myself that watching and listening to this would be painful, and it was. The format made it less of a real debate than the previous (Obama-McCain) one. Partly for this reason and partly because they are vice-presidential candidates, Biden and Palin ended up talking past one another much of the time (as others have pointed out). A bit of the post-debate commentary on PBS was interesting, especially Ellen Fitzpatrick's remarks on how the politics of gender have changed in the last 20-25 years (I'm too tired to summarize them).

Substantively, Biden had a few good moments, but the intellectual level of this debate was lower than the McCain-Obama encounter, and the use of English was definitely worse. A complete English sentence -- subject, verb, object, clauses in the right places -- was a rather rare commodity in this debate. Palin at times sounds to me like a non-native speaker, or more specifically someone who has not grown up with the language. Admittedly, this may have something to do with regional differences: English is spoken differently in different parts of the country. Moreover, this reaction is not to meant to be snobbish or picky. I have no objection to her colloquialisms, and I don't really care deeply that she doesn't how to use the verb "to attribute." I just find it difficult to listen to her and, frankly, almost impossible to watch her (though I forced myself to do so a few times). Her efforts to channel Ronald Reagan will no doubt have greater appeal to some others, however, than they do to me.