Thursday, December 31, 2009

Afghanistan: tragic ending to a bad year

In a perfect world of perfectly detached observers, each death in a war zone would be marked equally -- but then, in a perfect world there would be no wars to begin with. In the real world things are otherwise. Deaths on one's own side loom larger. The recent events in Afghanistan -- the killing of seven CIA employees and the killing of four Canadian soldiers and a journalist -- ensure that this will be recalled as a very bad end to a bad year.

Is the Obama administration wise or foolish to retreat from 'democracy promotion' in the Arab world?

"Democracy promotion" was a mainstay, at least rhetorically, of the Bill Clinton foreign policy and of G.W. Bush's. As a practical matter, however, it never achieved all that much, at least not in the Middle East. The U.S.'s major Arab allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have not become democracies of any recognizable sort. Kuwait and a couple of other countries have taken some steps toward opening their political systems to greater participation by women and other previously excluded groups, but there has been no general transformation of the Middle East in a democratic direction. Iraq has the forms of democracy, but whether it will turn out in the long run to be a well-functioning system (or even functioning at all) remains at this point an open question.

In a recent article on U.S. grand strategy in Int'l Studies Perspectives (November 2009), David C. Ellis writes: "From a grand strategic position, long-term victory in the GWOT [global war on terror] is hardly feasible without a demonstration of democratic governance in the Middle East.... The overriding that any attempt at reforming the United States' Middle Eastern allies will ultimately require entrenched elites to absolve themselves of their power and position." (Note: Although the GWOT label officially has been abandoned by the U.S. government, analysts continue to use it.)

The dilemma to which Ellis refers is so intractable that the Obama administration has decided to downgrade democracy promotion as an objective, at least according to an op-ed piece by Jackson Diehl published last month ("The deflated Arab hopes for Obama," Wash. Post, Nov. 30, 2009). Diehl notes that Sec. of State Clinton did not mention the word "democracy" in a speech she gave in Morocco in November, nor did she refer to "the Arabs who are fighting to create independent newspapers, political parties or human rights organizations."

The Egyptian sociologist and reform advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who (along with others) met with Clinton after her speech, told Diehl that he urged on Clinton the importance of the next two years "for determining the political direction of the Middle East." Egypt in particular has parliamentary elections scheduled and then a presidential election in 2011. According to Diehl:
"Clinton, said Ibrahim, replied that democracy promotion had always been a centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy and that the Obama administration would not give it up -- 'but that they have a lot of other things on their plate.' For Arab liberals, the translation is easy, if painful: Regardless of what the president may have said in Cairo, Obama's vision for the Middle East doesn't include 'a new beginning' in the old political order."
Assuming Diehl's analysis is correct, is this development as lamentable as he suggests? Maybe. But there are at least two sides to most foreign policy questions, and the other side here would argue that the metaphor of a crowded plate is accurate: the Obama administration has too many other pressing priorities now to devote much energy to a project that has proved frustratingly difficult in the past. On the other hand, if Ellis and Diehl are right, downplaying support for Middle Eastern democratic reformers may not be wise long-term policy. It is worth remembering that incarceration and torture in an Egyptian jail is mainly what turned Ayman al-Zawahiri from an Islamist opponent of the regime into a bitter, remorseless killer and ideologist of global jihad. How many more Zawahiris are being created in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world today?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Rusty master-key

Kal at TMND critically examines Ross Douthat's views about Islam, as expressed in Douthat's writing on Muslims in Europe, the Swiss referendum on minarets, and so on. The post calls the clash-of-civilizations thesis, to which Douthat subscribes, "a master-key for the intellectually lazy." Nice phrase.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Exactly the wrong kind of new year's gift: a "modernization" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal

Republican senators are advocating construction of a new generation of U.S. nukes, saying it's a condition of their support for a new START treaty with Russia. This is lunacy: unnecessary, wasteful, and counterproductive. Sounds like a fair amount of what Senate Republicans have been doing lately.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Eritrean ambassador to UK: "We have never, never, never" aided Somali Islamists

In response to UN Security Council sanctions against Eritrea, the first SC sanctions according to this report since the 2006 sanctions against Iran, the Eritrean ambassador to Britain is quoted as saying: "Now we are 100% sure that we have never, never, never supplied military equipment or otherwise to the extremists in Somalia."

Perhaps there is an inverse relation between the heatedness of a denial and the breadth of consensus that an allegation is true.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gates memo suggests joint State-Defense funds for 'nation-building'

A recent unclassified memo from Sec. of Defense Gates to Sec. of State Clinton has been obtained by the Wash Post and is reported on today (Mary Beth Sheridan and Greg Jaffe, "Gates proposes 3 funds to aid unstable countries," WP, 12/24, p.A2 link). The memo suggests creation of "three long-term funds...dedicated to training security forces, preventing conflicts and stabilizing violence-torn societies around the world."

The State Dept and AID, as the Post story notes, have traditionally "taken the lead" in this kind of work, but in recent years the military has become increasingly active in it, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Gates memo makes specific reference to "complaints about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy," according to the Post report, stemming from the "huge increase in funding for stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan" (but, as just noted, the Pentagon's involvement in traditionally civilian work goes well beyond those two countries). Obstacles to joint funds of the sort proposed include the existing structure of congressional oversight; the memo suggests the creation of "special standing committees in the House and Senate" to avoid having to report to eight different congressional committees.
The State Dept has not yet responded formally to the proposal, but a spokesman is quoted as saying the memo "contains some creative ideas on moving forward."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

McChrystal in Ottawa

I happened to catch on the radio this evening about twenty minutes of a recent q-and-a on Afghanistan conducted by Gen. McChrystal with an informed Canadian audience. Some of his answers were fine I thought, but the response to a question about cooperation with Pakistan and border issues struck me as weak. McChrystal said, basically, that he meets frequently with Gen. Kiyani (head of the Pakistani army) and sometimes in tripartite fashion with the Afghanistan army head, that matters are improving but not perfect, plus one or two other generalities, and that was it. Not only was there no mention of the drone program, which is understandable I suppose since it is officially unacknowledged, but there was very little beyond platitudes on this particular question. Perhaps this is because things are going on that he cannot talk about in public. (Let's hope so.)

Also see: Noah Schachtman on Can U.S. troops run McChrystal's soft power playbook?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Some notable IR books of the past decade

At Crooked Timber they're having a discussion of "top" political philosophy books of the last decade. I don't know what the "top" IR books of the decade (meaning, here, 2000 and forward) are, but I thought I'd throw out the names of some possible candidates. The list is biased by what happens to be on my bookshelf or in my head at the moment and by my own particular interests. In a few cases, to be noted, I haven't read a word of the books in question, so those instances represent just hunches that the book is worth reading. The list is arranged by date of publication (earliest first).

Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant (2000). Aims to integrate the "political theory of human conduct" (identified by the author with Oakeshott, Collingwood, and Berlin) and the international society tradition, especially its more conservative, pluralist side. A vigorous normative defense of the traditional principles of non-intervention and state sovereignty.

Joshua Goldstein, War and Gender (2001). Argues that societies throughout history have molded men to be warriors and slotted women primarily into supporting rather than combat roles, even though some women are as physically capable of being soldiers as men (or in some cases, more capable). In other words, while there are average physical differences between the sexes, culture is more constraining than biology or anatomy. The book is a sweeping multidisciplinary synthesis. (For critical comment, see the review symposium in Perspectives on Politics; I'm too lazy to get the citation right now.) [Disclosure alert: I know the author.]

John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001). I disagree with this book's argument and perspective, but it's a major statement by a noted scholar. And he writes well.

Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (2002). In contrast for example to Jackson's The Global Covenant, Pogge argues that some basic institutional aspects of the global order are unjust and that "the citizens and governments of the wealthy societies, by imposing the present global economic order, significantly contribute to the persistence of severe poverty and thus share institutional moral responsibility for it." He makes some specific proposals, e.g. for "a global resources dividend."

Peter Katzenstein, A World of Regions: Asia and Europe in the American Imperium (2005). Bought it but have not read it.

Stephen Walt, Taming American Power (2005). Insightful analysis of "the global response to U.S. primacy" (to quote the subtitle).

Patrick T. Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy: German Reconstruction and the Invention of the West (2006). Have not read it but am familiar with some of the author's articles (and also [disclosure alert] know the author).

Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2006). Bought it but have read only a tiny bit of it. I suspect, however, that Sassen is stronger on the "global" than the "medieval" part of her subject.

Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006). The only book on this list by a journalist rather than an academic, but it's researched with scholarly thoroughness. Very good on the background of bin Laden and Zawahiri; the portrait of the latter is especially revealing.

Alexander Downes, Targeting Civilians in War (2008). After dipping into parts of this book, I'm not sure I entirely agree with the argument; however, it's a thoughtful and well-researched approach to the topic.

George Gavrilis, The Dynamics of Interstate Boundaries (2008). Have not read it, but anyone with a serious interest in this subject will want to.

Daniel Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe (2009). My bookmark is stuck at p.126 and may remain there permanently. Contains interesting ideas, but the exposition in the theoretical chapters could have been tightened and shortened.

George Quester, Preemption, Prevention and Proliferation: The Threat and Use of Weapons in History (2009). A short book by a well-known scholar. I have only dipped into it.

There are other titles I could mention but I'll stop here, at least for now. Comments, suggestions, criticisms? Chime in.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

International Relations and American political science: revisiting some disciplinary history

The disciplinary history of International Relations (IR) has been a scholarly growth industry in recent years. Articles and books have re-evaluated major writers and traditions and questioned the once-standard presentation of the field’s evolution as a series of stylized "great debates."

One result of this work is that more attention is being paid to the history of IR’s connection with political science. At least in the U.S. and in much of Europe, IR has ended up, for the most part, as a subfield of political science. To be sure, there are many scholars and analysts who "do" IR and are not political scientists, and there are many programs in international studies whose faculty and courses are drawn from a range of fields, but it remains the case that the majority of those studying IR in the academy are political scientists. However, the relationship between IR and political science, particularly American political science, has hardly been an uncomplicated romance.

"The growth of the discipline [of International Relations] cannot be separated from the American role in world affairs after 1945," Stanley Hoffmann observed in his 1977 essay "An American Social Science: International Relations."* He pointed to “a remarkable chronological convergence” between U.S. policy-makers’ concerns and scholars’ output:
"What [American] leaders looked for, once the cold war started, was some intellectual compass which would serve multiple functions: exorcise isolationism, and justify a permanent and global involvement in world affairs; rationalize the accumulation of power, the techniques of intervention, and the methods of containment apparently required by the cold war;...and reassure a nation eager for ultimate accommodation, about the possibility of both avoiding war and achieving its ideals."
Such an "intellectual compass" was exactly what many IR scholars furnished. And yet, Hoffmann went on to observe, a peculiarly American "quest for certainty" tried to purge from the discipline the inexactness that inheres in its subject matter, producing a drive for precision "that turns out false or misleading."**

This complaint echoed debates of two decades earlier, debates which are the subject of an article published last year. In "The Realist Gambit: Postwar American Political Science and the Birth of IR Theory," International Political Sociology 2:4 (December 2008): 281-304, Nicolas Guilhot looks at the period in the late 1940s and 1950s when behavioralism, with its positivist-empiricist and ahistorical style of inquiry, was becoming the dominant force in American political science. Guilhot describes a contrary tendency, a move to (in the words of the article’s abstract) "insulate the study of international politics from the behavioral revolution that was transforming the practice of political science in postwar America."

Two of the key figures in this countermovement were Hans Morgenthau and his former student Kenneth Thompson, who was at the Rockefeller Foundation from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s (and who later became director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia). Trained in international law (as were a number of other émigré IR scholars of the same generation, e.g. Arnold Wolfers and John Herz), Morgenthau was, as Hoffmann puts it, "steeped in a scholarly tradition that stressed the difference between social sciences and natural sciences." As an heir to that tradition and author of a book called Scientific Man versus Power Politics, Morgenthau was, not surprisingly, averse to behaviorialism, a type of social science that, to quote Hoffmann again, "suffered from ‘hyperfactualism’ and conformity."*** Nonetheless, as Guilhot points out, Morgenthau spoke of the importance of "general laws," which Guilhot interprets as mainly a strategic move on Morgenthau's part to gain a hearing and as "a tactical weapon against liberal historians and legal scholars" (p.296). (Other interpretations are possible: there are more sides to Morgenthau than this article suggests.)

In the often told and sometimes oversimplified story of IR’s so-called "first debate," Morgenthau and his fellow realists took on the illusions supposedly fostered by the liberal internationalists of the interwar period (Alfred Zimmern, James Shotwell, Nicholas Murray Butler, et al.).**** However, as Guilhot writes (p.296), Morgenthau, Thompson, and their allies believed that "the critique of interwar liberal internationalism…could not be complete without a simultaneous critique of the behavioral sciences, which were seen as responsible for the further depoliticization of social [science] and IR typical of liberalism." This stance led to an effort to set IR apart, to distinguish it from the direction in which "mainstream political science" was traveling in the postwar period. (p.283) At a paper prepared for a May 1954 conference, Morgenthau insisted – in words Guilhot italicizes – that: " 'A theory of international relations, to be theoretically valid, must build into its theoretical structure, as it were, those very qualifications which limit its theoretical validity and practical usefulness.' " (p.297) These "qualifications" amounted to the view that, as Morgenthau put it, "in reality you can only rely on a series of informed hunches." (quoted, p.297)

Guilhot’s article, based partly on research in the Rockefeller Foundation archives and also on a reading of academic publications from the period, throws light on the intellectual quarrels of the era. He sets the IR debates of the 1940s and 1950s in a wider context, emphasizing that they were "part of a discipline-wide conversation involving all the branches of political science" that centered on "the legitimacy of political science as a scientific project" (p.285) in the wake of the upheavals and catastrophes of the 1930s and 1940s which social science had done little or nothing to help avert. He also notes a kind of dilemma of certain postwar realists, who were caught between their need to distinguish themselves from so-called idealists, sometimes by using the language of "science," and their simultaneous desire to "protect" IR from behavioralism, a desire that, in terms of the rhetoric of "science," pulled them the other way. There is, in short, a lot of rich material in this article, much of which cannot be summarized here.

That said, the article also has a couple of weaknesses. First, Guilhot equates a strand of postwar American realism with "IR theory," period. Guilhot maintains that "the ‘theorization’ of IR was essentially meant to…make it immune to the cues of behaviorialism" (p.282) and that "the theory of IR was developed by [the Morgenthau-Thompson] group as a way to secure a space for its alternative vision of politics and scholarship" (p.282, emphasis in original). However, this use of the phrase "the theory of IR" implies, dubiously, that only this group was producing theory and thus, perhaps, tends to confuse more than it clarifies. Guilhot himself notes that "the postwar triumph of the 'realist' approach to international politics concealed deep discords within the ranks of the realists themselves" (p.301), disagreements that had to do with their attitudes about the utility of social-science methods and, more broadly, the degree of their skepticism about the possibilities of taming or moderating power politics.

More importantly, Guilhot’s judgment that the 1950s "realist gambit" was ultimately a failure (p. 300) exaggerates the current prevalence of behavioralist and rational-choice approaches. It is true, of course, that IR did not become separate from political science and in this sense the "gambit" did not succeed. Contrary to what Guilhot implies in his conclusion, however, "psychological, anthropological, or normative elements" (p.300) have not been banished from the tool kits or discourses of IR scholars. On the contrary, the field today is a cacophony of different approaches and orientations. If it were otherwise, scholars would not bother to publish exercises in "field-mapping."***** Admittedly, newly minted scholars who do a particular kind of work, involving for example the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods in the same study, may have an advantage in the current academic job market, at least in the United States. Hiring committees often seem to like candidates who can do quantitative work and are technically proficient. In this sense, self-consciously social-scientific norms prevail in the discipline. However, people continue to produce other kinds of work (some of it of equal or greater value), as a glance at the journals indicates. Indeed, the discipline of political science in the U.S. was engulfed in a much-noticed contest over these issues in recent years, as the "perestroika" movement charged that the field had tilted too far in a positivist, "scientific" direction. Today the large majority of IR scholars identify themselves as social scientists, but what counts as social science (or "good" or "real" social science) remains a matter of dispute, as it has for a long time. The debates of the 1950s discussed in Guilhot’s "The Realist Gambit" thus continue to reverberate, even if in a somewhat different key.


* Hoffmann’s essay first appeared in Daedalus 106 (3) (Summer 1977). It has been reprinted several times, e.g. in J. Der Derian (ed.), International Theory: Critical Investigations (1995), pp.212-241, and in Hoffmann’s Janus and Minerva (1987), ch.1.

** Hoffmann, "An American Social Science," in Der Derian, pp.222-23, 237.

*** Ibid., p.217.

**** See David Long and Peter Wilson (eds.), Thinkers of the Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed (1995).

***** For a recent example, see P.T. Jackson and D.H. Nexon, "Paradigmatic Faults in International-Relations Theory," International Studies Quarterly 53 (4) (December 2009): 907-930.

Further reading (a few suggestions)
R.M.A. Crawford and D.S.L. Jarvis (eds.), International Relations -- Still an American Social Science? (2000)

Christoph Frei, Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography (2001)

K.J. Holsti, "Scholarship in an Era of Anxiety: The Study of International Politics during the Cold War," in T. Dunne et al. (eds.), The Eighty Years' Crisis: International Relations 1919-1999 (1998)

Miles Kahler, "Inventing International Relations: IR Theory After 1945," in M. Doyle & J. Ikenberry (eds.), New Thinking in International Relations Theory (1997)

D. Long and P. Wilson (eds.), Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis (1995)

Joel Quirk and Darshan Vigneswaran, "The Construction of an Edifice: The Story of a First Great Debate," Review of International Studies 31:1 (2005)

William Scheuerman, Hans Morgenthau: Realism and Beyond (2009)

Brian C. Schmidt, "The History of International Studies," in International Studies Encyclopedia Online, ed. R. Denemark (2010)

Michael J. Smith, Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger (1986)

Friday, December 18, 2009

India and the NPT

I'm embarrassed (again) to have missed this development when it happened, but I just learned this afternoon, from David Fidler and Sumit Ganguly's Newsweek column ("India's Bombshell," Dec. 14) about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement on November 29 that India is willing to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a nuclear weapons state. India, of course, has never signed the NPT (neither have Pakistan or Israel).

Singh's move comes as a considerable surprise, and as Fidler and Ganguly note, it puts the current NPT nuclear weapon states, especially the U.S. and China, in something of a quandary:
"To admit India as a nuclear-weapons state, NPT members would have to amend the treaty -- specifically, the provision that defines nuclear-weapons states as those that detonated a weapon before 1967. Opponents will argue that bringing India inside the nuclear club could set a dangerous precedent, dangling the possibility of legitimacy in front of other would-be nuclear states. But, given India's responsible behavior as a nuclear-weapons democracy, it would also strengthen the NPT at a moment when the treaty is under attack for its apparent ineffectiveness in curtailing nuclear violations in North Korea and Iran.... [T]he U.S. and China will have particularly hard choices to make. For Washington, opposing the NPT amendment would hurt its relationship with India.... And opposing Indian membership would make Beijing look selfish, more concerned with its own narrow interests than with non-proliferation."
I haven't figured out yet exactly what I think about this, but I have one gloss on this passage: India is effectively already a member of the nuclear club. Even though it's not in the NPT, India was the beneficiary of a deal with the U.S. on civilian nuclear power entered into last year. And it's not as if one hears much of an outcry from any of the current NPT nuclear weapon states about India's nuclear status. Moreover, how would India's joining the NPT affect its none-too-satisfactory relations with Pakistan? Might it not heighten resentment in Islamabad about perceived international favoritism toward India? And, in the long run, would that be good for India? All in all, I'm not sure I entirely agree with Fidler and Ganguly that joining the NPT "would confer enormous benefits on India." It will be interesting, in any case, to see what happens with this.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

George Will eats applesauce

Glancing at George Will's WashPost column today, I see he accuses Pres. Obama of serving "intellectual applesauce" with the line in the Oslo speech that affirmed that the human condition can be "perfected" despite an "imperfect" human nature. Will writes: "If the human condition can be perfected, then human nature cannot be significantly imperfect."

I noticed the same line in the speech, but I read it more charitably: in saying the human condition can be "perfected," Obama meant, I think, to say that it can be vastly improved. Was the sentence inartfully worded? Perhaps. Is it "intellectual applesauce"? No.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I'm a little embarrassed to admit this...

...because of what it might reveal about my reading habits, but I just now learned of Paul Samuelson's death, and from a blog, not a newspaper.

I don't generally note deaths here, even of notable people (though in recent months I did make exceptions for Kennedy and McNamara, in both cases because there was something I thought I wanted to say, even if not at much length). Not being an economist, I have nothing really to say about Samuelson except the most trivial, solipsistic thing: sitting on my bookcase -- actually now it's on my desk as I'm typing this -- is the tenth edition of Samuelson's Economics (copyright 1976), and suffice to say that it was brand new when I bought it. I don't do the confessional mode much, but I suddenly feel older than I did ten minutes ago (of course I am ten minutes older, but you know what I mean). It was not my favorite book, but I duly read it (well, parts of it), and I managed to pass the course (no, you may not ask what my grade was). I suppose I might even have managed to learn some basic "mainstream" economics, circa 1976.

Contrary to some advice for students going around these days -- there is so much more advice available now -- I did not "tech up" in college: no economics beyond the intro course, no statistics; but then I was never that way inclined. Nowadays, if I really put my mind to it, I can (more or less) understand quantitative articles in my field, or at least get the gist (unless they're only about methodology, in which case maybe not). But that's about it. Oh well.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Forbidden fruit

Nah, sorry, not that kind...

El Jefe Maximo writes about the significance of Dec. 11, 1941, the day Hitler declared war on the U.S. in the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, asking what might have happened had Germany: (1) not declared war on the U.S. (i.e., stayed officially neutral in the war between the U.S. and Japan) or (2) actually declared war on Japan
(much less plausible a scenario, IMO). His post reminded me that R.N. Lebow's book on counterfactuals is forthcoming from Princeton Univ. Press under the somewhat odd title Forbidden Fruit. (I think the title may be explained in the opening chapter, available online, which I skimmed through at fairly high speed the other day; something about, you know, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, whatever...oh yeah, and the tree of knowledge, how could I forget that?!? Duh.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Emersonian Obama

There is much that might be said (and no doubt much that has already been said) about Obama's Nobel acceptance speech. After a reading of the text that admittedly has not squeezed out every nuance, I highlight three points that seem especially noteworthy:

In dealing with repressive and so-called rogue regimes, the speech called for balancing sticks and carrots, sanctions that "exact a real price" and diplomacy. Although "engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation," he said, sanctions standing alone are not enough. "No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door." The recently announced U.S. policy on Sudan in fact followed this carrots-and-sticks approach.

(2) He insisted that justice and "a just peace" require the amelioration of poverty, in addition to the standard emphasis on civil and political rights. Economic and environmental security (including action on climate change) are linked here to traditional security. Indeed, this part of the speech could have been lifted from a textbook on "human security."

(3) Obama attempted, particularly in the closing passages, to reconcile a "clear-eyed" view of human imperfection with the possibility of progress. This might have recalled for some listeners parts of King's "I have a dream" speech, and indeed Obama quoted King on rejecting "despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history." And in a line that suggested at least one of his speechwriters might recently have been reading Thoreau or Emerson, Obama declared: "Let us reach for the world that ought to be -- that spark of the divine that still stirs within each of our souls."

While there were perhaps some tensions in the speech between the "clear-eyed" and the more visionary elements, I don't think, contra the view of one of the commenters on the NewsHour this evening, that the speech was "philosophically incoherent." No American president at this juncture in history could possibly give a full-throated, unambiguously Wilsonian speech, but neither was it an option, particularly in view of the occasion and the context, to end on anything other than a note of solidarism, hope, and uplift. If anything, the speech erred too far in the direction of a quasi-Sisyphean view of the world. But Obama is no longer campaigning, he is governing and making difficult decisions, so it is only natural to expect that his speeches will strike more ambiguous chords than they did during the campaign.

Obama's Oslo speech

Just downloaded the text; haven't read it yet. May have some comment later.
Michael Bérubé has some fun with the protocol breaches.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A little thought experiment

The Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by Nasser's regime in 1966 and whose fundamentalist version of Islam contributed to the ideological formation of al-Qaeda, spent some time in the U.S. at the end of the 1940s. As a student in Colorado, Qutb had a variety of experiences that, shall we say, rubbed him very much the wrong way and helped persuade him of the moral bankruptcy of American culture.

In the opening chapter of his 2006 book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright described Qutb's reaction to a church dance in 1949 (Qutb at the time was a student at the Colorado State College of Education, now the Univ. of Northern Colorado):
"On Sundays the college did not serve food, and students had to fend for themselves. Many of the international students, including Muslims like Qutb, would visit one of the more than fifty churches in Greeley [Co.] on Sunday evening, where, after services, there were potluck dinners and sometimes a dance. 'The dancing hall was decorated with yellow, red, and blue lights,' Qutb recalled on one occasion. 'The room convulsed with the feverish music from the gramophone. Dancing naked legs filled the hall, arms draped around the waists, chests met chests, lips met lips, and the atmosphere was full of love.' The minister gazed upon this sight approvingly, and even dimmed the lights to enhance the romantic atmosphere. Then he put on a song titled 'Baby, It's Cold Outside,' a sly ballad from an Esther Williams movie that summer, Neptune's Daughter. 'The minister paused to watch his young charges swaying to the rhythms of this seductive song, then he left them to enjoy this pleasant, innocent night,' Qutb concluded sarcastically."
Imagine what Qutb would make of certain aspects of American culture if he were still alive and happened to plop down on either the East or West coasts today (or any other part of the country, probably, but let's stick to the coasts for this thought experiment). For example, on a December weekend in Miami Beach he would see young women in scanty bikinis posing for fashion-shoots at hotel pools and in hotel lobbies. Everywhere he would see youth, physicality, and sex being used to sell every imaginable product. He would turn on a re-run of a TV program like 90210 and see actors in their 20s who look like they have stepped out of the pages of fashion magazines pretending -- badly and unconvincingly -- to be high-school students and operating on the premise that their school is simply the venue in which their complicated "romantic" (read, sex) lives unfold. He would be pursued by "seductive rhythms" or merely insistently obtrusive "music" in virtually every public space, rendering sequential thought a challenge and reflection even more difficult. Given his reaction to a church dance in Colorado in 1949, what would be Qutb's reaction to these and similar aspects of American culture today? The mind boggles.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

No instant analysis

In keeping with my announcement of a break (see previous post), there will be no immediate commentary here on the West Point speech.
Those hungry for instant comment can, for starters, head over to Wash Post and read Meyerson (ambivalent) and, if you can stomach it, Kristol (typically obnoxious).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Note to readers

That's it for this month. I'll be taking a break and will resume posting sometime in December.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The City of the Jugglers

Although I don't do it very often, it can pay to glance at journals that have nothing to do with one's field: you never know what interesting things you might turn up. The other day in the library I happened to look at the Spring 2009 issue of The Victorian Newsletter, which is devoted to William North (1825-1854), whose 1850 novel The City of the Jugglers is described by Patrick Scott as "the least known but most relevant novel of the 19th century" and "perhaps the only English novel fully to take up the challenge of 1848 and the revolutions elsewhere in Europe."* It's available as a print-on-demand paperback from the University of South Carolina Press and also available in a digital version. (Incidentally, North was also, among other things, the author of Anti-Coningsby, a satire of Disraeli and the Young England movement.)
*Patrick Scott, "Introducing a 'Lost' Victorian Novel: The Elusive William North and The City of the Jugglers (1850)," The Victorian Newsletter #115 (Spring 2009): 7-15.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Presidents, resentment, and the news

John Sides blogs about research (by C. Karpowitz) suggesting that Nixon's consumption of news via prepared summaries fueled his resentments and that first-hand news consumption may be necessary for "healthy presidential leadership." Maybe, but LBJ, I believe, managed to stoke his resentments without relying solely (or at all?) on summaries; in his case, reading the newspapers and watching the TV news proved very adequate for that purpose.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Caspar Weinberger's books

As some may recall, Caspar Weinberger (1917-2006) presided over the Reagan administration's military build-up as Reagan's Secretary of Defense from January 1981 until November 1987. (Weinberger began his political career in California and then served as Nixon's director of OMB and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.) Weinberger was indicted on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra affair on the eve of the November 1992 presidential election, but just before leaving office Pres. George H.W. Bush pardoned Weinberger before he could stand trial (Bush also pardoned five other former Reagan administration officials at the same time). In denouncing the pardons, the independent counsel (i.e. investigating prosecutor) Lawrence Walsh sharply criticized Weinberger for having withheld his contemporaneous notes on Iran-Contra, which, according to Walsh, contained evidence of a conspiracy by "the highest-ranking" Reagan administration officials to lie to Congress and the public.

Why rake this up now? Not long ago I happened to be in a used bookstore which was selling part of Weinberger's library.
From conversation with a store employee, I learned that the more "valuable" (and possibly more interesting) part of the library, mainly books with Weinberger's signature, was in another branch of the store. A number of the books I saw here were review copies that publishers had sent to Weinberger; some of these dealt with international politics (e.g., Hugh Thomas's 1966 book on the Suez crisis). Other books clearly had been acquired by Weinberger himself, either during his student days or after. These included some on British history, especially biographies of politicians and statesmen; memoirs of American public officials (e.g., Dean Acheson's Present at the Creation, Henry Stimson's On Active Service in Peace and War [written with McGeorge Bundy]); and some books on U.S. politics (I particularly remember an anti-New Deal polemic published in 1937 warning against "the collectivist state"). There was also a complete set of Churchill's The Second World War. And there were one or two items reflecting Weinberger's Harvard connections (he was an alumnus of both the college and the law school), e.g., William Bentinck-Smith (ed.), The Harvard Book. In short, this part of the collection was not all that revealing; perhaps the part in the other branch of the store would have been more so. Or perhaps not.

All these books, virtually all of which were hardcovers, had the same price ($15). As I was leaving I asked the employee about this pricing policy; he replied that they didn't have time to "psychoanalyze each book."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Should KSM and the four others be tried in federal court?

I have two brief things to say on this:

1) While the decision can legitimately be questioned, Republican senators' criticisms today (to the extent I heard them) -- e.g., Lindsay Graham saying something like 'this makes horrible history' or sets a horrible precedent -- were overblown.

2) If it was going to be a federal court, better to do it in the Southern District of New York than in the Eastern District of Virginia which, as I understand it, was the other federal venue considered. Some years ago I observed part of a trial in the Eastern District of Virginia. Based on that and some other things, I think Manhattan is the better choice.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Brazil on the move

At the beginning of October, just after Rio was awarded the 2016 summer Olympics, T. Greer collected a bunch of headlines showing Brazil's assertiveness in regional and world affairs. His verdict: "For the first time in modern history Brazil has banished enough of its inner demons to become a true force in international politics, and [has] a president who is ready to play the role of Statesman-in-chief."

Round and round

Those who are tired of reading about Afghanistan (and if you are I don't blame you) should skip what follows.

Stephen Walt is having none of the various possible "middle courses" on Afghanistan that have been in the air. "Trying to split the difference on this issue is not leadership; in fact, it is a recipe for failure," Walt writes. (He favors getting out.) This may be right but, as Walt knows, the all-or-nothing approach is not consistent with what seems to be Obama's general style. If they read Walt's blog in the White House -- and who knows, someone may -- this is likely to go, so to speak, in one ear and out the other. The recent moves to put more public pressure on Karzai re corruption, and Karzai's apparent efforts to respond, suggest that quick withdrawal is not going to be the decision. But Gordon Brown, for one, does seem to be thinking ahead to an eventual NATO exit.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gallenberger's John Rabe

Last night I saw Florian Gallenberger's film about John Rabe, the German businessman who was instrumental in saving the lives of more than 200,000 Chinese during the Japanese occupation of Nanking (Nanjing) in 1937 (a/k/a the Nanking Massacre). The movie premiered last February at the Berlin Film Festival (hat tip, Wikipedia) and has won German film awards. I almost didn't go but I'm glad I did, because it was absorbing, instructive, well-acted, and at times moving. Recommended, but not for those who are squeamish about graphic depictions of brutality.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

A little F. Scott Fitzgerald

John Quiggin's post on Armistice Day led one commenter to quote Tender Is the Night, providing a reminder of how well Fitzgerald could write. It's #33 in the comment thread.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

African Union Convention on Displaced Persons

The African Union recently adopted a Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Displaced Persons, the first legal instrument to define states' obligations toward their own displaced citizens. There are roughly 12 million internally displaced people in Africa. The convention needs to be ratified by a minimum of 15 countries before coming into force. More details here and/or by googling "convention on displaced persons."

You might ask whether conventions like this have any practical effect. The safe, albeit perhaps unsatisfying, answer is that it varies: some have more impact than others. But at a minimum they can help focus attention on a problem, and that in itself can be useful.

Quotes for the day: Paul Kennedy; Eric Hobsbawm

Today being the ninety-first anniversary of the end of World War One (Nov. 11 being marked as Veterans Day in the U.S., Remembrance Day in Canada, and Armistice Day in Europe), two quotations for the occasion:

"...what that struggle meant and did changed the course of history more than any other in modern times.... It brought the end of the Romanovs, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the emergence of a Communist system that blighted so much of humanity for the rest of the century. The war also made possible the growth of Fascism.... [The war] shattered a Eurocentric world order, shifted the financial center of gravity to New York, nurtured Japanese expansion in East Asia, and, at the same time, stimulated anticolonial movements from West Africa to Indonesia.

The aerial bomber, the U-boat, and poison gas brought mechanization to...killing.... Industrialized labor, trade unions, and socialist parties gained in power, while the landed interest declined. The social and political position of women was transformed in various aspects.... The war produced a cultural crisis, in the arts, ideas, religion, literature, and life styles. It also exacerbated ethnic and religious hatreds, in Ireland, the Balkans, and Armenia, that scar the European landscape today. The Great War is therefore not some distant problem about dead white males on and off the battlefield. Its origins, course, and consequences are central to an understanding of the twentieth century. Any high school, college, or university that does not accord importance to teaching its meanings is shortchanging the present generation of students and discrediting itself."
-- Paul Kennedy, "In the Shadow of the Great War," New York Review of Books, August 12, 1999

"On the 28 June 1992 President Mitterand of France made a sudden, unannounced and unexpected appearance in Sarajevo, already the centre of a Balkan war that was to cost many thousands of lives during the remainder of the year. His object was to remind world opinion of the seriousness of the Bosnian crisis. Indeed, the presence of a distinguished, elderly and visibly frail statesman under artillery and small-arms fire was much remarked on and admired. However, one aspect of M. Mitterand's visit passed virtually without comment, even though it was plainly central to it: the date. Why had the President of France chosen to go to Sarajevo on that particular day? Because the 28 June was the anniversary of the assassination, in Sarajevo, in 1914, of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, which led, within a matter of weeks, to the outbreak of the First World War. For any educated European of Mitterand's age, the connection between date, place, and the reminder of a historic catastrophe...leaped to the eye. How better to dramatize the potential implications of the Bosnian crisis than by choosing so symbolic a date? But hardly anyone caught the allusion except a few professional historians and very senior citizens. The historical memory was no longer alive."
-- Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes (1994), pp.2-3

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fall of the Berlin Wall: 20-year anniversary

The other 9-11, and in the long-run scheme of things the more earthshaking one: 9 November 1989.
See also here.
And here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

New blog on Pakistan; F. Kagan analysis of Waziristan campaign

Via Charli Carpenter: the Pakistan Conflict Monitor.

Also, a couple of weeks ago the Wash Post's Walter Pincus summarized an analysis of the Waziristan campaign produced by Frederick Kagan and others connected with Am. Enterprise Institute. The paper emphasizes the Pakistani army's successful pre-campaign efforts to negotiate deals with tribal leaders and groups who might otherwise have actively opposed the current campaign against the Mehsud group in South Waziristan. (Despite my general dislike of AEI, this analysis, judging from the Post article, seems well-informed.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Effects of partisanship

Interesting (if you're interested in this sort of thing).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Afghan government and corruption: is there any hope?

Gerard Russell, writing at FP, thinks the answer is 'yes' (or at least 'maybe'), urging Karzai to set up a body modeled on the Electoral Complaints Commission -- i.e., composed largely of non-Afghans -- to investigate government corruption. On the other hand, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former challenger, sounded quite pessimistic earlier this evening in an interview with Margaret Warner on the NewsHour.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tracking a phrase: "Speak truth to power"

A commenter on this post at The Monkey Cage discusses the phrase "speak truth to power," which, according to the commenter, stems from "a Quaker assertion of the eighteenth century" which was echoed in an American Friends Service Committee publication from the 1950s. The commenter also notes that the phrase was used by political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in the title of a 1979 book.

Another use of the phrase, one that predates Wildavsky, was in Hans J. Morgenthau's collection Truth and Power: Essays of a Decade, 1960-70 (Praeger, 1970). Morgenthau dedicated the book to one of his mentors: "to Hans Kelsen, who has taught us through his example how to speak Truth to Power." And in the prologue Morgenthau wrote:
"In the long run..., the voice of truth, so vulnerable to power, has proved more resilient than power. It has built empires of the mind and the spirit that have outlasted, and put their mark upon, the empires of power. On January 22, 1967, about thirty people demonstrated in Pushkin Square in Moscow against the arrest of four persons who had transcribed the court records in the trial against Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel. One of the organizers of the protest, Khaustov, who was sentenced to three years at hard labor, admitted at his trial that he had read Kant and Hegel and that his reading of Kant 'made me see a lot of things in a new light.' The experience of the 1960's has dispelled the illusion that truth can show power the way in direct confrontation. But historical experience reassures us that truth can indeed make people 'see a lot of things in a new light.' And when people see things in a new light, they might act in a new way."
Not exactly the side of Hans Morgenthau that most students get in their introductory international relations classes, is it?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Horatio Alger re-exploded

How much socioeconomic mobility is there in the U.S.? Not as much as many Americans believe. From a piece in Wash Post today by Isabell Sawhill and Ron Haskins:
"...recent research shows that in the Nordic countries and in the United Kingdom, children born into a lower-income family have a greater chance than those in the United States of forming a substantially higher-income family by the time they're adults.

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults [middle class being defined here as an income of $50,000 a year for a family of three]; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults."

Sawhill and Haskins go on to qualify this picture by noting that the U.S. "is exceptional" in the opportunities it offers to immigrants, relative to other 'developed' countries. But the basic data on mobility should not come as a big surprise. It is, of course, possible, as the 35 percent figure given in the quotation suggests, to rise from a poor or working-class family into the ranks of the middle-class or the affluent, but it's not likely. It probably requires a combination of individual talent, work, and luck (with "luck" construed to include the traits that one is born with and the quality of parenting one receives, among other things).

Anyone who doubts that the reproduction of social class takes place in the U.S., and who wants to consult something livelier and more anecdotal than the abundant academic literature on the topic, can browse through, say, a 30th anniversary Class Report from an elite college or university and note where the alumni's children are going to college. Anecdotal? Sure. Probative of anything in a strict social-scientific sense? No. But nonetheless quite revealing.

P.s. Last year I noted a piece by William Deresiewicz which bears on this last point.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Nukes: A lot of recent writing

See the Fall '09 World Policy Journal, the Fall '09 Daedalus (link here; includes a piece by Schelling), and Lieber and Press in the current Foreign Affairs. I haven't read any of this (have other things on the plate right now).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Another take on liberalism (and the Left)

Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism, which I reviewed earlier, is reviewed by Harold Meyerson, who also discusses Doug Rossinow's Visions of Progress. The latter deals with "the left-liberal alliance of the period from 1880 through 1940," with particular reference to the Farmer-Labor parties of the 1920's and '30s and the Popular Front (1935-39). Meyerson concludes, correctly in my opinion, that a weak Left in the U.S. hurts American liberalism; a stronger Left could help push through the "next generation of liberal reform."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

We few, we happy few (um, maybe not quite so few, relatively speaking)

This interesting article by James Glanz (hat tip: HC) is also a bit of a mess. Some historians now think the English were not quite so outnumbered at the Battle of Agincourt (Oct. 25, 1415) as has long been assumed. Other historians disagree. Only military history buffs are going to be able to get really worked up about this.

The article's messiness comes from another point: the alleged similarities between the Hundred Years War and contemporary counterinsurgency conflicts. Really? Yes, like, riilly. I'm no expert on medieval warfare, but I think this kind of analogy has to be approached with extreme caution. The article mentions Conrad Crane, military historian and lead author of the not-entirely-uncontroversial revised U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual (see the symposium on it in Perspectives on Politics, June 2008),
"some of [whose] own early historical research involved a comparison of strategic bombing campaigns with attacks on civilians by rampaging armies during the Hundred Years’ War, when England tried and ultimately failed to assert control over continental France." I haven't read Crane's work, but I assume he points out that attacks on civilians in the Hundred Years War were partly motivated by the fact that the armies, and the roving bands of armed men that hung around and sometimes supplemented the armies and were sometimes indistinguishable from them, needed to seize food and provisions from local civilians to continue campaigning. (There was also no doubt a good deal of rape and pillage as well.)

Yes, as Mr. Glanz suggests, the Hundred Years War could be seen as a kind of civil war into which an outside power "intervened," except the "outside" power -- England -- had long claimed dynastic title to, and in part controlled, sections of France. Moreover, the Burgundians were not just a "faction," as this article says; Burgundy was a separate polity, distinct from the kingdom of France, from the late 14th century, and a very powerful one well into the 15th century. Do these historical nitpicks affect the contention that there are parallels between the Hundred Years War and contemporary counterinsurgencies? I'm going to duck that for now. Those who are interested can ponder the question at their leisure. (And see also Alexander Downes, Targeting Civilians in War, which I mentioned previously in a comment thread here.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

It ain't rocket science

Glancing through Amy Chua's piece forthcoming in print in this Sunday's NYTBkReview, I see that she observes that most or all current writers on U.S. foreign policy are advocating a return to the past in some form or other. She concedes that this may not be all bad: foreign policy "is not modern dance: tried and true may be better than avant-garde and visionary."

It's not modern dance; it's also not rocket science. Which explains or helps explain why basic ideas and principles which have been around for a while keep getting dressed up in new outfits and applied to new circumstances. The trappings are different, but the underlying notions are, on the whole, familiar.

That doesn't mean, of course, that there are not serious debates about the right way forward; there are. But even a nodding acquaintance with previous debates will reveal that voices from the past keep on echoing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The paradoxical Donald Rumsfeld

The current issue of Foreign Policy Analysis contains an illuminating article about Donald Rumsfeld's 2001-06 tenure as Sec. of Defense, with particular reference to Iraq: Stephen Benedict Dyson, " 'Stuff Happens': Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq War," Foreign Policy Analysis 5:4 (2009): 327-347.

Dyson argues that Rumsfeld was a paradox: a bureaucratic in-fighter who wanted to be in control of decision-making but, once in control, believed rather fatalistically that he and others could have relatively little impact on the course of events. This "paradoxical combination of a bureaucratic infighter style and a highly complex, somewhat fatalist worldview" (p.345) produced results that, given the larger context of the Bush administration's policy process, were nothing short of disastrous.

Here are a few key sentences from the article's conclusion (p.344):
"The case of Rumsfeld and Iraq points up the dangers of a 'CEO-president' and weak national security advisor.... The danger with a president as hands-off as Bush is that the principals are left to fight things out among themselves, and the most skillful and ruthless among them prevails. Of course, the most skillful and ruthless are not necessarily those with the best ideas."
Drawing on, among other material, interviews with some of those who served in the Bush administration, Dyson's article notes that Rumsfeld was not ideologically committed to the Iraq war in the way that, for instance, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz was. This raises the question of what Rumsfeld's time as Sec. of Defense would have been like if the Iraq war had not been launched. My recollection is that during the period just after 9/11, Rumsfeld's public pronouncements, while they could be irritating in tone, were sometimes blunt (in a good way) and sensible. He seemed to manage the initial fall '01 operation in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, as the Pentagon styled it) reasonably well, despite the failure to capture Osama bin Laden. For much of Rumsfeld's tenure, the war in Afghanistan was on a fairly low boil, as U.S. attention and resources focused on Iraq and the Taliban regrouped and bided their time. It's difficult to predict exactly what would have happened, say with respect to Afghanistan, if the Iraq invasion hadn't taken place. But on the evidence of Dyson's article, "the interaction of Rumsfeld's style with the styles of those around him and the nature of the issues" (p.345) would have meant that, even if the Iraq war hadn't occurred, Rumsfeld's time in office would have produced unsatisfactory results.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sudan: carrots and sticks

A mixture seems like the right approach.

See Miroslav Nincic, "The Logic of Positive Engagement: Dealing with Renegade Regimes," Int'l Studies Perspectives 7:4 (2006).

James Bond meets Heidegger

The Thrownness of Being: Shaken Not Stirred. (A new book currently flying off the shelves.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movies as a register of social change (also known as the cigarette post)

There are worse ways of getting an inkling of how certain aspects of daily life in the U.S. have changed in the last 60-odd years than to watch a "serious" movie from the 1940s. (Of course, another way is to have been alive yourself in the 1940s, but some of us weren't born yet.) In this case the movie happened to be "Mildred Pierce" (1945), for which Joan Crawford won an Oscar for best actress. First off, in this movie everyone smokes constantly. Second, the language has that kind of clipped, slightly stilted inflection that you also hear in, for example, Bogart movies of the period, and the actors seem to be boxed into a fairly narrow emotional range, even when the script calls for them to really emote. (Bogart and Bergman managed to break out of the box in "Casablanca," but if you've seen the movie and its famous last scene several times -- and who hasn't? -- you may well agree with me that that's mostly due to Bergman.)

Anyway, back to "Mildred Pierce": 1) as I said, everyone smokes all the time (and drinks); 2) the police don't read suspects their rights (because the Miranda decision was twenty years in the future); 3) the only African-American character given any substantial camera time (and not much at that) is a female servant with an artificially high voice; 4) the themes are pretty much timeless ones (love and money, basically) but they are handled in a way that shows, among other things, Hollywood's timidity at the time about depicting sex.

Interestingly, the war (I mean World War II of course) is only a very oblique presence in this movie: in one scene there are a few men in sailors' uniforms; in another there is a passing reference to manpower shortages; and that's about it. By Hollywood standards of the time, and notwithstanding Crawford's performance, I think this is probably no better than an average movie. A film like "Double Indemnity," for example, from I think roughly the same period, is quite a bit better.

But the most obvious thing, and the one to which I keep returning, is the cigarettes, because they are ubiquitous in the movie and because I happen to hate cigarette smoke. Even within my own lifetime, this is one aspect of daily life that has changed quite dramatically. When my parents had company over when I was a child, there were at least a couple of ashtrays in the living room; not only did my father smoke, but it was assumed that at least a couple (maybe more) of the guests would be smoking. Nowadays one can still see people smoking in bars, on the street, or occasionally in their cars -- and soldiers in the field often smoke, or so media images suggest -- but when was the last time you were in someone's house for a social occasion and saw someone smoking? It really has become, to a large extent, unusual and frowned-upon behavior (to which I say: thank goodness).

Well, I seem to have diverged somewhat from my original intentions in this post, but hey, this a blog, man. Deal with it. Oh, and put out that cigarette, do you mind? Thanks.

The S. Waziristan campaign...

...has begun. In a remark made to the Wash. Post back in June, the Pakistani army spokesman predicted the effort to pacify the region would be "a long haul."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kerry-Lugar-Berman signed

Yesterday, in the midst of a wave of suicide bombings in Pakistan, Pres. Obama signed the 5-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid package for Pakistan. A statement released by Sen. Kerry and Cong. Berman, which addresses concerns about infringement on Pakistan's sovereignty, was made part of the bill before its signing. The Pakistani foreign minister has told the country's parliament that he is now satisfied on this score.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Frontline: 'Obama's War'

Everyone should see this program, which aired this evening. If you missed it, you can go to the PBS website and watch it online.

I'm not going to write at great length about it, but of the various disquieting aspects -- and there were several -- perhaps the most disturbing was to hear the Pakistani Interior Minister and the Army spokesman deny that the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network are even in Pakistan (let alone that the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, has been supporting them). And then to hear, after that, Richard Holbrooke say he was sure the Pakistanis know these groups are a threat to them as well as Afghanistan. Know they're a threat? The Pakistani officials don't acknowledge they're even in the country!

"Obama's War" is a well-done, informative piece of journalism, with the scene shifting between Helmand province, Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington. The counterinsurgency position in the current debate, about which I had lots of doubts to begin with, seems even less persuasive to me after watching this. I don't think that's because the program is unbalanced but because the difficulties involved become so evident, particularly in one moment in which a Marine, with an inadequate interpreter, interacts with some local people in Helmand. He asks for their help and they reply: "how can we help you? We don't even have swords. If you can't defeat the Taliban with all your weaponry, then we can't help you." Their reply mostly misses the point -- he wasn't asking for their military help -- but it underscores the difficulties involved in what is euphemistically called "cross-cultural communication" as well as the broader difficulties of entrusting this kind of mission to well-meaning but -- to the local population -- very foreign young men with guns. You can't overgeneralize from one encounter, but the effect nonetheless is very sobering.

Minute of envy

"Pride, Envy, and Avarice are the three sparks that have set these hearts on fire."
-- Dante, Inferno, canto VI, line 74
(with a hat tip to the 1968 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, ed. Emily Morison Beck)

We think of envy as an ugly emotion, but is it always? Envy often comes jumbled up with other emotions that we see as more benign (I don't mean pride and avarice, obviously). Because there are so many different kinds of people in the world, there are a multitude of reasons for envy, both good and bad. I'm not sure I'd want to be someone who didn't feel envy at least occasionally; it shows you're alive. (I think I'll probably take a pass, however, on visiting whichever circle of hell Dante's describing.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wazirstan update

An interesting analysis by the BBC's M. Ilyas Khan considers why the Pakistani army has not yet launched the operation in S. Wazirstan that seemed imminent this past summer.

He settles on two main reasons:

"Any action against the Baitullah Mehsud group [i.e. the Taliban group that was led by the late Baitullah Mehsud] in South Waziristan could draw in to the conflict militant groups based in the Wazir tribal areas of South and North Waziristan.

These groups are part of the al-Qaeda affiliated Haqqani network and have peace agreements with the [Pakistani] army.

They have so far concentrated exclusively on fighting inside Afghanistan, and many analysts consider their activities central to the army's perceived security interests in Afghanistan.

Any hostilities with them may harm these interests, analysts say.

Another reason may well have been the so-called Kerry-Lugar bill which promises $1.5bn (£0.95bn) in annual aid to Pakistan for the next five years. [This bill is for non-military aid and has been passed by both houses of Congress. It contains various conditions, some of which apply to U.S. security assistance as well as civilian aid. -- LFC]

The bill, which has been in the works for well over a year, has become hugely controversial recently due to some clauses that the military look upon as detrimental to its interests.

Last week, the army publicly denounced the bill at a time when the government was defending it, thereby sparking a rift within the political establishment....

But while the army considers its options for a re-think, attacks such as the one on its central headquarters in Rawalpindi on 10 October indicate that the options it has are indeed limited, and time is running out."

And throughout all this, the majority of the Pakistani army remains stationed, as far as I'm aware, on the border with India, unable to contribute directly to any operations in the west.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I guess this is why I never got beyond Ec 10

For a university to lay off 250 staff members because its endowment has fallen to $26 billion -- that's billion with a "b" -- seems, somehow, rather insane. Yes, I know about imbalanced budgets and all that, but it still seems a bit nuts. Glancing through this NYT article (hat tip for it to L. Sigelman at The Monkey Cage) leaves a bad taste. Not because of the hot breakfast stuff -- that's trivial nonsense -- but because of the way the NYT writes about these things. Breathlessly and, dare I suggest it, not overly intelligently. As for the stuff about the supposed horror of "being quadded" -- that was being said more than 30 years ago and it was way overblown then. Why don't they yank their reporter out of Cambridge, Mass. and tell her to go cover some interesting stories somewhere else? Perhaps that wouldn't be as much fun as hanging around Mass. Ave. and recycling decades-old clichés, but it would be better for the NYT and its remaining readers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The peace prize

My belated two cents (or rather, two sentences): The award of the prize to Obama can be seen as a sort of vote of confidence in the changed tone of U.S. foreign policy in several key areas. Let's hope that the vote of confidence turns out to have been justified.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


If I had to guess, something like this -- click through to Gelb's piece -- is probably what the Obama admin will do with the Afghanistan decision.
P.s. See also Mark Grimsley on this: here.

It's nice that they're reading about Vietnam but...

...Jon Western asks the right question. This debate is about Afghanistan, so why aren't they reading books about Afghanistan in the White House?

I have read neither Lessons in Disaster nor the Lewis Sorley book that it is supposedly dueling with. But I just quickly read the PW summary of Sorley at Amazon, and my equally quick (i.e., off-the-cuff) reaction is this: One could make a good case that the Vietnam War was lost after the Tet Offensive -- not military but psychologically. So what happened on the ground after that was in some sense irrelevant to the outcome. However, the Vietnam War was one thing and Afghanistan is another. Historical analogies are always perilous because it is so difficult to make intelligent, wise use of them in decision-making. So, decision-makers, put down the Vietnam books and start reading some books on Afghanistan, please. Thank you.

Une petite confusion

Le scandale du jour.

"The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby, in Paris, says that the revelation that a senior cabinet minister was involved in sex tourism, just as the country holds negotiations with Thailand to discuss ways of fighting it, will inevitably embarrass Mr Sarkozy's government."

Ya think?

P.s. A close observer of French politics weighs in on it here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cross-dressing controversy causes commotion


Bangladesh and climate change


The birth-order thing

I just caught about ten minutes of Michael Sandel on the Diane Rehm show. (As an irrelevant aside, I'm not a particular fan of Diane Rehm. As another irrelevant aside, I'm also not one of those people who would walk across a blazing desert or stand for three hours in the rain to hear Sandel, although he's obviously both smart and a gifted teacher.)

A caller asked Sandel what message he leaves his students with at the end of his "Justice" course, and Sandel replied that, in order to get students to question the extent to which they are personally responsible for their success, he asks all the first-borns to raise their hands. About 75 to 80 percent of the hands go up, Sandel said, illustrating his point about the random (or morally arbitrary) components of 'desert' and confirming the prevailing wisdom that first-borns are more striving (at least partly because they are more conformist, presumably, though Sandel didn't mention that).

I am skeptical about the whole birth-order thing. But since I haven't read Born to Rebel and know next to nothing about the scientific debate on the subject, I suppose I should exercise a heroic degree of self-restraint and refrain from further comment.

P.s. A long article appeared last month on Sandel and his course
in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nothing to disclose

The Federal Trade Commission has announced new endorsement-disclosure rules for bloggers. From an article in today's Wash. Post:

"Bloggers who offer endorsements must disclose any payments they have received from the subjects of their reviews or face penalties of up to $11,000 per violation, the Federal Trade Commission said Monday.

"The agency, charged with protecting consumer interests, had not updated its policy on endorsements in nearly three decades, well before the Internet became a force in shaping consumer tastes. The new rules attempt to make more transparent corporate payments to bloggers, research firms and celebrities that help promote a product."

Because this blog does not routinely promote products (it may very occasionally mention one favorably, though I can't recall offhand having done so), it is not surprising that I have received no payments from any corporate interests (in fact no payments, period) since the blog's start. Nor have I received any free books, free merchandise or free anything from any publisher, manufacturer or whatever. Zip.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Saddling up at containment gulch; or, The X article rides again

Nicholas Thompson, author of the recent book on Paul Nitze and George Kennan (The Hawk and the Dove), tries to apply some lessons of Kennan's famous X article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," to the struggle with global jihadism.

Thompson mentions, among other things, Kennan's view that some parts of the world are more important for U.S. national security than others. True enough. I would caution, however, that this lesson should be stripped of Kennan's implicit (and sometimes not-so-implicit) racism. Not many people these days would want to go around quoting Kennan's 1962 statement that the capacity for democracy is "peculiar to peoples who have had their origins on or near to the shores of the North Sea."

With that caveat (and maybe one or two others that readers can supply themselves), I think we could all do worse than re-read the X article, and then re-read it again.

What about the Tobin tax?

Here (latter part of the article).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dr. Kagan's Iran prescription; or, Will the real Robert Kagan please stand up?

"Forget the Nukes" is the provocative title of Robert Kagan's Wash. Post column today. Never mind the "secret" uranium enrichment facility, never mind the long-range missile test; the main issue, he says, should be capitalizing on the regime's weakness by quickly applying "crippling" sanctions. This will give heart to the opposition, whose leadership "is engaged in a struggle to the death with the regime," and "might" -- I emphasize his use of might -- lead the regime to fall. At least the chance of that happening is greater than the chance that the current Iranian regime "will give up its nuclear program voluntarily," he contends.

Hmm. Let's ponder this for a sec. Just because the leadership of the Iranian opposition is locked in a death struggle with the regime does not mean the opposition as a whole is so committed. I have great admiration for the courage and determination displayed by those who demonstrated in June against the fraudulent elections. But I don't know enough about the workings of the Iranian opposition or its composition or internal dynamics to say whether sanctions will give it the boost Kagan supposes. Has there been a broad clamor within the opposition for the imposition of sanctions on the regime? If there has been, Kagan doesn't mention it.

In the column's last paragraph, Kagan makes another bet. "Americans have a fundamental strategic interest in seeing a change of leadership in Iran." Why? Because "[t]here is good reason to believe that a democratic Iran might forgo a nuclear weapon...or at least be more amenable to serious negotiations." And even if it does go nuclear, a democratic nuclear Iran will be far less dangerous than an autocratic-theocratic nuclear Iran, he maintains.

Indeed? Is this the same Robert Kagan who has been writing about the return of old-fashioned great-power politics in the twenty-first century? Interests and power rule, the hard-headed calculations of geopolitical advantage drive policy -- isn't that the message he's been delivering lately? Now, in this column, a slightly different tone seems to creep in -- domestic politics matters, what political scientists call (in typically sterile fashion) "regime type" counts for something. Of course, it's true the two positions are not in direct or logical contradiction, but there is arguably a tension in the messages here. Why is there "good reason" to suppose that a democratic Iran might give up nukes when its regional ambitions and the configuration of forces in its environment will be, presumably, pretty much the same? Neighboring Pakistan has nuclear weapons; Afghanistan is in turmoil (and don't forget the Iranian regime has never been friendly with the Taliban); and Iran, democratic or not, would want, one would think, to consolidate the increased influence that the Iraq war and its aftermath bestowed on it.

(Of course, if you believe Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, the regime will stop short of actually developing a weapon once it has the capacity to do so. In which case regime change, from a "strategic" standpoint, becomes less urgent.)

There is a lot of "might" and "maybe" in Dr. Kagan's prescription. The "right kind of sanctions could help the Iranian opposition topple these still-vulnerable rulers [Ahmadinejad and Khamanei]," he asserts. But what are the "right kind of sanctions," and exactly how would they help? Until convincing answers to these questions are forthcoming, the judgment on "Forget the Nukes" must be the old Scotch verdict: Not proven.

Update: As another blogger observes, recent developments in the negotiations indicate that by not "forgetting the nukes," the Obama admin and the Europeans have achieved some progress on the issue.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Are governments losing control over national borders? In a word: No.

According to John Robb, "governments worldwide are losing control over all of the classical forms of national power from borders to finances to communication to media to economic activity to security to trade flows (of all types)."

Focus on the first item in this list: borders. Are governments
worldwide losing control of their borders? No.

Next month, a conference on "Fences and Walls in International Relations" will be held at the University of Quebec at Montreal. The conference's call observes that:
"...some 26,000 kilometers of new political borders have been established since 1991 (Foucher 2009), and states have declared their intention to dig in behind fences, barriers and built structures. Moreover, the post-Cold War and post-9/11 periods have seen the rise of border walls, symbols of separation which seemed to be on the way out in the wake of decolonization...and were believed to be entirely finished and done with after the fall of the Berlin Wall."
Border walls are back in a big way, and walls often mean more control of what goes in and out of the national territory. They won't always work -- I am skeptical about the extent to which the mostly-uncompleted wall/fence along the U.S.-Mexican border will reduce undocumented immigration -- but on the whole, the more walls, the more control. The notion that states have lost control of their borders is wrong.

P.s. This is not to say that border fences/walls are necessarily a good idea. See, for example, here.