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.

"Choice" vs. "necessity" is no way to think about war

Pres. Obama called the Afghanistan campaign a "war of necessity," and the NATO Secretary-General has now echoed this formulation.

If "necessity" is set in opposition to "choice," as it was in Obama's original statement, the dichotomy is misleading. As others have pointed out, every war involves a choice. Even World War II -- properly held up as a model of a justified, inescapable war and one in which the definition of victory and defeat was far clearer and more obvious than it is today in Afghanistan -- was a war of choice. We can all be grateful that Britain in 1940 acted as she did, but it was still a matter of choice. There is, strictly speaking, no such thing as "a war of necessity." The phrase is not helpful.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Those were the days (encore)

"In the early days of the Cold War it was assumed that any Communist revolutionary was a Kremlin agent. Ho Chi Minh's independence movement, Ambassador William C. Bullitt explained in 1947, was designed to 'add another finger to the hand that Stalin is closing around China.' Mao Tse-tung was on a short tether from Moscow, according to Dean Rusk in a speech made two years after the Chinese revolution. Mao's regime was 'a colonial Russian government.' "
-- Richard J. Barnet, "The Security of Empire," in R.W. Gregg and C.W. Kegley, eds., After Vietnam: The Future of American Foreign Policy (Anchor Books, 1971), pp. 42-43.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Rory Stewart on Afghanistan

I hadn't intended to post again until October, but I just heard an interview with Rory Stewart, now at the Kennedy School, who wrote a book some time ago about his walk across all of Afghanistan. I'd seen the book but not read it, nor had I heard him speak before. In this interview he made a quite persuasive case that the current U.S./ISAF goals in Afghanistan are unachievable and very unrealistic. After granting the currently requested troop increase (which, Stewart thinks, would be politically impossible to refuse), Obama should not approve any further increases, he argued. The strategy's aims need to be reworked to focus on what is possible over the long term at an acceptable cost. Afghanistan, he observed, is decades behind Pakistan in virtually all respects, and Pakistan of course is hardly an exemplar of democratic stability; the creation of a functioning state of any sort in Afghanistan will take decades. Ten to twenty thousand special forces and other troops should be able to keep al- Qaeda from re-establishing a major presence in the country, he suggested, and that's about the best that can be hoped for in terms of a concrete security objective. Not everyone will agree with him, of course, but I was impressed by his lucidity and knowledge of the country. The interviewer was Lynn Sherr, substituting for Bill Moyers on his program; I assume the program's website (Bill Moyers' Journal, PBS) will be putting up a transcript.

Friday, September 11, 2009


I am taking a break from posting for a few weeks (at least).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Riding to the rescue of the L-word

A review of:
Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (Knopf, 2009)

Apart from having the same first name, what do William Kristol and William Wordsworth have in common? If this riddle appeals to you, you may like Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism. An effort to restate liberalism’s tenets for a non-specialist audience and to show that liberalism remains superior to competing “isms” in its ability to cope with modernity, the book is best approached as a series of connected essays in persuasion, to borrow a phrase from John Maynard Keynes. However, even readers who are not fully persuaded will likely pick up some bits of new knowledge along the way.

So what about the two Williams, the poet and the neocon? According to Wolfe, Kristol and his fellow neoconservatives have a romantic sensibility that denigrates caution, realism, and common sense in favor of grandiose dreams of democratic triumphalism. Like Wordsworth -- who heaped scorn on “mere safety” in his pamphlet attacking the 1807 Convention of Cintra (which allowed Napoleon’s defeated army to withdraw from the Iberian peninsula) -- Kristol et al. have a dangerously “heroic” view of the world which substitutes wishful thinking for an analysis of inconvenient realities. The flaws in this worldview became all too evident in the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. In drawing a connection between nineteenth-century romanticism and present-day neoconservatism, Wolfe may be on to something. It’s true that Wordsworth celebrated the French Revolution (“bliss was it then to be alive, but to be young was very heaven”), and it’s hard to imagine Bill Kristol, had he been around in 1789, saying that -- but no parallel is going to be a perfect fit. As the book proceeds, Wolfe detects the malign hand of romanticism in other places, from the writings of the liberal Paul Berman to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire.

The Future of Liberalism revolves around several reiterated contrasts. Liberalism à la Wolfe sides with “interests” not “passions”; culture not nature; empiricism not “ideology” (a bad word in Wolfe’s lexicon). Wolfe’s liberalism is hopeful but cool, generous but ironic, committed unapologetically to its values but not in an overexcited, “ideological” way. This message is illustrated by various excursions into the history of ideas, featuring heroes (e.g., T.H. Green, Benjamin Constant, Lionel Trilling, John Dewey, Kant) and non-heroes (e.g., Carl Schmitt, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Marx, Rousseau, and, yes, Wordsworth). These excursions are generally well executed but they necessarily involve compression, and compression has its pitfalls. For example, anyone who wants to understand Max Weber’s famous distinction between an ethic of responsibility and an ethic of ultimate ends would be well advised not to rely too heavily on Wolfe’s brief summary of Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation.”

Wolfe’s liberalism has something in common with the tradition of political realism and its emphasis on the responsible exercise of power. “It takes ideological politicians to bring out the true virtues of realistic ones,” he writes (p.125), and he characterizes “a liberal global order” as one “in which as many governments as possible avoid romantic dreams, shun unrealistic expectations, and dampen religious and ideological enthusiasms.” (p.106) He says kind things about realists like Reinhold Niebuhr although the appropriation is partial: Niebuhr’s stress on responsibility is highlighted but not his view of the fallen nature of humanity. Wolfe’s preferred ground is Arthur Schlesinger’s vital center, “a place obviously distinct from the totalitarian right, but at the same time marked off from what Schlesinger [in 1948] called ‘doughfaced progressivism,’ which believes in ‘the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where life can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.’ ” (p.118)

This “exacting job,” however, is not one that Wolfe seems especially eager to take on. Admittedly his book is not intended to be a programmatic manifesto; he believes that liberalism’s philosophical basis is more in need of reviving than its programmatic ideas. But sometimes philosophical and programmatic considerations intertwine, and in these cases the book is less than satisfying.

The clearest example is Wolfe’s approach to the issue of equality. At the outset he writes: “How much actual equality there is in a society will vary from one to another, and one can imagine different kinds of liberal societies with different degrees of it. But any society that closes off opportunities for people to achieve their full human capacities, or that allows persistent inequalities to stifle the desire on the part of its least fortunate members to develop them, would not be a liberal one.” (p.12) This simultaneously suggests and evades a significant question: When do “persistent inequalities” become so persistent and deep-rooted that they stop being merely blemishes on a liberal society and start undermining its foundations? Consider the contemporary United States with its large underclass, astoundingly high incarceration rates, high levels of income and wealth inequality, and an educational system that relegates many children, especially poorer ones, to inferior schools from which only the unusually determined and lucky emerge with a decent education – at some point it becomes difficult to claim that such a society is giving a majority of its citizens opportunities “to achieve their full human capacities.” Wolfe endorses Michael Walzer’s view that there should be “a series of dams that prevent inequalities in some spheres of life from spilling over into others where they do not belong.” (p.82) Walzer’s Spheres of Justice divides the world into various domains – work, wealth, office, love, divine grace, and so on – and argues that different principles of just distribution apply in each. That’s fine in some ways, but it’s not much help in determining how much inequality in life chances is too much.

Wolfe says repeatedly that liberals want to maximize individuals’ ability to control their destinies, but the devil is in the details of how this principle is put into practice. Take welfare reform. Wolfe praises Bill Clinton’s abolition of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) inasmuch as it represented a blow against dependency and the perpetuation of a “permanent welfare class” (p.248). On the other hand, “whether or not forcing mothers of young children into the workforce was the appropriate way to do this can and should be questioned, but the notion of overcoming dependency should not be.” (p.248) You can’t have it both ways: either ending AFDC was justifiable or it wasn’t. Wolfe’s discussion of equality and inequality would have benefited from a more thorough engagement with the tradition of democratic socialism, for which his occasional references to R.H. Tawney are not an adequate substitute. And when it comes to the transnational or global dimensions of inequality, Wolfe does not have much to say, apart from some fairly brief remarks on immigration and globalization toward the end of the book.

The Future of Liberalism has a thoughtful chapter on religion, which argues that liberalism properly understood is not hostile to religion and that freedom of religion is a meaningful principle worth defending. Here Wolfe’s hero is John Leland, a nineteenth-century “itinerant Baptist preacher from Massachusetts” and "the most important American never to have been the subject of a full-length biography" (p.165) who strongly supported separation of church and state and favored keeping organized religion out of politics, a position that Leland’s contemporary heirs in the Southern Baptist Convention have abandoned. In this chapter and elsewhere, Wolfe criticizes certain contemporary foes of liberalism, such as Stanley Fish, who, under the influence of postmodernism-poststructuralism, charge liberalism’s Enlightenment values with incoherence. He scores points against the postmodernists, which is useful if not especially novel. As already mentioned, however, socialist critiques of liberalism are either neglected in this book or treated summarily.

The book ends with a ringing plea for liberals to have the courage of their convictions and to recapture the spirit that animated the liberal accomplishments of the past. Wolfe’s decision to conclude in this way highlights what is perhaps the book’s most striking omission: its failure to acknowledge fully that liberalism’s problems of the last forty years have not been simply the result of liberals’ cowardice and complacency. The massive alterations in the operations of capitalism on both domestic and global levels, the weakening of organized labor in the advanced industrial countries (notably but not exclusively the U.S.), and reaction to the impact (real and perceived) of the movements of the '60s all had as much if not more to do with the electoral victories of Reagan, Thatcher, and some of their successors as did the timidity and miscalculation of their liberal opponents. Ideas don’t float freely, as Wolfe is well aware, and the best ideas don’t always win in the ideological marketplace; ideas exist in a context shaped by underlying economic and social forces, and a rigorous analysis of those forces is largely missing here.

Nonetheless and to end on a positive note, The Future of Liberalism makes me want to re-acquaint myself with the classics of the liberal tradition, and for that I thank the author.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Rising religiosity in the Israeli army

See this piece on military rabbis in the Israeli army. Discount the piece's slant, if you don't like it, and just focus on the facts reported. If they're even partly accurate, it's disturbing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A missed opportunity: Guy Raz, Paul Wolfowitz, and one bad interview

I don't regularly listen to All Things Considered (ATC) but I hear snatches of it now and again, often if I happen to be driving when it's on. This Saturday afternoon I heard Guy Raz, the ATC weekend host, interview Paul Wolfowitz. The ostensible subject was a piece Wolfowitz wrote for Foreign Policy (a piece I was aware of but have not read) apparently criticizing the "realist" view -- as Wolfowitz labels and interprets it -- that other countries' internal political arrangements are their own concern and should be off-limits to U.S. foreign policy. Or, to quote or closely paraphrase Wolfowitz from the interview, he was criticizing the notion that "other countries' internal affairs is [sic] their own business" and should be insulated from U.S. interference of any kind, including peaceful efforts to promote democracy, womens' rights, etc.

There are more than a couple of interesting questions that could have been raised about this. First of all, does any analyst or commentator or academic or whatever hold the view Wolfowitz is labeling "realist"? If not, why bother criticizing it? If so, who are they? Second of all and more important, how is Wolfowitz defining "internal affairs"? When is intervention, peaceful or otherwise, in another country's internal affairs warranted and when is it not? If no bright-line principle can be stated, what kinds of considerations should be weighed? How does Wolfowitz's approach jibe, if at all, with the well-known axiom that, from the standpoint of international law and diplomatic norms, a country's internal affairs are indeed mostly its own business? And so on.

Unfortunately, Raz did not ask most of these questions, preferring to spend time needling Wolfowitz about the Iraq war and his role in its planning. Now far be it from me to suggest that Wolfowitz does not deserve to be needled, badgered, and hounded about his role in the Iraq war. The fact that Wolfowitz's reputation has survived Iraq sufficiently unscathed to permit him to be a visiting fellow at AEI and a writer of pieces for Foreign Policy in itself is suggestive of how gross mistakes, no matter how blatant and horrible, go basically unpunished in Washington policy circles. Nonetheless, the subject of the interview was supposed to be the "realist" doctrine of non-interference in internal affairs -- actually less a "realist" doctrine than, as I've already indicated, a basic principle of international law -- and it would have been nice if Raz had pressed more on this subject. He could have conducted just as tough an interview if he had asked fewer questions about Iraq and more about what Wolfowitz came to talk about, since it's a subject that people have been debating forever. Toward the end Raz started to ask some pointed, relevant questions but by then it was too late. This was not one of Nat'l Public Radio's finer moments, IMHO.

But wait!, I hear you crying. Wasn't the invasion of Iraq an extreme case of intervention in another country's internal affairs and aren't questions about Iraq therefore very relevant to the subject? Well, no. The very fact that it was such an extreme case means that it's not especially useful as a point of interrogation -- in this context.

P.s. James Fallows links to the unedited, longer version of the interview. I'm not sure I'm going to listen to this 37-minute version (indeed, I'm almost certainly not going to), but I'm providing this link as a service to this blog's hordes of readers.

Friday, September 4, 2009

An unwarranted assumption

A front-page piece in Wednesday's NYT discussing the possible consequences for U.S.-Japan relations of the Democratic Party of Japan's election victory (Mark Landler and Martin Fackler, "U.S. Is Seeing Policy Thorns in Japan Shift," NYT, 9/2/09, p.A1, continued p.A10) contains this passage:
"[Incoming P.M. Yukio] Hatoyama's views [as expressed in an excerpted article from a Japanese journal that appeared in English translation recently on the NYT website] sent many in Washington's diplomatic establishment scurrying to learn more about him and the Democrats. That highlighted a problem: While American officials and academics have spent decades cultivating close ties with the Liberal Democrats, who have governed Japan for most of the last half century, they have built few links to the opposition."
And whose fault is that? Surely it wasn't prudent to assume that the Liberal Democrats would be in power in Japan forever.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Two faces of India

Harley-Davidson is breaking into the Indian market, selling its bikes starting at $14,000 each, while in the state of Orissa people are dying from contaminated water supplies.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Will vs. Kristol on Afghanistan

George Will calls for withdrawing ground forces from Afghanistan and using drones, cruise missiles, air strikes, and special forces units to focus from offshore on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Bill Kristol replies that this is a recipe for "retreat" and "defeat."

I'm not sure either one of them has it quite right, although Kristol, as usual, manages to sound obnoxious even when he's making arguments that don't have to sound that way. Will should have mentioned that the U.S. is already using drones in the Pakistan border regions, and while arguably this has had some results in eliminating elements of the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership (e.g. Baitalluh Mehsud; Usama al-Kini), the strikes have also caused civilian casualties, weakening support for the U.S. among the population. On the other hand, I share Will's distress at the rising U.S. casualties -- and, I would add, casualties in the ISAF forces from the other countries in the coalition. There comes a point at which such sacrifices can no longer be justified.

I don't know whether we are at that point. Stephen Biddle offers a depressing assessment in a recent article in The American Interest. He writes that "the strategic case for waging war is stronger than that for disengaging, but not by much: The war is a close call on the merits." Both reinforcement and withdrawal can be legitimately criticized, he says, and while he favors the former "on balance," he sees "no easy way out of Afghanistan, no clear light at either end of the tunnel, for President Obama."