Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A note to readers

I intend to take a break from now to the end of the year. Thanks to all who've stopped by here in 2010.

Monday, November 22, 2010

We've got class, baby (and the classics)

Just discovered: the blog of the right-wing artsy, lit-crit-y, bellettristic (take your pick) The New Criterion is called Armavirumque. As in Arma virumque cano. As in 'of arms and a man I sing'. As in the Aeneid.

Now I did not have a classical education (cough, choke), but my mother attended Girls' Latin School, and as a kid/teenager/youth/young adult the one and only line of Latin I can recall hearing her utter was Arma virumque cano. I never read the Aeneid in English, one of many gaps in my supposedly (supposedly) first-class secondary and college education. And it was not until a bit later on that it dawned on me that vir means "man". As in "virility". As in virtú. As in Machiavelli. (Oh yeah, right....)

P.s. I am reliably informed by Wikipedia that Girls' Latin is now called Boston Latin Academy, and it probably has been for a long time (I'm too lazy to actually read the entry right now). O tempora O mores. Whatever.


I've been in the library this afternoon, looking at some journals electronically (which I can't do from home) and have run across something worth mentioning. The current issue of Review of International Studies (vol. 36 no.4) carries a piece by Oded Lowenheim called "The 'I' in IR: an autoethnographic account." On a quick glance it appears to be both interesting and quite different from the usual fare in IR journals. Those readers with access should check it out. Perhaps I will write a post on it later, probably early next year, as I'm about to go on a break.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Moments in the history of male chauvinism

From Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise (1938, revised pb. edition, 1988), p. 127:
"Marriage can succeed for an artist only where there is enough money to save him from taking on uncongenial work and a wife who is intelligent and unselfish enough to understand and respect the working of the unfriendly cycle of the creative imagination. She will know at what point domestic happiness begins to cloy, where love, tidiness, rent, rates, clothes, entertaining, and rings at the doorbell should stop, and will recognize that there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Ghailani verdict

"The face of the embassy had sheared off in great concrete slabs. Dead people still sat at their desks. The tar-covered street was on fire and a crowded bus was in flames. Next door, the Ufundi Building, containing a Kenyan secretarial college, had completely collapsed. Many were pinned under the rubble, and soon their cries arose in a chorus of fear and pain that would go on for days.... The toll was 213 dead...; 4,500 were injured, more than 150 of them blinded by the flying glass. The ruins burned for days."
Thus Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, describing the aftermath of the August 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi. There's no question that this and the bombing of the embassy in Dar es Salaam were reprehensible acts. Ayman al-Zawahiri had an al-Qaeda operative throw a stun grenade into the embassy courtyard in Nairobi, thereby drawing people to the windows. Wright notes: "One of the lessons Zawahiri had learned from his bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad three years before was that an initial explosion brought people rushing to the windows, and many were decapitated by flying glass when the real bomb went off." (Looming Tower, p.307)

Despite the depraved character of these acts, however, it's not clear that the conviction of Ahmed Ghailani in New York federal district court on only one count (of conspiracy) as opposed to 200-some counts matters very much. As it is, he may well get a life sentence. Meanwhile Zawahiri, the mastermind of the operations, continues to reside ... somewhere (maybe North Waziristan, maybe not...).

The real issue that should be under discussion is why it has proved so difficult to close Guatanamo Bay (a myopically reluctant Congress deserves a fair amount of blame, no doubt), not the issue of whether detainees should be tried in civilian courts or military tribunals. That has already been debated ad nauseum, positions have hardened, and arguably the main beneficiaries of the entire discussion have been the lawyers, legal analysts, and other talking heads whom it has kept employed. When the definitive history of this whole episode is written, complete with endless litigation, the Supreme Court striking down the original military tribunals legislation, Congress rewriting and re-passing it, etcetera, not to mention the meager results to date -- unless I'm forgetting something, exactly one detainee so far has completed the military tribunal process, pleading guilty in a plea deal [added later: I am forgetting something; it's more than one] -- it will go down as one of the more monumental wastes of resources spawned by the 'war on terror'. It is hard to avoid the feeling that there had to have been a better way than this drawn-out mess. The British government has even concluded that it must pay compensation to several British citizens who were held in Guantanamo. And the talking heads on American TV go on discussing this is in little amnesiac bites, failing to see the larger picture and failing to remind people that they have been having these same factitious debates for years. All in all, a rather appalling spectacle.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Shorter and clearer, s.v.p.

I read some of this NYT piece on the Roberts Court's bloated, often ambiguous opinions. (H/t: Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage.) The article notes, among other telling points, that the Citizens United opinions are roughly the length of The Great Gatsby (and less fun to read, one might add). The article draws on political-science research on the Court, as Voeten observes. Fine and dandy, except perhaps for that study using anti-plagiarism software to detect passages from the parties' briefs in majority opinions. Um, I'm sorry to inject a note of reality, but why the **** do parties write briefs? They want their writing to be lifted by the Court, and if litigant X (or its legal team, to be more precise) puts something well, then why shouldn't the Court take it? Sometimes you will see quotation marks in an opinion around a phrase from a party's brief, but I'm sure there are other cases where the language is closely paraphrased and you don't see quotation marks. So what? This is one of those very rare cases in which standard notions of plagiarism don't really apply.

Note: The original post has been modified slightly.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Truth-stranger-than-fiction dept.

Via B. DeLong, here.

Hounshell on Kaplan

From Oct. 27 [Reader: A little behind on things, are we? Me: Kindly shut up, thanks], this Blake Hounshell post on Robert Kaplan's new book and Kaplan's "seeming about-face on China." [H/t: IPE@UNC]

Monday, November 15, 2010

'In Flanders Fields'

An interesting post by Tim Kendall on his War Poetry blog. (Some other good stuff here too.)

Noted in passing

I used to subscribe to Dissent but I haven't in a long time. Glancing at its website just now, however, I spot several articles in the current issue that may be of interest to some readers, including one about Minnesota. They're all gated, i.e., to read them you have to shell out twenty bucks to subscribe. Just thought I'd mention it, fwiw.

Friday, November 12, 2010

R. Payne on one aspect of the Bush memoirs


P.s. And if you missed it, Stephen Walt's "Delusion Points" is a catalog of Bush's atrocious foreign policy mistakes. Except for the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, which I thought was sensible and one of the very few non-horrible Bush foreign policy moves, the rest of the Bush record is as bad as Walt says.

Filkins interview

Dexter Filkins interviewed on Fresh Air on Afghanistan (it's the Thursday show: Nov. 11).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The UK-France defense deal

Britain and France, in an agreement reached last week, decided to co-operate on nuclear warhead testing and to set up a joint 'expeditionary' (read: intervention) force, as well as to co-operate when it comes to aircraft carriers. Britain presently has two carriers, France has one, and they've agreed that at least one of these will be at sea at any given time. According to a summary at Spiegel Online: "Britain will install catapults on a new aircraft carrier under construction so that both French and British jets can operate from it. By the early 2020s the two nations aim to combine their carrier operations." This makes some sense, inasmuch as it must be damned expensive to keep one aircraft carrier, let alone more than one, buzzing around in circles in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic or wherever.

An IR scholar who happens to be a friend was saying, when this came up in a recent conversation at a slightly drunken (on my part at any rate) dinner, that the agreement to share aircraft carriers shows that Britain and France have now established a "joint identity" -- well, maybe he didn't say that precisely, but the word "identity" was definitely used. I'm a bit skeptical about this, partly because I'm not totally sure what it means (though I have a reasonably good idea) and partly because this agreement seems to be driven primarily by budgetary considerations. Some in Britain are apparently worried about whether the French carrier, if that were the one at sea, would deploy to the Falklands if that were required. Others dismiss this concern.

The nuclear agreement would "establish a centre in the UK to develop testing technology and another one in France to carry out the testing" (BBC), starting in 2014. This is being called revolutionary and unprecedented. But is it that surprising? It's not like either country is going to use its nuclear weapons against the other. Actually, the chances of their ever using their nuclear weapons at all are, mercifully, infinitesimal. The British and French nuclear arsenals are largely status symbols, signs that their possessors are great powers, and from a security standpoint it would probably make no difference if every British and French nuclear warhead were dismantled and destroyed tomorrow. Who, after all, are they deterring? They don't work against people like the 2005 London subway bombers. You can't threaten to drop a nuclear bomb on an individual's house, for example. That would be absurd and crazy. Nonetheless, we have to at least pretend that this whole deal is a noteworthy development. Otherwise IR types would have less to argue about at drunken dinners.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Pres. Obama's endorsement of a permanent seat for India on the UN Security Council has a significance that goes well beyond the question of India's membership: it is an explicit, highly public announcement of U.S. recognition that the Security Council is in need of reform generally. I could be wrong, but my impression is that this is the clearest statement on the matter that a U.S. president has made. It was overdue. I guess one thing this shows is that eventually, after thousands of analysts and pundits write thousands of words about something (in this case, the need for Security Council reform), someone in the government may notice. (Yes, that last sentence is unfair. But not completely.)

P.s. More on this in a future post.

P.p.s. Erik Voeten, The Monkey Cage's man on these matters, offers his take here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Timothy Egan on "how Obama saved capitalism and lost the midterms"

Can't resist linking to this before shutting off the computer for the night. I don't agree with every single statement in it but the last few paragraphs are spot on.

And btw, if you're wondering whether Citizens United affected the elections, the answer is a resounding yes, according to Norman Ornstein. Earlier today I heard him (at an AEI thing broadcast by CSpan radio) say it could have changed the outcome in as many as 20 House races.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No fixed ideology?

"I don’t think people carry around with them a fixed ideology. I think the majority of people, they’re going about their business, going about their lives. They just want to make sure that we’re making progress. And that’s going to be my top priority over the next couple of years."
-- President Obama, at today's press conference

The majority of Americans may not "carry around with them a fixed ideology," but they do carry around some powerful, if usually unarticulated, assumptions and beliefs. These stem from America's history and the mythical narratives and images that have become firm, one might even say fixed, elements of the national psyche. Without positing some historically-derived, widely shared political impulses ("ideas" would be perhaps too formal a word), it is hard to understand why so many Americans are susceptible (and have been susceptible for a long time) to rhetoric about "tax-and-spend liberals," "big government," "government interfering in our lives," "a government takeover of health care," etc. etc., when such rhetoric masks the facts that the U.S. taxes its citizens less than most other 'developed' countries and that its welfare provisions are less generous than those of most other 'developed' countries.

Why is the phrase "class warfare" such a toxic label in U.S. political discourse that it can be trotted out at a moment's notice to delegitimize attempts to address income and wealth inequality, which has grown to frightening and obscene levels in this country over the last 30 or so years? Why can struggling and economically hard-pressed voters be persuaded to vote for candidates who, far from proposing solutions to their problems, talk in the same breath about reining in spending and creating jobs (without bothering to explain how it is possible to do both simultaneously) and who spout slogans like "take back the government" without bothering to explain what that means? How was Ronald Reagan, a professional actor devoid of any notable grasp of issues, able to build an enormously successful career by uttering slogans like "let's get the government off our backs"? It's hard to answer these questions without positing a shared mythology holding that the genius of the American people lies in self-reliance, entrepreneurial initiative, and sheer determination to overcome all odds, and that this genius can only fully flourish and work its magic when the evil entity called "the government" located in that alien place called "Washington DC" removes its dead hand from individuals and corporations and allows them to mobilize the creative energies which, once unleashed, can assure that the U.S. remains, in the rather astoundingly hyperbolic albeit no doubt sincere words of several candidates in their victory speeches, "the greatest country ever known in the history of the world" [sic].

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The worst result so far...

...is the (apparent) defeat of Russ Feingold. :(

Of course, there are other bad results, but this one I think is a particular loss for the Senate.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Documentary examines war's 'human terrain'

While looking for something else, I stumbled across an article about the new documentary Human Terrain (one of whose directors is James Der Derian, whose name will be known to some readers). Rather than quoting or taking the time to summarize, I'll just give the link: here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is U.S. national security really at stake in Afghanistan? If not, we should get out

I was more-or-less inclined to give Pres. Obama the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while, when he announced the so-called Afghan surge in December of last year. He argued that the mission was vital to U.S. national security and that the commitment of 30,000 additional soldiers was designed to stop the Taliban's momentum and give the Afghan security forces the necessary time to increase their capacity.

In hindsight, perhaps I did not think hard enough about a couple of basic issues: (1) how closely is stopping the Taliban's momentum etc. linked, in a practical sense, to the goal of disrupting and defeating al-Qaeda?; and (2) if the answer to (1) is "not very closely," then why is the U.S. committing so many resources to fighting the Taliban in the first place? Put more simply: would it make it any real difference to U.S. national security if the Taliban re-took the essential levers of power (such as they are) in the country and re-established themselves as the government in Kabul? I am more and more inclined to think the answer is no it wouldn't, in which case it becomes more and more difficult to justify the current U.S./ISAF policy.

In a recent post on his blog, Stephen Walt writes:

As our numbers fall [i.e., when U.S. troops start to be drawn down, starting presumably some time in 2011], the Taliban will regroup, Pakistan will help rearm them covertly, and the struggle for power in Afghanistan will resume. Afghanistan's fate will once again be primarily in the hands of the Afghan people and the nearby neighbors who meddle there for their own reasons. I don't know who will win, but it actually won't matter very much for U.S. national security interests. [emphasis added]

If who wins doesn't matter very much for U.S. national security interests, then I, for one, will find it increasingly hard to watch on the NewsHour those photos and names of U.S. military personnel who have been killed. I'm willing to stipulate that the Taliban leadership is a nasty and repressive lot and that a victory for them would be bad (to put it mildly) for Afghan democrats (small "d") and for women, among others. But the sacrifice of American lives at the scale on which it is occurring can only be justified if American vital national security interests are at stake. If, as Walt suggests, the U.S. is eventually going to concoct a fig-leaf peace settlement and then persuade ourselves that we won (if, indeed, this is the best possible outcome given current conditions), it would probably be better to get out right now.

Historical analogies are easy to misuse, and I have been wary of analogies between Afghanistan and Vietnam. (After all, the misuse of historical analogies contributed to the U.S. getting into Vietnam in the first place.) However, it's worth recalling that whatever one thought of the 1973 Vietnam peace agreement, it was never in the cards that, once U.S. forces had left Vietnam, they would be re-introduced to prevent the 'fall' of Saigon. The Kissinger-Nixon strategy of pursuing "peace with honor" -- hugely costly in terms of Vietnamese and American lives, and costly too for the Cambodians and Laotians -- appears pointless (indeed, flatly immoral) in retrospect. Walt is worried that we have forgotten this piece of history (among others). I continue to be wary of historical analogies when they are mobilized for use in policy debates, but one can be wary of analogies and at the same time acknowledge that there is some wisdom in Santayana's dictum that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

Rhetorics of empire

The calendar tells me that today is United Nations Day: a fitting day for this post (for reasons that will become clear).
In Cosmopolitanism (Norton pb., 2007), Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:
The independence movements of the post-1945 world that led to the end of Europe’s African and Asian empires were driven by the rhetoric that had guided the Allies’ own struggle against Germany and Japan: democracy, freedom, equality. This [i.e., the conflict between colonial powers and independence movements] wasn’t a conflict between values. It was a conflict of interests couched in terms of the same values. (p. 80)
According to this view, the colonizers and the colonized framed their positions in the same language: both sides argued that they were upholding liberal principles. If so, did the colonizers genuinely believe that they were acting on behalf of such principles? No doubt some of them did, but that issue is beyond the scope of this post. The above-quoted passage from Appiah does, however, raise questions about the relation of words to concepts. Someone’s use of a word such as “freedom” does not necessarily indicate a commitment to anything that most people would recognize as freedom. A slaveholder in the act of beating a slave does not become a promoter of freedom simply by uttering the words “I am doing this because I believe in freedom.”

Admittedly this example is an exaggeration. In the conflict between colonial powers and independence movements, rhetoric was used in somewhat, but only somewhat, more subtle ways. The career of Jan Smuts (1870-1950) is instructive in this connection. In No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, 2009), Mark Mazower devotes a lot of attention to Smuts, who was the leading South African politician of the first half of the twentieth century. Smuts viewed membership in the British Empire as a means to ensure the preservation and spread of white rule in southern Africa. During the first of his two terms as prime minister of South Africa (1919-1924), “the foundations of the future apartheid regime were being laid by eroding the last remnants of the native suffrage and introducing segregationist settlement restrictions.” (p. 51)

Smuts was also a believer in international organization. Among other things, he was a main drafter of the preamble to the UN Charter, which listed among the organization’s purposes the reaffirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights, …the dignity and worth of the human person, …the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small….” Mazower asks: “How could the new world body’s commitment to universal rights owe more than a little to the participation of a man whose segregationist policies back home paved the way for the apartheid state?” (No Enchanted Palace, p. 19) The answer – or at least an answer – is that for Smuts, and for some others involved in the UN’s founding, “fundamental human rights” did not in fact mean universal rights. Adhering to an “evolutionist paradigm of cosmic harmony under beneficent white guidance” (p. 57), Smuts saw “differential degrees of freedom and differential treatment of groups by the state [as] not merely reasonable but necessary for human progress.” (p. 64) As a young man, Smuts “had talked easily about the mission of ‘half a million whites’ to lift up ‘the vast dead weight of immemorial barbarism and animal savagery to the light and blessing of ordered civilisation,’” and he hoped the UN would be “a force for world order, under whose umbrella the British Empire – with South Africa as its principal dynamic agent on the continent – could continue to carry out its civilizing work.” (p. 65)

The UN Charter itself, as Mazower observes, did not specifically condemn colonialism, and few people of any prominence, except for W.E.B. Du Bois, objected to this omission at the time. Indeed an African journalist predicted that a new “scramble for coloured territories and spheres of influence” was in the offing, adding that “new life has been infused into predatory imperialism.” (quoted, p. 63)

However, the UN did not, as things turned out, conform to Smuts’s vision, nor did a new scramble for colonies occur. On the contrary, what Harold Macmillan called a wind of change (in his famous 1960 speech) was running strongly against the continuation of formal empire. This soon became evident within the UN itself. A complaint to the General Assembly about the treatment of Indians in South Africa, spearheaded by Nehru and first brought in 1946, presaged “the emergence in the General Assembly of an entirely new conception of world order – one premised on the breakup of empire rather than its continuation.” (Mazower, p. 185) The General Assembly’s December 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples called for quick independence for the remaining colonies, rejecting the argument that an alleged lack of readiness for self-government could justify delay.

The end of colonialism, an epochal change in world politics, represented an unusual case of a modern international institution becoming obsolete (cf. K.J. Holsti, Taming the Sovereigns: Institutional Change in International Politics [Cambridge U.P., 2004], p. 274). But although the institution became obsolete, the rhetoric associated with it has proven to be longer lived. Although virtually no one in authority extols, in Smutsian fashion, the superior wisdom of the “white race,” more nuanced versions of what Mazower calls imperial internationalism are still extant. In the context of the “war on terror,” references to “civilization” and “barbarism” have become common (see Mark Salter’s work on this); these words have overtones, whether intended or not, that cannot be fully grasped unless one remembers the once-widespread view that colonized peoples were “uncivilized.” The trope (to use a fashionable word) of civilization versus barbarism should not have been resurrected in recent years, no matter that the context is different. These words carry too many reminders of the old rhetorics of empire.

Note: For more on Smuts, see the sources listed in Mazower's notes. Also, Richard Toye's Churchill's Empire (Henry Holt, 2010) contains a couple of references to Smuts from a somewhat different perspective.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New estimates of malaria death rates in India

A study published in the Lancet suggests that roughly 200,000 deaths per year in India are due to malaria, a figure some 13 times higher than the World Health Organization estimates. As this BBC story notes, about 1.3 million deaths from infectious diseases, with acute fever as the main symptom, occur in rural parts of India each year, but the causes of these deaths are hard to determine, since most of them are not medically certified. The Lancet study used an interview technique called verbal autopsy. The WHO says the study's estimates are too high, but this story certainly raises questions about the numbers of those dying from this preventable disease. The study was jointly funded by NIH, the Canadian Institute of Health Research, and Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute.


Via E.J. Dionne: Apparently not even The Weekly Standard likes Dinesh d'Souza's deranged new book The Roots of Obama's Rage.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Of goats, gibbons, and the election season

I caught an interview today on All Things Considered with Rand Paul's Democratic opponent in the Kentucky Senate race, Jack Conway. Robert Siegel pressed Conway on a "controversial" (Siegel's word) ad criticizing what Paul did in college. Something about joining a group that deprecated Christians, worshipped "false idols," etcetera.

Look, it would be a disaster if Rand Paul were elected to the Senate, and I guess you do what you have to do (within certain elastic limits) to try to ensure that doesn't happen. On the other hand, I honestly don't give a flying **** what Rand Paul did in college. If he had had sexual intercourse with a mountain goat while engaging in lewd acts with a gibbon, I would regard it as irrelevant to his fitness to be a U.S. Senator.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Gentlemen never sue

The name of Theodore Roosevelt (class of 1880 at Harvard) is invoked at the very beginning of the movie The Social Network. The actor playing Mark Zuckerberg confidently, if a tad bizarrely, informs his girlfriend that TR’s membership in the Porcellian Club is what ensured his eventual accession to the presidency of the U.S.

Theodore Roosevelt – who as a Harvard undergraduate spent on club fees and clothes in two years a sum of money that would have sustained the average American family of the time for six years* -- is in some ways (but only some) a fitting patron saint for this movie, whose themes of money and class would not have been foreign to him. However, the only character in the movie that TR would really have understood is the rower who is reluctant to sue Zuckerberg because that’s not what “gentlemen of Harvard” do. The rest of the movie -- including the computers, the drugs, the parties, and the sexual situations – would have been, it is pretty safe to say, either incomprehensible or shocking (or both) to TR. That’s not a criticism of The Social Network, of course, but it is an indication of how much certain aspects of the world have changed in the last 125 years.

As for the movie on its own terms: it’s entertaining – especially the scene in which the actor playing Larry Summers appears – but I would take most of it with a few grains of salt.


*Kim Townsend, Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others (paperback ed., Harvard Univ. Press, 1998), p. 259. For TR's views on masculinity, race, etc., in historical context, see Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Vintage Bks., 2005), pp. 355ff.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Sacked for gridlock

In the months leading up to Yuri Luzhkov's sacking as mayor of Moscow, Russian state-run TV apparently had criticized him for gridlock on the roads and the destruction of historic buildings, among other things.

If U.S. mayors could be fired or otherwise removed for gridlock, Washington, D.C. would not have the same mayor for more than a few weeks at a time.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A ghost laid to rest?

Reporting for the NewsHour last night on the dramatic rescue of the miners in Chile, Jonathan Franklin said (I'm paraphrasing) that the ghost of General Pinochet had been left at the bottom of the mine shaft. Meaning, presumably, that many people outside the country thought first of the Pinochet era when they thought of Chile, but now the first thing to come to mind will be the rescue. I don't know whether any of that's right, but it was an interesting remark.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Coming in November later this month:

Rhetorics of empire

Monday, September 27, 2010

NIMBY, Okinawa version

"The [Japanese] government is...struggling to decide how to implement an agreement with the US to move a Marine air base to a new site on the southern island of Okinawa. Opposition to the deal was underscored when voters in the area that is the proposed new site [of the base] backed opponents of the deal in a local election on Sunday."
-- from a recent article in the FT

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A note to readers

A while ago I announced a summer break from posting, which I proceeded not to observe. Well, now I'm announcing a fall break from posting (even though fall is not quite officially here yet). This one I think I'll stick to, because the next couple of months are looking pretty busy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Who speaks for the Iranian government?

The Iranian newspaper Kayhan, which is under the supervision of the office of the country's Supreme Leader, has called Carla Bruni Sarkozy a prostitute and said she deserves to die (the comments were prompted by Bruni's public intervention in the case of an Iranian woman who was condemned to death by stoning for adultery). But a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry has said, in effect, "cool it." He has attempted to distance the foreign ministry from the newspaper's comments, insisting that critics can be taken to task without the use of insults.

So who speaks for the Iranian government? Kayhan or the spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry? Perhaps they both do. Autocratic regimes don't always speak with one voice. Even some totalitarian regimes don't always speak with one voice. Thus it was misleading for the Daily Telegraph to go with the headline "Iran calls Bruni a prostitute." In fact, "Iran" did no such thing. A newspaper that may represent one element of the regime did. There's a difference.

For links on this episode (brouhaha, whatever) see the Wikipedia entry on Kayhan, under the heading "Controversies."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mystifications of the deficit hawks

Notwithstanding that the word economics comes (partly) from the Greek word for house (oikos), the analogy between the economic affairs of a private household and the economic affairs of a country -- an analogy beloved by the so-called deficit hawks -- does not work. A government is not a private household and the principles of household economy have only a marginal relevance to economic policy at the level of a nation-state.

Regrettably, neither Pres. Obama nor his advisers have publicly confronted and rejected this false analogy, and as a result it has largely held sway in public debate. As F. Llewellyn and J. Schwartz write in the current issue of Democratic Left:
The mass media reinforces the dominant conservative ideological view that the government should manage its finances as if it were a private household -- instead of realizing its power to expand long-term growth (and fiscal balance) by engaging in productive public investment.... And as President Obama has refused to take this ideology head-on, he is likely to suffer political losses in 2010 and could lose in 2012.... Even if the Democrats retain control of both chambers of Congress in 2010 and the president is re-elected in 2012, a cross-party alliance of deficit hawks could prevent passage of the real reforms we need.
Llewellyn and Schwartz call attention to a March for Jobs on Oct. 2 in Washington, which "represents the first nationally coordinated grass-roots effort to push back against the right wing, tea party, deficit hawk politics that captivate the mainstream media and the political class."
I'm no longer much of a demonstration goer, but this is one demo I intend to make.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


The Michigan War Studies Review.
(For those interested in military history.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dept. of dogmatic pronouncements

"...philosophy remains the only humanistic discipline that really teaches students to think critically and analytically...."
-- Brian Leiter, in the NYT

This statement is so absurd one wonders how the New York Times could have published it. On second thought, maybe one doesn't.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Carpe diem

When certain sociologists and psychologists find themselves insufficiently occupied, they invent new phases of the life cycle. That's one possible, admittedly somewhat cynical reaction to the piece in the NYT magazine on 20-somethings taking longer to reach 'adulthood' as conventionally defined. My patience for this kind of article tends to be so limited that I doubt I would have read much beyond the first couple of pages in the print version (which comes out Sunday); confronted with the online version, I read even less. However, I read enough to get the gist and enough to furnish an excuse for a post.

My take on this topic is much influenced, not surprisingly, by my personal history. When I was in my 20s, I wish someone had said to me: "Look, you will only be this age once. Don't feel that you need to rush into a career. Take some time to reflect on what you really want to do, perhaps travel, perhaps just mess around. Don't be afraid to take a rather low-paying, low-status job for a while when you need money. Explore, be adventurous." As best as I can recall, no one said this, or anything like this, to me, nor was it, I think, standard advice in that era (what era? well, just to fix a date, I turned 22 in June 1979, in fact on the very day I graduated from college). I went through college in four years without taking any time off (stupidly), and although I did take a one-year break from school between college and law school, I spent most of that year working. I then went straight through law school and on graduating I considered myself lucky to find a job (because graduating with a so-so record from an o.k. but non-elite law school in 1983 was not a recipe for being inundated with job offers). I wish someone had asked me at some point why I was in law school at all, but no one, as best I can recall, did. And, just to take another example, my college roommate's path was even more lockstep than mine: he didn't take any break at all between college and law school, but went straight through, getting his law degree in '82. (True, he went to a more prestigious law school than I did, and he seems to have liked his subsequent career; but I digress.)

The point is that when I see these hand-wringing articles about why young people are taking so long to 'grow up,' I think: 20-somethings should be allowed to take their time to grow up. They shouldn't feel they have to hit certain benchmarks (schooling, career, marriage, children) by a certain point, nor should society at large be concerned by their lack of interest in doing so. I do understand why people are worried about the phenomenon of young people moving back in with their parents, but that's not the central issue here. The main issue is that you're only 25 once. Readers of a certain age may remember that old TV ad (was it for beer? yes) in which the announcer intones: "You only go around once in life." A banality, of course, but it's true: you only go around once. This need not be a prescription for hedonism; rather, a prescription for considering possibilities. Maybe more middle-class kids should even think about (gasp) serving in the military. Or working for a cause, even if the job is difficult and ill paid (though many are doing this already, I admit). But I would say to a young person: whatever the exact course, step off the treadmill for a while; trust me, it will be there waiting for you when you get back.

The Pakistan floods and the media

It has been noted that the flooding in Pakistan has been getting less TV coverage than the Haitian earthquake did. That may be true, but the TV news that I watch (when I watch any), namely the NewsHour, has been covering the flooding quite extensively. Yesterday there was an interview with Holbrooke about it.

Monday, August 16, 2010


A new book collects interviews with Irving Howe from the last 15 years of his life, i.e., the mid-'70s to the early '90s.

P.s. (added 8/18): Some months ago I happened to run across a 1948 review by the young Howe of a book by Eric Bentley on Bernard Shaw. Published in the Trotskyist New International, the review contains some things Howe would not have written in later years, but it shows the skills as writer and polemicist that were evident throughout his career.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Canadian casualties apparently increase support for candidates of the governing party

...according to this paper. The results run counter to some findings on the political impact of casualties in the U.S. (though the paper doesn't discuss why Canada is different from the U.S. in this respect, just notes that it is different, or at least seems to be).

Friday, August 13, 2010

'Hearts and minds': an historical perspective

B.D. Hopkins's article "The Problem with 'Hearts and Minds' in Afghanistan," published in the Summer 2010 Middle East Report (site here; subscription required), makes several interesting points. The phrase "hearts and minds" was first used in 1891 by Sir Robert Groves Sandeman, agent to the British governor-general in Baluchistan. "What came to be known as the 'Sandeman system,'" Hopkins writes, "was based on the recruitment of local tribesmen into the edifice of imperial governance." In at least a limited sense, the system worked for the British insofar as Baluchistan under the Raj was relatively peaceful and "was considered a quiet backwater of imperial administration."

A traditional colonial power, however, had certain advantages that the U.S. today lacks, Hopkins suggests. A colonial power "is plugged into local information networks and has deep ties of patronage through which it draws on a collaborating elite," whereas an 'imperial' state (as distinct from a colonial one) lacks comparable "roots and interests in local society...." Formal colonialism is extinct (well, virtually extinct), for which Hopkins is (presumably) grateful, yet this makes the task of counterinsurgency more difficult, he argues. There is no equivalent in today's Afghanistan to the British settlers in Kenya or Malaya who helped give "the colonial state...a vested interest in the outcome of counterinsurgency efforts." (Although it must be noted that the British counterinsurgency against the Mau Mau in Kenya was very brutal and hardly something one would wish to duplicate.)

Hopkins concludes by "doubt[ing] the success of any US strategy [in Afghanistan] at this point." Others think it still may be possible to salvage an acceptable outcome, as three authors recently argued in Foreign Affairs. Who is right? I'll leave readers to reach their own judgments.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

One-year retrospective on the EU's Eastern Partnership

In May '09 the EU launched its Eastern Partnership Initiative. The idea was to offer Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia closer political and economic links to the EU in exchange for domestic reforms. How has it worked? Judging from a paper (actually I only read the summary) done a few months ago by the Madrid-based think tank FRIDE, the answer would seem to be: Not very well. The link is here.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

It seems that no one likes the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba

...which is not too surprising since, as I've noted before, it makes no sense.

[Hat tip: D.R.]

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Bacevich riffs on Fukuyama to proclaim "The End of Military History." Find the link here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The world according to Fortune

In a commentary on last night's Nightly Business Report (PBS), Allan Sloan, senior editor at large of Fortune magazine, argued that the "real bailout" was not TARP (the Troubled Assets Recovery Program), but rather such measures as the Federal Reserve's keeping interest rates close to zero. He said, among other things:
"The real bailout is the stuff you don't see and that didn't have a dramatic congressional vote, the way TARP did. The Fed keeping short-term interest rates at almost zero is a huge, huge subsidy to banks and investment houses. It's a major reason they're now making so much money and it's a huge penalty to America's savers and retirees, whose income on money market funds and short-term CDs is almost nothing."
How nice to see that Mr. Sloan is concerned about America's "savers and retirees." But what about America's workers and the economy as a whole? Wouldn't things likely have been worse than they were, and for almost everyone, if the Fed had not kept interest rates close to zero? One hardly needs to be an economist to see that an extraordinarily severe recession prompted this reaction and that the Fed would have been criticized if it had not lowered interest rates in the face of mass unemployment and severe contraction. Now, it's true I don't know how much low interest rates actually helped the economy, and I'm aware of reports that it remains difficult for small businesses to borrow because banks are still wary of lending. But it does seem to me that describing the policy of low interest rates as nothing more than a subsidy to banks and a penalty on savers, without any reference to its intended effect on the economy generally, is not likely to promote (to quote Mr. Sloan again) "understanding" as opposed to "grandstanding."

P.s. On a somewhat related note, see today's Wash Post article about the Democrats' renewed emphasis on the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fisk on Israel, the EU, and NATO

With a sarcasm that may not be entirely unjustified, Robert Fisk blasts Israel's close political-military ties to NATO and the EU. It's no doubt the case, as Fisk writes, that Britain spends millions of pounds annually on weapons licenses for Israel and that NATO conducts military exercises with Israeli soldiers (as indicated by the recent helicopter crash in Romania in which several IDF members were killed).

Let's suppose, however, that NATO and the EU were to hold Israel more at arm's length. Would that affect its military capabilities? Almost certainly not, not as long as the U.S. is committed to $3-billion-plus in annual military aid to Israel aimed at ensuring that Israel maintains what is called in Washington policy circles its "qualitative military edge," or QME. The U.S.-Israel military relationship, and its untouchability in U.S. politics, makes the EU and NATO angles a sideshow. The problem is not so much that the U.S. gives Israel a huge amount of military hardware as that this connection is treated as effectively separate from U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In attempts to put pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction, for instance, the U.S. begins with one hand tied behind its back, since Israel knows that the U.S. would never threaten to cut down assistance or do anything else that would jeopardize Israel's QME. (Occasionally in the past the U.S. has withheld loan guarantees, but this sort of action has been very rare.) If you deprive yourself ab initio of your main source of leverage, you aren't going to be able to exercise much leverage: that's pretty obvious.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The UN water rights resolution

The UN General Assembly today declared access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation a human right, in a resolution that no country opposed but on which 41, including the U.S., abstained. The abstainers raised various objections, one of which had to do with the status of an ongoing 'process' on the subject at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, another with the alleged absence of a basis in international law for declaring the right to water a "free-standing" right (as the British delegate put it).

2.6 billion people, or roughly 40 percent of the world's population, lack access to sanitation, and nearly a billion people lack access to clean water. This resolution, like all General Assembly resolutions, is non-binding and must be seen as aspirational. It apparently does not commit states to any specific actions, though it does call on them to "scale up" efforts to transfer technology and expertise that would improve the situation. Aspirational resolutions are not meaningless, and abstaining on this particular one makes little sense. It only makes the abstainers look small-minded and mean-spirited. Moreover, pronouncements about the "existing state of international law" merely reinforce the accurate perception that international law in this respect is in need of renovation.

Update: S. Carvin at Duck of Minerva has a longer post about this here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Trundling out The Liberal Tradition in America

I know I said I was reverting to silence, but hey...one of the benefits of writing an obscure blog is being able to ignore one's own pronouncements.

I just skimmed through a piece by Michael Desch (published as part of a symposium in PS, available here), who uses a line from Louis Hartz's classic The Liberal Tradition in America to explain the continuity between the Bush and Obama counter-terrorism policies. There is in fact some continuity; indeed, in certain respects -- e.g., more use of special forces operations in various parts of the world, more use of drone strikes -- the Obama admin has taken a more 'pro-active' counter-terror line than the Bush administration. (On the other hand, the Obama admin has been less inclined to sacrifice civil liberties on the altar of counter-terrorism than the Bush people were.)

Hartz's book, published in 1955 (when he was in his mid-thirties), has had a long afterlife. Desch quotes a sentence about liberalism's finding non-liberal ideas "unintelligible" and the effect this has on foreign policy. (I confess to never having read Hartz's book; I have, however, read Robert Packenham's 1973 book Liberal America and the Third World, which uses Hartz to explain and criticize U.S. efforts to advance 'political development' in poor countries.)

As a postscript, it should be pointed out, to avoid possible misunderstanding, that Hartz was not using "liberal" mainly in the liberal-versus-conservative sense of contemporary political debate, but rather to refer to a basic set of ideas that go back to the Founding and that have been broadly shared across the American political spectrum.

P.P.S. For discussion of Hartz's career at Harvard, which ended with his early retirement from teaching in 1974, see Paul Roazen's introduction to The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (Transaction, 1990), his edition of Hartz's lectures on that subject.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

And one more thing...

...before I revert to silence for a while. This post throws light on one of the reasons so many immigrants, particularly from poorer countries south of the border, are in the U.S. illegally -- the reason in question being that the U.S. makes it virtually impossible for unskilled workers to get green cards that would enable them to migrate legally.
H/t: IPE at UNC (link at the sidebar).

60th anniversary of start of the Korean War

The NewsHour tonight had a segment on this, including a 90-second-or-so refresher on the background. I won't say more, because I'm on a summer break from posting.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Let them eat dark chocolate

A recent issue of Perspectives on Politics (vol. 8, no. 1, March 2010) carries a symposium on Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), by Douglass North, John J. Wallis, and Barry Weingast (NW&W).

The first review in the symposium is by Jack Snyder, who writes that NW&W "aim at nothing less than explaining democracy, economic development, and domestic social peace, which, they say, tend to go together for reasons that have heretofore eluded explanation by social science. The 'omitted factor' that they say causes these good outcomes is the 'open access' pattern of social relationships, based on impersonal rules that provide universal access to the benefits of political and economic organizations (p.13)."

Snyder hastens to assure us that this is more than "an all-too-familiar paean to the benign efficiency of democratic and market institutions, which," he notes with considerable understatement, "might be off-putting to some readers in the wake of the global financial meltdown." Rather, NW&W's distinction between open-access societies and limited-access societies (which they call "natural states") has, according to Snyder, "profound implications for efforts to engineer democratic and economic development."
"Like recent research on red wine and dark chocolate, everything you thought was bad for you turns out to be good, and vice versa. Orderly corruption and electoral manipulation turn out to be good in natural states, because they preserve social peace and allow the gradual development of rule-governed relations among elites [except, one might think, in places where civil wars are already ongoing, but never mind that--LFC]. Natural states advance toward impersonal social relations by partial steps as they mature. Instead of making an unsustainable leap to create encompassing impersonal categories like 'citizen,' they create semi-impersonal categories that treat all individuals of a given status -- nobles, clerics, whites, party members -- as juridical equals. Once rule of law and impersonal forms of organization are established among elites in this way, such practices can be extended to the entire population, if an elite faction sees an advantage in it."
Snyder observes that this supports "the view that successful democratic transitions need to be carried out in a sequence," starting with the construction of administrative and legal institutions and only then moving to "unfettered mass electoral politics."

Fair enough, I suppose -- but it seems to me that the stuff about natural states advancing gradually rather than "leap[ing] to create encompassing impersonal categories like 'citizen'" fails to capture certain important events in "recorded human history" -- such as, say, the French Revolution. Since I've only read the review, not the book itself, I hesitate to be too critical. Still, it does give one pause.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The summer break from posting...

...will now resume.

Grumpy observation of the day

I've been listening to some, not all, of the Kagan hearings. Today Kagan said (among many other things, of course) that a judge's or Justice's personal moral values should have no connection to her judging, and that constitutional adjudication is "law all the way down" (while acknowledging that many difficult legal questions arise on which reasonable judges can disagree about what the law requires, etc.). The notion that a judge's personal moral values have, and should have, absolutely no connection to his or her judging in any constitutional cases seems divorced from reality, and when an extremely intelligent person is put into the position of having to say something like this, perhaps the time has come to get rid of public confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominees.

At least Kagan did say forthrightly that the original intent of the framers is only one factor that should be considered, and not always the most important or appropriate one, in deciding cases; she pointed out that many of the Supreme Court's free speech cases have interpreted the First Amendment in more expansive ways than the framers would have. That was a point well made -- and, incidentally, it served to highlight the absurdity of some assertions made by Senators about the framers. Sen. Cardin, for instance, said that the framers would have agreed with Brown v. Bd. of Education. This statement is either fairly pointless -- requiring one to ask what Madison, had he been alive in 1954, would have thought of the Brown decision -- or completely ahistorical. As anyone who has ever taken a junior high school civics class or a basic U.S. history course probably recalls, the Constitution tolerated not only segregation but also slavery (though it did provide for the eventual abolition of the slave trade), and it took the Civil War, and the post-Civil War amendments to the Constitution, to change that. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison viewed the original Constitution, because of its failure to confront slavery, as "a covenant with death and an agreement with hell." It's not necessary to endorse this precise language to see that the pre-Civil War Constitution was a deeply flawed document, something that should be kept in mind whenever people start blathering about the supposedly sacrosanct intent of the Framers.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer break

I'll be taking a break from posting for a couple of months (starting now).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The yuan saga continues

The Chinese central bank's somewhat vague statement that it will move toward a "more flexible" exchange rate has drawn a range of reactions, from welcoming to highly guarded. This will be an important issue at the G-20 and beyond.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Time warp, Pakistan version

Today, northwest Pakistan is one of the more dangerous places on earth. It was not always so.

In 1965 an American couple then residing in East Pakistan with their two young children took a combined business-pleasure excursion to West Pakistan (leaving the children at home). The trip was reported in a letter to a relative in the U.S. For personal reasons I have redacted first names.
March 24, 1965
...Did I write you about our trip to West Pakistan -- [we] were gone from Feb. 28 - March 8 and left the children here [i.e., in Dacca] with a young American school teacher. All went very well. [The writer's husband] was a delegate to the Pakistan Economic Conference in Peshawar so we had a free trip. Drove to the Khyber Pass and had a two-day holiday in the beautiful Swat valley. Also caught the first day of the famous Horse Show in Lahore. Next trip: April 11-18 -- with the children.
Let's hope a time will again come when travelers are able to write "drove to the Khyber Pass and had a two-day holiday in the beautiful Swat valley."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Voltaire and coffee

A recent comment thread on Crooked Timber about the new Texas curriculum guidelines led me (once again inwardly bemoaning certain deficiencies in my education) to glance at the long-ish Wikipedia entry on Voltaire. At the end of the section headed "Legacy," there is this: "Voltaire was also known to have been an advocate for coffee, as he was purported to have drunk the beverage at least 30 times per day. It has been suggested that high amounts of caffeine acted as a mental stimulant to his creativity" (citing a 2005 Washington Monthly review of a book on the history of coffee).

Thirty times a day? Yikes. I drink one cup of coffee in the morning -- and not even every morning, sometimes forgoing it in favor of tea. But then, I'm no Voltaire (chorus: Boy, you can say that again!).

'The African Renaissance' in stone

I haven't referred a lot to Africa here, especially not recently, but I found this post by Timothy Burke, with accompanying photo, interesting. (More substantive remarks on it later, time permitting.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Democracy, deception, and war

In my inbox today was an e-mail from the journal International Security containing links to a podcast and to a recent article by John Schuessler. The podcast is a conversation about the article between Schuessler and the journal's editor, Sean Lynn-Jones. (Links below.)

The article, which I have only looked at quickly, examines the ways in which FDR (allegedly) tried to "manufacture" public consent for entry into WW2 by deceiving the public about some of his actions and intentions. Schuessler concludes that this is one case in which deception of this sort was in the national interest. (Note: For a better summary of the article's argument, see the link at the end of this post, which will take you to the abstract; you can also download the pdf of the article for free.)

From a theoretical standpoint, what is going on here, as I understand it from the podacst and a glance at the article, and put in an oversimplified fashion, is this: Dan Reiter and Allan Stam have argued that democracies tend to win the wars they fight, in large part because leaders, constrained by the necessity of obtaining public consent, generally choose to enter wars where victory is likely to be easy. Schuessler says: Hang on a minute. What about those cases where the leader thinks that, for security reasons, a war is necessary, but the war does not promise to be quick and easy? In those cases the leader may resort to deception rather than take his or her chances with trying to persuade the public directly of the war's necessity. America's entry into WW2 and the way FDR approached it, Schuessler argues, was such a case. (Obviously, the reference here is to the period before Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declaration of war against Japan was a foregone conclusion, and Germany's declaration of war on the U.S. brought it directly into the European war, thus fulfilling FDR's original aim, at least according to this argument.)

Now, this argument may be right, but how often are such cases likely to arise? Schuessler himself suggests in the podcast that WW2 was exceptional. If it was an exceptional case, then it may reveal some interesting things about when and how a leader resorts to deception, but it can't pose a severe challenge to the Reiter/Stam thesis. The most it can it do is present an addendum to the thesis, i.e.: yes, leaders of democracies generally choose "easy" wars, but in rare cases 'realist' reasons will incline them to "non-easy" wars and then deception may come into play. Of course one has to add a couple of other complications: (1) wars that most people think are going to be "easy" but turn out not to be (e.g., Iraq 2003); (2) wars that leaders believe mistakenly are necessary for security reasons (I would be very inclined to put the Vietnam War in this category).

So, deception -- accepting for the sake of argument the claim that FDR did engage in it -- may have been in the national interest in the run-up to U.S. entry into WW2, but more often, or so I would argue, deception will not turn out to be in the national interest (Vietnam, Iraq). When in doubt, then, the rule of thumb for a leader in a democracy should probably still be: Go directly to the people, explain your case straightforwardly, and hope they agree with you that the costs -- even if they promise to be high -- are worth bearing. (Whatever you think about the "Afghan surge," for example, it is clear that this is basically the approach Obama took when explaining why he ordered it. Admittedly the example is not on all fours since it involved an ongoing -- i.e., inherited -- war, and an undeclared one.)

Links: podcast; article.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The oil & energy speech

Without wanting to have turned it into a seminar, I think it would have been appropriate for the President to mention the historical roots of U.S. oil addiction -- namely, the cult of the private car, c. 1950 to the present, and the decisions it brought in train in terms of how the country's infrastructure and cities were developed. Otherwise, it was a decent speech, but it will take more than speeches to start tackling this problem as it should be tackled. Real political courage would have entailed proposing an increase in gas taxes, for example -- but in an election year and with a recession still not shaken, that was never in the cards.

Afghanistan: a sober assessment

Actually "sober" is an understatement for the picture that emerged from the NewsHour discussion tonight with Bacevich, Nagl, and Chandrasekaran.

Hitler and Mussolini in Florence, 1938

From Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa (Vintage pbk., 1995), p.42:
Hitler exhausted his Italian host by spending four hours in the Uffizi. Mussolini, trailing behind, was heard to murmur in exasperation, "Tutti questi quadri... [All these pictures...]." Their guide, the anti-Nazi director of the German Art Institute, Dr. Friedrich Kriegsbaum, tried to keep the Führer moving along, fearing that Mussolini might give Hitler something he particularly admired, such as Cranach's famous Adam or Eve.
...and if you don't think this is funny, we don't have the same sense of humor.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The detritus of war

Leila Fadel, reporting from Fallujah, had a piece in the June 4 Wash. Post ("U.S. Military's Castoffs Find a Market Among Iraqis," p.A8) about the stuff left behind by U.S. forces. A few excerpts:
"The remnants of the U.S. occupation of Iraq are being sold to the highest bidders in yard sales across the country. The outskirts of cities like Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi -- once bastions of the Sunni insurgency -- are now destinations for bargain hunters interested in items such as generators and trailers. As the U.S. military draws down to 50,000 troops by the end of the summer, the junk left behind is quickly becoming part of the Iraqi landscape.... Entire villages pitch in to buy large generators and water purifiers, which are then shared. Many Iraqis still lack reliable running water and electricity.... [N]ew [U.S.] rules allow commanders to donate equipment worth $30 million at each base they hand over....

Rukaya Abdul Aziz, 32, recently held her youngest child inside her new home. Her past two houses were destroyed in U.S. attacks, she said.... The only shelter she and her husband...could find to replace their homes was a trailer once used as a latrine. They scrubbed it clean, took off the back and used concrete to build an extra room. 'We wanted something that wasn't American, but this was the biggest we could afford,' she said. 'We had no choice.'"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Judt on Israel

A friend kindly draws my attention to Tony Judt's NYT op-ed column today, which is worth reading. I would quibble with only a couple of his points, one of which is the statement that "Israel belies the comfortable American cliché that 'democracies don't make war.' "

First, 'democracy promotion' has taken a back seat in the Obama admin's foreign policy compared to that of G.W. Bush (type "democracy promotion" into the search box, top left-hand corner, if you want to see my earlier post on this), so it's not clear that "democracies don't make war" is still considered a truism in official circles, if indeed it ever was. (I haven't read the Obama admin's recently released National Security Strategy, which they're required to churn out periodically, so I don't know what the new NSS says about this, if anything.)

Second, insofar as Judt might perhaps be trying to make a reference to what IR types know as "the democratic peace," he's garbled it. The 'democratic peace' theory (DPT for short) holds that 'mature' or established democracies do not make war with each other. It does not say that democracies are peaceful; it only says they are peaceful in their relations with each other. Thus only a war between two countries that are both considered (or coded) as democratic contradicts DPT. Indeed a whole body of contested research maintains that democracies not only make war, but tend to do so more successfully than non-democracies. This controversy in the literature couldn't exist if there were not a full historical record of democracies' involvement in wars.

OK, so much for the pedantic side-excursion. Judt's main points -- including that Israel should be willing to negotiate with Hamas before Hamas meets all of Israel's current preconditions -- seem right to me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Another step forward (?) for commodified, homogenized education

According to a front-page story in today's Wash Post by Michael Birnbaum (link here), the Montgomery County, Maryland public school system is selling the rights to an elementary school curriculum-in-development to Pearson, a huge, for-profit publisher of textbooks and other educational materials. The superintendent says the school system is broke and needs the money. That may be, but public school systems should not be striking these kinds of deals with for-profit companies, certainly not with enormous conglomerates like Pearson. Such a deal carries the potential for conflicts of interest and, more importantly, it doesn't seem right. In return for a two-and-a-quarter million dollar advance and a smallish percentage of royalties, school officials "will open their classrooms to prospective customers [of Pearson] and speak on behalf of the program at Pearson's request."

And who's going to buy the product? The article's second paragraph says the curriculum will be sold "around the world," but is that likely? Most countries want to control their own curricula, I would think. Why should a school district in country X buy a pre-packaged curriculum designed in the United States? More likely is that the Montgomery County curriculum will be sold to other U.S. school systems. But which ones? Surely states like New York and Massachusetts, for example, which have their own elaborate educational bureaucracies, standards, and system-wide tests, could not possibly have any interest in this, or so I would guess. But Pearson obviously thinks it can sell it, otherwise it wouldn't be shelling out the 2 million bucks. A clue may be that, as the article reports, the curriculum, although geared to give more time to social studies and art by "integrating them" with reading, writing, and math, also "will be aligned with new common core standards for math and reading that are quickly being adopted across the country, including Maryland and the District."

The whole thing, in short, seems to further the tide of commodification and homogenization that appears to be engulfing public education in this country.

Monday, June 7, 2010

'The Wounded Platoon'

I've been meaning to mention the Frontline program of this name, which I saw last month and which is worth watching, especially if you're interested in or concerned about the psychic effect of war (PTSD, etc.) or "hidden" physical effects (TBI, e.g.) and how the U.S. military does or doesn't address these.
On a related note, I saw in the library today Nancy Sherman's new book The Untold War
. Unfortunately I probably won't get a chance to read it, at least not any time soon.
P.S. See also here.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Loosen the blockade

Freud's Little Hans, in the famous case study of that name, said: "Doing's not wanting, and wanting's not doing," or something to that effect. Adopting (or adapting) this syntax, one might say: "Moral's not (necessarily) legal, and legal's not (necessarily) moral."

In more standard English: Some people may have had time to absorb the dueling salvos of pundits and experts, self-appointed or otherwise, about the legality of the Gaza blockade. I have had neither the time nor inclination to do so. I glanced at a Charles Krauthammer column, which I couldn't bring myself actually to read, which cited a piece by Leslie Gelb that apparently defends the legality of the blockade. That view, however, is strongly disputed here, on the grounds that Israel remains in "effective" occupation of Gaza, controlling among other things its airspace and territorial waters, despite the 2005 withdrawal of settlers.

Apart from the question of its legality, the blockade in its current form is politically and morally bad, restricting as it does certain essential humanitarian items including medical equipment. The Obama admin. is apparently bringing some pressure to bear on Israel to reconsider how the blockade is administered, and the Israeli government itself is reviewing the matter. A loosening would be only a temporary improvement in an awful situation, but that would be better than nothing. All this is certainly not to deny Israel's legitimate security concerns vis-a-vis Hamas, but there must be a better way of balancing the considerations than the situation that exists now.

In January 2009, in a comment attached to this post, I expressed the view that an action (or actions) could be immoral even if lawful under international law, and I'm basically just reiterating that.

Friday, June 4, 2010

J. Sides versus M. Lilla

Mark Lilla has a New York Review piece on the Tea Party that has been getting some attention. John Sides at The Monkey Cage thinks Lilla is wrong, among other things, to argue that there has been a secular (i.e. non-cyclical) decline over time in the U.S. population's trust in government. I think Sides makes some telling criticisms on a number of points, but on this particular point he hasn't completely convinced me. I left a comment at his post explaining why.
Update: Sides responds here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lunacy on stilts

All Things Considered ran a piece this evening about a new shopping mall in East Harlem whose tenants -- mostly big retailers -- have agreed to hire a proportion of their work forces from among local residents. One of the retailers (Best Buy, I believe, though don't quote me on that) was reported to be proud that it had hired one of every two local applicants.

Why were the others turned down? Well, some of them, when asked in the interview why they wanted to work for the company, had replied that they needed a job -- and this was disqualifying!!

Here we have a program designed to encourage and facilitate the hiring of poor, inner-city residents, and an applicant fails if s/he tells the prospective employer that he or she wants to work for it because he or she needs a job. What is the applicant supposed to say? "I like meeting new people"? "I've always wanted to work for Best Buy/Costco/whoever"? "My goal is to be the manager of a retail establishment and this job will be a first step toward that goal"? Your guess is as good as mine. The point is that honesty is penalized and b.s. is rewarded. To someone immersed in the through-the-looking-glass culture of corporate America, this may make sense. To a sane person with some distance from that culture, it is crazy -- totally, thoroughly nuts.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Quote of the day

Ari Shavit, writing in Haaretz:
"During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We've progressed. Today it's clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government."
Full column here.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Civic spirit, sacrifice, and the draft

The question Should the U.S. bring back the draft? has been hovering around the edges of political discourse in this country for a while, notwithstanding that the chances of its happening are minimal to zero. The reason the question continues to hover, I think, is that it taps into an ongoing uneasiness about the distribution of sacrifice at a time when the U.S. is involved in two active wars (albeit one of which, Iraq, appears to be in a gradual end-phase as far as U.S. military involvement is concerned).

The point of this post is not to offer a yes or no answer to the question, but simply to raise the issue, which I've not done here before (to the best of my recollection). Given the approach of Memorial Day, this seems like an appropriate time to do it.

I'll start with a quotation, something Michael Sandel wrote five years ago:
"Notwithstanding the outpouring of patriotism in the immediate aftermath of September 11, and the sacrifices being made by the soldiers in Iraq, American politics lacks an animating vision...of the shared obligations of citizenship. A few weeks after the terrorist attacks of 2001, President Bush...was asked why he had not called for any sacrifices from the American people as a whole. He replied that the American people were sacrificing by enduring longer lines at airports. In a 2004 interview in Normandy, France, on the anniversary of D-Day, NBC's Tom Brokaw asked the President why he was not asking the American people to sacrifice more.... Bush seemed mystified, replying, 'What does that mean, "sacrifice more"?' Brokaw offered the example of World War II rationing and restated his question: 'There's a great sense, I think, that there's a disconnect between what the American military people are doing overseas and what Americans are doing at home.' Bush replied: 'America has been sacrificing. Our economy hasn't [been] as strong as it should be, and there's -- people haven't been working. Fortunately, our economy's now strong, and it's getting stronger.'

"That Democrats did not seize the theme of sacrifice, and that Bush scarcely understood the question, testifies to the dulled civic sensibilities of American politics in the early years of the twenty-first century. Without a compelling account of the public purpose, the electorate [in the presidential election of 2004--LFC] settled, in a time of terror, for the security and moral certitude they associated with the incumbent President." [1]
Sandel's approving reference to Brokaw's mention of World War II is one of many indications that, as the historian David A. Bell wrote a couple of years ago, "in the United States, our equivalent of the [French] legend of [the mass levy of] 1793 is the legend of World War II. Particularly today..., the years 1941-45 have come to be regarded as a veritable American Golden Age.... instead of treating the war [WWII] as a truly exceptional moment in American history -- a combined moment of industrialized mass warfare and real national peril -- we treat it as a paradigmatic one. It has become the standard against which we measure ourselves and, not surprisingly, find ourselves wanting." [2]

Bell went on to argue that the civic reason for reinstating the draft -- to even the distribution of sacrifice and "provide the population as a whole with a common civic experience" -- receives little support from "the overall history of modern Western democracies":
"At the height of the French Revolution, during a legislative debate on the war, a deputy to the Legislative Assembly grandly declared that 'if we are not yet Spartans or Athenians, we will become them.' But in fact, we are not Spartans or Athenians, and will never become them. Which is to say, we will never accept the infringement on individual liberty represented by conscription other than as a direct response to extreme danger. To do otherwise is simply not in our civic nature." [3]
I'm not certain that experts in the history of systems of military service (of which I'm not one) would agree that
"we will never accept the infringement on individual liberty represented by conscription other than as a direct response to extreme danger." The last time the U.S. had a draft was during the height of the Vietnam War, and in that case publicly articulated opposition to the draft was couched, for the most part, in terms of opposition to that particular war. It was not primarily framed in terms of "we are not Spartans or Athenians" and therefore conscription, except in highly unusual circumstances, is alien to our "civic nature." How much doubt this casts on Bell's argument is, I suppose, debatable -- opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft was, to use the jargon of social science, overdetermined -- but it does perhaps suggest that the question is a bit more complicated than Bell allows.
1. Michael J. Sandel, Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics (2005), p.3.
2. David A. Bell, "When the Levee Breaks: Dissenting from the Draft," World Affairs (Winter 2008), p.66.
3. Ibid., p.67.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Yoo on Kagan

John Yoo's critique of Elena Kagan's views on presidential power raises some rather odd questions, such as: What if Congress forbids the President from firing a subordinate? Come on, Prof. Yoo: How often has that happened in, say, the last 30 years?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Prince of shlock

We're approaching the summer movie season, when good actors embarrass themselves by appearing in bad movies. Case in point: Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The synopsis, which I take from IMDb, goes something like this: An adventurous prince teams up with a rival princess to stop a villain from destroying the world with a sandstorm.

Would you pay ten dollars to see this? I think I might pay ten dollars not to have to know about it. Too late for that, unfortunately.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Sure, let's hold joint naval exercises, what a great idea...

In response to the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel two months ago, apparently by North Korea, the U.S. has announced that it will hold joint naval exercises with the South. The main point of this kind of thing is to demonstrate U.S. support for the South. However, if the presence of 28,500 U.S. soldiers in South Korea does not already show enough support for the South, it's hard to see that joint naval exercises will add much. As Selig Harrison observed on the NewsHour tonight, there are other steps that might make more sense, such as, for starters, settling the long-running maritime boundary dispute between the two Koreas. Even though the disputed boundary apparently did not figure in the latest incident, it has been an ongoing source of tension. I don't know the details of this dispute at all, but in theory at least most maritime boundary disputes are not that intractable (unless they involve title to islands, which I don't believe is the case here). Lock the parties in a big room or two, along with a bunch of experts, maps, surveys, fancy technical equipment, food and drink, and let no one out until the thing is settled. With the maritime boundary issue out of the way, they could get on to some other matters, like finally negotiating a formal end to the Korean War.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Annals of self-defeating decisions

Israeli immigration officials have barred Noam Chomsky from entering the West Bank, where he was scheduled to speak at Birzeit University. An Israeli interior ministry spokeswoman said the whole thing is just a misunderstanding. Chomsky's Palestinian host was of a different opinion. You don't particularly have to be a Chomsky fan to realize that this is a classic case of a government shooting itself in the foot.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Sexual abuse and terrorist activity: is there a connection?

Jessica Stern, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School and author of The Ultimate Terrorists, gave a talk recently at the University of Maryland that I attended. Part of the talk covered the same ground as her article "Mind Over Martyr: How to Deradicalize Islamist Extremists" (Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2010; link here [full text requires subscription]).

Rather than summarize the whole talk or article, I'll focus on one point. Stern writes:
"One element worth examining...is the potential impact of sexual abuse on radicalization. Much has been written about the role of radical madrasahs in creating terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere.... Outside of the Pakistani press, however, little note is made of the routine rape of boys at such schools. Also troubling is the rape of boys by warlords, the Afghan National Army, or the police in Afghanistan. Such abuses are commonplace on Thursdays...because Friday prayers are considered to absolve sinners of all wrongdoing. David Whetham, a specialist in military ethics at King's College London, reports that security checkpoints set up by the Afghan police and military have been used by some personnel to troll for attractive young men and boys on Thursday nights. The local population has been forced to accept these episodes as par for the course: they cannot imagine defying the all-powerful Afghan commanders. Could such sexual traumas be a form of humiliation that contributes to contemporary Islamist terrorism?"
The answer is not known, but in her talk Stern mentioned that several jihadists she has interviewed have hinted at this. The Western press has reported in recent years on the rape of women and girls in war zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Scholars who study the intersection of gender and conflict also have written about the sexual exploitation of women and girls. But the fact that males can be and are victims of sexual exploitation has not been as widely discussed (except in the context of the clergy abuse scandal), and the possible connections to terrorist recruitment and behavior have not been investigated.
Note: See also the Frontline (PBS) program "The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan"; link here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Let's wait for the hearings

I've commented at Crooked Timber (see the comment thread attached to this post) about Obama's choice of Kagan for the Supreme Court and am not going to repeat myself at length here. I would have preferred a different nominee, but this choice is defensible, and it may turn out to be better than some now think. Perhaps we shouldn't rush to judgment and should wait for the confirmation hearings, though they have in recent years become something of a pre-scripted farce. Still, the hearings do reveal a little about how a nominee handles herself or himself in a highly public situation. For a biographical profile of Kagan, see here.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Symbolic milestone in Red Square

For the first time, soldiers from Britain, the U.S., and France have participated in a V-E Day parade in Moscow. The event was not entirely free of diplomatic tensions, however, as Vladimir Putin apparently disinvited both Prince Charles and V.P. Biden. On the other hand, official relations between Russia and Israel may be improving.

Symbols and symbolic occasions, of course, have been and still are important elements of international politics, although evidently I haven't paid a lot of attention to them in this blog. A search on "symbols" turns up only one post, for a quoted reference to border walls as "symbols of separation."