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 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."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Point counterpoint

Today's issue:

Did nationalism -- or proto-nationalist sentiment -- exist in late-medieval and early-modern Europe?

, says Daniel Nexon:
"Early modern European politics...lacked a fundamental feature of contemporary politics: nationalism. The tight connection between nation and the state represented by the ideal of 'national self-determination' simply did not exist in dynastic agglomerations.... Local identities remained far more important than the still inchoate notions of patria or nation.... Dynasts might, often through propaganda, argue that their dynastic interests and the interests of their holdings were synonymous. Sometimes they succeeded, but there was nothing obvious about the harmony of dynastic ambitions and the interests of a kingdom or principality. As J.H. Shennan remarks, 'We should beware of misinterpreting aspects of the consolidation of princely authority in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries as evidence of proto-national sentiment.' " [1]

, says Norman Housley:
"...the extent to which the members of Europe's political communities felt united by national feeling in the late Middle Ages remains hotly disputed.... Bernard Guenée provided a useful analytical framework for the ways in which national sentiment developed. Nomenclature (Francia, Alemania, Polonia, and so on), a common language, a sense of geographical cohesion, shared religious traditions (above all, 'national' saints), and the consciousness of a common history, were all important motors for national feeling; while for the historian, they form indices for the strength of that feeling at any given point. Thus, for Guenée, 'the fact that neither the states nor the subjects of the duke of Burgundy had a common name was more of a threat to Charles the Bold than the policies of Louis XI'.... Guenée and others have also placed emphasis on dynastic continuity, administrative advances, a sense of resentment against privileged and intrusive foreigners, and above all the homogenizing burden of war, as contributory factors in the growth of national feelings. Some historians, including myself, believe that the result was a national sentiment of considerable vigour, which was closely bound up with the development of European statehood." [2]
1. Daniel H. Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 94-95.

2. Norman Housley, "Pro deo et patria mori: Sanctified Patriotism in Europe, 1400-1600," in P. Contamine, ed., War and Competition Between States (Clarendon Press/Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 225-226.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

David Rohde interview

I caught part of this on the radio this afternoon. Click here.

What's at stake in the British election

Courtesy of Henry Farrell, here's a link to a piece on the Foreign Affairs website about the UK election.

I read the first two paragraphs of the piece. In the second paragraph, the authors manage to work in the famous line from The Communist Manifesto, "all that is solid melts into air."

As the (generic) kids say, I'm like: O-kay, I can read the rest of this later.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

David Obey won't seek re-election

One of the leading liberal Democrats in the House and chair of the Appropriations Committee, he has been in Congress since 1969. This is not welcome news.

Jupiter and Mars

With protests in Greece, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in New York, and various other things going on, is it frivolous to post about a song? Of course, but this blog flies under the radar to such an extent that I've decided it doesn't matter.

Last night's 'American Idol' (yes, I do watch it occasionally) reminded me how much I like 'Fly Me to the Moon,' made popular by Sinatra (though others have sung it, and someone else, perhaps Tony Bennett, might have sung it first). Unfortunately, a quick search of Youtube just now did not yield a version that I especially like. The closest was this 1966 TV clip of Sinatra singing it in front of Nelson Riddle's orchestra. The decor and everything else has a rather dated feel, but it can't spoil the song.

The clip is here.

(And/or you can go to the 'Idol' website and watch last night's performance of the song by Aaron [don't remember his last name], which was quite good.)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ethnic grievances and civil conflict

Some political scientists think that grievances of ethnic groups stemming from (real or perceived) injustices are so widespread that they cannot be causes (or proximate causes, at any rate) of civil wars or conflict. But in this post, Lars-Erik Cederman explains why he and some other researchers believe the jury is still out on this issue.
[Hat tip: The Monkey Cage]

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Has Obama "spread the wealth"?

Looking back at this old post and the comments attached to it, I was reminded of the ruckus that Republicans made during the 2008 presidential campaign about Obama's alleged redistributionist beliefs. The then-candidate's remark to 'Joe the plumber' about "spreading the wealth" became a club that Republicans wielded mercilessly until election day.

Well, the Obama administration has been in office now for 15 months. Has it embarked on a concerted effort to redistribute wealth and income? Hardly. Rather, the administration's efforts on domestic policy have focused in large part on measures either to restore the status quo ante or to shore up safety nets in the face of the ongoing effects of the recession and the financial crisis. Health care reform as passed will, at some future point, raise tax rates a bit on upper-income taxpayers, and Congress I believe let the '01 Bush tax cuts, which primarily benefited the wealthy, expire. [Correction, 7/27/10: I was premature on this. They haven't expired yet.] But those are the only measures I can think of offhand which might be claimed to have some kind of redistributive effect. (Giving millions of more people access to health insurance, which the health care reform bill has as one of its main aims, is laudable but will not directly change the distribution of wealth or income much, if at all.)

In fact, it's the administration's relative lack of concern with redistribution, and its failure to move more aggressively to reduce unemployment and invest more heavily in public works, that has disturbed (to use a mild word) elements of the Left (or the progressive movement, if you prefer that terminology). For example, writing in the current issue of Democratic Left, Joseph M. Schwartz says:
"...the claim that the president's stimulus plan saved more than 2 million jobs...provides little solace to the some 25 million Americans either unemployed, underemployed, no longer searching for work or working far fewer hours than they need. Yet the administration is celebrating the creation of 140,000 (mostly temporary) jobs in March, when it would take job growth of 350,000 per month over the next 4 years (!) to replace the seven million jobs lost in the Great Recession (plus employ the 120,000 young persons who join the labor force each month)....

"President Obama fears that embracing the revenue-raising powers of progressive taxation opens him to charges of being a tax-and-spend, weak-on-defense and craven-on-terrorism Democrat.... Yet what good does the president's buffing his neoliberal credentials do when such policies won't lower unemployment rates? These rates virtually guarantee electoral defeat for his party in 2010 and for himself in 2012! Why not tell the truth: that amid a collapse in private investment and consumption, only massive counter-cyclical public investment in alternative energy, mass transit, and infrastructure can put Americans back to work and restore the consumer demand needed to spur private capital investment?"
So there you have it: far from Obama's having fulfilled right-wing fears that his "socialist" administration would embark on a massive redistribution of wealth, 15 months after Obama took office the leading theoretician of Democratic Socialists of America is complaining about insufficient "counter-cyclical public investment" in terms that he probably could have applied in the same way to every other president since FDR! Chances are that no president will ever favor measures that will satisfy Joe Schwartz and those (like me) who share his domestic-policy views, because structural forces constantly push presidents to the perceived middle of the political spectrum. In any case it was always clear that Obama, despite his remarks to Joe the Plumber, was not a committed redistributionist. The whole idea was preposterous, a right-wing fantasy cooked up in a desperate, futile effort to salvage McCain's presidential campaign.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Quote of the day

Last month marked the 35th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. So for today's quote, here's one of the concluding paragraphs from Christopher Lasch's 1971 essay "The Foreign Policy Elite and the War in Vietnam" (reprinted in his The World of Nations, 1974). I'm not sure I agree entirely with everything in it, but that would have to be the subject of another post sometime.
"The [Vietnam] war is more than a generalized expression of American culture; it is also the particular expression of a particular class which has for too long played the dominant role in our affairs. This was not a war thrust on the country by reactionaries or marginal elements; it was a liberal war, the culmination of twenty years of cold war carried out under liberal auspices and reflecting the traditions of a ruling class supposedly enlightened, mature, and superior to the grosser strains in American life. The pretensions of the political elite have been thoroughly shattered by this debacle, and if the American people have learned anything from it, they will not again turn to a Johnson or a Kennedy merely because he presents himself to the public as more moderate than a Goldwater or a Nixon."