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