Sunday, September 30, 2012

Romney the frugal

Long article in WaPo about Romney and his money. A fortune in excess of $190 million and he takes small economies, e.g., not ordering Perrier in a restaurant but going across the street to a 7-Eleven, buying a six-pack of Perrier and bringing it back to the table.

I know what you're thinking: he would be so good with the deficit. Bullsh*t. It means he's neurotic. End of story.

You (all) can write the rest of this post yourself. Insert apposite quote from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Accuse me of ignoring the sociohistorical roots of irrational frugality. Accuse me of not realizing that every penny Romney saves on beverages is another penny he can donate to charity. Charge me with not understanding the profoundly self-reliant character of someone who...  Etc.

(P.s. I'm fairly frugal myself. But then I don't have a fortune in excess of $190 million, a beach house in San Diego, a mansion in New Hampshire, etc.) 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Why do Straussians write horrible books?

A tendentious question, yes. And one that suggests its own answer.

It occurs to me as a result of quickly reading this review of Charles Kesler's book on Obama, which sounds both awful and delusional (though in a more measured and intellectual way than, e.g., Dinesh D'Souza, who borders on being clinically insane).

Mark Lilla, the NYT Book Review's reviewer of Kesler's I Am the Change,  describes Kesler as a "Harvard-­educated disciple of the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss, an admirer of Cicero and the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan... [who] teaches at Claremont ­McKenna College [something of a hotbed of Straussianism--LFC] and is the editor of The Claremont Review of Books...."

So what is the overriding problem here? If you guessed "disciple of the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss," you're right!! Ding, ding, ding!! Go to the head of the class.

Strauss is polarizing (disciples adore him, others don't), and I hesitate to even suggest something to read for those who want to find out about him (though a piece by Myles Burnyeat in the New York Review of Books many years ago remains a good statement of the 'anti' case, I think). Also, Alan Gilbert at the Democratic Individuality blog has much to say about Strauss (none of it positive) in an erudite vein.

P.s. For a recent post by Ben Alpers about Strauss and one of the lesser-known of his works, see here.

P.p.s. Of course there's always the option of trying to read Strauss himself. (But life may be too short for that.)

P.p.p.s. About the only good thing I can say about Strauss is that, unlike some people, I do not hold him posthumously responsible for the invasion of Iraq.

Update: Strauss's colleague and collaborator Joseph Cropsey died this past summer. Obituary from U. of Chicago site here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The immorality of the U.S. drone war

I'm going to vote for Obama. I live in a safely blue state but, perhaps a bit irrationally, I don't feel like taking any chances. Romney in the White House would be horrible. There are important issues where the chasm between the two is wide and the Romney approach would be very bad. There is the issue of prospective Supreme Court appointments. And so on.

All that said, am I going to vote for Obama enthusiastically? No, I don't think I can say that. Conor Friedersdorf's description of the drone war (via CT) captures the major part of the reason:
The drone war [Obama] is waging in North Waziristan isn't "precise" or "surgical" as he would have Americans believe. It kills hundreds of innocents, including children. And for thousands of more innocents who live in the targeted communities, the drone war makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels. People are always afraid. Women cower in their homes. Children are kept out of school. The stress they endure gives them psychiatric disorders. Men are driven crazy by an inability to sleep as drones buzz overhead 24 hours a day, a deadly strike possible at any moment. At worst, this policy creates more terrorists than it kills; at best, America is ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people and killing hundreds of innocents for a small increase in safety from terrorists. It is a cowardly, immoral, and illegal policy, deliberately cloaked in opportunistic secrecy. And Democrats who believe that it is the most moral of all responsible policy alternatives are as misinformed and blinded by partisanship as any conservative ideologue.
I'm hard pressed to do anything except agree with this. I don't share Friedersdorf's conclusion (he's voting for the libertarian candidate), but on this issue I think he's pretty much right. That is, he's right that it's an immoral policy. (He's not right in the conclusion that it requires a vote for someone other than Obama. Sometimes one has to vote for a candidate who is pursuing an immoral policy, if the other candidate with a chance to win would pursue more immoral policies.) 

Also, see a new study of the drone campaign described here (h/t).

P.s. (added later): As things I've written here before suggest, I recognize that the issue is not an easy one, given Pakistan's refusal to deal with the Haqqani network and other groups which have been carrying out cross-border attacks into Afghanistan from the border region. Still, the 'collateral' cost of drones, in terms of civilian casualties and hardship, makes the campaign in its current form hard to justify.  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Adam Elkus vs. John Mueller: Is war on the way out?

This is a propitious time, one might think, to be pushing back against the argument that war is obsolescent. A bloody, prolonged civil war is raging in Syria and major powers and international organizations seem unable or unwilling to stop it. In Yemen, tribal militias have been fighting al-Qaeda. In Pakistan and elsewhere, U.S. drone strikes continue. Then, of course, there is the war in Afghanistan. It doesn't seem as if war is on the way out -- until one looks a bit deeper and at long-term trends. Then the question becomes at least an open one.

Adam Elkus, in a piece at Infinity Journal, joins the ranks of those criticizing the war-is-obsolescent view. He is right, I think, to sound a cautionary note about John Mueller's thesis, in The Remnants of War, that war these days is becoming a matter of thugs and criminal gangs (assuming that's what Mueller said in The Remnants of War -- I've read some of Mueller's work but not that particular book).

Unfortunately, however, Elkus doesn't give some of Mueller's other arguments, as stated in his Retreat from Doomsday and in his 2009 article "War Has Almost Ceased to Exist" [pdf], their due. For example, why was World War I such an important turning point in this context? To read Elkus's piece, you'd think it was because the war was extraordinarily costly for certain countries, wiping out almost an entire generation of young men in several of the main belligerents. That's true, of course, but as Mueller points out in his 2009 article, a key fact is that an anti-war movement existed in the belligerent countries (certainly in Britain and to a lesser extent in some of the others) before the war. Thus an anti-war discourse was in the air, available for appropriation by broader groups of people (including writers and opinion-molders) after the war ended. That's important because the driver in Mueller's argument is ideational change. It's not just that World War I was extremely bloody. It's that a set of ideas existed and was in circulation before the war which, while largely ignored by most people in 1914, became increasingly plausible as the war dragged on and especially once it had ended and the enormous costs were fully visible and undeniable.

Elkus writes: "Indeed, the enduring popularity of overly tragic World War I histories like those of Barbara Tuchman suggest[s] an urgent need to portray major war as an irrational – even accidental – act rather than the result of determined political choices to engage in violence." This is, I think, largely beside the point. It doesn't matter, from the standpoint of Mueller's argument, whether WW1 was accidental or non-accidental, whether it was the result of "determined political choices to engage in violence" or not. What matters is that, whatever one's view of the war's genesis, it had certain effects on the prevailing ideas about war in the West. Before WW1, serious, respectable people wrote about war as glorious, as necessary for the health of the species, and so forth. World War I marked, in effect, the end of the widespread glorification of war in the public discourse of the West. Elkus's piece, titled "Only the West Has Seen the End of War," suggests that he might implicitly understand this. But it is not made explicit in the piece. Rather, Elkus's unnecessarily dismissive reference to Tuchman's The Guns of August -- a book, don't forget, that apparently exercised a salutary influence on John F. Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, if certain accounts are correct -- is coupled with the message that there is an "urgent need" to portray major war as "irrational." But there is no such "urgent need." Obsolescence and irrationality are two different things. Mueller says major war in the 'developed' world has become unthinkable ("subrationally unthinkable" is his phrase), not "irrational." The two notions are not quite the same. 

Elkus is right about some things in this piece, for instance that the official military doctrines of China and Russia reveal "a strong appreciation for the role of force." But so, to some extent and indeed tautologically, do the official military doctrines of all major powers. The Pentagon is not going to issue a white paper declaring major war obsolescent. That doesn't mean major war is not obsolescent, it just means you're not going to read that in an official Pentagon document.

One might think Mueller, as an established scholar, needs no defenders. But there seems to be a growing tendency to dismiss or ignore or minimize his arguments. Thus Elkus's piece continues a  pattern. Maybe it's time for Mueller to do some pushing back of his own.

P.s. (added later): I recognize, of course, that fascism often glorified war. But the post-WW1 change in discourse and attitudes is nonetheless striking. 

P.p.s. In the opening of this post I also could have mentioned the recent fighting in Mali.

Fort Sumter and the Tonkin Gulf

I recently read Andrew Delbanco's essay The Abolitionist Imagination [Amazon link].  He traces the abolitionist impulse through U.S. history and into the present, detecting, for instance, "structural" (if not "substantive") similarities between the movement to abolish slavery and the anti-abortion (or 'pro-life') movement of today (pp.48-49), and  the movement for Prohibition in the early twentieth century (pp.46-47).

Delbanco's attitude toward the original abolitionists is ambivalent. Moreover, he views with some sympathy those who, despite being opposed to slavery, declined to join the abolitionists' ranks. He closes with a quotation from John Jay Chapman, who spoke of "the losing heroism of conservatism" with reference to "New England judge[s] enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law" (e.g., Lemuel Shaw) despite their personal opposition to it (pp.54-55).

My attitude to the abolitionists is more positive than Delbanco's, but I think he makes some interesting points even if I'm not persuaded by them. Toward the end of the essay he provocatively compares the Civil War to recent (and not-so-recent) American wars abroad (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq). I don't think these comparisons work. A quote or two will indicate the tenor of his argument.

He writes (p.43):
...[I]f we imagine ourselves living in the America of the 1850s, how sure can we be of our judgment on the question of intervention in what people of advanced views today might call "the indigenous culture" of the South?

Would we have regarded the firing on Fort Sumter as the abolitionists did -- as a welcome provocation to take up arms against an expansionist power? Or would we have regarded it as a pretext for waging war, akin to that notorious event in every baby boomer's memory, the Gulf of Tonkin incident? If we could have known in advance the scale of the ensuing carnage, would we have sided with those who considered any price worth paying to bring an end to slavery? Or would we have voted for patience, persuasion, diplomacy, perhaps economic sanctions -- the alternatives to war that most liberal-minded people prefer today in the face of manifest evil in faraway lands?

He pushes the point a little further (p.44):
Most of us live quite comfortably today with our knowledge of cruelty and oppression in nation-states whose exports are as essential to our daily lives as slave-grown cotton once was to the "free" North--yet few of us take any action beyond lamenting the dark side of "globalization." Are we sure we would have sided with those who insisted that all Americans--even if they had never seen, much less owned,a slave--had a duty forcibly to terminate the labor system of a region that many regarded, to all intents and purposes, as a foreign country? None of these questions yields an easy answer--but they should at least restrain us from passing easy judgment on those who withheld themselves from the crusade, not out of indifference but because of conscientious doubt.
An obvious problem with this line of thought is that although the South might have been seen in the North as a foreign country, the South was in fact part of the same country. As Delbanco himself observes earlier in the essay, Lincoln's original war aim was to preserve the Union, not to abolish slavery. It was only in the summer of 1862 that Lincoln's "mind was opening to new possibilities" (p.13), leading him to free the slaves in the Confederate states but not in border states that had remained in the Union.

Another point is that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was, at least on some accounts, completely manufactured: "North Vietnamese gunboats were probably operating in the area [of the U.S. destroyers Maddox and Turner], but no evidence has ever been produced to demonstrate that they committed hostile acts" (G. Herring, America's Longest War, 2d. ed., p.120). By contrast, there is no doubt that Fort Sumter was fired upon.

Then, too, it is far from clear that going to war to preserve an independent South Vietnam (i.e., independent of absorption into the Communist North) constituted in practice an especially noble goal, given that South Vietnam's rulers, from Diem to Thieu (and pre-Diem as well), were not exactly paragons of democratic legitimacy. By contrast, going to war to preserve the Union seems considerably more justified -- though not, I concede, an open-and-shut case. And to be sure, the Civil War proved very costly in terms of lives and I agree that has to be weighed (cf. Delbanco, p.54).

All this doesn't answer Delbanco's question of how sure we can be of our judgments had we been living in the 1850s. But it does suggest that some of the comparisons he draws are more than a bit strained.
Note: Delbanco's essay, originally a lecture, was published with several responses. I've looked at the responses but not properly read them.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Suu Kyi, Pussy Riot, and the corridors of power

Two WaPo reporters recount an event at the Newseum in which Aung San Suu Kyi, fresh from receiving her delayed Congressional Gold Medal, rubbed shoulders with supporters and relatives of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rocker feminists three of whom are now serving time in a Moscow prison for, in effect, insulting Vladimir Putin.

The WaPo reporters are taken with the notion of strange-seeming allies and with how, sooner or later, "everyone" (their word) comes to Washington, D.C. to make his or her "case."

I admire Suu Kyi (who doesn't?). I'm fine with Pussy Riot. But as someone who was born in Washington, D.C. and has lived much of his life in the city or its environs, I find the smug, self-congratulatory tone of the reporters' article, with its comfy assumption that "everyone" comes to Washington, D.C., to be false and somewhat repellent.

It reminds me of a D.C.-based bank (perhaps no longer in existence) which used to run advertisements, some years ago, referring to itself as "the most important bank in the most important city in the world." Pardon me while I reach for the barf bag.

Washington, D.C. is not the center of the universe. New York City is not the center of the universe. These are delusions held by people who have spent too much time in or around what the WaPo article calls, without really even a hint of irony, the "corridors of power."

The WaPo article quotes a Univ. of California professor who blogs about social movements on how cool it is for Suu Kyi and Pussy Riot to be sharing a stage and a spotlight. But the article is more interested in a faux anthropological-sociological analysis of the difference between being on Washington's A-list, which Suu Kyi is, and the contrasting status of the Pussy Riot people, who have to be driven by someone from Amnesty rather than getting a Secret Service escort.

Does anyone really care about this kind of gossipy trivia? The answer is apparently yes: readers of the WaPo Style section. Year after year, decade after decade, the Style section has specialized in this sort of thing, always guided by the comforting and false assumption that its readers unfolding the paper at breakfast were privileged participants in, or at least privileged onlookers to, the most important happenings in the most important place in the world.

That assumption was never true, but at least in the days when most readers unfolded a hard-copy Washington Post at breakfast it had a certain surface claim to wink-iness. As in: we the people writing and you the people reading this newspaper are (wink) important, we are (wink) in the know, we are (wink) where it's at, we are mere steps from the corridors of power. Now that many people read the paper online and can do it anywhere from Wheeling to Waukesha to Nairobi to Oslo, this kind of insular appeal no longer has even much surface plausibility.

But that hasn't stopped the Style section from continuing to use the same old figures of speech, the same old conceits, patting its (local, if not other) readers on the back for their enormous luck in happening to live where they do.

The reporters who churn out this stuff probably don't even know that the phrase "the corridors of power" was not coined by someone in D.C., not even by an American. It comes from the title of a novel by the British scientist and writer C.P. Snow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Romney's latest howler; or, he's no Reagan

Update: Turns out the Romney people cut off the last sentence of the Obama quote in question.

So now Romney is picking on Obama's 1998 remarks about "redistribution," claiming that redistribution has "never characterized America" (paraphrased). Ye gods. One has to be either profoundly ignorant or profoundly stupid (or both) to say such a thing. I guess I'll go with profoundly ignorant.

This is just more of the same old tired ploy of trying to portray Obama as a socialist. I know some socialists. Believe me, Obama is not one. And that will remain true no matter how often Romney repeats that he, Romney, is for a "free society" as opposed to a "government-centered" society, that he (Romney) knows that "redistribution" is so un-American, blah blah blah.

Ever since Reagan's election in 1980 Republicans have been trying to bottle the Reagan magic by repeating his bromides. But Reagan didn't win because of his bromides. He won because he projected an image of confidence and optimism. He was an actor by profession whose favorite recreation was to ride horses and split logs. Romney does not, as far as I know, split logs (although his wife does like horses). As a youth, Reagan was a lifeguard. Romney by contrast carried the hockey team's sticks and helped cut off a kid's hair because he thought it was too long. Romney's efforts to channel Reagan by repeating all this garbage about redistribution will fail. It's really a sign of desperation.

Added later (to cross the t's and dot the i's): Virtually every country's public policies are redistributive, both upward and downward, to one extent or another. That there is less redistribution, particularly less downward redistribution, in the U.S. than in certain other countries does not mean there is no redistribution at all or that the notion of redistribution is alien to the U.S.
Romney is interested in contrasting European domestic policies on redistribution to U.S. policies but this is a contrast that easily can be overdrawn. Of course, for political reasons Romney has an incentive to overdraw it, or at least he thinks he does.

A.m. linkage

- Annan interviewed on his new memoir.

- The new issue of International Relations is a special number on the Cuban missile crisis 50 years on.

Monday, September 17, 2012


Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (a/k/a, in the South, the Battle of Sharpsburg).

Nuclear insanity to the nth degree

The U.S. is set to spend billions on refurbishing the B-61 gravity nuclear bomb, the kind of thing Slim Pickens rode in the closing frames of Dr. Strangelove. Would that this were only a movie. A WaPo editorial observes that about half of the refurbished B-61s would replace ones that are currently deployed as 'tactical' weapons in Europe. The U.S. nuclear arsenal as a whole has to be maintained, I suppose, in some reasonable state of non-decrepitude but the notion of spending billions of dollars to refurbish tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is insane.

(note: edited slightly after first posting)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On citing articles without really bothering to read them

It's one thing to skim an article and write a blog post taking off from the article or commenting on an aspect of it; blogs are not journals. It's quite another thing to submit a paper to a refereed journal and cite an article for an opposite argument than the one it actually makes, or for some proposition it has nothing to say about. C. Blattman draws attention to the editors' notes in the current APSR which mention this as a widespread problem. If it is a widespread problem -- and although I don't follow the journals all that closely, I'm inclined to think it probably is -- it's deplorable. There are two possible reasons for this: carelessness or outright dishonesty. I've also noticed problems with the way books are cited, which the APSR editors also mention. Recently I've seen an article that cited a book for a proposition that the book had little or nothing to do with; I've also seen an article, in a 'top journal', that cited books this way, not once or twice but quite a lot: Smith 1998 or Jones 2002 -- no page numbers, no chapter numbers even, just the author's last name and the publication date. This is often both unhelpful and potentially misleading, as it can create the impression that the entire book fully supports whatever point in the text it's being cited for. It's certainly not a completely indefensible practice and there are times when it's entirely appropriate but, IMO, it should be used with some discrimination.

Just so I don't come off as a disgruntled grouch, there are of course still articles published which cite works in an exemplary way. But this shouldn't really be an issue at all. Part of the problem is that there is too much being published and authors are afraid their submissions will be rejected for failure to cite some allegedly relevant piece, so they will cram in tons of citations whether they have actually read them carefully or not.

I have had only one experience with submitting an article and getting readers' reviews of it -- it was about five years ago and the article was, admittedly, not fully baked (it was not drawn from my dissertation but was about something entirely different). There were two reports, one quite cursory, the other impressively long and detailed, both recommending rejection. The long, detailed report faulted the piece on several grounds ("undertheorized and empirically weak" is the phrase that I recall) but one of the criticisms was that I hadn't cited this, that and the other. The reviewer was right: I hadn't cited X and Y. Should I have? Quite possibly. On the other hand, I would rather have had the article rejected, as it was (I never did anything with it after that or tried to get it published anywhere else) than have cited works I hadn't actually read or at least looked at with sufficient care to determine what they were actually saying.

I think this post probably should be filed under "rants" but I'm just going to put it under "miscellaneous."

(P.s. I've published book reviews but they're a different kettle of fish than articles.)

Is it about the video?

Are the recent protests and assaults on U.S. facilities in the Muslim world about that anti-Muslim video made by some shady person in California? Yes, in the sense that the video was the proximate cause; but protests of this sort obviously don't happen unless there is a reservoir of anti-U.S. sentiment just waiting for a spark to give it expression. A WaPo piece largely on the situation in Egypt, highlighting the role of the Salafists and their political party, contains a few revealing quotes from people on the street.

“What happened in Egypt was the minimum response to the movie,” said Abdelrahman Said Kamel, 30, who was selling brightly colored women’s clothing at a street kiosk Saturday and said he had protested at the U.S. Embassy several times this week. “I can’t understand how America is trying to help us economically but insulting our prophet.”

Note the metonymic phrasing: America is insulting the prophet; the actions of an isolated crank are taken as representative of the whole country. Later in the same article another Egyptian is quoted as saying that the U.S. never helped Egypt; rather it helped the Mubarak regime keep Egyptians oppressed and unemployed. These views are widespread enough to make a spark like the video an effective catalyst of protest.

Dan Nexon notes that the video acted as a trigger because it fit "a particular pre-existing script concerning identity relations: 'Americans/Westerners hate/disrespect Islam/Muslims.'" I would only add that this script has existed for a long time and has proved very durable: statements by U.S. presidents and officials repeatedly distinguishing between Islam on the one hand and extremist violence on the other have not apparently had much effect in diminishing the script's force. Scripts about identity relations presumably can take on lives of their own and become almost impervious to alteration, but the remarkable durability of this script must lie in, among other things, deep-rooted historical and ideological sources, which are kept fresh, so to speak, by some aspects of U.S. foreign policy. (I am leaving this deliberately vague; people can fill in the blanks in their own ways.)

A final note on U.S. embassies: The attack on the compound in Benghazi may have led some people to think that U.S. embassies (as opposed to consulates, etc.) are not well protected. My impression is that this is not true. U.S. embassies in many parts of the world, I suspect, resemble rather forbidding fortresses (certainly that was the case in Bangladesh when I was there a number of years ago) and routinely have armed guards. That doesn't mean they can't be stormed by determined protestors, but people whose image of an embassy is a nice little townhouse in a leafy portion of northwest Washington, D.C. should know that U.S. embassies in many parts of the world are not like that at all.

Update: Fouad Ajami has a WaPo op-ed on this. I'm not a big fan of his but at least parts of this piece are ok. He downplays the role of U.S. policy, however.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

'Brutal realpolitik' and the Katyn massacre

Jacob Heilbrunn writes:

Winston Churchill had said he would "sup with the devil" if it would help bring about victory [in WW2]. So he—and Franklin Roosevelt—did. They allied themselves with Stalin, even pretended, at least publicly, that he was a fine man and the Soviet Union an even finer place. Now, with the release of numerous documents from the National Archives about Stalin's murder of over twenty thousand Polish officers and intellectuals in the Katyn forest in 1940, we know in even more detail just how far they were prepared to go to extol and defend the Soviet Union.
Heilbrunn goes on to observe that the newly released documents indicate that Churchill and FDR pretty much knew the Soviets were responsible for the massacre and worked to ensure that an investigation, which the Polish government-in-exile in London called for, would not occur. FDR and Churchill engaged in "a brutal act of realpolitik," Heilbrunn writes, adding that this shows they had given up on Poland's freedom before Yalta.

I agree with Heilbrunn's characterization of FDR's and Churchill's actions, but the puzzling thing about Heilbrunn's post is that he criticizes FDR and Churchill while also seeming to recognize that their alternatives were very limited: "they had a weak hand to play," he notes. In the spring of 1943, Heilbrunn observes, the Nazis discovered the Katyn massacre and, blaming the Soviets for it, hoped to use it to create a rift between Stalin on on hand and Roosevelt and Churchill on the other. "But Roosevelt and Churchill were having none of it," he writes.

Of course Roosevelt and Churchill were having none of it. In the spring of '43 Hitler's armies were still in the USSR. They were reeling from Stalingrad but not yet totally defeated. The battle of Kursk had not yet started. The overriding aim of Roosevelt and Churchill was to defeat Nazi Germany and there were few lengths to which they would not go in pursuit of that goal. They had to feel some considerable gratitude to the USSR (and, by extension, to Stalin) for repulsing Hitler's invasion at enormous human cost.

You really don't have to know much about World War II to know that, while it was being fought, ideals took a back seat to the perceived requirements of victory in the policy decisions of the main leaders, at least of the Allies. Churchill and FDR allied themselves with a murderous dictator and helped to cover up the Katyn massacre and no doubt would have covered up other crimes of Stalin that came to their attention in the course of the war (perhaps in fact they did). Churchill said that if Hitler invaded Hell, he (Churchill) would make a favorable remark about the Devil in the House of Commons. He was serious. In 1943 victory was still not certain and it is a bit bizarre to think that FDR and Churchill would have created a breach with Stalin over anything. Should they have done so? Not even Heilbrunn says that directly.

There were many individual acts of heroism and idealism on the battlefields (construing that word broadly) of World War II. But in the councils where policy was made and memorandums of state were written, I think it's probably safe to say that World War II was almost entirely 'brutal realpolitik'. It was, if anyone, Hitler who was the least guided by realpolitik, as he insisted on spending bureaucratic and financial and manpower resources on the machinery of the Holocaust long after it became clear that all of Germany's resources should have been going directly into its military effort if the Third Reich were going to have a chance of survival. It was Hitler who put his ideological aims above the dictates of military necessity. FDR and Churchill issued high-minded declarations like the Atlantic Charter, but basically they were focused on one thing: prosecuting the war to a successful conclusion. All other considerations got pushed aside. They were facing what they saw, with some considerable justification, as 'a supreme emergency', in Churchill's phrase, and they were going to do what they thought they had to do.

P.s. Stalin of course did a great deal of ideologically motivated killing too, but more before and after the war than during it (the Katyn massacre notwithstanding).

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One corner of Aleppo

I just ran across this series of photos at the NewsHour site, taken by a photographer with Globalpost, showing the mismatch in firepower, at least in this instance, between the regime and the insurgents. The latter face a tank with what appears to be a machine gun and a small antitank weapon (or RPG?), and the results are predictable. These photographs are not for the squeamish.

Islands in the storm

One of the more significant quotes in this WaPo piece about the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute is buried at the end: the Japanese professor saying there's no possibility of a major war between China and Japan.

A small amendment to Walt's 'America the brittle?'

I agree with most of this post by S. Walt, on a quick reading. He's right about threat inflation, for one thing. One passage I'd amend is the one in which Walt says that if U.S. forces are showing signs of fatigue and being stretched thin, it's because of bad strategic choices by policymakers. That's surely part of it, but how about multiple deployments (for the same soldier) and the length of tours? That's got to be a factor, and that's not necessarily solely a matter of bad strategic choices. It's also because the burden of carrying out missions, whether well-conceived or ill-conceived, falls on a very small percentage of the population. This is one consequence of having a professional army, an "all-volunteer" (as opposed to a conscripted) force. Without getting into the pros and cons of that, Walt might have at least acknowledged the issue.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Quote of the day

In The Abolitionist Imagination, Andrew Delbanco mentions an 1862 article by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Chiefly About War Matters," which Hawthorne published under a pseudonym in The Atlantic. After quoting a passage from the article in which Hawthorne, referring to a group of fugitive slaves, wrote that "For the sake of the manhood which is latent in them, I would not have turned them back; but I should have felt almost as reluctant, on their own account, to hasten them forward to the stranger's land...," Delbanco observes (pp.28-9) that:
...this was an example of Hawthorne doing what he always did: arguing with himself. As F.O. Matthiessen put the matter, "the characteristic Hawthorne twist" was his habit, after making any decisive assertion..."to perceive the validity of its opposite." And so, in the Atlantic article, he not only acceded to the editors' insistence that the essay could be published only if accompanied by dissenting footnotes, but he supplied the annotations himself. "The author seems to imagine," he wrote in one note, that he has "compressed a great deal of meaning into" his "little, hard, dry pellets of aphoristic wisdom. We disagree with him."

Friday, September 7, 2012

Unmentioned issues

Two issues that went unmentioned at both conventions: (1) the absurdly high number of people in U.S. prisons; (2) the extent of poverty in the U.S.

Unemployment and financial hardship were mentioned a lot, but there was little or no mention of poverty beyond a vague reference now and then, except in the biographical parts of speeches, which are always tales of a rise out of poverty or straitened circumstances. See this review of C. Hedges and J. Sacco's book on poverty in the U.S. (Btw, this year is the 50th anniversary of M. Harrington's The Other America.)

Reflections on the Democratic convention and the election

Can one learn something from convention speeches? The answer is yes. At least, I learned something -- or was reminded of something -- from the passages on the energy issue in both Clinton's speech and Obama's. In those sections, they both highlighted the same set of facts about the last couple of years: the increased use of renewable energy sources and the rise in domestic oil and natural gas production and corresponding decline in oil imports. As Clinton put it, oil imports are at "a near 20 year low and natural gas production [is at] an all time high. Renewable energy production has also doubled." Both speeches also mentioned the increase in fuel-efficiency standards that will double the minimum required miles-per-gallon "by the middle of the next decade" (quote from Obama). I had been vaguely aware of all this but it hadn't been at the front of my mind. Whether it sank in with all that many people is of course an open question. Perhaps doubtful, given all the hoopla, distractions, etc. that tend to dominate these events.

Some points I thought were perhaps too heavily emphasized by the Dems. E.g. the auto industry rescue deserved emphasis but probably it was overdone. Apart from Kerry's speech, foreign policy got fairly short shrift, and Obama, for the most part, raced through the foreign policy sections of his speech, which were anyway rather unsurprising and, e.g. in the case of the Middle East, extremely vague (one sentence, in fact). However, the line about Romney being caught in "a Cold War time warp" was good, as was the line about it being time for some "nation-building at home."

Last thought: Martin Gilens's research, which he wrote about in a series of Monkey Cage posts, e.g. here, shows that the most affluent in the U.S. have far more success in translating their positions and political preferences into policy than everyone else. This casts doubt on the rhetoric of both parties about democracy, responsiveness to the popular will, self-government, and so on. So the question in the election might be less one of a grand philosophical choice between visions -- though there are of course real and significant philosophical differences between Obama and Romney -- and more a question of which outcome will intensify even further the situation Gilens documents, i.e. make the connection between affluence and influence (to use the title of his book) even tighter. I don't think readers of this blog will be in too much doubt about my answer to that question.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

More on models, methods, etc.

This is a response to Phil Arena's comment on my immediately preceding post and also to one of Kindred Winecoff's comments. (I decided to put my response up here rather than burying it in the comment thread.)

Phil wrote, in part:
...I think you're being a bit unfair here, LFC. I can't speak for Sullivan, but myself, I would never give policy advice based on analogies. Nor would I ever assume that my simplifying model (be it statistical or theoretical) has captured all the relevant details, thus obviating the need for any appreciation of the specifics of any given case when deciding how to handle that case....I think you're turning statistical modelers into a caricature.
My post speculated about whether a scholar's epistemological and/or methodological orientation (or 'standpoint of inquiry'[1]) might affect how he or she would give advice to a policymaker. I wrote: "...
if you are a scholar with a more nomothetic mindset (e.g. Sullivan), if a policymaker called you and asked you what to do, you might start thinking in terms of historical analogies, because you are used to homogenizing historical cases.... (emphasis added)."

Phil says he would never give advice based on analogies. OK. But I never said anyone would give such advice. I said might, not would. Maybe the modeler would just say to the policymaker: "Here's what my model suggests are the relevant considerations. How you weigh these considerations is up to you and to others who may know more about the specifics of this particular case or issue than I do." Maybe the modeler would say: "Sorry, I don't give policy advice. Goodbye." I don't know. I was speculating. Nonetheless, despite my explicitly tentative language, it was probably a mistake to bring Sullivan's name into this aspect of the post. I'll concede that much. As to whether I caricatured modelers, readers can make up their own minds on that.

Kindred wrote in his first comment (and Phil agreed with this):
We always approach new cases with reference to old ones. I don't think there's any way around it, and if there were I'm not sure the "on its own" approach would outperform the "look for similarities with past events and act accordingly". I don't think it's unreasonable to believe that we use mental models (i.e. heuristics) all the time anyway, so trying to create better models is better than relying on worse ones.
I don't think there is much real disagreement among us here, though there is probably some difference in emphasis. Do we always approach new cases with reference to old ones? Yes, probably at some level, but "approaching new cases with reference to old ones" can mean different things in operation, depending on one's particular bent. In any event I am not disparaging models if they are used as one tool or method. They are suited for answering or exploring some questions more than others. It's useful to know that the nature of the stronger state's objective in an asymmetric conflict affects, or may affect, the likelihood of its success (per Sullivan). But if you all had was the general proposition that the more coercive (i.e. less 'brute-force') the objective the lower the likelihood of success, that, standing alone, would not equip you either to analyze adequately a particular case or to give policy advice about any given situation. I think we probably agree on that. Which in turn raises the question whether this (i.e., our discussion) has all been a waste of time. Again, I'll let readers judge that.
1. This phrase comes from a just-published article by Christopher Meckstroth in the August 2012 issue of APSR. More on that later.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Big countries, small wars, different mindsets

Political scientists and other scholars have spilled a lot of ink on the question of why big states lose small wars, i.e., wars against weaker adversaries. Phil Arena recently pointed me to
Patricia Sullivan's 2007 JCR article, which I have looked at (meaning looked at, not read every single word of). Her main argument, put in simplified form, is that big states are more likely to lose small wars when their objective is coercive, i.e., when it requires the adversary to change its behavior, as opposed to when the objective can be accomplished simply with brute force (i.e., overthrowing a regime or conquering territory). The main reason, she argues, is that big states are more likely to underestimate the costs of achieving coercive objectives. Sullivan has a typology of objectives on a continuum with brute-force objectives at one end and coercive objectives at the other. [
Cf. Schelling, Arms and Influence (1966).]

Interestingly, the objective "maintain regime authority" falls in the middle of Sullivan's continuum. This is interesting because if you had to choose a three-word label for the U.S. objective in Afghanistan, it would be "maintain regime authority" (against those who seek to overthrow it). That was also basically the U.S. objective in Vietnam, as Sullivan suggests (i.e., the stated aim was to maintain an independent, non-Communist South Vietnam).

The main point I want to make is that looking at this article highlighted (once again) for me the distinction between those who emphasize the idiographic in their methods versus the nomothetic, or to put it in simpler terms (this would probably drive PTJ up the wall, never mind), the difference between those who do historical case studies and those who do formal modeling or quantitative work (yes, some people do both in the same book or article, but we'll put that aside for now).

Sullivan's approach would suggest that the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam are basically similar because the objective (maintain regime authority) was the same. Of course she would acknowledge there are local differences, but she is not concerned with exploring them; she is interested in a model that explains, at some kind of quasi-'law-like' level, when big states lose small wars, and she gets there via a 'homogenizing' approach, so to speak. So if you took her approach, even though her concern is not explicitly with policy debates or decision-making, you might be quite receptive to analogies between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

A case-study approach might suggest something quite different. As opposed to a receptivity to the Vietnam-Afghanistan analogy, it might suggest a wariness about such an analogy and indeed about analogies in general. Yuen Foong Khong's Analogies at War (1992) showed quite convincingly that analogies to Munich and to the Korean War exercised a harmful influence on the Johnson administration's Vietnam policymaking. The takeaway lesson of that book, one could argue, is that because even smart people find it difficult to use analogies properly (i.e., in a sufficiently discriminating way), one should be wary of the mobilization and use of historical analogies, especially in a broad-brush way (e.g. "Afghanistan is like Vietnam"), in policy debates. Each case should be looked at primarily on its own, in other words.

One might say there is no contradiction here. Sullivan is interested in explaining outcomes, not prescribing a method for policymakers to use in decision-making. Khong is interested in showing why and how policymakers tend to misuse historical analogies. They are doing different things but not contradictory things. OK. Nonetheless, if you are a scholar with a more nomothetic mindset (e.g. Sullivan), if a policymaker called you and asked you what to do, you might start thinking in terms of historical analogies, because you are used to homogenizing historical cases and treating them as data points to be coded. Whereas if you have a more idiographic mindset, you might be less prone to think in terms of analogies, i.e., in terms of similarities between cases, and more prone to emphasize that each situation is unique. And I think that might be true even if, for purposes of getting your dissertation or article or book past the relevant authorities, you made a general argument that mobilized case studies in its support. Close contact with the historical specifics of cases, even when mobilized to support a general thesis or argument, is bound to sensitize one to differences and unique elements. In other words, even if (as is very often the case) you are doing case studies to develop or back up an overarching theory, you are bound, almost despite yourself as it were, to acquire some wariness about the merits of generalization.

Of course, our two hypothetical scholars might end up, policy-wise, in the same place: for example, both might have decided to oppose the Obama administration's "surge" in Afghanistan (or to favor it, as the case may be). But they would have reached their conclusion, whatever it was, by rather different routes.

P.s. Just to be clear (and repetitive), that the U.S. lost in Vietnam doesn't necessarily mean it's going to 'lose' in Afghanistan. This partly depends on how one defines 'victory'. (See this post and the attached comments.)