Thursday, March 28, 2013

Stealth bombers and offshore balancing

Max Fisher suggests that the B-2 runs from the air base in Missouri to the Yellow Sea, and even more the way in which they were publicly announced, had as an audience not so much North Korea as South Korea, where there have been grumblings on the right about developing an indigenous nuclear capacity. The B-2 runs are a way of reassuring South Koreans that the U.S. has their back.

Notice what Fisher does not mention: the U.S. soldiers on the ground in South Korea. They are not part of this particular story. Nor are any bases in South Korea part of this story. The B-2s took off from Missouri, flew to the Yellow Sea, dropped their inert munitions, flew back to Missouri. Sure, the point was to send a message (one can debate about who the intended recipient was), but the exercise is also an example of offshore balancing. Or rather, it's the sort of thing that would probably become more frequent if the U.S. adopted an offshore balancing approach.

Also (and unrelated), Fisher comments on Der Spiegel's interview with the head of Mali's military government: here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Based on what I heard and read yesterday (including at the SCOTUS blog, among other places), my guess is that the Sup Ct is going to say it should never have taken the Calif. marriage case (certiorari improvidently granted, to use the technical lingo) and thus leave standing the 9th Circuit ruling which invalidated Prop 8 on fairly narrow grounds. Which would count as a win for the pro-marriage-equality side but would have no implications outside of California.

Update: J. Sides links to an amicus brief of twelve political scientists in the Calif. case.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Friday, March 22, 2013

Friday evening linkage

-- Nick Turse's book on the Vietnam War has an attention-getting title. The Amazon summary of the book refers to a general "obsessed with body counts." That's one lasting effect (there was more than one, of course) of the Vietnam War on the U.S. military: it does not do body counts today. In fact, the U.S. military makes no effort, AFAIK, to keep track of numbers of enemy combatants or of civilians killed in the course of operations in Afghanistan (that was the case for Iraq also). Turse on Moyers, here.

-- Richard Wolff, also on Moyers, here. (h/t

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Iraq linkage

Ignatius: "We shouldn't have rolled the dice this way on a war of choice."

Bacevich: Letter to Wolfowitz.

New issue of EJIR

Several interesting-sounding articles. Table of contents here.

What are the boundaries of "the canon of national security discourse"?

Indeed, is there "a canon of national security discourse"? And if so, did the utterances of G.W. Bush et al. fit into it?

Since I don't have time to address this (or much of anything else) right now, it's lucky that I can simply refer to this post and the accompanying comment thread (which most people here probably have seen already, but in case you haven't...).

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Karzai's delusion

Several years ago I wrote a post summarizing a piece by B. Rubin and A. Rashid which argued that only a regional agreement -- i.e. one involving India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies, and the Taliban and other 'non-state' forces -- could hope to bring at least a semi-satisfactory conclusion to the Afghanistan conflict.

Of course there has been no regional agreement -- indeed no agreement of any kind -- and now it's 2013, there has been the flow and ebb of the 'surge' of U.S. forces that Pres. Obama ordered at the end of 2009, and the overall situation, notwithstanding that there have no doubt been some success stories in some provinces, remains, in two words, not great. Or at any rate that is the only conclusion a viewer could have drawn from this piece that aired on the NewsHour last Monday.

In the discussion that immediately followed, James Dobbins said:
...we [i.e. the U.S. and its allies] are hopeful that there can be a negotiated peace with the Taliban. We see the importance of that being led by the Afghans. And Karzai is very frustrated, because, while the Taliban are willing to talk to us, they're not willing to talk to him or his government. And that's a source of deep frustration, that the future of Afghanistan might be hammered out between parties that don't include the government in Kabul. Now, I don't think the U.S. administration intends to do that. But the Taliban would like to -- would like to exacerbate tensions between us and Karzai and feed his suspicions that there are secret deals being done that he's not party to.
Forgive a stupid question, but don't the Taliban understand that the U.S. is joined at the hip with Karzai and that there is zero chance that the U.S. would strike a deal with the Taliban behind Karzai's back, no matter what sorts of statements he makes? Indeed, why doesn't Karzai himself understand this? Have Mullah Omar (or whoever is making the Afghan Taliban's decisions) and Karzai watched The Godfather too many times? Do they think that NATO and ISAF have spent more than a decade in Afghanistan for the purpose of creating conditions in which secret deals can be struck and the military-diplomatic equivalent of severed horses' heads can be left in people's beds? I realize Afghan domestic politics might have a substantial element of this (and perhaps always has), but that's less than a good excuse for harboring and/or acting on such delusions.

Update: V. Yadav has a somewhat different view

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A long-ago summer

Next year will mark the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War; one can expect a stream of conferences and publications, though the latter is pretty continuous anyway, as are the attendant controversies. I see that Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers [Powells; Amazon], due to be published in the U.S. on March 19, is already the subject of a lengthy critique by a reviewer on Amazon.

I don't think I can make any profound contributions to a relitigation (yet again) of the origins of WW1, but between now and the summer of 2014 I hope to find time to write a post or two on a couple of relevant items. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sea of fire, ring of fire, and jumping into water

I did say "light posting" a while back, remember? Well, this is what counts as light posting here (with a play on the word "light," get it? [Reader to me: shut up and proceed].)

OK. Kim Jong Un has annulled the armistice and threatened to engulf various places, or at least Seoul and the District of Columbia, in a "sea of fire." Several serious comments on this can be found attached to this post at the blog Political Violence@A Glance.

I must confess what came almost instantly to my mind upon hearing "sea of fire" (a threat that the DPRK has apparently issued before) was Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" (dated version here).

And after "Ring of Fire" I somehow found myself watching a YouTube video featuring someone named James Blunt. I had never heard of James Blunt because the sum total of what I know about contemporary pop music can be written on a postage stamp and I don't typically watch pop music videos. (I have seen the "Call Me Maybe" video. That's about it.) Anyway, here Blunt sings, in a high, almost falsetto voice (perhaps strike "almost"), about a girl he saw on the subway who is beautiful but he realizes he will never be with her so he takes off his shirt and his watch and his shoes and he jumps into a body of water from a substantial height.

This video has something on the order of 32,000,000 views.

Whatever turns you on, people.

At any rate this much is clear: no one is watching James Blunt videos in North Korea, except possibly Kim Jong Un and a few others who presumably can watch whatever they want, whenever they want.

You thought I was going to do something really clever in this post with fire and water, didn't you? Sorry.

Update: And while Kim does whatever Kim does, S. Korean generals play golf.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Strategic analysis that asks the wrong question

In a post written in late February, Dan Trombly raised a number of practical, logistical, and strategic issues which, at a minimum, would severely complicate any effort on the part of the U.S. to arm the Syrian rebels in a way that ensures that the weapons reach the non-jihadist sectors of the opposition and in a way that contributes to the emergence of a post-war situation in which the U.S. would have any influence even over the factions it had armed.

Though characteristically sharp in its analysis, Trombly's post does not mention explicitly what should be the single most pressing issue for all countries, including the U.S. and Britain (both of which have recently said they will send non-lethal military aid to the rebels): namely, how best to reduce the total amount of suffering? More than a million refugees, and that counts only those who have registered with the UN, have fled Syria for Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Humanitarian aid has been pledged but most of it has not yet been delivered. The refugee situation is threatening to become a full-scale catastrophe. (See, e.g., the report contained in this segment.) Moreover, the civil war has already taken roughly 70,000 lives and as both sides cast away whatever minimal restraints they have hitherto observed and as the Assad regime uses missiles indiscriminately, one can expect the casualties to continue mounting.

In this context, the right question is not how the U.S. can best protect and advance its narrowly defined geopolitical and strategic interests. Rather, the right question is how the U.S. can best help minimize the duration and the total amount of human suffering that the current situation has produced and seems very likely to continue to produce. I don't know the answer to that question. But even the most sophisticated strategic analysis, if it focuses solely on the narrow question of 'interest', will end up being less helpful and illuminating than it could be. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Nasr's critique

Since all the foreign-policy bloggers will probably soon be referring to this, if they haven't already, I'm not going to say anything about it right now.

Update: A different view from Nasr's.

Empire or umpire?

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman's American Umpire argues, according to the description of the book on the publisher's website, that the U.S. has acted as an umpire in the world, not an empire. The description says the U.S. has been willing to impose certain rules (which are enumerated in the paragraph) on the world. But then there is this sentence: "The nation has both upheld and violated the rules" (emphasis added). Well in that case, it hasn't been an umpire, has it?

P.s. The author has published an NYT op-ed which I haven't read yet.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

(Limited) A.M. linkage

-- Charli Carpenter insightfully reviews Helen Kinsella's The Image Before the Weapon.

-- There's a forthcoming documentary (FP's word) about Dick Cheney. Remind me to skip it.

-- A person with the unwieldy title of 'UN special rapporteur on the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism' is doing good work.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

How not to think about Egypt-U.S. relations

According to a WaPo piece this a.m., some voices are being raised in Congress to cut off U.S. military aid to Egypt. One Democratic congressman is quoted as saying that he would hate to see U.S.-supplied planes and tanks being used by Egypt against Israel.

One must wonder what alternative universe this individual is inhabiting. Egypt and Israel have a peace treaty. One of the quickest ways to undermine that treaty would be for the U.S. to cut off its military aid to Egypt while not simultaneously making similar cuts in aid to Israel (the latter, of course, being politically unthinkable given the alignment of opinion in Congress).

That's not to say that some adjustments, as opposed to cuts, in aid to Egypt shouldn't be considered. Toward the end of the article McCain is quoted as saying the U.S. should be supplying fewer planes and tanks to Egypt and more aid tailored to dealing with militant groups active in the Sinai. Now that may make sense, inasmuch as one isn't going to send tanks into the desert on counterterrorist missions. 

Meanwhile the piece also indicates that U.S. development aid to Egypt has been mostly on hold since the revolution. Now here's smart policy for you: continue sending useless tanks that will simply collect dust and rust while not sending economic aid to an important country whose economy is in free-fall, admittedly partly for reasons of Morsi's own making (he's unwilling to slash subsidies to get the IMF loan that hasn't been closed on yet).

It would be nice if the Democratic congressman mentioned above spent less time entertaining idiotic fantasies of another Egypt-Israel war and more time thinking about how the U.S. can best help promote pluralist democracy and economic recovery in Egypt.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Obama uses misuses a Star Wars expression

In answering questions about the sequester in his news conference today, the Pres. said he could not do "a Jedi mind meld" with Boehner and McConnell but could only make the best possible case for his position and appeal to them (though he did not phrase it exactly this way) to put country above narrower considerations. This must be the first time a U.S. president has used an expression from Star Wars in a news conference (or, probably, any other public setting of comparable seriousness), and I trust the gravity and importance of this development will receive the extended analysis and celebration that it deserves from our friends at the Duck.

P.s. Vulcan not Jedi. Yes. Shd have thought first, posted later.

P.p.s. This is the second time in two days that I've had occasion to reflect it's lucky degrees can't be revoked for subsequent displays of stupidity.