Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Should Burris be seated?

Should Roland Burris, appointed by Illinois Gov. Blagojevich to fill Pres.-elect Obama's Senate seat, be permitted to take his seat by the Senate? From a constitutional standpoint, the answer would appear to be yes. Fordham law professor Abner Greene, speaking on the NewsHour this evening, pointed out that the Senate's power under Art.I Sec.5 to be "the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members" is fairly weak support for refusing to seat Burris; but it's the only constitutional support available, given that Burris's appointment conforms to the requirements of the 17th Amendment.

Whether this line of reasoning will prove decisive with the members of the Senate Democratic caucus is doubtful. But even from a political and fairness angle, there's a case to be made for seating him. After all, it's not Burris's fault that Blagojevich is going to be indicted, and there's no evidence that Burris was involved in any alleged wrongdoing. And having a full complement of senators from Illinois could only help matters in the early days of the Obama legislative agenda.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Samuel P. Huntington, 1927-2008

This blog's general policy is not to note deaths, of notable people or otherwise, though I have made a couple of exceptions: see here and here.

In the case of Huntington, his fame/notoriety and the impact of his work warrant a link to the 'official' obituary: here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Violent end

The year is ending violently, from the Gaza Strip to bombings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. There appear to be two geographical swaths of the world where much if not most violence is concentrated: the arc stretching from the Middle East to Pakistan, and an area in central/east Africa centered on southern Sudan, Somalia, and eastern Dem. Rep. of Congo.

It's worth recalling that, according to those who track the amount of armed violence in the world as a whole, the planet has been becoming steadily less violent over the past couple of decades. That's not much comfort, of course, for those in the regions just mentioned. It's also no reason to overlook the connections between the more peaceful and more violent parts of the world. The question of the validity of the "zones of peace/zones of conflict" view was raised here earlier, in the comments on this post, and it's one to which I may return.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A 'Sandalwood' film with a U.S. setting

Having recently written a post about Slumdog Millionaire, I was interested to run across this Wash. Post piece about a low-budget movie being made by a young Indian-born, U.S.-raised director and set in Washington, D.C. and environs. The movie's language is Kannada not Hindi, which makes it a 'Sandalwood' not Bollywood product, as the article explains:

"Technically, Jagadeesh's movie, 'e-Preeti,' is not a product of Bollywood, which refers to the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai, but of 'Sandalwood,' the nickname for films produced in the Southern Indian city of Bangalore in a regional language called Kannada. Because Hindi is India's national language, Bollywood films tend to play across the country and are better known overseas. But India's more than half-a-dozen regional film industries are also bustling enterprises that attract tens of millions of fans within their regions.

Because movie-going is a such a major habit in India -- young city dwellers might catch as many as three new releases a week -- there is also a steady market for even relatively low-budget productions."
No wonder the Indian film industries are booming.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Salvadoran troops to leave Iraq

The 200 soldiers from El Salvador in Iraq will leave by the end of the year, the country's president has announced. The Iraqi parliament cleared the way for British and other non-U.S. troops to stay after December 31, when the UN authorization expires. The Salvadorans, however, are probably wise to take this opportunity to withdraw.

Time stands still -- but the rhetoric of capitalism is in constant motion

I picked up a chocolate bar after lunch today. This is part of what it says on the back of the package:
"Evening Dream [TM]. The luxuriously deep and velvety 60% cacao dark chocolate in Ghirardelli Evening Dream is infused with a hint of Madagascan vanilla delivering the perfect chocolate intensity. Experience a moment of timeless pleasure as the intense chocolate lingers and time stands still."
Time stands still? This is a chocolate bar, not a moment of aesthetic transport, metaphysical insight, or carnal ecstasy.

I have three questions for Ghirardelli: Who writes this gibberish for you? Are they well paid? If so, how does one apply?

Monday, December 22, 2008

'Slumdog Millionaire': The hero is the city

I saw Slumdog Millionaire yesterday. Everything about this movie -- acting, direction, cinematography, music -- is extraordinarily good.

Like any good work of art, it can be viewed/read on several levels. From one angle, it's a combination of picaresque tale and love story. But more is going on. Just as London is the central character in a novel like Dickens' Little Dorrit or in some of Iris Murdoch's novels, so in this film the central character, and the real hero, is Bombay/Mumbai. As depicted here, the city produces stark inequalities and injustices but also pulses with an astonishingly vital, Dickensian human energy. The same energy drives the movie itself. See it.

p.s. Others have no doubt referred to the movie as Dickensian: Frank Rich, for example. With all respect, I think Rich might want to go back and actually read some Dickens. His novels are not mainly feel-good fables, and neither, at its most interesting, is this movie.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The chosen

This post at Best of Both Worlds refers to the awarding, earlier this month, of the Presidential Citizens Medal, which is the second-highest award the U.S. president can bestow on a civilian (after the better-known Medal of Freedom).

As I scrolled down the list of recipients (linked to by the post), three names jumped out at me: Andrew Marshall, who has been at the Pentagon for years as head of his own mini-think tank (I forget the office's formal designation) and whose name probably will mean something to anyone who follows U.S. foreign and defense policy; Robert George of Princeton Univ., a (very) conservative political philosopher; and the historian James Billington, longtime head of the Library of Congress, whose tenure there has been, from what I can discern, somewhat less than stellar.

Oh yes, the actor Gary Sinise was also on the list, honored for his charitable/humanitarian work involving Iraqi children and for his active support of military personnel in Iraq and elsewhere. Now this particular medal may be very well-deserved. (But as for his TV show, CSI NY, that's a whole other story.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arundhati Roy is mostly right, but not completely

Arundhati Roy's recent Guardian essay on the Mumbai attacks, "The Monster in the Mirror," has been widely circulated. I first saw it when a friend kindly forwarded it to me, and I have just read it again, somewhat more closely than the first time.

To repeat what I said in a comment I left at this blog, I think Roy, while right on many points, is too quick to criticize the Indian government for "inviting" the U.S. to interfere in Indian affairs. What is the invitation, and what is the interference? If she means the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, that is (1)water under the bridge, and (2)in my view, one of the relatively few sensible things the Bush administration has done in foreign policy. If she means sending an FBI team to help in the Mumbai investigation, which I assume has been or will be done, that hardly constitutes undue interference in Indian internal affairs. If she means that improved U.S.-Indian relations have fueled increased terrorism in India, that is possible, but hardly certain. The fact is we don't know what Roy means on this point exactly, because her column doesn't say. Her remark that "superpowers don't have allies, they have agents" does, however, give one a clue. The implication is that superpowers are incapable of treating other countries as equals. To which the answer is that this is perhaps too one-dimensional a view. There is such a thing as cooperation for mutual gain, rare though it may be.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How to say something without saying it

Fouad Ajami's WSJ piece today contrasts Bush's "diplomacy of freedom" with Obama's "caution and reticence" when it comes to the Middle East. Ajami can't say that he thinks Bush's "diplomacy of freedom" has been a success, because that would be ludicrous. So he proceeds by indirection, praising Woodrow Wilson, noting that Bush, like Wilson, did not have much knowledge of the Arab world, suggesting that Obama is naive about Iran, and generally casting aspersions in such a way as to give himself "plausible deniability." This column is a case study in insinuation.

Monday, December 15, 2008

On the misuse of "pragmatism" and "pragmatic"

Tonight on the PBS NewsHour, a lawyer for utility companies said he was "optimistic" that Obama's energy policy appointees would turn out to be "pragmatic." Translation: not press industry too hard on environmental standards.

A few days ago, Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber pointed out (citing a piece in The Nation) that the use of "pragmatism" to mean "non-ideological" or something equivalent is misguided. Farrell observed that Deweyan pragmatism is not apolitical or non-ideological:
"You simply can’t get the politics out of pragmatist accounts. Furthermore, Dewey’s arguments may carry some quite radical implications. Dewey and other pragmatists lay a very heavy emphasis on the benefits of unforced inquiry as a guide to practice. Yet unforced inquiry is only possible in a society where there aren’t economic or social barriers to free engagement in discussion and deliberation. Thus – to really achieve the benefits of free debate and untrammeled inquiry – you need (where it is feasible) to dismantle barriers that prevent full and unfettered participation in the processes of discussion through which inquiry takes place."
Or, to put roughly the same point differently, you need a marketplace of ideas to which access is relatively equal and in which some voices don't drown out others by virtue of concentrated wealth or other privileges. This is a very old problem (or debate), of course, but one that never seems to go away.

Globalization's impact on (domestic) redistribution

"Globalisation seemingly erodes governments' ability to redistribute wealth." A column at H/t: Dani Rodrik.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Britain, Pakistan sign 'anti-terror agreement'

The BBC reports:

"During a news conference in Islamabad with [Pakistani president Asif Ali] Zardari, [Gordon] Brown proposed the start of a new partnership with Pakistan to fight terrorism.The 'pact against terror' funding [of $8.9 million] will go towards anti-car bomb equipment and material to educate people out of becoming extremists, he said.

'The time has come for action and not words, and I want to help Pakistan and other countries root out terrorism. In return for this action we will continue to expand our counter-terrorist assistance programme with Pakistan, and it will be more than ever, the most comprehensive anti-terrorist programme Britain has signed with any country' [Brown said].

Speaking during a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Saturday, Mr Brown ... described Pakistan's border region with the country, where he met troops fighting the Taleban, as one end of a 'chain of terror' that could stretch to Britain if more was not done to tackle the threat of al-Qaeda. The prime minister's visit to Afghanistan came a day after four Royal Marines were killed in two separate bomb attacks. Mr Brown spoke of his 'disgust and horror' at the willingness of the Taleban to use a 13-year-old child to deliver a bomb in a wheelbarrow to a Marine patrol, killing three men and the boy."

Arguably what is needed is not a pact to help "root out terrorism" but a pact to divide those groups that are irrevocably committed to the use of terrorism from those groups that are not (see previous post). This is harder to fit into a soundbite, however.

p.s. (added 12/15): For the same news story in French (at Le Nouvel Observateur), see this link.

The road to Kabul runs through Islamabad

In "From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan" (Foreign Affairs, Nov./Dec. '08), Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid argue that only a regional diplomatic initiative that changes Pakistan's calculations can lead to a long-term solution in Afghanistan. They propose, among other things, the establishment of a UN-authorized contact group to facilitate dialogue, especially between India and Pakistan, on the issues of Afghanistan and Kashmir.
"A central purpose of the contact group would be to assure Pakistan that the international community is committed to its territorial integrity -- and to help resolve the Afghan and Kashmir border issues so as to better define Pakistan's territory.... [This] might encourage Pakistan to promote, rather than hinder, an internationally and nationally acceptable political settlement in Afghanistan. Backing up the contact group's influence and clout must be the threat that any breaking of agreements or support for terrorism originating in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] would be taken to the UN Security Council. Pakistan, the largest troop contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, sees itself as a legitimate international power, rather than a spoiler; confronted with the potential loss of that status, it would compromise."
Although I don't recall that Rubin and Rashid explicitly say this (although they may, since the article meanders around a bit and I read it a while ago), one aspect of a diplomatic strategy might be to offer Pakistan a nuclear deal similar to the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal, on condition that Pakistan take a more vigorously constructive and helpful stance toward the U.S./NATO position in Afghanistan. Now that the A.Q. Khan network has stopped functioning, even if Khan himself remains something of a revered figure in certain Pakistani quarters, there is no principled reason to deny Pakistan the same sort of nuclear arrangement that India has with the U.S. (Concerns about the long-term stability of the civilian government, however, admittedly might be a complicating factor.)

In addition to the contact group proposal, Rubin and Rashid urge driving a wedge -- or furthering the already-begun estrangement -- between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. A pledge by the Taliban to dissociate themselves and any territory they control from any global jihadist activity, in return for cessation of military operations against them, "could constitute a framework for negotiation." And any regional "grand bargain," whatever its precise terms, must, they emphasize, also take into account the interests, and mobilize the cooperation, of China, Russia, and Iran.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Homage to Che Guevara

A.O. Scott does not like Steven Soderbergh's movie about Che:
"...treat[s] complicated and consequential political events — the Cuban revolution, for starters, and nearly everything that followed, by implication — in purely tactical terms. The precision with which Mr. Soderbergh charts the progress of Castro’s army across the Cuban countryside — and the even greater meticulousness in his depiction of the unraveling Bolivian campaign — has something in common with the exertions of Civil War re-enactors or online gamers."
It's four hours long (actually a bit more). I think I'll wait for the dissertation comparing it to Lawrence of Arabia.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mumbai attackers were tech savvy

An article in Le Point (h/t: Le Front Asymétrique) discusses the use of technology by the Mumbai attackers and others engaged in similar activity. Apparently communications via Blackberry are difficult to tap into, which explains the attackers' preference for Blackberries, at least according to this article. Another tidbit: the e-mails claiming responsibility for the attacks were routed through Russian proxy servers so as to make them difficult to trace (assuming my translation here is right). Whether the Indian authorities would even have had the time to trace these e-mails, assuming they were sent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, is perhaps doubtful.

Mugabe's fantasy world

South Africa has declared that its border with Zimbabwe is a disaster area, while Robert Mugabe for his part has announced that the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe is over. Perhaps tomorrow Mr. Mugabe will announce that the earth is flat -- and I don't mean in the figurative Thomas Friedman sense.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration

Today (Dec. 10) marks the sixtieth anniversary of the passage by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, championed most prominently by Eleanor Roosevelt. This has prompted a few random reflections but nothing coherent enough for a post. Perhaps later.

New push for nuclear weapons abolition


One small moment in time

When I was in college, I took a lecture course on modern drama. The professor was Robert Chapman. For reasons that had nothing to do with Chapman, the course was not an especially happy experience; and I never got to know Chapman, not being an English major or a student actor and feeling, predictably if perhaps stupidly, that I had no reason to go to his office hours.

One morning about halfway through the course, Chapman strode to the podium and announced, without preface or throat-clearing: "George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House is the greatest play written in English since Shakespeare." Wow, I thought. Nice opening line. Dramatic. Then a student who had actually been keeping up with the reading raised his or her hand and informed the professor that, according to the syllabus, the day's lecture was not supposed to be on Heartbreak House but on some other play. Chapman abruptly turned around, went back to his office, returned with a different set of notes, and proceeded to give the correct lecture. His lecture on Heartbreak House had been spoiled for that semester.

I knew virtually nothing about Robert Chapman when I sat in his course, and indeed it was only very recently, when I was prompted for some reason to find his obituary online, that I learned something about him. Among other things I learned that, although a tenured professor in Harvard's English department, he had no graduate degrees: he had a bachelor's degree from Princeton and that was it. Apparently he liked to boast that he and the famous critic and scholar Harry Levin were the only members of the department who lacked graduate credentials.

I remember little else about that week in 1976, or maybe that month; but I'll always remember the morning when Robert Chapman began his lecture on Shaw with that dramatic flourish, and then had to stop, turn around, and go back to his office. I think I might have felt a little bit angry at the student who informed him of his mistake. I still do.

Mediterranean sojourn? Not right now, thanks

Riots and a general strike in Greece; 13 percent unemployment in Spain; and I'm not sure I even want to know what's happening in Italy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Bangladeshi filmmaker builds replica of Taj Mahal, and Sonargaon braces for tourist onslaught

A Bangladeshi film director has constructed a $58 million replica of the Taj Mahal in Sonargaon, a town about an hour's drive from the capital, Dhaka. In 1994, my brother and I were in Bangladesh and we visited Sonargaon. It was, as I recall, a rather sleepy little town; checking my (unfortunately) cryptic notes on the trip to refresh my memory, I see that Sonargaon had several tourist attractions, including some ruins and a Folk Art Museum. The idea of a Taj Mahal plunked down there is a mite bizarre, but the notion apparently is to let Bangladeshis see a Taj since many don't have the money or opportunity to travel to Agra to see the Taj. I suppose it also says something about the relative success of Bangladesh in recent years that a filmmaker can spend $58 million on this project, importing Italian marble and Belgian diamonds.

Monday, December 8, 2008

(Early) New Year's Resolutions (1): Subscribe to an old-fashioned, hard-copy newspaper

I used to get the daily Washington Post, but I haven't subscribed to it for a long time, because: 1) I get my news in other ways; and 2) I kept thinking I was about to leave the area. Reason (1) still holds, but (2) hasn't occurred (i.e., I'm still here), so come 2009 I may very well start subscribing again.

Why? Because the newspaper industry is in trouble -- witness the bankruptcy filing today of Tribune Co. -- and I don't want newspapers to go out of existence. Call me sentimental, I don't care. If every consumer decision were made on the basis of pure rational calculation, society would be worse for it. So strike a blow against homo economicus, wherever you live, and if you don't get a real, hard-copy, old-fashioned newspaper delivered to your door every day, consider starting. It's too late to save a lot of newspapers, but some of them should survive -- and survive in real, tangible form, as things you can pick up and read without having to turn on the computer and look at the screen.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Humanitarian intervention, social science, and "the new aid imperialism"

In a review of Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, William Easterly criticizes what he calls "the new aid imperialism," i.e., "the willingness to combine foreign military intervention with traditional aid work" in developing countries ("Foreign Aid Goes Military!" The New York Review of Books, 12/4/08).

Easterly notes, among other things, that the "share of U.S. foreign aid distributed by the Pentagon increased from 6 percent in 2002 to 22 percent in 2005." What Easterly does not note, however, is that the overall amount of U.S. foreign aid increased from 2002 to 2005, so the Pentagon was distributing 22 percent of an expanded pie, not a shrinking one, which thus still left more in absolute terms for civilian agencies, such as the Millennium Challenge Corp. and AID, to distribute. Nonetheless, it's true that the line between military activity and foreign aid, as far as the U.S. is concerned, has been blurring in recent years.

Is this a good or a bad thing? Easterly thinks it's bad, and he does have a case to make. In using a review of Collier's book to make it, however, he runs into some difficulties. I'll mention a couple of them.

1) The basic argument of Collier's book, according to Easterly, is that the poorest countries in the world "are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty, civil war, military coups, looting of natural resources, and failed states. They need outside rescue by the rich nations." Easterly questions this argument on several grounds, accusing Collier's book of failing adequately to distinguish correlation from causation and of engaging in selection bias. Among other things, Easterly notes that poor countries have experienced "growth both directions."
"Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, and Zimbabwe had good growth between 1960 and 1980, before falling prey to economic decline -- brought on by political disasters and other factors -- from 1980 to the present. Conversely, Bangladesh, India, Uganda and Vietnam [my emphasis] had mediocre to negative growth between 1960 and 1980, before registering impressive growth from 1980 to the present. If there is so much movement into and out of success and failure, it is hard to argue looking forward that the Bottom Billion are trapped in failure."
Vietnam? Why do you suppose Vietnam might have had "mediocre to negative growth between 1960 and 1980"? Might it have had something to do with the facts that virtually the entire able-bodied adult male population, at least of N. Vietnam, was mobilized for military service, and that the U.S., from 1965 to the early 1970s, dropped more bombs on N. Vietnam than were dropped during the entirety of World War II? These count as extraordinary circumstances that give the case of Vietnam no probative weight at all, in my opinion, on the point Easterly is adducing it to support.

2) Easterly writes:
"...[B]oth statistical exercises and case study analysis give ambiguous direction on military intervention [for humanitarian or ostensibly humanitarian ends]. I think the moral of the story is that, as tragic as poverty and violence are, social science does not have much to offer as a guide to using military force to stop them. This is not so surprising: why should social scientists have any strategic expertise on whether a contingent of foreign or international troops will pacify a country easily (Sierra Leone) or with great difficulty, or not at all (Somalia)? It is regrettable if social science is used to give spurious cover to military intervention."
Easterly is right to strike a note of caution, I think, but he may go a bit too far in dismissing social-scientific expertise: surely there are scholarly experts on Sierra Leone and Somalia who might have provided insights about the relative likelihood or unlikelihood of successful intervention in the two countries.

In making his case, Easterly himself draws on social science, namely the research of political scientist Alan Kuperman, who has written about "the moral hazard" of humanitarian intervention. In Easterly's words, Kuperman "argues that the hope of international intervention may embolden rebels to undertake military action that will inevitably catch many civilians in the crossfire between the rebels and the government before the interveners arrive. This is exactly what happened with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), whose members admitted in interviews with Kuperman that their violence against Serbs starting in 1997 was motivated by hopes of foreign intervention." (Although Easterly does not give a footnote citation to an article by Kuperman, I assume he is drawing on Kuperman's "The Moral Hazard of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans," International Studies Quarterly 52:1, March 2008, pp.49-80. Full disclosure: I have not read the article, only the abstract.)

Political judgments about whether, when and how to intervene in humanitarian crises such as genocide or ethnic cleansing must be recognized as political and not masquerade as purely scientific, neutral decisions: on this point Easterly is unquestionably correct. But in his concern to reveal the weaknesses of what he takes to be unduly optimistic and pro-intervention standpoints, Easterly may be in danger of condemning, by implication if not explicitly, all social-scientific efforts to understand the consequences of intervention and the possible conditions of its success or failure. Careful case studies backed up, where appropriate, by statistical analysis that does not claim too much for itself may still have a role to play in helping politicians reach defensible, intelligent, and practical judgments on these matters.

But you can read the Easterly piece for yourself (see link above) and reach your own conclusions.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

'Revolutionary Road' to the screen

Apparently Richard Yates's caustic portrait of post-war suburbia, Revolutionary Road (1961), is to be a movie, with Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet. It's quite a good novel and if the movie drives people to the book, I'm for it. I also want to see Slum Dog Millionaire.

As for the casting of Rev. Road: I get Winslet confused sometimes with Keira Knightley, though they really don't look that similar. I almost said that I saw Winslet in Atonement, then I remembered that was Knightley. Which of them is the better actress? What about diCaprio? Just another pretty face, or can he act? He was actually not too bad in that Howard Hughes movie (can't remember the title offhand) and not too bad in Scorsese's Gangs of New York, a movie that appeared at times to have been shot with a camera lens coated in mud. DiCaprio was also in that rather pointless movie about the check-kiting con artist who is pursued by the Tom Hanks FBI agent. I saw some of it once on TV but, again, can't remember the title.

Yes, movie titles appear to be fleeing the memory banks en masse. More important things to keep stored there.

P.s. Yes, I know about IMDb, just too lazy to use it.
Pp.s. L.D. was also in that movie about blood diamonds, which I didn't see. Opinions about it out there?
Yet another p.s. If you google 'revolutionary road' you can find at least a couple of reviews of the entire movie (not just the trailer). Some critics evidently have been allowed to see it.

Stalin's homeland for the Jews

Those interested in somewhat out-of-the-way corners of 20th-century history will want to read this from the blog Strange Maps.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Coming this weekend:
Some thoughts on humanitarian intervention & "the new aid imperialism"

Warp speed, Mr. Sulu

Ah ha, fooled you all -- bet you thought I'd never seen even one episode of Star Trek.

Right, now to the business at hand. If you go over to The Monkey Cage (see link at the sidebar), which is a blog written by several political science professors, you'll find two recent posts reflecting on that blog's one-year anniversary. The author assesses how well the blog has performed in fulfilling the purposes set out in its inaugural statement, gives statistics on the average number of daily visits to the site (a very impressive figure, by the way, especially for a serious academic blog), and so on.

Howl at Pluto's one-year anniversary will not arrive until May 23, 2009, but when it does, I won't have to write a post like those at The Monkey Cage. Why not? Because I didn't write an inaugural statement, hence there are no explicit benchmarks against which to measure this blog's performance. The pleasures of non-accountability!

It occurs to me, however, that some readers, especially those arriving here via circuitous paths and/or for the first time, might appreciate some remarks about this blog's intended aims. The easiest way to approach this is in a negative fashion, by indicating what the blog does not seek to do.

-- This blog is not primarily a vehicle for partisan politics. Although I made no effort to hide my views on, and preferences in, the '08 election, I was not preoccupied with constantly pummeling McCain and praising Obama. Indeed, I denied that McCain was senile, at a time when some Democratic partisans were claiming the opposite, and I criticized Obama's performance in the first debate.

-- This blog is not primarily a vehicle to publicize the results of social-scientific research. Although I have commented at least once on a scholarly article I found interesting (see the post "Does Tilly's thesis travel to the third world?") and intend to comment occasionally on scholarly articles in the future, it will probably not be a very frequent thing. A lot of the IR journal articles are not that interesting to me, and the ones which are interesting tend to pile up faster than I can read them, unfortunately. There's at least one recent article, on the history of "imposed democracy," that I mean to get to and haven't yet.

-- This blog does not attempt to provide comprehensive, thorough coverage of a particular 'hot topic,' e.g.,
asymmetric warfare, terrorism, counterinsurgency, development, humanitarian emergencies, arms control, defense policy, drug policy, human trafficking, piracy, relations between the U.S. and one particular region of the world, trends in public international law, peacekeeping, climate change, etc., etc. Such coverage is available elsewhere, and while I may occasionally draw on it, there's no point in trying to duplicate it. Within my field, I am a "generalist," and as Walter Russell Mead once wrote: "Generalists are superficially mistaken about a great many subjects; specialists are profoundly mistaken about a few." One could, I suppose, turn this around and say: Generalists are superficially insightful about many subjects; specialists are profoundly insightful about a few. The insights offered here, to the extent there are any, will have to compensate in breadth for what they lack in depth.

So, after all this negativity, what can I say positively about the purpose of this blog? I'm afraid it comes down to something fairly selfish. Although I hope to provide a measure of enlightenment, information, and even perhaps entertainment to readers, this blog exists, as do a lot of other blogs, mainly to indulge a propensity to yap (in slightly Whitmanesque fashion perhaps?) at the world. After all, I'm not making any money at this, so when it stops being fun I will probably stop.

Until then, meet me on the flight deck, Scotty. The Flight Deck -- now that would be a good name for a blog. Oh, well -- too late now.

Afterthought: Just to be clear, this is not an attempt on my part to horn in on Elected Swineherd's Friday Star Trek blogging, which I remembered only after writing the post. I don't know enough about Star Trek to do that in any case.

Bomb in Peshawar

A blast has occurred outside a Shia mosque in Peshawar, killing at least a dozen people. Another reminder of how things are at the moment in Pakistan's northwest.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Factoid of the day

In his book International Government (1916), Leonard Woolf referred to an organization called the International Association for the Suppression of Useless Noises. As an expert on Woolf has remarked, this is "a body whose revival is perhaps long overdue": Peter Wilson, "Leonard Woolf and International Government," in Long and Wilson, eds., Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis, p.155 n.37.

Even better would be the creation of an International Association for the Suppression of Muzak (muzak = the canned/homogenized sound that comes out of the ceilings of commercial establishments).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tylenol's marketing practices

I've had a nasty cold that doesn't seem to want to go away, so despite not being a big fan of symptomatic relief meds, I went to the pharmacy just now to get some.

Among several Tylenol products on the shelf, I took a closer look at two: one said "Cold Multi-Symptom" and the other said "Cold Head Congestion" (or something close to that). The packages looked different; they had a different trade dress, to use what I believe is the correct legal jargon. Yet a glance at the active ingredients of the two packages revealed them to be exactly the same. This annoyed me sufficiently that I took the time to mention it to a pharmacist; I knew he couldn't do anything but I wanted someone to know about it. (I'm sure, incidentally, that my mood was not improved by the truly ghastly Christmas music, or so-called music, that was blasting through the strip mall. These places are already physically ugly; why do they have to make them aurally ugly as well?)

Anyway, back to the Tylenol. Is it illegal to market identical products under different names and with different packaging? Presumably not, since McNeil, the maker of Tylenol, no doubt has expensive lawyers whom it pays to tell it what it can and cannot do in these respects. But I'll say this: If it's not illegal, it damn well should be.

The frothing-at-the-mouth style of "debate"

The Mumbai attacks, including the attack on the Chabad Jewish center and the killing of the rabbi and his wife and others (excepting their two-year-old son who survived), roughly coincided with the passage of several resolutions by the UN General Assembly criticizing Israel (which I've not read). Of course, the passage of such resolutions, which sometimes accuse Israel of racist and/or apartheid policies, is nothing new for the General Assembly, which has been doing this for years. Since General Assembly resolutions have no binding effect in international law, their point is exhortatory or, as those less kindly disposed in this case might put it, propagandistic.

What connection, if any, was there between the UN resolutions and the attack on the Jewish center in Mumbai? In a comment at the blog American Power, I suggested that there was not much connection. In response, the blog's author/proprietor, Prof. Donald Douglas, rounded on me, charging me with having an agenda to "delegitimize any blogging that privileges Western values against the advocacy of nihilist destruction seen in defenders of evil, including the leading dictators who compose the membership [of] the UN General Assembly."

As the lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur. [1]

1. The thing speaks for itself.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula

Relations between the two Koreas have become increasingly tense lately, and the longstanding divisions among South Koreans over policy toward the North show no signs of disappearing. See this piece by Blaine Harden in the Wash. Post today. H/t: Open Source Geopolitics.

Quote of the day

"Fundamentally, non-offensive realism theories are united against the offensive realism position that states are inherently aggressive, and they merely differ on how best to cope with uncertainty and fear. Defensive realism stresses cooperation through costly signaling of benign intentions or reassurance. Institutionalism emphasizes institutions for facilitating and enforcing cooperation. Constructivism accentuates changing states' identities and forging a common/cooperative identity. Yet, these different approaches for coping with fear should not and indeed cannot be mutually excluding.... [I]t is simply difficult to see how cooperative institutions can emerge without some reassurance-driven cooperation beforehand, and it is even more difficult to imagine how a common and cooperative identity can emerge without some cooperative institutions beforehand. Thus, when properly understood, non-offensive realism approaches are more similar and interconnected than their proponents have been willing to admit."
-- Shiping Tang, "Fear in International Politics: Two Positions," International Studies Review 10:3 (Sept. 2008), p. 464 (emphasis in original).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Kalahari Bushmen in appeal to the Pope

A commenter at a Crooked Timber thread refers to this brief item (in French) about the Bushmen of the Kalahari and the Pope. The government of Botswana apparently has denied the Bushmen hunting licenses on their traditional lands and granted Gem Diamonds permission to open a diamond mine on a piece of the lands. The Bushmen have asked Pope Benedict, following the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between Botswana and the Vatican, for his support.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Brief thought on the Mumbai attacks

I have no idea who the Deccan Mujahideen are or whether they have ties to 'elements' in Pakistan. One might do well to remember, however, that a luxury hotel in Islamabad (the Marriott) was the target of an attack not all that long ago. Are luxury hotels becoming the, or a, target of choice for terrorist groups in the region? (I'm aware, of course, that other targets besides the hotels were hit in Mumbai, and that the methods differed -- truck bomb in Islamabad, assault with rifles and grenades in Mumbai.)

Holbrooke on 'Lessons in Disaster'

Earlier I took note of Kissinger's review in Newsweek of Gordon Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Now Richard Holbrooke gives his take on the book in the current NY Times Book Review.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Afghanistan: declare victory and leave?

According to an item apparently moving on the wires -- it got roughly 25 seconds on the PBS NewsHour's summary tonight -- Pres. Karzai has called for the U.S. and NATO to set a withdrawal date from Afghanistan. Otherwise, he will initiate negotiations (with the Taliban, presumably) himself.

Negotiations might be a good idea -- indeed, they are already occurring to some extent -- but I suspect the idea of setting a withdrawal date now is a non-starter. It certainly runs counter to the incoming U.S. administration's announced policy. Perhaps Karzai is trying to signal in a more forceful way his clear unhappiness with aspects of the war, especially the ongoing civilian casualties. Some readers with longish memories (or an interest in the history of U.S. foreign policy) may recall the late Sen. George Aiken's prescription for ending the Vietnam war: "Declare victory and get out." That was rather sage advice as far as Vietnam was concerned; whether it is equally wise advice with respect to the Afghanistan conflict is a much more open question.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

IR blogging is a growth industry

There are more IR blogs than anyone can keep up with, and new ones are doubtless starting up all the time. Occasionally I will add one to the sidebar. Andrew Bishop's What You Must Read, which I just visited for the first time, looks as if it might be interesting. Go over there, check out his bio etc., and decide for yourselves.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Modernity, IR, and the European 16th century (Pt. 1)

N.B.: This post ends abruptly; I intend at some point to write a conclusion of sorts (hence the Part I in the title). Bracketed numbers indicate notes, which are found at the end. This will probably be my last post for this month.

How did the distinctive institutions of the modern world emerge and develop? Historians and sociologists have been chewing on that big question for a long time; the field of International Relations (IR) clearly has no monopoly on it. Still, some of the more interesting work by IR scholars in the past couple of decades has focused on this issue. Much of this work has been Eurocentric, partly because state sovereignty and the world capitalist economy have European roots. The concentration on Europe, and on the West more generally, has been criticized by writers who draw on ‘postcolonial’ scholarship. A passage from a recent article gives the flavor of this criticism:
“That the practices of states produce hierarchies – among peoples, places and states – is obvious. It is less obvious that practices of scholarship are complicit in these processes. Postcolonial scholars show how knowledge practices participate in the production and reproduction of international hierarchy. A common effect of such practices is to marginalize Third World and other subaltern points of view…. Perhaps most generally, IR often takes for granted as background knowledge, and thus truth, distinctions constitutive of sharp divides between spaces problematically referred to as the North and the South, the First and the Third World, or ‘the West and the rest’. These practices make the North Atlantic world central to world history, acknowledging only contingent connections between ‘the West’ and ‘the rest’. The former becomes the space of modernity, agency, knowledge, history, and power. The latter becomes ‘its lack, or other’. The consequences for our misunderstanding of the world are evident, for example, in analyses of the rise of the West to global dominance that overlook the significance of the non-West, of the spread of sovereignty out of Europe and across the planet that ignore the close ties between sovereignty and imperialism, and of a modernity assumed to be Western, obscuring the existence of other modernities as well as the constitutive role of colonialism in ‘Western’ modernity itself.” [1]
There is some merit to this critique. For reasons having mostly to do with the limits of my knowledge, this post focuses on “the West” and therefore opens itself to this kind of criticism. With so many Eurocentric books and articles having already contributed to “the production and reproduction of hierarchy,” however, I doubt that a blog post is going to do much additional damage in this respect.

“Feudal” and “Modern”
The notion of modernity implies, of course, a notion of pre-modernity, which in the European context means the era of medieval Christendom. The textbook picture of Latin Christendom emphasizes, indeed probably overemphasizes, its political complexity. This picture is one of overlapping authorities, often unclear jurisdictions, and “two parallel and connected hierarchies” [2]: one headed by the Pope, the other by the Holy Roman Emperor. The ideological glue that held medieval Europe together was the notion of respublica Christiana, but this idea of the unity of Christendom had to exist alongside the frequent intra-Christian warfare that characterized the Middle Ages. Thus to some extent medieval Europe was marked by “communal discourse and conflictual practices.” [3] The relation of discourse to practice, however, was not one of simple contradiction. Rather, intra-Christian warfare was seen as a regrettable affront to the way things should be, which is one reason papal mediation could at least occasionally terminate conflicts.

At what point does it make sense to begin speaking of “modern” states and “modern” rulers? The answer, not surprisingly, is unclear. The traditional dividing line in IR accounts is 1648, but that marker has been debunked in recent years, although some continue to use it and debates about the Peace of Westphalia doubtless will continue. With respect to an earlier period, Gilmore observes that the clash in the late fifteenth century between Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Louis XI of France “provided historians a specious example of dramatic contrast between the past and the future, between Charles, the representative of a dying chivalric and feudal order, and Louis, the representative of modern politics….” Actually both men, Gilmore argues, “worked within a set of conditions of which feudalism was still the basis. Both pursued a policy of territorial aggrandizement and there is small justification for awarding the title of ‘modern’ to the one who succeeded.” [4] Nonetheless, there were important structural differences between the Burgundian and the French polities, and the title of “modern” has to start being awarded at some point: if not to Louis XI, then perhaps to his sixteenth-century successors Francis I and Henry II. Anyway, a sharp divide between “feudal” and “modern” is misleading. Some “feudal” assumptions and institutions survived into the eighteenth and even nineteenth centuries, and the Holy Roman Empire did not formally go out of existence until 1806. [4a]

The Sixteenth Century
That the sixteenth century was an especially important, indeed crucial, period in the history of the West (and of the world) seems true whether the era is defined conventionally (say, 1500-1618) or as what Braudel and Wallerstein call the “long sixteenth century” (c.1450-c.1640). The following remarks are organized under the headings of politics, economics, and the legitimation of authority. The first two headings cover pretty familiar ground, while the third goes down slightly less well-worn paths, at least for IR types.

Politics: In the sixteenth century a new political form, namely the sovereign territorial state, finally emerged from the womb after a long gestation. As Tilly and Spruyt among others have noted, the flourishing of this form was not inevitable but the result of a complicated mixture and interplay of forces (sociopolitical and economic). [5] Some historians describe the emergent states of the sixteenth century as “composite" states – polities made up of parts having different social, legal, and sometimes religious characteristics, and held together by the person of the ruler. Recognizing that most polities were composites to one degree or another, however, should not obscure the differences between, say, France, which was an embryonic sovereign territorial state, and the Holy Roman Empire, which was not. [Note added 4/09: For more on composite states and a different view from that expressed in the preceding sentence, see Daniel Nexon, The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe, Princeton U.P., 2009.]

Religious conflicts were the most obvious cleavages of the period, but not the only ones, and conflicts that seemed religious were sometimes so only on the surface. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the same polity could have different official religions within a short time span. From the 1530s to the 1560s, England went from Protestantism to Catholicism to Protestantism again, with each change bringing persecution. For those who took doctrine seriously, such “shifts in official belief and regulated practice must have been excruciating,” dividing communities and families and, sometimes, an individual psyche. [6] State policy could and did veer from toleration to intolerance and back again, as monarchs sought to harness “the passion unleashed by doctrinal conflict…for their own ends.” [7]

Economics: The period witnessed the development of a Europe-wide economy, a “world-economy” in Wallerstein’s phrase, tied together by a division of labor and patterns of exchange. Trade fueled the growth of a banking and credit system, and in Kennedy’s words, “the very existence of mercantile credit, and then of bills of insurance, pointed to a basic predictability of economic conditions which private traders had hitherto rarely, if ever, enjoyed anywhere in the world.” [8] As major customers of merchants and bankers, the emergent states played important roles in the Europe-wide economy’s functioning. [9] Thus, political fragmentation, sustained by (among other things) the fact that most polities were able to produce or to buy the latest military technologies [10], went hand in hand with economic vitality. Territorial consolidation occurred, but not on such a scale as to threaten to replace multiple units with one big entity. In this sense, the geopolitical storyline of the period is “the failure of empire” [11], which enabled the growth of the Europe-wide economy. (Of course, extraction of bullion, sugar, etc. from colonies in the Americas and elsewhere also made this to some extent an extra-European economy.)

The human cost of economic change, both in Europe and beyond, was considerable. In England for instance, rural dislocation “set thousands of beggars wandering the roads” and pushed other people “into the cities and boroughs where they were newly subject to the calamities of depression and urban unemployment.” [12] Crime increased; the suburbs of London were “no other but dark dens for adulterers, thieves, murderers and every mischief worker,” one observer wrote in 1591. [13] Famines and epidemics were regular occurrences.

Legitimation of authority: As Reus-Smit observes, “Legitimacy…is the necessary prerequisite for stable political authority, and investing European monarchs with supreme political authority was, in essence, a process of legitimation.” [14]

In this connection, consider two of the peaks of sixteenth-century literary achievement: Machiavelli’s The Prince (written 1513, published 1532), and the works of Shakespeare (b.1564-d.1616). Close observers of political power and how it is acquired and wielded, Machiavelli and Shakespeare both treat politics as basically a secular realm, with its own set of rules. One scholar remarks that Shakespeare is “the only dramatist who rises to the level of Machiavelli in elaborating all the consequences of the separation of political praxis from moral evaluation.” [15] Another observes that the plays Henry IV (Pts. 1 and 2) and Henry V “confirm the Machiavellian hypothesis that princely power originates in force and fraud even as they draw their audiences toward an acceptance of that power.” [16]

Both Machiavelli and Shakespeare saw that, in an age when rulers had to embody and attempt to unify diverse, “composite” realms, the tools of display and theatricality were central to the legitimation of authority. Machiavelli advised rulers to “keep the people entertained with feasts and spectacles” at “appropriate times of the year.” [17] More importantly, he wrote: “What will make [a ruler] despised is being considered inconstant, frivolous, effeminate, pusillanimous and irresolute: a ruler must avoid contempt as if it were a reef. He should contrive that his actions should display grandeur, courage, seriousness and strength….” [18] Note that “grandeur,” the quality with the strongest link to theatricality, is listed first.

At age eleven, Shakespeare might have seen and been struck by the pomp and display surrounding Elizabeth I on one of her spectacular royal “progresses” through the realm (specifically her 1575 visit to the castle of her favorite the Earl of Leicester). As Greenblatt writes, Elizabeth was “the supreme mistress of these occasions, at once thrilling and terrifying those who encountered her,” and if the young Shakespeare had caught a glimpse of her on this occasion, “arrayed in one of her famously elaborate dresses, carried in a litter on the shoulders of guards specially picked for their good looks, accompanied by her gorgeously arrayed courtiers, he would in effect have witnessed the greatest theatrical spectacle of the age.” [19] Elizabeth was not the only monarch who traveled all over a realm; for example, the young king of France, Charles IX, accompanied by his mother Catherine de Medici and a huge entourage, began a long “tour of France” in 1564 [20] -- the year, incidentally, of Shakespeare’s birth.

Shakespeare’s grasp of the charismatic, theatrical aspects of authority is memorably expressed, among other places, in Henry IV’s rebuke of Prince Hal (1 Henry IV III.ii), in which the father upbraids his son for keeping bad company and becoming too familiar with his future subjects. The trick, Hal is told, is to keep a certain distance and interact with the crowd mainly on well-scripted ceremonial occasions: “Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,/ My presence, like a robe pontifical,/ Ne’er seen but wond’red at; and so my state [i.e. pomp],/ Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast/ And won by rareness such solemnity.” For both Shakespeare (at least in these lines) and Machiavelli, too much familiarity with one’s subjects diminishes the ruler’s aura of specialness and separateness, and once that goes, the prince becomes easier prey for domestic conspirators. Ceremony and spectacle help preserve distance and inspire awe; theatricality was thus bound up with the creation and maintenance of legitimate authority.

This authority, however, was fragile, and monarchs’ difficulty in getting their decisions implemented was a source of anxiety for them. One response was to micromanage (as we would now put it), which is basically what Philip II of Spain did. Philip faced nearly insuperable problems in trying to deal with a large empire, but his style of rule probably made the problems even more intractable than they otherwise would have been. Rulers who were more willing to delegate generally fared somewhat better.

Dates and places of publication have been omitted.

1. M. Laffey and J. Weldes, “Decolonizing the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Studies Quarterly 52:3, pp. 555-577 (quotations from pp. 556, 558).

2. R. Jackson and G. Sørensen, Introduction to International Relations, 2/e, p.13.

3. M. Fischer, “Feudal Europe, 800-1300: Communal Discourse and Conflictual Practices,” International Organization 46:2, pp. 427-466.

4. M. Gilmore, The World of Humanism 1453-1517, p. 81.

4a. In The International Political System, F.S. Northedge dealt with the issue of dating the modern state system's origin by splitting the question in two: he placed the emergence of "the secular principle," i.e. reason of state, in the sixteenth century, and "the fragmentation principle," i.e. the waning of allegiance to a united Christendom, "perhaps as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century." (p. 55)

5. C. Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States; H. Spruyt, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors.

6. S. Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, p. 94.

7. A. Marx, Faith in Nation, p. 27.

8. P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, p.19 (italics omitted).

9. I. Wallerstein, The Modern World-System vol.1, p.133.

10. Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, pp. 21-22.

11. Wallerstein, Modern World-System I, ch. 4.

12. M. Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints, p. 201.

13. Ibid.

14. C. Reus-Smit, The Moral Purpose of the State, p. 93.

15. F. Moretti, quoted in S. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 23.

16. Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations, p. 65.

17. N. Machiavelli, The Prince (Q. Skinner and R. Price, eds.), ch. 21.

18. Ibid., ch. 19. A different translator (Mansfield) renders this as “greatness, spiritedness, gravity, and strength,” a third (Ricci) as “grandeur, spirit, gravity, and fortitude.”

19. Greenblatt, Will in the World, pp. 42, 45-46.

20. E. Le Roy Ladurie, The Royal French State 1460-1610, pp. 177-180; J. Boutier et al., Un tour de France royal: Le voyage de Charles IX (1564-1566); J.E. Neale, The Age of Catherine de Medici.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Selective outrage?

A recent post at Elected Swineherd quotes Amitai Etzioni's musings about why Western "public intellectuals" do not display more outrage about atrocities committed by extremist Muslims, e.g., Taliban beheadings or the stoning to death, for "adultery," of a thirteen-year-old Somali girl who had been raped. These occurrences are indeed appalling, and I agree that often they are not denounced forcefully enough by Western voices.

On the other hand, of course, there are Western voices who would use the Muslim extremists to tar all Muslims, or Islam in general. Glance at some of what goes on at a site like Gates of Vienna for an example of this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Howl time is extended

I find in the mailbox a card from the publishing company Elsevier that informs me I may purchase the second edition of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict for a mere $795.00, a reduction from the list price of $995.00.

Uh-huh. Right.

Hello? Elsevier marketing department? Anyone home? No, I didn't think so.

Howl time!!

I just heard a radio announcer say: "Gas prices in the D.C. area are a dollar cheaper [sic] than they were...."

I wish someone would inform this person that prices are not cheaper. Prices are lower. (Goods or services are cheaper.) Why does this minor mistake annoy me? Mostly, I think, because it represents a small instance of a larger phenomenon: presumably educated, intelligent people making basic English mistakes on the airwaves every day. This is not about informality or slang or colloquialisms, which I have nothing against. It's about locutions that are obviously, patently wrong. I know that languages evolve and all that, and I know no one is perfect, but it's getting to the point where formation of a Committee for the Defense of English would not be an irrational response.

If you don't like this post or think there are errors in it, please howl in the comments.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Gaza (cont.)

A story today says Israel has let in a convoy of aid to Gaza, but a UN spokesman said only eight trucks were let through, carrying only a few days' worth of supplies. The UN spokesman added that $2000 worth of baby milk was damaged or destroyed during inspections by Israeli soldiers. Nice going.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Israel's blockade of Gaza

Israel has effectively blockaded Gaza, preventing the entry of humanitarian aid including food, and aid agencies are predicting a catastrophe if the blockade continues. On Nov. 5, Israeli forces entered Gaza to destroy a tunnel, and Hamas responded with rocket attacks, which have continued intermittently. Israel says its sealing of the borders to humanitarian convoys and other transfers of goods is a response to the attacks; if so, it seems a somewhat disproportionate response.

By the way, remember when the Bush administration was saying it hoped to have the basic framework of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in place before it left office? This seems pretty much out of the question now, although something might conceivably happen on that front between now and January. Assuming nothing does, the Bush administration will leave office with a list of foreign-policy accomplishments that can be counted on the fingers of one hand: 1) its global initiative on HIV and other epidemic diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, which has had some success; 2) increased development assistance to Africa and Latin America; 3) improved U.S.-Indian relations; and 4) some halting progress on the North Korean nuclear front. And that's just about it. (The other side of the ledger is too obvious to need enumeration.)

Coming next week

The post on the sixteenth century, mentioned earlier, will be up next week.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Collective forgetting

In a comment on this earlier post, 'bro' suggested adding a sentence to McCain's line that Americans make history: "And then we run screaming out of the room, get trashed, go to sleep, and wake up with no memory of what happened."

This was meant humorously, of course, but it points to a non-humorous issue, namely the function of collective forgetting, which is perhaps best understood not as literally blotting out certain painful parts of a national past but as agreeing to "bracket" them. More than a century ago, the historian Ernest Renan, in his lecture "What Is a Nation?," observed that "the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things...." More recently, Anthony Marx has put it this way: "Nations drink at the fountain of Lethe, clearing their memories, before their rebirth in the Hades of modernity." (Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism [2003], pp.29-30)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Congo update

France has failed to persuade the EU to send 1500 soldiers to eastern DR Congo to augment the UN peacekeeping force (MONUC), according to a radio report I heard earlier today. The 17,000 UN peacekeepers must deal with a region with roughly 1.7 million people, as Edmond Mulet, UN Asst. Sec. Gen. for Peacekeeping, pointed out in a letter published in yesterday's Wash. Post. Meanwhile, Gen. Nkunda, whose forces have been fighting Congolese government forces as well as, apparently, some soldiers from the government's ally Angola, threatened in an interview with the BBC to overthrow the government of Joseph Kabila unless it agreed to talks. Congo's ambassador to the UN dismissed the remarks. The UN has accused both sides in the recent fighting of war crimes against civilians.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Storming a (non-existent) heaven

Every Friday, the New York Times Book Review (published in print in the Sunday paper) arrives in my in-box. My usual procedure is to glance at it and, unless there's something I urgently want to read, file it in an e-mail folder labeled (surprise) 'nyt bk review'. I just looked at this folder and was horrified at how I have let them pile up. So I quickly deleted a few, but I paused to read David Gates's review, published back in September, of Philip Roth's novel Indignation.

According to the review, the novel centers on a college student who is also the narrator and who is revealed, a quarter of the way through the book, to be dead. Roth portrays the afterlife as a place where
"your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself.”

Here's the conclusion of Gates's review: "...of all Roth’s recent novels, it ventures farthest into the unknowable. In his unshowy way, with all his quotidian specificity and merciless skepticism, Roth is attempting to storm heaven — an endeavor all the more desperately daring because he seems dead certain it’s not there." Listen to the way "endeavor," "desperately, "daring," and "dead certain" work together. What a terrific sentence. I've never read David Gates -- never heard of him, in fact -- but maybe I will now.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

History and "history"

"We [Americans] don't hide from history. We make history."
-- John McCain

"A man has nothing to fear, he thought to himself, who understands history."
-- last line of Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1981)

In these two quotations, "history" is, respectively, a prize and a consolation. In McCain's congratulatory usage, the power to make "history" is what Americans award themselves for being Americans. In Robert Stone's novel, the anthropologist Holliwell, having blundered around in an imaginary Latin American country and helped wreck more than several lives, consoles himself by taking the long view. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, or something like that.

When Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous article "The End of History," later expanded into the book The End of History and the Last Man, he was careful to point out that he was not talking about history but about History in the Hegelian sense, the ostensibly progressive development or unfolding of collective human consciousness, or spirit (Geist). Did McCain's speech writer have Fukuyama somewhere at the back of his mind? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Hegelians and Marxists, among others, believe that History has a veiled or hidden logic, one that their theories grasp. History unlocks its secrets to those in possession of the key: Spirit rising to consciousness of itself, or the inevitability of socialist revolution. Marxism is not about "spreading the wealth," contrary to what certain denizens of the right-wing blogosphere said or implied during the just-concluded U.S. election campaign. Marx himself had nothing but contempt for anyone who concentrated on distribution as opposed to the forces and relations of production. He asserted that redistribution was not possible without a change in the mode of production:
"Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves [Marx wrote in Critique of the Gotha Program].... Vulgar socialism...has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation [between distribution and the mode of production] has long been made clear, why retrogress again?"
When certain conservatives charged that Obama was a Marxist, they proved only that they had not read Marx.

This post seems to have wandered away from the rhetorical uses of "history." Perhaps that's just as well. When we get too serious about these things, we can count on Shaw to puncture the balloon. In Shaw's play The Devil's Disciple, set during the American war of independence, the British general Burgoyne, facing defeat at Saratoga, is asked by a horrified subordinate: "What will history say?" Burgoyne's answer: "History, sir, will tell lies, as usual."

P.S. A link to Critique of the Gotha Program.

Friday, November 7, 2008

China notes

  • James Fallows' article, "Their Own Worst Enemy," in the current Atlantic is interesting and also fairly short (which is always a plus). He argues that the Chinese government does a better job of responding to its people's needs than it has managed to convey to the rest of the world. The government has a penchant for PR missteps, unnecessarily shooting itself in the foot, as happened on a couple of occasions during the Olympics. Fallows suggests that the bureaucracy continues to value loyalty over other qualities but that local officials sometimes go their own way, frustrating directives from the top. Still, there are signs the government is learning from mistakes and beginning to present a more accurate, and therefore favorable, picture of itself to the world.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

One more post on the election

Some readers doubtless already have seen Andrew Gelman's interpretation of the election results, but here's the link for those who haven't. Some key findings: (1) young voters made up about the same proportion of the electorate as in 2004, but they broke Democratic by a much larger margin than in 2004; (2) Obama's gains over Kerry, on a national basis, were most substantial among minority voting groups, but Obama also improved on Kerry's percentage among white voters (Obama got 44 percent, Kerry 41 percent of white voters); (3) the election did not fundamentally re-draw the red-blue map, as Gelman says; Obama outpaced Kerry's showing in the majority of states, but he underperformed Kerry in a few states, such as Louisiana and Arkansas.

Which campaign lines will be remembered?

Despite Barack Obama's eloquence, and despite the fact that I voted for him (in a primary and then in the general election), and despite having downloaded the text of his so-called race speech from the NYT to read at some point (because somehow I missed hearing most of it at the time), I'm afraid that the single line of rhetoric I will remember from this past election may be a John McCain line: "We are Americans. We don't hide from history. We make history." This is not even a good line; it resonates with the kind of American exceptionalism I reject. But because it was the conclusion of McCain's nomination acceptance speech, and because he resurrected it in the closing days of the campaign, and because I made the mistake of watching a pro-McCain YouTube pastiche that prominently featured it, I fear it may prove to be the one line I recall from this election season. (Except for Obama's "yes, we can," but that's less like a line and more like a chant, and also the thing about 'no red states, no blue states,' but that goes back to 2004.)

So, is there some kind of Vulcan-style procedure to eliminate unwanted words from one's memory banks? I'll take it please, pronto. That McCain line is one bit of history I'd just as soon hide from.

The civilian toll continues in Afghanistan

Another wedding party, this one in Kandahar province, has been mistakenly hit by a U.S. air strike, resulting in 40 deaths, the BBC reports. Hamid Karzai is quoted as saying that his "first demand" on the Obama administration after it takes office will be to end civilian casualties.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How Virginia voted, and a few other notes

Many commenters will be putting in their two cents on the election, and I doubt I have much to add of significance. However, in view of this earlier post, I should note that Virginia went for Obama by 51 to 47 percent (based on 99 percent of precincts reporting). Missouri and North Carolina are extremely close and there will probably be recounts in those states, although they cannot affect the overall outcome. Indiana, which I predicted (in comments at DofM) would go for Obama, did, by a slim margin (roughly 23,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million cast). However, I also thought McCain might eke out a win in Ohio, on no evidence other than a hunch, and I was obviously wrong about that. No Democratic candidate has won the presidency without carrying Ohio since JFK in 1960, so I was going out on a limb there, clearly. I haven't checked the latest figures on close Senate races yet, but Elizabeth Dole's defeat in North Carolina is good news, especially given the nasty turn her campaign took at the end.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Kissinger's latest pronouncement on Vietnam

In the current (Nov. 3) issue of Newsweek, Henry Kissinger reviews Gordon M. Goldstein's Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam. Bundy was Kennedy's and then Johnson's national security advisor from 1961 until April 1966, when he resigned and was replaced by Walt Rostow. Along with Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk, Bundy was a key contributor to the decisions that led to the Americanization of the Vietnam War in 1965. Perhaps not surprisingly, this review tells one as much if not more about Kissinger than about Bundy.

Newsweek's decision to have Kissinger review the book, which was written by Bundy's former research assistant, is a bit peculiar. For one thing, most Americans born before, say, 1960 cannot read the words "Kissinger" and "Vietnam" together without being assailed by a host of largely bad memories. Yet Kissinger makes only glancing references to his own extensive involvement with the Vietnam War and adopts the tone of a dispassionate and compassionate observer: dispassionate in apparently trying to rise above the controversies associated with what he calls "the traumatic event [for America] of the second half of the last century," and compassionate towards Bundy, whom he views as someone who did his best in difficult and somewhat novel circumstances.

Kissinger briefly recounts the history of Vietnam policy-making under Kennedy and Johnson, and toward the end of the piece he distills some general lessons (for lack of a better word). Some of this is unobjectionable; who would quarrel, for instance, with the statement that "when the President is asked to consider going to war, he must be presented, above all, with an analysis of the global strategic situation on which the recommendation is based"? (In fact, of course, Kennedy and Johnson were presented with such analyses: the problem was not lack of analysis of the "global strategic situation" but that such analysis was often based on faulty assumptions.)

While some parts of Kissinger's review are unobjectionable, other parts raise hackles. For instance, he criticizes the commitment of U.S. combat troops in large numbers in 1965 "on behalf of a general notion of credibility...." Yet Kissinger himself, after coming to power with Nixon, refused to quickly terminate all American involvement on the grounds that that would have been "immoral" because it would have damaged American credibility in the world! (Michael J. Smith has a good brief discussion on this point in his Realist Thought from Weber to Kissinger, pp.213-214.)

Kissinger observes that Bundy hoped a diplomatic compromise would emerge "once Hanoi's efforts to dominate South Vietnam were thwarted." This approach wrongly sought stalemate rather than victory, Kissinger maintains, and he goes on to say that "the effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory -- as the administration in which I served had to learn from bitter experience." This, I suppose, is a veiled way of saying, among other things, that the "Christmas bombing" in 1972 of Hanoi and Haiphong was necessary to bring about the settlement that was reached in January 1973. Without rehashing the depressing saga of Vietnam policy under Kissinger and Nixon, suffice it to note that
"the effort required to bring about a compromise was indistinguishable from the requirements of victory" is a highly tendentious statement, at best.

Finally, consider Kissinger's last paragraph. It is written in Kissingerese -- a blend of the orotund, the unctuous, and the epigrammatic -- and runs as follows:
"Throughout history, every problem [sic!] America had recognized had proved soluble by the application of resources and idealism. Vietnam proved obdurate. Mourning the assassination of a president with whom it had identified, and perplexed by an impasse to which its own theories had contributed, the intellectual establishment ascribed its traumas to a failure of the American experience and the moral inadequacy of its leaders. This turned the national debate from an argument over feasibility into a crusade increasingly settled by confrontations designed to demonstrate a moral indictment. In that sense, Bundy was victim as much as cause of the forces unleashed as America was obliged to adapt its history to a changing world."
Of course, there could not have possibly been any prior "failures" in "the American experience." There could not have been even one deep flaw or failure. Nor, needless to say, can there have been any flaws in the approach pursued by Nixon and his national security advisor/secretary of state. The flaws lay elsewhere -- in a narcissistic intellectual establishment determined to indict "the American experience" rather than rationally conduct an "argument over feasibility." Never mind that this confuses one element of one segment of the anti-war movement's critique with the whole. Never mind that it implicitly whitewashes every less than glorious moment in the American past. In this last paragraph Kissinger reveals his true colors: as a student of history who apparently fails to comprehend that questions of war and peace are not simply about "argument[s] over feasibility," and as a public servant who has never fully come to terms with his own part in prolonging "the traumatic event [for America] of the second half of the last century."

P.s. I recognize that some people believe "war criminal" is a more apt designation for Kissinger than "public servant," but I think the latter is defensible if one considers his whole career rather than particular, admittedly despicable episodes.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodbye to October -- and not a minute too soon

This has been a more than slightly wild month here, with the increasingly fevered commentary on the election forming a descant over the ground bass of the economic crisis and the stock market's gyrations. The right has worked itself into a frenzy over Obama's alleged "socialism," while some on the left expect the anticipated Obama victory celebration in Chicago's Grant Park to mark symbolically the emergence of a new Democratic majority. A deflation of rhetoric on all sides should follow November 4, since no one can be expected to keep up this level of intensity. The rhetorical deflation will be welcome, as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Afghanistan: Can "a disastrous situation" be salvaged?

I've just finished watching the excellent Frontline (PBS) program "The War Briefing" about the situation in Afghanistan. (That is, I was watching when I wasn't twisting the antenna and cursing the picture on my non-cable TV.)

The quotation in the title of this post is from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, who declared in an interview in the program that Afghanistan is "a disastrous situation for the U.S." It's hard to disagree with him on the basis of the evidence summarized by Frontline. Here are some of the essentials: 1) a weak central government widely perceived as corrupt, opposed by 2) a resurgent insurgency taking advantage of sanctuaries in Pakistan and benefiting from support by the growing Pakistani Taliban movement, with 3) a grossly insufficient number of U.S. troops on the ground (33,000) given the size of the territory (larger than Iraq), leading to 4) an over-reliance on airstrikes that have produced significant civilian casualties (civilian deaths generally have doubled in the past two years), which in turn 5) increases support for the insurgents. There's a lot more going on, but that boils it down to a few of the basics.

You don't need to be a strategic studies or counterinsurgency expert to realize that the current U.S./NATO policy is failing and that one or two more brigades, as Scheuer said, are unlikely to solve the problem. Nor, probably, will getting rid of the so-called 70 caveats -- the current restrictions on rules of engagement (see earlier post and comments). Nor will more monetary support from non-fighting NATO countries, though I'm sure it would be welcome.

Someone should be, and perhaps is, asking: What will be the security consequences for the U.S. of a re-takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban? Maybe the consequences will not be as dire as some suppose. In that case maybe the best course is to try to negotiate with the Taliban, with a view perhaps to either some power-sharing arrangement with Karzai or even a de jure division of the country into separate spheres of control. That might allow the U.S. and NATO to cut their losses in Afghanistan and focus more attention on the situation in Pakistan which, as Colin Kahl says in the program, is potentially a much more serious situation for the U.S., given the recent increase in strength of the Pakistani Taliban and the fragility of the current Pakistan government. That this is not a totally crazy thought is indicated by very recent reports that the U.S. is considering the possibility of negotiating with at least elements of the Taliban. Moreover, as David Ignatius discussed in a recent Wash Post column, Saudi Arabia has begun to host a mediation effort involving the Karzai government and the main Afghan insurgent groups. Obviously it's too early to say whether anything will come of these developments.

In the meantime, it seems unfair to the 33,000 U.S. troops, and British, Dutch, Canadian, and other NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, to continue under-resourcing their operations. Of the roughly 15,000 additional U.S. troops slated for (or requested by generals for) Afghanistan, only 4,500 are currently available, according to the Frontline program. This at a time when 28,500 U.S. troops are sitting in South Korea, and thousands more are in Japan and Germany. It creates at the very least a perception of skewed priorities. I'm sure someone at the Pentagon might have a reasonable-sounding explanation for this, but few members of the public have heard it because no reporters, as far as I'm aware, have bothered to ask the question. And as I've indicated before, I do not think "reasonable-sounding" means a simple appeal to our alliance with South Korea. There is no reason the alliance cannot survive a reduced U.S. troop presence there.

Update: The exchange in the comments has got me re-thinking this last paragraph.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Civilians flee fighting in DR Congo

UN troops have joined Congolese army forces in fighting soldiers led by "renegade general" (as the BBC calls him) Laurent Nkunda, north of Goma, a provincial capital in the eastern DR Congo.

Active engagement by forces of Monuc (as the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo is called) is unusual but not unprecedented. They joined the fighting as angry civilians fleeing Nkunda's advance attacked Monuc HQ in Goma, shattering windows.

An excerpt from the report:

"Gen. Nkunda has threatened to take control of Goma.

The UN accused his soldiers of firing rockets at two UN vehicles on Sunday, injuring several troops. A spokesman for Gen. Nkunda denied the rebels were involved.

His rebels attacked Goma last December. Hundreds of them died as the UN used helicopters under its mandate to protect civilians.

A peace deal was signed in Goma between the government and various rebel groups at the end of January. Although he signed the deal, Gen. Nkunda has always refused to disarm while Rwandan Hutu rebels still operate in the area [he claims to be protecting Tutsis in the region--LFC].

About 200,000 people fled their homes after fighting resumed in the area in late August. The United Nations says many refugees are malnourished and some are dying of hunger."
Also, the Spaniard who's been commanding Monuc forces has resigned "for personal reasons" after seven weeks on the job. A replacement is being sought.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A death in Fallujah

As is well known, things in Iraq have improved somewhat in the past months, particularly on the security front. Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria have recently sent ambassadors to Baghdad. But people are still being killed and we are constantly told that the situation is "fragile and reversible."

Case in point (from the BBC):

The largest Sunni party in Iraq says it is suspending all official contacts with US civilian and military personnel after the killing of a man in Fallujah.

The Iraqi Islamic Party said the dead man was one of its senior members and that he had been killed during a joint US-Iraqi raid on Friday.

The party alleged that the raid had been politically motivated.

The US military acknowledge that one man was killed and another arrested during a raid in the city.


In a statement on its website, the Iraqi Islamic Party said that a senior party member had been killed in his bed, and five others had been arrested, during a raid in the Halabsa area of Fallujah.

"The hidden political motive behind this incident is clear," it said.

As a consequence, the party had "decided to suspend all official contacts with the Americans, both military and civilians, until the party receives a reasonable explanation about what happened, along with an official apology".

It also demanded an assurance that those responsible would be punished, compensation for the victims and the release of the five detainees.

According to the US military, US-backed Iraqi soldiers killed an armed man who had opened fire when they went to arrest a "wanted insurgent leader suspected of training roadside bomb cells," the Associated Press reports.