Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Photo of the day

Two baboons sitting on rocks in a South African park. Here.

Diplomacy does not equal appeasement

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the Munich conference. For decades the label 'Munich' has been widely misapplied to virtually any foreign-policy move thought unwise by the persons doing the labeling. In view of this, I think it's appropriate to quote the following passage from Richard Holbrooke's article ("The Next President: Mastering a Daunting Agenda") in the current issue of Foreign Affairs:
"Both Obama and McCain agree that preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state must be a major priority. Both would tighten sanctions. Neither would remove the threat of the use of force from the table. But from that point on, their emphasis and language differ significantly. Obama has said repeatedly that he is ready to have direct contacts with Iran at whatever level he thinks would be productive, not only on nuclear issues but also on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran's support for terrorist organizations.... Obama's forthright approach has been met with cries of alarm from McCain and his supporters, as though the very thought of talking to one's adversaries were in and of itself a sign of weakness, foreshadowing another Munich. This position is contradicted by decades of U.S. diplomacy with adversaries, through which U.S. leaders, backed by strength and power, reached agreements without weakening U.S. national security. Diplomacy is not appeasement. Winston Churchill knew this, Dwight Eisenhower knew it, and so did John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Needed: a Pakistan-India-Afghanistan agreement

The blog Over the Loon's Nest (see sidebar for link) mentions a piece in Forbes.com by the prolific C. Raja Mohan.

An excerpt:

"Once it recognized that Gen. Pervez Musharraf, America's strongman in Pakistan since 9/11, was part of the problem rather than the solution, Washington leaned on him to hold free and fair elections, shed his uniform and eventually resign as the president. Although the American effort to depersonalize its Pakistan policy--on which the entire effort in Afghanistan hinged--never looked either decisive or pretty, Washington got it right in the end. Its efforts were indeed instrumental in ensuring the return of civilian rule in Pakistan.

Yet it was one thing to get rid of Musharraf and entirely another to compel the Pakistan Army to mend its ways. Since 9/11, the U.S. policy in Afghanistan relied entirely on the promised cooperation from the Pakistan Army and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence in hunting down Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It took nearly six years after 9/11 for the U.S. security establishment to convince itself that the Pakistan Army and the ISI were hunting with the hounds and running with the hare.

Since 2007, the U.S. has stepped up its direct attacks on terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani soil. This policy culminated earlier this month in a foray by U.S. ground troops into Pakistan. Although this incursion, a clear violation of Pakistan's sovereignty, angered the new civilian leaders in Islamabad, it helped concentrate their minds on the stark choice that confronted them: If they did not act against the militant groups, the U.S. armed forces would.

Torn between the terrorist groups who were pressing the new civilian government to divorce itself from the unpopular U.S. war on terror, a Washington that was demanding an escalated military effort in the tribal regions, and an army that was playing both sides, Pakistan's civilian leaders appear to have chosen to go with Washington. In response, the terrorists drove a truck bomb into the Marriott hotel in downtown Islamabad on Saturday night.

Having nudged Pakistan's civilian leaders into making the right political choice, the Bush Administration now needs to assist them in two important interconnected goals: 1) gaining control over the military establishment and 2) making peace with Afghanistan and India.

In his first address to a joint session of Pakistan's parliament on Saturday, hours before the suicide bombers ripped through the Marriott hotel, the new civilian president Asif Ali Zardari said all the right things on fighting terrorism and seeking a rapprochement with Afghanistan and India.

Zardari's problem, however, is that it is the army that has always defined Pakistan's objectives toward Kabul and New Delhi and brooked no interference from the civilian leaders. Pakistan's instrumentalization of Islamic extremism over the last three decades has been part of a deliberate policy of the army to extend its influence into Afghanistan and wrest the disputed region of Kashmir from India.

In trying to regain the civilian right to set national security objectives, Zardari has reached out to both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, both of whom have responded warmly. Karzai attended Zardari's swearing in as president last week, and Singh has established a back-channel with the Pakistani leader.

The Pakistan Army, however, will not easily cede its traditional prerogative to set the policies toward Afghanistan and India and has a variety of means to wreck Zardari's attempt at regional reconciliation. That, precisely, is where the U.S. needs to step in. By coordinating a new peace initiative with Afghanistan and India, the Bush Administration can help deliver a set of visible political gains for Pakistan's civilian leaders and allow them to establish their supremacy over the armed forces.

The U.S. objectives of the war on terror and South Asia's peace and prosperity are now tied inextricably to a fundamental transformation of civil-military relations in Islamabad."

A few of Mohan's inferences here may be doubtful. Is it clear, for example, that the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott was directly linked to recent developments in the border regions? I'm not sure this has been established yet, especially as the group that claimed responsibility is a fairly obscure one. Nonetheless, a lot of Mohan's analysis seems to make quite a lot of sense. The only practical problem is that, as a very lame duck administration, the Bush people probably are in no position to start trying to help orchestrate a Pakistan-Afghanistan-India pact. That will have to go on the agenda of the next administration.

More on the debate

Two interesting short comments on different aspects of it:
David Ignatius: here.
Stephen P. Cohen (and others): here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The first debate

There is cool, and then there is cool to the point of ice cool. Barack Obama's coolness did not serve him very well tonight. He was fine, for the most part, on substance, but he did not parry effectively enough McCain's charges that he favored "defeat" in Iraq and that by potentially talking with Ahmadinejad he would be "legitimizing" the latter's views on Israel (and other matters). These McCain gambits should have been met with more force, passion, and heat than Obama displayed. I felt that Obama risked conveying that he did not care about these matters in a visceral way. There was no expression of, indeed no hint of, real outrage or even mild anger at the huge mess and disaster that the Bush administration has created in America's relations with the world. Obama said the right things but did not seem to feel them very deeply.

The upshot was, as Michael Beschloss remarked afterward, that Obama appeared to be on the defensive for a fair amount of the time. He was very good on certain topics like the U.S. and Pakistan, where he effectively criticized the U.S. record of largely uncritical support of (the now ousted) Musharraf. McCain came back with "I don't think Sen. Obama realizes that Pakistan was a failed state when Musharraf took over [by coup in '99] ." That's wrong: Pakistan was (and is) a very troubled state but not a failed state, and Obama should not have let that go by. He was also too willing to agree with McCain on the need for missile defense and on domestic nuclear power.

Obama had a strong moment at the end, when he talked about the decline in U.S. standing and reputation in the world, but here again he probably let McCain dissociate himself from the Bush administration without sufficient pushback. He even gave McCain credit on the torture issue -- gracious but probably unnecessary (and not wholly accurate). Judged from a transcript, this debate was probably a victory for Obama. Judged as television, however -- which means judged on the impressions conveyed and the tone, rather than as a purely substantive contest -- I would have to say McCain earned at least a draw, and perhaps should be given a slight edge for being on the offensive more of the time.

Bottom line: probably not many votes are going to be swayed by this debate one way or the other. But Obama better take a dose of de-icer before the next one.

P.s.: After reading D. Nexon's reaction (D. of Minerva), I am reminded that Obama also had a good moment on Iran and the impossibility of effective sanctions without the participation of China and Russia (in response to McCain's blathering about his League of Democracies).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Puzzle of the day

Correction (added 9/27): The number of U.S. soldiers in S. Korea is 28,500, not 37,000 as I wrote in this post. (Source: R. Holbrooke in the current [Sept/Oct '08] issue of Foreign Affairs, p.14.) This does not change the main point I was making.
Sec. of Defense Robert Gates said today that the reinforcements being requested by U.S. generals in Afghanistan will not be available for deployment until spring 2009. We hear all the time that the demands being placed on the all-volunteer force by two ongoing wars are stretching it to a dangerously thin point, and I have no reason to doubt this.

At the same time, the U.S. still has, as far as I know, roughly 37,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea, 55 years after the armistice that ended (in a practical though not legal sense) the Korean War. The U.S. also has thousands of soldiers in Japan and a substantial number in Europe (albeit fewer than during the Cold War). Some of this military presence is no doubt required under the terms of existing alliances. But it's odd that relatively few people (outside of the 'usual suspects' so to speak) seem to have raised questions about the appropriateness of this distribution of military manpower (and womanpower) in a time of stretched forces.

The rationale for having 37,000 troops in South Korea has eluded me for years. They cannot really be serving any genuine deterrent function, in light of North Korea's million-man army, and if the point is to provide a trip-wire effect (i.e., a guarantee of U.S. intervention in the event of a North Korean invasion), then surely 8,000 soldiers (for example) would do that as reliably as 37,000. Do the terms of the alliance require maintenance of a specific number of American soldiers in South Korea? If not, what are they doing there? Does this make any sense? Maybe one of the many bloggers (or others) with more expertise in these matters than I possess can enlighten me on this point. I'd appreciate it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

End of an era

From today's NYT:
"The transformation of Wall Street picked up pace on Monday as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the last big independent investment banks, moved to restructure into larger, less risk-taking organizations that will be subject to far greater regulation by the Federal Reserve.

The changes came after Goldman and Morgan Stanley on Sunday night received permission from the Federal Reserve to become bank holding companies. The change means they will be able to finance their activities with insured deposits but in return must reduce the amount they can borrow to make the kind of big trading bets that drove huge profits, and massive bonuses for executives, over the last several years of Wall Street’s latest Gilded Age.

Morgan Stanley moved quickly into the new era on Monday, announcing that it planned to sell up to a 20 percent stake in itself to Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Japan’s largest commercial bank, for about $8 billion. Mitsubishi has $1.1 trillion in bank deposits, which will help bolster Morgan’s stability of financing. Goldman Sachs is also expected to move to increase its deposit base and add more capital to its balance sheet.

The changes by Morgan Stanley and Goldman essentially bring to an end the era of the big, independent Wall Street investment bank and a return to the model that dominated before the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 forbade commercial banks from also owning securities firms.

Both banks said they requested the change in their status. But the changes also closely follow comments from executives at both investment houses saying their business model was not broken and that transforming into deposit-funded commercial banks would not necessarily help them perform better. This raised the question of whether the change was really voluntary, which both banks insist it was, or was mandated by a Federal Reserve eager not to have to come to the rescue of another failing financial institution."

Who cares whether or not it was voluntary? It don't see how it can possibly be a bad thing that execs will no longer be able to make tens of millions of dollars every hour by betting that the price of derivative X or swap Z will rise (or fall, as the case may be). I heard someone on the radio implying that this will reduce incentives to innovate. Rubbish. "Innovation" usually means, or should mean, useful innovation.

P.s. According to the UN Human Development Report (2007-08), the Gini coefficient for income inequality in the U.S. is .408 (where zero is complete equality and one is the most possible inequality). Mexico is at .461, Mali at .401. The degree of U.S. income inequality is now more typical of what used to be called Third World countries than of other rich countries.


Over at The Edge, there is an essay by psychologist Jonathan Haidt on "why people vote Republican," even when it's apparently against their economic self-interest to do so. Haidt argues, in a nutshell, that the Republican party's perceived value system appeals to those who emphasize what he calls Durkheimian moral sentiments relating to collective solidarity, group loyalty, self-abnegation, and so on. (I'm truncating it more than a bit, so read the whole thing if interested.)
The Haidt piece is followed by comments from several people. The most depressing comment is by Roger Schank, a computer scientist and psychologist, formerly professor at Northwestern and Yale. An excerpt:

"When I travel, I live the life of an intellectual. In Florida, I hang out with jocks and retirees. I try not to talk politics with them. When it happens that I have no choice but to hear what they think about politics I take note of it. Here is what I have heard:

Obama is a Muslim. His pastor hates America. In fact nearly everyone outside of America hates America. If you travel outside of America, go on a cruise, so you won't have to eat whatever it is one eats in those places. You don't want to talk to the people either, but that’s not a problem because none of them speak English. And, anyway they all hate us for our freedoms. Obama will put Al Sharpton in the cabinet. Dick Cheney was the greatest Vice President in history. The Jews are running the country anyway.

I am not making this up. This is not a caricature. I wish I carried a tape recorder.

It is common to make the assumption that people are thinking when they vote and they are making reasoned choices. I harbor no such illusion. No argument I have ever gotten into with these people (despite avoiding talking to them, I sometimes can't resist saying something true) has ever convinced anyone of anything. They are not reasoning, nor do they want to try. They simply believe what they believe."

He goes on to observe that most people are not encouraged to think when they are children, so we shouldn't expect them to think when they are adults. And there's more in this vein.

Well, I hope his sample of Florida voters is not representative of the whole state's electorate. Beyond that I'm (temporarily) speechless.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lost in the blogosphere

Occasionally I find myself lost in the blogosphere: that is, I end up somewhere unexpected as a result of glancing through comment threads and/or zapping links and whatnot.

Just now I ended up at a blog by an English professor in Halifax, N.S. Now, my own blog is not primarily about literature; however, this professor, Rohan Maitzen, seems to write well and what she writes may possibly be of interest to one or two of this blog's readers. Moreover, her profile's list of her favorite books begins with Middlemarch, which is enough to recommend her blog. Anyway, here's the link to it for those of you who might want to check it out.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The McCain-Spain thing

A minor brouhaha -- on the web, at least -- has erupted about an interview that McCain gave to a Spanish-language radio station in Florida. The interviewer, speaking quite heavily accented English, asks a series of questions about Latin America to which McCain gives pretty standard neocon-flavored answers. Then the interviewer switches continents and asks whether McCain would be willing to meet with Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, should McCain become president.

I have listened to the interview -- here's a link that can get you to the audio -- and it's clear that McCain did not hear, or did not process, the interviewer's references to Spain and Europe. McCain continued to talk about Latin America, making a specific reference to Mexico and Calderon, and refused to commit to a meeting with Zapatero specifically, clearly because he had no idea that the interviewer was asking about Spain.

Does this mean McCain is senile? No, it means he misheard an interviewer speaking with an accent and was unwilling to ask for clarification. His campaign has worsened the situation by telling the Wash Post that yes indeed, McCain is not willing to commit specifically to meeting with Zapatero. The whole thing is ridiculous. They should just admit he made a mistake and didn't hear the interviewer clearly. If they had done that, it would have been pretty much the end of the story. Now, though, his campaign's on record as saying he won't promise specifically to meet with the head of government of a NATO ally.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

David Foster Wallace

My tastes in fiction tend to be rather old-fashioned, for lack of a better word, and I never was able to get past the opening pages of Infinite Jest, David Wallace's huge 1996 novel and magnum opus. But you needn't have been a fan of his work to find his recent death, at age 46, very sad.

The long NYT obituary, published Sept.14, gives some indication of his talents and accomplishments. For instance, he graduated summa cum laude from Amherst in 1985, with two senior theses: one became his first novel The Broom of the System, the other was on Aristotle. He was a "prominent" the obit says -- which I assume means nationally ranked -- junior tennis player, and tennis figures in his writing. He also received a MacArthur genius grant.

In addition to the obituary and an appreciation in the NYT, there's also a post at the blog Paper Cuts, which quotes a good passage from Infinite Jest.

Added 10/16/08: For a longer post on Wallace with more links, see here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Monday, September 15, 2008

Speculative capitalism in crisis

Last night I saw a 38-year-old movie that constitutes, among other things, a meditative, dreamy indictment of capitalism, or at least a certain side of it. Today, Wall Street was in free fall. Hmm....

(The movie was Antonioni's gorgeous Zabriskie Point, on which MGM, incidentally, lost millions. More reflection on it later, perhaps, when the blogging muses are in a better mood.)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Republicans stuck in the Goldwaterite past

So argues D. Brooks in his column today, which has garnered more than 280 comments on the NYT site (I haven't read the comments, but that's an impressive number). Brooks maintains that the Republican party's regnant ideology is too fixated on the archetypal rugged individual and not interested enough in promoting community, etc. Kind of obvious, but succinctly put.

He neglects to mention, however, the elder Bush's slightly communitarian "thousand points of light" speech from, I seem to recall, the '88 campaign (?). Probably just as well.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Pushback" against U.S. in Latin America

A recent Wash. Post story (h/t: Open Source Geopolitics) about the closing next year of a U.S. air base in Manta, Ecuador contains the following passage:

In the waning days of the Bush administration, governments in Latin America are rejecting many U.S.-funded programs, particularly anti-narcotics efforts.... In Venezuela, anti-drug officials say, cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has deteriorated sharply. In Bolivia, coca farmers decided in June to expel the U.S. Agency for International Development from part of the country amid accusations that it was conspiring against President Evo Morales. The pushback resonates well politically in many parts of Latin America, where U.S. policies are often seen as security-obsessed Cold War vestiges or bitter economic pills forced down the throats of unwilling governments.

The story of the Manta air base is one in which soft balancing and hard cash come together. Among other things, a joint $6 billion Venezuelan-Ecuadoran oil refinery announced by Hugo Chavez and Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa means that the money injected by the U.S. base in Manta is no longer so important to Ecuador.

The Manta air base, which employs 450 U.S. Air Force personnel and contractors, will close in November 2009. Its main mission has been to conduct surveillance flights aiming to interdict seaborne drug trafficking. The closing of the base, on balance, seems to be a good thing. My impression is that, generally speaking, the U.S. military/drug-war footprint in Latin America has cost more than it's worth. The U.S. does not need and should not have more than 700 military bases scattered over the world. Some of them no doubt perform essential strategic missions, but the majority probably should be closed. They perpetuate the image and reality of American 'empire'. Alexander Cooley has argued that the U.S. should maintain bases in "mature democracies" but not in non-democratic countries (see A. Cooley, "Base Politics," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2005; he also has a recent book on the subject). However, one should also ask whether a given base is really serving a valuable purpose, regardless of where it is located.

Monday, September 8, 2008

HRW report on Afghanistan

Human Rights Watch has released a report on civilian casualties in the Afghanistan war. See here (latter part of the story).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

From Macbeth to T.S. Eliot (with a bit of George Will in between)

Today's George Will column reminds me why I don't read him more regularly. It argues that the question "are you better off today than you were four years ago?" is silly because not everything about the quality of life can be captured statistically. True enough, but Will should know (in fact, does know) that a lot of American politics (or politics in general) revolves around basic, measurable gauges of economic 'health'. The column opens with a quote from Shakespeare -- McCain, Will says, is, like Macbeth, in "the sear, the yellow leaf" of life -- and ends with one from T.S. Eliot. In between Will manages to work in a plug for Middlemarch, proving that even he occasionally gets something right.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Small towns: Palin's rose-colored vision

Anyone who has spent 5 seconds here knows I am not a Republican. With that out of the way, I would point to one passage in Palin's speech which struck me:

Long ago, a young farmer and haberdasher from Missouri followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency. A writer observed: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity." I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. I grew up with those people. They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America ... who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.

It is correct that a disproportionate number of enlistees come (and have come in the past) from small towns and rural areas. The rest of the passage, with its romanticizing of small towns, runs counter to what Sinclair Lewis, at least, thought about them. I lived relatively briefly in a small town in West Virginia a long time ago. If I had to guess, I'd say one finds a roughly similar mixture of human types in small towns and big cities. There are differences, to be sure, but not everyone in a small town is a Truman-style paragon of virtues.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Note to readers

For various reasons, I expect that my posting will be light this month.