Friday, October 30, 2009

Nukes: A lot of recent writing

See the Fall '09 World Policy Journal, the Fall '09 Daedalus (link here; includes a piece by Schelling), and Lieber and Press in the current Foreign Affairs. I haven't read any of this (have other things on the plate right now).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Another take on liberalism (and the Left)

Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism, which I reviewed earlier, is reviewed by Harold Meyerson, who also discusses Doug Rossinow's Visions of Progress. The latter deals with "the left-liberal alliance of the period from 1880 through 1940," with particular reference to the Farmer-Labor parties of the 1920's and '30s and the Popular Front (1935-39). Meyerson concludes, correctly in my opinion, that a weak Left in the U.S. hurts American liberalism; a stronger Left could help push through the "next generation of liberal reform."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

We few, we happy few (um, maybe not quite so few, relatively speaking)

This interesting article by James Glanz (hat tip: HC) is also a bit of a mess. Some historians now think the English were not quite so outnumbered at the Battle of Agincourt (Oct. 25, 1415) as has long been assumed. Other historians disagree. Only military history buffs are going to be able to get really worked up about this.

The article's messiness comes from another point: the alleged similarities between the Hundred Years War and contemporary counterinsurgency conflicts. Really? Yes, like, riilly. I'm no expert on medieval warfare, but I think this kind of analogy has to be approached with extreme caution. The article mentions Conrad Crane, military historian and lead author of the not-entirely-uncontroversial revised U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field manual (see the symposium on it in Perspectives on Politics, June 2008),
"some of [whose] own early historical research involved a comparison of strategic bombing campaigns with attacks on civilians by rampaging armies during the Hundred Years’ War, when England tried and ultimately failed to assert control over continental France." I haven't read Crane's work, but I assume he points out that attacks on civilians in the Hundred Years War were partly motivated by the fact that the armies, and the roving bands of armed men that hung around and sometimes supplemented the armies and were sometimes indistinguishable from them, needed to seize food and provisions from local civilians to continue campaigning. (There was also no doubt a good deal of rape and pillage as well.)

Yes, as Mr. Glanz suggests, the Hundred Years War could be seen as a kind of civil war into which an outside power "intervened," except the "outside" power -- England -- had long claimed dynastic title to, and in part controlled, sections of France. Moreover, the Burgundians were not just a "faction," as this article says; Burgundy was a separate polity, distinct from the kingdom of France, from the late 14th century, and a very powerful one well into the 15th century. Do these historical nitpicks affect the contention that there are parallels between the Hundred Years War and contemporary counterinsurgencies? I'm going to duck that for now. Those who are interested can ponder the question at their leisure. (And see also Alexander Downes, Targeting Civilians in War, which I mentioned previously in a comment thread here.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

It ain't rocket science

Glancing through Amy Chua's piece forthcoming in print in this Sunday's NYTBkReview, I see that she observes that most or all current writers on U.S. foreign policy are advocating a return to the past in some form or other. She concedes that this may not be all bad: foreign policy "is not modern dance: tried and true may be better than avant-garde and visionary."

It's not modern dance; it's also not rocket science. Which explains or helps explain why basic ideas and principles which have been around for a while keep getting dressed up in new outfits and applied to new circumstances. The trappings are different, but the underlying notions are, on the whole, familiar.

That doesn't mean, of course, that there are not serious debates about the right way forward; there are. But even a nodding acquaintance with previous debates will reveal that voices from the past keep on echoing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The paradoxical Donald Rumsfeld

The current issue of Foreign Policy Analysis contains an illuminating article about Donald Rumsfeld's 2001-06 tenure as Sec. of Defense, with particular reference to Iraq: Stephen Benedict Dyson, " 'Stuff Happens': Donald Rumsfeld and the Iraq War," Foreign Policy Analysis 5:4 (2009): 327-347.

Dyson argues that Rumsfeld was a paradox: a bureaucratic in-fighter who wanted to be in control of decision-making but, once in control, believed rather fatalistically that he and others could have relatively little impact on the course of events. This "paradoxical combination of a bureaucratic infighter style and a highly complex, somewhat fatalist worldview" (p.345) produced results that, given the larger context of the Bush administration's policy process, were nothing short of disastrous.

Here are a few key sentences from the article's conclusion (p.344):
"The case of Rumsfeld and Iraq points up the dangers of a 'CEO-president' and weak national security advisor.... The danger with a president as hands-off as Bush is that the principals are left to fight things out among themselves, and the most skillful and ruthless among them prevails. Of course, the most skillful and ruthless are not necessarily those with the best ideas."
Drawing on, among other material, interviews with some of those who served in the Bush administration, Dyson's article notes that Rumsfeld was not ideologically committed to the Iraq war in the way that, for instance, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz was. This raises the question of what Rumsfeld's time as Sec. of Defense would have been like if the Iraq war had not been launched. My recollection is that during the period just after 9/11, Rumsfeld's public pronouncements, while they could be irritating in tone, were sometimes blunt (in a good way) and sensible. He seemed to manage the initial fall '01 operation in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, as the Pentagon styled it) reasonably well, despite the failure to capture Osama bin Laden. For much of Rumsfeld's tenure, the war in Afghanistan was on a fairly low boil, as U.S. attention and resources focused on Iraq and the Taliban regrouped and bided their time. It's difficult to predict exactly what would have happened, say with respect to Afghanistan, if the Iraq invasion hadn't taken place. But on the evidence of Dyson's article, "the interaction of Rumsfeld's style with the styles of those around him and the nature of the issues" (p.345) would have meant that, even if the Iraq war hadn't occurred, Rumsfeld's time in office would have produced unsatisfactory results.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sudan: carrots and sticks

A mixture seems like the right approach.

See Miroslav Nincic, "The Logic of Positive Engagement: Dealing with Renegade Regimes," Int'l Studies Perspectives 7:4 (2006).

James Bond meets Heidegger

The Thrownness of Being: Shaken Not Stirred. (A new book currently flying off the shelves.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movies as a register of social change (also known as the cigarette post)

There are worse ways of getting an inkling of how certain aspects of daily life in the U.S. have changed in the last 60-odd years than to watch a "serious" movie from the 1940s. (Of course, another way is to have been alive yourself in the 1940s, but some of us weren't born yet.) In this case the movie happened to be "Mildred Pierce" (1945), for which Joan Crawford won an Oscar for best actress. First off, in this movie everyone smokes constantly. Second, the language has that kind of clipped, slightly stilted inflection that you also hear in, for example, Bogart movies of the period, and the actors seem to be boxed into a fairly narrow emotional range, even when the script calls for them to really emote. (Bogart and Bergman managed to break out of the box in "Casablanca," but if you've seen the movie and its famous last scene several times -- and who hasn't? -- you may well agree with me that that's mostly due to Bergman.)

Anyway, back to "Mildred Pierce": 1) as I said, everyone smokes all the time (and drinks); 2) the police don't read suspects their rights (because the Miranda decision was twenty years in the future); 3) the only African-American character given any substantial camera time (and not much at that) is a female servant with an artificially high voice; 4) the themes are pretty much timeless ones (love and money, basically) but they are handled in a way that shows, among other things, Hollywood's timidity at the time about depicting sex.

Interestingly, the war (I mean World War II of course) is only a very oblique presence in this movie: in one scene there are a few men in sailors' uniforms; in another there is a passing reference to manpower shortages; and that's about it. By Hollywood standards of the time, and notwithstanding Crawford's performance, I think this is probably no better than an average movie. A film like "Double Indemnity," for example, from I think roughly the same period, is quite a bit better.

But the most obvious thing, and the one to which I keep returning, is the cigarettes, because they are ubiquitous in the movie and because I happen to hate cigarette smoke. Even within my own lifetime, this is one aspect of daily life that has changed quite dramatically. When my parents had company over when I was a child, there were at least a couple of ashtrays in the living room; not only did my father smoke, but it was assumed that at least a couple (maybe more) of the guests would be smoking. Nowadays one can still see people smoking in bars, on the street, or occasionally in their cars -- and soldiers in the field often smoke, or so media images suggest -- but when was the last time you were in someone's house for a social occasion and saw someone smoking? It really has become, to a large extent, unusual and frowned-upon behavior (to which I say: thank goodness).

Well, I seem to have diverged somewhat from my original intentions in this post, but hey, this a blog, man. Deal with it. Oh, and put out that cigarette, do you mind? Thanks.

The S. Waziristan campaign...

...has begun. In a remark made to the Wash. Post back in June, the Pakistani army spokesman predicted the effort to pacify the region would be "a long haul."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Kerry-Lugar-Berman signed

Yesterday, in the midst of a wave of suicide bombings in Pakistan, Pres. Obama signed the 5-year, $7.5 billion civilian aid package for Pakistan. A statement released by Sen. Kerry and Cong. Berman, which addresses concerns about infringement on Pakistan's sovereignty, was made part of the bill before its signing. The Pakistani foreign minister has told the country's parliament that he is now satisfied on this score.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Frontline: 'Obama's War'

Everyone should see this program, which aired this evening. If you missed it, you can go to the PBS website and watch it online.

I'm not going to write at great length about it, but of the various disquieting aspects -- and there were several -- perhaps the most disturbing was to hear the Pakistani Interior Minister and the Army spokesman deny that the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network are even in Pakistan (let alone that the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, has been supporting them). And then to hear, after that, Richard Holbrooke say he was sure the Pakistanis know these groups are a threat to them as well as Afghanistan. Know they're a threat? The Pakistani officials don't acknowledge they're even in the country!

"Obama's War" is a well-done, informative piece of journalism, with the scene shifting between Helmand province, Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington. The counterinsurgency position in the current debate, about which I had lots of doubts to begin with, seems even less persuasive to me after watching this. I don't think that's because the program is unbalanced but because the difficulties involved become so evident, particularly in one moment in which a Marine, with an inadequate interpreter, interacts with some local people in Helmand. He asks for their help and they reply: "how can we help you? We don't even have swords. If you can't defeat the Taliban with all your weaponry, then we can't help you." Their reply mostly misses the point -- he wasn't asking for their military help -- but it underscores the difficulties involved in what is euphemistically called "cross-cultural communication" as well as the broader difficulties of entrusting this kind of mission to well-meaning but -- to the local population -- very foreign young men with guns. You can't overgeneralize from one encounter, but the effect nonetheless is very sobering.

Minute of envy

"Pride, Envy, and Avarice are the three sparks that have set these hearts on fire."
-- Dante, Inferno, canto VI, line 74
(with a hat tip to the 1968 edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, ed. Emily Morison Beck)

We think of envy as an ugly emotion, but is it always? Envy often comes jumbled up with other emotions that we see as more benign (I don't mean pride and avarice, obviously). Because there are so many different kinds of people in the world, there are a multitude of reasons for envy, both good and bad. I'm not sure I'd want to be someone who didn't feel envy at least occasionally; it shows you're alive. (I think I'll probably take a pass, however, on visiting whichever circle of hell Dante's describing.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Wazirstan update

An interesting analysis by the BBC's M. Ilyas Khan considers why the Pakistani army has not yet launched the operation in S. Wazirstan that seemed imminent this past summer.

He settles on two main reasons:

"Any action against the Baitullah Mehsud group [i.e. the Taliban group that was led by the late Baitullah Mehsud] in South Waziristan could draw in to the conflict militant groups based in the Wazir tribal areas of South and North Waziristan.

These groups are part of the al-Qaeda affiliated Haqqani network and have peace agreements with the [Pakistani] army.

They have so far concentrated exclusively on fighting inside Afghanistan, and many analysts consider their activities central to the army's perceived security interests in Afghanistan.

Any hostilities with them may harm these interests, analysts say.

Another reason may well have been the so-called Kerry-Lugar bill which promises $1.5bn (£0.95bn) in annual aid to Pakistan for the next five years. [This bill is for non-military aid and has been passed by both houses of Congress. It contains various conditions, some of which apply to U.S. security assistance as well as civilian aid. -- LFC]

The bill, which has been in the works for well over a year, has become hugely controversial recently due to some clauses that the military look upon as detrimental to its interests.

Last week, the army publicly denounced the bill at a time when the government was defending it, thereby sparking a rift within the political establishment....

But while the army considers its options for a re-think, attacks such as the one on its central headquarters in Rawalpindi on 10 October indicate that the options it has are indeed limited, and time is running out."

And throughout all this, the majority of the Pakistani army remains stationed, as far as I'm aware, on the border with India, unable to contribute directly to any operations in the west.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I guess this is why I never got beyond Ec 10

For a university to lay off 250 staff members because its endowment has fallen to $26 billion -- that's billion with a "b" -- seems, somehow, rather insane. Yes, I know about imbalanced budgets and all that, but it still seems a bit nuts. Glancing through this NYT article (hat tip for it to L. Sigelman at The Monkey Cage) leaves a bad taste. Not because of the hot breakfast stuff -- that's trivial nonsense -- but because of the way the NYT writes about these things. Breathlessly and, dare I suggest it, not overly intelligently. As for the stuff about the supposed horror of "being quadded" -- that was being said more than 30 years ago and it was way overblown then. Why don't they yank their reporter out of Cambridge, Mass. and tell her to go cover some interesting stories somewhere else? Perhaps that wouldn't be as much fun as hanging around Mass. Ave. and recycling decades-old clichés, but it would be better for the NYT and its remaining readers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The peace prize

My belated two cents (or rather, two sentences): The award of the prize to Obama can be seen as a sort of vote of confidence in the changed tone of U.S. foreign policy in several key areas. Let's hope that the vote of confidence turns out to have been justified.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


If I had to guess, something like this -- click through to Gelb's piece -- is probably what the Obama admin will do with the Afghanistan decision.
P.s. See also Mark Grimsley on this: here.

It's nice that they're reading about Vietnam but...

...Jon Western asks the right question. This debate is about Afghanistan, so why aren't they reading books about Afghanistan in the White House?

I have read neither Lessons in Disaster nor the Lewis Sorley book that it is supposedly dueling with. But I just quickly read the PW summary of Sorley at Amazon, and my equally quick (i.e., off-the-cuff) reaction is this: One could make a good case that the Vietnam War was lost after the Tet Offensive -- not military but psychologically. So what happened on the ground after that was in some sense irrelevant to the outcome. However, the Vietnam War was one thing and Afghanistan is another. Historical analogies are always perilous because it is so difficult to make intelligent, wise use of them in decision-making. So, decision-makers, put down the Vietnam books and start reading some books on Afghanistan, please. Thank you.

Une petite confusion

Le scandale du jour.

"The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby, in Paris, says that the revelation that a senior cabinet minister was involved in sex tourism, just as the country holds negotiations with Thailand to discuss ways of fighting it, will inevitably embarrass Mr Sarkozy's government."

Ya think?

P.s. A close observer of French politics weighs in on it here.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Cross-dressing controversy causes commotion


Bangladesh and climate change


The birth-order thing

I just caught about ten minutes of Michael Sandel on the Diane Rehm show. (As an irrelevant aside, I'm not a particular fan of Diane Rehm. As another irrelevant aside, I'm also not one of those people who would walk across a blazing desert or stand for three hours in the rain to hear Sandel, although he's obviously both smart and a gifted teacher.)

A caller asked Sandel what message he leaves his students with at the end of his "Justice" course, and Sandel replied that, in order to get students to question the extent to which they are personally responsible for their success, he asks all the first-borns to raise their hands. About 75 to 80 percent of the hands go up, Sandel said, illustrating his point about the random (or morally arbitrary) components of 'desert' and confirming the prevailing wisdom that first-borns are more striving (at least partly because they are more conformist, presumably, though Sandel didn't mention that).

I am skeptical about the whole birth-order thing. But since I haven't read Born to Rebel and know next to nothing about the scientific debate on the subject, I suppose I should exercise a heroic degree of self-restraint and refrain from further comment.

P.s. A long article appeared last month on Sandel and his course
in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nothing to disclose

The Federal Trade Commission has announced new endorsement-disclosure rules for bloggers. From an article in today's Wash. Post:

"Bloggers who offer endorsements must disclose any payments they have received from the subjects of their reviews or face penalties of up to $11,000 per violation, the Federal Trade Commission said Monday.

"The agency, charged with protecting consumer interests, had not updated its policy on endorsements in nearly three decades, well before the Internet became a force in shaping consumer tastes. The new rules attempt to make more transparent corporate payments to bloggers, research firms and celebrities that help promote a product."

Because this blog does not routinely promote products (it may very occasionally mention one favorably, though I can't recall offhand having done so), it is not surprising that I have received no payments from any corporate interests (in fact no payments, period) since the blog's start. Nor have I received any free books, free merchandise or free anything from any publisher, manufacturer or whatever. Zip.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Saddling up at containment gulch; or, The X article rides again

Nicholas Thompson, author of the recent book on Paul Nitze and George Kennan (The Hawk and the Dove), tries to apply some lessons of Kennan's famous X article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," to the struggle with global jihadism.

Thompson mentions, among other things, Kennan's view that some parts of the world are more important for U.S. national security than others. True enough. I would caution, however, that this lesson should be stripped of Kennan's implicit (and sometimes not-so-implicit) racism. Not many people these days would want to go around quoting Kennan's 1962 statement that the capacity for democracy is "peculiar to peoples who have had their origins on or near to the shores of the North Sea."

With that caveat (and maybe one or two others that readers can supply themselves), I think we could all do worse than re-read the X article, and then re-read it again.

What about the Tobin tax?

Here (latter part of the article).