Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to write a (somewhat misleading) headline

"Lebanon's Sunnis at risk of radicalization," blares this WaPo headline. But the opening graphs of the story have quotes from young Sunnis in the Beirut neighborhood in question saying they are not aligned with any group. But -- wait -- they're flying a black flag "inscribed with the Islamic creed" that is "often associated with the global al-Qaeda franchise." Oooh, the black flag. Cue the headline writers. "At risk of radicalization."  

Quote of the day

Continuing with the RFK theme (see here), a passage from Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, pp. 270-71, describing the 1968 Democratic primary campaign in Oregon. The passage can function as a little quiz: how many of the celebrity names do you recognize?  

[Eugene] McCarthy prevailed in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. RFK won in Nebraska and South Dakota. It came down to Oregon on May 28 and California on June 5: the insurgent still standing would take on the Humphrey Machine. The drama was inescapable. The tousle-haired First Brother, traveling through Oregon in JFK's old bomber jacket with his brood of photogenic children and their cocker spaniel, Freckles, scampering down the jet gangway ahead of Bobby and whatever local pol was by his side; the intense former college professor, the "man the people found" and the "Clean for Gene" hordes that followed him, a piercing wind of idealism in a low-down and dirty age. Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis, Bobby Darin, Peter Lawford, Sonny and Cher, superstar Olympic decathlete Rafer Johnson, and football star Rosey Grier traveled with Kennedy. McCarthy campaigned with Elaine May, Tony Randall, Eli Wallach, and Robert Ryan -- and as a reproach to Kennedy, who, McCarthy fan Mary McGrory wrote, "thinks the American youth belongs to him as the bequest of his brother," Dustin Hoffman, star of the anti-grown-up hit The Graduate.

I know most of these names but would have to consult Wikipedia for Robert Ryan.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What am I doing here?

Nothing like an ambiguous title for a post, is there?

I've been blogging since May '08 (with occasional breaks to recharge, figuratively, the batteries, etc.). Periodically I ask myself why I am doing it, and as we approach the end of another calendar year, and as I'm planning to take another of my breaks once the dust from the election settles (from around Nov. 12, say, through Dec. 31 at least), it seems to be a good time to pose the question again. Except usually I pose it just to myself, not to anyone who happens to be reading.

The question, unfortunately, doesn't have a very satisfactory answer. My closest relatives don't usually read this blog and nor, with a couple of highly valued exceptions, do my friends (I mean my non-virtual, non-online friends, not that there is a huge number of them but I do have some, friends from the past and whatnot). So I'm not blogging for my relatives and friends. I'm also not blogging to keep the functional equivalent of a personal diary or journal: to me that implies a degree of privacy, and even though very few people may read a post here, in theory anyone with an internet connection can. I'm not blogging to disseminate or promote my own academic or scholarly work (which is, at the moment, nonexistent), which is an honorable motive for some other blogs, or to push a particular political agenda (though I'm not shy about expressing my political views). So why does a low-traffic blog with no clear, precisely focused mission or purpose keep going? Why have I done this for more than four years now? I suppose I must find something slightly intoxicating, for lack of a better word, about having a platform (and this is essentially the only one I have: I'm not on Twitter or Facebook or Tumblr). Every time I think about stopping, I find myself not stopping. Sometimes I say posting is going to be light and it turns out not to be. What gives? As I say, I don't have a very good answer.

As far as I can tell, there are roughly three groups of people who find their way here. This is not an exhaustive categorization but it will do. First, there is a very small group of regular or semi-regular readers, most of whom I don't know and most of whom never leave comments, so I don't even know for sure why they are regular readers (btw, it's very easy, technically, to comment here, I've even considered disabling the captcha but haven't taken the time to figure out how to do it). [clarification: I'm glad to have these readers, I'd just like a better sense of what's attracting them to the blog and perhaps what they'd like to see more or less of.]  Second, there are people who end up at a particular post as a result of typing something into Google or another search engine (or, occasionally, who come via Blogger). Third, there are people who come here, or follow a link here, when I post something having to do with academic debates or discussions in IR. (And I suppose there is some overlap among the three groups.) A solid average weekday at this blog sees maybe 15 'unique' visitors, a good day might see 25 or so, and anything much above that, although it does happen from time to time, counts as a red-letter day (do people still use that expression?).

So I'm obviously not blogging to keep satisfying the demand of a large, established readership for material, since there is no large readership here. So again: what am I doing here? I'm not really sure. But, for the moment, I'm still here.

P.s. As I said in comments on an earlier post, my thoughts now are with those in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere coping with power outages (I have a friend in New Jersey in that situation) and worse. Luckily and contrary to my expectations, the power stayed on where I am, for which the local utility (Pepco) must be given some credit.

Klein nails it

This, I think, is right on the mark.

Richard Cohen's unfair comparison

Readers of this blog will know that I have not been an uncritical booster of Obama, though I am definitely supporting him for re-election. But Richard Cohen's WaPo column comparing Obama unfavorably to Robert Kennedy strikes me as somewhat unfair.

Cohen writes:
Kennedy had huge causes. End poverty. End the war. He challenged a sitting president over Vietnam. It could have cost him his career. It did cost him his life. The draft is long gone, and with it indignation about senseless wars. Poverty persists, but now it is mostly blamed on the poor. When it comes to the underclass, we are out of ideas . . . or patience. Or both. Pity Obama in this regard. It’s hard to summon us for a crusade that has already been fought and lost. We made war on poverty. Poverty hardly noticed.
If you accept the premise of this passage, then the fault lies more with the times than with Obama. 1968 was a different era. Yet Cohen then proceeds to ignore his own insight. I agree Obama should have been more vocal about climate change, about the plight of young black men many of whom are in prison or unemployed (or underemployed), and about some other matters, too. But Obama is who he is: his 2008 campaign was not an especially marked departure from the center of gravity of the Democratic party, which has shifted rightward since the days of RFK. For that matter, it's shifted rightward even since 1980, when Edward Kennedy gave his unforgettable speech at the Democratic convention of that year ("the dream will never die").

Richard Cohen knows this, which is another reason his column seems unfair. It has attracted a lot of comments on the WaPo site, or so I surmise from the fact that the "loading comments" function there seems to be groaning under the strain. But I haven't read any of the comments there except one or two. A lot of them, no doubt, won't  have anything to do with what Cohen wrote.

Added later: I don't agree, by the way, with Cohen's implicit blanket dismissal of the 'war on poverty', which had some real accomplishments. But that's a whole other subject.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Note on Argo

I saw the movie Argo recently. It was good (apart from a couple of fairly minor things). In a nice symmetry, the movie is as smart as the fake movie-within-the-movie is silly. Argo is suspenseful and never boring, the prologue properly sets the historical context (noting the CIA-engineered coup against Mossadegh), and it's also hard to complain about a screenplay that includes, toward the end, a reference to the opening of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire. And the cast, led by Ben Affleck (who also directed), is excellent.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Most people here probably have already seen B. DeLong's brief, eloquent piece on the battle of Stalingrad at 70 (h/t), but if you haven't it's worth reading.

Much else worthy of note in the press and the blogosphere, but I'm afraid there'll be no more linkage right now. (And to those who happen to be on the U.S. east coast: weather the storm and stay safe.)     

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Thoughts on 'the territorial peace' and related matters

Note: This (fairly long) post will be of interest mainly to those concerned with the academic literature on borders, conflict, state formation, etc. Others may wish to skip it.

In his book The Territorial Peace, Douglas Gibler argues -- as I understand his argument based on his recent posts at The Monkey Cage -- that the 'democratic peace' is "a subset" of a more encompassing and fundamental phenomenon. He contends that involvement in territorial disputes (especially those involving core 'homeland' territories) leads to authoritarianism and 'centralization' (or pushes in that direction), whereas countries that are not involved in territorial disputes tend to be less authoritarian, more democratic. The reason is that militarized disputes over territory (defined, per the Correlates of War project, as anything from a brief display of force to full-scale war) produce large armies, which subsequently are often used for internal repression and more 'centralization' (measured by the number of 'veto points' in the state apparatus). An absence of territorial disputes has the opposite effect, thus leading to both democracy and peace. Questions can be raised about aspects of this argument (see e.g. the comment thread to this post and also further discussion below), but it seems intuitively somewhat plausible, or at least not completely implausible.

Gibler's work can be seen as part of a recent wave of scholarship which, in different ways and from different perspectives, addresses the effects and causes of an overall decline in armed conflict, especially traditional interstate war. Work on the territorial integrity norm (Zacher 2001 [pdf]) and the rarity of 'state death' after 1945 (Fazal 2007) attributes the reduction in interstate war to norms concerning the inviolability of state boundaries and the unacceptability of conquest. (Arguments about the obsolescence of great-power war, discussed elsewhere on this blog, also focus on norms and their development.)

Not everyone agrees, however, that settled territorial boundaries always lead to less conflict. Boaz Atzili in his book Good Fences, Bad Neighbors argues that (to quote from the abstract of an earlier article of his):
In regions in which most states are socio-politically strong, fixed territorial ownership is a blessing. It enhances peace, stability, and cooperation between states. In regions in which most states are socio-politically weak, however, fixed territorial ownership is largely a curse. It perpetuates and exacerbates states' weakness, and contributes to internal conflicts that often spill over across international borders.
Atzili defines "the sociopolitical strength of the the state's capacity to maintain a monopoly over the legitimate use of force,...rule effectively over its society (including extracting sufficient revenue and providing sufficient public goods), and...maintain a reasonable level of social cohesiveness and identification of its residents with the state as such" (Good Fences, p.33). Thus he treats "the ideational facet of the state" as "just as important, and sometimes more" important than the institutional dimension (p.4).

His basic argument, as the above quote indicates, is that the norm of fixed borders often perpetuates state weakness, which in turn facilitates internal conflict that can spill over boundaries and become a form of interstate conflict, not for the most part "Clausewitzian wars in which two regular armies meet each other in the battlefield" but "transnational conflicts" involving state and non-state actors (p.49). The border-fixity norm thus has different effects depending on the strength or weakness of states.

Good Fences, Bad Neighbors contains a number of case studies. Two of the four main cases -- Brandenburg-Prussia in the 17th and 18th centuries and Argentina in the 19th century -- predate the border-fixity norm, while the other two main cases -- Lebanon 1950-2006 and Congo (DRC) 1960-2006 -- are set in the fixed-borders world. Space and time preclude anything like a proper summary of the cases and of  the various dimensions of the argument; however, a glance at the Congo discussion will give a flavor of the approach.   

What is now the Dem. Rep. of Congo was "a very weak state at its independence" (p.141) and, with its existence effectively guaranteed by the norm against conquest, it did not face the same structural pressures and incentives to become a stronger state that polities in the 'flexible-borders world' of early modern Europe did. Mobutu's corrupt and kleptocratic rule had much to do with keeping Congo (then Zaire) weak, but Mobutu's successors Laurent Kabila and his son Joseph Kabila did not improve things greatly, because incentives for state-building remained largely absent. When Congo's weakness met the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its aftermath, which sent large numbers of Hutu perpetrators across the Congo border to form "a state in exile" (p.184), the result was the long war that drew in a number of Congo's neighbors. 

The argument about state weakness and border fixity, we are told at the outset, is "probabilistic rather than deterministic" (p.8). And one sees this illustrated, for example, by Tanzania, which, unlike Congo/Zaire, used "forceful policing and efficient sealing of the border by the Tanzanian military" to prevent Rwandan Hutu refugees in western Tanzania from staging attacks into Rwanda (p.184). In other words, Tanzania, existing in the same international normative environment as Congo/Zaire and facing the same structural incentives (i.e., no prospect of 'state death'), became a somewhat stronger state than Zaire. This does not invalidate Atzili's argument, since he acknowledges that outcomes may vary depending on leadership and political culture (p.9). But he maintains that leaders of weak states in a 'fixed-borders world' have a more difficult job of state-building than leaders in a 'flexible-borders world' had: "The task of building strong states in a world of fixed borders is daunting" (p.220).

On p.39 of his book Atzili discusses Gibler's article "Outside-In: The Effects of External Threat on State Centralization" (Journal of Conflict Resolution, 54:4, 2010). Atzili criticizes the article on several grounds (noting, for example, that he uses a "broad and holistic concept of state strength" in contrast to Gibler's focus on centralization), but also says that Gibler's findings support one of his (Atzili's) hypotheses, namely that "a world in which there is no normative prohibition on conquest and annexation (flexible-borders world) is likely to result, over time, in sociopolitically stronger states" (p.36). 

Yet it seems to me that Gibler and Atzili approach the whole problem from somewhat different angles not only in terms of their methods (which is clearly the case) but in terms of the causal arrows (causal mechanisms, if you prefer that phrase) that each sees at work. For Gibler, the absence of territorial disputes -- as indicated by, among other things, settled boundaries -- leads to democracy and peace via less 'centralized' states. For Atzili, settled boundaries produce or enhance peace only under certain conditions, namely the presence of 'strong' states, where 'strength' is understood not as 'centralization' but more broadly, i.e. as a state's overall capacity and legitimacy.

In terms of policy recommendations, Atzili would not get rid of the border-fixity (territorial integrity) norm, since in large parts of the world its effects are positive, nor does he advocate returning to the era of territorial wars. He suggests what are, in effect, less drastic steps to put pressure on weak states to engage in state-building, such as the threat of ejection from international organizations for "states that cannot be considered states by any positive measure (such as Somalia and the DRC)" (p.220). He also suggests that "in some cases state building may need to take precedence over democratization" (p.220). I'm not sure what I think about this or indeed about Atzili's general argument: obviously I think it is interesting enough to blog about, but I have certainly not read the book with the care that would be required to reach a considered judgment. (Perhaps I will have some additional thoughts later.)  

I'm going to leave it here, without a tidy conclusion. Comments are welcome, including those politely telling me that I'm confused and have got things all mixed up.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A few notes

(1) The foreign policy (supposedly, at any rate) debate: The less said the better about this rather unilluminating exchange. The highlight for me was Obama's "horses and bayonets" and "we're not playing Battleship" riposte to Romney on the size of the navy.

(2) Dan Nexon has asked IR bloggers to help publicize this.

(3) Gary Hart on the NewsHour earlier this evening spoke warmly and sensibly about the legacy of George McGovern.

(4) If you're an IR type, stay tuned for my post on borders and conflict later this week.

[added later] (5) Greg Weeks on Romney's paternalism toward Latin America.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Evening linkage

Dobbs on the Cuban missile crisis.

Slaughter on Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography.

G. Palast (via Democracy Now) on Romney and Paul Singer.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Greenwald on Raddatz etc.

Here. [h/t] One of his points is that Raddatz's questions revealed her acceptance of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment's assumptions. No big surprise there. There is a set of 'establishment' views and someone who has spent a career covering the Pentagon is likely to have absorbed them. 

This passage, from the end of Greenwald's column, may be worth quoting:
One more note about Raddatz: near the end of the debate, she asked the two Catholic candidates how their religion influences their views on abortion. This was a reasonable question unto itself, but also reflects standard DC assumptions on these issues.
It is often noted that the Catholic Church stridently opposes reproductive rights. But it is almost never noted that the Church just as stridently opposes US militarism and its economic policies that continuously promote corporate cronyism over the poor. Too much emphasis on that latter fact might imperil the bipartisan commitment to those policies, and so discussion of religious belief is typically confined to the safer arena of social issues. That the Church has for decades denounced the US government's military aggression and its subservience to the wealthiest is almost always excluded from establishment journalistic circles, even as its steadfast opposition to abortion and gay rights is endlessly touted.
I'm not sure I'd say that the Catholic Church "opposes U.S. militarism" as stridently as it opposes abortion, but there is no doubt that the Catholic hierarchy (both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops) has been critical of U.S. foreign policy. Readers of a certain age (including your blogger [cough]) may recall, just to take one well-known example, the 1983 bishops' letter on nuclear weapons. The Church also opposed Reagan-era U.S. policies in Latin America, if my memory serves, and as Greenwald's link reminds, Pope John Paul II was a firm opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Note: Rather than a creating a topic label "Catholic Church," I'm going to use the existing label "Holy See" (which is the name for the Vatican in international law) so as not to increase recklessly the already high number of labels.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Thought for the day

Political scientists want the public to support, through their elected representatives, National Science Foundation and other funding for their research. That research, as reported for example on The Monkey Cage blog, seems to suggest that the public is, generally speaking, largely incapable of forming independent judgments, ignorant, ill-informed, and inattentive. So political scientists (at least those who study American politics) are in the position of wanting the public to support research that reveals and emphasizes the public's shortcomings. Political scientists want the public to support research that almost never flatters it but usually does the reverse. Of course the public presumably does not know that the research does not flatter it, but if it did, I think it would probably not be inclined to rush to the barricades in support of federal funding of political science research.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Conscience is a funny thing

This evening I'm sliding to the conclusion that I should probably do a few hours of phone banking into Virginia or whatever the Obama campaign in this area is having volunteers do. That way if the election turns out badly (which, let me hasten to say, I don't think it will), I can say to myself: well, at least I did a little work.

And as long as I'm thinking aloud: there's a ballot question in Md. about redistricting involving a district which, as I understand it, has been somewhat tortuously drawn (to put it politely) to produce another Dem. seat in the House. Bit of a dilemma, perhaps. Actually I think I'm going to vote 'no' on that. I grew up politically in an era in which the message of 'good government' groups was, as political scientists like to say, salient. Hence "gerrymandering" is a 'boo word' for me. But as usual, I probably won't make final decisions on things like this until the day before.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two intellectuals and the Communist Party

The brilliant historian E. J. Hobsbawm (1917-2012; NYT obit here)  joined the Communist Party (CP) as a student at Cambridge, having earlier been a member of a Communist student group as a teenager in Germany. The brilliant novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) joined the CP as a student at Oxford. Their paths crossed briefly: Murdoch's biographer Peter Conradi notes that after her first year at Oxford, in the summer of 1939, she "attended a one-week Communist Party summer school in Surrey, where the future historian Eric Hobsbawm, then studying at Cambridge, was deeply impressed by her looks, character and intelligence...." (Iris Murdoch: A Life, p.98, citing a 1999 interview with Hobsbawm)   

Not too long thereafter their political trajectories diverged. Hobsbawm stayed in the Party for most of his life, whereas Murdoch left the CP before the Second World War ended. Hobsbawm's recent death brought out critics who charged him with blindness to the horrors of Stalinism, a charge that does not affect the bulk of his historical work, including the well-known three volumes on 'the long nineteenth century'. (To quote the NYT obit, "in 1994 [Hobsbawm] shocked viewers when, in an interview with Michael Ignatieff on the BBC, he said that the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens under Stalin would have been worth it if a genuine Communist society had been the result." On the other hand, in The Age of Extremes, p.380, Hobsbawm wrote of Stalin that "few men have manipulated terror on a more universal scale.")

As for Iris Murdoch's politics, they turned into fairly standard liberalism, in more or less the American sense of that word (see, e.g., the chapter on politics in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals), though she was much more interested in ethics and aesthetics than political theory. Peter Conradi writes: "It could be said that all [Murdoch's] fiction, and much of her moral philosophy, are acts of penance for, and attacks upon, the facile rationalistic optimism of her extreme youth...." (Iris Murdoch: A Life, p.78) That may be a bit of an overstatement but there is something in it, as anyone can attest who is familiar with, to take just one of many possible examples, Murdoch's portrait of the revolutionary theorist Crimond in The Book and the Brotherhood. Her novels do not, for the most part, take much notice of world events; an exception, The Accidental Man, in which the Vietnam War complicates the moral and practical life of a young American intellectual living in Britain, proves the rule.

Hobsbawm and Murdoch, markedly different in their interests and outlooks for most of their lives, wrote completely different kinds of books which are united only by the probability that people will still be reading them a hundred years from now. They are two of many gifted people for whom the Communist Party seemed, in the era of Depression and fascism, the right and necessary political choice.

P.s. on Hobsbawm: The first sentence of the NYT obituary (linked above) refers to his "three-volume economic history of the rise of industrial capitalism." This is not a wholly accurate description of the "Age of..." volumes. I was glancing at my old paperback copy of The Age of Revolution several days ago, and it appears that some of the most engaging writing in it is in the chapter on the arts (ch.14).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

First pres. debate: brief reaction

In terms of the level of discussion, it was quite a good debate: to get into policy in this much detail treats voters as adults, which is a good thing.

Both had their moments. One of Obama's best moments, I thought, was his recitation of Romney's failure to be specific about his plans: on which deductions and loopholes in the tax code he would propose to close, on which parts of Dodd-Frank he would keep and not keep, on what he would replace the Affordable Care Act with. Romney's reply, that he is laying out principles and would hammer out details in consultation with Congress, didn't really cut it. Romney made an interesting statement or two about weaknesses in the Dodd-Frank rules (e.g. 'qualified mortgages' have not yet been defined) but didn't really lay out his own alternative.

That said, in terms of effectiveness of overall presentation -- not substance but style, if you will -- I think one has to give this first debate to Romney. He hammered continually on certain points -- the $90 billion Obama has devoted to green energy, the $716 billion supposedly taken from Medicare -- the latter a false charge but the figure will stay in some peoples' minds. And Obama could have replied on the first point by bringing up global warming and the vital need for alternative energy -- which he really didn't -- and he didn't specifically reply on the false Medicare charge, though he did effectively criticize Romney's voucher plan. This is one of these debates where a review of the transcript alone would probably yield a draw but on the screen (computer screen, in my case) Romney seemed, as Shields said on PBS, happier to be there. And Obama was perhaps too 'cool' where an occasional flash of real passion and old-fashioned irritation (not anger, but irritation) might actually have helped. But I don't think in the end that it will sway many votes one way or another.

Update: Award for good line to Dan Nexon: "Romney's muse is unfettered by the shackles of truth and consistency."  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Note: light posting

There's a lot of backlogged reading that I need to focus on, which means there won't be much posting here in October.