Monday, March 30, 2015

Choke points

If I had a working TV, which I don't, I would probably watch Charlie Rose's interview with Bashar al-Assad, scheduled to be aired tonight.  Presumably it will be available later for online viewing on the C. Rose website.  Btw, I was just at that website now, watching a small snippet of a Rose interview with Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and Int'l Studies, about the situation in Yemen.  Cordesman, asked by Rose about U.S. interests at stake, mentioned AQAP, and then he proceeded to mention that should Iran gain control, via air or naval bases in Yemen, of the choke points (Cordesman's phrase) of global commerce that are the Red Sea and Suez Canal, that would threaten U.S. economic interests.  True enough, I suppose, but one has to wonder whether Iran would risk trying to choke off the flow of commerce through the Suez Canal.  After all, it ain't 1956 any more, when the U.S. sided against Britain, France, and Israel in their spat with Egypt over the Canal.  A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then -- or perhaps I should say, through the canal.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cruz control

I heard a radio re-broadcast this morning of much of Cruz's horrible Liberty University speech.  He used the phrase "shining city on a hill" more than once.  If it was good enough for Ronald Reagan... (Cruz also referred in passing, and not in an uncomplimentary way, to FDR; again, shades of Reagan.)

Added later: But in both cases, it was just an appropriation of FDR for their own purposes.

Another edit: for the Biblical origins of the '(shining) city on a hill' phrase, see this 2012 post by L.D. Burnett.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


The notion that there is one broad path to modernity, that 'developing' countries will come to resemble 'advanced' ones in key respects, is an old idea, and it's part of the semi-conscious mental equipment that a lot of educated Westerners (as well as some non-Westerners, often with Western educations) carry around with them.  It sometimes gets expressed in passing, in contexts where it's not especially crucial to an argument and might therefore not attract much notice.  The example I currently have in mind comes from a recent article about Tocqueville in the American Political Science Review, the author of which, at the end of the article's introduction, writes that:
...[A]s places that once lay outside the scope of Tocqueville's thought come increasingly to resemble the West, his analysis of the moral psychology of modern democracy only becomes more broadly relevant.  As they modernize, developing nations will see more of themselves, for better or for worse, or for both, in Tocqueville's portrait.
These sentences appeared in an article published in November 2014, but they could as easily have been written a half-century earlier.

Alongside this narrative of Westernization, another narrative is also part of the semi-conscious assumptions of many educated Westerners; one might call this one the clash-of-civilizations, or more colloquially, the they-hate-us narrative.  One recalls the sometimes plaintive, sometimes bewildered "why do 'they' hate 'us'?" question voiced after 9/11.  In this narrative, modernization-as-Westernization produces a severe reaction, portrayed most obviously (though not only) as religiosity vs. secularism.

Both these narratives are quarter-truths (a notch down from half-truths) at best, but their presence in the discursive air suggests that quarter-truths can be durable.

Added later: Not posting on the Israeli elections because one can find plenty of discussion of that elsewhere.  This blog does not have the capacity or (always) the inclination to chase the headlines.  (If you want that, go to LGM.)         

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The 1965 Vietnam decisions fifty years on

As has been extensively reported, this month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the famous civil-rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  It also marks the fiftieth anniversary of the introduction of U.S. ground forces in a combat role in Vietnam.  The immediate justification for the move was the need to protect the U.S. air base at Danang from possible Vietcong attack in response to Rolling Thunder, the bombing campaign that the Johnson administration launched in February 1965.  As one historian writes:
The expanded air war...provided the pretext for the introduction of the first U.S. ground forces into Vietnam.  Anticipating Vietcong attacks against U.S. airbases in retaliation for Rolling Thunder, General Westmoreland in late February urgently requested two Marine landing teams to protect the air base at Danang.... [O]n March 8 [1965], two battalions of Marines..., with tanks and eight-inch howitzers, splashed ashore near Danang where they were welcomed by South Vietnamese officials and by pretty Vietnamese girls passing out leis of flowers. (George C. Herring, America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975, 2d ed. (1986), pp.130-131)
Several months later, in July, Johnson decided to commit ground forces on a large scale (50,000 immediately, followed by another 50,000 before the end of the year).  Johnson did this without going to Congress for authorization; attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach assured Johnson that bypassing Congress was within his prerogatives (Herring, America's Longest War, p.140, citing Katzenbach to Johnson, June 10, 1965, Johnson Papers, National Security File, Country File: Vietnam, Box 17).     

One of the reasons Johnson decided to take this approach was that "he feared that going to Congress for authority to wage war in Vietnam would destroy his dream of creating the Great Society at home" (Herring, p.140).  He also declined to mobilize the reserves, call up the National Guard, seek a tax increase or do much of anything else to indicate the country was preparing to wage a war (ibid.).  While this might have avoided political problems in the short term, in the long run it helped paved the way for disillusion with the U.S. war in Vietnam, especially as it became clear that the conflict was not going to be short.

The leading explanation in the literature for the Vietnam escalation decisions of 1965 used to be, and perhaps still is, that the general commitment to containment of Communism and the specific commitment to not let a Communist regime take power in Vietnam dictated the decisions.  However, there were different escalation options on the table and containment doesn't explain why particular ones were chosen and others were rejected.  As Y. F. Khong argued in Analogies at War (1992), the Korean War experience and the fear of provoking Chinese intervention weighed heavily on LBJ, inclining him to choose "graduated" escalation options.  One consequence of that choice was to make it very likely that the U.S. would not be able to prevail against an adversary willing to pay almost unlimited costs.  [Clarification added later: I'm not sure, on re-reading, that this makes sense. I guess what I meant to say was that, while no strategy was likely to succeed in attaining its goals, the 'gradual' options chosen were especially unlikely to succeed. I'm not completely sure that's right, but it seems right.] As early as June 1964, North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong had told Canadian diplomat J. Blair Seaborn that "the NLF [Viet Cong] and its supporters were prepared to endure regardless of the cost" (Herring, p.119).  That remark proved to be accurate.


Note: Vietnam War is a new index label; previous posts here about the Vietnam War can be found under the label Vietnam in the topics index.


Added later: Re anniversaries, March 9 was the 70th anniversary of the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo; see here. (I may have something more to say about the linked piece later.)


(Post edited slightly after initial posting.)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

CCP to Dalai Lama: you will return

Via: an NYT piece about the latest clash between Chinese officialdom and the Dalai Lama:
Tensions over what will happen when the 14th Dalai Lama, who is 79, dies, and particularly over who decides who will succeed him as the most prominent leader in Tibetan Buddhism, have ignited at the annual gathering of China’s legislators in Beijing. Officials have amplified their argument that the Communist government is the proper guardian of the Dalai Lama’s succession through an intricate process of reincarnation that has involved lamas, or senior monks, visiting a sacred lake and divining dreams. Party functionaries were incensed by the exiled Dalai Lama’s recent speculation that he might end his spiritual lineage and not reincarnate. That would confound the Chinese government’s plans to engineer a succession that would produce a putative 15th Dalai Lama who accepts China’s presence and policies in Tibet.
Someone in Dharamsala must be having a quiet chuckle about this, wouldn't you think?

Monday, March 9, 2015

ISIS and the Reformation

T. Greer at The Scholar's Stage has a characteristically long post about ISIS, taking off from the much-discussed Graeme Wood article in The Atlantic (that I haven't read).  On a quick read, I agree with some of what T. Greer says, but I am leery of his endorsement of the analogy between the current struggles within Islam and the Reformation.  (D. Nexon, I believe, is also opposed to the analogy, and he knows more about the Reformation than I do.  I can't say I recall the *precise* grounds on which Nexon opposes the analogy, without refreshing my memory by looking at the relevant passages in his book or other writings, which I'm not going to do right now.) 

Speaking for myself, I'm uncomfortable about an analogy between the religious struggles within Christianity (Christendom? whatever) of the 16th and 17th centuries and the struggles within Islam today. For one thing, the Protestant reformers were not trying to recapture an historical golden age by recreating a territorial entity under their control -- i.e., no analogy to the restoration of the Caliphate.  That is just one difference.  I'm sure there are others. 

ETA: Such as differences in the content of the ideologies and the methods.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The U.S. and the Middle East (Coda)

Note: This post by Peter T. follows on his earlier posts: here and here
The Middle East is often said to be a volatile, complex region, and therefore difficult for U.S. policy to deal with.  I'm sceptical of this claim.  Take SE Asia: it has at least as many states, ethnic minorities, rebellions, disputed borders, historical animosities, religious cleavages and revolutionary movements as the Middle East.  It also has oil and a great many other natural resources, a key strategic position, and is a continuing arena for great-power rivalry.  The U.S. has a long history of covert and overt intervention in the region.  Yet today the U.S. can be said to have reasonable relations with pretty much all the states in SE Asia.  Pew Surveys find that over 60 or 70% of people in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have a positive view of the U.S.  This compares with 22% in the Middle East.

The main lines of U.S. policy in SE Asia are straightforward.  It has remained allied with Thailand and the Philippines despite, in both cases, erratic domestic politics.  The U.S. was not so committed to military regimes in Thailand as to be unable to get on with democratic ones, or vice versa.  Likewise, it could deal with both Marcos and Aquino in the Philippines.  There have been ups and downs with Myanmar and Indonesia (and in both, some CIA meddling), but no outright conflict.  Vietnam was, of course, caught up in the U.S. obsession with anti-communism, and it took the U.S. some time to get over defeat in 1975: a grudge the U.S. carried until 1991. Since then, U.S. relations with Vietnam and Cambodia have been pretty normal, in the sense that differences have been resolved or carried on without recourse to covert ops, sanctions or menacing talk.

If SE Asia were the Middle East, the U.S. would be bombing upper Thailand in support of a government in Bangkok allied to a regime in Vietnam under severe U.S. sanctions, while maintaining close ties to a militant Buddhist government in Myanmar funding terrorist groups in Bali, Laos and Bangladesh...or some such.

To be clear, I'm not claiming that the U.S. has not made some bad policy mistakes in SE Asia.  It misread the decolonisation movement in the late '40s and '50s, committed major forces to a strategically hopeless position in South Vietnam, and behaved atrociously in Cambodia both before and after 1975.  Yet it has been able to recover from these and, for the last two decades, managed to avoid major problems.  This is in strong contrast to the Middle East.  What explains the difference?

-- Peter T.

Note added by LFC: With respect to CIA meddling, I think the 1965 mass slaughter of Indonesian Communists by the government is one episode that stands out. (See e.g. here.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thoughts on nuclear weapons and the Middle East

Update (3/11): This FP column by Graham Allison is to the point.


The U.S. and the USSR had a few close calls during the Cold War, moments when the possibility of a nuclear exchange came too close for comfort.  India and Pakistan had an apparently close call during the Kargil crisis in 1999.  The existence of these close calls means that nuclear deterrence is not an airtight guarantee against a nuclear exchange.  Nor is 'the nuclear taboo' an absolute guarantee, since an exchange between two nuclear-armed countries might conceivably occur essentially unintentionally, i.e. by accident.

However, while nuclear deterrence did not provide an absolute guarantee during the Cold War and while there were a few close calls, on the whole it worked remarkably well, at least in the narrow, relevant sense of "worked".  The Cold War never turned into a hot war between the superpowers, who wreaked havoc on the Third World via proxy wars and caused an enormous amount of human misery and death, but managed to avoid the sort of cataclysmic exchange that, in the worst-case scenario, would have meant the end of anything resembling 'civilized' life on the planet.  In other words, the "delicate balance of terror" between the superpowers (to borrow the title of a famous article by Albert Wohlstetter from the late 1950s) turned out to be quite sturdy (safety as "the sturdy child of terror," as Churchill put it, in something of a metaphorical mash-up).

These rather unoriginal reflections may serve as a prelude to the thought that, if Iran should one day acquire a nuclear weapon or the capacity to obtain one in a short time frame, the consequence would not be an existential threat to Israel, contrary to Netanyahu's assertions (n.b. I haven't yet read the full transcript of his speech to Congress).  Israel of course has its own (officially unacknowledged) nuclear arsenal, and there is every reason to suppose that nuclear deterrence would operate between Iran and Israel as it operates between India and Pakistan, and as it operated between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War.  That doesn't mean no possibility whatsoever that an exchange could occur, but it suggests it would be highly unlikely.  The Iranian leadership would have to be insane to launch a deliberate nuclear strike on a nuclear-armed state with a powerful conventional military, one closely allied to the most militarily powerful country in the world, and I'm aware of no evidence to suggest that Iran's leadership is insane.  (Though doubtless there are people who would rush to furnish some were they to read this post, which they probably won't.)

The 'threat' from an Iranian bomb, insofar as there would be one, would come, or so it seems to me, in the form of an increased boldness on Iran's part to throw its weight around in the region, engage in coercive diplomacy vis-a-vis, e.g., Saudi Arabia or Turkey, and generally become more of a nuisance in the eyes of its adversaries.  That's not nothing, of course, but it is not the existential threat to Israel that some people claim would be the result of an Iranian nuclear-weapons capacity.

The latest news from the talks is that Iran has rejected the proposal (or 'demand', whichever it was) for a 10-year freeze on certain nuclear activities.  However, the talks will and should continue.  Netanyahu's prescription of increased sanctions and an end to the negotiations does not seem like a prescription for anything other than disaster in the long run.  As Peter T. pointed out in his guest posts recently published on this blog (see here and here), Iran is, by virtue of its size, location, capabilities, and level of development, not the sort of country that can be sanctioned into submission -- not, at least, without setting the stage for precisely the kind of potentially explosive or catastrophic consequences that everyone should be eager to avoid.

A final note about how we think about security claims, which I'm tacking on because I just read Jarrod Hayes's post at Duck of Minerva.  Jarrod points out that a speaker's authority to make security claims may be undermined if the claims come to be seen by the target audience as 'political' (though all security claims are political).  Although I agree with this, I think Netanyahu's speech is an instance where one should focus on the objective merits of his claims as much as on their 'authority'.  Jarrod writes: "Even though the construction of security is intersubjective, it is spoken about in objective terms. Where the objectivity of the claim rubs thin, as in Netanyahu’s case, his ability to speak security is undermined."  

But the objectivity of Netanyahu's claim rubs thin not simply because it may be perceived as 'political' but because it lacks 'objective' merit.  The fact that the construction of security is intersubjective does not mean that there is not a world 'out there' about which one can make better or worse, more plausible or less plausible, claims.  The claim that an Iranian nuclear capacity poses an existential threat to Israel is unconvincing, for reasons suggested above.  It is unconvincing because it clashes with what history, logic, and evidence suggest about how the real world works.  Contrary to Patrick Jackson's view that the world does not exist independently of the mind (mind-world monism), I believe there is a 'real world', that it exists independently of our minds, and that claims about how the world works can be judged as more or less convincing on the basis of evidence.  That does not mean I am a neo-positivist (and actually since I have no research agenda and essentially no standing in the IR 'profession', it doesn't really matter what my meta-theoretical leanings are); what it does mean is that in this case we should not lose sight of whether Netanyahu's claims, irrespective of his authority to make them, accord with what we know about the real world. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

The U.S. in the Middle East (Part 2)

Note: This is the second part of a guest post by Peter T.  For the first part, see here.


The IR literature is not very good on how to recognise and deal with country-size pools of irrationality.  This is not one deluded leader and associated sycophants being irrational, which is very common indeed and extensively explored, but a whole establishment going around with eyes wide shut.  A good historical example is Wilhelmine Germany, whose diplomatic and military calculations were routinely made on the strategic equivalent of assuming, when convenient, that gravity does not exist.  In our time, we have a large number of influential people having difficulty with a straightforward piece of high-school science (admitting that checking the conclusions involves some not-so-high school statistics. But, come on, these people read the Financial Times), while other influential people argue that, yes, the science is right, but can we afford to do anything?  Meanwhile the plants have moved 100 kilometers or so poleward.  At the collective level, these people are literally dumber than carrots.

Why is this so hard?  One factor is that policy arguments more or less assume ab initio that things are, in fact, explainable in rational terms.  “Everyone is mad” is not a helpful starting point.  Another is that the policy mind exists to solve problems; it hiccups when it comes up against “This cannot be done”.  These situations are labelled “wicked problems,” but it's mostly not the problem itself that's wicked, it's that the solutions lie outside the accepted boundaries, and that changing the boundaries is not on the policy menu.  Very Serious People (VSPs) often wear quite narrow blinkers.

Really bad ideas get put off limits, after repeated experiences.  The lessons become standard phrases: Do Not March on Moscow; Never Get Involved in a Land War in Asia. Do Not Put Boots on the Ground in the Middle East is not quite there yet.  We Have Only One Planet will be up there in a few decades.

So what lessons might one draw from a long series of rational decisions that still ended up in a total mess?  The first is about the limits of realpolitik.  The presumption that everyone acts in their own interest, and that therefore all promises or commitments come with fingers crossed, is both old and very common.  While it does not preclude playing for very high stakes indeed (Saddam Hussein knew that his lieutenants' professions of loyalty were not to be relied on, just as they knew that his professions of friendship and protection were similarly hollow. So they plotted his overthrow, and he executed one from time to time), it does rely on a general acceptance that this is actually the rule of the game.  The Austrian Foreign Minister who remarked of Russian help in a critical moment that “we will amaze the world with the depths of our ingratitude” could be sure of  getting an appreciative chuckle from his fellows, even in St. Petersburg.  People lower down the social scale are less likely to be amused.  Repeated bad experiences with a foreign power’s policy choices will get a lot of people thinking very hard about how to get out of the game: to lessen or annul their dependence on the foreigners (usually this involves a messy change of leadership. In which case the realpolitik practitioners lose all leverage.  If they are indifferent to your viewpoint, why talk to them at all?  See China 1949, Iran 1979, possibly Greece 2015?). When a state takes this route, it will come back into the game with a much stronger sense of its own interests and a good few red lines that are simply not negotiable.

Again, this comes back to the blinkers worn with pride by all the VSPs. A true realpolitik would think carefully about where other people were coming from; their national pride, their obsessions, their emotional commitments.  It would try to gauge local and mass feelings as well as the preferences of the elites.  It would ask “can we do this?” before it asked “how do we do this?”. What passes for realpolitik all too often counts tanks but not the will to drive them, money but not on what it is spent.

A related point is that pursuing a primary goal at the expense of other, secondary, goals is often counterproductive. This is more than finding the balance between the long and the short term.  Number One on the little lists of the Rules of War found in the business section of the bookshop (“Leadership Secrets of [insert psycho war-monger of your choice]”) is usually “Keep your eyes firmly on the main game”. Unfortunately, Number Two is “Keep checking that what you think is the Main Game is, in fact, the Main Game”.  For your adversaries and partners may not be playing your game.  Rule Two is often sadly neglected.

The U.S. thought the point of the Vietnam War was to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese militarily.  The VC and North Vietnamese thought the point was retaining enough allegiance among the Southern population to prevent the construction of a broad-based South Vietnamese state.  In Afghanistan, the U.S. thought the main game was to bleed the Soviet Union (tellingly, one policy-maker wrote of the “ennui” of the international community towards Afghanistan in the ‘90s, as if Afghanistan were a toy one had become bored with).  It gave no thought to the maintenance of an Afghan state, or the spread of radical Islam.  If the First Gulf War was about oil, then the U.S. gave little thought to what the debilitation of Saddam's regime might offer to the various ethnic and religious groups of Iraq, or to Iran, or to wider Arab opinion. Whatever the Second Gulf War was about, there is little evidence that U.S. policy-makers gave much thought to anything other than the Vice-Presidential desire to get Saddam.

What is evident is that it cannot be presumed that policy-makers will pay attention to basic facts about the world unless really compelled to (and maybe not even then).  It is often not so much that they are ignorant or ill-informed as often simply indifferent.  Facts are there to support the policy, not to form it.  When the facts involve foreigners, who can be presumed to be mysterious and irrational, they are of even less account.  People who understand every nuance of domestic political culture blithely dismiss history when it comes to the Middle East.

The facts ignored are not esoteric: many of them are available in plain view on the helpful one-page overviews in the CIA World Factbook. Iraq: Kurdish 15-20%, Shi'ite Islam 60-65%.  Hmm.  If the CIA tells me this, maybe it's important.  Perhaps I can type “Shia” into the search engine?  Oh, look, Wikipedia tells me that Iran is Shia, that these guys take this really seriously, that the Saudis massacred lots of Shia back then, that the Iranian and Iraqi clerical leadership are very close and so on.  And a further five minutes tells me that the Kurds are not happy with rule from Baghdad.  So the Shia will help conditional on getting to govern, the Kurds will help conditional on autonomy, and the Sunni will fight.  Maybe I had better think about what that word “conditional” implies, eh? A quick look at the page for Afghanistan tells me it's a melange of different groups held together by bribes and occasional shows of brute force. In others words, about as resistant to an influx of arms and foreign fanatics as a kid's cubby-house to a bomb.  Current headline: $400 million of U.S. arms falls into Yemeni Shia rebel hands.  Who could have known?

Alfred North Whitehead remarked that “it takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.”  It is the obvious -- that Moscow is a long way east, that China is too large and populous to subdue permanently, that religion is at the centre of political identity to most Middle Easterners -- that eludes the usual minds.

-- Peter T.