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October, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

WPR Stays a Step Ahead

A handful of stories we've brought you recently in WPR are back in the news. Last month, Dorian Merina reported for WPR on a controversial and divisive anti-pornography bill under consideration in Indonesia. Today the IHT reports that the bill was passed into law. A few weeks back, Christina Madden reported for WPR on the Andean Trade Preferences Act that was recently signed into law. Yesterday McClatchy reported that the Bush administration's subsequent suspension of Bolivia's privileges under that act will enter into effect today. Finally, the NY Times has two articles today that cover familiar ground for regular WPR readers: the first on Somalia's pirate crisis, which David Axe covered in a WPR feature article three weeks back, and the second on the political power struggle taking place in South Africa between the ANC and a newly minted splinter party, which Mxolisi Ncube covered for WPR last week.

Just a few more examples of how WPR keeps you a step ahead on significant developments around the world, providing not just the news but the context and analysis to help you make sense of it all. If you're a regular reader, of course, you already know that. But feel free to spread the word.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

In the Long Run...

...Keynes was right. According to a new report, at the rate we're consuming the earth's resources, we'll need two planets by 2030. The authors cleverly call it an "ecological credit crunch."

My cosmological worldview isn't so species-centric as to be terribly concerned about the planet Earth. When people say we must save the planet, what they're really saying is we've got to save ourwelves. The planet did just fine without us for billions of years. And while it's a wonderfully beautiful place that we really ought to take better care of, it will do just fine without us, too.

But just for the sake of a good debate, what great philosophical quarrels would be resolved were humans to follow the dinosaurs into extinction? And in whose favor?

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  The Natural World   

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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Patriotism and the Press in Times of War

Speaking of Nir Rosen's Rolling Stone article, Bing West discusses some of the ethical and legal issues it raises over at Small Wars Journal. West manages to present some very thorny and potentially explosive issues passionately but not stridently (quite a feat these days), keeping the piece both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Mostly light, with just enough heat (and in the right places) to make it resonate.

West addresses two aspects of Rosen's "embed" that had occurred to me when I read the piece. Namely, the fact that he was basically agreeing to at the very least the possibility of accompanying hostile forces on operations against American troops. And he also accepted the terms of the embed, which depended on his guides being subject to a family-wide death threat to secure his safety. The latter is, to my mind, a clearcut ethical lapse. The former lies in what even West concedes is a ethical-legal gray area.

I held off making those criticisms in my remarks at the time, because I wasn't quite sure about what was driving the negative reaction I had to the piece. As an armchair analyst, I felt reluctant to engage in kneejerk criticism of what, despite the ethical gray areas, remains an incredibly courageous field assignment. There's also the question of what role the press plays, and whether it is, in fact, above and beyond the ethical and legal issues that proscribe other citizens in times of war.

I don't have any definitive answers. If you have any thoughts on the matter, feel free to weigh in via email.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Media Coverage   

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who Isn't Ready Yet?

Another odd detail about McCain's "Yet" ad: the flashbulb pops that double as rifle shots, the ominous bell tolling in the background, and the sepia tone funeral images of Barack Obama. The copy might be referring to Obama, but the subliminal message here is that America isn't ready yet. Creepy.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Emotional Payoff

Funny, I was just thinking about that video. Throughout this campaign, I've resisted the emotional appeal of Obama's message, even while appreciating its power. But when I think of what Obama's candidacy and victory represents in terms of the generations of struggle for freedom and justice that went into making it possible, not just in America but around the world, I find that emotion welling up in spite of myself. I almost booked a flight to bring my son to NY, to accompany my 80-year-old father to the polls, so he could participate in this moment of history. In the end, we won't be there, but in some ways being able to walk out in Paris -- in the world outside America -- on Nov. 5, glowing with pride in this country, my country, will be just as satisfying.

But it's important to remember that Obama's victory is not just a historic victory. It's also a personal and individual victory. He ran a classy, gutsy campaign that, despite the inevitable disappointments that will certainly arise when it comes time to govern, never once ceased to reach for and bring out the best of what our country stands for. That's what that video expresses. To insist on a political method consistent with the political message was a personal act of courage that shows the mark of the man, and all that went into making him. No matter how history remembers him as president, he has already given us much to reflect on as a candidate.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

WPR Feature: The Al-Qaida We Don't Know

One of the reasons posting has been increasingly light here at HJ is that I've been picking up more reponsibilities over at World Politics Review. Among other things, I've been helping put together our new biweekly theme issues. The latest one just went up yesterday, and it's worth a glance:

Ten years after al-Qaida declared war against the U.S., and seven years after the U.S. followed suit, much of what we know about the group is filtered through the lens of the Global War on Terror, a rubric that hides and distorts as much as it reveals. But in reducing al-Qaida to a terrorist organization, we have ignored the broader socio-cultural movement it represents. The result has been to overlook the range of its activities on the one hand, while exaggerating its strategic outlook on the other.

To formulate a sound strategic response to al-Qaida, we must first have a clear understanding of just what kind of enemy it is. To provide a fuller picture of the group's origins and goals, its future prospects, as well as the conventional component of its activities, WPR examines The Al-Qaida We Don't Know.

In "The 055 Brigade," Brian Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and an expert witness in the military commission hearing of Salim Hamdan, discusses the little-known history of al-Qaida's conventional fighting force.

In "AQIM, the North African Franchise," Joseph Kirschke examines the potential threat posed by local al-Qaida franchises, as well as the challenges they face.

In "The Limits of the Counterterrorism Approach," Nathan Field examines the historical origins and socio-economic context of al-Qaida to determine its strategic outlook.

Let me know what you think here.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Draft Sarah Palin

With the rift in the Republican ticket growing more evident every day, I think there's only one thing that could save the GOP's electoral chances: a Sarah Palin write-in campaign. Why wait til 2012? She's ready now! It's time to urge all Republicans, or at least a sizable splinter faction of delusional, fundamentalist theocrats that this is the last, best hope to elect one of their own to the oval office. McCain was never really their guy, after all.

Rogue, baby, rogue!!

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Russia's Carrots and Sticks

A number of very interesting aspects to this NY Times article on how the Goergia War has impacted Azerbaijan. First, it illustrates how the argument that Russia will pay a longterm cost for its belligerence, while valid, is limited to those countries (and investors) who have a choice as to whether or not they deal with Russia, or who have little to fear from Russia's demonstrated willingness to use military force. As this article makes clear, Azerbaijan meets neither of those criteria, and so it's not surprising that "the chess board has been tilted."

Second, while many analysts have focused on the stick aspect and apparent unpredictability of Russia's invasion, they overlook the carrots Moscow has been very clearly offering over the past six months to a year. The effect is to offer vulnerable countries a reassuring rationalization for falling in line with what amounts to intimidation:

Azerbaijan will be under more pressure from Russia when undertaking energy contracts and pipeline routes that Russia opposes, said one Azeri official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. Officials from Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, on a trip here this spring, offered to buy Azerbaijan gas at European prices, rather than at the former reduced rate. That offer, if the Azeris chose to accept it, could sabotage a Western-backed gas pipeline project called Nabucco.

Rasim Musabayov, a political commentator in Baku, said that under the new conditions, many Azeris think that selling gas to Russia is not such a bad idea.

In the aftermath of the conflict, Russia has also taken the initiative to try to mediate Azerbaijan's own frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenian separatists:

"One of the positive effects of the Georgian crisis is that the Kremlin will try to show that they are not crazy guys," an Azeri official said. "That they can be good neighbors, too."

In the past, I'd predicted that Russia would show this kind of reasonableness by ultimately walking back its confrontational stance on Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. But remaining unreasonable in the resolution of Georgia's territorial integrity might actually pay more dividends on being reasonable elsewhere.

Finally, this remark Musabayov jumped out at me:

"You can’t have a foreign policy that goes against your geography," he added. "We have to get along with the Russians and the Iranians."

That's something America should probably take more into account, both with regards to calculating its demands of it friends, as well as in formulating more reasonable expectations of what we can achieve in different parts of the world.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Come to the Source

Headline Junky, Mar. 5, 2008:

I'd add that there's even an advantage to the primary campaign lasting into April: it has forced both candidates to develop ground games in states that they would otherwise have ignored had the nomination been wrapped up a month ago. That means networks of volunteers, media saturation and personal appearances that can only come in handy for the general election.

NY Times, 0ct. 19, 2008:

Perhaps most important, though, Obama’s campaign has also been able to take advantage of a drawn-out Democratic primary campaign that came through all 50 states before it was over -- a draining experience that nonetheless established networks of volunteers and newly registered Democratic voters in states that in any other year would have been overlooked.

Can I get a witness?

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sarah Palin's Anti-Americanism

Chris Matthews raises a good point in his interview with MN Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (video here at TPM) when he challenges the conservative talkingpoint that equates being liberal with being anti-American. Now contrast Bachmann's portrayal of Bill Ayers/Jeremiah Wright-style anti-Americanism with Sarah Palin's remarks in this Huffington Post piece (via Andrew Sullivan):

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, . . .pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.

The anti-intellectual, anti-urban current that Sarah Palin represents is actually the mirror image of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, and by Bachmann's logic one that is just as virulently "anti-American." Ayers and Wright, each in their own way, perverted the liberal belief that America must be perfected by bringing it more in line with its guiding principles of liberty and justice, taking it to misguided extremes that were either criminal (in Ayers' case) or vitriolic (in Wright's).

Palin's extremism is a rural, folksy populism that identifies an authentic America, as well as an "other" -- arrived at by conflating the progressive movement with its most extreme elements -- which it portrays as an internal enemy undermining America's basic goodness. But once you weed out the extremists such as Ayers and Wright, the part of America that Palin portrays as "other" is in fact just as authentically American as what she calls "the real America." Palin might accompany it with a coy smile, but what's she articulating is a hateful anti-Americanism that echoes the kind of urban-rural divide that was at the heart of this country's pre-Civil War schism, with all the implications for violence that her recent campaign events have made evident.

It's a geographic/demographic divide that, as Palin's demagoguery illustrates, has in many ways only partially been healed, and that serves as a coded evocation of America's racial and ethnic history. While both Ayers and Wright represent thoroughly American, homegrown currents of radical thought, they both fill in for foreign "others": Ayers as the European-flavored, socialist/anarchist, "Sacco and Vanzetti" firebomber; Wright as the post-colonial, dashiki-wearing, Afrocentric "angry black man."

Palin and the GOP need them both as charged imagery to mobilize the partisan base, but they are as relevant to the liberal movement as Timothy McVeigh or the Aryan Nation are to the "authenic America" that Sarah Palin celebrates. Barack Obama jeopardized himself politically by associating with either man, but it's important to point out that Ayers, repentant or not, has reintegrated society, and Wright's lifelong ecumenical and conciliatory actions provide a more nuanced context for the political views he expressed in his sermons.

More importantly, Obama has publicly repudiated both men's transgressions. Palin, by contrast, has become a standard bearer for those of her party.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Race In America   

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Promise of COIN, the Pitfalls of Iraq

Without getting into speculating about whether the U.S.-Iraqi SOFA deal will get done or not, the fact that the main sticking point is Iraq's demand for jurisdiction over American soldiers off their bases is telling. Here's Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi in McClatchy:

"The impression of the Iraqi people is that American troops from time to time exaggerate their reactions, use excessive force and irresponsible behavior," Hashimi said. "We would like to put an end to that. When this happens in the future there must be prosecution of those who are exceeding the limit of the authorities given to them."

This is, in effect, one of the lingering costs of the initial failures in post-invasion Iraq, and an illustration of the ways in which some damage just can't be undone. The Surge (by which I mean the "narrative" of the Surge) has had a major impact on the Stateside image of America's presence in Iraq. What's more, either Gen. David Petraeus has managed to seriously rein in the Blackwater cowboys, or else to seriously rein in the press' coverage of them, because I haven't seen any OK Corral-type stories for a long time.

The Iraq-side image of America's presence in Iraq, on the other hand, does not seem to be as benign. I haven't seen any polling about Iraqi perceptions, but the Iraqi government's negotiating position, to say nothing of the Iraqi parliament's reported hostility to it, suggests that notwithstanding the COIN approach that puts an emphasis on winning the population's allegiance, there is still quite a bit of distrust and resentment of American forces. Which means not so much that the COIN-based Surge was too little, too late, so much as nothing would have been enough.

As Jack Kem's WPR feature article on the Army's new Stability Operations manual makes clear, the Army has learned from its mistakes, which were doctrinally determined. If there's one silver lining perhaps to the Iraq War, it's that it has forced American military doctrine to recognize and codify the fact that contemporary warfare must only be as destructive as is absolutely necessary to defeat the enemy, and not one bit more. It's an incredible evolution in the American conception of warfighting that, if we can avoid the temptation to believe that even that amount of destruction is tolerable in any but the most urgent of cases, represents a victory for rational humanism. The fact that this realization comes from within the military is all the more noteworthy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Defense & National Security   Iraq   

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Small Wars Temptation

Sam Roggeveen and Mark O'Neil have a little back and forth and back again exchange over at The Lowy Interpreter, about whether or not the Army's recently released Stability Operations field manual represents the ascendancy of what Sam calls "small wars."

It just so happens WPR's current feature articles include a piece by Jack Kem, of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, on the Stability Ops manual. Kem puts it into the context of doctrine's purpose in the U.S. Army, and talks of a "doctrinal renaissance" that is being driven by the new focus on "full spectrum operations." If you read through it, you'll find that Sam's assessment is closer to the mark than Mark's, although Mark is not wrong. Full spectrum operations, ie. COIN and Stability Ops, have caught up, because they were previously categorized as operations "other than war".

But they are also by definition ascendant, because by they are rising compared to conventional offensive and defensive operations, but also for two other significant reasons. First, as Sam points out, they are the kinds of operations that recent DoD strategy papers have increasingly forecast as the conflicts of the future. But second, and perhaps more importantly, as Kem explains, they represent a fundamental change in the Army's conception of warfighting:

[The Stability Operations manual] marks a milestone for the United States Army. With it, the Army acknowledges and codifies a dramatic change in thinking: No longer does the mission of the military stop at winning wars; now it must also help "win the peace."

. . .For the Army, offensive and defensive operations rely on the destructive capabilities of military forces; stability operations rely on the constructive capabilities of the military. The reality of today's operational environment is that these actions take place simultaneously; what you break and destroy today, you may have to rebuild tomorrow. By putting stability operations on an equal doctrinal footing with offensive and defensive operations, the new stability operations manual introduces the consideration of the consequences of all actions in a conflict into the planning and operational phases. Colin Powell's famous "pottery barn" rule -- "you break it, you own it" -- now applies at the operational level.

Kem goes on to discuss the significance of the doctrine's conceptual framework of "comprehensive approach," which is essentially the Army recognizing that it is only one among many actors in a conflict zone, and that a stable resolution depends on cooperatively creating "unity of effort" among them all.

Our other feature article by Paul McLeary gives a close up view of how the Army's Human Terrain Teams of social scientists might potentially further change the nature of warfighting by adding sorely needed resources of cultural familiarity to ground level stability operations. Paul embedded with American forces in Iraq and saw the HTTs at work in the field, and contrary to criticisms from the academic social science community (which has rightly raised concerns about cooptation and the militarization of the social sciences), the teams seem to be an illustration of how understanding (as opposed to knowing) might actually render satbility operations less lethal.

I'll have more to say on both subjects later, because I share Sam's concern about the temptation that comes of having such a satisfying "war-lite" conception of conflict:

Given the mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan, you can understand why the U.S. Army is preoccupied with such questions, just as our military probably is. But as I've said before, arguing about how to do stability operations better precludes one option that needs serious thought: not doing stability operations at all, or at least, doing far fewer of them.

But the articles by Kem and McLeary give a good basis for understanding what the debate is all about.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Defense & National Security   

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Future Face of Conflict at WPR

We've got a couple of features up over at WPR as part of a theme issue, The Future Face of Conflict, that should be of interest. Jack Kem, of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, gives a rundown of where the Army's new Stability Operations manual fits into its "doctrinal renaissance." And Paul McLeary, a senior editor at Defense Technology International, describes from up close how the Army's Human Terrain Teams of cultural anthropologists are helping to change the way war is waged. The issue's third article, David Axe's insightful analysis of the Somali pirate crisis, was published last week due to its timeliness, but it's back on the front page again, too. We've got some exciting plans for the WPR site that I'm looking forward to sharing when they're ready. For now, though, click through and enjoy.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

McCain & Gambler's Superstition

Adam Blickstein of Democracy Arsenal flags this from a Sam Stein piece on the differences between Barack Obama's and John McCain's transition teams. The short version is that Obama has one and McCain doesn't:

The Arizona Senator has instructed his team to not spend time on the transition effort, according to the source, both out of a desire to have complete focus on winning the election as well as a superstitious belief that the campaign shouldn't put the cart before the horse. (Emphasis added.)

That's another way of saying, Don't count your winnings before your final roll of the dice, and is a classic example of a gambler's magical thinking.

Josh Marshall makes the good point that losing campaigns often look bad, partly because they're losing, and partly because they're forced to cast about for some way to reverse the trend. It reminds me of Allen Barra's observation about football coverage: Saying a team lost despite its quarterback throwing for huge yardage overlooks the fact that most teams wind up with that many passing yards because they've got to make up a ton of points in a hurry.

Still, something tells me that in the aftermath of this election, we're not only going to hear insider accounts about the behind the scenes chaos within campaign McCain, but also insider accounts of the behind the scenes chaos within candidate McCain. (Think he's placed a wager on the outcome of the election?) The question is whether the people who are enabling his increasingly obvious character flaws will be held accountable, or whether it will just be written off as typical electioneering.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Monday, October 13, 2008

WPR Self-Promotion

At the risk of tooting our own horn, I'd just like to point out a couple of stories in the news today that World Politics Review has been out ahead on. The IHT reports on the impasse in the negotiations over the Zimbabwe unity government, a story we brought to you on Friday. The NY Times reports on developments in the North Korea nuclear program talks, all discussed in detail by Richard Weitz in his regular column last Tuesday. And Diplomatic Courier has a piece on the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement, a story we reported on three weeks ago. I imagine you don't need me to point it out, but WPR is a pretty good place to keep up to date on what's going on in the world, and we're working on some ideas for how to make it better.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   

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Friday, October 10, 2008

COIN as Transfer of Wealth

I've mentioned the impact the financial crisis is likely to have on European resolve with regards to the Afghanistan mission. Here's Charlie from Abu Muqawama on the potential impact Stateside:

But if you think the American public is fickle and short-sighted in the best of times, you ain't seen nothing yet. It's going to be increasingly hard to justifying long-term occupations overseas...not to mention Army and Marine plus-ups (that budget money is going to go to big ticket hardware items like ships and planes, the kinds of things that create jobs in congressional districts).

That touches on something that's been buzzing around in my head for the past week or so. There's a current of thought that argues that industrial production for World War II, more than any of Roosevelt's fiscal policies, pulled America out of the Great Depression. So I'd been considering whether, counterintuitively, the financial crisis might actually lend support to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars under the logic of economic stimulus. For the moment, I'd wondered whether the structural changes in the American economy from industrial production to information processing undermined that argument.

But Charlie's point, namely that the kind of spending the financial crisis is likely to provoke is diametrically opposed to the needs of COIN operations, leads to another aspect of the current focus on stability and reconstruction operations in America's defense posture that deserves mention. COIN and stability ops are boot heavy and, outside of drones and communications networks, tech-lite. Unlike the largescale industrial mobilizations required for past wars, they require, more than anything else, manpower and money. Quite a bit of the actual productive work (the building of infrastructure, for instance) takes place in the actual theater of operations, not on the homefront. Add to that the fact that COIN removes a disproportionate amount of young men and women from the productive workforce (some of them permanently), and returns a disproportionate amount of them disabled (due to improvements in force protection), and it becomes clear that COIN amounts to an enormous outflow of American wealth, with little in the way of productive stimulus to counterbalance it.

Joseph Steiglitz has already talked about the $3 trillion war. But I'd like to see some economists weigh in on this.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iraq   

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Quote of the Day

"It's impossible to predict the bottom, and technical analysis is meaningless as panic and fear overwhelm the markets."

-- Jang Huh, managing director at Prudential Asset Management in Seoul, on the Asian stock market dive.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Quote Of The Day   

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Beyond Self-Parody

Folks, this is clearly well past the realm of, You can't make this up. Here's the headline:

AP Palin pre-empts state report, clears self in probe

And here's the lede:

Trying to head off a potentially embarrassing state ethics report on GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, campaign officials released their own report Thursday that clears her of any wrongdoing.

Apparently the McCain campaign has decided that their real competition in this election is Tina Fey and the SNL writers team. Either that or sometime after falling asleep last night in my apartment in Paris, France, I was transported by a space-time vortex to a location in 1930's Soviet Russia.

Seriously, if this is what the McCain gang calls oversight, a whole bunch of execs in the banking sector are popping the bubbly right about now. And in the way they frame the story, the AP (which I assume now stands for American Pravda) is very much part of the problem.

On second thought, you can make this up. I recall reading a novel along these lines, written by a guy named... Ah, skip it.

Posted by Judah in:  Media Coverage   Politics   

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Archetype of Palin

About a month ago, I cited a passage from Walt Whitman to argue that it's unseemly to challenge someone's qualifications for running for office in America, because our nation is founded on the principle of citizen government. The post was in direct reference to Sarah Palin, but it implicitly applied to the same challenges levelled at Barack Obama.

Yesterday a colleague said something that made me rethink my argument. To paraphrase, he said that in America, anyone can grow up to be president, but that doesn't mean that anyone who has grown up in America should be president. Where you start from, in principle, should not be an impediment to reaching the highest office of the land. But you have to reach it. To say that anyone can grow up to be president, in essence, equates "growing up" with preparing oneself for the job.

In that sense, it's fair to question whether someone has prepared themselves for the job. And I think that while every president is something of a wild card on the day they are first sworn in, Barack Obama has cleared the "burden of proof" bar through the past 18 months of campaigning, whereas Sarah Palin hasn't.

I think she one day might. I found her winks at the Vice-Presidential debate inappropriate and her manner strangely out of place. Her rapport with the camera and the viewers on the other end of it made me think that that she's never quite forgotten her sportscaster days. But her appeal, while I'm not susceptible to it, is apparent. Tom Barnett has a real sensible take on it here, where he manages to acknowledge her talent, charm and intelligence, without becoming a Lowry laughingstock.

During the Democratic primaries, a French psychoanalyst told me that Hillary Clinton was facing the challenge all women politicians face, namely how to make herself desired without losing her credibility. Because making oneself desired is the essence of democratic politics, just like making oneself feared is the essence of autocratic politics. Policy is an afterthought. Since male virility is the default model in politics, the ways in which a male candidate makes himself desired are invisible. A woman who adopts them becomes either strangely asexual or butch. But no one has yet found the political use for the ways in which women have traditionally made themselves desired.

Palin just might find a way to do that. Right now she's just reading off the script she's been handed, which gives her a variation of the  folksy image George W. Bush used to such advantage. Bush's version evolved from the virile rancher suspicious of government intrusion (pre-9/11) to the avenging sheriff reluctantly imposing law and order (post-9/11). Palin's, for the time being, is the frontier moralist with the mannerisms of the bawdyhouse. But they're both cynical manipulations of American folk archetypes, stripped of all their traditional, Whitmanesque folk wisdom, with nothing in the way of actual substance and authority to replace it.

I'm as convinced as ever that it's a losing script this year. I've said for months that when Obama and John McCain stand onstage side by side, the reality will sink in to American voters. After the first debate, I had a moment of doubt. But that's been one of the subtexts of Tuesday night's debate.

So Palin will have some time to prepare herself. She's already got the political skills. If she backs that up with some substance, it will be a compelling combination.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

French Desertion Rumors Unfounded

To follow up on an earlier post on rumors of desertion among French troops deploying to Afghanistan, Jean-Dominique Merchet at Secret Défense has done some digging and decided that the evidence doesn't back them up. Going through the numbers for the 8th RPIMa, he found only two cases of confirmed AWOL:

The 8th is an elite regiment with highly motivated personnel, so it's likely those numbers are higher in other units. But for now, it would not be honest to talk of a troubling phenomenon. (Translated from the French.)

There are still a lot of troubling phenomena about the NATO coalition in Afghanistan, mind you. But French desertion is not one of them.

There's always a danger in discussing rumors. Implicit in my post was that sometimes the simple fact that a rumor has been floated tells us something about the underlying reality, especially taking the broader context into account. In this case, that broader context is that not only is there little popular support for the Afghanistan War here in Europe, there is little enthusiasm for the Afghanistan mission among the major NATO coalition militaries. And at some point, a mission that the people don't consider to be necessary and the military doesn't consider to be promising is a mission that won't last very long.

The fact that there's no reference to this in the emerging Stateside discussion of how to overhaul America's Afghanistan strategy strikes me as an enormous pink elephant wandering around the room unmentioned. Now it could be that the strategic overhaul, once articulated and supported by an obvious American commitment to the mission, could generate European enthusiasm. And presumably the folks currently formulating that overhaul are taking this into account. But the political debate isn't.

American strategy in Afghanistan is currently dependent on the NATO coalition, and it will be until we can redeploy enough troops from Iraq to pick up the slack. If we're essentially asking our European allies to conduct a holding operation until we can do so, I'm not sure that will fly. And even if it does, the political costs in terms of future missions could end up being severe.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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Friday, October 3, 2008

The Real Thing

Take a closer look at what Sarah Palin had to say last night when asked what, if anything, might justify the use of nuclear weapons:

Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the "be all, end all" of just too many people, and too many parts of our planet, so those dangerous regimes, again, can not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. Period.

Let's set aside the fact that she answers a question that was not, in fact, asked, because earlier she had already acknowledged that this was an intentional debating strategy.

I'm more taken aback by the awkward misuse of the colloquialism "be all, end all," which of course is used to refer to a best possible outcome. That Palin instead uses it to refer to nuclear apocalypse reveals more, I fear, than mere confusion or concrete thinking preventing her from getting past the words' literal meaning. The Pentecostalist tradition from which Palin emerges places an enormous emphasis on eschatology, with the apocalypse, Armageddon and the rapture all central components of its world view. And in this world view, for those who are saved, the apocalypse is both literally and figuratively the "be all, end all," in that it marks both the end of the world (as per Palin's literal usage) and the coming of the kingdom (ie. the best possible outcome, as per colloquial usage, but also as per Palin's unconscious usage).

Earlier in the debate, when discussing education, Palin referenced Joe Biden's wife, a teacher of 30 years:

God bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?

That's not just a bit of folksy banter, or the kind of dog whistle George W. Bush uses to great effect. Palin's the real thing.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Balance and Modesty

Matthew E. Valkovic and Brian M. Burton pen a Small Wars Journal op-ed that pushes back a bit against Andrew Bacevich's recent Atlantic piece on the Army's internal "COIN vs. Conventional" doctrinal debates. You have to gather some momentum in order to influence an institution as massive and resistant to change as the U.S. Army, especially in the immediate aftermath of the violently imposed transformation of the Rumsfeld era. Add the immediacy, very eloquently expressed by Abu Muqawama, of watching your fellow soldiers die and I think the conviction of the COIN "crusaders," as Bacevich characterizes them, becomes very understandable.

Now that the COIN approach has won its bona fides in Iraq, a consensus -- and it strikes me as a reasonable one -- is emerging, expressed by Bob Gates in the speech I flagged yesterday, and echoed by Valkovic and Burton. According to that consensus, we need COIN because that's what we're doing at the moment, and it's very likely we'll be called on to do it in the future. That doesn't mean we'll abandon our conventional capacity, which is why Gates, Valkovic and Burton, emphasize balance. But it makes no sense to lose the war you're fighting in order to win one you might fight in the future.

But perhaps more importantly, nor does it mean that we'll go actively looking for places to apply our new COIN capacity, which is why Gates emphasized modesty, and Valkovic and Burton concur with Bacevich's notion of "strategic choice." I didn't flag the Gates passage on modesty, but Tom Barnett did, and it's worth a read (as is Barnett's inimitable commentary that follows). I also interpret Gen. David Petraeus' recent comments about the limited applicability to Afghanistan of what's been learned in Iraq as an implicit endorsement of this notion of modesty.

I'm reassured by the "Gates Consensus" and hope it solidifies, because I take the risk of COIN-toxication (by which I mean the same kind of over-confident interventionism that led to the Bush-Rumsfeld Iraq fiasco, only directed towards stability and reconstruction operations) seriously. COIN-centered operations -- especially as formulated by Gen. Petraeus' field manual and incarnated by his multidisciplinary, interdepartmental approach -- are a tempting vision of the military instrument as something other than a warfighting tool. It's a vision that has a special appeal to the left, with its liberal/humanitarian interventionist impulse, and to the right, with its forward defense mentality.

Which makes the kind of modesty that Gates articulated all the more essential. Because COIN is still war, and war is still hell. And I say that confidently, as a civilian who's never witnessed it. That's not to say that war isn't sometimes necessary. But when it isn't, it should be avoided.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bob Gates for President

I know he's got an awfully long and crowded bandwagon these days, but the thought occurred to me the other day that one of America's great strengths is that it can produce men like Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. Here's a speech he gave at the National Defense University the other day that's worth reading in its entirety for the lucidity with which he treats the challenges facing American hard power and how to respond to them. But maybe what's more striking than the lucidity is the reassuring logic and, above all, lack of hysteria:

The defining principle driving our strategy is balance. I note at the outset that balance is not the same as treating all challenges as having equal priority. . .

The balance we are striving for is:

  • Between doing everything we can to prevail in the conflicts we are in, and being prepared for other contingencies that might arise elsewhere, or in the future;
  • Between institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and stability operations, as well as helping partners build capacity, and maintaining our traditional edge -- above all, the technological edge -- against the military forces of other nation states; and
  • Between retaining those cultural traits that have made the United States armed forces successful by inspiring and motivating the people within them, and shedding those cultural elements that are barriers to doing what needs to be done.

Gates has of late come down strongly on the side of the emerging COIN/stability operations consensus in the military's internal doctrinal debates. That had caused me some concern, not because I'm against that consensus, but because I worry about the risk of COIN-toxication. But in his speech, Gates dials his support back in:

When referring to "Next-War-itis," I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible not to do so -- and the overwhelming majority of people in the Pentagon, the services, and the defense industry do just that. My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide both short-term and long-term all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today.

As for the danger that a COIN-centric footing might pose in terms of intervention envy, Gates had this to say:

We are unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon -- that is, forced regime change followed by nation-building under fire. But that doesn’t mean we may not face similar challenges in a variety of locales.

That these kinds of missions are more frequent does not necessarily mean, for risk assessment purposes, that they automatically should have a higher priority for the purposes of military readiness. . .However, the recent past vividly demonstrated the consequences of failing adequately to address the dangers posed by insurgencies and failing states.

I once suggested Gates would make an ideal Secretary of State. I've since realized that that would reinforce the kind of militarization of American foreign policy that I've been arguing against for some time. But here's hoping he's the next president National Security Advisor.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   

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