Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Policy’

Military Envy

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Under the Obama administration, the nonmilitary parts of America’s national security team have begun to increasingly imitate the Pentagon’s bureaucratic strategies and organization.

David Kilcullen, an Australian military officer embedded at various times in the State Department and in the Department of Defense during the Bush administration, one of the architects of the Surge, and a consultant to the Obama administration spoke at the Carneige Council about a number of problems with America’s approach to terrorism and its power – including what he saw as a serious mismatch between the “military and nonmilitary elements of national power.” He explained:

There’s 1.68 million people in the U.S. armed services, 2.1 million if you count all the civilians in the Department of Defense. I served in the State Department but this isn’t a State/Defense thing because I also served in the Defense Department, but between State and AID combined there are about 8,000 diplomats/foreign service officers in the U.S. So that’s 360 to 1 in terms of budget and 210 to 1 in terms of military guys to diplomats.

Contrast that to most other countries in the world, which have a ratio between 8 and 10 to 1. So we are dramatically out of proportion. We have this huge, well developed, highly expensive, well-coordinated military arm of national power and this tiny, shriveled, little puny diplomatic arm of national power. Not surprisingly we tend to see most problems as military problems and we tend to approach them with military solutions, because that’s the asset set that we have available.

By comparison there are five times as many accountants in the Department of Defense as there are diplomats in the U.S. diplomatic service. There’s as many lawyers in the Department of Defense as there are in the diplomatic service. There are actually more people playing as musicians in defense bands than there are diplomats. [Here the crowd titters.] So there’s a pretty substantial mismatch.

And of course that leads us to militarize our foreign policy.

He’s obviously right about this. But the military is not just seen to be bigger and better funded, but to be more effective than these other elements of national power. Its interesting to note that in the opening months of the Obama administration, the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Treasury have all sought to adopt elements of the Pentagon’s framework and seem to be using the Pentagon itself as a model.

Most recently, Noam Scheiber reported that the Treasury Department wanted to “put Treasury on a Pentagon-style footing.” He explained that in this new world of sudden financial movements, the Treasury needed to have greater capabilities to react to threats, as the military does:

Inevitably, it’s Treasury that must lead in this terrifying new order. Which is why its limitations have become so glaring. “The Pentagon is geared up to fight two wars at once, that’s the mission. The White House is a crisis management operation, it runs twenty-four hours a day,” says one Treasury official. “We want that capability.” And so, once the dust settles, Geithner is determined to put Treasury on a Pentagon-style footing. “One of things I hope to be able to do is leave a stronger institutional architecture in domestic finance with more depth in the career staff, more weight, more full-scale expertise in markets, regulatory policy, economics, the legal financial area,” he told me. When that day comes, you probably still won’t see much of Lee Sachs. But you can bet he’ll be manning the situation room. [my emphasis]

At the very start of this administration, Obama’s National Security Advisor, retired General Jim Jones pushed for the State Department and National Security Council to “reorganize their regional bureaus to conform with the military model,” according to Foreign Policy‘s Laura Rozen. So far, he has been unsuccessful.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself has sought to adapt at least one Pentagon practice to her new fiefdom – as she announced with great fanfare several weeks ago:

To deliver concrete results, we have to maximize our effectiveness. That’s why I’m excited to be here today to discuss a new enterprise, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which I announced at the State Department on Friday.

We are adopting this idea from the Pentagon. The Pentagon has successfully used this quadrennial review process to improve effectiveness and to establish a long-term vision. And I know from my time – about six years on the Senate Armed Services Committee – that the defense review helped convey the Department’s mission to all stakeholders, from members of Congress, to the members of the armed forces and their civilian colleagues, and to the rest of government, as well as to the American public. [my emphasis]

There has been a great deal of commentary in the past decade about the “creeping militarization” of America’s foreign policy. These changes seem more akin to powerful players in the Obama administration adopting the best practices of the Pentagon and adapting them across the government. In general, this is a good thing – but like the focus on technocratic, independent institutions solving intractable problems, this could also become problematic over time.

[Image by army.mil.]

Sympathizing with AIG, Peace with Islamists, Senator Al Franken, Jay-Z, the Newest Lost Generation, and the Future of Journalism

Friday, July 17th, 2009

1. Sympathizing with AIG. Michael Lewis has another piece plumbing the depths of the financial crisis. Except this time he is somewhat strangely sympathetic to AIG. His piece is a useful counter to Matt Taibbi’s angry screed on the same subject – but the lack of outrage in Lewis’s piece is discomfiting – like a writer who begins to sympathize with his serial killer subject. Still – worth reading – as Lewis concludes:

And yet the A.I.G. F.P. traders left behind, much as they despise him personally, refuse to believe Cassano was engaged in any kind of fraud. The problem is that they knew him. And they believe that his crime was not mere legal fraudulence but the deeper kind: a need for subservience in others and an unwillingness to acknowledge his own weaknesses. “When he said that he could not envision losses, that we wouldn’t lose a dime, I am positive that he believed that,” says one of the traders. The problem with Joe Cassano wasn’t that he knew he was wrong. It was that it was too important to him that he be right. More than anything, Joe Cassano wanted to be one of Wall Street’s big shots. He wound up being its perfect customer.

2. Peace With the Islamists. Amr Hamzawy and Jeffrey Christiansen have a thought-provoking, and somewhat discomfiting piece, in Foreign Policy suggesting that America make peace with non-violent Islamist groups – pointing out that many of them actually rely on America’s support for democracy for their success in a region of the world dependent on America and filled with dictatorships, and pointing out the signs that many of these groups are open to such a peace offer.

3. Senator Al Franken. John Colapinto profiles Al Franken in a typically humorous and in-depth New Yorker piece. More important than the piece is that this man is a Senator. Congratulations Senator Franken.

4. Jay-Z, Hegemon. Marc Lynch has written a few pieces this week applying principles of hegemony in international relations to Jay-Z and how he maintains power in the hip hop world – including specifically how he is responding to The Game’s recent attacks on him.

5. Europe’s Newest Lost Generation. Annie Lowrey discusses the problems that are facing Europe’s youth.

6. Shirsky on the Future of Journalism. Clay Shirsky has an excellent post over at Cato Unbound discussing without really predicting the future of journalism. As always with Shirky, thought-provoking and worth the read. He makes a point that I have been ruminating about in a number of posts recently (here and here) – that:

[J]ournalism is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness.

In my posts, I labeled this “shared awareness” the “conventional wisdom.”

[Image by me.]

The Success of Goldman Sachs as a Repudiation of the Free Market

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

David Rothkopf – commenting on Goldman Sachs – sees their success as a repudiation of the free market – and I tend to agree with him:

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. I love free markets. I hope a free market marries one of my daughters some day. But if some people have too many advantages and others simply can never catch up, the markets aren’t free, regardless of law or intent. Even if the advantages are in part derived from talent and hard work, fairness can remain an issue if other components of the success are linked to access, influence, history and other intangibles. [my emphasis]

From this insight comes the inevitable conclusion that – contrary to the doctrine of the right-wing – the government is not the antithesis of the free market, but rather plays an essential role in creating and maintaining it.

Goldman Sachs – with their obscene profits so soon after needing public assistance – demonstrate that our system has become less free and more feudal. As I wrote several weeks ago:

[T]he free market is effective because it prevents any small set of individuals from monopolizing decision-making. Especially in the world today with so much information available and events moving so quickly, the “right” business choices to make aren’t always clear. A free market – by allowing each business to make its own choice – prevents decision-making from falling victim to individual follies. But our current economic system – with it’s enormous corporations – ends up recreating the feudal system in which power is not centered in a single place, but in a handful of powerful “princes.” While these “princes” push for free market reforms, it is not in their interest to actually achieve this ideal free market – as Yglesias points out:

As a market approaches textbook conditions—perfect competition, perfect information, etc.—real profits trend toward zero. You make your money by ensuring that textbook conditions don’t apply; that there are huge barriers to entry, massive problems with inattention, monopolistic corners to exploit, etc.

George Will himself has pointed out that those “reforms” that are passed tend to be of a specific sort, following what Will calls, “the supreme law of the land…the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs.” What free market supporters rarely seem to admit is that the free market exists not in spite of the government, but because of it. And today, our market is far from free because the government has failed to protect it – and has instead allowed the worst characteristics of capitalism (exploitation of labor; externalizing as much cost to society as possible, for eg. pollution) with the worst characteristics of socialism (concentration of power and limitation of competition) to create a kind of modern feudal society. In  this feudal society, freedom is enjoyed by the “princes” of finance and industry while the creative ferment of a real free market is formally protected but effectively quashed.

David Rothkopf expresses the same thing with different terminology:

These guys [at Goldman Sachs] operate as ultra-citizens in our society, virtually able to tell the government to heel and fetch in ways the rest of us can only fantasize about.

Warren Buffett seems to agree – as he claimed that America is moving from an aspiring “Ownership Society” to a “Sharecropper’s Society” – with its suggestions of a feudal structure. Of course, Buffet now owns a significant portion of the very Goldman Sachs that epitomizes this trend.

Goldman Sachs – along with other major corporate powers – rise by exploiting inefficiencies in the market – and eventually must try to create inefficiencies in the market in order to maintain their profitability (which is the hyperbolized point of Matt Taibbi’s recent piece). This contradicts those who see the market as supremely efficient – as Warren Buffet admitted, he would “be a bum on the street with a tin cup if the markets were always efficient.”

Goldman Sachs proves – with its successes – that our system is not a truly free market – but a more feudal one – in which those with sufficient money can secure power and tilt the system to their advantage.

[Image by saebryo licensed under Creative Commons.]

McNamara, Cuomo, Bearing Witness, Iran’s Bomb, Sri Lanken Victories, and Historical Dignity

Friday, July 10th, 2009

It’s that glorious time of the week – Friday. So, here’s my recommendations of some interesting reads for this weekend that came up this past week…

  1. There were a number of excellent obituaries of Robert McNamara published upon his death. But what I would recommend would be reading this speech given in 1966 at the height of his power.
  2. Another speech worth reading is Mario Cuomo’s “Our Lady of the Law” speech from November 2007 which was published for the first time on this blog earlier in the week.
  3. Roger Cohen in the New York Times tries to express the insufficiency of online reporting aggregating news and media – as Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney did so usefully did during the Iranian protests. As these two journalists amassed tweets, photos, videos, news stories and every other bit of information about what was going on in Iran, Roger Cohen himself was in Tehran having evaded the Iranian censors. He went to the protests, interviewed the protesters, ran from basij with them. What I could see then was that while what Sullivan and Pitney were doing was new and unique – and extremely useful for understanding what was happening, it was missing a certain urgency that Cohen was able to provide with his bylines from Tehran. So he writes here about the “actual responsibility” of the journalist – to “bear witness:

    “Not everyone realizes,” Weber told students, “that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar. This is particularly true when we recollect that it has to be written on the spot, to order, and that it must create an immediate effect, even though it is produced under completely different conditions from that of scholarly research. It is generally overlooked that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than the scholar’s.”

    Yes, journalism is a matter of gravity. It’s more fashionable to denigrate than praise the media these days. In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness.

    The rest is no more than ornamentation.

    To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.
    No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

  4. Robert Patterson in Foreign Policy brings some measured historical analysis to what would happen if Iran got the bomb.
  5. Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic explains how the Sri Lankan government was able to achieve a monumental victory over a terrorist group – and also why America should not imitate its methods in any way. He concludes bleakly:

    So is there any lesson here? Only a chilling one. The ruthlessness and brutality to which the Sri Lankan government was reduced in order to defeat the Tigers points up just how nasty and intractable the problem of insurgency is. The Sri Lankan government made no progress against the insurgents for nearly a quarter century, until they turned to extreme and unsavory methods.

  6. David Brooks wrote about dignity:

    In so doing, [George Washington] turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”

“We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts.”

Friday, June 5th, 2009

Laura Rozen has probably covered the growing surprise from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies about the Obama administration’s actions better than anyone:

Referring to Clinton’s call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu groused, “What the hell do they want from me?” according to his associate, who added, “I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [U.S.] congressional delegations this week.”

In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama’s call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from the Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu’s dismay, Obama doesn’t appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was.

“This is a sea change for Netanyahu,” a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. [my emphasis]

This helps set the stage for what appears to be one of the key elements of Obama’s Middle East policy – honest dialogue. As Obama explained in his interview with Tom Friedman in the New York Times shortly before his Cairo speech:

Obama, in an interview with The New York Times before leaving Washington, said that a key part of his message during the trip would be, “Stop saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.”

“There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it,” he said.

He then added that there were a lot of Israelis “who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution – that is in their long-term interest – but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly.”

And there were a lot of Palestinians, Obama said, who “recognize that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel” has not gained them anything, and that they would have been better off “had they taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground.”

Obama concluded:

When it comes to dealing with the Middle East, the president noted, “there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly…”

In his Cairo speech – as well as in his Middle East policies generally – Obama seems to be trying to do this. This has been especially noticeable – as noted above – with regards to Israel’s policy on the settlements. Fittingly, Obama expressed this best in his Cairo speech:

I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Obama here seems to sum up his theory of how political progress is made:

[T]o speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Congressman Barney Frank – in another setting – criticized Obama for precisely this sentiment – which, depending on what results we see on his different policies, may prove to be his Achilles heel:

I think he overestimates his ability to get people to put aside fundamental differences.

Frank was speaking about an intra-American fight – but in the Middle East the fundamental differences run much deeper.

But I think Frank missed back in January what many who have been critical of Obama’s Cairo approach missed in the immediate aftermath of the speech: Obama is not asking people to “put aside fundamental differences,” but to engage in civil and constructive dialogue – something which has been a theme throughout his campaign and was especially evident in his Notre Dame and race speeches. This is only worthwhile if one believes that a dialogue that is guided by the principles of honesty and reason leads us to understand that what unites us as human beings outweighs what divides us.

In Obama’s view – we may disagree – and disagree strongly on fundamental issues – but we cannot long demonize our opposition if we are engaged in frank and honest dialogue with them.

So it seems that the first step in unfolding Obama’s new Middle East policy is to clarify where everyone stands publicly – and he has started doing so by stating explictly his position in Israeli settlements and sticking to it.

A Truth Commission

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

While not rejecting the idea of prosecutions for clear cases in which the law was broken, there seems to be a growing consensus about the necessity of a truth commission. It has become more and more clear that the fault lies within our system as much as it does in particular individuals. Jeffrey Record reviewing Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side [pdf] for the Army War College journal, Parameters quotes Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis whose insight points towards both why we need a truth commissin of a type – and why prosecution is not the most effective option (h/t Tom Ricks):

[T]he greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

This goes to the argument that Bush administration apologists keep making – that these officials were acting in good faith, were panicked, and though they may have broken some rules, they did so to protect American lives. But this is precisely what Brandeis saw was the most serious danger to liberty. 

Tom Ricks gives his opinion of what we need – basing his argument on military strategy – rather than the protection of our way of life:

Just because you have an embarrassing problem, you shouldn’t try to hide it, because dealing with it may prepare you for an even bigger challenge down the road. So let’s get the torture and interrogation situation straightened out before the next big terrorist attack. My preference, as I’ve stated before, is for a truth and reconciliation commission that offers an amnesty period during which people would be invited to step forward. Anyone not ‘fessing up during that time would face the possibility of prosecution. Again, I think this effort should target those who departed from American history and made torture national policy.

Maureen Dowd has also come around – and she too is looking at the perverse effect on our system of checks and balances that not following up on this matter is having:

I used to agree with President Obama, that it was better to keep moving and focus on our myriad problems than wallow in the darkness of the past. But now I want a full accounting. I want to know every awful act committed in the name of self-defense and patriotism. Even if it only makes one ambitious congresswoman pay more attention in some future briefing about some future secret technique that is “uniquely” designed to protect us, it will be worth it.

Homo Blogicus, Pup, Pakistan, Torture, Marijuana, and the Revenge of Geography

Friday, May 1st, 2009

I’m going to start creating a list of best reads for the week every Friday – picking between 5 and 10 articles or blog posts that are well worth reading in their entirety.

  1. Christopher Buckley writes a very personal essay for the New York Times, adapted from his soon to be published memoir, about growing up as the son of the famous Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley (“Pup” and “Mum”). Truly moving, surprising, honest and earnest. An excerpt:

    I’d brought with me a pocket copy of the book of Ecclesiastes. A line in “Moby-Dick” lodged in my mind long ago: “The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” I grabbed it off my bookshelf on the way here, figuring that a little fine-hammered steel would probably be a good thing to have on this trip. I’m no longer a believer, but I haven’t quite reached the point of reading aloud from Christopher Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” at deathbeds of loved ones.

    Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

    It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words.

  2. Stephen Walt, blogging for FP, asks Three Questions About Pakistan. He quotes David Kilcullen explaining:

    We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.

    He cites a Timur Kuran and Suisanne Lohmann for providing a construct for understanding why such collapses as Pakistan’s possible one are hard to predict:

    [R]evolutionary upheavals (and state collapse) are hard to predict because individual political preferences are a form of private information and the citizenry’s willingness to abandon the government and/or join the rebels depends a lot on their subjective estimate of the costs and risks of each choice. If enough people become convinced the rebels will win, they will stop supporting the government and may even switch sides, thereby create a self-reinforcing snowball of revolutionary momentum. Similar dynamics may determine whether the armed forces hang together or gradually disintegrate. As we saw in Iran in 1979 or in Eastern Europe in 1989, seemingly impregnable authoritarian governments sometimes come unglued quite quickly. At other times, however, apparently fragile regimes manage to stagger on for decades, because key institutions hold and the revolutionary bandwagon never gains sufficient momentum.

  3. Evgeny Morozov, also blogging for FP, suggests that “promoting democracy via the internet is often not a good idea.”

    I simply refuse to believe in the universality of this new human type of Homo Blogicus – the cosmopolitan and forward-looking blogger that regularly looks at us from the cover pages of the New York Times or the Guardian. The proliferation of online nationalism, the growing use of cyber-attacks to silence down opponents, the overall polarization of internet discussions predicted by Cass Sunstein et al, make me extremely suspicious of any talk about the emergence of some new archetype of an inherently democratic and cosmopolitan internet user.

    As much as I’d like to believe that internet decreases homophily and pushes us to discover and respect new and different viewpoints, I am yet to see any tangible evidence that this is actually happening – and particularly in the context of authoritarian states, where media and public spheres are set up in ways that are fundamentally different from those of democracies.

  4. Julian Sanchez blogs reflectively about “our special horror over torture” – especially as related to aerial bombing. He concludes:

    Civilian life affords us the luxury of a good deal of deontology—better to let ten guilty men go free, and so on. In wartime, there’s almost overwhelming pressure to shift to consequentialist thinking… and that’s if you’re lucky enough to have leaders who remember to factor the other side’s population into the calculus. And so we might think of the horror at torture as serving a kind of second-order function, quite apart from its intrinsic badness relative to other acts of war. It’s the marker we drop to say that even now, when the end is self-preservation, not all means are permitted. It’s the boundary we treat as uncrossable not because we’re certain it traces the faultline between right and wrong, but because it’s our own defining border; because if we survived by erasing it, whatever survived would be a stranger in the mirror. Which, in his own way, is what Shep Smith was getting at. Probably Khalid Sheik Mohammed deserves to be waterboarded and worse. We do not deserve to become the country that does it to him.

  5. Jim Manzi is equally reflective in his piece written “Against Waterboarding” for the American Scene and published at the National Review’s Corner as well:

    What should a U.S. citizen, military or civilian, do if faced with a situation in which he or she is confident that a disaster will occur that can only be avoided by waterboarding a captured combatant? Do it, and then surrender to the authorities and plead guilty to the offense. It is then the duty of the society to punish the offender in accordance with the law. We would rightly respect the perpetrator while we punish him. Does this seem like an inhuman standard? Maybe, but then again, I don’t want anybody unprepared for enormous personal sacrifice waterboarding people in my name.

    But consider, not a theoretical scenario of repeated nuclear strikes on the United States, or a tactical “ticking time bomb” scenario, but the real situation we face as a nation. We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year. A Republic demands courage — not foolhardy and unsustainable “principle at all costs,” but reasoned courage — from its citizens. The American response should be to find some other solution to this problem if the casualty rate is unacceptable. To demand that the government “keep us safe” by doing things out of our sight that we have refused to do in much more serious situations so that we can avoid such a risk is weak and pathetic. It is the demand of spoiled children, or the cosseted residents of the imperial city. In the actual situation we face, to demand that our government waterboard detainees in dark cells is cowardice.

  6. Robert Kaplan writes about the “Revenge of Geography” for Foreign Policy. The summary of the article:

    People and ideas influence events, but geography largely determines them, now more than ever. To understand the coming struggles, it’s time to dust off the Victorian thinkers who knew the physical world best. A journalist who has covered the ends of the Earth offers a guide to the relief map—and a primer on the next phase of conflict.

  7. Time magazine has a piece written by Maia Szalavitz on drug decriminalization in Portugal which is also worth checking out. Excerpt:

    “Judging by every metric, decriminalization in Portugal has been a resounding success,” says Glenn Greenwald, an attorney, author and fluent Portuguese speaker, who conducted the research. “It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the drug problem far better than virtually every other Western country does.”

    Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal’s drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Irony in the Jane Harman Mess

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Laura Rosen has a smart piece over at FP’s The Cable looking at the Jane Harman mess. Rozen asks:

If they didn’t have authorization, which seems unlikely but who knows, the former national security officials who leaked portions of the classified transcripts of wiretapped surveillance of Jane Harman that came out in media reports this week would seem to have technically committed a crime that looks to be in the same family of legal violations that got the former AIPAC lobbyists indicted in the first place – unauthorized disclosure of classified information. However different their perceived agendas and the politics of their perceived motives may seem to be. The irony.

I believe Jon Stewart later commented on this irony in his coverage of this potentially burgeoning scandal.

Right-wingers Obsessed About Obama’s “Apology Tour”

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Reading Foreign Policy‘s series of 100 days evaluations of Barack Obama, I noticed a repeated theme among the conservative graders (most of whom blog at shadow.foreignpolicy.com, FP’s blog for the “loyal opposition”):

Elliot Abrams (former George W. Bush administration member):

The “apology tours” are not the administration’s worst offense…

Peter Feaver (Shadow Foreign Policy):

[I]t will get harder and harder to win applause lines by apologizing for the policies of your predecessor when you continue them in important respects.

Danielle Plekta (American Enterprise Institute) suggests Obama exhibits:

an almost pathological proclivity to apologize for American power and leadership. 

William Inboden (Legatum Institute, Shadow Foreign Policy):

President Obama’s foreign policy thus far consist of a series of apologies, conciliations, and gestures of outreach…it has been indulged in with such consistency, sanctimony, and zeal that it risks creating a meta-narrative of a weak, insecure, apologetic America that is reluctant to lead, unsure of its own power, and unwilling to make the hard but needful choices that might hurt short-term global approval ratings.

Christian Brose (Shadow Foreign Policy):

Obama apologizing in platitudes and generalities for America’s alleged transgressions

Kori Schake (Hoover Institution):

The Obama administration has improved the atmospherics of foreign policy, but only by apologizing for us and asking for nothing from others.

Obama has made a number of apologies during his first 100 days – generally balancing them by a challenge – as in the example below:

Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious. Instead of recognising the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what is bad.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated. They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America.

The fact that this strategy is boiled down to a mere “Apology Tour” which is weakening America by nearly all of the right-wing foreign policy thinkers is a sign of intellectual stagnation. The constant invocation of this distorting meme makes it hard to take these “thinkers” seriously. The right has often benefited from their goose-stepping fealty to the same set of talking points – and the left has been damaged by the often contradictory cacophony of its voice(s) – but in this particular instance, the wires are showing a bit too clearly.

Tweeting Revolution

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

In lieu of a substantial column on my part – I’m in one of those places where I’m stuck in the middle of three or possibly four longer pieces – here’s a quick collection of related thoughts:

David Brooks in the New York Times:

To me, the most interesting factor is the way instant communications lead to unconscious conformity. You’d think that with thousands of ideas flowing at light speed around the world, you’d get a diversity of viewpoints and expectations that would balance one another out. Instead, global communications seem to have led people in the financial subculture to adopt homogenous viewpoints. They made the same one-way bets at the same time.

Brooks is talking about instant communications in finance, but he’s onto something that has been evident to close observers of the internet social networking since it’s inception. The instantaneousness of the communication – the sharing – leads to conformity. It seems that instant reactions to events are more uniform that our individual reflective understandings. At the same time, the speed of the communication creates a kind of self-reinforcing wave as each individual reaction begins to affect the event itself – especially as related to markets or other systems that are open to individual input. Online instant communication then creates a kind of “conformity by sharing.” One excellent example of this is the flash mob. Flash mobs have an additional conforming pressure – the desire to be part of the in-crowd. They also seem to have a particular agenda – to shock the public with organized spontaneity. (Here’s two of my favorite flash mob events – in Grand Central, New York and Antwerp, Belgium.)

This conformity by sharing via the internet has already had more significant effects than the flash mobs. For example, the Obama campaign derived a large amount of energy from online organizing and networking – though this online component was balanced with a more traditional campaign. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was said to be organized in large part by text messaging via a primitive social network. It’s interesting to see how this is playing out in the Twitter revolution in Moldova.  

Somewhat related to the Twitter revolution, Joshua Keating makes a wise observation regarding protests in a short piece entitled “Do protests ever work?” in Foreign Policy:

Rather than organizing around a specific political goal, ending the war, these marches tend to devolve into general lefty free-for-alls encompassing everything from Palestine to free trade the environment to capital punishment. 

I would add that, at least in democratic societies, protests that demand accountability or consistency from “the system” tend to be more effective than one that seek to overturn it.

Keating was referring to the G-20 protests in London.