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Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve mentioned before that the  contrasting stories of Churchill and Chamberlain in the lead up to the Second World War have become the founding myth of neoconservative foreign policy. Neoconservative foreign policy is based on the counterfactual presumption that if Churchill had been prime minister, Hitler’s rise would have been thwarted. The appeasement of Hitler by Chamberlain thus caused Hitler’s rise in the neoconservative view.

However this myth took root, it is now the framework which neoconservatives use to understand every foreign policy issue: Every threat to America thus becomes Hitler’s Germany, no matter how marginal – from Kim Jong Il’s North Korea to Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Chavez’s Venezuela to Putin’s Russia. There are two possible responses to the rise of these existential threats: appeasement or confrontation. The right thing to do is to project confidence and bellicosity to deter the next Hitler from rising. Every sign of restraint is debasing appeasement; every Democrat then who advises restraint, who seeks to put these threats in perspective thus is portrayed as Chamberlain – from Carter to Clinton to Kerry to Obama. Every leader of this war, of our warrior nation, is compared to Churchill for his resolve and rhetoric. This neoconservative root myth thus leads to a policy of constant belligerence against every possible foe as a homage to a man who was belligerent for a lifetime and memorably right once.*

In a sense it seems, neoconservatives looked with hope to Obama Tuesday night (see especially these responses by Kagan, Kristol, and Gerson), as he promised to escalate the conflict in Afghanistan as they hoped. They hoped he could be their Churchill. Many on the right wing though not all, having been trained to focus most of all on symbology and rhetoric over substance, believed Obama had failed to meet their Churchillian expectations, and so took the comfortable position of assailing him.

Anyone who doubts this story of Churchill’s intransigence is at the core of neoconservative foreign policy can find evidence looking at the right wing responses to Tuesday night’s address:

The National Review‘s lead editorial:

Churchillian it was not.

Rich Lowry:

Is Gen. McChrystal in Kabul regretting that Obama didn’t strike a more Churchillian tone…?

Fred Thompson:

In the first part of his speech he sounded like Winston Churchill.
In the second part of his speech, he sounded like Lady Churchill.

Victor Davis Hanson:

Stanley Baldwin, not Winston Churchill.

Charles Krauthammer on Fox News:

Not exactly the kind of speech you’d hear from Henry V or Churchill.

Matt Lewis:

Hmm. What to say about Obama’s speech… Well, he sure as hell ain’t Winston Churchill.

John Hannah:

Hardly Churchillian.

* I quite admire Churchill – and he was also prescient about the specter of Communism and had a remarkable view of history, as if from a distance. But the single opinion of his that created his out-sized reputation was his steady belligerence against Germany during its rise.

[Image of Winston Churchill not subject to copyright.]

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Rothkopfian Aphorisms

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Although the conventional wisdom holds that blogging and the internet is leading us to become cretins who cannot compose full sentences (lest they run longer than 140 characters), there is reason for hope. And not just because Twitter and WordPress have made more prolific writers out of all of us. I have never read the news as intensely as I have this past years, so I cannot judge from even the limited perspective of my life, but there is some great prose written on blogs. I’ve found though, that when reading on a computer screen, I “read/skim” and don’t notice the finer sentences as I jump about the piece searching for the most interesting bits. However, I have taken to printing out substantial entries from blogs, and found much of the writing is in fact quite good.

One of the writers who has consistently drawn my attention with his witty aphorisms is David Rothkopf. His blog is well worth reading, for the insight, yes – but also for the wit.

On diplomacy:

In marriage, a lack of intimacy usually means you are not getting fucked… but in diplomacy, it means you almost certainly will be.

On the advantages America has over most other potential great powers:

We’re also protected by two great oceans and our neighbors are fairly easy to get along with. (Mexico is a bit of a concern at the moment but Canada lost its last remaining offensive capability when Wayne Gretzky moved to the United States.)

On Venezuela’s announcement of a nuclear program:

I’ve been predicting this problem for so long that it gives me a little lift even if it is a potential calamity for millions of others. Take note: that’s what narcissism makes possible.

On Eliot Spitzer’s desire for publicity:

The A.I.G. scandal and the collapse of Wall Street could have been [Spitzer’s] apotheosis, the moment the howling dogs of ambition in his breast might have finally gotten enough red meat of press exposure.

On the mania of the government for ensuring constant economic growth, specifically of GDP growth:

Didn’t our founders specify that the purpose of our country was to guarantee the right of all of us (well, white men anyway) to life, liberty, and the pursuit of constant growth in “the total market values of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation’s borders during a given period (usually 1 year).”

Commenting on GQ’s “50 Most Powerful People in Washington” edition:

If you follow Washington without losing your appetite, you’re not paying attention.

On the relationship between capitalism and Wall Street:

Because 21st Century Wall Street is to capitalism as Pope Alexander VI was to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There was a connection but it was remote and observed more in the breach than in the honoring of the essentially good underlying ideas.

On why Wall Street will finally be reformed:

Personally, I think they miscalculate. They finally may be undone by their greed. Except it won’t be because they stole too much or blew up the international economy. It’ll be because they stopped paying off the people who set the rules. And nothing puts a politician back in touch with his principles like a failure to keep up payments by the banker to whom he has mortgaged them.

Describing the dust-up between Kim Jong Il and Hillary Clintons:

No doubt drawing on his extensive training in rhetoric and stand-up comedy at the University of Malta (training ground for all of Malta’s best comics), Kim fired back with the tell-tale wit that once had him referred to as “the anti-factionalist Oscar Wilde of Baekdu Mountain” until someone discovered who Oscar Wilde was and the guy who invented the nickname was dropped out of a Russian helicopter into the Amnok River. (Wilde, meanwhile, might have called North Korean official efforts at humor “the unspeakable in pursuit of the unattainable.”)

Comparing America’s hegemony with Microsoft’s monopoly:

In the mid-90s, America and Microsoft were clearly the future of the world. Then both started to abuse their power. America, in the wake of 9/11, undercut the international system it built, rhetorically flaunted its hallowed values and then crudely and repeatedly undercut them in its behaviors. Microsoft went from a symbol of the garage-launched entrepreneurial energy of the tech revolution to being a ruthless crusher of competitors. In fact, it became so dominant, that it felt it could foist on the American public products that didn’t work, were full of bugs, were vulnerable to security breaches and, as in the case of Vista, should never have been released in the first place.

Defining the foreign policy precept, the law of the prior incident:

A reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.

I had also accidentally included this Paul Krugman quote in the mix of Rothkopfian aphorisms – because it seemed so like something he’d say. Only on searching for the quote did I find its true author, but I’ll include it here anyway:

Serious Person Syndrome, aka it’s better to have been conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.

[Image adapted from a photograph by the New America Foundation licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Prose, Quotations, The Opinionsphere, The Web and Technology | 1 Comment »

Iranian Authorities Using Facebook and Twitter for Intelligence Gathering

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Evgeny Morozov – always a pessimist about the use of technology against autocratic regimes – relays an anecdote from Iran suggesting the Iranian authorities are now using Facebook and Twitter for intelligence gathering:

On passing through the immigration control at the airport in Tehran, she was asked by the officers if she has a Facebook account. When she said “no”, the officers pulled up a laptop and searched for her name on Facebook. They found her account and noted down the names of her Facebook friends.

This is very disturbing. For once, it means that the Iranian authorities are paying very close attention to what’s going on Facebook and Twitter (which, in my opinion, also explains why they decided not to take those web-sites down entirely – they are useful tools of intelligence gathering).

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Posted in Iran, The Web and Technology | 879 Comments »

A Week Off From Blogging

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

You’d be surprised at how exhausting it is to churn out one to four posts a day, with at least one containing an original thought and most others some small spin. Or at least, you’d be surprised at how exhausting it is in addition to a full-time job.

So, to start the summer, I’m going to take a week off.

Now that Judge Sotomayor has been leaked as Obama’s nominee, I realize I don’t have much of a dog in this fight – at least not so far. My big concern for this nominee is their position on executive power. Sotomayor doesn’t have much of a public record on these issues – as Charlie Savage explained, she:

has never worked in the federal executive branch and sits on a court that hears few executive power cases.

I would have had to comment and get excited if the nominee had been Elena Kagan (negatively) or Diane Wood (positively). Or Harold Koh, though he wasn’t on the list this time around (positively.)

Matt Drudge is already on the case – bringing racial issues to the forefront and making the innuendo-driven case against the Judge – while acknowledging the opposition will be futile.

I’ll leave this fight to others. For this week, it’s time to take a break.

Of course, I reserve the right to jump in if I feel so compelled – so check back if something extraordinary happens in politics.

I will – of course, continue to Twitter this week. If you haven’t already, follow me there.

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Posted in Law, Politics, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

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.

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Posted in Foreign Policy, Politics, The Opinionsphere, The Web and Technology | No Comments »

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