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Archive for August, 2007

The Politics of Abjection

[ 0 ] August 24, 2007 |

As a response to Clinton’s claim that we should respond to the fact that catastrophic Republican policy failure will be seen in many quarters and advantage for Republicans by accepting this as inevitable, I think this is 100% right:

Two points in response. The first is that I think the Democrat best positioned to deal with GOP political mobilization in a post-attack environment is going to be the one who isn’t reflexively inclined to see failed Republican policies resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Americans as a political advantage for the Republicans.

The other is that I think there’s a pretty clear sense in which the further one is from Bush’s Iraq policy, the easier it is politically to say that the failures of Bush’s national security policy should be blamed on Bush’s failed policies. Obama has a straight shot (“this is why we should have fought al-Qaeda like I said”) and Edwards (and Matt Yglesias) has a straightish one (“this is why we should have fought al-Qaeda like I think in retrospect”) whereas I’m not 100 percent sure what the Clinton message would be. Most of all, though, I think the politics of national security call for a strong, self-confident posture that genuinely believes liberal solutions are politically saleable and substantively workable, not the kind of worry-wort attitude that says we need to cower in fear every time Republicans say “terror.”

Clinton is correct in the sense that the idea that everything is good for Republicans will get a more respectful hearing than it deserves. But it also seems obvious that the only way to counter that is for major Democrats to challenge the narrative rather than accept it as a fact of life. Which is another reason why Clinton’s front-runner status is regrettable.

Now That’s An Oral Argument I’d Like to Observe

[ 0 ] August 24, 2007 |


Alabama journalist Gita Smith imagines the Supreme Court oral argument that will take place if the Court accepts a challenge to Alabama’s law banning the sale of vibrating sex toys. The 11th Circuit held in favor of the state, writing that there is no right to sexual privacy in the state. Gun sales? Go for it. Vibrator sales? Too dangerous.

The (ridiculous) Alabama law is similar to a Texas statute that the late, great Molly Ivins took on a few years back. Ivins really nails it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you not to watch the clip at work.

(via C&L; also at Feministe).

The Wrong Question

[ 0 ] August 24, 2007 |

Peter Rodman:

Military historians seem to be converging on a consensus that by the end of 1972, the balance of forces in Vietnam had improved considerably, increasing the prospects for South Vietnam’s survival. That balance of forces was reflected in the Paris Agreement of January 1973, and the (Democratic) Congress then proceeded to pull the props out from under that balance of forces over the next 2 1/2 years — abandoning all of Indochina to a bloodbath.

I don’t think that Rodman is quite wrong, but he’s extremely misleading. I suspect that most major historians of the Vietnam War would concur that, as long as the United States continued to pour blood and treasure into the war, South Vietnam could have been propped up indefinitely. US and South Vietnamese forces had more or less contained the expansion of the Viet Cong, although they had been unable to force it out of South Vietnamese territory. South Vietnamese ground forces were consistently torn apart by their North Vietnamese counterparts when they encountered them in anything like equal terms, but heavy US air support and the deployment of relatively small numbers of US ground troops could hold off conventional North Vietnamese offensives.

None of that means much, though. US military action had utterly failed to do the two things necessary to producing even a draw in the war; destroy North Vietnamese will to unify the country, or create a South Vietnamese state that could stand against the North on its own. By 1972, the North Vietnamese had been fighting for over thirty years for a unified, independent Vietnam, and they showed no indication of giving up anytime soon. They agreed to the settlement of 1972 because they understood a full US ground withdrawal was the death knell of South Vietnam; they had offered nearly identical terms four years earlier, on the same understanding. Moreover, everyone else understood this, too. The Christmas Bombing was designed more to assure the South Vietnamese political class that they weren’t being abandoned than to bring the North to the table. There’s ample evidence that Kissinger and Nixon understood the peace in 1972 to be strictly temporary, and in fact fighting between the North and South began almost immediately after the armistice. As for the fates of Laos and Cambodia, continued US presence in South Vietnam had done little to stem Communist gains in the former, and had abetted the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the latter.

In narrow military terms, the US had the capacity in 1972 to prevent South Vietnamese collapse, and in some sense the South Vietnamese position was stronger than it had been during parts of the 1960s. But these facts are almost irrelevant to the conclusion of the war; the North Vietnamese weren’t going to give up, and knew that they could force the US to pay a higher price than it was willing to by continuing the fighting. Everyone on all sides of the conflict understood these basic points, and only someone who utterly refuses to acknowledge the political dimension of military conflict could misunderstand the situation as badly as Rodman.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

[ 0 ] August 24, 2007 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Nelson and Starbuck

Book Review: The J-Curve

[ 0 ] August 24, 2007 |

This is the last of a nine part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

1. China’s Trapped Transition, Minxin Pei
2. The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs
3. Illicit, Moises Naim
4. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
5. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
6. The Box, Marc Levinson
7. Fair Play, James M. Olson
8. Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
9. The J-Curve, Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer is a Stanford Ph.D. and the president of Eurasia Group, “the world’s leading global political risk advisory and consulting firm.” He has penned The J-Curve, in which he introduces a simple model for thinking about stability. Stability, according to Bremer, is kind of like the letter J; you can achieve it either through repression or opening, but it’s hard to shift between the two. States attempting to move from repressive to open often find themselves in chaos, represented by the bottom dip in the J. The right, or open, side of the J is longer, since truly open states (US, France, etc.) are more stable than truly repressive states (North Korea). The journey from one to the other, however, is perilous, and it’s easier to find short-term stability by climbing up the left, or repressive side of the J. I should note here that I don’t think that Bremmer is trying to make an observation about leftish or rightist politics; it’s just the shape of the letter. Bremmer follows this up with an analysis of a handful of countries at various points on the J-Curve.

What does this book have to offer? I’m pretty much with Dan Drezner (SoH) on this one:

As for the book’s country analyses, they are not so much wrong as banal. The reader learns such nuggets of information as, “Iran is too big and too influential for the world to ignore,” and “A revolution in Saudi Arabia led by religious radicals would send political shockwaves across the Muslim world” and “A Chinese civil war would have catastrophic effects on the global economy and on security in Asia.” Who knew? These chapters provide a quick and dirty version of Troubled Countries 101, but they are light on substance.

For those who have paid no attention to the outside world for the past few years, The J-Curve offers a useful primer for cocktail party chatter. For everyone else, Bremmer’s book should reinforce stereotypes about the genre of the bigthink of consultants.

Also like Dan, I was troubled by his definition of open-ness; it seemed to shift from chapter to chapter, and to involve some impenetrable mix of political and economic liberalization. I was unconvinced that Bremmer had put the his country case studies in the right order, or at the right spots on the curve. And while there’s some value in simplicity and an easily grasped metaphor, Bremmer has to contort wildly to find spaces for Russia and Iran, and essentially gives up on putting China anywhere on the curve. The analyses suffered especially in comparison to the other books we’ve read on the Patterson Reading List; there was no single country that I thought Bremmer had done as well a job of analyzing as any other author on the list.

Bremmer visited the Patterson School last week, and gave an excellent talk on the subject of the book. He’s an extremely knowledgeable guy with much more to offer than what’s on display here. The project of the Eurasia Group, which Bremmer discussed a bit, is really quite interesting. It’s a firm designed to analyze political risk for big investors. Bremmer explained that, when he arrived on Wall Street, there was much room for an economic analyst but little space for a political scientist. On the presumption that professional political scientists could make a contribution to risk analysis that added to what economists could do, he founded the firm. It’s been very successful, but is apparently very expensive. This poses some interesting questions about the kind of work done there, and its relationship with the academic project. One hallmark of academia is supposed to be the open sharing of data and ideas; the point is to get work published in open fora, thus contributing to human knowledge and providing a foundation for the work of future scholars. The Eurasia Group, to my understanding, can’t do this; for obvious reasons, the benefits of its work must remain at least somewhat exclusive to its clients.

I’m more interested by this than troubled by it; there’s nothing wrong, in my view, with selling one’s expertise to the highest bidder. And hey, anything that enhances the non-academic marketability of professional political scientists…

Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum

[ 0 ] August 24, 2007 |

Brad Plumer has the details on mountaintop-removal mining and the Bush administration’s inevitable but still-appalling attempts to ensure more of it with toothless legal restraints. Garance fills us in on both the Democratic reaction and on civilian activism.

On the "Cancer Survival Rate" Factoid

[ 1 ] August 24, 2007 |

Ezra assesses the meaning of the fact that the United States ranks #1 in cancer survival rates, which seems likely to be adduced frequently by apologists for the indefensible American health care system:

Moreover, simply having the highest survival rates isn’t a particularly useful metric of whether we’re getting good value for our money. Our 5-year cancer survival rate, according to the study Andrew links, is 62.9%. Italy’s is 59%. Italy spends about $2,532 per person. America spends about $6,100. And these numbers, incidentally, are adjusted for purchasing power parity. Then there’s the question of who our treatment is best for. Not the poor. Studies show significantly lower mortality rates for the low-income cancer patients in Canada than in the US. Is this all a good deal? Maybe. But Sullivan should explain why we should believe that.

At the end of the day, the question is never American health care: Good or bad. It’s whether it can be better. It’s whether we get good value for our dollar. It would be absurd if a system that spends twice what anyone else does didn’t demonstrate superiority in some areas. The question is why so few, and why by such minor margins (a percent or two, in this case). It baffles me — genuinely baffles me — that conservatives seem so intent on defending an obviously bad deal.

Let’s be frank: conservertarians are as unlikely to do a cost/benefit analysis of American health care as they were with the Iraq War.

Can Stats Be Contrarian?

[ 0 ] August 23, 2007 |

Most of the rest of the top 10 make sense — it it figures to be razor-thin — but I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have gotten the current NL leader win shares with 50 guesses. And I don’t think careful analysis would leave him has one of the top 5, but I will note that other methods seem to largely corroborate the eye-popping defensive stats that put him over the top.

I’m also pleased that not only is Magglio slightly ahead of Slappy in the AL race, but Ichiro! is even with him. If this holds up, I’ll have some empirical justification for my inevitable results-oriented justification for putting Slappy 3rd on my BP ballot…

And by ‘consensus,’ I mean ‘almost zero,’ OK?

[ 0 ] August 23, 2007 |

More squirrel bait regarding the American war in Vietnam, today from Peter Rodman, whose ongoing devotion to Henry Kissinger — his first boss — is touching if nothing else:

Military historians seem to be converging on a consensus that by the end of 1972, the balance of forces in Vietnam had improved considerably, increasing the prospects for South Vietnam’s survival. That balance of forces was reflected in the Paris Agreement of January 1973, and the (Democratic) Congress then proceeded to pull the props out from under that balance of forces over the next 2 1/2 years — abandoning all of Indochina to a bloodbath.

This is Rob’s terrain more than mine, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that the number of military historians who comprise this “consensus” is roughly equivalent to the number who believe that tens of thousands of enslaved people fought on behalf of the Confederacy.

In all seriousness, though, Rodman clearly has in mind the work of Mark Moyar (about whom I wrote here). Moyar’s claim to fame among rightward-thinking types rests almost solely on his insistence that the US was (in 1972) capable of winning the war in Vietnam; this perceptive analysis comes, I should add, from the same fellow who seriously believes Ngo Dinh Diem was an effective leader whom the US (per tradition) abandoned in his hour of need. Moyar’s status as a conservative genius-martyr is enhanced, apparently, by the fact that he hasn’t been offered a “prestigious” academic job. Rodman has evidently decided that as a substitute, Moyar’s thesis will be granted the status of “academic consensus.”

Among other things, Rodman’s directive will surely rouse the commentariat at Neocon, where I’ve apparently been declared an enemy of the people — meriting “death or banishment” — for suggesting that the conservative narrative about the Vietnam War is . . . like . . . stupid? (And no, I haven’t overlooked the irony of people howling about liberal complicity in the Cambodian genocide while warning liberals of grim days to come . . .)

Vital Interests

[ 0 ] August 23, 2007 |

The foreign policy community debate has led down some pretty interesting avenues, one of them being an interrogation of the idea that the United States has “vital interests”. The short answer is no, and that policy arguments made on the basis of “vital interests” are almost always non-sensical, and are often destructive. There are two ways to take apart the “national interest”; the first is to challenge the national bit, and the second the interest bit. The national bit is easy enough to understand, as it should be apparent that on most foreign policy questions we aren’t “all in it together”. Different groups have different interests, and benefit unequally from various foreign policy acts.

On the “interest” part, the best discussion of the term, in my view, continues to be Arnold Wolfers 1952 Political Science Quarterly article “National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol.” Responding to the efforts of nascent Cold Warriors to justify policy X or purchase Y in the pursuit of national security, Wolfers absolutely demolished the notion that the term could have any fixed, useful meaning independent of an assessment of prior values and a cost-benefit calculus of value trade-offs. It’s a remarkably important article; if you don’t have access to JSTOR, this link might work.

That said, I’m actually not sure how far the interrogation of the “national interest” concept gets us in terms of Iraq. While O’Hanlon and Pollack may have made mention of the national interest in some media fora, for the most part both of them made concrete (and wrong) arguments about how the invasion would forward some particular interest, thus avoiding the nebulous national interest justification. Indeed, I’m pretty sure that Pollack even included the furtherance of multilateral institutions as part of the reason for invading Iraq, thus suggesting that international law has a value that should be included in the US interest calculus. Some arguments for invading Iraq were quite explicit on this point, suggesting that the invasion was the only way to “save” international law and the United Nations, which was on the verge of failure because of the spiteful French.

On the whole, in fact, liberal hawks (and even some conservatives) made much more rhetorical use of international law and a sophisticated understanding of the national interest than did some opponents of the invasion. In the international relations community, “national interest” is a concept most often used by realists, who while recognizing the problems with the term still find it analytically useful. Realists, however, were among the firmest opponents of the Iraq War, which was especially notable given the fact that realists tend not to care a whit for international law or humanitarian issues.

What this all amounts to, I think, is that while the use of “national interest” as political rhetoric is full of problems, challenging the concept doesn’t do much for us in the context of the Iraq War. Proponents of the war tended to make wrong, but sophisticated, arguments that invoked particular values rather than nebulous “interest”, while at least some opponents (realists in the academic community, especially) held to the least sophisticated conception of national interest, but still opposed the war.

All the Pretty Little Ponies

[ 0 ] August 23, 2007 |

Good news from Iraq! Only a few more Friedman Units to go!

The polarization of communities is most evident in Baghdad, where the Shia are a clear majority in more than half of all neighborhoods and Sunni areas have become surrounded by predominately Shia districts. Where population displacements have led to significant sectarian separation, conflict levels have diminished to some extent because warring communities find it more difficult to penetrate communal enclaves.

. . .[L]evels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high [over next six to 12 months] and the Iraqi Government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance.

. . . The Iraqi Government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months because of criticism by other members of the major Shia coalition, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and other Sunni and Kurdish parties. … The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decisionmaking, and increased Maliki’s vulnerability to alternative coalitions.

Right Blogistan is, understandably, optimistic:

Ethical Food

[ 0 ] August 23, 2007 |

To my surprise, my food posts (I am, after all, supposed to be feminist & foodie) have sparked serious controversy ’round these parts. So let’s see what happens today, when we throw religion into the mix.

Interestingly, though, here it is religion that is the issue around which people are converging, or at least a motivating factor for that convergence. Yesterday, the NY Times Dining & Wine section featured an article pithily titled “Of Church & Steak,” which surveyed various religious movements working toward more ethical food production. Movements are emerging among Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims that push not only to slaughter animals in the most humane way possible (a focus of the Jewish kashrut laws or Muslim Halal), but also to ensure that the animals live cage free and that the people who care for and slaughter the animals are treated with respect and are paid living wages (not minimum wage). It’s food as social justice.

It’s not that this blending of green/sustainable/humane living and religion is anything new (eco-Kashrut has been around for about 30 years, as the Times notes, and which finds a modern home here). What’s new is the growing popularity of these movements, and their increasing power within their own religions. In Judaism, for example, the Conservative movement (less tied to the texts of Jewish law than Orthodox but more concerned with tradition and law than Reform) is in the process of creating a new kind of Kosher seal that would take into account issues of sustainability, humaneness during life, and treatment of human workers. (Apologies for the focus on Judaism; it’s what I know most about and would welcome perspectives from other religions on comments).

This change is clear both in the growth of interreligious work on ethical meat and in each religion. In the words of the inimitable Joel Salatin, proprietor of Polyface Farms, and a central figure in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, put it well in the Times article:

“Ten years ago most of my farm visitors were earth muffin tree-hugger nirvana cosmic worshipers,” Mr. Salatin said. “And now 80 percent of them are Christian home schoolers.”

I can’t preach from a bully pulpit on this issue — I’m headed to Peter Luger‘s tonight, where I doubt they use what I would call ethical and sustainable meat. But for me it’s something to aspire to, for ethical reasons that are both religious and secular.

(also at Feministe)

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