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Archive for July, 2009

Sunday Book Review: The Limits of Power

[ 2 ] July 12, 2009 |

This is the sixth installment of a seven part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. World of Nations, William Keylor
  2. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  3. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  4. Second World, Parag Khanna
  5. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  6. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich

Limits of Power
is Andrew Bacevich’s fourth book, and will almost certainly be his most popular. Bacevich’s argument can be characterized thusly: Americans have become addicted to empire, and to the material benefits that empire provides. The piper, however, needs to be paid; American hegemony cannot endure forever, and especially cannot be preserved on the cheap. He argues that, especially in the post-Cold War era, US foreign policy has been marked by a militarized approach to hegemony that has enjoyed relatively strong bipartisan support. The American pursuit of empire is now more at odds with the structure of the international system than it ever has been, and this has produced economic, political, and military crises for the United States. Bacevich is a bitter critique of both the strategic mindset that put the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the operational execution of the wars. While he clearly loathes the Bush administration and neoconservativism, however, he doesn’t Democrats or previous Republican presidents from his fire.

Bacevich makes clear his view that all Americans are implicated in American empire. While the fruits of empire may have been allocated unequally, hegemony has acted as the ultimate “tide that lifts all boats,” creating broad and deep benefits for labor, women, minorities, and so forth. As he puts it in a clever turn of phrase:

A proper understanding of contemporary history means acknowledging an ironic kinship between hard-bitten Cold Warriorss like General LeMay and left-leaning feminists like Ms. Friedan. SAC helped maked possible the feminine mystique, and much else besides.

This is a remarkably interesting claim. I’m sure that it’s partially true; hegemony and empire have served to improve the material standards of ordinary Americans in ways that are difficult to catalogue. At the same time, there are certainly elements of the process of empire that have so egregiously favored small interest groups over large that I wonder whether it’s entirely reasonable to lay the responsibility for empire, even in small portion, at the feet of Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem. To be clear, Bacevich isn’t an apologist for empire; he isn’t claiming that empire is justified because of the good that it has produced for all Americans. Rather, he’s arguing that the progress that much of the progress that Americans have (often correctly) congratulated themselves for has been enabled by empire, and thus bears some substantial moral and practical cost. Bacevich does not spare “conservatives” from critique, arguing that Ronald Reagan’s central contribution to American life was to enable American self-gratification. One of the more interesting takeaways from this argument is that bipartisan support for American empire is essentially unsurprising. Democratic representatives don’t vote to enable wars because they disagree with the base; they vote for wars because, at least in the short term, Democratic interest groups benefit from empire and from the national security state. While this may not show up in polling data, it does affect long term voting behavior. Voters who strongly oppose a particular war may nevertheless end up voting for a pro-war incumbent when that incumbent wins a local contract to build the weapons necessary to fight the war.

In his chapter on the political crisis of empire, Bacevich details the way in which the pursuit of hegemony has restructured the American political system. Since 1940, Bacevich argues, the United States has been in a condition of permanent national security emergency. This has enabled the executive to increase its power at the extent of the other branches of government, the Federal government to increase its power at the extent of the states, and government at all levels to increase its dominance over American private life. In the years after World War II, the United States has drifted from foreign policy crisis to foreign policy crisis, each purportedly more serious than the last, and each justifying a more substantial national security apparatus. The crisis of the post-Cold War era are notable only in their absurdity; the US is more secure now that it has been at any point in its history, but nevertheless jumps when North Korea sneezes. There is more than a whiff of antiquarianism here; mourning over the loss of the “old Republic” makes no more sense coming from Andrew Bacevich than it from Gore Vidal. America, as Scott is fond of saying, did not have a virgin birth. Moreover, while I think its clear that the pursuit of empire has had some redistributive effect on power in the American political system, it’s not quite the case that all, or even most, change in the system of American governance has been produced by the need for hegemony. The relationship between the state and the individual has changed all over the Western world over the past sixty years, and cannot entirely be laid at the feet of empire. Moreover, the “old Republic”, such that is was, had a set of problems that weren’t necessarily preferable to the ones we face today. Nevertheless, Dr. Bacevich paints a compelling “second image reversed” portrait, demonstrating how our foreign policy choices change our politics and restructure how we live.

Dr. Bacevich paid a high price for the maintenance of American Empire, losing his son in 2007 in Iraq. There’s no question that Limits of Power is an angry book, but to say that it’s angry doesn’t mean that it’s an unfocused tirade. At risk of sounding trite, reading the book brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino; it’s not difficult to imagine Walt Kowalski sharing many of Dr. Bacevich’s beliefs, while at the same time maintaining a deep core of loyalty to the United States. For the leftist reader, The Limits of Power represents a genuine conservative attempt to grapple with the problems of the national security state, and a deeply refreshing alternative to the bad joke that Republican foreign policy has become. Limits of Power is also relatively short, well written, and easy to read. There’s much to disagree with (from either a progressive or conservative perspective), but it’s certainly worth a read.


Even Worse Than Yoo Thought

[ 0 ] July 12, 2009 |

So, to be clear, Boalt Hall’s favorite tenured radical used procedural, legal, and factual errors…to justify torture and arbitrary executive power. (Often, for example, legislative provisions are ambiguous and have multiple reasonable interpretations. The claim that FISA didn’t apply to the executive branch does not qualify.)


It’s difficult to put into words how insanely deficient this legal “analysis” is. The entire point of FISA was to constrain the president’s ability to conduct warrantless surveillance for national security purposes. Prior to FISA, Title III already prohibited warrantless surveillance in the law enforcement context. FISA was intended to provide similar protections in the national security context. Not only did FISA make clear that it provided the “exclusive means” for conducting electronic surveillance, but, as the report points out, it has a provision that suspends its requirements for 15 days following a declaration of war, a clear indication that the statute was intended to apply in war time as well as peace time.

The Bush administration put together quite a rogue’s gallery, but John Yoo has to rank very near the bottom.


[ 0 ] July 12, 2009 |

"and I think he’s a very good player."

[ 0 ] July 12, 2009 |
Landon Donovan, on his English teammate, the latter of whom is admittedly the second best player on said team.
Oh, and England miraculously held out for a draw in the first test.  

"Jack Zduriencik managed to cure cancer, end world poverty, and bring peace to the middle east."

[ 0 ] July 12, 2009 |

As I said when I introduced myself here on LGM, I have been a fan of the Seattle Mariners since 1977.  Which means I’ve happily watched a lot of truly dreadful baseball, in a setting that perhaps only compared to the Stade Olympique for grimness.  I believe Scott has been to both, so at least he has a comparative framework from which to make such claims.

A commenter in reply to my cricket post yesterday wanted some analysis on the Yuni trade.  It’s all good according to the guys over at USS Mariner, whom I’ve been reading religiously before they were USS Mariner.  
BTW, England might just pull out a draw.  235-9 at the moment.
I was an early adopter of proper sabermetrics, but then it appealed to me automatically given my statistics (lite) training.  That’s how I think as a social scientist, and I’ve been a baseball fan all my life (first game: 27 April 1975, seventh birthday, Candlestick Park, Dodgers v Giants.  With my dad and my grand dad.  And, bonus, it was bat day).  The Mariners as an organization have been relatively late adopters of this new math.  So when I quote Dave Cameron over at USS Mariner in my title about the new regime, I couldn’t agree more.

You Get a T-72! And You Get a T-72!

[ 0 ] July 12, 2009 |

It turns out that the T-72s carried by the MV Faina (the Ukranian vessels that was seized and held by pirates for several months) weren’t destined for Kenya after all:

But one mystery lingered: the true destination of the Faina’s cargo. Kenya’s government said the weapons and munitions were for its military, but observers speculated that they were intended for the breakaway government of South Sudan.

With the aid of some satellite analysis, Jane’s Defence Weekly has the answer: The weapons were part of a series of weapons shipments bound for South Sudan. JDW Middle East/Africa editor Lauren Gelfand and Jane’s imagery analyst Allison Puccioni drew on extensive satellite imagery to track the movement of the T-72s from the port of Mombasa, Kenya; while Jane’s does not conclude definitively that the tanks from the Faina ended up in South Sudan, the analysis does show a pattern of tanks making their way north to Sudan. Jane’s also confirmed previous arms shipments from Ukraine.

Some brief thoughts:

  • I don’t know enough about the conflict in South Sudan to say what impact the delivery of the T-72s will have, but in general the purchase of major heavy weaponry by a sub-state actor can’t be regarded as a good thing for national stability. I also don’t fully grasp what it means that the Kenyans are willing to run interference for actors in South Sudan.
  • The ability of private civilians to use publicly available satellite images to track weapons shipments is one of the things which makes me doubt the “Saddam was about to escape his cage” arguments that are so common in pro-Iraq War circles. Such arguments typically run as such: Oil for Food corruption-perfidious Frenchmen-fully rearmed and hegemony threatening Saddam! The Underpants Gnomes would blush at the argument, but apparently it makes sense to neocons. Saddam would have needed to rebuild his hopelessly degraded conventional capability in order to threaten anyone, and even a decaying sanctions regime is likely to have remained robust where heavy conventional arms were concerned. Unless Saddam could someone sneak huge amounts of heavy, modern military equipment into the country without anyone noticing, rearmament seems pretty unlikely.
  • The fighter wing of Kenya’s air force apparently consists entirely of 25 F-5s. Now you know.
  • The Patterson School still needs a T-72.

Friendly Fire in South Ossetia War

[ 0 ] July 12, 2009 |

Via FP, a new independent Russian report indicates that three of the six Russian aircraft lost during the South Ossetia War were shot down by friendly fire. The report also suggests that cooperation between Russian ground and air forces was less than fruitful. While the Russian Army has denied the friendly fire allegations, I don’t find them particularly surprising. It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that the uncoordinated Georgian air defense “network” could shoot down six Russian aircraft, but it was certainly the most impressive element of Georgia’s military performance. That both the Georgians and Russians were less effective than advertised seems entirely plausible.

And here’s one thing that I don’t really understand about journalism:

But the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says losses sustained by the Russian side in just five days have led analysts here to question how Russian troops would fare against a bigger, better-equipped and better-trained enemy.

No shit? Did the BBC need to pay someone to come to the conclusion that the Russians would do less well against a “bigger, better-equipped, and better-trained enemy”?


[ 0 ] July 11, 2009 |

"There’s nothing wrong with losing. It’s the capitulation that is so embarrassing."

[ 0 ] July 11, 2009 |

This is a quote by one Michael F Watts, on the BBC web page, in response to the first innings of the first test match of the 2009 Ashes series.  I was going to blog a bit about cricket, English cricket, and the Ashes, but why bother?  I’ll leave you with my facebook status from Wednesday, when this test began: 

David Brockington notes that England won the toss in the first Test, which means it’s now all downhill.

Which was prescient when one considers that Australia responded to England’s pathetic 435 all out with a massive 674 for 6 declared.  England’s best hope is a lot of rain, and soon.  A draw is possible, however unlikely.

Each test match can last five days.  The Ashes features five tests during the summer.  As England lost the 2007-08 series 5-0, it promises to be a long, depressing summer in England.  As it usually is a long, depressing summer in England due to the weather, this only makes one reach for a drink first thing in the morning rather than waiting until the socially acceptable (in England) time of noon.
I can’t wait to be back in the PNW for two months, where I’ll watch the Mariners a few times, the Portland Beavers, and even the Eugene Emeralds in their final season at beautiful, old Civic Stadium.

Don’t Smoke ’em if You Got ’em?

[ 0 ] July 11, 2009 |

This is bullshit.  I’m thinking if there ever is a time when it is OK, permissible, socially acceptable, and indeed, preferable to smoke, it’s when you’re bloody getting shot at or bombed.

I say that as an unrepentant, happy smoker who has been a bitter and angry non smoker now for 4.5 weeks, so I may be biased and over-reacting.
Got a problem with that?

Carriers and Trident, or Body Armor?

[ 0 ] July 11, 2009 |

This is well out of my normal terrain, but a couple weeks ago a high profile commission reported on the future priorities of UK defense spending.  The commission, operating out of the Institute for Public Policy Research and led by a couple Lords (in this case Ashdown, the former LibDem leader and all purpose go-to guy, and Robertson, a former Defense Secretary) argued against big ticket items, such as the Trident nuclear deterrent and the two planned aircraft carriers.

There is a lot about this that is logical.  This island I live on is running a bit short on cash, the MoD is perennially underfunded, and stories are common that the soldier on the ground is under-equipped, (though see here for a counterpoint), to the point where it now may even be considered criminal under EU Human Rights law.  If more money can be shifted to offering these guys and gals better kit, then all the better.
However, it’s an open question, and well beyond my expertise (even when I fake it), as to whether or not the UK requires a nuclear deterrent, and I’m interested in hearing opinions on this matter.  On the carriers, I have a more emotional reaction: I grew up in a navy town (from which I understandably fled as soon as I could), Plymouth is a navy town, and FFS this is the Royal Navy we’re discussing.  Replacing their current three fake carriers with two that are almost real carriers makes sense in terms of both my emotional well being, and the admittedly far less important criterion of force projection.
That said, there’s not a lot of money floating around the UK these days (even though the Bank of England is trying to make up for that through the beautifully termed quantitative easing), and these are my tax dollars not at work.  It’s probably best to outfit the front line soldiers with proper kit than invest in big ticket items.
But what do I know?

“Maybe two or three visitors become contaminated every year”

[ 0 ] July 11, 2009 |

If the odds of contamination are that low, I’m pleased that I ultimately chose to spend my two months of holiday in the PNW for quality time with my better half, and not Chernobyl.

It was touch and go there for a while, however, and at only £95pp out of Kiev, seems like an excellent deal.  And I’ll leave for others the obvious jokes about glowing.
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