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“I want Marcus Mariota back”

[ 4 ] August 5, 2015 |

I wish my children were as thoughtful as this young man:

And here’s Marcus’ response.



[ 65 ] August 5, 2015 |

Frankly, I’d have been a bit disappointed in Philadelphia if HitchBot had made it out alive.

Canadians made hitchBOT, which is to say that they crudely assembled a broadly anthropomorphic heap of refuse and left it someplace for strangers to take care of for them. It traveled across Canada and Europe for some reason, experiencing nothing, doing nothing, being all the while nothing more than a loudmouthed freeloading bucket. Then it came to the United States, where it caught a richly deserved beating, just like Canada’s hockey teams do when they come here. I do not know what motivated this beating; if it was revulsion at the very notion of a smarmy Canuck trash can with the temerity to expect favors, that’s reason aplenty.


Sunday Book Review: Ghettoside

[ 16 ] August 2, 2015 |

This is a guest post by Joseph Ellis, assistant professor in political science at Wingate University. Follow him on twitter at @EstoniaEllis

Jill Leovy’s new book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, examines the rash of homicides that occurred in south Los Angeles – the area “south of the 10” freeway – in the 1980s, 1990s and into the early 2000s. Leovy asks a straightforward question: Why did this area experience such high homicide rates, and why have the victims of these homicides overwhelmingly been black? It is the sort of question we all ask ourselves at one time or another, knowing that provisional explanations involving racism, income inequality, and social and family structures play some role. But Leovy’s hypothesis is more straightforward: Blacks in Los Angeles have suffered disproportionately from a lack of effective policing.

The argument is deceptively simple. If black citizens had access to better policing, fewer crimes might be committed, and those crimes that were committed would result in arrests and imprisonments. When Leovy talks about policing she is not necessarily discussing problems like police brutality, which is why reading this book in light of the Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland-era of citizen-police relations is quite fascinating. Her argument rests on Max Weber’s basic tenant of state legitimacy, which says that states must “possess a monopoly on legitimate violence” within a given setting. Police officers should not only be the most powerful actors to wield legitimate force in a given community, but they also must follow up on criminal activity, in particular violent crime which results in death.

The Los Angeles police “south of the 10” haven’t effectively wielded force, and certainly weren’t good at solving crimes. This resulted in a borderline lawless environment in which street gangs could operate freely. Weber’s line should look familiar to any social scientist, but her inclusion of Weber in the text is a good reminder of what “good” states are able to do. This line of reasoning is seen in Samuel Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies, and Francis Fukuyama’s 2011 book, The Origins of Political Order, in which he by and large seems to lament his support of the Iraq War for the stateless environment it created.

The reason Leovy’s book is so important (and good!) is her reporting on the minutiae of life inside a south Los Angeles homicide precinct, and its subsequent description of life in the streets of L.A. in one of its most dangerous periods. As a L.A. Times reporter, she was able to embed herself among south Los Angeles detectives. This is where we meet John Skaggs, the neat, clean-cut, hard-working detective who drives Leovy’s story forward. We also meet another detective named Wallace “Wally” Tennelle, whose son, Bryant, is the unfortunate victim of an all-too-common gang shooting. Bryant Tennelle had no ties to gangs and was a good guy who worked several jobs, but was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Without giving too much away about the case (all of which can be found with an easy Google search now), Skaggs through hard work and determination, but in reality, just very basic detective work, is able to piece together the perpetrators in the Tennelle murder. One such example of this was when a younger detective went through months of receipts at a local hotel to find the one receipt that could destroy the alibi of one of the accused. After several days of what appeared to be hopeless work, the receipt was found, and the accused’s fate was clinched. The task was not intellectually challenging, but it was time-consuming, and it wasn’t the sort of work detectives had been known to do during the worst years of the violence.
Leovy does not want to give the impression, however, that other structural forces weren’t at play in south Los Angeles. She traces the historic nature of black-on-black homicides, and how dating back to the Jim Crow-era, black homicides (no matter the perpetrator) simply weren’t prosecuted by white district attorneys or investigated by white sheriffs. Moreover, in what is one of the most chilling moments of the book, one of the accused alleges Tennelle was shot most likely because he was black. It was assumed that a black man walking in south Los Angeles had to have some gang ties, and Tennelle was a good enough target for a young gangster to test their mettle and earn street cred.

Leovy’s book is an important read in the current climate, especially in trying to sort out what good policing and criminal investigation looks like. In Ghettoside, the best cops and detectives are those that show up, take short lunches, jot down good notes, follow-up on leads, and basically, treat people as humans. The majority of bad cops and detectives are not necessarily brutal, but just indifferent to the situation at hand. Black-on-black homicide is just a fact of life for these folks, and not wanting to be bothered is the main priority for this breed of law enforcement. The tension in understanding modern citizen-police relations – especially in black neighborhoods – Leovy rightly points out toward the beginning of the book. Young black men are excessively subject to police harassment for seeming petty offenses, but when the most violent and heinous offenses occur, that’s when the police are perceived to be most absent. Reconciling this discrepancy will go a long way to improving relations between police and the cities they patrol.

“I will profane your fucking remains, Lannister”

[ 40 ] August 1, 2015 |

Well this is some damn fine news.

Ian McShane will appear on the upcoming season of “Game of Thrones,” Variety has confirmed.

Details on McShane’s role are being kept under wraps, but he will play a key role in the season’s plot with a small amount of screen time, reports EW.

If I had to pick one character from the HBO oeuvre who could not only survive, but indeed thrive, in Westeros, it would be Al Swearengen.

IP in the TPP

[ 32 ] July 31, 2015 |

J-31 fighter prototype at the Zhuhai airshow. By 天剣2 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My latest at the Diplomat takes a look at some of the logics for why the US is pursuing a hard line on IP in the TPP:

One of the biggest ongoing arguments in the TPP negotiations (as far as we know, anyway) remains the question of how far the United States can push the other signatories to adopt its views on intellectual property law. The contentious points revolve around the ability to undertake criminal legal action against IP violators. “The U.S. wants the standards for damages to be very high, and to go beyond TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) obligations for injunctions and the destruction of infringing goods,” according to James Love of Knowledge Economy International. The United States has also pushed for increasing the ability of government to undertake criminal legal procedures against intellectual property infringers.

What’s at stake? The criminalization of IP infringement in a multilateral agreement would give the United States legal teeth for enforcing its preferred system of intellectual property protection across the world.

Wednesday Linkage…

[ 43 ] July 29, 2015 |

National Archives, via Foxtrot Alpha

While we contemplate trolls, let us devour links:

Foreign Entanglements: The Battle for Britain

[ 0 ] July 27, 2015 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, I spoke with Tony Cummings about his new book, The Battle for Britain: Interservice Rivalry between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, 1909-1940:


[ 86 ] July 26, 2015 |
Military power of NATO and the Warsaw Pact states in 1973.svg

“Military power of NATO and the Warsaw Pact states in 1973”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


Over at the National Interest, I run through some of the history of late-Cold War operational planning…

During the 1950s and 1960s, NATO and the Warsaw Pact agreed about two things regarding combat on the Central front. First, Warsaw Pact forces would quickly overrun NATO forces, achieving rates of advance across Western Europe that exceeded even those of World War II. Second, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would make plentiful use of tactical nuclear weapons, both to break up enemy formations and also to pave the way for advancing forces.

Both of these assumptions began to break down in the early 1970s. On the first, the increasing strength of NATO land forces (especially American and German) suggested that Western armies might have something more to hope for than reaching the English Channel ahead of the Russians. Second, both sides became skeptical that conflict would necessarily result in the use of tactical nukes.

Comments are a bit less entertaining this week.

Did Iranian Nukes Matter?

[ 38 ] July 24, 2015 |
Operation Crossroads Baker Edit.jpg

“Operation Crossroads Baker.” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A few years back, I made the case that Iranian nukes didn’t matter. I argued that all of the blathering notwithstanding, very few hawks cared much about the nukes, and the Iranians were unlikely to gain significant advantage from developing nuclear weapons even if they managed to pull it all together, and that an Iranian nuclear weapon was exceedingly unlikely to produce further proliferation. I made that argument because it was obvious to me, then, that Israel and the Gulf states were essentially indifferent to the Iranian nuclear program, and were much more concerned about the extent to which Iran could increase its influence across the region. I made this argument because I felt that journalists and analysts were dangerously overstating the importance of the weapons, with potentially serious consequences.

I got some pushback, but I think this is a good time to revisit that argument.

Who Cares About Iranian Nukes?

I think it’s become exceedingly clear over the last few months that US hawks, Israeli hawks, and the various Gulf states did not, and do not, care about the Iranian nuclear program. These groups have shifted, almost effortlessly, from whining about Iran achieving nuclear capability in “18 months,” to whining about Iran achieving nuclear capability after the sunset of the current inspection provisions in ten years. This isn’t even an accurate characterization of the deal, but that’s beside the point; the threat of a nuclear Iran has never amounted to more than a side-show for the hawks.

What the hawks want is indefinite militarized confrontation between the United States and Iran. From the perspective of Israel and Saudi Arabia, this is hardly irrational. Iran supports terrorist groups and other non-state actors that like to mess with the Saudis and the Israelis, and both the Saudis and Israelis would like to have the military capabilities of the United States at their disposal. Nor is it irrational for the Saudis and Israelis to believe that the US will come through with this kind of support; the entire GOP Presidential field (with the possible, partial exception of Rand Paul) seems committed to making it happen.

The nuclear program provided a convenient rhetorical focal point for this argument, for the same reason that WMD provided a focal point in the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The idea of nuclear weapons is scary; we have an emotional commitment to freaking out about nukes well beyond any operational or strategic utility that they offer. Bleating about how Iran will have nukes in less than 18 months (a claim that Israeli, US, and Saudi hawks have been reiterating since the 1990s) is an easy way of saying “hit those people hard” without the need for any careful strategic analysis.

Always the Right Time

This is why, for hawks, it is always the right time to strike Iran.  The Oren piece is useful in this regard.  No conceivable deal could achieve what Oren declares that he wants, but of course the point is that he doesn’t want a deal.  He, and other hawks, want the constant threat of US military action, in order to reassure our allies that we will always be prepared to bomb their enemies. There is no conceivable set of nuclear concessions that could make Michael Oren (or Doran, or Kroenig, or Lake, or Kristol, or Cotton, et al ad nausuem) pleased with this deal, because they want military confrontation based on other Iranian foreign policy behaviors.  They’ve known, for quite some time, that the Iranian nuclear program actively detracts from Iran’s ability to pursue its national security goals, both in terms of sucking up resources, and in drawing international sanctions.

But while Iran’s other behaviors are irritating, they don’t have the same resonance for the United States as the nuclear program.  And for someone who really wants a semi-permanent guarantee that the United States will threaten to bomb Iran, only nukes work, even if nukes aren’t the central concern.  As Fred Kaplan has noted, the really big problem for Israeli, Saudi, and US hawks is that the deal might work, that Tehran might take nukes off the table, and the Iran might reintegrate itself back into the community of nations.

What the Deal Accomplishes

Don’t read the above as an indication that I think the deal was pointless, or that the negotiators on either side did a poor job.  The central accomplishment of this deal, assuming it survives ratification in the various legislative organizations it has to sort its way through, is to sideline hawks on every side.  American hawks lose their most convenient talking point for war.  Israeli hawks lose their most useful rhetorical tool for browbeating the United States.  Iranian hawks lose the nuclear options.  This is the real threat that the hawks see, and it’s why they hate the deal so much.

And let’s be clear; whatever Iran does with the sanctions relief, including a conventional military buildup, is almost certain to produce, on balance, less human misery than an Iran that becomes “North Korea plus oil.” Nukes wouldn’t get Tehran much in the way of negotiating leverage, but they would provide a constant excuse for hawks on either side to agitate for conflict. The social and rhetorical effects of nuclear weapons have always vastly exceeded their military or strategic utility. The negotiators in both Iran and the P5+1 understood this, and worked hard to produce an accord that would remove the most effective tool that the hawks on either side had for bringing about war.

The Dangers

And so in some sense, Bibi Netanyahu got the deal he deserved.  He hoped that shrieking endlessly about the Iranian nuclear program would produce either war, or an indefinitely militarized relationship between Washington and Tehran.  Unfortunately for Bibi, people listened to what he said, rather than what he meant. To bring us back to the top, does this mean it was OK for journalists and analysts to go along with the project of vastly overstating the importance of nuclear weapons?  There’s certainly an argument to be made that letting the hawks hang themselves was worthwhile.  I don’t think you have to look very far to find the dangers of this argument, however. If we currently had a President a bit more to the hawkish side than Barack Obama, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, or if the Iranian hawks had demonstrated more strength, then the misconception that Iranian nukes matter could have led to a dreadful outcome.  We’ve seen it before.


Battleship Battles!

[ 11 ] July 23, 2015 |

And now I’m making lists of battleship-related things!

Although eventually supplanted by the submarine and the aircraft carrier, the battleship took pride of place in the navies of the first half of the twentieth century. The mythology of of the battleship age often understates how active many of the ships were; both World War I and World War II saw numerous battleship engagements. These are the five most important battles of the dreadnought age.

I generally recommend that folks read the comments at the National Interest, mostly for the entertainment value. In this case, you’ll find indignation and astonishment that I did not include the Battle of Surigao Strait. People are idiots; a scrum in which six battleships participate in the execution of a single, battered dreadnought doesn’t make the cut for reasons that should be obvious if you read the Battleship Book…

Tuesday Tuesday…

[ 16 ] July 21, 2015 |

Some links for your pleasure…


Iran and the Arms Export Game

[ 8 ] July 18, 2015 |
Iran Air Force Grumman F-14A Tomcat Sharifi.jpg

Iran Air Force Grumman F-14A Tomcat by Shahram Sharifi – Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.

My latest at the Diplomat takes a look at how Russia and China may compete for the Iranian arms market.

What does Iran need? Pretty much everything. Thirty years of sanctions and war have left the Iranian military with an arsenal of obsolescent weapons. The Iranians have done good work in a few areas, but the country simply lacks the size, technology, and market access to successfully develop an autarkic defense industry.

In the past, Iran has acquired weapons from both Russia and China (as well as the United States and others). We can expect this behavior to continue in the future. Iran offers one of the first, and potentially most important, battlegrounds in the emerging arms export competition between Moscow and Beijing.

But also read this, which has some detail on how the accord affects the arms embargo. Long story short, we’re looking at five years for the big effects to kick in.

That is, the UN arms embargoes will be terminated along with all other, nuclear-specific embargoes. Iran gets to claim that all UN sanctions were removed on Implementation Day.

But here is the clever part. An apparent copy of the proposed UN Security Council Resolution has been leaked to the press. It will terminate the previous Iran sanctions, but also impose a new regime that will retain certain restrictions, including the arms and ballistic missile embargoes for five and eight years, respectively. These new (but really continuing) restrictions come in a separate “statement” (which the UNSC requires all states to comply with) and actually take the form of permitting trade—but only with the advance, affirmative permission of the UNSC. In effect, this amounts to a ban where the UNSC can grant exceptions in advance on a “case-by-case” basis, and the West can use its veto to block any transfers it does not like. The West gets to claim that arms and ballistic embargoes will stay in effect for years after Implementation.

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