Subscribe via RSS Feed

From Colony to Superpower XX: And Now We Come to the End

[ 0 ] May 18, 2009 |

This is the 20th and final chapter in the series on George Herring From Colony to Superpower. that Erik Loomis and I have embarked upon. The twentieth chapter runs from roughly the end of the first Gulf War until about 2007. The world that faced Clinton and the second George Bush was very different than that which his Cold War predecessors had to deal with. Unfortunately, neither Clinton nor Bush developed practical policies for managing and maintaining US hegemony. Clinton muddled through with varying levels of effectiveness, while the Bush administration developed a coherent ideology of the United States’ place in the world that had disastrous effect when put into practice. For better or worse, the United States still lacks a practicable vision of what it wants the world to look like, not to mention any reasonable conception of how best to press that vision forward.

Bill Clinton was woefully unprepared to handle foreign policy when he became President. That his successor was a major disaster in spite of having an experienced cabinet shouldn’t obscure this; Clinton had little interest and less experience in foreign affairs when he became President in 1993. His National Security Advisor is supposed to have said “Bill Clinton was elected for domestic policy. Our job is to keep foreign policy away from him.” Still, it’s hard to point to clear, enduring missteps that the administration took during its first term. Clinton handled North Korea as well as could have been hoped, and certainly better than his successor. He bears some responsibility for the disaster in Somalia; his predecessor left a bit of a mess, but Clinton didn’t improve the situation. Clinton didn’t have any very clear ideas of how to handle Iraq, but then at that time no one did; the general assumption was that Saddam Hussein couldn’t maintain control for an extended period of time. US intervention in Bosnia turned out more or less positively, leaving space for both interventionists and non-interventionists to complain. Russia policy is perhaps the one area in which Clinton’s fumbling may have had enduring effect, but again, it’s unclear what the alternatives to strongly supporting Yeltsin were. Clinton could have said no to NATO expansion, but given uncertainty about long-term Russian intentions, I think that the inclusion of Eastern Europe was defensible.

Over time, Clinton got better at the practice of foreign policy, and adopted a certain vision of liberal internationalism. There may be enduring questions about the wisdom of the intervention in Kosovo, but maintaining the alliance during the war was a diplomatic accomplishment. Clinton’s Israel/Palestine policy also left much to be desired, but given his successor it probably represented the last, best chance for a peace settlement. The lasting error of the second half of the Clinton administration may have been the steady rhetorical surrender to the foreign policy of neoconservatism. On Iraq in particular, Clinton ceded the ideological ground on deposing Saddam Hussein while retaining the practical control over the decision for war. This would have devastating consequences during the administration of his successor, as Clinton’s surrender undercut the ability of the Democratic Party to put up serious resistance to Bush’s march to war.

Herring gives as cogent and reasonable an explanation for intervention in Iraq as I’ve seen. Ideology, fear, political power, and oil were all drivers, and they weren’t mutually exclusive. Herring doesn’t waste time singing the praises of Colin Powell; Powell decided, in the end, that the United States really had reached the end of its options with Iraq, and the war was preferable to the status quo. Indeed, Herring doesn’t have very much to say about Powell, relative to the other members of the cabinet. He reminds us that the war was a bad idea conducted with great ineptitude and a deep lack of seriousness. In the end, almost no one got what they had wanted.

Curiously, Herring suggests that the Bush administration does represent a serious break with previous American foreign policy practice in its preference for preventive wars. I find this interesting because Herring has, in the full narrative, suggested that the discontinuities of US foreign policy over time aren’t that discontinuous at all. In particular, he has argued that a certain vision of American exceptionalism has always prevailed ideologically, and that this has had predictably policy effect over the centuries. In this context, it’s interesting that he sees Bush as a major discontinuity. One possibility is that this book took a very long time to write, and accordingly it would have been difficult to work in a full appreciation of how much a shift the Bush administration represented in the full narrative of the book.

A bit more to come in terms of general wrap up…

The Reverse Nurenberg Defense

[ 0 ] May 18, 2009 |

The Editors sum up the state of play:

It’s funny that when torture was all the fault of poor, ugly hillbillies of the sort David Brooks writes about in his Adventure Stories for Young Aristocrats, we had to throw the book at the evil-doers. Now that important figures in Washington have admitted to directly ordering more and worse, however, the question of even investigating whether some sort of crime may perhaps have taken place is fraught with all sort of beard-tugging brain-twisters which no man can untangle, even with the help of modern computer technology. How can we investigate if we don’t know all the facts? How dare we enforce laws against things which might possibly be permissible in some highly artificial thought experiment? What if ‘24′ is FOR REALS?!? These are the sorts of questions which need to be shrugged at for 50 billion news cycles before we can even think about OH MY GOD A SHARK ATE A WHITE LADY AT HER WEDDING!!!!! We’ve got what amounts to a reverse Nuremberg defense, where Bush administration officials are let off the hook because they were only giving orders. I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.

Brutally depressing, yet true. Although it must be noted that if you stipulate that torture has a 100% chance of stopping millions of deaths and also stipulate that all other methods will have a 0% chance and stipulate that we have perfect advance knowledge of all of this then torture is a great thing and how could you be the kind of immoral deontologicist who would say otherwise?!?!?!?!?!?!?

More on Abortion and Public Opinion

[ 0 ] May 17, 2009 |

From John Sides. To recapitulate, there’s no reason to believe that there’s been a significant change in public opinion, and legal-with-marginal-restrictions — the Casey compromise — continues to pretty clearly be the most politically popular option (although it is certainly, from my perspective, not the optimal policy option.)

Supreme Court Darkhorses

[ 0 ] May 17, 2009 |

Totenberg has a list.

Was Slappy Tipping Pitches?

[ 0 ] May 17, 2009 |

Partially making up for the inept review they commissioned for the Roberts book, The Times examines the data and finds that it’s highly implausible. (At the very least, if he was doing it it didn’t seem to have any effect.) Given how weak Roberts’s sourcing is, as much as I’d love to find a pretext for giving him a lengthy suspension I’d have to say that for me that’s that. [Via]

Droning

[ 0 ] May 17, 2009 |

It’s hard to disagree with David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum on the drone issue:

Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do.

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

I don’t doubt that the use of drones has resulted in significant attrition of Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Moreover, it’s not quite right to say that for every “Al Qaeda #2″ we kill another pops up; killing individual terrorists, especially those with significant training and experience, does reduce the effectiveness of the organizations. But it seems to me that the drone war by necessity has a steep down curve in terms of effectiveness. The first raids may be successful, but over time individual terrorists become more careful, develop alternative methods of communication, and shield themselves with ever greater numbers of civilians. As time goes by, you’re killing terrorists successively lower on the rung with progressively more limited intelligence.

Doesn’t seem like a win, especially given the irritation it produces among the Pakistani population. At an intel talk last semester at Patterson, a speaker suggested that the drone strategy had been fairly successful in culling Al Qaeda leadership. Someone from the audience asked whether drone strikes in Ireland (not to mention Boston) in the 1980s would have been an effective way of dealing with the IRA. I think it’s a hard point to argue; it’s easy for me to imagine the IRA turning each strike (and each civilian death) into a fundraising and recruitment bonanza in Ireland and the US. The situation with Al Qaeda is a bit different in that the IRA had less far reaching aims and was more popular in its target population, but nevertheless the analogy carries some weight.

Zhao Ziyang

[ 0 ] May 17, 2009 |

This should prove remarkably interesting; a Zhao Ziyang recorded memoir of his CCP tenure during the 1980s has been smuggled out of China and is being published:

But in this long, enforced retirement, it turns out, Mr. Zhao secretly recorded his own account, on 30 musical cassette tapes that were spirited out of the country by former aides and supporters, of his rise to national power in the 1980s, his battles with the old guard, and his alliance and tussles with Mr. Deng as he loosened Soviet-style controls and helped put China on a path to the dynamic economic power it has become today.

Mr. Zhao also tells how he was outmaneuvered during the lengthy student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in the spring of 1989, setting up his ouster shortly before the military crackdown on June 4 of that year.

We can expect that the account will be self-serving, and that Zhao will paint himself as critical to the process of economic reform and as a lonely voice against violence in 1989. Both of those are to some extent true, but I doubt that Zhao will tell the whole story. Still, any account of the inner workings of the CCP during the 1980s will shed light on the leadership debates and processes that shaped the modern PRC.

Almost Done in Sri Lanka

[ 0 ] May 17, 2009 |

The government is on the verge of crushing the last remnant of the Tigers in Sri Lanka. The military defeat of the Tigers won’t exactly solve the political issues in Sri Lanka, as the Tamil minority continues to have serious, legitimate grievances with the government. Those grievances may eventually result in the development of a new insurgent organization, or in the re-emergence of the Tigers organization from its base in the diaspora. Organizational dynamics matter, however, and the idiosyncratic set of strategies that the Tigers used probably won’t be replicated. These strategies included a focus on maritime power and suicide attacks. Hopefully, the latter will not be a primary tactic of any future Tamil politico-military strategy. The former probably will be, if only because of the dependence of any Tamil insurgency on support from the disapora in southern India. The Tigers are one of the few insurgent organizations in history that would have won the applause of Alfred Thayer Mahan.

War has been given a chance; I suspect that Edward Luttwak is smiling. People will occasionally suggest insurgencies don’t often lose, but that’s not quite right. Governments often fail to win, but usually because they fail to address the underlying causes of an insurgency, rather than failing to crush the insurgent organizations themselves. Moreover, insurgency is an incredibly expensive way to achieve political goals even when successful.

Steroids, performance, and evidence

[ 1 ] May 17, 2009 |

Moralistic hand-wringing about steroids is frequently accompanied by somewhat extravagant claims about the dramatic impact they have/had on individual player performances and the game itself. In the thread below, we get this from IB (who generally manages to avoid drug war moralism about steroids in baseball):

1) Steroids pretty clearly give a bigger performance boost than speed. To wave one’s hands and say we can’t know this for sure seems intentionally obfuscatory to me. I agree that admitting this doesn’t, in and of itself, tell us what to do about steroids in baseball. But that’s all the more reason to be suspicious of arguments that seem to be based on pretending it isn’t the case.

I have no idea whatsoever what impact, if any, speed had on performance, so for all I know I might agree with this post. Nevertheless, I confess to being entirely unaware of what the persuasive case for steroids’ substantial impact on player performance is. This isn’t denial that such an impact might exist; such claims are well within the realm of plausibility. But I’ve never seen anything approaching compelling evidence for it. I’ll also concede that gathering evidence about whether it exists or not is remarkably difficult, given our lack of reliable data about who was using steroids and who was not. So the following is offered in part as an effort to convince IB I’m not being intentionally obfuscatory, and in part as a plea for better evidence in favor of this proposition, if it does or even can exist.

The first type of argument for the proposition involved the tilt toward offense in the offense/defense balance beginning in 1987, retreating for a couple years, and coming into force in the 1990’s. But offense/defense balance changes all the time for all kinds of reasons, and now, in the wake of Clemens, people are claiming it’s self-evident that steroids can substantially improve pitcher performance as well, rendering the original claim incoherent.

But the bulk of evidentiary claims amount to hand-waving in the direction of players with unusual career paths who’ve been tied to steroid use. This is useless as evidence because some players have career paths that are unusual. It’s akin to saying that because you guessed the number between 1 and 10 I was thinking of, you must be psychic. And employed in a haphazard manner, it’s deeply susceptible to confirmation bias. Since a master-list of steroid users and non-users can’t be had, we can’t test whether steroid users were more likely to have particular kinds of unusual career paths than non-users. Useful possible evidence would begin with an examination of the extent and frequency of deviations from standard career paths in the steroid era vs. other eras, with particular attention to late-career spikes. If these kind of unusual career paths were occurring at a notably higher rate during the steroid era, we’d have some solid but not conclusive circumstantial evidence for the claim. If someone has actually designed such a study, which seems doable for a competent sabermetrician, I’m not aware of it.

Weirdly, this same reasoning is sometimes used with players who have not been linked to steroid use: Nolan Ryan in previous comment thread on this subject, Brady Anderson’s 50 HR year, etc. In these cases, the evidentiary claim is hilariously circular–the unusual career path is evidence of steroid use, the steroid use, knowledge of which is adduced from nothing but an unusual career path, is said to have caused the career path aberration. The problems here are too obvious to belabor.

A variety of other claims pop up from time to time, such as “it must do something if so many of the players were doing it” which would work equally well as evidence for the effectiveness of various superstitious rituals successfully improving performance. I don’t find it all particularly implausible that large number of people convince themselves that something is causing a substantial change when it’s not. The placebo effect if very real, and Enzyte, I’m told, has millions of loyal consumers. We also see people focus on certain player’s changes in physique. But Baseball players are not offensive linemen, and their success doesn’t necessarily come from increased strength and muscle size. While this (whether steroid-aided or not) might improve some hitters power, it might mess with another’s swing or inhibit their defensive skills. Batting eye and bat speed are more important than bulk, and from what I understand there’s no medical reason to link steroids to improvements in either of those categories.

This is not a defense of quasi-defense of steroid use by baseball players. Since I’m not interesting in moralizing drug use and I have no good reason to consider myself a stakeholder with respect to steroid use by baseball players, it’s not really my business. But the social scientist in me rebels at being told that rejecting wholly unsatisfactory and unsystematic evidence makes me “intentionally obfuscatory” with regard to steroids effect of player performance.

….just looked up Nate Silver’s essay “What Do Statistics Tell Us About Steroids” in Baseball Between the Numbers. After dispensing with the “power spike” theory, he examines all the players, major and minor leagues, who were suspended prior to and after the suspension. The potential problems with this approach are manifest, but at least it gives us something. Position players saw a post suspension drop of .009 EQA, and pitchers saw a post suspension increase of .13 ERA. In other words, the change was in the ‘right’ direction for a steroids matter hypothesis, but only very slightly (and in for the pitchers, below the threshold of statistical significance). This doesn’t, of course, measure the possible effect of improved injury recovery, which might be particularly important for relief pitchers (allowing them to pitch more frequently). But as far as performance, this study suggests a minimal impact, and Silver correctly concludes it gives us no compelling reason to reject the null hypothesis.

Drug War Moralism Hits Rock Bottom

[ 0 ] May 16, 2009 |

Although the general assumption that today’s PEDs are the biggest threat to the Integritude of the Game Ever, much much worse than the ones Mickey Mantle used is to be expected at this point, Nicholas Dawidoff’s review of Selena Roberts’s A-Rod is pretty embarrassing for a couple reasons. I can’t take issue with Dawidoff’s unusually positive evaluation of the book per se — like Neyer, I’d only read it if someone paid me or made me, and I’m not sure about the former. (Maybe there are still people fascinated by the fact that some ballplayers of the 2000s used PEDs and shocked by the fact that professional athletes will sometimes have sexual relations with people other than their spouses. I sure hope I don’t get stuck talking to them at a dinner party.)

But a review should, at least, deal with the serious questions of reliability raised about a lot of Roberts’ implications. Perhaps Dawidoff has reasons for finding these allegations more credible than most reviewers have. But he just doesn’t address it; rather, he blandly treats speculations from single anonymous sources contradicted by on-the-record sources as the equivalent of stuff that Roberts has actually proven. (The fact that Roberts was a Times reporter and columnist makes this even more problematic, although at least it’s disclosed.) I’m prepared to believe anything about Slappy, but surely the reliability of evidence behind allegations is the kind of thing a review in the Paper of Record should deal with.

But that’s not the worst of it. Some drug war moralists I can at least rationally engage with. But wow:

Steroids have been the most serious blight in the history of the game because — unlike the gambling and cocaine scandals of the past — for more than a decade these drugs, acquired overseas in poor countries or from desperate AIDS patients (as Ms. Roberts and others have documented), fundamentally destroyed the integrity of competition.

Let me get this straight — literally throwing World Series games didn’t affect the “integrity of competition” the way that using PEDs anybody could have used did? Evidently, drug war moralism involves a lot of dumb and ahistorical arguments, but I don’t think this can ever be topped. Dawidoff isn’t a dumb guy — his Moe Berg book was actually good — so I guess this is just an example of drug war hysteria making people go off the rails. But wow.

A Couple of Patterson Points

[ 0 ] May 16, 2009 |

The Patterson School’s new summer reading list is out. I’ve recently finished the Kilcullen and the Bacevich, both of which are quite good; reviews pending. Also, David Wescott of Business Lexington has a column up about our recent pirate related policy simulation. On a related point, I just finished Martin Murphy’s Small Boats, Dirty Money, which is a fantastic primer on piracy and martime terrorism.

Home!

[ 0 ] May 16, 2009 |

I’m back from Seattle, after a week of blog abstinence broken only by some very minor comment maintenance. Thanks very much to Charli Carpenter, who filled in very capably. My Google Reader account currently has 917 new items…

Two points on comments: First, I’m a bit befuddled by the apparent influx of an army of trolls in my absence; I’ll be culling a bit when I have some time. Second, I was extremely disappointed by this comment thread, and in particular that one of my favorite regular commenters saw fit to mount his high horse and dismiss Charli as “a technician of empire” for making a set of entirely reasonable claims about airstrikes in Afghanistan. A blog is a community, and the well-being of the community depends on something like a contract between the bloggers, the regular commenters, and the occasional commenters/lurkers. Regular commenters incur some responsibility for civility, but more importantly they have a responsibility to behave as if the bloggers and the other regular commenters are acting in good faith. This means that you can’t simply denounce a blogger as “a technician of empire,” and thus unworthy of engagement, after a single post. At LGM we ban people because of arbitrary drunken whim; no one is safe. That said, consistenly treating the bloggers and other commenters as idiots who act in bad faith (and to be sure, I don’t think that the commenter in question has established such a pattern of behavior; far from it) is, in the fullness of time, likely to get you banned. This is what happened to The Fool, and what happened to Dr. Zen.

On a final note, I want to apologize in advance for *not* wading into comment threads as much in the future as I have in the past. Going forward, I simply won’t have the time to devote an entire afternoon/evening to having a long argument/discussion in comments. I’ve noticed that the need to fight the good fight in the comments has made me considerably more skittish about posting on a variety of topics; I’ve caught myself thinking a few times “I could post on that, but then I’ll have to spend all day and most of tomorrow on the comment thread.” This is unfortunate, because I think there’s considerable value to a good, long comment thread discussion. However, given that a) I simply can’t devote the same amount of time to the threads that I have in the past, and b) the belief that I need to intervene in comments is resulting in fewer posts, and in posts less worthy of serious comment, I think that I have to step back a bit. What this means is that, in the future, I’ll be less likely to defend my baseless assertions and faulty logic in the comment threads. Again, my apologies…

…Spencer has some further thoughts on the relationship between bloggers and commenters.