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From Colony to Superpower: 4.2

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Reading Herring has made Erik irritable:

I think I am just more outraged by this period in American foreign policy than Rob. Rob was able to focus on a lot of important issues that I didn’t much explore–normalization of relations with Britain, probably a slightly more traditional discussion of the Monroe Doctrine than I gave, etc. Perhaps this is how you survive as a defense scholar–you have to suppress the outrage. Everything Rob says is important, but I can’t get past the revolting ideological foundations of American foreign relations (and perhaps of the nation itself), the racism and hypocrisy of our interactions with other nations, the violence we used, the self-serving justifications, the belief that we were and are expressing God’s will.

Every bad thing about U.S. foreign policy today has its roots in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I’d like to think that Bush was an aberration. But the more I read, the less I think that. Bush was expressing fundamental tenets of American ideology, at their extremes perhaps, but there’s a reason so many supported him, even in 2004. They would have still supported him, at least until the economic crisis, if he was winning in Iraq. It would have been onto Iran with significant public support. Without an unlikely rejection of national ideology and mythology, I have little reason to hope that some other president in the next 20 years will ride that J.Q. Adams-Reagan-Bush horse into power and again try to fulfill our national destiny by running roughshod over the world.

Meh. I would say that it’s academic distance that slows the boil, but I’m not sure that’s quite it. Pretty much every country has its own story of exceptionalism, and its own narrative of a relationship with God, and its own history of how these have interacted to horrible effect. And it wasn’t American exceptionalism that drove Tony Blair to join the crusade into Iraq. That isn’t to excuse the behavior of the US then or now, but simply to place it in context; I suppose maybe that is rather the academic distance talking. And so, I have trouble finding Erik’s outrage in my own reading of Herring.

I also think there’s a problem with asserting that there’s only a single narrative to America’s approach to the world; this would be the “Adams-Reagan-Bush” approach that Erik alludes to. This isn’t to question whether John Quincy Adams would have favored the war in Iraq, because such a question can’t make any sense. Rather, it’s to reinforce that many of the important foreign policy questions that have faced the United States have produced vigorous, often bitter debate. Becoming familiar with these debates (the big differences between Clay and Adams on the proper US attitude towards the Latin American republics, for example) is one of the reasons we read books like From Colony to Superpower. Even when these debates don’t structure the political landscape (as they did in 1798, 1950, or 2002) they still exist within the foreign policy elite, the general public, and the hierarchy of the political parties. It’s kind of interesting, then, to watch as Monroe and Adams give up on certain elements of the idea of American exceptionalism (the hostility to the forms of traditional diplomacy, for example), and then watch Jackson (and even more so, Polk) return to them.

To change the subject a bit, it’s also somewhat interesting to think about how the United States interacted with the Latin American republics and the states of the Far East in the absence of any information about them. Diplomats dispatched to South American capitols did not have the benefit of Wikipedia, after all; in this context, it’s probably less than surprising that Americans managed to irritate and insult their hosts. Given the number of times European diplomats managed to direly insult Americans in Herring’s narrative, I’m guessing that such gaffes were quite more common in the early diplomatic service than they are today, and perhaps also a bit more excusable as a lack of information, rather than as evidence of American bluster and parochialism.

Tomorrow, on to Polk…

Morning Piracy Round-Up

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Douglas Burgess argues that piracy is, in a legal sense, the same as terrorism. Galrahn correctly argues that this formulation produces more questions than it answers. John Burnett argues that the answer to Somali piracy is to take active steps to return the ICU to power.

Noonan Staggers into a Point…

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

I look forward for weeks to the moment each year when, in National Security Policy, I can hold forth on the stupidity of having both a Department of Homeland Security and and Department of Defense.

Brought to you by Joe Lieberman, of course. We should change DoD back to War, or at least “Imperial Affairs” or something.

West Bank Pogroms

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

Olmert is right; the settlements are poison to Israel.

Noam Arnon, a settler who lives in Hebron, said that with the eviction, Barak was destroying not only his Labor Party, but the State of Israel. Other protesters at the evacuation said the decision not to allow Jews to buy property in Hebron reminded them of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. According to prominent settler rabbi Dov Wolpe: “The fathers will avenge the eviction of the sons.”

See also Dan Levy. And if you don’t believe that, then try Marty Peretz.

This isn’t Right…

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

This op-ed lists William Ayers as the author of “Fugitive Days” and “Race Course”, but not of “Dreams of My Father”; that can’t be right…

Beutler BH

[ 0 ] December 6, 2008 |

I didn’t even have to get shot to get on Bloggingheads…

The Human Button

[ 0 ] December 5, 2008 |

I can’t recommend highly enough the BBC Radio program “The Human Button,” which explores the human element of the British nuclear deterrent. The program interviews a number of former government officials and military officers, from Secretary of State for Defence Denis Healey to bomber pilots and submarine commanders. The most interesting parts involve the “inherently incredible threat” critique of deterrence theory, which questions whether or not decision-makers up and down the chain of command would ever actually push the button, even in the case of a nuclear attack. Fascinating bits include:

  • An interview with Lord Denis Healey, who indicated that he would not have ordered nuclear retaliation against the Soviet Union, even if a Soviet attack had destroyed the UK. He had to keep this secret during exercises, in order to keep his job.
  • An old interview with Prime Minister James Callaghan, who indicated that he would have retaliated, even if the UK had already been destroyed.
  • A discussion of the “Letters of Last Resort” which are handwritten by each Prime Minister upon ascension to office. Kept in a safe in each of the Royal Navy’s four ballistic missile submarines, the letters were to be opened and read if the UK was destroyed by nuclear attack before the PM could give an order to the nuclear forces. The letters (which of course would have been written prior to whatever crisis precipitated the attack), advised the submarine commander to undertake one of four actions; retaliate, not retaliate, use his own judgment, or turn over his command to Australian or American authorities.

In any case, take a listen; the program will likely be up for only a limited amount of time.

Hat tip to Jon.

[ 0 ] December 5, 2008 |

Friday Cat Blogging… Starbuck

Indian Nuclear Force

[ 0 ] December 5, 2008 |

Speaking of nuclear deterrence, check out this report from Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen on Indian nuclear capabilities. Brief summary; India currently has 50-70 operational warheads, and its only reliable delivery systems are fighter-bombers and short range ballistic missiles. However, India’s MRBM (medium range ballistic missile), IRBM (intermediate range), and SLBM (submarine launched) development programs are sufficiently advanced that it will probably have all three capabilities within the next ten years. India may also shortly have nuclear capable cruise missiles.

Mutton Chops of Change?

[ 0 ] December 5, 2008 |

I think we can all agree that this is the most disappointing moment so far in the Obama transition. Richardson’s beard-cleansing is a clear sign that the team being assembled President-elect has no intention of bringing genuine change to the executive branch; Obama’s expressions of regret are simply not persuasive but are, rather, merely ironic postures of sincerity that reflect poorly on his ability to treat vital issues with the gravity they deserve. The nomination of Eric Holder for AG was, at the time, a step in the right direction, but it was always doomed to be an unmemorable successor to, say, the modified kaiserbart sported by John Bolton. Obama needed a strong follow-up to Holder. Richardson let him, and us, down.

Only Barack Obama can fix the mess now. It’s been nearly a century since an American president sprouted facial hair; the Curse of Taft has hung over the nation like a poisoned miasma since March 4, 1913. President Obama doesn’t necessarily have to revive the French Fork or the Chin Curtain, but an Old Dutch or a Hulihee would make an enormous difference.

Shifting the Boundaries of the Acceptable

[ 0 ] December 4, 2008 |

Loomis, in reference to a post at the NYT’s green blog:

After taking Bank of American executives on a helicopter tour of mountaintop removal sites, the NRDC convinced the bank to stop funding such projects. In an atmosphere where Bush is implementing all sorts of new rules allowing for mountaintop removal to expand and dump its soils into rivers and creeks around southern Appalachia, new, aggressive strategies are necessary. This is such a reprehensible practice and the only way it survives is because nobody sees the incredible damage to the landscape it causes. If you can take away the funding for these projects by exposing people in power to these hellish operations, you can go a long ways toward putting a stop to it.

On a slightly different topic, it’s nice to see that the anti-transit ideologues in the Bush administration can no longer strike fear into the hearts of men, thus allowing the Silver Line to go forward:

State and airport officials have been careful to temper their enthusiasm about the project’s chances for approval because it came so close to extinction early in the year. Their caution also reflects the widely held view that politics and ideology played a role in the project’s problems within the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Transportation. Leaders in Virginia have sought to avoid alienating administration officials who didn’t believe in the value of such an enormous public investment in transit… Moran said the national credit crisis probably helped the project’s chances, because it “dried up” interest among private purchasers who had been eyeing the toll road. “But more importantly,” he said, “the ideologues in the administration have given up.”

Bombay or Mumbai?

[ 0 ] December 4, 2008 |

Ezra Klein and Tim Fernholz are having some fun kicking around Christopher Hitchens argument that we should defiantly refer to the city currently known as Mumbai as Bombay. See also Isaac Chotiner. When you’re siding with Hitchens against Klein you should probably be careful, but I think, at a minimum, the issue is a bit more complex than Hitchen’s critics suggest (a common feature of controversies cultural and religious issues in India). Klein, relying on Wikipedia, notes that Mumbai has a long history of the name in the local language of Marathi, and Bombay is the colonial name of the city. Klein makes the mistake, I think, of focusing on the history of the names, but not the specific historical context of the name change itself. Why and how it was done might be important in our evaluation. Chotiner sums up two positions succinctly:

And if a democratically elected government wants to institute a name change, then it seems like the rest of us should “go along” with the decision. On the other hand, it does seem wrong–and even perverse–to accept something that was done in large measure to make Muslims (and non-native Hindus) feel unwelcome.

Procedurally, the Mumbai name change is a lot less problematic than, say, Burma to Myanmar (as Kevin Drum notes). But we shouldn’t only evaluate on procedure.

In his excellent book The Multiculturalism of Fear (amazon, PDF of the first chapter) Jacob Levy defends a theory of multiculturalism that draws on Judith Shklar’s notion of a “Liberalism of Fear” to supplement the much more common liberalism of rights. Shklar’s theory is in many ways pessimistic, as is directs us to focus on government’s dangerous capacity to serve as a conduit for cruelty. The renaming of Bombay to Mumbai may express a democratic majority’s will, and it may not in itself violate anyone’s rights, but what we know about the connection between cruelty, disrepect, and violence, especially in the context of a country with such a history of religious violence, should give us pause. Levy:

[T]he Hindu nationalist government of Bombay has changed the name of that city to Mumbai, a change which is commonly understood to reassert the city’s identity as Hindu and Maharashtri at the expense of its recent history as cosmopolitan and pluralistic. ‘Mumbai’ is arguably a more accurate rendition of the city’s precolonial name than is ‘Bombay,’ and the change is publicly defended as a rejection of colonialism. Although it is an assertion of Hindu dominance, it is not as overtly religious a name as Providence, Rhode Island; Corpus Christi, Texas; or Los Angeles or San Francisco, California. If there is something wrong in the name change, it cannot simply be that it violates the separationist requirements of a liberal secular constitution….The name Mumbai is an ongoing taunt in a society in which violence along religious lines has been all too common. The multiculturalism of fear refuses to say to Bombay’s non-Hindus that they should be content because, after all, none of their property has been taken, none of their liberties infringed. The government intended to humiliate them, and the multiculturalism of fear is willing to say that they have been wronged thereby. (Multiculturalism of Fear, pp. 28-29)

That Hitchens is a neo-imperialist who hates religion with a blinding rage cannot be doubted by the sane. Nevertheless, he’s stumbled onto a legitimate concern here. I currently take no position on what we in the west should refer to Mumbai/Bombay as, but the question is a fair bit more tricky. Using the power of government to humiliate and make unwelcome an often persecuted minority isn’t something to be sanguine about simply because the symbolic act has a strong basis in History.