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Would Blowing Up Roki Tunnel Have Made a Difference?

[ 14 ] August 19, 2008 |

A lot of criticism of Georgia’s operational mistakes (as opposed to its basic strategic error) has focused on the failure to blow up Roki Tunnel, which is the only passable route between Russia and South Ossetia. I’m wondering, however, whether even an adeptly conducted offensive in South Ossetia that succeeded in destroying the tunnel would have prevented the Russian invasion. The Roki Tunnel is the only way into South Ossetia, but it’s not the only way into Georgia; the Russians delivered troops to Abkhazia by sea and by rail, and probably could have mounted a larger offensive through the region if they’d needed to. Closing the tunnel might have made it more difficult for the Russians, but the mismatch between the Russian and Georgian armed forces was so enormous that I doubt the Georgians could have held on. Indeed, liberating South Ossetia through Georgia, rather than through the Roki Tunnel, might have led to a much more destructive war.

On Biden

[ 90 ] August 18, 2008 |

I’m not going to put a lot of stock in markets that see Biden as the most likely nominee — they have Kerry at 9%, after all — but this does seem to be the consensus. And perhaps I’ve been buttered up by the fairly dismal alternatives being offered, but like Steve I find Biden a surprisingly decent option. At a minimum, he’s strongly preferable to Kaine or Bayh, infinitely preferable to Nunn or Hagel, and clearly behind (among vaguely viable candidates) only Sebelius and Reed.

Cohn has a good roundup of the strengths (most domestic policy, brains, legislative accomplishments, crucial role in the immensely important defeat of Bork) and weaknesses (gaffe prone, his botching of the Thomas hearings.) It is, I think, fair to note that a Delaware senator’s support for the bankruptcy bill is as inevitable as candidates in the Iowa caucuses supporting ethanol; I wouldn’t give Biden a pass, exactly, but Bayh cast the same vote with considerably less excuse. To the list of defects, though, I would add a lack of executive experience and his initial support for the Iraq (although, again, on the latter issue his problems are much less severe than Bayh’s.) On the other hand, while it might be a minor political liability, I think the old “plagiarism” charges are of little substantive significance — the idea of “plagiarism” in a context where nobody expects you to write your own words in the first place is nonsensical.

If I thought the VP choice should be determined by political considerations, I would pass; his penchant for saying silly things and hailing from a small, safe state would rule him out. Since I think the VP pick should be primarily substantive, however, I think he would be decent — he could play a constructive policy role comparable to Gore and is considerably more progressive than most of his assumed rivals for the job. He wouldn’t be at the top of my list, but of the InTrade top 3 he’s the best by a huge margin.

It’s More Like the Scottsboro Boys, Actually

[ 14 ] August 18, 2008 |

Scott recently pointed out that “when Lanny Davis is defending you it’s pretty much a dead certainty that you’re wrong.” This can’t be good news for Ted Stevens, whom Davis — apparently straight-faced — compares to the Duke Lacrosse players, Richard Jewell, and Steven Hatfill. There’s a shower of chocolate Yoo-hoo spewing through my nose as I type this, so forgive the mess; I suppose this is precisely the sort of Concern Troll vs. Straw Man cage match that Davis typically convenes, and I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who actually urged Democrats not to “politicize” the Abramoff scandal would enter a plea on behalf of someone who’s become a pinata for members of his own party. But pointing out that Lanny Davis is a wanker never really gets old, and this provides as good an opportunity as any to quote Wolcott’s canonical assessment of Davis from early 2006:

This is the sort of idiot we’re inflicted with, the perfect representative of the Beltway Democrat who cautions against politicizing anything remotely political for fear it might give David Broder a spot of indigestion. Imagine what the Newt Gingrich of the early nineties would have done if he had had something like this handed to him on a platter–he wouldn’t have sent it back to the kitchen. He would have worked it for everything it was worth, and more. But Beltway weenies are too timid and prissy to exploit a golden opportunity. Everyone knows the Abramoff scandal has “Republican” stencilled on every side of it and if you won’t/can’t use it to jump all over the Republican Party and the DeLay machine, what the hell are you even doing in the Democratic Party? As more details surface, the Abramoff cesspool is going to make the K-Street crowd and their Republicans on retainer look even worse than they do now, and here’s Davis waving the white cocktail napkin of surrender and urging preemptive pullback. Beltway Dems like Davis and the DLC crowd don’t want to politicize the Iraq war, or the Alito hearings, or the Katrina clusterfuck, or the NSA spying scandal; they shy away from every prospective fight and prevent any ongoing debate or controversy from gaining traction.

3700 Against Evan Bayh

[ 0 ] August 18, 2008 |

Not to be snarky or anything (Bayh is neither the worst nor the best VP choice available), but what lessons should be drawn from the fact that the 100000 Strong Against Evan Bayh Facebook group has, after a week, accumulated only 3753 members? Then again, as far as I can tell the biggest pro-Bayh group has only 155 members.

Still holding out for Wes Clark myself, although I’d wager that I’ll be holding out for a long, long time…


[ 11 ] August 18, 2008 |


Given the rank illegality of his attempts to stay in office, this would seem to be (at least in a narrow sense) a good thing. Spackerman, however, warns that “Just because Musharraf is out doesn’t mean things are going to get better. In fact, it’s a mistake to view any country, but specifically Pakistan, as the product of a single strongman.”

Olympic Prognostication

[ 9 ] August 18, 2008 |

Even if the US manages to beat out China for the most medals this year, I expect that China pretty much has a lock on the medal count for the next eight or so Olympiads.

Indeed, I’m so confident of that prediction that I’ve taken advantage of Blogger’s future post function to crow about it. Let’s just hope the monkey-cyborgs don’t take over the planet before September 1, 2040.

Sunday Book Review: World of Nations

[ 5 ] August 18, 2008 |

This is the sixth in a seven part series on the Patterson School Summer Reading List.

  1. In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce
  2. The Utility of Force, Rupert Smith
  3. Negotiating Change, Jeremy Jones
  4. Enemies of Intelligence, Richard Betts
  5. The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier
  6. A World of Nations, William Keylor

This year at Patterson, we decided to put a book on the list that covered what we felt was a “general knowledge” gap. Patterson accepts folks from a lot of different undergraduate departments, so the knowledge base at the beginning of the program is uneven. The students tend to have a solid grasp on current events, but not so much on history, or on international relations theory (beyond the plurality of political scientists). The summer reading list is normally populated by a combination of “popular” books on international politics and accessible academic works, which gives the students a familiarity with current debates (and “trendy” books) and an in depth knowledge of a couple issue areas, but not a broad understanding of the academic field or of the general history of the international system. So this year we assigned William Keylor’s A World of Nations, in an effort to solve the latter of these problems. We also decided to beef up the theoretical content in our flagship course, which should serve to get the students to more or less the same place.

It’s impossible to write an atheoretical book on international politics, and Keylor is explicit about his Realist sympathies. This is as evident in the choice of unit of analysis as in the analysis itself. Keylor is interested in what nations have done for the past 63 years, and privileges the nation-state over international organizations, social movements, multi-national corporations, and NGOs. However, he doesn’t overly indulge in the notions that all state behavior can be explained through power politics, or that what goes on inside a state matters little for its foreign policy behavior. This leaves an account that is in many ways limited, but that’s more than satisfactory on its own terms.

Keylor lays his account out regionally, rather than chronologically. This is a bit off-putting at times; we get to the collapse of the Soviet Union before the Korean War, for example. Like a good Realist, Keylor begins with the competition between the US and the USSR, and focuses as much on events in Europe (five chapters) as on events in the rest of the world combined (five chapters). There are some good reasons to complain about this focus, but he makes his priors clear; he believes that the superpower competition in Europe mattered more for the rest of the world than the rest of the world mattered for superpower competition. This is a defensible argument, if not one that everyone will agree with.

Nothing that Keylor wrote about particular historical episodes made me scream “Wrong! Wrong! Why are we reading this?”, which, I think, speaks well of what amounts to a history textbook. Nothing really leapt out at me as new, but that’s not surprising either. One intriguing thread in the story of superpower confrontation is how well Keylor makes clear the costs of Soviet competition with the United States. The USSR, eventually, found itself competing all over the world with a nation of vastly superior financial resources. This need to compete wasn’t driven purely by security concerns; there was no reason for the USSR to send a ton of money to Angola, or to spend as much as it did on Cuba, or to engage in a dozen other projects that meant little for its ability to win wars in East Asia and in Central Europe. Nevertheless, the Soviets found themselves bound up in competition in every region of the world, and not just against the United States. France, and the United Kingdom used their own considerable resources to pursue projects that, if they weren’t directly in service of US foreign policy aims, certainly ran counter to Soviet desires. With the reinvigoration of the German and Japanese economies, and the foreign policy shift of China to the West, this eventually meant that the Soviets were competing against just about everyone. This is not to say that the United States pursued a wise policy by pouring money into Africa or Latin America, but rather that the US was much, much more capable of bearing the costs of foreign policy errors than the Soviets were. The outcome, as they say, was predictable.

Scariest Headline Ever

[ 9 ] August 17, 2008 |

South Africa’s du Toit Fulfills a Dream Derailed

It took me a second to realize that the South African du Toit in question was not Kim du Toit, but rather an Olympic swimmer with an amputated leg. My first reaction was to wonder what horrible dreams Kim du Toit might have, and what terrors might be inflicted on the rest of us through their fulfillment.

The Winter War

[ 0 ] August 17, 2008 |

For some unfathomable reason I was reading the January 2006 issue of Military History today at the gym, and came upon a pretty good article about the Battle of Suomussalmi, centerpiece of the Winter War. The battle pitted two Red Army divisions against 3 Finnish regiments plus auxiliaries. I won’t go into too many details (check out the War Nerd), but the Finns ended up killing or taking prisoner 30000 Russians while suffering losses of less than a thousand. Moreover, they did so in a battle of maneuver, rather than through static defense.

The Russians eventually won the Winter War (all wars deserve such fine websites), but much more slowly and at much greater cost than they had expected. On the upside, the Russians learned that the Red Army was a disaster waiting to happen; on the downside, they were still in the process of reforming it when the disaster happened. I’m not sure that any lessons from the Winter War can be applied to the Russia-Georgia War, other perhaps than fine tuned questions about Russian and Georgian military effectiveness fade in the face of overwhelming Russian numerical superiority. One point, I suppose, is that the scale of war has changed in the last seventy years. The Russians lost twice as many men killed in one battle against the Finns in 1939 as they did in the entire Afghan campaign, which makes the war against Georgia look like a minor skirmish.

On that note, also check out this NYT article comparing Russian and Georgian military performance. It contains some preliminary thoughts about the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of US training, and also suggests that the Russian Air Force had big effectiveness issues during the war.

On (Toward) A Hermeneutics of the Musical Confessions of John McCain

[ 0 ] August 16, 2008 |

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a presidential candidate’s list of top ten favorite songs, published in a magazine aimed at self-identified young urban hipsters, will be an essentially disingenuous document, with the putative preferences having been selected by a campaign subcomittee assigned the task of generating an ideally — from a political, rather than aesthetic point of view — eclectic list, that does not actually appear on any known Ipod.

Any deviation from this practice deserves the closest scrutiny. Thus John McCain’s unexpected selection of The Gayest Song of All Time as his personal #1 favorite manifestation of the Terpsichorean muse almost literally cries out for careful analysis. What follows is a (admittedly preliminary) attempt to undertake that task.

“Dancing Queen” was released in the United States on Nov. 12 1976, and five months later became Abba’s only #1 American hit (the sugary pop confections of the Swedish quartet were always far more popular on the international scene, and they remain one of the top-selling musical acts of all time).

The narrative structure of the song is a model of classical economy: as one critic has noted, “[I]t’s about a seventeen-year-old girl having a good time on a Friday night. Not fazed by the social pressures in her daily life as a teenager, all she wants to do is go out and look for a ‘king’ to dance with.”

What, we might — and will — ask, was it about this story that a 40-year-old married father of three children found so compelling about this particular story in that long-ago spring of 1977, as he roamed the dance floors of discotheques in southern Florida? McCain himself has tried to answer that question, but his response merely confuses the issue, with its highly anachronistic reference to being shot down over North Vietnam a full decade earlier, thus (according to him) permanently disabling his musical taste, while at the same time granting him the gift of Patriotism.

The cynical interpretation of this hermeneutic gesture would be that McCain is merely grasping at every opportunity, no matter how implausible, to remind voters he was a prisoner of war. The present author, who will admit to a deep affection for Dancing Queen — he recently performed, with the able assistance of two of his sisters in law, a karaoke version of it for the benefit of a surprisingly unreceptive audience inside a rural west Michigan bar — prefers a more charitable account.

Do we not see, in McCain’s extraordinary revelation that he loves Dancing Queen (note his third-favorite song is the equally revelatory Abba opus Take A Chance On Me) a kind of confession? Some might claim it is irresponsible to speculate in this manner. To the contrary, it is irresponsible not to.

Is there the slightest doubt that, if Barack Obama were to name Dancing Queen as his favorite song, Maureen Dowd, to name but one particularly prominent arbiter of such things, would have found indisputable evidence of barely hidden homoerotic longings in the soul of a man she has characterized as an “anorexic starlet?” The question answers itself.

What exactly is John McCain trying to tell us? And why won’t we listen?

More on Military Performance

[ 0 ] August 16, 2008 |

Nexon asks for another assessment of the performance of the Russian and Georgian armed forces. Again, this is very preliminary; the lessons of this war will take a long time to learn and internalize.

The Georgians did have some technical advantages, such as nightfighting gear on their tanks and attack aircraft. While this article indicates that the Georgian T-72s (with the nightfighting gear and some other technical upgrades) were superior to their Russian counterparts, I’m not convinced; the Russians seem to have been employing more modern T-80s, which were equipped with reactive armor (this explodes outwards when hit, to deflect the force of the blow), while the Georgian tanks were not. David Axe suggests that this enabled the Russian tanks to massacre their Georgian counterparts (80% losses) in open battle. However, Axe also points out that the Russian T-80s proved vulnerable to Georgian hunter-killer teams employing missiles manufactured in Israel.

Galrahn (writing for Danger Room) gives an updated account of the Black Sea battle. Contrary to the previous report I relied on, Moskva was threatened not by the Georgian missile boat Tblisi, but rather by a Georgian gunboat. The rest of the Georgian fleet was sunk with land based artillery in Poti. Galrahn notes in particular the high readiness of the Black Sea Fleet, which is somewhat surprising; the Russian Navy suffered from more dramatic post-war cuts than either the Army of the Air Force.

In the air, Russian and Georgian loss accounts continue to differ. The Russians have acknowledged the loss of four aircraft, while the Georgians assert that they shot down 19. The former wouldn’t be great (compared strictly with recent Western bombing campaigns), while the latter would be downright disastrous. The Russians, like the Americans and the Israelis in recent campaigns, apparently used anti-tank cluster bombs. The Russians lacked UAVs, which prevented them from being as aware of the battlefield as possible, especially after the downing of the Tu-22 recon Backfire. Finally, the Russians didn’t dominate the airspace to anywhere near teh degree they should have; Georgian SU-25s continued to attack Russian ground concentrations as late as Monday. Simon Saradzhyan, writing for the Moscow Times, confirms my suspicion that the Air Force will face the toughest scrutiny in post-war Russian evaluations.

In terms of discipline and readiness, I’d say that Russian forces generally outperformed expectations. American and Israeli advisors toughened the Georgian military and helped give it some effective skills, but right now it’s a non-factor; the Russians are going where they please, and Saakashvili apparently hasn’t been able to put enough of a force together to conducting elementary blocking operations. Nevertheless (and this is the conclusion that most others have come to), the Russians still face some technological hurdles before they will achieve anything close to the efficiency of a modern Western military organization.

And of course Hassan Nasrallah points to the true culprits behind Georgian defeat: The Jews.

… read Dorian’s comment, which takes issue with some of this and provides additional information.


[ 0 ] August 16, 2008 |

Russia appears to be displeased about the missile defense deal with Poland:

Russia reacted angrily, saying that the move would worsen relations with the United States that have already been strained severely in the week since Russian troops entered separatist enclaves in Georgia, a close American ally. At a news conference on Friday, a senior Russian defense official, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, suggested that Poland was making itself a target by agreeing to serve as host for the anti-missile system. Such an action “cannot go unpunished,” he said.

In apparent response (although the timing of these things is sometimes hard to tell), the Russians dispatched an armored column down the road to Tblisi, and threatened Poland with nuclear annihilation. While the perturbed Russian response was predictable, I really have to wonder whether, in internal Kremlin discussions, there was any understanding that the military action against Georgia would provoke balancing behavior. In particular, I wonder whether Bill Kristol’s Russian counterpart patiently explained to Putin and Medvedev that the offensive would “change the map of the near abroad” and intimidate Poland into giving up on the missiles. Imperial minded aggressors, after all, very often seem to believe that “the enemy only understands force” and that the wage of assertive action will invariably be meek compliance.

They could have just asked the guy who some are now calling the “Nostradamus of Kentucky”: