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Cutting Deals with Horowitz

[ 39 ] October 21, 2008 |

On September 6, I opened up my e-mail and found the following:

Dear Robert Farley, I hope this email finds you well.

I am organizing a few discussions on Party of Defeat.
The book has been praised by seventeen members of Congress & Senate.

Have you read the book yet? I would like to send you a free copy and also offer you $1000 to write a critique of it for us, as we are welcoming a different perspective and debate/dialogue on this issue.

My first thought was “Have I read the book yet? Heh.” My second thought was “$1000. That sure could buy a lot of whiskey sours.” My third thought was “200. It could buy 200 whiskey sours, if I go to the right places. Maybe with a few Manhattans sprinkled in for variety.” My fourth thought was “Hey, it could even pay for whiskey sours that I’ve already bought, and that are still hanging around on my credit card balance.” It’s fair to say, then, that I found the offer appealing from the get go.

I immediately IMed Matt Duss, who told me that the offer had been floating around the DC blogging/journalism community for a while. Duss (and others) had given thought to taking the deal, but then decided that engaging with Horowitz would grant him too much legitimacy. This, I thought, was true enough; it was the reason that Horowitz was willing to pay an outrageous sum for lefties to review his book. He was trying to buy legitimacy. The point was to create the illusion that there was something in Party of Defeat that was worth engaging with, and consequently that David Horowitz was a man of ideas, rather than a thug and second rate polemicist. As such, engagement with the work as meaningful scholarship could be fundamentally dishonest, in that it accorded the book a level of respect greater than the typical bar bathroom scrawl.

Then again, I have debts no honest man can pay. There was a certain comfort in the recognition that Horowitz’ effort was transparent; taking the money to review the book was, in itself, subversive of the notion that Horowitz was a serious thinker. Of course, I would accept money to review a book that I had an interest in reading, but I would never read Horowitz were it not for the money. Indeed, had I initially been received the $500 offer that Frontpage is now making, I probably would have said “Thanks, but no thanks.” After all, such an offer would only have netted me 100 whiskey sours, which is hardly worth the effort.

However, there was another issue; Horowitz and his people are thugs. Although my interactions with the contact from FrontPage have been polite, friendly, and completely above board, I couldn’t rule out the possibility that President Lee Todd would be getting a letter at some point about my ideological unsuitability to work at the University of Kentucky. While I’m pretty low on the food chain, Horowitz (not to mention his fans) is pretty unpredictable, and while I didn’t think that he could do any real harm, I didn’t need the threat hanging over me. I discussed it with the Bossman, which reassured me somewhat, and I eventually managed to convince myself that I just wasn’t important enough for Horowitz to bother with.

After a few days (I do have other responsibilities) I sent my correspondent at Frontpage an e-mail asking a few questions about process, editing, payment, and so forth. He assured me that the review would be edited only for spelling and minor grammar errors, and that payment would be issued after the review and a response by Horowitz were published by FrontPage. A reply to the response would be appreciated, but not required. I would have preferred a guaranteed kill fee for the review, but the response was reassuring enough to convince me to go forward. I asked for the book, and received my copy several days later.

And so on a Monday evening I set out for the Mellow Mushroom with Party of Defeat and a yellow notepad. I ordered a pitcher of beer and a pepperoni, pineapple, and jalapeno pizza, and settled in, expected to read roughly a third of the book. And then, about halfway down the first page, I noticed a serious problem with my plan. The. Book. Is. Unimaginably. Terrible. You may think you can guess how bad it is, but you can’t. It’s Benji Saves the Universe Terrible. It’s notes on each of the first seventy pages terrible. It’s spitting up your valuable, valuable beer terrible. There’s just nothing there. It can’t be engaged with, any more than the homeless dude with the tinfoil hat can. It’s a disaster, and I just couldn’t understand how I could possibly come up with a thousand words that could conceivably be termed “engagement”, and still have any pretence to intellectual honesty.

As I so often do, I sought solace in alcohol. I gave some thought to bagging the project, because I didn’t think that the $1000 was worth having to do a genuinely dishonest appraisal. Then again, I’d spent some time and intellectual energy; I also really wanted the thousand dollars. Finally, I latched onto the idea of treating the book as if it were a work of historical fiction, or perhaps even the novelization of some crazy right wing movie. I came up with the following (reconstructed from barely legible scrawls on yellow legal pad):

Horowitz and Johnson have produced what could be a killer script for a political/sci-fi thriller. However, there are some issues that need to be worked out. First, the “liberals” need to have some kind of scientific/supernatural power of persuasion. No one is going to believe that a tiny, unpopular minority could seize control of the United States unless they have some nifty superpowers.

As it stands, the script is entirely devoid of sex. This just isn’t going to fly. As far as I can tell, we have four female characters; Nancy Pelosi, Cindy Sheehan, Valerie Plame, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. At least one of these characters needs to have an affair with some other character; maybe Kirkpatrick and the Shah of Iran? Plame and John Kerry? Even if we’re aiming for a PG rating, we still need some steam.

We also have to start thinking about casting. Is Tim Robbins as George McGovern asking too much? Vinnie Chase is looking for work; maybe we could put him in the role of some young war protester who eventually devours the brain of a soldier? Even better, we could have Johnny Drama as the soldier; nice little in-joke. We might also try to land Alec Baldwin for the Al Gore role; if we can get Angelina for Valerie Plame, we could try to link them together.

It went on like that. After sobering up, it occurred to me that Frontpage would, likely as not, simply reject a submission along these lines. I could complain, but wouldn’t have much of a legal leg to stand on; they were requesting a serious engagement with the book in what amounted to good faith. I’d get a good story, but not much else. So I began to think anew about how I could engage with the work. A couple days after starting the book, I talked a bit with Michael Berube about his interactions with Horowitz. I was reassured that FrontPage would play square, and that I should try to find a way to write a straight response.

After finishing the book and giving it some thought, I realized that what Horowitz was pushing amounted to a conspiracy theory. I could respond to it accordingly, with a variety of the typical tactics that one uses to respond to such claims, including a focus on mechanism, transparency, and so forth. Discussion with a couple of other correspondents convinced me that I needed to say something about Horowitz’ narrow interpretation of democracy, which gave me the opportunity to bring up my one area of mild agreement with the book, which involved the useless “war of choice, war of necessity” distinction. Finally, I decided simply to not engage at all with Horowitz’ use of evidence; factual claims in the book were designed for “truthiness” rather than for truth, and trying to start an argument about Plame or McGovern or Reagan or whatever else wouldn’t be productive. I’d highlight a few howlers, and move on. I finished up the review (about 1600 words, which was more than I’d expected), sent it along to my editors (Duss, Erik Loomis, and the wife), then sent it to FrontPage. They accepted, sent me Horowitz’ response in less than a day (I still haven’t read the whole thing), and asked me if I wanted to reply. I tactfully declined; spending time replying would cut into my profit margin. I’d like to think that I produced an honest engagement with the book, while making clear that I didn’t take it seriously as a work of scholarship.

I expected, when I began, that the effort would take about ten hours; five for reading the book, two for research, two for writing, and one for general nuisance. It ended up taking about seven (3 reading, 3 writing, one nuisance) which comes to an hourly rate of $142.86, which isn’t half bad. When I got the check, I sent $100 to Barack Obama, $50 each to Bruce Lunsford, Victoria Wulsin (running to unseat “Mean” Jean Schmidt), and Joyce Merritt (running for District Judge in Fayette County), and spent $200 on a fantastic steak dinner with the wife. The rest goes to pay for the ghosts of whiskey sours.

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.

Sunday Book Review: The Bottom Billion

[ 0 ] August 10, 2008 |

This is the fifth 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

Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion is about the developing countries that have failed to develop. Over the past twenty-five years, the greater portion of the “developed world” has developed; incredible growth rates in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia have dramatically lowered the percentage of the world’s population that is in extreme poverty. This development has opened a new gap between developing and not-developing countries, the latter mostly in Africa. Collier wonders why these states haven’t developed, and tries to produce solutions for the most serious problems. His main culprits are a series of “traps” that prevent economic growth: The conflict trap (war and its aftermath), the resource trap (also known as the resource curse, the landlocked with bad neighbors trap, and the bad governance trap (the latter two are self-explanatory). Within this context he discusses the limits of developmental aid and of the ways in which developed countries can assist (or fail to assist) the not-developing world. Collier has engaged in substantial quantitative research, attempting to determine the links between several variables and a lack of economic growth.

Unfortunately, Collier can rarely go a page without launching a broadside salvo against “leftists” and “Marxists” who, through good intention or ill, manage to foul up every effort to provide genuine assistance to the bottom billion. That there are people on the left who have idiotic ideas about development isn’t surprising; there are people of every political stripe who have idiotic ideas on trade and development, and who once held to ideas that have since become idiotic. I find it hard to believe, however, that these “western Marxists” have had the impact on policy that Collier would impute to them. I mean, we all remember Howard Zinn’s disastrous turn as Secretary of the Treasury, and we’d all like to forget Noam Chomsky’s six years as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, but beyond that I’m hard pressed to conceive of precisely how raving leftists have dictated US and European development policy.

A related problem is that Collier attempts to dismiss genuine policy differences with anti-leftist screeds. For example, Collier doesn’t have much patience for development efforts focusing on health and education. He’s aimed clearly at growth, but he fails to acknowledge that folks arguing for health and educational development are also pro-growth; they just think that health and education are better ways to spend money than infrastructure. This is a debate that can go back and forth, and there’s evidence on both sides (indeed, Collier scores an own goal on infrastructure projects when he mentions the corruption endemic to the construction industry), but it’s hardly the case that health and education advocates are starry eyed idealist rock star celebrity Marxists, and it ill serves Collier’s argument to treat them as such.

Advocates for health and education aid, however, get off easy compared to environmentalists. It’s fair to say that Collier sees no value whatsoever in any project, developed or developing world, which is designed to limit environmental damage. Advocates of such projects get trashed as Marxists and as indifferent to the suffering of the poor. This is, of course, a gigantic blind spot; environmental projects can indeed have negative effects on growth, especially in the short term, but they can have quite beneficial effects on long term prospects for development. They can also have a positive impact on infrastructure and health, both of which are key to development. Collier’s dismissal of such projects (and of environmental concerns more generally) is beyond silly; it’s derelict.

I do think that Collier’s approach is basically correct; the answer to extreme poverty in Africa and elsewhere lies in more, not less, contact with international markets. Such contact may have numerous negative effects, but it is remarkably difficult to produce economic growth in isolation from them, and without growth there are severe limits to what can be accomplished in terms of human development. I also think that his concept of producing international charters for resource development and post-conflict management make a lot of sense. We know from John Meyer et al that governments new to the international system most often try to duplicate the institutions they see in other states, even if those institutions don’t make sense (this is why landlocked countries have navies). The charter concept takes this a step further, suggesting the creation in the international sphere of a set of templates for how developing countries can deal with certain problems. Often, developing states simply lack the technical expertise for dealing with a sudden resource boom such as the discovery of oil; a charter would lay out a path for how the government could pursue policies that minimize risk and maximize reward. The post-conflict charter would develop guidelines for how international society would deal with states coming out of civil wars, coups, and other conflict situations. The idea is to turn the passive process of socialization into an active one, and lay out appropriate paths for governments in uncertain situations to follow. It’s fair to acknowledge that such charters have a quasi-imperialistic character to them, but such an acknowledgement doesn’t mean that they’re a bad idea.

Perhaps the most worrisome part of the book is Collier’s suggestion that the window for development may have closed. Although he doesn’t fully work it out, he suggests that East and South Asian development was capable of taking advantage of opportunities provided by the international market in the 1980s and 1990s, but that many of the opportunities are no longer available. This means that the not-developing world will have trouble following the same path as not just the developed, but the recently developing world. That a new path remains uncharted is worrisome for hopes of growth in Africa, and in other areas of extreme destitution.

Book Review: Enemies of Intelligence

[ 0 ] August 3, 2008 |

This is the fourth 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

Over the years, Richard Betts has written extensively on intelligence issues. Enemies of Intelligence is a restructuring and amalgamation of many of the arguments that he’s made over the years in a variety of different outlets. While some collections of this sort prove disjointed and repetitive, collecting Betts’ various argument together and refining them makes a lot of sense; the book is, on the whole, coherent and readable.

Betts’ central argument is that the TANSTAFL principle applies to intelligence. The Intelligence Community will catch some threats to the United States, and miss others; intelligence reorganization is as much about which threats will be caught as about the final batting average. Every effort to solve one intelligence problem creates a problem somewhere else. For example, there is no a priori reason to prefer a regional to a functional division of intelligence responsibilities within an organization; both approaches do some things well and leave gaps. Adding coordinative layers can help, but can also substantially slow down analysis. Demanding clear statements of probability can lead to mistakes, while overfocusing on mistakes can produce mushy intelligence estimates. Similarly, the politicization of intelligence is bad, but intelligence product must be politically savvy in order to be of relevance to policymakers. This may all seem obvious, but in the wake of a public failure of the intelligence community, almost everyone seems to forget these lessons; every failure produces calls for a reorganization (without an evaluation of what that reorganization will do), calls for an elimination of red tape (without a recognition that red tape exists for a reason), and calls for more resources (without much attention paid to just how much added value such resources will produce). This is a particularly serious problem in intelligence, because while failures are public, successes are not; if Atta and his comrades had been identified and arrested months before 9/11, a few people would have noted it as an intelligence victory, while most wouldn’t have noted it at all.

Betts does sometimes allow a bit too much “on the one hand, on the other handism” to creep into his analysis. Given his focus, this isn’t surprising; when you argue that intelligence reorganization is a zero-sum, or possibly low positive sum game, then it’s critical to recognize that different approaches inevitably have different pluses and minuses. Similarly, Betts is not a strong partisan; although he strongly opposed the Iraq War, he’s best characterized, I think, as a Cold War Democrat most comfortable with the idea that a broad consensus on foreign security policy is both possible and desirable. As such, he’s not interested in battering the Republican party and the way that its partisans think about intelligence. This leads him to be a bit too kind to ventures like Team B, which in my view (and in the view of a lot of other people) were enormously destructive endeavours without notable redeeming qualities. Then again, he does point out that the WMD fiasco was, above all, a policy failure rather than an intelligence failure; it would have been irresponsible of the intelligence community to conclude that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, and the real problem was that the presence of such weapons should not, in fact, have justified intervention. A better report would have added caveats about the circumstantial nature of the evidence and the weakness of the case, but could not have concluded that the weapons were absent, and likely would not have stopped the war.

Enemies of Intelligence doesn’t include a tremendous amount of detail about the workings of the Intelligence Community, and Betts could have illustrated his argument with more examples. The book amounts to an abstract case for an abstract caution, with some detail in order to make specific points. Nevertheless, it’s a compelling case, and a useful antidote to the entertaining-but-non-analytical arguments made in a book like See No Evil, or even Legacy of Ashes.

Sunday Book Review: The Sino-Soviet Split

[ 22 ] July 20, 2008 |

Why did the two Communist giants part ways in the early 1960s? Realist explanations have concentrated on the problems associated with two powerful states sharing a long border. Other explanations have focused on the efforts of the United States to drive a wedge between Russia and China. Lorenz Luthi, in The Sino-Soviet Split, makes an argument that isn’t exactly counter-intuitive, but that has probably received less attention than it should; the Sino-Russian alliance split because of genuine ideological disagreements over the past, present, and future of communism. To be sure, this isn’t the whole story, but Luthi makes a compelling case that it’s most of the story.

Perhaps the biggest problem that Luthi encounters in making his case is the person of Mao Zedong. This is a methodological problem as much as anything else; if we assert that ideology caused the split, yet acknowledge that on the Chinese side the problematic ideology was centered in the Chairman and contingent upon his battles against domestic opponents, are we really saying that ideology, instead of Mao or the always popular “domestic considerations” caused the split? Luthi doesn’t fully resolve this question, in part because resolution is impossible; the best we can do is try to convey as much as possible of the tapestry of decision. In this case, Luthi makes a compelling argument that Mao had significant ideological difference both with the Soviets (under both Khruschev and Stalin, but especially the former) and with “rightist” elements of the Chinese Communist Party led by Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, and, to a lesser extent, Zhou Enlai. In 1958 and 1959, as the disaster of the Great Leap Forward (which the Soviets had bitterly opposed) became clear, Mao began to use ideological tension with the Soviets to highlight his disagreements with Liu and Deng. Eventually, Mao would intentionally exacerbate the split with the Russians in order to forge an ideological weapon against his enemies in the CCP. The two prongs of this ideological offensive were the battle against “revisionism”, in this case the idea that the through the adoption of a centralized bureaucratic economy the Soviet Union had ceased to be a revolutionary state, and the fight against peaceful coexistence; Mao believed (in public, although his private behavior didn’t match) that the socialist world had the advantage over the capitalist, and that nuclear weapons didn’t transform this calculation. The eventual result of this was the collapse of the alliance on the international side, and the Cultural Revolution on the domestic side.

The Soviets, it seems, were largely confused witnesses to this process. Luthi, who had access to Soviet and Eastern European archives, conveys genuine puzzlement on the part of the Soviets towards the Chinese. The Russians had their own internal political problems (Khruschev’s 1956 speech wasn’t the end of internal conflict against the Stalinists), but these conflicts don’t seem to have engaged in the same kind of synergy with the Sino-Soviet relationship as was present on the Chinese side. This is to say that the various combatants in intra-CPSU disputes didn’t use the relationship with China as a cudgel to beat the other side. Rather, the Soviet appraisal of the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party had two rather stable elements; first, the Russians believed that the Chinese were embarking on a series of economically disastrous policies, and second the Russians believed that the Chinese were far too risk-acceptant in relations with the United States. It could be argued that these are both pragmatic rather than ideological concerns, but I think in particular that the Soviet pursuit of “peaceful coexistence” was driven as much by ideology as by convenience. The Soviet response to Chinese aggressiveness and unorthodoxy was a steadily increasing limitation of military and economic aid, combined with occasional bellicosity in ideological organs (although the Soviet anger never came close to matching the Chinese). The big problem was that the Soviet Union was unable or unwilling to bend on either point, and that the Chinese were completely unapologetic in their attack. In spite of the abject disaster that the Great Leap Forward represented, the Chinese attacked the Soviets as “revisionists” for being unwilling to engage in a similar project, yet no one in the Soviet Union was interested in turning the Soviet economy into a bigger basket case than it already was. Similarly, the Soviet leadership was (generally) reluctant to take a more aggressive tack regarding the United States because it was the USSR, after all, that had to pay the greatest costs of superpower hostility. Finally, the Soviets had to keep the Eastern European parties (generally not sympathetic to the Chinese, with the exception of Albania and the partial exception of Romania) in line, which further limited their ideological flexibility.

Personalities often matter, of course, and both Mao and Khruschev possessed enormous personalities that exacerbated the conflict. Khruschev’s theatricality and general unpredictability was unsettling to the Chinese, who had great difficulty determining whether a particular statement or policy was the result of one of Khruschev’s quirks, or was intentional action of the Soviet state. Of Mao there is little more of use to be said; he was a megalomaniac who was happy to destroy not only the PRC’s most important international alliance, but also its economy and the lives of many of its citizens in pursuit of victory in intra-CCP disputes. The CCP bought this problem for itself, of course, by the decision to promote the Maoist cult of personality, which left the party in a very serious situation when Mao really went off the rails from the late 1950s on. Luthi deals with a few counter-factuals, the most interesting of which is (more or less) “What if Mao had died in 1957?”; it’s hard to conclude from his evidence that both relations between China and Russia, and Chinese domestic policy more generally, would have been much, much different.

Luthi details a couple incidents of near-hilarity that the increasingly tense relationship produced. At a 1964 cocktail party, the drunken Soviet minister of defense Rodion Malinovskii joked to the Chinese delegation “I do not want any Mao and Khruschev to hamper us… we already did away with Khruschev, now you should do away with Mao.” The joke, it is fair to say, didn’t go over well. In 1969, frantic efforts by Soviet Prime Minister Kosygin to reach Zhou Enlai in the midst of a border scrum were frustrated when a Chinese phone operator refused to connect the call, instead preferring to yell at the Prime Minister and accuse him of “revisionism”. And of course I also highly recommend the propaganda pamphlets assembled between 1959 and 1963 by the Soviets, the Chinese, and their proxies; on the Chinese side these include such classics as The Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us, Long Live Leninism!, and More on the Differences Between Comrade Togliatti and Us. I plowed through most of these for a senior thesis back in 1997, and the best by far is a slow, patient explanation by the Soviets to the Chinese of how nuclear bombs cannot, when dropped on capitalist cities, distinguish between workers and capitalists.

Although it’s tangential to the question at hand, Luthi also reminds us that the Munich analogy isn’t just for George W. Bush:

It was only after the sudden end of the Cuban Missile Crisis that Chinese propaganda went into full swing. a media campaign denounced the withdrawal as “Munich” and blasted Soviet revisionism for “show[ing] vacillation in a struggle and dar[ing]not to win a victory that can be won.” The Chinese leadership staged mass rallies supporting Cuba’s struggle and accusing the USSR of “adventurism” for sending the missiles and of “capitualationism” for withdrawing them.

The lesson is that every country has its neocons, and that they always, no matter what country they’re from, say the same thing: The enemy only understands force; Negotiation is defeat; Compromise is capitulation; The prestige of our nation/people/movement depends on standing fast. The song remains the same, whether it’s being sung by Bill Kristol, Mao Zedong, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Book Review: Just War Thinking

[ 17 ] July 14, 2008 |

In Just War Thinking, Eric Patterson sets out to revitalize Just War theory, which he believes has become a moribund intellectual project. Rather than a living and innovative body of theory, Patterson argues that Just War theory has decayed into a neo-pacificist “check list” for legitimating (or, more specifically, delegitimating) military intervention. In this he has the potential to make an interesting argument; unfortunately, he fails to make his case and runs into a lot of other problems along the way.

Michael Walzer established that, because of the damage that war invariably causes, likelihood of success is a key determinant for a just war. That is, even if a war would otherwise be considered just, if there is no likelihood that the war will succeed then it is impermissible to engage in the war. This prohibits, for example, a crusade on the part of Britain and France to liberate Finland from Soviet aggression in 1940, or a crusade on the part of the United States to liberate Tibet from China. Patterson refers to this as a novel and pacifistic innovation in just war theory, and wants to reject it. Unfortunately, he does so in less than a paragraph, which is deeply disappointing given the emphasis which he places on order, security, and the well-being of a state’s population. Fighting a hopeless war does not typically serve the principle of international order, nor does it make ones population more safe and secure. Indeed, a failed war has notably detrimental effects on both order and security, especially when such a war is waged against a regime that challenges either of those principles. This seems so obvious from Patterson’s priors that it’s unclear why he spends no time on it. Indeed, he even allows that the invasion of Iraq was “allowed” rather than “required” by just war theory, which rather puts the practical problems of the invasion at the forefront of consideration.

On several occasions Patterson questions modern Just War theory’s presumption against war. The ancient and medieval foundations of Just War theory, he claims, include no such presumption; even the pacifism of Christianity comes more from its history of resistance to the Roman state than to Biblical doctrine. I’m no theologian, but it strikes me that while both Augustine and Aquinas argued against pacifism, neither argued for war as a positive good; indeed, both seem to be quite clear on a preference for peace to war, which rather seems like a presumption against war. Moreover, it strikes me that on the specific question of the pacifism of Christianity, Patterson is also stretching beyond what the case will bear. Whatever might be said about the ability of Christian just war theory to justify any war that any sovereign ever felt the desire to execute, I don’t find the case that Christianity is neutral regarding massive state execution of violence compelling. I’m not the only one; Aquinas, Augustine, and Eric Patterson have each felt the need to confront interlocutors who argue on the basis of Scripture that organized state vs. state violence is prohibited by Christianity. Again, I’m not theologian, and I respect Aquinas and Augustine more than I respect Patterson, but it seems to me that these pacifist interlocutors have a pretty good case; moreover, it seems that the fact that if people repeatedly, over the course of twenty centuries, make the mistake (as Aquinas, Augustine, and Patterson would thus classify it) of interpreting Christianity in pacifist terms, then there must be some good reason as to why this is so, and this reason cannot be the result, as Patterson implies, of misguided late twentieth century academics.

In any case this is a curious argument, since Patterson is quite clearly trying to have it both ways; on the one hand he calls for a living and vital body of theory, and on the other he demands a return to (tendentiously described) theoretical foundations. Of course, the reasons for the presumption against war are fairly obvious. War has always been a destructive activity, and has become more so in the modern world. It is hardly pacifist to say that accomplishing a goal through peaceful means is preferable to accomplishing goals through war; as James Fearon notes, war always has ex ante costs. This is not to say that good things can’t be accomplished through war, but accomplishing such things by war will always be more costly than achieving them by negotiation. As such, unless one assigns a positive value to the fighting of war, negotiation will always be the preferred course for a rational actor, until it is clear that these efforts will fail. The only way around this is to assign a positive value to the fighting of war, and this is something that democratic societies don’t do; indeed, Patterson doesn’t bother to make the argument that war, in and of itself, has positive value.

Patterson also suggests that the ancients believed punishment and vengeance were legitimate under Just War doctrine. Again, it’s not terribly hard to understand why modern just war thought has rejected the idea of punishment and vengeance. In the context of the differentiation between authoritarian and democratic regimes, the idea of the latter punishing or taking vengeance upon the former for the sake of punishment alone is troubling. Modern war, even with precision-guided munitions, takes a terrible toll on civilian populations. We take for granted that the populations living under authoritarian regimes do so unwillingly; otherwise the regimes would not be authoritarian. Any effort to punish or take vengeance upon an authoritarian regime will, as an empirical matter, almost certainly result in more pain for the civilian population of the target than the regime itself. Punishing people for something that they haven’t done is not permissible under any moral or ethical system I’m familiar with.

Patterson makes much of the idea of “defense of international order” as legitimate casus belli. There is a kernel of compelling logic to this; international order has some value in that it allows states (and the inhabitants of said states) to pursue a number of legitimate ends without fear of violence, attack, or general disruption. International order, therefore, serves to make the lives of everyone better. However, there are several problems associated with placing such a high value on international order, such that a potential disruption provides cause for bombing and the rolling of tanks. The first problem is that there are multiple potential international orders, and some are clearly more “just” than others. To take an easy case, if the Japanese Empire had either prevailed in the Pacific War or successfully deterred US entry, it would have established an order of sorts in East Asia. This order would have had certain merits: various actors would have had dependable expectations of future economic conditions, enabling trade; the Japanese Army and Navy may have been able to largely prevent interstate war between the constituent elements of the Co-Prosperity Sphere; particularly foul groups such as the Khmer Rouge may have been prevented from coming to power (a stretch, but stay with me). This would have been a certain kind of order, and it would have presented some, perhaps even many or most, of the people of East Asia with certain benefits. However, it surely would not have been a just order, and it’s very difficult for me to understand how one could argue that a Japanese war in defense of such an order (against, say, a Vietnamese resistance movement) could be conceived of as just. Of course, Patterson doesn’t argue such specifically, but his argument seems to have the potential to lead to such a conclusion.

The second problem is that even granting that international order is worthwhile, and that its defense provides legitimate casus belli, Patterson fails to provide any intellectually plausible way of determining whether a particular threat to order justifies war, rather than sanction or condemnation. This is particularly critical in the case of the Iraq War, because it’s clear that much of international society did not believe that the Iraq of Saddam Hussein was sufficiently threatening to international order to legitimate a war of conquest. The mechanisms of international governance (and surely such mechanisms are necessary to reasonable conceptions of international order) utterly failed to determine that Iraq should be the target of war. Indeed, even if such institutions had been based on alliance between systems of government similar to the United States (thus asserting that China, as a non-democratic state, does not earn a seat at the the table), they still would have failed to render a verdict in favor of the war; France, Germany, most of the democracies of Latin America, Turkey, and Russia (the latter is a bit of a stretch, but Russia is still democratic enough to enjoy a seat at the table) all believed that Iraq did not pose a significant threat to international order. As such, “defense of international order” gets us nowhere in terms of the Iraq War (it gets us much farther in terms of Afghanistan) because the actors that constitute international order could not agree on the merits of the case. The only way that the argument makes sense is to link international order explicitly to the power and interest of the United States, such that whatever the US decides to do constitutes a defense of international order. This is more or less what Patterson ends up doing.

Finally, and to return briefly to Aquinas, Patterson doesn’t bother to evaluate the danger that the direct association of international order (and the right to wage war in its service) with the goals of US foreign policy. Aquinas, for example, made quite clear “that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.” As we know from Locke, men (and by extension states) are poor judges in their own case; as such, it’s not obvious that the United States will invariably have rightful intention. Patterson’s reply would presumably be that each instance of the use of force on the part of the US can be evaluated by just war criteria, but the association of the United States with international order seems to carry with it a strong presumption of right on the part of the United States; this right comes not from any just cause, but rather simply from the reality of power. Might, through the assumption that international order has such a high value, really does make right in Patterson’s vision.

While much of Patterson’s argument is well-thought out, his discussion of WMD is ill-informed and deeply incoherent. Using an unsophisticated definition of weapons of mass destruction (any biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon) he argues that the threat of possession of such weapons on the part of a “rogue” state is sufficient for the launching of a just war. “Rogue” is similarly ill-defined, describing simply a state that regularly defies international consensus. Why Iraq fits this definition while the United States and Israel do not is unclear; there are plenty of good ways to distinguish the first from the second two, but Patterson doesn’t bother to describe the distinction in any detail. Patterson eschews any discussion of the likelihood of the use of WMD by such states; arguments that Iraq refrained from using WMD against the United States even in the midst of a general war is apparently not worth consideration, and the idea that a state like Iraq could be successfully contained similarly receives no attention.

Patterson discusses jus in bello and jus post bellum as well as jus ad bellum, but the latter two sections aren’t very interesting. Essentially, Patterson concludes (with allusion to the hopelessly flawed and intellectually sloppy “ticking time bomb” theorem) that pretty much every way in which the Bush administration has conducted the War on Terror is cool. He has some legitimate points on the difficulty that terrorists and certain guerrilla groups present for traditional conceptions of “civilian” and “military” targets, but doesn’t really introduce anything new to that conversation. Unfortunately, he conflates will to kill us with capacity to kill us; the former, rather than the latter, justifies the use of various means of destruction, while it seems to me that the latter is significantly the more important consideration.

In challenging proponents of the current configuration of just war theory, Patterson willfully conflates opposition to the Iraq War and opposition to the invasion of Afghanistan. There are legitimate arguments against both, of course, but the arguments are certainly different, and the former achieved a consistency of opposition in just war circles that the latter lacked. This means, of course, that modern just war theory is capable of discriminating between wars, which is to say that it can declare some wars just and others injust. The ability to make such a distinction means, pretty much by definition, that just war theory cannot be pacifist; if it were pacifist, then it would classify all wars as unjust. Patterson, by ignoring that the reaction to Afghanistan and Iraq (and Kosovo and Iraq I, for that matter) differed considerably, can simply denounce all of modern just war theory as pacifist, then move on to a new construction of the term. For the rest of us this should be, of course, insufficient.

Patterson is a smart guy; the book is well written, and informed by a deep knowledge of the literature on the subject. This makes it all the more unfortunate that he leaves holes in his case large enough to float an aircraft carrier through. There is, literally, no explanation for this other than the obvious; Patterson set out to write a book about how Just War theory validated the invasion of Iraq, and didn’t let things like “facts”, “logic” and “consistency” get in his way. I find this tragic, because I prefer not to assume intellectual dishonesty on the part of an author, and because Patterson manages to develop some pretty interesting ideas along the way. It’s not necessarily the case that any theory of Just War which legitimates the Iraq War must be wrong, but the bar is pretty high, and Patterson flat out ignores elements of his own argument that ought to cause him to lean strongly against intervention. I would allow that there is a certain merit in Patterson’s approach, because just war theory shouldn’t be simply about establishing a check list; rather, it should be a living body of theory that takes into account changes in both the political/technological environment and in modern moral understanding. However, I would argue that there is, in fact, such a living body of theory and community of theorists, that this body is not “biased” towards pacifism, and that this living, vital community of theorists rendered a verdict on the Iraq War that was only flawed insofar as Eric Patterson disagreed with the conclusion.

Sunday Maritime Book Review: The Tsar’s Last Armada

[ 15 ] July 6, 2008 |

The Tsar’s Last Armada, by Constantine Pleshakov, tells the story of the transit of the Russian Baltic Fleet to the Straits of Tsushima, where it was destroyed by Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s battle squadron. The Baltic Fleet was dispatched in response to the successful Japanese blockade of Port Arthur, and to the Japanese victory over the Russian Pacific Fleet at the Battle of Yellow Sea. The Fleet, commanded by Admiral Zinovy Rozhesvensky, would circle Europe, Africa, and most of Asia on its way to Port Arthur, where it would break the Japanese siege and destroy Togo’s fleet. With the Japanese Navy destroyed, the Russians would presumably be able to cut contact between Japanese forces on the mainland and supply bases in the homeland.

It was not to be, but the trip, after all, is half the fun. Russian battleships (which were understood to be competitive with foreign contemporaries) were not built for a journey through the tropics, or really for any long range expedition. Similarly, Russian sailors were not prepared for the sort of journey that the Tsar ordered them to undertake. Among the more mundane problems the fleet faced was a lack of charts, a lack of suitable food, a lack of refrigeration, and a lack of appropriate medicines and medical treatment facilities. The less mundane problems included serial confrontations with the Royal Navy, which did not look kindly on the transit of a major fleet through areas it viewed as its playground. In an imagined confrontation near Denmark, the Russian fleet opened fire on a group of fishing vessels with fatal results. Near Gibraltar, the commanding Royal Navy officer mused about using the Mediterranean squadron to destroy the Baltic Fleet at anchor. The Russians also experienced friction with their French allies, who saw no reason to antagonize Japan and chafed at the presence of the Russians in their colonial waters.

The Russian fleet consisted of four modern battleships, four older battleships, three coast defense battleships, and various assorted support craft. This was a hodgepodge of several different squadrons, resulting from the somewhat confused instructions of Nicholas II. This had the positive effect of concentrating as much power as possible in the fleet, but the negative effects of creating a slow battleline (the line could only move as fast as its slowest ship), and producing a divided and confused command situation. Many of the Russian ships were obsolescent, incapable of doing serious damage to Togo’s battleships (although they certainly could have hurt his armored cruisers).

The bulk of the squadron left in October 1904. Port Arthur fell in January 1905, while the fleet was off the coast of Madagascar. The new Russian objective was Vladivostok; assuming that the Russian fleet would not be in condition to confront Togo right away, it would refit in the Far East Russian naval base and destroy Togo later. To get to Vladivostok, Admiral Rozhesvensky decided to take the Straits of Tsushima, rather than the longer route to the east of Japan. The Russian fleet, in poor mechanical condition and with low morale, sought to avoid battle with Togo’s fleet. Togo, on the other hand, decided that this was the time to destroy the Russians.

This was a riskier choice than Pleshakov (or many other commentators) let on. The Russian fleet, after all, was much larger than the Japanese. It was at a low ebb in terms of combat effectiveness, and the Japanese were at their maximum efficiency, but the presence of so many more guns weighed in the Russians favor. Moreover, Togo was at a significant strategic advantage. Since the fall of Port Arthur, the strategic rationale of the deployment of the Baltic Fleet had been lost. Vladivostok is roughly five hundred miles from the routes used to supply the Japanese armies on mainland Asia, and Admiral Rozhesvensky’s fleet could not have maintained itself on station long enough to significantly disrupt Japanese logistics. Any division of the fleet would leave it easy prey for Togo’s faster, more agile squadron. As such, all Togo needed to do to win was not to lose; the only result that could have transformed the situation would have been a Russian annihilation of the Japanese.

Pleshakov concentrates on the Russian experience, and so doesn’t have a lot of insight into Togo’s choice. Instead, he discusses the course of the battle, which is quick, devastating Japanese rout. Moreover, the story is told without much detail in terms of the tactical decisions undertaken during the battle. The Russian battleships catch fire, explode, and capsize one by one; little damage is inflicted on the Japanese. Admiral Rozhesvensky is knocked out early in the battle by a shell fragment, and is captured by the Japanese after his deputy, Admiral Nebogatov, surrenders his squadron without firing a shot.

Seven Russian battleships, including three of the most modern, were sunk. Four others were captured. Three of the thirty-seven ships in the Russian squadron made it to Vladivostok. Japanese losses amounted to three torpedo boats. Rozhesvensky, Nebogatov, and a couple of thousand other prisoners spent several months as guests of the Emperor, in conditions that were quite hospitable. Upon return to Russia after the peace treaty, Admiral Rozhesvensky, Admiral Nebogatov, and several captains faced courts-martial. Rozhesvensky took all responsibility for the defeat, probably saving some of his captains from the firing squad. Nebogatov, who certainly should have been shot, was sentenced to 16 years, commuted to two.

Pleshakov’s book is useful enough for the lay reader; it has an excellent description of the journey and a non-technical description of the battle. His discussion of the political situation of the war (and the greater strategic significance for the combatants) is quite weak, and anyone looking for an account of the course of the battle, or for details about the combatants, will be disappointed.

Sunday Book Review: From Beirut to Jerusalem

[ 20 ] June 1, 2008 |

Back in the late 1980s, a journalist named Tom Friedman worked as a Middle East correspondent for the New York Times. He served in both Israel and Lebanon, and near the end of the 1980s he wrote a book. Later in his career, he wrote several more books. These later books are all unspeakably horrible, as is the column that Friedman currently holds down at the Times. Because of this, I have never been able to believe that the first book, called From Beirut to Jerusalem, could actually be worth reading. Having now read From Beirut to Jerusalem, I am forced to conclude that there was not one, but two Tom Friedmans, and that they collaborated on this first book.

The good Tom writes compellingly about the death in an artillery attack of almost the entire family of a close Lebanese friend. The good Tom writes insightfully of the IDF practice of bringing wealthy American donors to the front in Lebanon, equipping them with flak jackets, and enabling them to follow the course of the artillery bombardment. The good Tom writes of the chaos that afflicted Lebanon during the 1980s in a manner that is clear-headed and sensible. He recognized the presence and strength of sub-national organizations, the dangers of identity-based conflict, and the peril associated with the collapse of national institutions. The good Tom wrote about how the chaos of civil war inevitably produces a perverse incentive structure that kills commerce, civil society, and culture. It is difficult to imagine how anyone who read those pages, much less the man who wrote them, could have ever considered the invasion of Iraq a good idea. The good Tom wrote, as even-handedly as imaginable, about the peril felt by the Israelis and the loss of dignity felt by the Palestinians. Moreover, the good Tom was a fine writer and journalist; he understood that depositing himself judiciously within the narrative made the story more compelling and understandable.

But then sometimes the bad Tom reared his ugly head:

The rhythm of life in the Arab world was always different. Men in Arab societies always tended to bend more; life there always moved in ambiguous semicircles, never right angles. The religious symbols of the West are the cross and the Jewish star- both of which are full of sharp, angled turns. The symbol of the Muslim East is the crescent moon- a wide, soft, ambiguous arc. In Arab society there was always some way to cushion failure with rhetoric and enable the worst of enemies to sit down and have coffee together, maybe even send each other bouquets.

The bad Tom also mucked around with noodling about solutions in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, and wandered into the kind of self-important analogic swamp that has characterized Friedman’s writing since the early 1990s. The bad Tom is definitely in From Beirut to Jerusalem, but the good Tom, for the most part, holds him at bay. Sadly, the bad Tom murdered the good Tom sometime in 1993. I suspect that the bad Tom beat the good Tom to death with a blunt object, probably the very same National Book Award that the good Tom won for From Beirut to Jerusalem. Jessica Fletcher is on the case. Anyway, we’re far enough down the road now to recognize that the good Tom ain’t coming back, but not so far as to feel no sorrow for the fact that all we have left is the self-parody.

Sunday Book Review: Forgotten Armies

[ 0 ] May 18, 2008 |

Between December 1941 and August 1945, Japan and the United Kingdom fought an extraordinarily brutal war over control of Southeast Asia. In the larger arc of World War II history, this campaign is often treated as a sideshow, as it had neither the glory nor the decisive character of the Eastern Front or the drive across the Pacific. In the United States, the campaign is understood in specifically American terms; we know about Joseph Stilwell and the problems SE Asia presented for the China theater, and we know that Errol Flynn and a few American paratroopers liberated Burma, and we of course know that William Holden facilitated the self-actualization of Obi Wan Kenobi, but we don’t know a lot else. In fairness, there is some good cause for the neglect of the theater; had the British failed utterly in their efforts to recapture Burma, Japan would still have surrendered in August of 1945. In Forgotten Armies, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper make the case that while the campaign was not decisive in terms of victory or defeat in World War II, it did firmly set the direction of the British Empire following the war.

Bayly and Harper do a fine job of detailing the contours of the campaign. The Japanese conquest of British SE Asia was astonishingly swift. With the benefit of bases in French Indochina and Thailand, the Japanese were able to capture an enormous chunk of British territory within a few months. The destruction of the most important Pacific units of the Royal Navy on December 10, 1941 meant that the Imperial Japanese Navy had free rein to conduct amphibious assaults and support land offensives against British targets. Malay was captured through the former, while Singapore and Burma largely through the latter.

The SE Asian reaction to the swift Japanese conquest was ambivalent. In Malaya, the British Empire lay lightly over a set of older governing institutions. Popular discontent against the British was quite mild, and the Japanese promise of “Asian for the Asians” didn’t resonate as loudly as it could have. The Malay elite believed in the British Empire, and believed it could protect them from enemies internal and external. Moroever, many Malays had close connections with the ethnic Chinese community, and that ethnic Chinese community had close connections with various kinship networks in China. The brutality with which the Japanese were conquering China produced considerable local suspicion about Japanese motives in the rest of Asia. It didn’t help that Japanese occupation policies would have made Paul Bremer look like a genius; in at least one case, Japanese administrators required local Muslims to pray in the direction of Tokyo, before a portrait of Emperor Hirohito. Unsurprisingly, Japanese hopes for a general declaration of jihad against the British Empire went unheeded.

In other parts of Asia the situation was different. In Burma, where the British had replaced the native dynasty, Japanese propaganda was received much more enthusiastically. It was also received enthusiastically in parts of India, where early British defeats were met with declarations of jihad by various tribes in the northwest. The war and the resulting disruption of trade helped produce a famine in India, and contribute to considerable discontent. This grafted on to existing Indian social resistance movements, resulting in a very touchy situation for the British in 1942 and early 1943. Indian soldiers, who made up the larger part of the British forces in SE Asia in 1941 and 1942, returned with stories of unbeatable Japanese soldiers coming to liberate all of Asia. The Indian Nationalist Army, made up of surrendered Indian soldiers and local recruits, played an important role in the conquest and later defense of Burma. Of course, enthusiasm for the promise of Japanese liberation didn’t long outlast actual Japanese liberation.

The early defeats were a tremendous blow for British prestige in Asia, amongst both those favorably and unfavorably disposed towards the Empire. British power depended on the perception of British supremacy, and the Japanese shattered that image in the early months of 1942. The British didn’t help themselves over much; even at the height of the Japanese offensive, British military briefings in India began with the situation in the Northwest tribal areas. The British also had a difficult sale; while there were some in SE Asia who would welcome the return of the Empire, even those nationalist groups who disliked the Japanese resented the British. The British regained their empire, but only for a short while; they would largely be gone from the Japanese conquered territory by 1958.

The British eventually recovered, solidified their hold on India, and began a counteroffensive against the Japanese in Burma. This counteroffensive, much like the Japanese offensives of 1942, was extraordinarily brutal. The struggle between the British and the Japanese grafted onto a series of local ethnic conflicts, and since both the British and the Japanese employed local proxies, score settling was common. The brutality of the war in SE Asia reminded me of John Dower’s War Without Mercy, which detailed the racial animosity present in the Pacific War. I wouldn’t say that the SE Asian experience invalidates Dower’s thesis about American racism and the conduct of the war (Dower allows more general Western colonial racism and, of course, Japanese racism as causes as well), but I think it does render an account that focuses specifically on how the American conducted the war incomplete. American racism led to brutal conduct by American soldiers, but British, Japanese, Indian, and Burman soldiers engaged in conduct just as brutal, if not more so. On the larger stage of World War II, I think it’s fair to conclude now that the relatively cordial and law-of-war-abiding relations between the European Axis and the Western Allies were the exception, and not the rule. Most of the war, in most parts of the world, was conducted with unrelieved brutality.

Forgotten Armies is an altogether fantastic book on a part of the war that deserves more attention. I highly recommend it.

Sunday Book Review: The Great Experiment

[ 0 ] May 11, 2008 |

The Great Experiment, by Strobe Talbott, is one in a broad family of books written by former executive branch officials about their experiences with power. These books often contain some theoretical noodling, bits and pieces of biographical detail, a few mildly interesting anecdotes within a jury-rigged “idea” that purports to hold the whole thing together. Probably 90% of the members of this family are almost suicidally boring, but occasional you’ll find one by someone who really has something to say, and manages to do so in an interesting and forthright manner.

Tragically, The Great Experiment is not one of these outliers. Rather, it is firmly within the ersatz Ambien family. The great experiment, according to Talbott, is the group; the idea that ever larger communities of people can hold together in more or less stable groupings over an extended period of time. From the dawn of agriculture until now, such groupings have included empires, city states, and nations. The future of such communities is, according to Talbott, international organizations such as the United Nations. This story fills the first half of the book, and contains a few tangential citations of the extraordinarily vast literature on statebuilding and community formation; Talbott indicates, for example, that he’s read at least some of the works of Benedict Anderson, although the book betrays no great understanding of the arguments contained therein. As such, the first half of the book is pretty much entirely worthless to anyone with an academic knowledge of the subject, and pretty misleading to anyone without such a background.

The second half of the book concerns Talbott’s direct experience in and around the Clinton administration, and is mildly more interesting. We learn a bit, for example, about the influence that Al Gore had in the administration, and about the White House’s relationship with the media. On the latter Talbott is careful to demonstrate his credentials as a Washington insider, noting that he regularly plays chess and conducts civil political conversations with Chucky Krauthammer. Talbott also includes a series of critiques of the Bush administration from the point of view of a Clinton administration official, critiques which are somewhat interesting but not terribly novel or illuminating. They are the sort of wonky, margin-emphasizing critiques that you would expect from someone who is, broadly, within the community of Democratic foreign policy thinkers that found itself flummoxed by the charge for the Iraq War, and utterly incapable of understanding what the Bush administration was trying to do.

I am largely sympathetic with his basic policy argument, which is that the continuing institutionalization of the international system is a positive thing, and ought to be pursued. To make this case in the contemporary American context, however, you have to do better than painting a broad historical stroke, then explaining that international institutions are the natural end state of human kind. It simply isn’t true that we’ve steadily been moving towards larger human groupings; the Roman Empire, the China-centric state system that held in the Far East, the Habsburg Empire, and perhaps most notably medieval Christendom all represented quasi-institutional efforts that waxed and waned over time. The historical story doesn’t tell us what Talbott wants it to tell us, and consequently can’t carry the weight that he places on it. International institutions can be argued for on their own merits, apart from any teleological narrative that’s supposed to make them quasi-inevitable.

To sum up, if you have trouble sleeping but can’t get another prescription, check out The Great Experiment. If not, avoid it like the plague.

Sunday Book Review: Live From Jordan

[ 1 ] May 5, 2008 |

In mid-2002, Benjamin Orbach traveled to Jordan. Orbach was 27 at the time, and wanted to improve his Arabic language skills. This is hardly unusual; a handful of Patterson students travel each year to the Middle East and elsewhere to work on languages, an experience which is shared by any number of other young professionals. Orbach’s story is interesting for two reasons; he spent much of his time writing letters, and he lived in Jordan (and later in Egypt) during the build up to the Iraq War.

Live from Jordan is structured as a series of letters to friends in the United States. The book doesn’t simply reprint these letters; they’ve been edited and pasted together to make the whole more coherent. Orbach’s thoughts on the war were muddled; this is to be expected, I think, of what amounts to eight months or so of thinking through the long buildup to the conflict. Orbach made every effort to avoid Monday morning quaterbacking, although of course different things will appear important in hindsight than at the time. Eventually Orbach was forced to leave Jordan out of concern for his safety, moving to Cairo to continue his studies. He took advantage of his time in the Middle East to travel, visiting Syria, Palestine, and Turkey. Orbach is Jewish, but didn’t publicize the fact while traveling in Islamic countries. When I asked him about this he said that he’d act differently if he had it to do over again, but I kind of get the sense he made the right decision in 2002-3.

Like most good travel literature, Orbach portrays some scenes of genuine peril. His description of his first day in Jordan is interesting enough, but I found his accidental visit to a Turkish nightclub even more entertaining. The effort of the brother of one of his Jordanian friends was probably less dangerous, but somehow felt more disconcerting. That said, I’m not sure that his experience was all that different or more perilous than that of any American traveling this part of the world immediately prior to the war; I recall that even in Germany Americans were given warnings about how to carry themselves in public areas.

I’m not sure that Live From Jordan is a must read from a policy standpoint; there’s some interesting stuff here, but it’s not really eye popping. For example, his description of America-hating terrorists as “nihilists” really misses the mark, although it is unfortunately reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens; people who believe in nothing rarely take the time, trouble, and expense to suicidally blow things up. Still, as a travel book there’s a lot to like. Orbach has a lot of experiences that seem pretty typical of an American visiting the Middle East, and anyone who’s about to venture to that area (or anywhere else unfamiliar, really) could find a lot that’s of use in his work. I do have to wonder whether the epistolary travel narrative is long for this world, however. It seems to me that the blog will come to dominate this kind of story, having the advantage of near real-time distribution and of immediate feedback. Several friends of mine have travel blogs, and Ben himself now has a blog.

Sunday Maritime Book Review: Thunder in the Night

[ 9 ] April 27, 2008 |

In early 1972 the heavy cruiser Newport News deployed to Southeast Asia. Newport News was one of the last of the big gun cruisers, commissioned in 1949 and carrying 9 8-inch guns with an automatic reload system that allowed the cruiser to fire ninety shells per minute. The cruiser was playing a role similar to that played by the battleship New Jersey in 1968, but the amount of ordnance delivered by Newport News (nicknamed “Thunder”) was greater than that of the battleship. Newport News was dispatched to Vietnam to assist in Linebacker I, an operation designed to stop a North Vietnamese conventional invasion of the South. Often at night but sometimes during the day, Newport News would close with the shoreline and either give fire support to South Vietnamese forces or attack targets within North Vietnam. The cruiser was never seriously threatened by North Vietnamese attack, but would regularly take fire from shore artillery batteries, along with the occasional encounter with a torpedo boat. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese weren’t the only problem. Towards the end of its tour, the B-turret on Newport News exploded, killing about twenty sailors.

Thunder in the Night, by Raymond Kopp is the story of Thunder’s deployment. Kopp served on Newport News during its tour of duty, and was present when the B-turret exploded. We have a lot of narratives of maritime life, but most are focused on the experience of officers. Kopp gives us a story from the point of view of a sailor. Most intriguing is his description of how information moved around the ship. A ship at sea is unlike an infantry company or army brigade; especially in 1972, there weren’t a lot of ways for the individual sailor to communicate outside of the ship. Consequently, the treatment of information that would otherwise be sensitive or confidential seemed to be much more lax than would be expected on land. Kopp describes the rumor mill that engulfed shipboard life, with different information coming in from different sources and being put together in what amounted to a giant game of telephone. On a couple of occasions the Newport News put into Subic Bay for replenishment, repair, and rest. Kopp does a good job of capturing the culture of Subic Bay, particularly of how its economy became oriented around the US presence. Kopp isn’t a social scientist, but he does paint a nice picture of the impact of the base on Philippine life.

Kopp doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the construction of Newport News, but I was forced to wonder whether any thought was given to designing automatic weapons for battleships. The 8″ guns on Newport News and her sisters fired at a little more than twice the rate of normal guns, which would translate to five rounds per minute for a 16″ weapon. I’ve never seen any thought or any design for post-Montana US battleships, but the idea of a ship that could fire 60 16″ shells per minute is pretty impressive. The Japanese went the other direction; Yamato carried 18.1″ guns, and both the Super and Super-Duper Yamato designs were supposed to carry 20″ weapons. I’d put my money on the 60 16″ shells/minute over the 10 20″ shells/minutes. Newport News and her two sisters were useful enough as bombardment ships to keep around for a long time; Newport News was scrapped in 1993, Des Moines in 2006, and Salem has been converted into a museum ship.

This book is primarily going to be of interest to those who really dig naval artillery, and to those with particular interests in either the naval aspect of the Vietnam War or the 1972 campaigns. The account has substantial weaknesses. Kopp takes some defensible liberties in terms of reconstructing conversations that happened thirty-five years ago; no one expects that he would remember specifically what was said at a particular time, and it’s reasonable in this context to try to recapture the gist, rather than the specifics, or a given conversation. Nevertheless, many of his dialogues have a pat quality that leaves them nearly unreadable. Kopp also has a strangely dissonant treatment the reaction of the country to the war; at one point he insists that patriotic young men joined the military at a rate unseen since World War II, while at other times he recognizes the very serious tensions that the war evoked in the United States. Kopp concludes with a fairly long and reasonably interesting discussion of his life after Vietnam. His unfortunate coda relates his Vietnam and post-Vietnam experience to the Iraq War. It’s fair enough to argue that national unity is a good thing to have during a war, but it’s not so fair to suggest the essential suspension of politics. Kopp asserts that the only time for the American populace to make its preferences known is during an election, yet the long history of American democracy is replete with examples of political action that have nothing to do with elections. Electoral politics is one way to change a policy, but it is not now and has never been the only way. While I appreciate the difficulties that Kopp and other Vietnam veterans have faced, nothing that they have experienced is worth sacrificing any part of America’s democratic tradition. In any case, the digression is unfortunate but brief.

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