Wednesday, August 31, 2005
I'm in the mood for.... APSA
Blogging will be erratic for the next couple of days as I wend my way to the American Political Science Association annual meeting in Washington, DC. Lucky me, I have two panels tomorrow and then can truly enjoy the conference.
If you feel the need to get into the APSA mood -- and don't we all feel that way sometimes -- go click on the following:
Racking up those blogging perks
Since I've started blogging, there is no doubt that I've received an increased number of free books. Yesterday I received three -- one on education reform, one on why Europe will run the 21st century, and galleys on why emerging democracies are more war-prone than other kinds of governments.
However, those paled beside the following e-mail:
Readers are invited to think of an appropriate contest.
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Copter parents at two o'clock!!
When I was teaching at the University of Colorado, I had to deal with a student who wanted me to change his/her class grade from a C+ to a B-. The student's primary argument was not that s/he deserved a better grade for the class, but that his/her GPA had dropped below the minimum required to qualify for CU-Boulder's study abroad programs. Needless to say, this was not a terribly persuasive argument -- not to mention grossly unfair to all the students who had actually earned their B- grades -- so I said no.
I said no several times.
A week after the student's final plea, I received another phone call asking me to reconsider -- from the student's mother. The mother evinced little concern about her child's academic performance -- she just wanted to see her progeny spend a semester in Florence. I was more than a little surprised by the attempt, and got off the phone as quickly as possible.
I haven't had a problem like that with a parent since the start of the millennium, but I tell this story because of Justin Pope's AP story on 'copter parents.' What are these creatures?:
Read the whole thing. I'm not completely unsympathetic to the parental position -- on the list of parental sins, being "heavily involved" in their childrens' lives is far down the queue. Plus, when parents are spending the kind of money for higher education they are spending now, a little monitoring of one's investment is to be expected.
That said, wheedling for better grades on behalf of their children would seem to cross the line. In Clueless, at least the father had the good sense to make his daughter Cher argue her own case.
In praise of mild hypocrisy in foreign policy
The Economist's Global Agenda has a story about negotiations over UN reform. It appears the U.S. would like to make some changes:
Read the whole thing to see the substantive points of difference.
Here's the thing that bothers me: the Bush administration can make a credible case for many of the substantive changes. By throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, however, and by doing so at such a late hour in the negotiations, the U.S. winds up alienating more countries than it needs to. This is one of those examples where good diplomacy can grease the wheels to advance U.S. interests -- and instrad there's going to be trouble.
Part of the problem, ironically, is that the Bush administration takes these international agreements way too seriously. Early in the administration many commentators praised the Bushies for being forthright about rejecting agreements they had no intention of honoring.
There's such a thing as going too far in the rejection of hypocrisy, however. Think of small hypocrisies as the international equivalent of pork-barrel politics. Sometimes you agree to an empty platitude in return for tangible progress on some issue.
The danger for any administration is that the platitude takes on a life of its own. This happens, however, less frequently than the administration thinks it does.
UPDATE: David A. Schwartz has a piece in the Weekly Standard explaining why the existing reform proposal falls short of the mark. Schwartz was a member of the 2001 U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, so he's worth reading on this point. [On the other hand, the 2001 delegation did not cover itself with glory -- the U.S. lost its seat on the commission, while China, Sudan, Syria and Cuba were elected.--ed.]
Monday, August 29, 2005
Open hurricane porn thread
CROW-EATING UPDATE: The post below was written 24 hours before the waters of Lake Ponchatrain broke through the levee, devastated New Orleans, and video footage came in on damage to the Mississippi Gulf coast. I must concur with James Joyner that the coverage of this hurricane was not overhyped in the end, and at this point is a rather trivial issue compared to the damage at hand.
I maintain that my general point stands on extreme weather coverage, but not with this case. Whether there is a "weatherman crying wolf" phenomenon taking place is also worthy of further thought.
Click over to FEMA's list of charities to help out those affected -- or even better, Glenn Reynolds' list of charities
Comment away on Hurricane Katrina -- or even better, the coverage of it. If this report is any indication, the original estimates of potential damage appear to have been overstated (though the New Orleans Times-Picayune has a different take). This is of small comfort to rural residents of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but better news for oil traders -- who appear to have panicked and then reassessed -- as well as consumers.
This overestimation would be consistent with the growing problem of hurricane porn:
I think this blogger actually underestimates the problem -- it's not just local news, it's the cable nets as well. See Michelle Catalano for more.
Readers are invited to submit the most.... er.... pornographic moment of coverage they've seen to date.
UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds believe that Katrina was worth the hype. And several commenters have pointed out that the blanket coverage probably saved lives in convincing people to get the heck out of the Big Easy. Valid arguments.... except I've been so inured to prior hurricane porn that it's now tough for me to distinguish between a genuine menace to mankind vs. some weathermen breathlessly claiming that some tropical depression could be huge.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Alas, I spoke too soon about New Orleans.
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Regarding the CIA's latest self-assessment
Amy Zegart -- who is writing a book on intelligence reform and is danieldrezner.com's official go-to source on this issue -- e-mailed me her thoughts on the CIA's latest effort at self-criticism:
Friday, August 26, 2005
Those French intelligence officials....
The Financial Times carries an interview with France’s top anti-terrorist judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière. One piece of information -- which the FT is hyping -- is that Al Qaeda is ostensibly planning an attack on a financial center in the Pacific Rim.
However, the meat of the interview contains an interesting observation about the distinctions between civil law and commonlaw countries in dealing with terrorism:
Readers are invited to comment on the tradeoffs between the two legal traditions in dealing with national security issues. On economic growth, there are other tradeoffs, btw.
Thursday, August 25, 2005
The future of computer science?
On of the common laments about offshore outsourcing is that it is causing a decline of interest in computer science and related engineering tasks.
Via Slashdot, I see that Steve Lohr had an interesting piece in the New York Times earlier this week that provides some support for this lament -- but the market is doing interesting things to the study of computers:
Read the whole thing.
Meanwhile, in India, the returns to offshoring are declining because of rising wages, according to CNN's Parija Bhatnagar:
The President's suggested reading
The Washington Examiner asked
I will say, though, that Bush's actual selections -- "John Barry's The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History and Edvard Radzinsky's Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar" -- aren't too shabby. The first choice, in particular, might have some policy relevance for the future.
That said, Jonathan Rauch's selection is the one that stands out.
Beloit College needlessly reminds me of my age
I have a summer birthday, and I am creeping ever closer to 40. Curiously, I seem to be the oldest member of my peer group, and so all of my friends take great delight in saying "Dude, you're old." at the appropriate moment.
In that spirit, it seems fitting to link to the Beloit College Mindset List for this year:
My highlights from this year's list:
And, in conclusion:
Wednesday, August 24, 2005
The Global Fund depresses me on Uganda
For many of the blights that bedevil sub-Saharan Africa -- AIDS, poverty, corruption -- Uganda has been considered an exception. However, Sebastian Mallaby's The World's Banker implied that much of this success would not necessarily be self-sustaining.
It's with that in mind that I was saddened but not surprised to see this Alan Beattie story in the Financial Times:
OK, I think I've got Pat Robertson's cycle figured out...
Hmmm... about two years ago, Pat Robertson spoke out in favor of supporting indicted war criminal, former Liberian President/strongman Charles Taylor.
And two years before that, there was the whole 9/11 commentary (although Robertson later said that he had "not fully understood" when he was agreeing with his guest Jerry Falwell).
Readers are invited to identify the target of ire or defense that will make Robertson look like a foreign policy jackass in the summer of 2007.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Iran's smoking gun goes poof
Three weeks ago today Dafnia Linzer had a Washington Post front-pager on an National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran wasn't nearly as close to developing nuclar weapons as previously thought.
Three weeks later, Linzer pours even colder water on Iran's WMD progress:
Link via David Adesnik, who asks, "The question, then, would seem to be the same one as we now ask about Iraq: Why would a government with nothing to hide constantly lie to international inspectors?"
Monday, August 22, 2005
What's the best way to deal with broadband?
The September/October issue of Foreign Affairs has an interesting exchange of letters between Bleha and Philip Weiner on how best to rectify the situation. Bleha prefers "top-level political leadership" and "a national broadband strategy with bold deployment goals." Weiner offers some excellent cautions to this strategy, including this fascinating bit of protectionist trivia:
Read the whole exchange.
Does China contradict the liberal paradigm, part deux
Following up on my post a few months ago on whether China's economic liberalization will lead to democratization, the Economist asks similar questions about the trajectory of Hu Jintao's government -- and comes up with the same muddled answer:
Sunday, August 21, 2005
Media Wars, Episode II: The Media Strikes Back
Three weeks after Judge Richard Posner's disquisition on the media in the New York Times Book Review, the responses are in.
The NYT Book Review publishes five letters, including Eric Alterman, Bill Moyers, and NYT Executive Editor Bill Keller. Posner chose not to respond, which is a bit surprising, since the letters all have their flaws.
Let's take Keller for an example:
I'm not sure I completely buy Posner's original thesis, but this response by Keller is cartoonish and uninformed. Of course journalists can write stories contrary to their personal prejudices -- one of Posner's points in the initial review was that market competition forces journalists to put aside their prior beliefs. As to whether media is capable of "standing up to their advertisers (and the prejudices of their readers)," I'm pretty sure that Posner's theory would allow for this possibility -- but it's always the exception and never the rule. Posner's trying to explain the overall trend, not the exceptions.
Oh, and I'm pretty sure Posner would be eminently comfortable with theories that postulate "the behavior of the American judiciary [is] explainable purely as a response to economic self-interest?" There's a small-but-emerging literature in political science about explaining opportunistic behavior among judges -- click here for one example.
How do I know that Posner would be comfortable with this argument? See Richard A. Posner, "What Do Judges Maximize? (The Same Thing Everybody Else Does)," Supreme Court Economic Review, vol. 3 (1995), pp. 1-28.
Saturday, August 20, 2005
Guest-blogging this week: Joseph Britt
I'm on vacation with the family this week. Joseph Britt -- a.k.a., the commenter also known as Zathras -- has been tasked with the job of guest-blogging.
In a former life, Britt did policy work in the Senate as well as with a couple of state governments. He's now a freelance writer; last spring he guest-blogged at Belgravia Dispatch.
So what do international relations specialists think?
After being in a news black hole for a week, I'll be getting back into blogging a bit slowly.
However, here's something for the academics in the audience: last year a group of IR profs put together a survey of what other IR profs thought about the field, current affairs, etc.
The preliminary results can be found in this paper by Susan Peterson and Michael J. Tierney, with Daniel Maliniak entitled, "Teaching and Research Practices, Views on the Discipline, and Policy Attitudes of International Relations Faculty at U.S. Colleges and Universities"
Some of the interesting topline results:
Go check it out.
I want to close with a question that has been percolating between my ears for a while now. People who followed politics in 30 and 40 years ago could have identified such a thing as a "Humphrey Democrat," a "Jackson Democrat," even a "McGovern Democrat." None of these men ever got elected President -- only Humphrey came close -- but all of them had substantial accomplishments in their political careers, accomplishments that could not have been theirs if positioning themselves for a run at the White House had absorbed their whole attention.
What is a Kerry Democrat? For that matter, what is a Gore Democrat, or an Edwards Democrat? Immediate family members of the gentlemen in question surely count, as must a number of their paid staff and -- technically -- Democrats who by coincidence share the last name of Kerry, Gore or Edwards. But that's about it.
There may not be any political implications flowing from this. It may just be that Presidential politics has changed; the people who get nominated for President now are those who establish a foothold through their relation to someone else, their election to a safe seat in the Senate, or their campaigning skills, and then wait around for their moment to strike. It just occurs to me when reading thought pieces about what position Democrats should take on Iraq, or health care, or taxes that parties don't adopt positions on important issues until people do. Whether ideas go anywhere depends on whether their advocates are smart and capable, not on whether their party's strategic direction is right where it should be. There is no shortage of chiefs in the Democratic Party, or Indians either. I just don't see any leaders.
That's all for me. Dan has returned from his vacation: rested, refreshed and ready to resume his rightful place as a titan of the blogosphere. My thanks to him for loaning me this fine platform, and to his readers for their attention and many thoughtful comments.
The Great Healer Strikes Again
Yes, I know Bill Frist -- excuse me, Dr. Bill Frist, also known as The Great Healer -- is thinking about running for President. I know that in addition to his unusual albeit dubiously relevant credential of heart transplant expertise he is anxious to add the approbation of those evangelical activists who believe that Christian evangelism is aided by teaching in public schools a theory of the origin of life that does not mention Christ or anything about faith in daily life. And I know that traditional Republican reluctance to impose ideas from Washington on local school districts is, like opposition to runaway spending and support for simplifying the tax code, somewhat out of fashion these days.
But history ought to teach us that voters at the national level do often give politicians credit for showing some personal dignity. The Senate Majority Leader is under no obligation to say anything about an issue he is not prepared to legislate about other than he thinks local school districts should be left alone to deal with it as they see fit. Groveling to interest groups, which losing Democratic Presidential candidates have raised to an art form over the last 20 years, isn't a good tactic for Republicans either. It can bring them applause, but at the end of the day it makes them look like wimps.
After his performance in the Schiavo affair, The Great Healer is beginning to look like a recidivist groveler who should not be allowed any nearer the Oval Office than the public tour.
Friday, August 19, 2005
Red On Red
Assume, as most but not all people do, that the American commitment in Iraq cannot and should not be sustained indefinitely whatever happens. What should the American military be doing there in the meantime?
I'd like to think that if I were lugging a rifle and a pack around Baghdad in the middle of the night my mission would be something a little more specific than "staying the course," "showing resolve," and "spreading freedom." Marking time until the Iraqis "stand up" seems somehow inadequate as well. What should our military's objective be in its operations in Iraq right now?
There is nothing original or even very clever in my idea that priority No. 1 should be to increase tensions between Iraqi Sunni Arabs and non-Iraqi jihadis. We know these tensions exist. We see evidence of them popping up occasionally in the mainstream media and in the Iraqi section of the blogosphere. To some extent they supply the answer to a question I asked last spring:
Does this situation present some opportunities for us? Well, it ought to. But the difficulties are very considerable. Intelligence assets needed to identify exploitable areas of tension are evidently limited. This has to be partly because the enemy is aware of potential tensions between Iraqi and other fighters and is taking steps to keep them under control, and the uncertain political situation may be another reason. Probably the biggest, actually, is the thing that has plagued American intelligence since March 2003: the language barrier. In any event the desirability of encouraging "red-on-red" hostility is much clearer than are the things we need to do this.
In fairness to the many journalists, bloggers and others now arguing fiercely about levels of commitment, withdrawal timetables and so forth, these are much easier to grasp than are the tactical issues. It is easy enough to sit here on the East Coast and advise attempting to disengage from insurgents in areas where these are known to be entirely Iraqi while seeking out non-Iraqi fighters to attack; identifying likely gathering points on the insurgent "rat line" across the Syrian border and striking them from the air; or leaning on the Iraqi government to make sure that the non-Iraqi jihadis they capture never make it home. Whether any of these things is practicable I do not know. It is, again, easy to advise an offensive posture -- sitting around or patrolling up and down the same roads waiting to be attacked is neither good for morale nor likely to lead to a won war. Implementing this advice is easier said than done.
The other question I asked last spring was:
There is a limit to how much we can do to limit Iranian influence in Iraq under these conditions. Actually, we may have been lucky -- if that idiot Muqtada Sadr hadn't thrown away many hundreds of his best men in frontal confrontations with American main force units last year we might already have a full scale Shiite/Sunni war in Iraq. In any event we share some interest with secular Shiite leaders and some Shiite clerics in avoiding a situation where a future Iraqi government becomes dependent for its survival on Iranian support, giving us, perhaps, another potential partner in an effort to separate our Iraqi enemies from our Islamist ones.
A Realist By Any Other Name
My former host Greg Djerejian introduces a New York Times Op-Ed by the managing editor of Foreign Affairs briskly, thus:
"Gideon Rose cuts through a lot of chaff today in the New York Times..."
Let's pause right there. On the theory that every aspiring statesman requires the aid of a Bernard Woolley, let me point out that if you cut through a lot of chaff all you get is a lot of chopped up chaff. Chaff is the husk of wheat and other grains; to mill the grain the chaff must be separated from the grain. In metaphor, chaff is often opposed to wheat to suggest the distinction between unworthy people or ideas and those of quality. It is true that after grain has been threshed out, chaff may then be chopped up and used as bedding, feed for farm animals, or ground cover for erosion control, but these uses are too obscure to be metaphor material in a discussion of foreign policy.
Gideon Rose takes the kind of academic approach to recent American foreign policy that makes me cringe when I hear it applied to any public policy subject. This approach is based on the contention between schools of thought -- in this case between foreign policy "realists" (good) and "idealists" (bad) -- in other words between things that can be analyzed in an academic context with minimum reference to the people involved. Understand the school of thought a given group of officials subscribes to and you have a good idea whether the administration they serve is on the right or the wrong track.
What does this approach miss? Think of it this way: you would never say Steve DeBerg was a quarterback in the Joe Montana tradition because like Montana he played for the 49ers and ran the West Coast offense. Why not? Simply because Montana was a far more talented player; he saw the field more completely and executed his plays better. Similarly it would be highly misleading to describe Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, as an Achesonian without noting his old boss's superior skill, intellect, and force of personality. Consider, in light of this, Rose:
Looking specifically at the first Bush administration, let's remember that in foreign policy as in most other things offense is a lot harder than defense; attempting to change an unsatisfactory status quo is far more difficult than passively awaiting events. The Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy, begun under the enormous burden of the war in Vietnam, was nonetheless on offense more often than not. The first Bush administration essentially left the Reagan administration's foreign policy on autopilot. When a problem like the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq war seemed to go away, the Bush administration invariable followed the path of least resistance, disengaging from the first and pursuing normal relations with an Iraqi government that should never have been treated as anything other than a disposable ally of convenience. When Yugoslavia began to implode Bush neither warned breakaway republics that they could expect no American recognition or help, nor did he mobilize allied governments against Serbia in an effort to let the country dissolve without bloodshed.
To be fair, Bush was aided by a Secretary of State with a genuine talent for diplomacy. And in some respects, events were kind to his administration. Bush's instinct for passivity and reaction and his tendency to allow American foreign policy follow lines suggested by persuasive allies led to successful policy toward the reunification of Germany; it at least did no harm as newly independent states emerged in Eastern Europe. But having called for a New World Order Bush had few ideas as to what it should look like. And his wretched judgment and loss of nerve at the end of the Gulf War led to a human catastrophe in Iraq and a permanent, profitless commitment to contain a regime Bush had just sent half a million men halfway around the world to fight. His admirers were celebrating that fiasco as a triumph of foreign policy long before his son's administration proved it is possible to screw up in other ways; Rose appears to be still doing it.
Politically, Bush was done in by the way his passivity and zeal for repose was perceived in domestic affairs, not by foreign policy. The fact remains that in both areas his administration was what might have been expected from a lifelong ticket-puncher accustomed to being a spokesman and occasionally an implementer of policies designed by other men. If we are to draw correct lessons from it they will not concern foreign policy doctrine.
The same thing applies to his son's administration. The Bush Doctrine is a piece of paper that academics can study. This doesn't mean it explains the war in Iraq. For that, we must look at a President largely ignorant of foreign policy when he took office, badly rattled by 9/11, and determined to do something dramatic about in response. Everything after that has been improvisation.
Not all complaints about the limited vision of self-identified "realists" are wrong, nor is it evident that the current administration's "idealism" is the wellspring of its policies as opposed to an ex post facto justification for them. Effective foreign policy requires an understanding of what you want to do, a strategy for getting it done, and the ability both to distinguish the battles that can be won from those that cannot and to distinguish the situations where America can impose its will from those in which we must respond to events. It is not an accident that the period of greatest American success in foreign policy have come when the people running it -- Marshall, Acheson, Nixon, Kissinger -- have had these things and something else that is mostly lacking today, an understanding that a foreign policy made with one eye on campaign politics is bound to run into trouble regardless of what doctrine it proclaims. The people, not their doctrines, make the policy.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
The things we think and do not say
Somewhere in the field of American foreign policy there is room for a paper with the title of that document with which Tom Cruise's character Jerry MacGuire began a major career transition. The subject of the paper would be human rights catastrophes in what used to be known as the Third World, particularly the genocide in Darfur.
What do we think but do not say? Well, for starters, we think that Arabs do not care very much about human rights. To be more precise, and more accurate, Arabs feel deep and genuine outrage when an Arab male is treated with something less than respect by a non-Arab and especially by a Jew; Arabs mistreated by other Arabs are of less concern. Non-Arabs being shot, blown-up, gang-raped or starved by Arabs are no problem at all, whether they are Muslim or not and perhaps especially if they are black Africans.
Many cultural attitudes, including this one, have deep historic roots; these are not my primary concern here. What matters instead is that keeping silent about large things carries a heavy price.
The New Republic ran a useful primer on the Darfur situation on its web site a short while ago, by Smith College Professor Eric Reeves; his assessment of where things stand now in Sudan -- this also contains material on the north-south civil war that has gone on there since the early 1980s -- is well worth reading as well.
Reeves is an expert on this subject; I am not. Yet even Reeves fails to note what to the casual observer appears fairly central to this grim story -- namely, that the protracted war against a civilian population of Darfur is considered an outrage, a horror, and an affront to humanity by the United States, by European peoples and governments, and by several African states, but by no Arab government and hardly any Arab media. Arabs are not represented among relief workers or peacekeepers in Darfur, all of whom come from countries much farther away than Egypt or Saudi Arabia; Arab contributions to humanitarian relief funds, according to a UN report, have been negligible. Terrorism has, rather late in the day, become a major issue of Arab Muslim theologians and intellectuals; not so genocide carried out by Arab Muslims against a mostly Muslim population over more than two years.
Let us note the most obvious consequence of this before saying anything else -- it makes action to stop genocide exponentially more difficult for the United States and other countries who would like to when the Arab government in Khartoum feels no pressure from other Arab governments or Arab media. This is true intellectually and morally; it is also true physically, since humanitarian relief and peacekeeping in Darfur cannot stage through nearby Egypt or Libya and must instead be maintained across the whole breadth of the Sahara Desert, like a dumbbell held at arm's length.
Now, it is very likely that the great majority of people in the Arab countries do not support genocide in Darfur. Many of them may not even know where it is. It is not something that the media available in Arab countries has covered extensively. And silence by Arab governments and media has not been challenged by Western governments and media.
I don't mean to pick on The New York Times here; there are worse offenders. But it does seem oddly symbolic that of the two Times columnists who write most frequently about the Arab world one -- Nick Kristof -- has published many pieces about genocide in Darfur without ever writing one about Arab indifference to it or what that might mean, while the other --Tom Friedman -- writes "whither the Arabs" commentary regularly without mentioning Darfur at all.
With respect to governments, it is tempting to suggest that this would be a good subject on which to unleash one of John Bolton's famous tirades on the United Nations. There is no reason, though, that other governments must be silent unless the United States speaks. Distasteful and occasionally repellent though the task can be, the United States often has to do business with the more barbarous governments of the world -- it was central to brokering the fragile settlement of Sudan's north-south civil war, for example. It should not be too much to expect Canada, say, or Germany to do something useful for a change and challenge Arab indifference to genocide in the UN or some other international forum.
Are we talking fundamentally about an Arab issue here? Looked at globally, we are not. Other human rights disasters are taking place as I write this -- the destruction of Zimbabwe, the decades-long nightmare of North Korea -- and the conduct of South Africa and China, respectively, toward these situations is inexplicable without mention of the indifference of these governments to human rights and human suffering. A humane, stable world order is unlikely to establish itself if only North American, European and a few other governments are willing to build it. And that is the case right now.
Arab indifference to Arab genocide does not, of course, excuse inadequate efforts by Western countries to aid its victims. Nor does South Africa's weak and cowardly support of Zimbabwe's kleptocrats or Beijing's embrace of its comrade in Pyongyang mean the West has no responsibilities in these situations. But surely one of those responsibilities is to lay aside our reflexive political correctness and say something about the things we know to be true.
Some Forgotten History
This is a little out of step with the news cycle, but bear with me. I wanted to talk a little bit about the Soviet legacy in the Arab world.
Soviet foreign policy in the 1945-1985 period will not be remembered for its contributions to humanity. Actually it poisoned nearly everything it touched. Its triumphs led to devastating wars and grim, durable dictatorships; its failures drained Soviet resources and exposed Soviet limitations. Committed to upsetting the status quo without the will or power to determine what would replace it, determined to initiate confrontations without the desire to end them, the Soviet Union left a residue of tyranny, misery and a really astonishing quantity of personal weaponry around the world.
I was prompted to think of the Soviet legacy in the Arab countries by President Bush's oft-made and widely praised repudiation of 60 years of American policy that allegedly had pursued order at the expense of freedom in the Middle East. You don't need a Ph. D. in Arab history to understand that freedom was not the alternative on offer during most of that time -- secular, sometimes viciously anti-religious Soviet-backed regimes were.
Egypt's Nasser eagerly sought Soviet arms and economic assistance beginning in the 1950s; later Syria's Assad, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi did the same. Part of Yemen actually had a Communist government for a time, and some of the Palestinian factions within the PLO were openly Marxist as well. The internal security practices of all these regimes bore marked similarities to those of the Soviet Union at various points in its history, and of course the great majority of the weaponry the Israelis confronted in 1973 and later, Iran faced when Iraq attacked in 1980 and we saw during the Gulf War was of Soviet provenance.
The history behind this, beginning with Khruschev's effort to "leapfrog containment" during the 1950s and '60s is familiar to students of the Cold War. Conversely the specifics of, for example, KGB influence on the Syrian government's means of controlling information or the former Iraqi regime's efforts to assassinate dissidents abroad must await archival and other research that I'm not sure anyone has done yet.
Here's the point, though: The Soviets were not subtle about the way they exercised influence. They carried with them an ideology proven to be highly useful as a means of asserting state control; offered unqualified diplomatic backing for whatever the most radical Arab governments wanted; and distributed some economic aid as well as vast quantities of weapons. Experts in crushing freedom and inciting conflict, they passed their expertise along to willing clients for decades. They left footprints, big ones; yet to listen to the President, administration neoconservatives and frankly every media commentator I've heard talk about the Middle East one would think the Soviets had never been there.
Why does this matter? One reason might be the fact that Arab nationalism is so often being defined right now as requiring hostility to the United States. Partly this is due, of course, to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; another part has to do with Islamist ideology. But an important part -- the one the Bush administration has bought into -- involves the idea that the lack of freedom in the Arab world is America's fault.
This is no more than just barely arguable with respect to America's closest Arab allies, countries like Jordan and Morocco. Even in Saudi Arabia the United States was not so much complicit in suppressing democracy as unwilling to invent a democratic movement where one did not exist. And with respect to the Arab countries that have been most disruptive in recent years -- Syria, Libya, Iraq perhaps most of all -- the Bush administration's premise is not only wrong but absurd.
People who question whether attempting to democratize the Arab world is the answer to terrorism -- I am one of them -- often base their skepticism on the negligible Arab democratic tradition. But Arab political tradition did not evolve in a vacuum, and the Soviet influence on it was as powerful as any since World War II. Liberalization or even democratic reforms might have been a little easier in Iraq and many other Arab countries if it had been presented less as America's gift to Arabs and more as an opportunity for Arabs to repudiate the toxic Soviet legacy.
At a minimum it is tactically unfortunate for the United States to
America should have but did not reap much credit in the Muslim world for its essential contribution to defeating the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, and this is but another aspect of that
The Meaning of "Sensible"
Austin Bay desribes his idea of a sensible approach to the possible threat of Iranian or North Korean nuclear missiles threatening the United States:
"What happens if Iran goes nuclear and puts a warhead on a missile? What can Japan, South Korea, and the US do if North Korea deploys nuclear-armed intermediate range missiles, or ICBMs? Sure– pray for success in political negotiations, and retain “offensive options” — slang for attacking the rogues’ nuclear sites. But a defensive capability is also very useful. We’re not talking Reagan-era Star Wars with hundreds of Soviet missiles arcing over the Pole. An Iranian or North Korea “missile pulse” would probably consist of six to twelve missiles (at the most). A “thin shield” anti-missile defensive system could handle this type of “limited” attack.
To do that, however, means increasing the range of inteceptors. According to Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, the [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or] THAAD anti-missile program managers intend to explore increasing the missile’s range. THAAD is still very much in the developmental stage – it has a flight test scheduled for this fall."
My definition of "sensible" is probably a little different. It includes, among other things, some idea of how likely the potential threat is to become an actual threat (conceivable, eventually, in the case of North Korea; extremely unlikely in the case of Iran). It includes a requirement that the technology in question show some promise of actually doing what we want it to do -- promise shown outside a computer simulation. It includes some reckoning of how much more money the United States is going to have to borrow from the Communist Chinese central bank to pay for this project, and of the likelihood that this money will follow all the rest of the funds spent so far on missile defense in the last twenty years down the rathole.
In short: Do we need to do it? Are we able to do it? Can we afford to do it? In my book you don't have a "sensible" government program -- especially a multi-billion dollar program -- if the answer to each of these questions is "probably not."
Wednesday, August 17, 2005
....to Glenn Reynolds on his wife's graduation. My dad was required to take a similar course of study, though he was admitted to it for somewhat different reasons, and completed it successfully several years ago. Graduation in this case is a pretty significant milestone, and is I'm sure a big relief to Glenn and his family.
A Thin Reed
I understand John Roberts is not an easy target. But isn't this reaching just a bit?
Every now and then -- I have no idea why -- one of my own jokes bombs. I limit the damage by never putting too much effort into them. Bruce Reed, for whose new blog at Slate I have high hopes, clearly takes a different approach; researching Roberts' prep school record is way more work than I would have done just to get a laugh. And if he was serious....well, I doubt that.
In any event since Reed was writing for Slate and not working for NARAL, the NAACP or one of the other organizations Zell Miller calls "the groups," there is no danger that his musings on what the 17-year-old Roberts' opposition to co-ed education portended for the Supreme Court will show up in slightly altered form in one of Pat Leahy's or Ted Kennedy's statements to the Judiciary Committee next month. I don't think.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
A Strong Presidency?
How strong a President is George W. Bush?
It's a complicated question. Generally I subscribe to the 20-Year Rule for evaluating Presidents, reasoning that about that much time has to pass before all the consequences of any one administration become clear. But it's never too early to think about this.
In one sense, obviously, Bush is a stronger President than any of his recent Republican predecessors, because he can work with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. He and his associates have near-total control of the Republican electioneering apparatus for all national and some state races; while very unpopular with Democrats, Bush has only some occasional critics among Republicans. He has no determined opposition. Finally he has, evidently at the instigation of Vice President Cheney, consistently sought to limit the amount of information made available to the press, ostensibly to restore some of the Presidential authority over access to internal governmental deliberations that drained away as a result of the Iran-Contra investigation and the scandals of the Clinton administration.
But all these things suggest a rather negative kind of strength -- a mastery of means but not necessarily of ends. Consider the veto, used by every President since Garfield to block enactment of legislation the President opposed. Bush has never used the veto even once. By contrast Bill Clinton vetoed 37 bills in eight years, Ronald Reagan 78 in eight years, Bush's father 44 in four years (the Chirstian Science Monitor has a handy reference chart and some context). One could argue that this merely signifies that Bush has such mastery over political Washington that Congress only passes the legislation he wants. To me it looks more like he has a talent for surrender.
Past Republican Presidents faced off against Congressional advocates of more spending. Bush doesn't. It doesn't matter what kind of spending, or how large the deficit is. If Congress can agree on a highway bill, a farm bill, or any appropriations measure, Bush will sign it. Some of the traditional Republican rhetoric on behalf of small government and fiscal responsibility remains in Bush's public statements, but he doesn't mean any of it.
What about the fight against terrorism, Bush's signature issue? I use that expression advisedly; as an issue, it has been by far his greatest political advantage since 9/11. But the actual fight has been mostly left up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, not only the strategy and tactics for meeting terrorists in battle but for most of Bush's administration the foreign policy as well. Driving some of that foreign policy within the administration has been Vice President Cheney, whose role and influence is vastly greater than any modern Vice President and arguably much greater than any in our whole history. Past Presidents have been reluctant to give any substantive responsibility to the one subordinate that cannot fire. It is fair to wonder if Cheney has had such a large role because Bush is wiser than all his predecessors, or because he has no choice. Rumsfeld's dominance of the central issue facing Bush's administration should inspire the same question.
Lastly, consider this year's Social Security campaign. You don't need to be a master accountant to figure out that private social security accounts, the creation of which was sold in 1999 and 2000 as an innovative way to spend the federal government's surplus, were going to be a much tougher sell now that the surplus is a distant memory. What was the point of the campaign, then? You could argue it was a campaign of conviction, but that seems to me an argument from faith.
The obvious visual evidence this spring indicated that for Bush the campaign was its own reward. Bored with the routine of the White House, disengaged from both the legislative process and the day-to-day management of the fight against terrorism, Bush sought a reason to do what he loved doing -- giving stump speeches to, exchanging banter with and absorbing adulation from adoring, pre-screened audiences. That his Social Security proposal wasn't going anywhere was almost beside the point.
I'll discuss later the reasons I don't think Bush is particularly unusual among politicians at the highest levels today. For now, though, let's just say that he is a very talented candidate, who has put a lot of thought and work into becoming a very successful candidate. In an era when the business of campaigning for office appears to swamp most aspects of government, this orientation has taken him to the top of American politics.
But being a strong candidate and being a strong President have never been the same thing. Right from the beginning Bush has been a tiger with respect to measures most American supported, or at least those that appealed to Republican activists and contributors. Presidents don't get to take only the popular side of public issues, though, or only push measures their strongest supporters endorse. They can't expect success either from making bold proclamations and leaving all the work of making them good to others, or from extending the campaign months or years beyond the last election. Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan -- none of the strongest modern American Presidents, and only a few of the others, would have found any of this worthy of discussion. They would, I suspect, have recognized weakness in the White House when they saw it. We are seeing it now.
Monday, August 15, 2005
The Darkness Before Sunset
This piece by the fine Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Katherine Skiba was one I really didn't want to read.
As Dan mentioned in introducing me, I did some work in the Senate years ago. William Proxmire was the senior colleague of my boss, Republican Bob Kasten (R-WI). Prox was an revered figure in Wisconsin politics at that time, known for never soliciting campaign contributions and for running to and from the office every day. He was also a very good colleague to have, in the sense that he didn't have much interest in claiming credit for appropriations and grants coming into the state or even in attending to constituent mail.
These things he mostly left to Kasten's office, which as our boss approached his reelection campaign we found very convenient. It was also a little unusual, of course, but Prox was unusual in many ways. He had his causes over the years, some of them very good ones -- we largely have him to thank for the fact that the United States never wasted billions on a supersonic transport program -- that he pursued with the aid of a talented but small staff. I figured at the time that Prox felt so secure politically that he didn't need to worry about reelection and liked doing his annual press release announcing how much of his clerk hire allowance he was returning to the Treasury. It occurred to me later that with his forceful but somewhat distant personality and, perhaps, the early stages of his illness he might just have found a small staff made up of familiar faces easier to deal with.
Prox was reliably liberal on a lot of issues, but having fought battles early in his political career against Joe McCarthy never felt he had to prove his loyalty to liberal causes, or to the Democratic Party either. I wonder what he would have thought of today's interest group-driven Senators campaigning and fundraising throughout their six-year terms like so many Congressmen. His would be a good voice to hear about politics today.
We won't hear it, sadly. Like Ronald Reagan, Proxmire suffers the curse of a strong constitution, able to withstand any injury or illness except the one he has. It's a terrible thing to contemplate.
The Late Great Embed Program
I'm not sure I believe the figure given toward the end of this New York Times article and attributed to Associated Press managing editor Mike Silverman, of three dozen embedded journalists remaining with American forces in Iraq compared to 700 when the war began.
Three dozen, or a little more than one journalist for every 4,000 American troops in Iraq, is, well, not very many. If good things are happening in Iraq, it's a good bet that the small number of journalists there would contribute to their being unreported on by the American media, as Austin Bay suggests . Would bad things be underreported as well? Probably. It's not a question of bias or even the attraction to journalists of what Bay calls "police blotter reporting." It's a question of resources.
I'm not an expert on the embed program, and remember that a lot of embedded reporters early in the war were in theater but not in Iraq. Two years ago, though, the large number of embedded reporters made available much good coverage of the combat zone that is mostly absent now. The Times's article rightly notes that this is only one aspect of the decline in reporting from Iraq. And I don't really know if the present low level is mostly a product of the military having become more reluctant to host embeds (for reasons suggested in a Wall Street Journal article from 2003 -- thanks to Phil Taylor for that) or media organizations being less willing to send them. Comment from knowledgable readers is invited.
Incidentally, one of the papers that still has journalists embedded with units in Iraq is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose reporters with the 48th Brigade Combat Team have maintained a blog since the 48th deployed four months ago. The 48th is a National Guard unit attached to the 1st Armored Division and drawing most of its soldiers from Georgia; it is stationed at bases in the Baghdad area. The blog entry for August 12 -- and especially the comments -- provide a glimpse of deployed life, both for the troops and for their families.
Sunday, August 14, 2005
TEFRA and Iraq
I expect to make two or three observations about Iraq this week, as it is deservedly the leading item in the news. The Washington Post goes anonymizing in Sunday's edition, citing several administration sources who decline to be named in a front page story about lowered American expectations of what is possible in Iraq.
TEFRA, for the whippersnappers in our audience today, is the acronym for the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, a package of what were then euphemistically called "revenue enhancements" aimed at mitigating the effect on the federal deficit of the previous year's large tax cut package. It was obviously a package of tax increases, that were not called tax increases mostly because President Reagan would not accept anything labelled "Tax Increase." This fact did not prevent Reagan administration officials and Republican allies in the Senate from writing most of the package themselves.
This trip down memory lane was inspired by the discordant note in the Post story about Iraq, helpfully supplied by President Bush himself in his radio message Saturday:
The terrorists cannot defeat us on the battlefield. The only way they can win is if we lose our nerve. That will not happen on my watch. Withdrawing our troops from Iraq prematurely would betray the Iraqi people, and would cause others to question America's commitment to spreading freedom and winning the war on terror. So we will honor the fallen by completing the mission for which they gave their lives, and by doing so we will ensure that freedom and peace prevail."
I don't know; I only hope. At this point the TEFRA scenario looks pretty good to me. I will confess a bias -- I never considered the creation of a stable, liberal democracy in Iraq, let alone one that would serve as a beacon for the rest of the Arab world, to be an attainable objective. Foreign policy, as Henry Kissinger said, should not be confused with social work, and the rehabilitation of a culture backward to begin with and deeply traumatized by decades of Baathist rule is social work on a massive scale, requiring far more time and resources than we can prudently commit to one mid-sized Arab country.
The commitment having been made, however unwisely, the United States has an obligation to try to make it good. We have other obligations too, though, that we cannot afford to subordinate indefinitely to this one. In addition, without the pressure of knowing that American forces will not be there indefinitely Iraqi political factions are less likely to proceed in a timely manner to agree on a constitution and a political arrangement to govern the country. At some point we have to find out if the Iraqis can establish a stable government, or not. It's at least a little bit encouraging that some administration officials are aware that point is fast approaching.
Saturday, August 13, 2005
My thanks to Dan, first of all, for turning his blog over to me this week. There are hundreds of bloggers on the Web today discussing politics and policy issues, but people looking to learn something new, to have the essentials of complex issues clarified or just to read good writing are regularly rewarded by only a few. Dan has been one of those for almost three years now (it will be three years next month), which considering the many other demands on his time is just remarkable.
In a polity grown used to overheated rhetoric it takes a major effort to step so far over the line of propriety that one's own allies object. The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) made such an effort this week with its television ad charging that John Roberts had been a patron of abortion clinic bombers in the 1990s. The New York Times today asked that NARAL apologize; The Washington Post called the ad a "smear." Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said NARAL's ad was"...blatantly untrue and unfair." Mildly conservative but pro-choice John Tierney now describes himself as "pro-choice but anti-NARAL."
Well, there's one blow struck for civility: NARAL pulled the ad. But on NARAL's own web site, targeted at its fundraising base, the message hasn't changed at all:
"Roberts argued in support of the violent clinic protesters at Operation Rescue who have tried to block women's access to basic health care services with bombs and threats of murder."
"At the time, Roberts ignored widespread clinic violence and please [sic] from women and state law enforcement."
NARAL is an experienced and competent lobbying organization; its leadership knows it will probably lose the confirmation battle over Roberts. Why the vitriol? Sen. Specter's August 11 letter to NARAL head Nancy Keenan nails the issue in one sentence:
"I have...previously raised questions about using Supreme Court nominations as fundraising events without appropriate regard for the subject matter involved."
The playing to the activist base that Tierney and other commentators criticize as a political tactic is not primarily that. It is instead a fundraising tactic; NARAL used, and continues to use, violent rhetoric to its most committed (or most gullible) supporters, seeking not votes against John Roberts but money for itself.
There are dozens of institutions in Washington doing the same thing. If an issue that can be used as a hook for fundraising doesn't exist, one can be invented. It isn't enough for institutional advocates to be effective; they also have to look busy. An example of this phenomenon in action is legislation passed last year in the House striking down gun laws in the District of Columbia. The institutional advocate behind this is, of course, the National Rifle Association, which has been successful enough on its big issues that it now has to keep the money rolling in by conjuring up new mortal threats to gun rights, in this case local laws and ordinances that have been in place since 1976.
Media coverage of hot-button issues usually skirts this aspect of them. There may not be a good way for a reporter to ask a source who works for one of Washington's institutional advocates whether his employer is only taking a position on some bill or nomination to pay for a new building or a bonus for the senior management. Elected officials have little interest in raising the subject either; facing low-turnout elections in which interest group money and activist voter turnout can be decisive, Senators and members of Congress would have powerful incentives to ignore the self-interest behind institutional advocacy even if they had strong views of their own about the issues in question. And more often than not, they don't.
The easy thing to do is to take institutional advocacy at face value, something most observers of Washington learned long ago is often a mistake with respect to advocacy from business, labor groups or other organized interests with a stake in legislation and government policy. Controversy itself is the stake for institutional advocates, many of which may indeed have other reasons for the positions they take, but all of which need a certain level of alarm, hostility and bitterness in Washington in order to prosper and grow.
Friday, August 12, 2005
Incentives do matter -- the oil edition
With oil pushing $67 a barrel, one might ask what the effect has been on the U.S. economy. The aggregate answer would seem to be a surprising "not much" -- pergaps because, as in the seventies, petrodollars are being recycled back into the U.S. economy.
Brad Setser, however, does observe one subtle change in oil imports from June's trade data:
Brad also has some good things to say about U.S. export performance.
Readers are invited to speculate whether oil at, say $70 a barrel, would have stagflationary effects.
"I was just made by the Presbyterian Church"
It reminds me of an episode from a criminally underrated television series, News Radio. In the "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" episode, Jimmy James needs to read his own autobiography after it was translated into Japanese and then re-translated into English.
And you at home can play this game too!! Just go to Alta Vista's Babelfish page, pick a favorite piece of dialogue, translate it and then retranslate it.
Thursday, August 11, 2005
When negotiations suck eggs....
Time magazine's Romesh Ratnesar has a long story on Condoleezza Rice and her growing foreign policy clout:
For Ivo Daalder, this turn to negotiations is all to the good -- thought that's not because they're guaranteed to succeed:
This all sounds eminently sensible.... except for a one teensy little problem -- what happens if our allies shift their position during the negotiations? Both the Iran and North Korea cases require active consultation and coordination with allies that might, just might, change their minds about what constitutes unacceptable behavior.
With regard to North Korea, there is the tricky problem that South Korea has now decided to back North Korea's demands for a peaceful nuclear program. This is an logical outcome of South Korea's sunshine policy -- a problem that I mentioned two years ago.
Won Joon Choe and Jack Kim explain in the Christian Science Monitor why the South Koreans have been acting in such a peculiar manner:
So, contrary to Daalder, there is another possible outcome from negotiations besides a fair settlement and a shifting of blame -- the possibility that our allies back down leaving the U.S. in the lurch.
[So you're saying screw negotiations, right?--ed.] Alas, no -- for the North Korean case in particular, negotiations are a lousy, rotten option -- until you consider the alternatives -- which Fred Kaplan did last month in Slate:
So my point is this -- the U.S. is favoring negotiations right now not because they're such an alluring alternative -- it's because given our resource constraints and the countries we are dealing with, the negotiation option is the best of a rotten set of alternatives.
I've got my red phone... what about you?
Earlier this week, India and Pakistan announced confidence-building measures tp prevent nuclear war, which include "hotlines between their foreign secretaries and director generals of military operations next month to prevent misunderstandings and reduce risks of mishaps." according to Pakistan's Daily Times.
Yesterday, North Korea and South Korea announced that theu had "successfully tested a hotline on Wednesday aimed at helping avoid naval confrontations in the Yellow Sea by allowing direct contact between the two militaries," according to Reuters.
Quick, before hotlines jump the shark, readers are strongly encouraged to suggest the next pair of enduring rivals that should acquire a hotline.... and no, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie do not count.
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
A very important post about.... my early gender confusion
Well, as a child, I certainly suffered from 1, 2, 4, 5, and maybe 6 (Depends how you define "think effeminately").
If you'll excuse me, I have to go tell my wife and children about my latent homosexual qualities and accompanying gender confusion. I fear that my son will probably cry and feel different.
Readers, talk amongst yourselves -- in particular, how boys who like the "the roughhousing that other boys enjoy" could never be gay.
Hat tip to Giblets at Fafblog, who provides additional tips for detecting future homosexuals in our nation's children:
UPDATE: Another topic for discussion -- did this historical character display gender confusion as well?
The Chinese step closer to currency transparency
That's the message contained in this Financial Times report:
UPDATE: This April 2005 World Economy paper by Michael Funke and Jörg Rahn suggests that even if the renminbi were allowed to float, its appreciation would be far less than many believe.
For the last few weeks the trackback feature on the blog has been out of order. My apologies -- it should be working now.
Tuesday, August 9, 2005
When capital and labor are substitutes
Keith Bradsher has an interesting piece in the New York Times on GM's recent success producing and selling cars in China. The interesting fact is the way in which China's relative abundance of labor altered GM's capital investment:
The depressing fact is that, naturally, GM is punishing the guy that came up with the process and product ideas behind the minivan in the first place:
In a world where local knowledge about consumer demand and the most efficient way to mix factor endowments are important, the GM decision to centralize its management structure seems particularly brain-dead.
Read the whole piece.
UPDATE: A 2003 McKinsey Quarterly essay by Vivek Agrawal, Diana Farrell, and Jaana K. Remes touches on this concept of reorganizing production processes to exploit local factor endowments. The auto sector in China is one example:
These examples point to a big warning sign that should be put on any news story about job creation in offshored sectors in low wage countries:
Your new blog for the day
Through rigorous market surveys, the hard working staff here at danieldrezner.com knows that its readership wants to find blogs discussing foreign aid and economic development. [Well, that and the occasional mention of Salma Hayek--ed]
Without further ado, click over to Private Sector Development Blog, an inelegantly-named but interesting read by Tim Harford and Pablo Halkyard, two economists at the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (that's the bank with the Bank that lends to private sector entities).
Go check out the blog.
Is there a grand compromise on immigration?
Tamar Jacoby thinks the answer is yes. She explains why in the Weekly Standard:
There might be a consensus at the elite level, but I'm very skeptical that this consensus extends down to the populace. Click here for why I'm skeptical.
The interesting question is if Jacoby is correct, whether public hostility would derail any proposed reform.
Monday, August 8, 2005
Will Singapore remain the outlier?
Whenever people start talking about the interrelationships between regime type, the rule of law, economic development, and political corruption, the outlier is always Singapore.
Think that economic development inexorably leads to freedom of the press? Hello, meet Singapore.
Think that authoritarianism automatically leads to corruption? Have you met Singapore?
Think that no government can plug its country into the Internet while still retaining a vast web of censorship? Yes, yes, that is Singapore over there in the corner giving you the raspberry.
[So what do political scientists say whenever the Singapore is brought up as the counterexample to the general rule?--ed.] There are a few options available:
Some of these options are not mutually exclusive.
My thought piece on information technology and regime type takes some steps towards the third position. So I'm pleased to see that Associated Press reporter En-Lai Yeoh is also moving in that direction:
I'm not holding my breath anytime soon for displays of Singaporean people power. But this story suggests that maybe there are limits to how far Singapore's exceptional identity can be maintained.
The CIA meets the Department of Common Sense
Timothy Burger reports in Time on a recent initiative by Porter Goss:
On the one hand, this seems like an excellent idea.
On the other hand, I keep wondering why the hell something like this wasn't instituted, oh,
Peter Jennings, R.I.P.
The longtime anchor of ABC news died on Sunday, four months after announcing he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
His career tracked a lot of recent history, as the ABC obit observes:
I am not and never have been a big network news watcher, but my preference was always ABC, and the Jennings' detached, analytical demeanor was the reason. He will be missed.
Sunday, August 7, 2005
Good news on the whole pandemic thing
I've expressed concern in recent months about the possibility of a pandemic of avian flu emerging from the birds of East Asia. So it's only fair to point out when there is good news on this front. Lawrence K. Altman provides some on the front page of the New York Times:
The law of comparative advantage is not dead
That's the message Jagdish Bhawgati delivered in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, responding to Thomas "The World is Flat" Friedman.
The best rebuttal to Bhagwati's argument, by the way, is not Thomas Friedman, but labor economist Richard Freeman. So go check both of them out.
Friday, August 5, 2005
Obscure economic indicator... cool...
I bring this up because Daniel Gross has an excellent piece in Slate that details an interesting yet obscure leading indicator for economic growth -- parking rates:
My only objection is that I think Gross might be exaggerating the transparency -- compared to gas stations, parking garages are most likely to have their Early Bird specials in big print to onscure their ordinary rates.
Still, it's a nifty metric.
My Normblog profile
If you're dying to know my favorite proverb or my one useful piece of life wisdom, go check it out
Thursday, August 4, 2005
August's Books of the Month
The general interest book is -- [um, like, it's August. Could you please suggest something that's less.... non-fictiony?--ed.] I'll do that suggestion one better -- I'm not going to recommend a book. Instead, I'm strongly recommending that you go out and purchase Firefly -- the Complete Series -- a DVD of Joss Whedon's sci fi series from 2002. I confess that I missed the show when it first came out, but thanks to Tyler Cowen's suggestion I checked it out and am now completely hooked. There are many, many, many paeans to Firefly in the blogosphere if you're interested in them. Anyone who likes Battlestar Galactica needs to watch this show in order to understand the debt, both in terms of themes and visual style, that Galactica owes to Firefly (this is not meant to diss Galactica, which is a fine show, but rather point to its influences). At its core, Firefly is Whedon doing what Whedon does best -- making his watchers forget the multiple layers of irony they are used to in popular culture and care very deeply about what happens to the little world he has created. Be sure to check out Whedon's commentary tracks for some of the episodes as well -- you'll see that he cares even more about the characters than you do.
[So why now, why not save this until the fall?--ed.] Because Whedon has also accomplished something extrardinary -- he managed to convince a major movie studio to commit a fair amount of money and let him make a movie, called Serenity, based on the show. Here's the synopsis:
You can watch the Serenity trailer here. I suspect it will be an entertaining film regardless of whether you have seen Firefly -- Whedon also wrote the screenplays for Speed and Toy Story -- but I bet it will be an even better viewing experience if you have seen all 14 episodes of the show (the Sci Fi channel is also airing them).
[How in the hell did Whedon convince a studio to convert a failed TV show into a movie?--ed.] The best answer I've seen is in this Weekly Standard article by M.E. Russell. Besides the most succinct description of the show I've seen yet, ("Think of it as Star Wars, if Han Solo were the main character, and he still shot Greedo first."), Russell explains why Universal thinks this is worth doing:
Of course, by blogging about this, I've become an unwitting pawn to the whole viral marketing approach.
Mmmm.... unwitting pawns....
Join the Browncoats, and go buy the goram DVD.
This month's international relations book is one that's been killing me for the past few weeks as I've been working on my APSA paper -- Susan Sell's Private Power, Public Law: The Globalization of Intellectual Property Rights.
Sell's book is about the role that software, pharmaceutical, and entertainment firms played in having the United States lobby for the creation of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property system (TRIPS) within the World Trade Organization -- and then the counter-lobbying by developing countries and transnational activist networks that led to the November 2001 Doha Declaration, which explicitly carved out an exception to TRIPS "to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all."
It's the second part of the story that drives me crazy -- because if Sell's narrative is correct, it falsifies the argument I make in my own book on globalization and global governance. When the regulatory status quo is embraced by the two largest trading powers (the US and EU) and by powerful economic sectors embedded in those economies, there is no way that weaker countries and NGOs should be able to budge the status quo. And yet, if Sell's account is correct, that's exactly what happened (Any USTR folks who know otherwise, kindly e-mail me).
It's because Sell's account is so compelling that I'm in the middle of doing something that should happen more often in political science -- examining the cases that cut against my own hypothesis. Either this case is emblematic of a larger problem or it suggests a minor anomaly that I didn't account for in the original model, or the significance of the case is overblown. Reading through, I think it's a combination of the latter two, but it's a credit to Sell's book that she's making me sweat this case. Go check it out.
Medicine and the modern pitcher
On his 43rd birthday, Houston Astros pitcher Roger Clemens has become his generation's Nolan Ryan, the Official Hero to American Middle-Aged Men everywhere.
No Red Sox fan can have an uncomplicated opinion of Clemens -- however, this Alan Schwarz article in ESPN.com provides a nice illustration of how medical advances made Clemens' long career possible:
The quaint old coup
Mauritania is a not-so-pleasant reminder of a relatively pleasant fact: military coup d'etats are a post-Cold War rarity. According to Patrick McGowan (‘African Military Coups d’Etat, 1956–2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution’, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 41, issue 3, 2003.):
Outside of Africa, the only successful coups in the past decade have been in Haiti and Pakistan. Interestingly, the only countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been independent for 25 years and have avoided coups are Botswana, Cape Verde and Mauritius -- all of which are multiparty democracies. [UPDATE: Hmmm..... this previous sentence came straight from the McGowan article, but Jacob Levy is right to wonder why South Africa isn't on this list. One possibility is that McGowan includes attempted coups, and there might have been one in the late eighties/early nineties that escapes our collective memory.]
Even inside Africa, there is relatively good news -- although the pace of coup activity has not abated, according to McGowan the relative success of coup attempts has declined. In other words, there are as many coup attempts as in the past, but fewer of them succeed.
Why? One obvious reason for the decline in coups is the absence of great power support for them. Another reason might be contained in this London Times story by Jenny Booth:
Here's a link to an earlier AU condemnation of the coup.
Whether this will actually alter the behavior of the coup plotters is doubtful at this point, but it's worth remembering that even this gesture would never have taken place ten years ago. And such gestures in the past have helped to thwart coups in Latin America.
The rest of the world's response has been along similar lines to what's happened in Mauritania.
Alas, focusing on Mauritania itself, it seems pretty clear that the coup does not do wonders for U.S. foreign policy, according to Booth's report:
On the other hand, this International Crisis Group report from March 2005 suggests that fears of radical Islamic activity are overblown. See also Princeton Lyman's CFR briefing on the coup.
Trade, China, and steel
The Chicago Tribune has two articles in its business section on trade with China -- both of which show that all is not what it seems when you analyze a bilateral economic relationship between two large countries.
Of course, as the story goes on, things get a bit more complicated:
In a sidebar, Michael Oneal looks at how U.S. firms across the board will react to a further devaluation of the yuan. Turns out there won't be much of areaction:
Wednesday, August 3, 2005
"Where do you find the time to blog?"
This is the question I field the most when the topic of blogging comes up at cocktail parties and BBQs.
The answer is embedded in this CNN story:
The Forrester page is of little use for those of us who aren't Forrester clients, but if you click on the video, you learn an interesting fact: according to their survey, only 2% of households in the United States read a blog once a week.
I should note that my lovely wife has a different answer to the title question -- "it's the time he would otherwise have used to pick up his socks."
Following up on the avian flu
A follow-up post to June's discussion of the threat of an avian flu pandemic. There's some good news and some bad news.
The good news is that, according to the Financial Times' Clive Cookson, containing the spread of a pandemic is quite feasible:
The bad news is that the computer simulations were based on "an outbreak in rural Thailand of flu caused by the H5N1 avian strain." I'm not sure how they would cope with where the strain has actually migrated. Douglas M. Birch explains in the Baltimore Sun:
So what do Americans think about their foreign policy?
Foreign Affairs has launched a joint project with Public Agenda to gauge the American public's attitudes towards U.S. foreign policy. The "Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index" is designed to poll public attitudes repeatedly over time, so this first poll mostly serves as a useful baseline.
So what did they find out? Well, according to the press release, Public Agenda Chairman Daniel Yankelovich says:
Yankelovich has clearly been using the Pundit Handbook -- replace "the country’s current course" with any public policy problem you like and that sentence can be recycled (I have no doubt Yankelovich also believes that baseball players "just need to play one game at a time").
Seriously, the big news seems to be that Americans are concerned about how non-Americans view their country:
Indeed, at this graph suggests, Americans also seem to prefer using "soft power" approaches to combat radical Islamists:
The irony, of course, is that when asked about some of these economic measures -- say, trade and immigration -- our mercantilist impulse kicks in.
The immigration questions focus primarily on illegal kind of immigration, and the trade questions have less to do with trade and more to do with jobs, so maybe America's schizophrenia is overrated. But it's certainly there.
UPDATE: Yankelovich also has an essay in the forthcoming issue of Foreign Affairs summarizing the poll's findings. One nugget of information that seems interesting:
Tuesday, August 2, 2005
Now the President gets intellectually curious
Three weeks ago, the New Republic's Ben Adler asked a group of prominent conservatives what they thought about the "intelligent design" theory of the Earth's creation.
Apparently, Adler could have asked President Bush as well, because it turns out he has some thoughts on the matter:
Glenn Reynolds lists some other "schools of thought" that might be worth teaching our nation's children. Readers are encouraged to come up with other "schools of thought" that might challenge evolution.
I'll just close with Charles Krauthammer's response in Adler's essay:
UPDATE: Well, Bush also doesn't believe that Rafael Palmeiro used steroids.
Who wants their Gore TV?
Fourteen months ago, Al Gore announced his plans to create a new cable tv channel. That channel -- called Current TV -- launched yesterday. Salon's Heather Havrilesky sums up what Gore is after:
Well, Mo Ryan is certainly discussing Current TV in the Chicago Tribune -- and it sounds like Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch can rest easy for now:
Havrilesky dumps on the on-air talent:
Hmmm.... this almost makes the hosts sound like.... bloggers. And yes, the channel has its own blog.
And, if they manage to hang around for more than a decade, you just know that someone is going to write a TV column that begins, "Remember when Current TV used to run pods?"
So what's the deal with Iran's nuclear program?
The past few days have seen a lot of hand-wringing over Iran's decision to defy the principal EU countries and IAEA and proceed with "uranium enrichment activities" as the FT's Gareth Smyth and Najmeh Bozorgmehr put it.
Ordinarily, this development would fill the Bush administration with glee. After all, the administration cut a deal with the Europeans agreeing to let them have the negotiation lead with Iran, and even remove the block from Iran's WTO candidacy -- provided that if the talks ever broke down, the EU countries would back at U.S. resolution to bring the matter to the UN Security Council.
Now, however, I see this front-pager by Dafna Linzer in today's Washington Post:
If you read the whole article (oh, and here's a Q&A with Linzer about the story) , you'll see that the big question Bush officials are asking is whether there will be regime change in Iran before that country acquires a nuclear capability.
I have a different question -- is it possible that the mullahs are copying Saddam Hussein? Recall that even though Iraq's WMD program turned out to be relatively moribund, Hussein repeatedly refused to cooperate fully with UN officials. Among the many possible motivations, one hypothesis was that Hussein was unwilling to expose his relative weakness.
Right now every country in the Middle East fears Iran's growing power -- could the mullahs have an incentive to exaggerate perceptions of that power?
UPDATE: Frank Foer, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, frets that the new NIE will be counterproductive to the "broad consensus that the mullahs must be stopped."
Chevron wins the rent-seeking war
David Barboza reports in the New York Times that the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has withdrawn its offer for Unocal:
Now I don't doubt that a great deal of hostility towards CNOOC's takeover bid had to do with a fear of China's rising power -- but Barboza's story suggests that it also might have been because while Chevron did not outbid CNOOC for Unocal, they did outbid CNOOC for much Congress:
Chevron played this game well -- they spent way less that the $1 billion gap between their offer and CNOOC's, but by pushing Congress in a direction it probably wanted to go anyway, still got Unocal.
Whether Unocal's shareholders benefited is another question entirely.
Monday, August 1, 2005
That's ambassador Bolton to you
President Bush made the first-ever recess appointment of a UN Ambassador and named John Bolton today. Essentially, this means that Bolton will serve until January 2007.
The myriad political responses to the decision include a lot of apoplexy from Democrats. Ted Kennedy said:
I am shocked to report that Lincoln Chafee -- never thought of as the sharpest tool in the shed -- had the most sagacious comment: "We filibustered the nomineee. We exercised our perogative under the law. He [Bush] exercised his perogative under the law."
Over at Steve Clemons' Washington Note -- and Steve has been leading the blog war against Bolton -- Charles Brown recaps the winners and losers from the Democrat perspective. Ed Kilgore at TPM Cafe is pretty teed off as well.
On the right, Paul Mirengoff thinks this was the right call, though even he's depressed about the long run implications:
My views on Bolton remain unchanged -- from the Bush administration's perspective, this is an unwanted man being sent to an unwanted institution. Given the administration's attitude, it's not clear to me whether anyone else would have been more effective.
Richard Posner's forthcoming book
Eleven months ago, Richard Posner's review of the 9-11 Commission Report appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. And lo and behold, Posner spun that review into a book of his own on homeland security, Preventing Surprise Attacks: Intelligence Reform in the Wake of 9/11.
I bring this up because Judge Posner has another lead review in the NYT Book Review. So in case anyone was curious about the topic of Posner's new book, it appears to be about the political economy of the media.
Go read it all -- there's a healthy number of paragraphs about blogs and the media that Glenn Reynolds discusses as well. I'll post an update once I've semi-digested Posner's analysis.
UPDATE: Well, I'm still cogitating -- but Laura McKenna has posted her thoughts on the matter. Be sure to check out her typology of how experts interpret the rise of the blogosphere.
Meanwhile, Jack Shafer rips Posner's essay apart in Slate. Some of it is carping, but this paragraph raises an alarm bell that also went off in my head when I first read it: