Monday, July 31, 2006

How isolated is Iran right now?

I find it amazing that despite the turmoil in the Middle East -- and the blame that many place on the United States for what's happening -- the Security Council still voted 14-1 to threaten Iran with economic sanctions unless that country suspended its nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities.

posted by Dan at 11:22 PM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

The tricky thing about mythologizing history....

Robert Pringle, who served as U.S. ambassador to Mali from 1987 to 1990, wrote in the spring issue of The Wilson Quarterly on how Mali was able to preserve its democracy. This is not a trivial question -- socioeconomic indicators would predict, Fareed Zakaria-style, that Maliian democracy should not work.

Pringle's article is now available online. What's his explanation for Mali's success? Mythology:

Was Mali’s record simply the result of fortuitous good leadership, or was something more fundamental at work? To find out, I returned in 2004 and traveled throughout the country conducting interviews. When I asked Malians to explain their aptitude for democracy, their answers boiled down to “It’s the history, stupid,” of course expressed more politely....

The Niger River was the launching point for trade routes across the Sahara until they were marginalized by colonial-era commerce through coastal ports. Trans-Saharan trade nurtured ancient cities, the most famous in Mali being Jenné and Timbuktu. There were three early states: Ghana (eighth to 11th centuries), Mali (13th to 15th centuries), and Songhai (14th to 16th centuries). Two of the three lay largely outside modern Mali: Old Ghana inspired the name of modern Ghana, but was located in today’s Mali and Mauritania, while old Mali was mainly in modern Mali, with a portion in Guinea. There were other states, but it is these three that the Malians refer to when they talk about the “Great Empires.”

It is because of the Great Empires that Malians—from villagers to college professors—believe they have a gift for democracy and its twin, conflict resolution. The history they cite is not merely their extensive experience of precolonial, multiethnic government, unusual elsewhere on the continent, but also an associated system of beliefs and customs. The centerpiece of this tradition is the epic of Sunjata Keita, who overcame exile and physical handicap and founded the Mali Empire in the 13th century. Sunjata’s story, primarily oral and circulated in numerous versions, has played a role in West Africa similar to that of the Homeric epics in Western civilization....

From these many materials, Malians are creating a national foundation mythology. Like Americans, they are selective. We stress the Bill of Rights, not the Pullman strike or what we did to Native Americans, and we like to believe the story about the young George Washington making a clean breast of it after he chopped down his father’s cherry tree, even when we know that this appealing story was invented by an early biographer. The Malians emphasize the three Great Empires and pass lightly over their ancestors’ later complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, though they do not deny it.

What is most important about Mali’s mythology is not whether or to what extent history is being embellished, but rather the underlying assumption that reason and creativity can maintain harmonious relations among people of different cultural backgrounds. The Malians believe that equitable, responsive government has become a national tradition in part as a response to harsh conditions. Malian historian Doulaye Konaté, a leading scholar of the subject, notes, “It is precisely because violence was omnipresent that West African societies developed mechanisms and procedures aimed at preventing or, if that didn’t work, at managing conflict.” The value of such a mindset in a modern African setting, with warring, unsettled, or dictatorial neighbors still all too common, is hard to overestimate....

The most striking thing about Malian democracy is its success in drawing intellectual and spiritual sustenance from an epic past, and actively incorporating homegrown elements, such as decentralization. If there is occasional fiddling with historical truth, the past provides plenty of room for differing viewpoints and for shaping tradition to meet modern needs. It is this aspect of the Malian experience that is least appreciated, and it deserves more attention from policymakers, both African and foreign, who have a tendency to assume that “tradition” equates with “bad.”

This is interesting, because the trouble with mythologizing the past is that it cuts both ways. Pringle might be correct that Mali's construction of history has led to the flourishing of a relative stable democracy in an unlikely locale.

However, one can point to other parts of the globe [Cough, cough, Serbia, cough--ed.] where mythology has been used to promote extremist ideologies instead.

So I'm not completely convinced that Pringle is correct in believing that the promotion of traditon is the way to promote democracy in Africa. The promotion of tradition can lead to a lot of things -- and not all of them good.

posted by Dan at 11:59 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Interest group capture and Snakes On A Plane

Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen has a cover story on the movie Snakes On a Plane (SoaP), and the online fanboys who really like the title of the movie:

For nearly a year, SoaP obsessives have been chatting and blogging about the movie, not to mention producing their own T-shirts, posters, trailers, novelty songs, and parodies. As the movie has morphed from a semiprecious nugget of intellectual property into a virtual plaything for the ethertainment masses, Snakes and its cult are teasingly threatening to revolutionize the rules of marketing for the do-it-yourself digital era....

It's the promise of enlightenment that has drawn thousands of SoaP fans to Comic-Con for a peek at 10 minutes of the film's fang-baring snake-rageousness. But what thrills these SoaP fans the most on this ain't-it-cool Friday is confirmation that their jocular voices have been heard, which comes once they've seen the footage, when Jackson himself shows up to bellow his already-famous line, a line inspired by the fans themselves:


The crowd goes wild.

Now let's see if they actually go to the movie....

[Soap's diehard fanbase] raises some provocative questions. Consider the ''motherf---ing'' line, which was directly suggested by SoaP fan culture. Sure, it's something an R-rated Sam Jackson action hero would say. But should fans be allowed any input into the artistic process during the actual making of a film? Jackson offers a qualified yes: ''Films are a collaborative process, and this is the next step. If a film is vying for that mass teen dollar, then yes, they have every right to say: This is the kind of film we want to see. Films of social relevance — well, no.''

Adds Snakes costar Julianna Margulies: ''On one hand, it's fantastic, because it put our film on the map. But it's a slippery slope. If we have to rely on the public to tell us what great work is — I don't know if that's a great idea.''

In addition, a vociferous fan culture doesn't always translate to big grosses (see Joss Whedon's Serenity). Earlier this year, New Line conducted focus-group research that revealed that awareness of SoaP among potential moviegoers wasn't nearly as large as the fan base made it seem. Which meant that a small and noisy band of enthusiasts was independently shaping the image of the movie — an image at odds with New Line's intentions. The studio wanted to position the film as a scary, if fun, Final Destination. But in co-opting the film for their own amusement, SoaPers were assuming Snakes was something campy — or worse, demanding that it be. ''I don't really like that,'' says [director David] Ellis of the film's so-bad-it's-good rep in some quarters. ''[But] I guess it's good that they're talking about it, and when I get them in the theater, I can change their mind."

....New Line execs are worried. ''What's unique about Snakes is that the idea of the movie has excited people. But that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the movie we made,'' says [New Line president Toby] Emmerich. ''I'm hoping it does. But I just don't know what people are expecting.'' And [New Line's domestic marketing president Russell] Schwartz thinks it's impossible to use the film as a marketing template: ''If this movie opens, I [still] don't think we've shown the Web can open a movie.''

New Line execs are not the only people freaking out -- Chuck Klosterman has a rant on this in the August issue of Esquire:
I have not seen Snakes on a Plane, so I have no idea how good this movie is (or isn't). But I do know this: Its existence represents a weird, semidepressing American condition, and I'm afraid this condition is going to get worse. I suspect Snakes on a Plane might earn a lot of money, which will prompt studios to assume this is the kind of movie audiences want. And I don't think it is. Snakes on a Plane is an unabashed attempt at prefab populism, and (maybe) this gimmick will work once. But it won't keep working, and it will almost certainly make filmmaking worse....

When it comes to mass media, it's useless to ask people what they want; nobody knows what they want until they have it. If studios start to view the blogosphere as some kind of massive focus group, two things will happen: The first is that the movies will become idiotic and impersonal, which is probably predictable. But the less predictable second result will be that many of those movies will still fail commercially, even if the studios' research was perfect. If you asked a hundred million people exactly what they wanted from a movie, and you used that data to make exactly the film they claimed to desire, it might succeed. Or it might not. Making artistic decisions by consensus doesn't work any better than giving one person complete autonomy; both strategies work roughly half the time.

There are several possible ways this could play out. However, the one that interest group theory suggests will happen is that by trying to please the most ardent base of fans, the movie will reduce its appeal to a wider audience.

Of course, both Jensen and Klosterman miss one important point in their analyses -- they're generalizing from a $30 million dollar film. $30 million is a lot to you and me, but to Hollywood that's barely enough to pay for Jessica Alba's skin care products. Somehow I doubt this kind of interactive filmmaking process would take place with a tentpole movie, as it were. With a bunch of lower-budget films, however, this kind of feedback might increase the viewing pleasure of specialized viewers, even if it doesn't make the movie seem any better to a general viewer.

There's more to discuss here, but I'l leave it to my readers and a plaintive cry for help from Virginia Postrel.

All I want to know is, why isn't Salma Hayek in this mother f*&%ing movie?

posted by Dan at 11:07 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Someone please explain to me how this multinational force will work

CNN reports that President Bush now supports a U.N. resolution calling for a cease-fire in Lebanon:

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Friday their support for a U.N. cease-fire resolution to end the Mideast crisis and a multinational force to stabilize southern Lebanon.

The leaders said the force would help Lebanese troops take control of the south, where the Hezbollah militia is firing rockets into Israel and Israeli soldiers are striking Hezbollah positions.

"We want a Lebanon free of militias and foreign interference, and a Lebanon that governs its own destiny," Bush told reporters after meeting with Blair at the White House.

It's unknown whether Hezbollah would participate in the proposed cease-fire and Blair said the multinational force wouldn't "fight their way" into the region.

"This can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work," the prime minister said.

OK, I see... a multinational force that will rid southern Lebanon of militias and "help Lebanese troops take control of the south," but will do so with Hezbollah's blessing.


This sounds kind of familiar... ah, yes, here's a front-pager by Thanassis Cambanis in today's Boston Globe that looks at the multinational force that's already in southern Lebanon:

A volley of outgoing Katyusha rockets zipped from the hilltop above the gate of the United Nations peacekeepers' compound here yesterday late in the afternoon.

"That's Hezbollah, firing from a position 300 meters away," Colonel Jacques Colleville said, pointing up the hill. "Now the Israelis will retaliate."

Ear-shattering explosions soon followed as the Israelis replied by shelling the Hezbollah position. Smoke, dust, and fire rose from the hilltop.

Israel and the United States have been adamant that a robust international military force should take on the role of peacekeeper in south Lebanon when the bloody two-week-old war between Israel and the Islamist militia in southern Lebanon ends. None of the proposals yet addresses the number or origin of troops or the authority the peacekeepers would have. But any future force will have to contend with many of the same problems that crippled the existing United Nations mission, including Hezbollah's power as a popular guerrilla movement, the weakness of Lebanon's central government, and the limited mandate that has prevented peacekeepers from using force.

Colleville, who is French, said the UN troops have been largely powerless to stop Hezbollah from launching rockets right beside UN positions or to intervene when the Israeli military bombs civilians when attacking what it says are Hezbollah targets.

Asked whether UNIFIL could have helped disarm Hezbollah, Colleville laughed.

"How would I disarm them?" he said. "With my telephone?"

The United Nations Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) is easy to mock as a symbol of the UN's ineffectiveness. However, their observations of what would be needed to actually do their job are worth noting:
[UNIFIL commander Alain] Pellegrini said a future multinational force in southern Lebanon would have to have the muscle to stop belligerents, for example finding and stopping Hezbollah units like the one that started firing from in front of the UN compound in Naqoura yesterday afternoon.

``We have to be well-beefed and able to enforce some international decision," Pellegrini said. ``Heavy weapons and strong rules of engagement."

More important , the international force would need approval from Hezbollah's followers, or else it would face the same kind of punishing guerrilla resistance that hounded Israel's occupation from 1982 to 2000, UNIFIL's political affairs officer Ryszard Morczynski said. And he said it should be a UN force, not under some other command such as NATO, as one proposal calls for.

"If it's not a UN force, the population won't accept it," he said. ``The population must accept it, or at least tolerate it."

Morczynski, who is from Poland, said proposals to dispatch a ``coalition of the willing," rather than a UN force, to disarm Hezbollah and keep the peace in southern Lebanon, could touch off the kind of spiraling insurgent warfare the United States faces in Iraq -- without ever curtailing the power of Hezbollah.

He added that the goal should be to control Hezbollah, not disarm it, which he said would be all but impossible. ``If you flatten the country and make it a parking lot, then you will disarm Hezbollah," he said.

Question to readers: does anyone believe it would be possible to constitute a multinaional force that would be able to constrain Hezbollah's actions without triggering more bloodshed?

UPDATE: Another question -- who's going to commit troops to such a force? As Elaine Sciolino and Steve Erlanger pointed out a few days ago, it's not like the countries calling for a multinational force actually want to send troops:

The United States has ruled out its soldiers’ participating, NATO says it is overstretched, Britain feels its troops are overcommitted and Germany says it is willing to participate only if Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that it would police, agrees to it, a highly unlikely development.

“All the politicians are saying, ‘Great, great’ to the idea of a force, but no one is saying whose soldiers will be on the ground,” said one senior European official. “Everyone will volunteer to be in charge of the logistics in Cyprus.”

posted by Dan at 03:07 PM | Comments (52) | Trackbacks (0)

My diavlog debut

For months, nay, years, the hard-working staff here at has begged yours truly to start paying them join the vlogging revolution.

Your humble blogger has finally made the plunge... on To see me debate Nonzero author Robert Wright on the Middle East, Doha, the clash of civilizations, "progressive realism," and sportswriting, click here.

posted by Dan at 11:56 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

The situation in Lebanon has calcified

When the war started in Lebanon, I said the situaion was fluid.

Not any more.

Neil MacFarquhar has a front-pager in the New York Times suggesting that the Arab Middle East has come to a consensus about the war in Lebanon -- and it's not a consensus the United States would like:

At the onset of the Lebanese crisis, Arab governments, starting with Saudi Arabia, slammed Hezbollah for recklessly provoking a war, providing what the United States and Israel took as a wink and a nod to continue the fight.

Now, with hundreds of Lebanese dead and Hezbollah holding out against the vaunted Israeli military for more than two weeks, the tide of public opinion across the Arab world is surging behind the organization, transforming the Shiite group’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, into a folk hero and forcing a change in official statements.

The Saudi royal family and King Abdullah II of Jordan, who were initially more worried about the rising power of Shiite Iran, Hezbollah’s main sponsor, are scrambling to distance themselves from Washington.

An outpouring of newspaper columns, cartoons, blogs and public poetry readings have showered praise on Hezbollah while attacking the United States and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for trumpeting American plans for a “new Middle East” that they say has led only to violence and repression.

Even Al Qaeda, run by violent Sunni Muslim extremists normally hostile to all Shiites, has gotten into the act, with its deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, releasing a taped message saying that through its fighting in Iraq, his organization was also trying to liberate Palestine.

This situation is no longer developing -- it's developed. And ironically, it's developed because Arab governments in the region are doing what the Bush administration wants them to do -- respond to popular opinions within their countries.

To be fair, I suspect if the IDF had managed to cause Hezbollah to disintegrate within the week of conflict, this wouldn't have happened -- and I think that was what the IDF expected to happen. However, I'm shocked, shocked to report that pre-war intelligence might have been flawed.

Now, Israel faces the worst of both worlds -- they've discovered that Hezbollah is a more potent, disciplined, and technologically savvy threat than they previously thought. At the same time, public opinion in Lebanon, the region and across the world has shifted against Jerusalem, making it next to impossible for them to adopt the military measures necessary to eradicate the threat [What measures are those?--ed. I'm not even sure -- I just now they would involve action on a greater scale than what the IDF is currently doing.]

UPDATE: There is one whopping caveat to the above that I forgot to mention -- it is possible that Hezbollah has suffered far greater losses than we know. There is an asymmetry in the reporting of the conflict -- reporters clearly have much greater access to the Israeli military than Hezbollah. While it's in both sides' interest to keep published reports of their losses to a minimum, it's institutionally tougher for Israel to do this.

As a result, the Israeli losses are known -- the Hezbollah losses are not completely known. [If Hezbollah crumbles in the next week, will this be your "quagmire" post?--ed. Pretty much, yes -- but I still don't think they will fall apart.]

posted by Dan at 07:57 AM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The healthy automotive sector in the United States

No doubt, the title to this post must sound odd. After all, according to one recent report, foreign automakers now command a majority of the U.S. auto market for the first time ever.

However, Daniel Griswold and Daniel Ikenson argue otherwise in a Cato policy brief that looks at the U.S. automotive sector. Their argument is unsurprising for anyone familiar with Cato:

The financial woes of a few companies operating in a healthy, competitive market do not justify intervention by Washington policymakers but are the market's way of providing feedback about the decisions of those firms. It is not the role of the government to rescue companies that have made relatively bad decisions. Healthy competition ensures that best practices are emulated, leads to gains in productivity and innovation, and provides American automobile consumers with greater choice, better quality, and more competitive pricing.
This argument is unsurprising coming from Cato -- but they do have the advantage of marshalling useful facts to buttress their argument:
Although complaints about unfair competition from abroad are less shrill than in the 1980s, foreign producers have not escaped criticism. The chief executive officers of General Motors and Chrysler recently complained that an allegedly undervalued yen gives vehicles imported from Japan an unfair price advantage of as much as $3,000 per vehicle. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, charged at a hearing in February that Detroit-based automakers face unfair foreign competition. "They are competing with currency manipulation by other countries, including China, Japan and Korea, which gives their vehicles and other products an unfair price advantage in our market," Levin said in a statement. And the United Auto Workers union, which represents workers at GM, Ford, Chrysler, and several parts' producers, has called for a federal "Marshall Plan" to aid those companies....

In 2004, 16.9 million light vehicles were sold in the United States, of which 2.4 million, or 14 percent, were imported from Asia, while 3.5 million, or 21 percent, were Asian nameplates produced in the United States.5 Of the nearly 1.7 million Toyotas sold in the U.S. market in 2004, nearly 3 of every 4 were produced in the United States, which was a greater share than in the previous year. Over 81 percent of the nearly 1 million Hondas sold in 2004 were produced in the United States, which was an increase from the 78 percent rate attained in 2003. Nissan's U.S.-produced vehicles accounted for 86 percent of its U.S. sales in 2004, which was a big shift from the 66 percent rate of the previous year.

In fact, each of the top 10 selling cars and top 10 selling trucks (pickups, SUVs, and minivans) in the first half of 2006 is produced at facilities in the United States.7 Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Chevy Impala (GM), Ford Taurus, Nissan Altima, Ford Explorer, Chrysler Town & Country, and the other models that round off the most popular 20, regardless of the location of company headquarters, are produced in U.S. plants by American workers who contribute to the local, state, and national economies through their employment, expenditures, and taxes....

Domestic output of motor vehicles and parts has actually enjoyed a healthy increase since 1993 even if employment has not. In 2005, U.S. factories were manufacturing 68 percent more motor vehicles and parts in volume terms than in 1993. That compares with a 56 percent increase in U.S. manufacturing output overall during the same period. The number of workers employed domestically in the production of motor vehicles and parts was 1,098,200 in 2005, down from a peak of 1,313,600 in 2000 but still above average employment levels in the early 1990s. In light of increasing output, any decline in employment in the domestic automobile industry has been because of rising productivity and efficiency in the industry, not because of an overall decline in the industry's fortunes.

The biggest beneficiaries of a globally competitive U.S. automobile industry have been U.S. auto-buying consumers.


One small caveat to their argument -- these percentages could change as demand for hybrid vehicles go up. The Toyota Prius, for example, are manufactured in Japan.

posted by Dan at 01:47 PM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

The glimmer of good news from the Middle East

There's a great deal to be depressed about when contemplating the situaion in Lebanon, or the Middle East writ large -- go check out Marc Lynch's blog to read about the shift in Arab perceptions as a result of U.S. actions and inactions.

However, Niall Ferguson makes a point in the Los Angeles Times that is worth remembering -- contrary to the fears of a few weeks ago, the odds of a wider war appear to be slim:

Could today's quarrel between Israelis and Hezbollah over Lebanon produce World War III? That's what Republican Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, called it last week, echoing earlier fighting talk by Dan Gillerman, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.

Such language can — for now, at least — safely be dismissed as hyperbole. This crisis is not going to trigger another world war. Indeed, I do not expect it to produce even another Middle East war worthy of comparison with those of June 1967 or October 1973. In 1967, Israel fought four of its Arab neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. Such combinations are very hard to imagine today.

Nor does it seem likely that Syria and Iran will escalate their involvement in the crisis beyond continuing their support for Hezbollah. Neither is in a position to risk a full-scale military confrontation with Israel, given the risk that this might precipitate an American military reaction.

Crucially, Washington's consistent support for Israel is not matched by any great power support for Israel's neighbors. During the Cold War, by contrast, the risk was that a Middle East war could spill over into a superpower conflict.

Hat tip: Oxblog's Taylor Owen.

UPDATE: Hey, another glimmer of good news -- it's a trend, I tell you! [No, I'm afraid the AP just mistranslated a statement--ed.]

posted by Dan at 12:26 AM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

A business-writing tic that drives James Surowiecki nuts

Sports journalists are not the only ones to overinterpret small samples. In The New Yorker, James Surowiecki makes a similar point about business writing.

His example -- the Boeing-Airbus rivalry:

What much of the talk about the inherent weakness of Airbus ignores is that, just a few years ago, it was Boeing that looked fundamentally flawed, while Airbus was seen as the future of the industry. Beginning in the late nineties, Boeing’s commercial-aircraft business went into a long and nearly profitless slump. In 2001, Airbus surpassed Boeing in new orders, a lead it maintained until this year. During that period, Airbus’s unusual structure was praised; its insulation from the stock market supposedly allowed it to invest in long-term research and development. Boeing, by contrast, was thought to be trapped in a short-term, cost-cutting mentality, because, as one analyst put it, “the money guys don’t reward long-term thinking and investment.” In 2003, Business Week declared that Boeing was “choking on Airbus’ fumes,” and warned that Boeing’s “slip to No. 2 could become permanent.”

The problem with such prognostications is that they infer basic truths about a company’s prospects from its short-term performance. In fact, present success is often determined as much by context and chance as by fundamental viability. This is particularly true of the aerospace industry, because success is heavily dependent on a small number of big gambles. If you bet right, you look like a genius for a few years, even if the success of your bet was due to factors out of your control. The 787 may now look like Boeing’s salvation, but Boeing built it only after more ambitious plans—for a plane, known as the Sonic Cruiser, that would have been the fastest passenger jet in the air—fell through, partly because of the slowdown in air travel after September 11th. And had Boeing not been in such straits in 2003 it probably wouldn’t have risked the investment required for the 787.

People are generally bad at accepting the importance of context and chance. We fall prey to what the social psychologist Lee Ross called “the fundamental attribution error”—the tendency to ascribe success or failure to innate characteristics, even when context is overwhelmingly important. In one classic demonstration, people shown a person shooting a basketball in a gym with poor lighting and another person shooting a basketball in a gym with excellent lighting assume that the second person hit more shots because he was a better player. This problem is compounded by the tendency to extrapolate big conclusions from small samples, something that behavioral economists call “the law of small numbers.” In the decade or so that Airbus has been a serious competitor to Boeing, this is its first really bad patch, and its difficulties are due mainly to making one bad bet while Boeing made one good one. That’s a minuscule sample size on which to base any kind of conclusion. But this is exactly what we like to do: sports fans assume that a few excellent performances are proof of a player’s underlying ability, while investors assume that a mutual fund’s record over one year is a reliable indicator of the manager’s skill.

Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist. It’s no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal. But often there is no underlying truth; the companies just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

posted by Dan at 12:06 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Will Hezbollah overtake Al Qaeda in the standings?

I've blogged before about how Al Qaeda is like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Without using the baseball metaphor, Bernard Haykel argues in today's New York Times that Hezbollah could supplant them in the eyes of many Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

This isn't necessarily a good thing, accoding to Haykel:

With Israel at war with Hezbollah, where, you might wonder, is Al Qaeda? From all appearances on the Web sites frequented by its sympathizers, which I frequently monitor, Al Qaeda is sitting, unhappily and uneasily, on the sidelines, watching a movement antithetical to its philosophy steal its thunder. That might sound like good news. But it is more likely an ominous sign....

Hezbollah has taken the lead on the most incendiary issue for jihadis of all stripes: the fight against Israel.

Many Sunnis are therefore rallying to Hezbollah’s side, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. The Saudi cleric Salman al-Awda has defied his government’s anti-Hezbollah position, writing on his Web site that “this is not the time to express our differences with the Shiites because we are all confronted by our greater enemy, the criminal Jews and Zionists.”

For Al Qaeda, it is a time of panic. The group’s Web sites are abuzz with messages and questions about how to respond to Hezbollah’s success. One sympathizer asks whether, even knowing that the Shiites are traitors and the accomplices of the infidel Americans in Iraq, it is permissible to say a prayer for Hezbollah. He is told to curse Hezbollah along with Islam’s other enemies.

Several of Al Qaeda’s ideologues have issued official statements explaining Hezbollah’s actions and telling followers how to respond to them. The gist of their argument is that the Shiites are conspiring to destroy Islam and to resuscitate Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and ultimately the world. The ideologues label this effort the “Sassanian-Safavid conspiracy,” in reference to the Sassanians, a pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty, and to the Safavids, a Shiite dynasty that ruled Iran and parts of Iraq from 1501 till 1736.

They go on to argue that thanks to the United States (the leader of the Zionist-Crusader conspiracy), Iraq has been handed over to the Shiites, who are now wantonly massacring the country’s Sunnis. Syria is already led by a Shiite heretic, President Bashar al-Assad, whose policies harm the country’s Sunni majority.

Hezbollah, according to these analyses, seeks to dupe ordinary Muslims into believing that the Shiites are defending Islam’s holiest cause, Palestine, in order to cover for the wholesale Shiite alliance with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ultimately, this theory goes, the Shiites will fail in their efforts because the Israelis and Americans will destroy them once their role in the broader Zionist-Crusader conspiracy is accomplished. And then God will assure the success of the Sunni Muslims and the defeat of the Zionists and Crusaders.

In the meantime, no Muslim should be fooled by Hezbollah, whose members have never fought the infidel on any of the real battlefronts, like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya or Kashmir. The proper attitude for Muslims to adopt is to dissociate themselves completely from the Shiites.

This analysis — conspiratorial, bizarre and uncompelling, except to the most diehard radicals — signals an important defeat for Al Qaeda’s public relations campaign.

Read the whole thing to see why this could spell trouble for the west.

posted by Dan at 08:41 AM | Comments (31) | Trackbacks (0)

A sportswriting tic that drives me nuts

Yesterday, sports reporter Jeff Horrigan wrote the following in the Boston Herald:

Less than two weeks after the All-Star break, the Red Sox suddenly appear to be in desperate need of a collective breather.

Entering last night’s game against the Oakland Athletics, they found themselves in sole possession of first place in the American League East for the 36th consecutive day. Yet their grip on the top spot - 2 1/2 games over the Yankees and 4 1/2 over Toronto - appeared more precarious with each passing hour.

After losing two of three at Seattle this weekend, the Sox opened a three-game series against the A’s with areas of concern in all major facets of the game.

Now, the Red Sox had just lost two games to the Mariners, and their relef pitching and defense did not perform up to spec. However, Horrigan takes a two-game trend and assumes that will be the new status quo. This leads to the argument that the second-best team in baseball (by winning percentage) is falling apart.

This is a sportswriting tic that drives me nuts -- failing to recognize regression to the mean. If teams go through a mini-slump or reel off a few victories, it's attributed to a fundamental change in the quality of the players. Sometimes, bad things happen to good players and vice versa. Just because the Sox have a few bad games does not mean that things will stay that way.

Baseball writers are far from the worst culprits on this score -- that award has to go to basketball writers. Lest one believe that I'm exaggerating, go back and see what was written about the Heat-Mavericks finals after the Mavs went up 2-0 in the series.

posted by Dan at 08:24 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Us greedy, chocolate-eating, Wal-Mart-shopping, family-protecting academics

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mathew H. Gendle engages in one of the more useless acts of self-flagellation about globalization I've seen in quite a while:

Like many liberal-arts institutions, the university where I teach [Elon] places a heavy emphasis on the freshman year, and all new students are required to take a class called "The Global Experience," taught by faculty members drawn from departments across the campus. One of the central objectives of the course is to break students out of their bubble by forcing them to think about the interconnectedness of our world.

In my class, we spend considerable time talking about the negative aspects of globalization: depressed wages, slave/child labor, the exploitation of the poor, and homogenization of cultures. I emphasize the underbelly of modern economies not to condemn them in a "holier than thou" manner, but with the intention of getting students to understand (in some small way) that their everyday consumer choices can have far-reaching social and economic effects around the globe.

I make a point of discussing how we are all implicated in some of those adverse outcomes, and suggest that the only way to prevent them is to work together for change. Despite my best efforts, I find myself feeling like a complete fraud with such idealistic talk. Indeed, I have pointed out to previous classes that on the very same day that we are discussing such issues, I am also wearing clothes that were probably manufactured with child labor and have consumed chocolate that was, in all likelihood, produced by slaves.

But I had no idea just how much of a hypocrite I was until I started to pay attention to my retirement account....

[A]s ignorant as this sounds, I was quite unhappy to discover that the equities funds in which I have invested own millions of shares of General Electric, Unocal/Chevron, Altria Group, Halliburton, Nestlé, and other corporations whose behaviors I have used in class as specific examples of poor global corporate citizenship....

You might say, "Well, that's capitalism," but that response seems hollow and unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, the simple reality is that as long as you are operating within a capitalist market, there will always be winners and losers, and I am essentially trying to position myself to be one of the winners.

The same could be said of my clothing purchases. Sure, theoretically I could buy only clothing that was union-made, or the product of workers earning a living wage. But the reality is that such articles are pricey and surprisingly hard to find. With a mortgage and child-care expenses, I find myself gravitating toward the inexpensive and mass-produced clothing offered by large corporate retailers.

With those choices, I am again essentially saying that the welfare of my family is more important than the welfare of others, which is truly the last sentiment that I want my students to identify with.

I find myself confounded and in one of the most uncomfortable positions I have been in as a college professor.

When I teach "The Global Experience" this coming fall, it is my intention to share the nasty details of my investments with my students. But will that really matter? Can I honestly expect my students to change their consumer behaviors when I refuse to change my own? (emphasis added)

Oh for Pete's sake.....

If Gendle really wants his students at Elon to learn, he might want to inform them of the following:

1) Eric V. Edmonds and Nina Pavcnik, "Child Labor in the Global Economy," Journal of Economic Perspectives 19 (Winter 2005): 199–220,. Their punchline:
Fortunately, abhorrent images of children chained in factories or forced into prostitution stand out for their relative rarity. Most working children are at home, helping their family by assisting in the family business or farm and with domestic work....

While some children do work in circumstances so hideous as to command immediate attention, development is the best overall cure for child labor.

In all likelihood, the clothes you wear are not manufactured with child labor -- but if you choose to refrain from buying clothes made in countries like Bangladesh, you actually increase the likelihood of exploitative child labor.

2) As for cocoa and slave labor, I can understand the confusion -- there's been a lot of media reportage of the alleged abuse of children to cultivate cocoa in West Africa. In 2000, Save the Children-Canada estimated that “15,000 Malian children have been forced to work in virtual slavery on plantations in the Ivory Coast” to harvest cocoa for multinational corporations such as Nestlé or Hershey. This figure was cited in many press accounts of the problem of child labor in West African cocoa plantations. A November 2001 cover story in the New York Times Magazine painted a harrowing picture of one child’s ordeal as a plantation worker.

However, this meme has turned out have little basis in fact. Three months after it originally appeared, the New York Times Magazine cover story was revealed to be a fabrication; the author’s titular character was in fact a composite, and events in the story were based on “extrapolation”. The New York Times later reported that the 15,000 figure is also a myth.

The ILO and USDA financed study by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, "Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector of West Africa." The ITTA study does an excellent job of chronicling labor abuses, but the big-picture point is on page 12:

The quantitative surveys revealed that the recruitment and employment of both children and adults from outside the family [to work on cocoa plantations] as permanent salaried workers was relatively uncommon. In RCI [Ivory Coast], an estimated 0.94% of farmers indicated that they employed children as permanent full-time workers, while in Ondo State, Nigeria, an estimated 1.1% of farmers reported doing so. In Ghana and Cameroon, none of the farmers questioned reported employing children as salaried workers. An estimated 5120 children were employed as full-time permanent workers in the RCI (versus 61 600 adults), while in Ondo State, Nigeria, 1220 children (versus 11 800 adults) were full-time permanent workers. In the RCI, an estimated 4630 farmers were employing salaried child workers.
3) On Wal-Mart, I'll just refer to Jason Furman's analysis of the welfare effects of big-box retailers.
If Gendle wants to make his Elon students really ponder their consumer behavior, here's a question worth asking -- what is the welfare effect of not purchasing goods and services made in the least developed countries?

UPDATE: The flagellation continues in the Chronicle's discussion board:

I'm in an area that focuses on social justice and responsibility along environmental, gender, political, and economic lines. Know what I'm doing this afternoon? Going to the WalMart to buy a product I haven't been able to find anywhere else. After I finish my tropical fruit and non-organic, non-fair trade coffee and take a 20-minute shower, of course.

It is really difficult to have ideals and still live in the world.

posted by Dan at 10:26 AM | Comments (28) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Doha, R.I.P.????

World trade talks have collapsed. The Financial Times' Alan Beattie and Frances Williams explain:

A last-ditch meeting in Geneva of the six core “Doha round” negotiators – India, Brazil, the US, EU Japan and Australia – broke up amid recriminations over irreconcilable differences about farm liberalisation. The US continued to argue for big cuts in farm import tariffs to open up markets for its farmers, a demand fiercely rejected by the European Union, Japan and India, who said America had first to go further in offering to cut agricultural subsidies.

The Doha round, which began in November 2001, will now enter indefinite suspension unless and until a consensus within the World Trade Organisation’s 149 member countries can be found to revive it.

The Economist explains why this is a tragedy (excerpted by Megan McArdle):
Last year, the World Bank estimated that global gains from trade liberalisation would equal roughly $287 billion, of which $86 billion would accrue to developing nations, lifting at least 66m people out of poverty. Activist groups including Greenpeace and Oxfam were quick to condemn both Washington and Brussels for intransigence over agricultural subsidies, saying that rich-world self interest is leaving the poor to suffer.

Without further progress at the WTO, those keen on liberalising trade will focus on regional and bilateral agreements. These are already proliferating... just about every one of the WTO's 149 members is a party to a regional trade agreement of some sort.

But these smaller agreements are a poor substitute for global progress. While they improve flows within the deal, they distort markets by favouring certain countries over others, even if their goods offer less economic value. The proliferation of special regulations, which companies must spend time and money to understand, does nothing to free up trade generally.

[Why the question marks in the title?--ed.] Because trade rounds have been declared dead before and were revived. Doha looked dead after Cancun and was brought back to life by Bob Zoellick. On the other hand, the hard deadline here is the expiration of President Bush's Trade Promotion Authority in June of next year. Beattie and Williams are sober about the chances for a resurrection of Doha:
Historical experience provides a little hope but not firm ground for optimism. The previous “Uruguay round” of trade talks was in essence suspended in 1990 after similar disagreements between countries. Arthur Dunkel, then director-general of the WTO’s predecessor organisation, continued to take soundings among member countries and produced his own “Dunkel draft” suggestion for a final deal a year later, leading eventually to a final agreement in 1994.

But the current situation differs from 1990 in two respects: Pascal Lamy, the WTO’s director, has already been deeply involved in trying to get countries to agree, and because the White House is likely to lose the “fast-track authority” granted by Congress when it comes up for renewal next year.

WTO members can continue negotiating, but if the world’s largest economy cannot pass trade deals through its legislature, it seems unlikely the talks will have any urgency.

Developing.... I hope.

UPDATE: Simon Lester has a good roundup of who is blaming who for the collapse of the talks.

posted by Dan at 05:16 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

The case of Juan Cole

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a (subscriber only, alas free for all!) symposium on the case of Juan Cole's non-hiring by Yale University this spring. Contributions from Cole, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Glenn Reynolds, Ann Althouse, Brad DeLong, Michael Bérubé, Erin O'Connor, and yours truly.

DeLong's essay makes the best case for the scholarly benefits from blogging; O'Connor makes the best case for why blogs should be a factor (and not necessarily a positive one) in hiring decisions.

For background on the case, click here for this story by Liel Leibovitz in The Jewish Week.

UPDATE: While on the subject of academia, it's also worth checking out this Stanley Fish essay from yesterday's New York Times, and Ann Althouse's critique of it.

posted by Dan at 01:58 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 21, 2006

There's a classified blogosphere?

Apparently so -- and according to the Washington Post's Dana Priest, someone was just kicked off that particular island:

Christine Axsmith, a software contractor for the CIA, considered her blog a success within the select circle of people who could actually access it.

Only people with top-secret security clearances could read her musings, which were posted on Intelink, the intelligence community's classified intranet. Writing as Covert Communications, CC for short, she opined in her online journal on such national security conundrums as stagflation, the war of ideas in the Middle East and -- in her most popular post -- bad food in the CIA cafeteria.

But the hundreds of blog readers who responded to her irreverent entries with titles such as "Morale Equals Food" won't be joining her ever again.

On July 13, after she posted her views on torture and the Geneva Conventions, her blog was taken down and her security badge was revoked. On Monday, Axsmith was terminated by her employer, BAE Systems, which was helping the CIA test software.

As a traveler in the classified blogosphere, Axsmith was not alone. Hundreds of blog posts appear on Intelink. The CIA says blogs and other electronic tools are used by people working on the same issue to exchange information and ideas.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Douglas Hart and Steven Simon have an article in the Spring 2006 issue of Survival that addresses the larger question of the role that blogs can play in bolstering intelligence analysis. In light of the Post story, this section is worth quoting:

Current reporting procedures within the intelligence community enforce a hierarchical organisational structure in which information flows up and decisions flow down. Blogs, on the other hand, produce communities of interest in which power is manifested through the number of individual connections within a network, rather than through an individual’s position with respect to reporting chains. These networks are key to emergent or new types of critical thinking amongst the analytical population. In other words, blogs might well be a means for individual analysts to express dissenting opinions that are not subject to official censorship.

Blogs can encourage critical thinking by placing bloggers in an informal and wide-reaching context of peer review that is not easily censored by management. Furthermore, a blog might be linked to structured arguments as evidence of the thought process that went into the argument. Alternatively, blogs, especially those espousing contrarian positions, could be linked to structured arguments as a means of safeguarding against analytical bias and its collective equivalent, groupthink. Blogs might also operate as digital dissent channels out of the glare of a stifling official context.

I have to think that this episode will blunt these kind of benefits.

posted by Dan at 06:41 PM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)

When will statebuilding be hard?

I've been remiss in not giving the necessary props to Austan Goolsbee as the quasi-new columnis for the New York Times' Economic Scene.

His latest column -- on how to tell when war-torn states will be able to recover -- is an excellent precis of what the literature says:

With little prospect of a quick resolution to most of these conflicts, perhaps it is worth looking at the long-run prospects for these nations once the wars actually end (assuming that they do end, of course).

The good news is that history suggests that the destruction of war has no lasting impact on economic prospects. The bad news is that most of these countries, especially Iraq, are filled with ethnic divisions and civil discord. The evidence shows that these problems, unlike bombs, cause lasting damage to the prospects for a nation’s economy, even if they do not boil over into civil war....

Viewed from this perspective, the long-term economic prospects for Afghanistan and Iraq do not look good. It is not the destruction of war. That will end and the countries can be rebuilt. It is the fragmentation and ethnic hatred. That, typically, never goes away.

Iraq, especially, is a straight-edged, ethnically partitioned nation wracked with internal strife. And having oil wealth is unlikely to save the day. Fragmented countries with natural resources often do worse because civil war rages over who gets to keep the money. Some of the poorest countries in Africa, for example, are actually quite well endowed with diamonds and other resources.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 01:51 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why oh why is the press so thick-headed about blogs?

I don't normally like to rant against the mainstream media, but their coverage of this Pew survey of bloggers borders on the bizarre.

The survey found that the overwhelming majority of people who blog do so for non-political reasons -- they function primarily as online personal diaries.

This would certainly be earth-shattering news -- if it was four years ago. Consider this Perseus report from the Paleolithic era of blogging -- October 2003:

When you say "blog" most people think of the most popular weblogs, which are often updated multiple times a day and which by definition have tens of thousands of daily readers. These make up the tip of a very deep iceberg: prominently visible, but not characteristic of the iceberg as a whole.

What is below the water line are the literally millions of blogs that are rarely pointed to by others, since they are only of interest to the family, friends, fellow students and co-workers of their teenage and 20-something bloggers. Think of them as blogs for nanoaudiences....

Blogging is many things, yet the typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life. It will be written very informally (often in "unicase": long stretches of lowercase with ALL CAPS used for emphasis) with slang spellings, yet will not be as informal as instant messaging conversations (which are riddled with typos and abbreviations). Underneath the iceberg, blogging is a social phenomenon: persistent messaging for young adults.

While Pew might reached the conclusion that most bloggers are not political after using sophisticated polling techniques, this is not a new finding (see Mystery Pollster on the methodology). It's merely a confirmation of what prior, less well-funded studies have found.

Nevertheless, media outlets have framed the story in interesting ways. Consider the BBC:

Bloggers who say their writings are a form of journalism are in the minority, despite the hype, two surveys reveal.

A study by social networking site MSN Spaces found that nearly 60% of people in the UK use blogs as an online diary.

"Citizen journalists" are increasingly dominating the headlines for reporting events using online tools like blogs.

A second survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 65% of people in the US who write a blog also do not consider their work journalism.

Or Information Week:
The majority of bloggers prefer to write about themselves and share their digital creations than to discuss politics or technology, a survey released Wednesday showed.

While high-traffic "A-list" bloggers who discuss topics covered by traditional media get most of the publicity, the fact is blogging in general is more of a personal experience, the Pew Internet & American Life Project said. More than three fourths of bloggers surveyed said they blog to document their own experiences and share them with others. More than six in 10 said they blog to share practical knowledge or skills with others.

"Blogs are as individual as the people who keep them, but this survey shows that most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression," Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at Pew, said in a statement.

Or Sci-Tech Today:
The media tends to focus on a small subset of well-known "A-list" sites that receive a high volume of visitors. These blogs tend to focus on politics or other hot button topics such as technology. For these bloggers, a blog is more than just a hobby, it is a job.

However, according to the survey, the majority of bloggers, 76 percent, said the reason they have a blog is to record their personal experiences and share them with others, and 64 percent reported that they wanted to share their knowledge and skills with others.

Most bloggers said the write about a myriad of different topics, but about 37 percent focus on "my life and experiences", with only 11 percent of bloggers said they concentrate on politics and the government, and 4 percent blog about technology. A scant 7 percent of respondents focus on entertainment and 6 percent use their blog to discuss sports. And, just 34 percent of bloggers look at blogging as a form of journalism.

Finally, there's Slate's Jack Shafer:
Pew's blogging masses couldn't be more different than the American A-listers. Most A-listers are men over 30; have published before; are in it primarily to change public opinions and not to share their experiences; know only a fraction of their readers; and don't conceal their identities....

I'm not disparaging bloggers, so please don't treat me to a high-tech lynching. But this study shows that at this early point in the blog era, the great mass of bloggers aren't set on replacing reporters. The top 100 or top 1,000 may consider themselves "citizen journalists" of one sort or another, but the survey finds that 65 percent of bloggers don't consider their output journalism at all. They're just expressing themselves in a leisurely fashion, inspired by a personal experience (78 percent, says the survey), and their blogs are a "hobby" or "something I do, but not something I spend a lot of time on" (84 percent).

Again, I'm not disparaging hobbies or navel-gazing: I have hobbies I can bore you with, and I navel-gaze. But the Pew report indicates that only a tiny fraction of current bloggers have any ambition to fulfill the blogs über alles designs some media theorists plotted for them.

Shafer's story illustrates what has changed in the past three years, and it's not the blogosphere -- it's the mainstream media's fear of the blogosphere (which is one reason why blogs have been declared to be passé so many times this past year). If the Pew survey suggests that not all bloggers are Army-of-David wannabe journalists, then that's the angle that should be reported.

Now, I am resolutely not a blog triumphalist, and do not think that blogs will supplant mainstream media outlets. However, in the spirit of contrarianism, let me offer two cautionary warnings to the journalists out there who might be reassured by these numbers.

First, it doesn't matter if an overwhelming majority of blogs do not focus on politics and government -- what matters is that there are a huge number of blogs out there and a fraction of them do focus on matters of interest to political journalists. If the Pew survey is accurate, then eleven percent of twelve million bloggers -- more than 1.3 million Americans -- have blogs that focus on the politics. Most of them probably aren't that good -- but I could say the same of many newspapers as well. The point is, 1.3 million is still a pretty large number.

Second, as an A-list [No--ed.] B-list [No-ed.] C-list [In the interest of not embarrassing you further, I'l let it pass--ed.], it's worth remembering that what motivates bloggers changes over time. Most A-list bloggers, when they started their blogs, were also "primarily interested in creative, personal expression." The motivations can change once an audience starts to grow, however.

I eagerly await the Pew survey on commenters.

posted by Dan at 05:57 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

One obvious benefit of tenure

I will no longer fear succumbing to this kind of fictitious pressure (link via Virginia Postrel).

posted by Dan at 12:50 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

What are general equilibrium models good for?

The Economist has a long story on the relative value of Big Economic Models -- the kind of general equilibrium monsters that are used to calculate how much the world benefits from a completed Doha round,or how much the global economy suffers from high oil prices.

The story does a good job of highlighting the sensitivity of these models to first assumptions -- while also pointing out their signal virtue:

[Leon] Walras was adamant that one could not explain anything in an economy until one had explained everything. Each market—for goods, labour and capital—was connected to every other, however remotely. This interdependence is apparent whenever faster car sales in Texas result in an increase in grocery shopping in Detroit, the home of America's “big three” carmakers. Or when steep prices for oil lead, curiously enough, to lower American interest rates, because the money the Saudis and the Russians make from crude is spent on American Treasury bonds. This fundamental insight moved one economist to quote the poetry of Francis Thompson: “Thou canst not stir a flower/Without troubling of a star.”

Such thinking now comes naturally to economists. But it still escapes many politicians, who blindly uproot flowers, ignorant of the celestial commotion that may ensue. They slap tariffs on steel imports, for example, to save jobs in Pittsburgh, only to find this costs more jobs in the domestic industries that use the metal. Or they help to keep zombie companies alive—rolling over their loans, and preserving their employees on the payroll—only to discover they have starved new firms of manpower and credit. Big models, which span all the markets in an economy, can make policymakers think twice about the knock-on effects of their decisions.

The more surprising argument in the article is that these models are politically powerful:
These models were, for example, a weapon of choice in the battles over the 1994 North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The pact's opponents had the best lines in the debate—Ross Perot, a presidential candidate in 1992, told Americans to listen out for the “giant sucking sound” as their jobs disappeared over the border. But the deal's supporters had the best numbers. More often than not, those with numbers prevail over those without. As Jean-Philippe Cotis, chief economist of the OECD, has put it, “orders of magnitude are useful tools of persuasion.”

But how plausible were the numbers? Twelve years on, economists have shown little inclination to go back and check. One exception is Timothy Kehoe, an economist at the University of Minnesota. In a paper published last year, he argued that the models “drastically underestimated” NAFTA's impact on trade flows (if not on jobs). The modellers assumed the trade pact would allow people to buy more of the goods for which they had already shown some appetite. In fact, the agreement set off an explosion in the exports of many products Mexico had scarcely traded before. Cars, for example, amounted to less than 1% of Mexico's exports to Canada before the agreement. By 1999, however, they accounted for more than 15%. The only comfort economists can draw from their efforts, Mr Kehoe writes, is that their predictions fared better than Mr Perot's. A low bar indeed.

Dubious computations also helped to usher the Uruguay round of global trade talks to a belated conclusion in 1994. Peter Sutherland, head of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the ancestor of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), urged negotiators to close the deal lest they miss out on gains as great as $500 billion a year for the world economy. This figure came, of course, from a big model.

Even staunch free-traders, such as Arvind Panagariya, an economist now at Columbia University, thought these claims “extravagant” and “overblown”. They escaped scrutiny, he argued in 1999, because they emanated from “gigantic” models, which were opaque even to other economists. Why then did these models thrive? Supply and demand. “Given the appetite of the press and politicians for numerical estimates and the publicity they readily offer researchers, these models are here to stay,” Mr Panagariya concluded.

[You do realize that the title of this post is worthy of an entry to Crooked Timber's contest for off-putting titles--ed. It's my special talent.]

posted by Dan at 09:17 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Is Israel waging a just war?

Stephen Bainbridge says no in Tech Central Station:

Israel clearly is targeting not just Hezbollah, but also Lebanon's official military, and, most important for our purposes, Lebanon's basic civilian infrastructure. The Beirut airport has been closed by Israeli attacks. Bridges, ports, roads, and power stations are all being targeted. As this column was being written, more than 100 civilian fatalities -- including some citizens of neutral countries, most notably Canada -- already had been reported. More surely will have occurred before this column is published.

In short, even a just war must be waged justly. Israel is entitled to defend itself, but is not entitled to do so disproportionately or to wage war on civilians. Yet, that is precisely what Israel appears to be on the brink of doing.

In The New Republic, Michael Walzer takes a more ambiguous position:
The easy part of the answer is to say what cannot rightly be done. There cannot be any direct attacks on civilian targets (even if the enemy doesn't believe in the existence of civilians), and this principle is a major constraint also on attacks on the economic infrastructure. Writing about the first Iraq war, in 1991, I argued that the U.S. decision to attack "communication and transportation systems, electric power grids, government buildings of every sort, water pumping stations and purification plants" was wrong. "Selected infrastructural targets are easy enough to justify: bridges over which supplies are carried to the army in the field provide an obvious example. But power and water ... are very much like food: they are necessary to the survival and everyday activity of soldiers, but they are equally necessary to everyone else. An attack here is an attack on civilian society. ... [I]t is the military effects, if any, that are 'collateral.'" That was and is a general argument; it clearly applies to the Israeli attacks on power stations in Gaza and Lebanon.

The argument, in this case, is prudential as well as moral. Reducing the quality of life in Gaza, where it is already low, is intended to put pressure on whoever is politically responsible for the inhabitants of Gaza--and then these responsible people, it is hoped, will take action against the shadowy forces attacking Israel. The same logic has been applied in Lebanon, where the forces are not so shadowy. But no one is responsible in either of these cases, or, better, those people who might take responsibility long ago chose not to. The leaders of the sovereign state of Lebanon insist that they have no control over the southern part of their country--and, more amazingly, no obligation to take control. Still, Palestinian civilians are not likely to hold anyone responsible for their fate except the Israelis, and, while the Lebanese will be more discriminating, Israel will still bear the larger burden of blame. Hamas and Hezbollah feed on the suffering their own activity brings about, and an Israeli response that increases the suffering only intensifies the feeding....

I was recently asked to sign a condemnation of the Israeli operation in Gaza--a statement claiming that the rocket attacks and the military raid that led to the capture of Gilad Shalit are simply the inevitable consequences of the Israeli occupation: There "never will be peace or security until the occupation ends." In the past, I am sure, some Palestinian attacks were motivated by the experience of occupation. But that isn't true today. Hamas is attacking after the Israelis departed Gaza and after the formation of a government that is (or was until the attacks) committed to a large withdrawal from the West Bank. Similarly, Hezbollah's attacks came after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The aim of these militants is not to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel; it is to destroy Israel. Admittedly, that is a long-term aim that derives from a religious view of history. Secularists and pragmatists have a lot of trouble acknowledging such a view, let alone understanding it.

By contrast, the Israeli response has only a short-term aim: to stop the attacks across its borders. Until that is achieved, no Israeli government is going to move forward with another withdrawal. In fact, it is probably true that the Hamas and Hezbollah attacks have made any future unilateral withdrawals impossible. Israel needs a partner on the other side who is, first of all, capable of maintaining security on the new border and who is, second, actually willing to do that. I can't pretend that the Israeli military operations now in progress are going to produce a partner like that. At best, the army and air force will weaken the capacity of Hamas and Hezbollah to attack Israel; they won't alter their resolve. It will probably take the international community--the United States, Europe, the United Nations, some Arab states--to bring the Lebanese army into the south of the country and make it an effective force once it is there. And it will take a similar coalition to sponsor and support a Palestinian government that is committed to two states with one permanent and peaceful border and that is prepared to repress the religious militants who oppose that commitment. Until there is an effective Lebanese army and a Palestinian government that believes in co-existence, Israel is entitled to act, within the dialectical limits, on its own behalf.

My take -- the longer the air campaign proceeds, the less just it will become. This is simply the law of diminishing marginal returns. Over time, Israel will exhaust the set of "high-quality" targets for Hezbollah and start bombing more marginal targets. Since these target will likely generate a constant degree of collateral damage in civilian deaths, each successive bombing run looks more and more like "direct attacks on civilian targets."

[Er... what about Hezbollah and Hamas?--ed. It would be exceptionally difficult to argue that their tactics are consistent with jus in bello. This Chris Bertram post tries to make a go of it, but given Hamas and Hezbollah's targeting strategies, I don't think it works.]

UPDATE: In the comments, Bertram correctly points out that his post was not trying to justify Hezbollah and Hamas actions. Indeed, this was a poorly worded sentence on my part. Rather, Bertram's post summarizes an argument for how to apply just war ethics to asymmetric conflicts, in which additional jus ad bello constraints are placed on the stronger side. I still don't think the argument is persuasive, however, since it basically rewards a group like Hezbollah for pursuing an asymmetric strategy.

posted by Dan at 12:02 AM | Comments (44) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

My contrarian take on George Will's contrarianism

Late on Monday, Steve Clemons from the Washington Note sent around an e-mail trumpeting George Will's column blasing neoconservatives, the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, Condi Rice, et al. The piece has attracted a fair amount of blog attention.

My reaction was similar to Passport's James Forsyth: "George Will savages neocons, dog bites mailman":

I must confess that one of my pet peeves in life is how everyone treats it as news when Will criticizes the neoconservatives. Will has never been a neocon and has been being critical of them for years. Obviously, this doesn't invalidate his criticisms--it just means that it is no more surprising when he attacks them than when his fellow WaPo columnist Richard Cohen does....

Anyway, I doubt that the facts will get in the way of the narrative here. Get ready for a thousand columns that begin "Even conservative commentator George Will thinks the neoconservatives have gone too far"--except, that is, in the Weekly Standard, where you probably won't be reading Will any time soon either.

This is not to say that Will's criticisms don't have merit -- particularly this section:
"No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria . . ." You get the drift. So, the Weekly Standard says:

"We might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions -- and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement."

"Why wait?" Perhaps because the U.S. military has enough on its plate in the deteriorating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which both border Iran. And perhaps because containment, although of uncertain success, did work against Stalin and his successors, and might be preferable to a war against a nation much larger and more formidable than Iraq. And if Bashar Assad's regime does not fall after the Weekly Standard's hoped-for third war, with Iran, does the magazine hope for a fourth?

Will is right (see Cato's Gene Healy for an even broader attack on the neocons), but so is Forsyth -- so please spare me the "even George Will" observations.

posted by Dan at 04:27 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

So you want to be a critic....

Within every blogger (and commentor) lurks someone who yearns to be a paid critic. There are perils to this profession, however -- though the peril depends on the subject matter of the criticism.

In The New Republic, Ruth Franklin points out the difficulty of penning a pan:

[I]f "nice reviewing" has attracted few explicit defenders, a number of today's critics nonetheless seem to share a tacit understanding that it is somehow indecorous--what used to be called bad form--to come out and say that a book is bad. Peck's critics generally lambasted him not for the substance of his judgments, but for his unwillingness to play by what they determined to be the rules. "If you're going to be in it for the big run, you have to act responsibly," intoned Sven Birkerts, whom [Dale] Peck had criticized precisely for his tendency to be overly generous in his criticism. (Birkerts did not elaborate on what he meant by this, but presumably, if you're "in it for the big run," whatever that means, you will inevitably run into some of your subjects at cocktail parties--or, worse, they will someday review your books.) John Leonard, in a scalding review of Hatchet Jobs, Peck's collected essays, in The New York Times Book Review, laid out his own idea of literary etiquette in these guidelines for "responsible reviewing": "First ... do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite."

Leonard has never been able to abide by these rules himself. What critic could? And so his review of Hatchet Jobs is typically full of gleeful jibes and personal attacks. He concluded it with the following story:

Many years ago the editor of this publication asked me to review John Cheever's last, brief novel, "Oh What a Paradise It Seems," after he had already been turned down by half a dozen critics who knew that Cheever was dying but thought his new book a weak one and didn't want to compromise their supreme importance with a random act of kindness. It never occurred to me that a thank-you note to a wonderful writer, a valediction as it were, would get me kicked out of any club that I wanted to belong to, so I immediately said yes. At the time, besides that review, I wanted to write a message to those preening scribblers who thought they were too good for lesser Cheever. On a card, in small caps, I would have said what I say to Peck: get over yourself.
This self-aggrandizing little anecdote nicely illustrates the hypocrisy of "nice reviewing." The Cheever review with which Leonard is so pleased was actually a masterpiece of obfuscating generalities and flaccid platitudes that are immediately transparent to anyone with half a talent for reading between the lines. Such studies in opacity are hardly unusual. Just look at Robert Stone's recent notes--I can hardly call the piece a review, since it coyly refused to offer any assessment at all--on John Updike's turgid new novel, also in the Times Book Review. The theory behind Stone's affectation of neutrality was articulated in his interview with the editors, presented on the Book Review's inside front cover, in which he remarked that "the vocabulary of dismissal is something we've seen too many times. We don't need another exercise in that."

I doubt that the "preening scribblers" Leonard derides thought they were "too good" to review Cheever. I suspect, rather, that they were trying to show that, Orwell's pessimism notwithstanding, it is not impossible to review novels for a living without committing the sin of pretending that a bad book is a good book. For the reviewer's obligation is neither to the reader nor to the author, but to himself--and it is wrong to compromise one's integrity even for the sake of generosity. Who is served by Leonard's and Stone's dull and unconvincing pieties? Not the reader, who, if he is so naïve as to take them seriously and actually read the recommended book, will surely be disappointed. Not the publishing industry, since, as Orwell pointed out, if readers are disappointed in novels often enough, they will stop buying them altogether. And certainly not the author, who must be canny enough to deduce the truth himself--or, in the case of Cheever, is subjected to posthumous humiliation at Leonard's supposedly noble hands. If these are the rules we are supposed to play by, I'm with Dale Peck.

On the other hand, if book critics fear being too harsh in their assessments, A.O. Scott points out in today's New York Times that there is a bigger fear for movie critics -- being irrelevant:
“Dead Man’s Chest” [is] a fascinating sequel — not to “Curse of the Black Pearl,” which inaugurated the franchise three years ago, but to “The Da Vinci Code.” Way back in the early days of the Hollywood summer — the third week in May, to be precise — America’s finest critics trooped into screening rooms in Cannes, Los Angeles, New York and points between, saw Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s best seller, and emerged in a fit of collective grouchiness. The movie promptly pocketed some of the biggest opening-weekend grosses in the history of its studio, Sony.

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long. But the discrepancy between what critics think and how the public behaves is of perennial interest because it throws into relief some basic questions about taste, economics and the nature of popular entertainment, as well as the more vexing issue of what, exactly, critics are for....

Are we out of touch with the audience? Why do we go sniffing after art where everyone else is looking for fun, and spoiling everybody’s fun when it doesn’t live up to our notion or art? What gives us the right to yell “bomb” outside a crowded theater? Variations on these questions arrive regularly in our e-mail in-boxes, and also constitute a major theme in the comments sections of film blogs and Web sites. Online, everyone is a critic, which is as it should be: professional prerogatives aside, a critic is really just anyone who thinks out loud about something he or she cares about, and gets into arguments with fellow enthusiasts. But it would be silly to pretend that those professional prerogatives don’t exist, and that they don’t foster a degree of resentment. Entitled elites, self-regarding experts, bearers of intellectual or institutional authority, misfits who get to see a movie before anybody else and then take it upon themselves to give away the ending: such people are easy targets of populist anger. Just who do we think we are?

UPDATE: Of course, there are worse killjoys than being a critic -- try the academy for that.

posted by Dan at 11:08 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Remember Iraq?

In their summer 2006 issue, Foreign Affairs featured a roundtable on "What to Do In Iraq?" with contributions by Larry Diamond, James Dobbins, Chaim Kaufmann, Leslie Gelb and Stephen Biddle.

This month, invited four prominent online commentators -- Christopher Hitchens, Kevin Drum, Marc Lynch, and Fred Kaplan -- to a web-only discussion of the articles and Iraq in general. Biddle and Diamond respond in kind.

Go check it out.

posted by Dan at 09:03 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Open progressive realism thread

Still catching up from jet lag, but that doesn't mean you can't comment on Robert Wright's proposal of a new foreign policy paradigm -- progressive realism -- in the New York Times. Quick excerpt:

Every paradigm needs a name, and the best name for this one is progressive realism. The label has a nice ring (Who is against progress?) and it aptly suggests bipartisan appeal. This is a realism that could attract many liberals and a progressivism that could attract some conservatives....

Progressive realism begins with a cardinal doctrine of traditional realism: the purpose of American foreign policy is to serve American interests.

But these days serving American interests means abandoning another traditional belief of realists — that so long as foreign governments don’t endanger American interests on the geopolitical chess board, their domestic affairs don’t concern us. In an age when Americans are threatened by overseas bioweapons labs and outbreaks of flu, by Chinese pollution that enters lungs in Oregon, by imploding African states that could turn into terrorist havens, by authoritarian Arab governments that push young men toward radicalism, the classic realist indifference to the interiors of nations is untenable.

In that sense progressive realists look a lot like neoconservatives and traditional liberals: concerned about the well-being of foreigners, albeit out of strict national interest. But progressive realism has two core themes that make it clearly distinctive, and they’re reflected in two different meanings of the word “progressive.”

First, the word signifies a belief in, well, progress. Free markets are spreading across the world on the strength of their productivity, and economic liberty tends to foster political liberty. Yes, the Chinese government could probably reverse the growth in popular expression of the past two decades, but only by severely restricting information technologies that are prerequisites for prosperity. Meanwhile, notwithstanding dogged efforts at repression, political pluralism in China is growing....

In the economic realm, progressivism means continuing to support the World Trade Organization as a bulwark against protectionism — but also giving it the authority to address labor issues, as union leaders have long advocated. Environmental issues, too, should be addressed at the W.T.O. and through other bodies of regional and global governance....

President Bush’s belated diplomatic involvement in Darfur suggests growing enlightenment, but sluggish ad hoc multilateralism isn’t enough. We need multilateral structures capable of decisively forceful intervention and nation building — ideally under the auspices of the United Nations, which has more global legitimacy than other candidates. America should lead in building these structures and thereafter contribute its share, but only its share. To some extent, the nurturing of international institutions and solid international law is simple thrift....

This principle lies at the heart of progressive realism. A correlation of fortunes — being in the same boat with other nations in matters of economics, environment, security — is what makes international governance serve national interest. It is also what makes enlightened self-interest de facto humanitarian. Progressive realists see that America can best flourish if others flourish — if African states cohere, if the world’s Muslims feel they benefit from the world order, if personal and environmental health are nurtured, if economic inequities abroad are muted so that young democracies can be stable and strong. More and more, doing well means doing good.

Read the whole thing. Mickey Kaus offers his critique here.

My insta-critique is three-fold:

1) I look forward to the cage match between Wright, Francis Fukuyama, and the other non-Bushies to come up with the best adjective-noun moniker that combines realism and liberalism. Is progressive realism better than "realistic Wilsonianism?" By the title alone, I have to give the edge to Wright.

2) The problem with coming up with new paradigms to replace the Bush administration's current one is that you have to be careful what you're balancing against. Are new foreign policy thinkers reacting against Bush's neoconservative ideas, or the incompetency with which those ideas were implemented? This is the biggest strike against neoconservatism -- that when executued badly, the outcomes border on the catastrophic.

This suggests a new rule with which all new foreign policy doctrines should be considered -- how do they look when implemented by overworked, brain-fried, corrupt, partisan politicos? Wright's dependence on global governance structures give me some pause here.

3) A key equation for Wright is that free trade + Internet = long-term liberalization in authoritarian societies. I'm still not convinced of this, and China is not the best example.

posted by Dan at 02:10 PM | Comments (16) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Stratfor on Israel's strategy

Back in Boston, but very jet-lagged.

I see that the Middle East did not get more peaceful while I was on a jet plane. Stratfor provides a useful analysis on what Israel and Hezbollah are thinking in the current conflict. I don't know if the analysis is correct, but it does have the advantage of matching my cogitation on the matter:

The Israeli strategy appears to be designed to do two things. First, the Israelis are trying to prevent any supplies from entering Lebanon, including reinforcements. That is why they are attacking all coastal maritime facilities. Second, they are degrading the roads in Lebanon. That will keep reinforcements from reaching Hezbollah fighters engaged in the south. As important, it will prevent the withdrawal and redeployment of heavy equipment deployed by Hezbollah in the south, particularly their rockets, missiles and launchers. The Israelis are preparing the battlefield to prevent a Hezbollah retreat or maneuver.

Hezbollah's strategy has been imposed on it. It seems committed to standing and fighting. The rate of fire they are maintaining into Israel is clearly based on an expectation that Israel will be attacking. The rocketry guarantees the Israelis will attack. Hezbollah has been reported to have anti-tank and anti-air weapons. The Israelis will use airmobile tactics to surround and isolate Hezbollah concentrations, but in the end, they will have to go in, engage and defeat Hezbollah tactically. Hezbollah obviously knows this, but there is no sign of disintegration on its part. At the very least, Hezbollah is projecting an appetite for combat. Sources in Beirut, who have been reliable to this point, say Hezbollah has weapons that have not yet been seen, such as anti-aircraft missiles, and that these will be used shortly. Whatever the truth of this, Hezbollah does not seem to think its situation is hopeless.

The uncertain question is Syria. No matter how effectively Israel seals the Lebanese coast, so long as the Syrian frontier is open, Hezbollah might get supplies from there, and might be able to retreat there. So far, there has been only one reported airstrike on a Syrian target. Both Israel and Syria were quick to deny this.

What is interesting is that it was the Syrians who insisted very publicly that no such attack took place. The Syrians are clearly trying to avoid a situation in which they are locked into a confrontation with Israel. Israel might well think this is the time to have it out with Syria as well, but Syria is trying very hard not to give Israel casus belli. In addition, Syria is facilitating the movement of Westerners out of Lebanon, allowing them free transit. They are trying to signal that they are being cooperative and nonaggressive.

The problem is this: While Syria does not want to get hit and will not make overt moves, so long as the Syrians cannot guarantee supplies will not reach Hezbollah or that Hezbollah won't be given sanctuary in Syria, Israel cannot complete its mission of shattering Hezbollah and withdrawing. They could be drawn into an Iraq-like situation that they absolutely don't want. Israel is torn. On the one hand, it wants to crush Hezbollah, and that requires total isolation. On the other hand, it does not want the Syrian regime to fall. What comes after would be much worse from Israel's point of view.

This is the inherent problem built into Israel's strategy, and what gives Hezbollah some hope. If Israel does not attack Syria, Hezbollah could well survive Israel's attack by moving across the border. No matter how many roads are destroyed, Israel won't be able to prevent major Hezbollah formations moving across the border. If they do attack Syria and crush al Assad's government, Hezbollah could come out of this stronger than ever.

Judging from the airstrikes in the past 24 hours, it would appear Israel is trying to solve the problem tactically, by degrading Lebanese transport facilities. That could increase the effectiveness of the strategy, but in the end cannot be sufficient. We continue to think Israel will choose not to attack Syria directly and therefore, while the invasion will buy time, it will not solve the problem. Hezbollah certainly expects to be badly hurt, but it does not seem to expect to be completely annihilated. We are guessing, but our guess is that they are reading Israel's views on Syria and are betting that, in the long run, they will come out stronger. Of course, Israel knows this and therefore may have a different plan for Syria. At any rate, this is the great unknown in this campaign.

posted by Dan at 09:38 PM | Comments (36) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 14, 2006

The fluid situation in Lebanon

You know a crisis is still in a fluid state when major U.S. newspapers take opposing positions on in their new analysis of the situation.

For example -- how have the Israeli attacks affected Hezbollah's political position in Lebanon?

The New York Times' Michael Slackman thinks Hezbollah is the big winner:

A few short months ago, representatives of every Lebanese faction gathered in central Beirut and discussed many of the issues that divide them - including how and when to disarm the Hezbollah militia.

While Hezbollah and its supporters vowed never to give up their weapons, the recent events have served only to support their position: anyone calling for disarming Hezbollah now risks being called a traitor.

"It is strange that one man representing a faction of the Shia, Hassan Nasrallah, is holding the whole Lebanese population hostage," said Elie Fawaz, a Lebanese political analyst....

In Lebanon, [Hezbollah leader Hasan] Nasrallah tried to make clear during his own press conference on Wednesday that Hezbollah was only acting to free Lebanese prisoners and to liberate a disputed piece of land called Shabba Farms. Hezbollah has always maintained that its mandate is to fight for Lebanon - not to pursue anyone else's agenda, not even the Palestinians. No one doubts that the recent events served Hezbollah's interests, at least in the short term.
In the Washington Post, Anthony Shadid takes a different position:
The radical Shiite movement Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, hold an effective veto in Lebanese politics, and the group's military prowess has heartened its supporters at home and abroad in the Arab world. But that same force of arms has begun to endanger Hezbollah's long-term standing in a country where critics accuse it of dragging Lebanon into an unwinnable conflict the government neither chose nor wants to fight.

"To a certain Arab audience and Arab elite, Nasrallah is a champion, but the price is high," said Walid Jumblatt, a member of parliament and leader of Lebanon's Druze community. "We are paying a high price."....

Since the fighting with Israel started Wednesday, calls for Hezbollah to relinquish its weapons have gathered urgency. The violence began when Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border incursion, followed by an Israeli attack on roads, bridges, power stations and airports.

Lebanese critics as well as allies of Hezbollah insist that the Israeli response was disproportionate. But at the same time, in meetings Thursday, Lebanese officials began to lay the groundwork for an extension of government control to southern Lebanon. Hezbollah largely controls southern Lebanon, where it has built up a network of schools, hospitals and charities.

"To declare war and to make military action must be a decision made by the state and not by a party," said Nabil de Freige, a parliament member. He belongs to the bloc headed by Saad Hariri, whose father, Rafiq, a former prime minister and wealthy businessman, was assassinated in 2005, setting off a sequence of events that forced the Syrian withdrawal. "It's a very simple equation: You have to be a state."

After a cabinet meeting Thursday, the government said it had a right and duty to extend its control over all Lebanese territory. Interior Minister Ahmed Fatfat said the statement marked a step toward the government reasserting itself.

Other government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, went further, calling it a first move in possibly sending the Lebanese army to the border, a U.N.-endorsed proposal that Hezbollah has rejected. The officials described the meeting as stormy and contentious but said both sides -- Hezbollah and its government critics -- were especially wary of public divisions at a time of crisis.

"It is becoming very clear that the state alone must bear responsibility for the country's foreign policy," said Samir Franjieh, a parliament member who is close to the Hariri bloc. "But our problem now is that Israel is taking things so far that if there is no help from the international community, the situation could get out of hand."


posted by Dan at 05:00 AM | Comments (43) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The trouble with bubble diplomacy

While in Berlin, a friend told me what may or may not be an apocryphal story about during George W. Bush's last visit to Berlin. There was apparently a photo op planned for the president's car to pull up to the Chancellery building in Berlin, where the German prime minister lives and works. Apparently, Bush armored limousine was so heavy, it would have chewed up the cobblestone driveway. The U.S. solution to this problem? Have the Germans repave the road.

I bring this up because of this Deutshe Welle report on Bush's visit to Stralsund -- a German resort on the Baltic coast:

The two-day stop in Merkel's constituency on the Baltic Sea coast is meant to give the two leaders time to get to know each other better, as well as show Bush the "real Germany."

During Bush's last visit to Germany to the southwestern city of Mainz in February 2005, Germans displayed their talent for thoroughness by effectively removing any signs of life from the city's streets. Bush reportedly said himself that he thought the security precautions were exaggerated. He is keen for his experience in Stralsund to be different.

But those in charge of security just can't help themselves, it seems. For days now, helicopters have been circling over the Stralsund while security personnel have been busy repeating precautions taken in Mainz -- welding shut manholes, sealing off letter boxes, and cordoning off the historic town center.

Many locals and tourists in Stralsund are less than amused at the way their lives have been turned upside down in order to ensure the safety of Merkel's prominent guest.

"Look at the shops here in the town center," one tourist said. "They'll all be closed during the president's stay. We're here on holiday and want to have a good time shopping, but they just won't let us."

"According to the politicians in Berlin, the whole town should be happy to welcome the president," a resident said. "But then most of the people here are locked away from the president so as not to present a threat to him. That doesn't make any sense to me."

Though Bush got the desired contact with the locals during Thursday's market square welcome, he met a crowd of handpicked Stralsunders who had undergone extensive background checks. A quarter of the crowd was made up of students from the nearby naval academy. Critics say it was hardly an authentic encounter with the people of Stralsund, most of whom -- like Merkel -- experienced life under the communist East German regime and the transition to democracy following reunification. Many say it's precisely that experience of recent history that makes Merkel and her constituency so fascinating to the president.

Click on this UPI story for more about the security arrangements.

In fairness to Bush's advance team, I suspect that some of this article could have been written about any president with a modern security detail. Still, there's got to be a way for a president to shrink the security bubble.

posted by Dan at 11:59 AM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (0)

Open Israel/Hezbollah/Hamas thread

Against my better judgment, here's a thread for commenting on recent developments in Israel, Lebanon, and the occupied territories.

In The New Republic, Yossi Klein Halevi send shivers down my spine with this opening paragraph:

The next Middle East war--Israel against genocidal Islamism--has begun. The first stage of the war started two weeks ago, with the Israeli incursion into Gaza in response to the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and the ongoing shelling of Israeli towns and kibbutzim; now, with Hezbollah's latest attack, the war has spread to southern Lebanon. Ultimately, though, Israel's antagonists won't be Hamas and Hezbollah but their patrons, Iran and Syria. The war will go on for months, perhaps several years. There may be lulls in the fighting, perhaps even temporary agreements and prisoner exchanges. But those periods of calm will be mere respites.
Greg Djerejian approximates my level of worry:
The temperature is getting very hot indeed among Israel and her neighbors. A humanitarian crisis looms in Gaza, and there is talk of turning the clock back 20 years on Lebanon's infrastructure by some in Israel's military. Olmert has talked very tough too ("act of war"), somewhat understandably, as he must be seen to be able to step up into Sharon's big shoes as credible guarantor of Israel's national security....

The irony in all of this too, of course, is that Israel's likely overly strong resort to punitive actions meant to serve as deterrent will actually likely backfire--as they will serve neither to deter (just the opposite probably) while also leading to less support for Israel internationally, if she is deemed to overeact. The better solution is for the US President or his Secretary of State to intervene to cool the temperature, and also give Ehud Olmert an out on pursuing a too robust escalation (Olmert for instance, could tell his public that the US Administration would not accept punitive strikes on any non-Hezbollah assets in Lebanon, to take just one example, to include all infrastructure assets such as power generators--thus relieving the pressure on him domestically) .

We have to keep things in perspective here: three soldiers taken hostage should not lead to talk of outright war between Israel and some of her neighbors, however emotionally difficult it is for Israel, not to mention deeply frustrating, to have to grapple so frequently with this repulsive tactic of kidnapping serving soldiers to see them then used crudely as bargaining chips. The US government needs to be front and center making the point that restraint is needed at this juncture, as a regional security crisis impacting Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza is about the last thing needed now in the Middle East--a region already, shall we say, fraught with problems far and wide. At the same time, the US and EU should be taking more of a lead trying to gain the release of these soldiers, the better so Israelis don't feel it is them against the world and act overly irrationally. In short, this is a detiorating situation crying out for leadership from the White House--adult supervision at the highest levels of the US government. Let's see what gets mustered up by this Administration in the next 24-48 far, I've heard little more than a statement from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Welch, and much more is needed, I'd think.

UPDATE: Two more thoughts. First, I suspect the Economist wishes it could go into the "way back" machine and erase this part of a story on Israel and Hamas from last week:
Mr Olmert has reportedly been rejecting the army's most ambitious plans. In the longer run, Mr [former head of the army's strategic planning Shlomo] Brom thinks, Israel's “new rules” may mean an attempt to create a balance similar to the one on its border with Lebanon. There, tough Israeli responses to every attack by Hizbullah's militants are credited with bringing about an uneasy but largely successful detente.
Second, I suspect the Kadima plan for a unilateral withdrawal of the West Bank is now a DOA policy. At the current moment, ordinary Israelis will not buy the idea that unilteral withdrawal increases Israeli security.

posted by Dan at 02:10 AM | Comments (101) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

So you want to publish an op-ed....

In the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, Douglas Borer has an essay entitled, "Rejected by the New York Times? Why Academics Struggle to Get Published in National Newspapers." Here's how it opens:

At one time or another the bug to write an editorial strikes many in our profession. Our motivation is driven by disgust in what we see in the media, where many of the pundits are, for lack of a more nuanced description, idiots.
Fortunately, Borer then focuses most of his ire at academic folkways:
The first hurdle to overcome is schizophrenia when it comes to following rules. While academics suffer no hesitation when placing limits on students' term papers, professors generally do not like to follow similar restrictions. Because our first foray into editorial writing is usually for a local newspaper, bad habits form quickly. A decade ago, my colleagues at Virginia Tech informed me that the Roanoke Times would publish essays of almost any length that a Tech professor submitted. If I had something to say, and needed 1,500 words to say it, I simply sent my over-stuffed story, and presto! I was playing the smug role of public intellectual. Move over Tom Friedman, this was easy!

As the years went on, my ambitions grew. Yet truth be told, each sample of brilliant analysis and clever prose that eventually appeared in the local mullet wrapper had first been rejected by one of the major national newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal). U.S.A. Today does not accept unsolicited op-ed submissions; however, in 2002 they asked me to write a piece explaining why Afghanistan was going to be another Vietnam. When I expressed my judgment that the U.S. incursion into Afghanistan had fewer potential similarities than differences with Vietnam, the editors lost interest in my "expertise." A day or two later, the story they wanted told duly appeared courtesy of another professor. The U.S.A. Today experience was instructive—editors "editorialize" by thematically selecting the content their publishers wish to convey....

If changing one's spots is difficult for a leopard, teaching an old academician new tricks may be even more tricky. Successful op-ed writing requires academics to move tepidly into the realm of rhetoric and imagery. Why? As noted above, space is limited to approximately 700 words, therefore the use of rhetorical and metaphorical words that mentally catalyze the reader to generate even more words in his/her mind's eye is indispensable. For the most part, we academics are trained to play a very different game—we really do not want our readers to think freely for themselves. Certainly we do not want to use words that might foment an emotional response in our peers. Therefore, we avoid words that are open to interpretation, and we go to lengths ad nauseum to define terms. We require the members of our tribe to assemble narratives consisting of analytically rigorous but alliteratively sterile words. We know that use of that ever-loaded term "democracy" in a journal article entails a commitment of four or more pages of literature review in order to dodge the finely honed machetes of peer reviewers. In an op-ed you can explain democracy in a sentence, and readers will get the gist of your definition. Indeed, getting to the gist of things is all you need in editorials.

That last line applies to blogs as well.

posted by Dan at 05:55 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Your interesting argument for the day

Ryan Sager argues in Real Clear Politics (and in the Atlantic Monthly) that the new battleground states will not rust belt states like Ohio, but the Mountain West and Southwest:

In fact, it's looking more and more likely that the eight states of the Southwest and the broader interior West -- Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- are on their way to becoming the next great swing region in American politics. As the Republican Party tilts on its South-West axis, increasingly favoring southern values (religion, morality, tradition) over western ones (freedom, independence, privacy), the Democrats have been presented with a tremendous opportunity. If the Republican Party doesn't want to lose its hold over all of the West, as it lost hold of once-reliable California more than a decade ago, its leaders are going to have to rethink their embrace of big-government, big-religion conservatism.

Why? The interior West is not the South -- not by demography and not by ideology.

Read the whole thing, and see if you're convinced. I'm only about 50% convinced -- but it's interesting.

Hat tip to Virginia Postrel for the link.

posted by Dan at 11:25 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The State Department is really hard up

The Bush administration's foreign policy has absorbed a number of whacksfrom the commentariat as of late.

Here's more fodder: I'll be in Germany for the rest of this week as part of a State Department speaker program that brings U.S. experts overseas to speak to German expert audiences on such topics as economics, trade and global affairs.

Blogging will likely be intermittent for the rest of the week.

Auf Wiedersehen!

Discussion topic amongst yourselves: what will Iraq look like a year from now?

posted by Dan at 11:47 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Is it a good idea to podcast lectures?

That's the question being debated in this Christina Silva story in the Boston Globe:

Hoping to appeal to tech-savvy students with a shrinking attention span, more Boston-area colleges are pushing professors to go digital and record their lectures as downloadable files that student can listen to wherever, whenever....

Supporters of the idea say that podcasts help students study better, allowing baffled freshmen to fast-forward to the part of an introductory lecture they didn't understand and hit repeat. The University of Massachusetts at Lowell, for example, will try with 10 high-tech classrooms this fall.

But others question whether podcasting lectures will actually contribute to learning. Students, some professors say, might be tempted to skip class and the discussion that can flow after a lecture.

"If the purpose of what you are doing is to give them some information quickly, then podcasts are great," said Donna Qualters, director of The Center for Effective University Teaching at Northeastern University, an education resource program. ``My fear is that podcasts are going to replace the lecture. And then, of course, kids are not going to go to class, and they will miss the benefits of that."

My take: some students would use podcasts as a substitute for attending lectures, others will use it as intended. The ones who use it as a substitute probably know it's not as good as attending the lecture itself, but are willing to pay the price in terms of lower grades.

I'm curious what other professors and students think.

posted by Dan at 08:17 AM | Comments (29) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, July 10, 2006

I think Barbara Ehrenreich needs a time out

Via Laura McKenna, I found this Barbara Ehrenreich blog post defending Katha Pollit's book from Ana Marie Cox.

Without wading into the deeper waters of feminist thought -- a swim for which I might lack the proper training -- I did find my jaw dropping as I read this passage:

Cox is not the first post-feminist to denounce paleo-feminists as sexless prudes. Ever since Andrea Dworkin -- a truly puritanical feminist -- waged war on pornography, there've been plenty of feisty women ready to defend Victoria's Secret as a beachhead of liberation. Something similar happened in the 1920s, when newly enfranchised young women blew off those frumpy old suffragists and declared their right to smoke cigarettes, wear short skirts, and dance the Charleston all night.

Maybe there's a cycle at work here: militant feminism followed by lipstick and cocktails, followed, in a generation or two, by another gust of militancy. But this time around the circumstances are vastly different. In the 1920s, women were seeing their collective fortunes advance. The Western nations were granting them suffrage; contraceptives were moving beyond the status of contraband. Contrast those happy developments to today's steadily advancing war against women's reproductive choice: the banning of abortion in South Dakota, fundamentalist pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control.

Worldwide, the situation is far grimmer, as fundamentalist Islam swallows one nation after another. Iraq, once a secular and fairly woman-friendly place by Middle Eastern standards (although Saddam had no use for actual feminists), is degenerating into a contest between misogynist factions of various sectarian stripes. Somalia, which had been reasonably secular, just fell to the Islamists, who have taken to attacking insufficiently covered women in the streets. Then there's Indonesia, where, in some regions, women lacking head scarves or sporting cosmetics now face arrests for "prostitution," and women found in public with unrelated men can be publicly whipped.

I've always liked to think that feminism is the West's secret weapon against Islamism. How can an ideology that aims to push half the human race into purdah hope to claim the moral high ground? Islamic feminists would fight Islamism, and we Western feminists would offer our sisterhood in the struggle. But while Muslim women are being stuffed into burkas, American post-feminists are trying to stuff their feet into stilettos. Who are you going to call when the morals police attack you for wearing eye shadow in Kabul or flashing some ankle in Teheran -- a wonkette?

I find it hard to believe that there is any dimension in which the situation for women -- in the U.S. and across the globe -- is gloomier today than it was in the 1920's. There might be isolated exceptions in some countries, but by any aggregate measure -- women's suffrage, employment opportunities, educational opportunities -- I cannot see how Ehrenreich's implication holds.

I dare my readers to prove my assertion wrong.

posted by Dan at 01:42 PM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)

This seems like good news

There's not a lot of good news out there today, so let's engage in a little counter-programming before we get to it.

From the Guardian's science correspondent Ian Sample:

A British drug company is seeking permission to conduct the first human trials of an experimental vaccine against the avian flu virus.

The vaccine will target the lethal H5N1 strain of avian flu, which has spread rapidly throughout bird populations in Asia and has been brought to Europe by flocks of migrating waterfowl. The World Health Organisation has reported 97 human cases of avian flu since December 2003, with at least 53 deaths....

A vaccine against avian flu could significantly bolster efforts to limit the infection's spread if a pandemic strain emerges, by adding to government stockpiles of the anti-viral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza.

Unlike conventional vaccines, which use weakened strains or fragments of the harmful virus, the test vaccine uses strands of DNA that can be made quickly and cheaply.

In the trial, volunteers will be vaccinated using an alternative to a needle. Instead, a handheld device will blast harmless, microscopic gold particles coated in the vaccine into the upper arm at supersonic speeds.

Tests of a DNA vaccine designed to give protection against seasonal flu were published earlier this year and showed that it offered 100% protection, based on the immune response of volunteers.

So far, the DNA vaccine against avian flu has only been tested in animals, where it has also proved successful.

"Our tests have shown that it stops the infection entirely, to the point that we can't even measure the virus in the animals afterwards," said John Beadle, chief medical officer of the Oxford-based company PowderMed.

The company's research suggests humans would need two doses of the vaccine, a prime and a boost. Calculations suggest that less than half a kilogram of DNA would be enough to offer two doses of the vaccine to everyone in Britain.

posted by Dan at 09:30 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, July 7, 2006

Just how disaffected are European Muslims?

Going by news stories -- the London bombings, the French riots, the Danish cartoons -- 2005 was not a terribly good year for Muslim immigrants living in Europe.

So it's interesting to see that according to the Pew Global Attitudes project, the situation might not be as bleak as previously thought:

Muslims in Europe worry about their future, but their concern is more economic than religious or cultural. And while there are some signs of tension between Europe's majority populations and its Muslim minorities, Muslims there do not generally believe that most Europeans are hostile toward people of their faith. Still, over a third of Muslims in France and one-in-four in Spain say they have had a bad experience as a result of their religion or ethnicity.

However, there is little evidence of a widespread backlash against Muslim immigrants among the general publics in Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain. Majorities continue to express concerns about rising Islamic identity and extremism, but those worries have not intensified in most of the countries surveyed over the past 12 months; a turbulent period that included the London subway bombings, the French riots, and the Danish cartoon controversy....

Most notably, France shows no signs of a backlash in response to last year's riots. In fact, a counter trend seems to have emerged with slightly more French people saying that immigration from the Middle East and North Africa is a good thing than did so a year ago. The French public is also more inclined this year to say that Muslims living in France want to adopt French customs - a view held by an overwhelming majority of Muslims in France. Nor do German and British publics express any increase in negative views of immigrants - although, unlike the French, they are not more positive toward immigrants this year. Meanwhile, the Spanish public's view toward immigrants has grown slightly more negative over the last year.

The poll finds that Muslims themselves are generally positive about conditions in their host nation. In fact, they are more positive than the general publics in all four European countries about the way things are going in their countries. However, many Muslims, especially in Britain, worry about the future of Muslims in their country.

This part is particularly interesting:
Religion is central to the identity of European Muslims. With the exception of Muslims in France, they tend to identify themselves primarily as Muslim rather than as British, Spanish, or German. In France, Muslims are split almost evenly on this question. The level of Muslim identification in Britain, Spain, and Germany is similar to that in Pakistan, Nigeria, and Jordan, and even higher than levels in Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia. By contrast the general populations in Western Europe are far more secular in outlook. Roughly six-in-ten in Spain, Germany, and Britain identify primarily with their country rather than their religion, as do more than eight-in-ten in France.

Americans, however, split about evenly on this question: 42% say they first think of themselves as Christians versus 48% who think of themselves primarily as Americans - a divide close to that found among French Muslims.

Click here to read the whole report.

posted by Dan at 08:33 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, July 6, 2006

I wish I had written this paper
Corruption is believed to be a major factor impeding economic development, but the importance of legal enforcement versus cultural norms in controlling corruption is poorly understood. To disentangle these two factors, we exploit a natural experiment, the stationing of thousands of diplomats from around the world in New York City. Diplomatic immunity means there was essentially zero legal enforcement of diplomatic parking violations, allowing us to examine the role of cultural norms alone. This generates a revealed preference measure of government officials' corruption based on real-world behavior taking place in the same setting. We find strong persistence in corruption norms: diplomats from high corruption countries (based on existing survey-based indices) have significantly more parking violations, and these differences persist over time. In a second main result, officials from countries that survey evidence indicates have less favorable popular views of the United States commit significantly more parking violations, providing non-laboratory evidence on sentiment in economic decision-making. Taken together, factors other than legal enforcement appear to be important determinants of corruption.
Here's a link to the paper. Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who proposes a pithier abstract:
During a period of diplomatic parking immunity, the average Kuwaiti diplomat to the United Nations racked up 246 parking violations. No Swedish diplomat had any parking violations. This paper explores how that might possibly be the case.
There's another finding that I thought interesting:
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, there is a sharp – though temporary – drop in diplomatic parking violations, by roughly 80%. We find that countries with greater Muslim populations experience particularly sharp declines. We can only speculate about the exact causes of this change in behavior, but the fear of police harassment or negative media attention for the home country during that politically charged period is a possibility.
posted by Dan at 09:19 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

The pipe dream of energy independence

The Wall Street Journal's John Fialka does an excellent job of bulls**t detection by probing the feasibility of "energy independence":

The U.S. may be addicted to oil, but many of its politicians are addicted to "energy independence" -- which may be among the least realistic political slogans in American history....

"Energy independence is an emotionally compelling concept," says Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan, nonprofit group financed by private foundations, "but it's a vestige of a world that no longer exists."

Indeed, the U.S. is moving rapidly away from energy independence: Oil imports made up 35% of the nation's petroleum supplies in 1973 and 59% in the first four months of 2006, according to the Department of Energy. Moreover, 66% of the oil consumed in the U.S. is used in the transportation sector, where Americans, with their penchant for hefty cars with big engines, are by far the planet's biggest consumers of oil.

The allure of energy independence is easy to see. It reinforces the belief that Americans can control their own economic destiny and appeals to a "deep-seated cultural feeling that we are Fortress America and we will not be vulnerable to unstable regimes," says David Jhirad, a former Clinton administration energy official who is vice president at World Resources Institute, an environmental-research group.

In fact, experts say, America's energy fortunes are inextricably linked to those of other countries. Global oil markets are interconnected, with oil prices set internationally. That means supply disruptions anywhere in the world will continue to have an almost instantaneous effect on the pump price of gasoline in the U.S.

"The real metric on this is not imported oil, but how much oil we use, period," says Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute who dismisses calls for energy independence as "rhetorical nonsense that transcends party affiliation."

Mr. Grumet's energy commission is trying to get experts to agree that the term "energy independence" should be dropped. He wants policy makers to focus on curbing oil consumption -- specifically the amount to produce each $1,000 of gross domestic product. The nation already is making some headway on that goal, he says, and the idea, while it may not fit on a bumper sticker, is beginning to resonate.

Read the whole thing.

posted by Dan at 09:07 AM | Comments (27) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

What's the bigger threat to national security?

When the New York Times published stories about the Bush administration's efforts to track terrorist financing via the SWIFT consortium, a lot of the conservative blogosphere got on the NYT's case about publishing national secrets on the front page of the paper of record. And, for the record, I suspect that the publication probably disrupted the program because of the backlash it created in Europe, where SWIFT is headquartered.

And yet, I'd take the Bush administration's umbrage about the publication of classified information more seriously if the government demonstrated anything close to competence when to comes to protecting the computerized data currently in its possession.

The Energy Department and the Department of Veteran Affairs have already had problems with lost data.

Now Eric Weiss reports in the Washington Post that the FBI has had a little bit of a problem in this area:

A government consultant, using computer programs easily found on the Internet, managed to crack the FBI's classified computer system and gain the passwords of 38,000 employees, including that of FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III.

The break-ins, which occurred four times in 2004, gave the consultant access to records in the Witness Protection Program and details on counterespionage activity, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Washington. As a direct result, the bureau said it was forced to temporarily shut down its network and commit thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars to ensure no sensitive information was lost or misused.

The government does not allege that the consultant, Joseph Thomas Colon, intended to harm national security. But prosecutors said Colon's "curiosity hacks" nonetheless exposed sensitive information.

Colon, 28, an employee of BAE Systems who was assigned to the FBI field office in Springfield, Ill., said in court filings that he used the passwords and other information to bypass bureaucratic obstacles and better help the FBI install its new computer system. And he said agents in the Springfield office approved his actions.

The incident is only the latest in a long string of foul-ups, delays and embarrassments that have plagued the FBI as it tries to update its computer systems to better share tips and information. Its computer technology is frequently identified as one of the key obstacles to the bureau's attempt to sharpen its focus on intelligence and terrorism....

What Colon did was hardly cutting edge, said Joe Stewart, a senior researcher with Chicago-based security company LURHQ Corp. "It was pretty run-of-the-mill stuff five years ago," Stewart said.

Asked if he was surprised that a secure FBI system could be entered so easily, Stewart said, "I'd like to say 'Sure,' but I'm not really. They are dealing with the same types of problems that corporations are dealing with."

To be fair to the Bush administration, a lot of this stuff might have happened regardless of who was running the White House.

That said, the administration seems to be obsessed with protecting data from journalists. I'd much prefer it if they were obsessed with protecting their data from hackers.

UPDATE: On the other hand, the FBI has done an excellent job protecting Coca Cola's secret formula!!

posted by Dan at 10:22 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Should you panic about North Korea or not?

North Korea apparently test-fired several missiles today.

There are stories by both the New York Times staff and Dana Piest of the Washington Post. Whether North Korea's actions are panic-worthy depend upon which story you read.

The Times suggests panic:

North Korea shocked western and Japanese analysts in 1998 by firing a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean, revealing more advanced missile capabilities than the country was previously thought to possess.

The Taepodong-2 missile is thought to be potentially capable of reaching United States territory in Alaska, if North Korea perfects the technology. But that ability has never been demonstrated in a test. In late June, North Korea disavowed its self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile tests....

North Korea is believed to possess enough plutonium to build several nuclear warheads. The country has claimed since 2005 to have built nuclear weapons.

The Post offers a different perspective:
A senior State Department official said the test was "an affront to everybody, not just us" and that it would likely have a big effect on South Korean public opinion, which is already impatient with one-way flow of humanitarian assistance meant to induce the isolated North Korean leader to join the world community.

The failure of diplomacy is also likely to embarrass China, which has sought a heightened role in calming tensions between North Korea and other countries. "The Chinese will be furious," the diplomat said....

The Taepodong-2 is a multi-stage missile with a possible range of 3,500 to 4,300 km, meaning it could hit parts of Alaska. Most analysts agree North Korea is years away from building a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile. Its medium and long-range missiles have displayed chronic problems with accuracy.

Put me between the Post and Times perspectives. I suspect that the South Koreans -- who have been in denial about North Korea for some time -- will find a way to rationalize the DPRK's behavior, and that the Chinese won't be that perturbed. The fact that financial markets are reacting to the test by selling off yen suggests that they are ratcheting up the probability of something bad happening. As Dan Nexon points out: "The US and Japan have made all sorts of dark threats about punitive action if North Korea went ahead with the launch. Now we have to step up to the plate or risk having had our bluff called."

At the same time, Priest is correct about the North Koreans being a ways away from being able to put a nuke on an ICBM. Plus, if you look at this map, you see that the United States is hardly the only country affected by North Korea's actions.


UPDATE: David Sanger has an excellent backgrounder in the New York Times about why all of the policy options available to the Bush administration are pretty God-awful. At the same time, Sanger's story moves the Times towards the not-panicking position:

The North has long had an array of weapons that could destroy Seoul or hit Japan, including American forces based there. The only new element in the dramatic barrage into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday was the launching of its intercontinental-range Taepodong- 2, the missile that, depending on whose numbers one believes, could eventually hit the United States.

So far it has tested the Taepodong twice - the last time was in 1998 - and as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies put it bluntly on Wednesday, "both failed dismally."
The experts quoted by Tom Ricks and Faiola in the Washington Post make a similar point:
The major fallout from North Korea's series of missile launches and the malfunction of its long-range rocket is that its missile program now looks somewhat inept, weapons experts said yesterday.

"The Taepodong-2 was not ready for prime time," said David Kay, a veteran weapons inspector, referring to Pyongyang's controversial attempt to launch a long-range missile. "The ridicule for the failure is entirely on" the North Korean government....

It was not clear whether the missile crashed or was aborted by its controllers, but U.S. and Japanese officials said that intelligence and monitoring of the Taepodong-2 test launch indicated that it failed.

The result of the attempt is that, to some specialists, North Korea looks less dangerous than it did just a few days ago.

"Seems to me their ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] capability has gone no better than sideways the past eight years, if not down," said retired Adm. Dennis Blair, a former chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.

"Less threatening, because less capable," agreed Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.), who tracks North Korea.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that Japan, the U.S. and the U.K. wants the UN Security Council to sanction North Korea. I'm shocked to report that Russia and China oppose such a move.

posted by Dan at 07:40 PM | Comments (29) | Trackbacks (0)

In honor of Independence Day....

I'll encourage my readers to engage Matthew Yglesias and/or Tyler Cowen in the ultimate contrarian argument -- was American independence a good idea?

Yglesias has his doubts at the global level:

File this one under "why do liberals hate America?" but this time of year I'm always intrigued by the view that American independence was more-or-less a giant mistake.... The issues at stake were eminently compromisable, had wiser leadership been available, and the examples of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and (to some extent) South Africa indicate that having lost the USA the British government was able to come up with a perfectly workable alternative system of imperial management. And wouldn't it have been better if the USA-British relationship had evolved along the Canadian model?

Consider that Canada and the other dominions entered the world wars at the same time as Britain rather than on the USA's leisurely pace. If we'd gotten into World War II in 1939 rather than 1941 the war, presumably, have been considerably shorter and many lives could have been saved. Even better would be if American entry into World War I in 1914 rather than 1917 could have brought about German defeat fast enough to prevent the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. If that had turned out differently, the world would have turned out to be a much, much, much better place.

For Cowen, the question comes at the individual level;
[T]hink about it, wasn't it more than a wee bit whacky? "Let's cut free of the British Empire, the most successful society the world had seen to date, and go it alone against the French, the Spanish, and the Indians." [TC: they all seemed more formidable at the time than subsequently]

Taxes weren't that high, especially by modern standards. The British got rid of slavery before we did. Might I have concluded the revolution was a bunch of rent-seekers trying to capture the governmental surplus for themselves?

Go ahead, exercise that right to free speech and respond to the question at hand

I'd respond myself, but.... er.... I'm deep into the pursuit of happiness right now.

I do know how Jefferson would have responded:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States....

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

posted by Dan at 01:00 PM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, July 2, 2006

Time is running out before the panic button is pushed and we all go over the brink, fall off a cliff, and cross the Rubicon into the red part of the red zone

Alas, it looks like the Doha round has come to a standstill.

Actually, that's not fair -- the round has been at a standstill since the December 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial.

This has made writing and blogging about the round somewhat difficult -- kinda like trying to describe the same traffic jam for nine months. However, props to AP writer Bradley Klapper for coming up with a novel angle (link via Megan McArdle):

The WTO is surely one of the most cliche-riddled bodies in the world as diplomats compete in a game of words to describe sometimes impenetrably complex trade issues. Even if the metaphors only sometimes add substance, catchy phrases usually mean more to people outside the rarified air of global commerce.

The WTO has been saying for months that "time is running out."

The organization's former director-general Supachai Panitchpakdi cried crisis over a year ago, warning his finger was hovering over "the panic button," even if he had yet to press it.

Since then, the Geneva-based body has approached "the point of no return," reached "the edge of the cliff," "crossed the Rubicon" and faced its share of "do-or-die" deadlines.

The WTO's current chief Pascal Lamy has alternately described himself as the organization's shepherd, nurse, midwife and conductor. He is also fond of referring to the round as a marathon or a jet plane, and the organization as a football team. Does that suggest that he is the pacesetter, pilot or coach?

Lamy's biggest test in metaphor mechanics came after the WTO's trade summit last year in Hong Kong, more noteworthy in the end for its large protests and political finger-pointing than any market-opening deals.

Citing the gathering's minor achievements, he declared the round back on track, even though the tough decisions were pushed back until this summer.

"We now have enough fuel in the tank to cruise at the right negotiating altitude now," he said.

With the year's first deadline in April fast approaching, top trading officials jumped on the bandwagon, adding new turns of phrase if little substance.

India's Trade and Industry Minister Kamal Nath _ who was the first to downplay hopes ahead of Hong Kong, or "recalibrate the level of ambition" _ warned of the EU and U.S. creating a "suicide round."

Former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman called April 30 the "drop dead date" for negotiations and six top trading powers met in London in March to break the logjam. After apparently little progress was made, all were eager to cite progress.

"We made progress on narrowing the concepts of numbers," Portman told reporters afterward. He didn't explain further.

Not to be outdone, Nath esoterically added that the meeting was useful for defining "elasticities;" Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim cited the lack of "a click" necessary to reach a deal.

After Lamy cancelled the "drop dead" session, he called this week's gathering _ dubbed in WTO jargon the "full modalities meeting" _ in its place.

In recent weeks, Lamy has sounded the warning anew.

The marathon runner has warned of "hitting the wall," a runner's term for the point of near exhaustion toward the end of the race.

In May he switched to security alert levels, saying that "we are now in the red zone" due to a lack of movement.

However, he suggested there was still room to recover because countries had yet to reach "the red part of this red zone."

Despite my flippancy about the rhetoric, the collapse of the Doha round would be a very, very, very bad thing. To understand why, consider Greg Mankiw's point: [S]uccess in the Doha round of international trade talks would give the world more every year than what [Warren] Buffett can give once after a lifetime of being the world's most successful investor.

posted by Dan at 10:06 AM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, July 1, 2006

Your summer books for 2006!!

Astute and frequent readers of -- all six of you -- might have noticed that I did not post any books of the month for this June. Astute as you all are, no doubt you suspected this was because of my preoccupation with moving and its attendant minor disasters.

You would be correct.

However, with summer now upon us, I hope to make up for this by posting my reading recommendations for the entire summer at once. Rather than break this down into international relations and general interest, however, there are three categories:

A) Work books -- a.k.a., international relations. These are the books I really need to read becaue of my research, or my need to stay current in what's going on in my field:

1) Stephen G. Brooks, Producing Security: Multinational Corporations, Globalization, and the Changing Calculus of Conflict. Does the globalization of production lead to peace? Librals say yes and realists say no, but the real answer is likely to be a wee bit more complex than that. Brooks looks at the phenomenon the right way by examining just how production has been globalized and how that affects different conflict situations. He concludes that globalization reduces violent conflicts between great powers but exacerbates it among developing economies.

Since 9/11, Brooks has produced some of the most interesting analytical work out there on U.S. grand strategy. I'm looking forward to reading his book.

2) Stephen Hopgood, Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International. According to the jacket cover:

The first in-depth look at working life inside a major human rights organization, Keepers of the Flame charts the history of Amnesty International and the development of its nerve center, the International Secretariat, over forty-five years. Through interviews with staff members, archival research, and unprecedented access to Amnesty International’s internal meetings, Stephen Hopgood provides an engrossing and enlightening account of day-to-day operations within the organization, larger decisions about the nature of its mission, and struggles over the implementation of that mission....

An enduring feature of Amnesty’s inner life, Hopgood finds, has been a recurrent struggle between the "keepers of the flame" who seek to preserve Amnesty’s accumulated store of moral authority and reformers who hope to change, modernize, and use that moral authority in ways that its protectors fear may erode the organization’s uniqueness. He also explores how this concept of moral authority affects the working lives of the servants of such an ideal and the ways in which it can undermine an institution’s political authority over time. Hopgood argues that human-rights activism is a social practice best understood as a secular religion where internal conflict between sacred and profane—the mission and the practicalities of everyday operations—are both unavoidable and necessary.

3) Rosemary Foot, S. Neil MacFarlane, and Michael Mastanduno, eds., U.S. Hegemony and International Organizations. One of my projects this summer will be on when the U.S. is constrained from forum-shopping among different international organizations. This will obviously require a little "soaking and poking" into the relationship. This book -- with contributions by John Ikenberry, Ngaire Woods, and Stephen Hopgood -- looks like an excellent place to start.

B) Work and play books. This is a category of books that I probably don't need to read to further my immediate research or teaching needs, but I find the topic or the author sufficiently intriguing that I can't resist. Down the road, these books often wind up jumpstarting research ideas.

For the record, these are the kind of books I bring on my vacations

In order to have time to actually read them rather than write about them , I'm cribbing from the salient parts of their self-descriptions :

1) Suzanne Berger et al, How We Compete : What Companies Around the World Are Doing to Make it in Today's Global Economy: "Based on a five-year study by the MIT Industrial Performance Center, How We Compete goes into the trenches of over 500 international companies to discover which practices are succeeding in today’s global economy, which are failing –and why.... What emerged was far more complicated than the black-and-white picture presented by promoters and opponents of globalization. Contrary to popular belief, cheap labor is not the answer, and the world is not flat, as Thomas Friedman would have it. How We Compete shows that there are many different ways to win in the global economy, and that the avenues open to American companies are much wider than we ever imagined."

This book also has its own web site at If you buy the book. click on this form to tell them where you got it from!

2) David Warsh, Knowledge and the Wealth Of Nations: A Story of Economic Discovery. Ostensibly about the role that Paul Romer's 1990 paper in the Journal of Political Economy played in jumpstarting endogenous growth theory, the book is really a history of economic thought about the causes of growth, as well as a sociology of how the economics profession works nowadays. Warsh gets some minor things wrong (on p. 63, he writes, "In the beginning, however, Karl Marx was an economist." Er, no, in the beginning he was a philosopher), but he gets the major things right.

3) Deepak Lal, Reviving the Invisible Hand: The Case for Classical Liberalism in the Twenty-first Century. "Reviving the Invisible Hand is an uncompromising call for a global return to a classical liberal economic order, free of interference from governments and international organizations. Arguing for a revival of the invisible hand of free international trade and global capital, Lal vigorously defends the view that statist attempts to ameliorate the impact of markets threaten global economic progress and stability. And in an unusual move, he not only defends globalization economically, but also answers the cultural and moral objections of antiglobalizers.

Taking a broad cross-cultural and interdisciplinary approach, Lal argues that there are two groups opposed to globalization: cultural nationalists who oppose not capitalism but Westernization, and "new dirigistes" who oppose not Westernization but capitalism. In response, Lal contends that capitalism doesn't have to lead to Westernization, as the examples of Japan, China, and India show, and that "new dirigiste" complaints have more to do with the demoralization of their societies than with the capitalist instruments of prosperity."

4) Ethan Kapstein, Economic Justice in an Unfair World: Toward a Level Playing Field: "Recent years have seen a growing number of activists, scholars, and even policymakers claiming that the global economy is unfair and unjust, particularly to developing countries and the poor within them. But what would a fair or just global economy look like? Economic Justice in an Unfair World seeks to answer that question by presenting a bold and provocative argument that emphasizes economic relations among states.

The book provides a market-oriented focus, arguing that a just international economy would be one that is inclusive, participatory, and welfare-enhancing for all states. Rejecting radical redistribution schemes between rich and poor, Ethan Kapstein asserts that a politically feasible approach to international economic justice would emphasize free trade and limited flows of foreign assistance in order to help countries exercise their comparative advantage.

Kapstein also addresses justice in labor, migration, and investment, in each case defending an approach that concentrates on nation-states and their unique social compacts."

5) Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. "[T]he acclaimed Harvard economist and advisor to the Federal Reserve Board says economic stagnation is bad for the moral health of a nation. Friedman, a former chair of Harvard's economics department, argues that economic growth is vital to social and political progress. Witness Hitler's Germany. Without growth, people look for answers in intolerance and fear. And that, Friedman warns, is where the U.S. is headed if the economic stagnation of the past three decades doesn't soon reverse. It's not enough for gross domestic product to rise, he says. Growth also has to be more evenly distributed. The rich shouldn't be the only ones getting richer."

Ideally, I would like to read this along with the AER paper recently linked to by Tyler Cowen.

6) Francis Fukuyama, State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. "asserts that the lack of "organizational tradition" in "failed or weak" nations such as Afghanistan and Haiti represents the greatest threat to an orderly world. He argues that the United States, and the West in general, after rightly intervening in such states either militarily or economically (most often through the IMF or World Bank), have failed to transfer institutional and public- and private-sector know-how to needy countries. The goal is to "create self-sustaining state institutions that can survive the withdrawal of outside intervention," though Fukuyama acknowledges that the developed world has failed, setting people up for "large disappointments." The author quickly surveys other recent theories-Sen, Kagan, Huntington-and concludes that the answer lies in providing states with internal organizational structure and, above all, with a culture that enables strong leaders and government institutions to enforce capitalist and free-market values."

C) Pure play books. Books that have no relationship whatsoever with my work other than to make my brain very happy:
1) Seth Mnookin, Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top. What looks like excellent bookend to the spate of literature, beginning with Steve Kettman's One Day At Fenway, about the renaissance of the Boston Red Sox under the new management structure of John Henry, Larry Lucchino, Tom Werner, and Theo Epstein. Mnookin has posted snippets of his book at his blog, as well as Vanity Fair.

2) Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down. Although lad literature has received a critical drubbing as of late, Hornby remains the progenitor of the form. Most important, Hornby passes the strictest of all of my tests for whether I should read something -- he makes my wife laugh.

That should be enough of a list to qualify for summer vertigo.

posted by Dan at 01:45 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

New home disasters thread

A scant ten days after moving into our new house, I went down into our finished basement to look for something when I noticed a somewhat ripe smell. This was odd, as I'd been down there the previous day and no one else had been there during the interval (fixing up the basement is low on our priority list right now).

Poking around, it quickly became obvious that something -- and by something, I mean raw sewage -- had emerged from the mouth of the toilet bowl and bathtub that are in the bathroom down there. About half the basement carpet was soaked from this stuff.

A week later -- after the necessary profanities were uttered, the emergency plumbing visit, the emergency carpet cleaning visit, the second visit by a new set of plumbers to fix the screw-ups made by the first one, and a final de-rooting visit that was at the heart of the problem -- all is well again.

I relate this story not to build up sympathy, but because I strongly suspect that anyone who moves into a new house encounters some unforseen problem or calamity that makes life both difficult and expensive at just the wrong moment.

I therefore humbly ask my readers to submit their horror stories about moving and/or occupying a new domicile.

Tirades against moving companies (let's just say we won't be going with North American Van Lines ever again) or other contractors are heartily welcomed.

posted by Dan at 01:33 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)