Friday, May 25, 2007

That's one fragile marriage

The most interesting sentence I read this week comes from Slate's "Dear Prudence" column:

I know of one marriage that collapsed on the honeymoon because the couple got in a power struggle over who would be responsible for the one room key they were issued.
Whereas, in the case of my marriage, it was the minibar that almost did us in. Not.

posted by Dan at 02:56 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Oh, I'm already feeling the love of Sarkozy's pro-American policies

George Parker and Adam Jones explain in the Financial Times why my post title is drenched in sarcasm:

Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, warned the world on Wednesday night that he expected Europe to take a much tougher stance in global trade talks and would not allow his country’s farmers to be sold “at the lowest possible price”.

Mr Sarkozy, on his first presidential visit to Brussels, called on Europe to “protect” its citizens, buying them time to adapt to the pressures of globalisation.

His comments suggest he will pursue an assertive French agenda in Europe that could put him in conflict with free traders including Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Gordon Brown, incoming UK prime minister.

Mr Sarkozy’s passionate defence of French farmers will concern Europe’s trade partners who hoped he might be more flexible in his approach to cutting EU farm tariffs than Jacques Chirac, his predecessor.

The French president has previously criticised the European Commission for offering too many concessions on agriculture during world trade talks. On Wednesday night he said: “It is goodbye to naivety.” He said he would not allow cuts to support for European farmers while their US counterparts benefited from the same policies, adding: “I’m not going to sell agriculture to get a better opening for services.”

posted by Dan at 11:34 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Context is everything

I have two reactions to this ABC News Blotter post:

The CIA has received secret presidential approval to mount a covert "black" operation to destabilize the Iranian government, current and former officials in the intelligence community tell the Blotter on

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject, say President Bush has signed a "nonlethal presidential finding" that puts into motion a CIA plan that reportedly includes a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions.

"I can't confirm or deny whether such a program exists or whether the president signed it, but it would be consistent with an overall American approach trying to find ways to put pressure on the regime," said Bruce Riedel, a recently retired CIA senior official who dealt with Iran and other countries in the region....

The sources say the CIA developed the covert plan over the last year and received approval from White House officials and other officials in the intelligence community....

Current and former intelligence officials say the approval of the covert action means the Bush administration, for the time being, has decided not to pursue a military option against Iran.

"Vice President Cheney helped to lead the side favoring a military strike," said former CIA official Riedel, "but I think they have come to the conclusion that a military strike has more downsides than upsides."....

The "nonlethal" aspect of the presidential finding means CIA officers may not use deadly force in carrying out the secret operations against Iran.

Still, some fear that even a nonlethal covert CIA program carries great risks.

"I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war already afoot with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements in the region as well as opposition groups within Iran," said Vali Nasr, adjunct senior fellow for Mideast studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"And this covert action is now being escalated by the new U.S. directive, and that can very quickly lead to Iranian retaliation and a cycle of escalation can follow," Nasr said.

On the one hand, of course the CIA should be doing this kind of thing. Iran's current regime -- whether of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-let's-wipe-Israel-off-the-face-of-the-map-crazy variant or the Ali Kamenei let's-act-in-a-more-prudent-fashion-to-establish-our-regional-hegemony-and-then-wipe-Israel-off-the-map variant -- clearly respresent a challenge to U.S. interests in the region (Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, etc.). It's natural for the U.S. to pursue covert policies to encourage a new regime in a country who's populace is pretty pro-American.

On the other hand, I have four qualms with this:

a) The CIA has a mixed track record at best when it comes to peaceful regime change. And the agency's particularly baleful history in Iran means the deck is already stacked against ay success.

b) Look, maybe I'm biased by past events, but I simply don't trust the Bush administration to competently manage this kind of operation. Any other administration, the fallout from a failed attempt would be contained. With this administration, I can't help but think that a failed attempt would have regional implications. The fact that current personnel are blabbing to the press also suggests to me that there isn't unanimity on this, which lowers the odds of success.

c) If I have to choose between a 20% chance at regime change (I'm being generous) or an 80% chance of Iran's current regime agreeing to suspend its nuclear weapons program (equally generous), I'll take the latter option. For that option to succeed, the CIA can't be doing this kind of thing (or, at the vey least, be so fractious that ABC can report about it).

d) The timing of this news story could not be worse for Haleh Esfandiari. It actually gives Ahmadinejad a rhetorical leg to stand on.

So, in the abstract, I'd have no problem with this kind of intelligence finding. In the here and now, yeah, I've got big problems with it.

posted by Dan at 08:16 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Avast, ye scurvy bilge rats!! Them doubloons be mine!!!

One of the best feelings a scholar can have is when another scholar applies your model to a new issue area and finds out that it works pretty well. Over at Opinio Juris, Peter Spiro looks at the global governance of buried treasure. He discovers that the argument I made in All Politics Is Global works pretty well at explaining the status quo. He also uses the word "doubloons" -- a term that should be used far more often in modern discourse.

Spiro, however, is not completely on board with my argument:

[This] is not to say that I think Drezner’s update of a great-powers methodology works across the board. Drezner takes globalization seriously, which is more than you can say about other rat-choice oriented state-based theorists. He also understands that any useful model today has to take account of non-states actors. But he ultimately concludes that although globalization "has led to the emergence of new issues to be analyzed by IR scholars, it does not imply that new paradigms are need to explain these issues." Drezner minimizes NGOs as lacking the material resources to compel state action, which relegates them mostly to the role of delegatees and cheerleaders of state-driven regimes. In Drezner’s view, great-power agreement is both necessary and sufficient to the establishment of international regulatory regimes.

I don’t think that works in all cases, and even less so into the future. In the context of international labor standards, for example, Drezner dismisses codes of conduct with an unsourced paragraph. He does take on the “semi-deviant” (from his theory) case of TRIPS and public health (and the Doha Declaration), highlighting that AIDS is now processed through a security lens and as a threat to great power interests traditionally defined. But that seems to accept great-power framing at face value, and here again he ignores the civil society-corporate dynamic outside of an intergovernmental tent (or in ones more friendly than the WTO, like the World Health Organzation). The book also fails to confront the trendlines. It concedes that NGOs are more powerful than they used to be; couldn’t we expect them to become more so, and if not, why not? All that said, the book is clearly an important addition to the IR [international relations] literature, and one that should be of interest to IL [international law] scholars.

Now I could respond to this in the time-honored tradition that IR scholars deal with IL scholars -- namely, dragging them into a small, dark corner and beating them up, to symbolically demonstrate how coercion trumps the law. But that would be wrong. So let's engage Spiro's argument on its merits.

On the NGO question, Spiro posits a model where global civil society continues to amass power and influence over states, because they have done so in the past. Why don't I deal with this possibility? Three reasons:

1) It's a non-falsifiable assertion. Sure it's possible that global civil society will become ever more powerful -- just ask NGO activists. For some reasons discussed below, however, it's far from a sure thing. Furthermore, one of the frustrating parts of the NGO line of argumentation is that sham standard promulgated today (i.e., core labor standards) will acquire greater power and meaning over time. The thing is -- and I say this in All Politics Is Global -- it's impossible to disprove this assertion. The only way to test the NGO argument is to see what happens in the future -- which means I can't say anything definitive about it in the present.

2) With (1) in mind, I don't think the rise of NGOs is an inexorable process, because that version of history treats states as passive, non-strategic actors. If there's anything I learned in my research for All Politics Is Global, it is that governments are never more agile than when they face a challenge to their authority. My expectation is that the contest for authority between states and global civil society will more closely resemble the offense-defense balance in military technology. That is to say, whenever the offense acquires a distinct tactical advantage, there are powerful incentives to invest in innovations in defensive weaponry -- and vice versa. Global civil society is more powerful today than in the past (unless one counts the Catholic Church as part of civil society) because in the past they were powerless. From here on in, however, I expect that states will learn to adapt over time.

3) Finally, whatever influence global civil society has amassed has come in an era when the two largest economic powers are the US and EU. Those two entities are relatively open societies. As some have recently observed, however, there are rising powers on the horizon, and it is far from clear whether they will be so friendly towards non-state actors. This doesn't mean that global civil society will be shut out, but it does mean that their task will be harder whenever China is in the green room.

The great thing about this debate is that as the future unfolds, we will be able to figure out whether Spiro or I are correct. Let the best man win the doubloons!

posted by Dan at 08:39 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Name this law!

Critic Richard Schickel clearly thinks his life is too boring:

Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism — and its humble cousin, reviewing — is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work, among other qualities.
Mark Kleiman does the public service of critiquing Schickel's critique. In the process, he names a law that I had heretofore simple called the Law of Crap:
All of this reminds me of Sturgeon's Law, named for the great SF writer Theodore Sturgeon, who was supposedly accosted at a Greenwich Village literary party by someone who said to him (I'm quoting from memory), "Sturgeon, how can you stand to publish in those science fiction magazines? Ninety-five percent of the stuff in them is crap." To which Sturgeon calmly replied, "Ninety-five percent of everything is crap."
That said, I do find it extremely ironic that Schickel's essay -- essentially a critique of the literary blogosphere -- fails to follow its own dictum. His piece provides zero evidence that he has either the training or the experience to perform this critical task (this is not to say Schickel is a bad film critic; on blogs, however, he is clearly a victim of Sturgeon's Law).

There's a small part of me that wishes media critics would abide by Schickel's stringent criteria before tackling the blogosphere, as it would make posts like this irrelevant. However, as Matthew Yglesias points out, this is not a likely outcome:

Strident blog-haters seem to me to mostly discover blogs by reading a random sample of blogs that have recent posted hostile things about something the discoverer wrote. Naturally, one's tendency is to find such fare uncongenial, and even if you richly deserve the criticism the odds favor many of your critics being genuinely not worth reading. Under the circumstances, it's easy to convince yourself that the whole thing deserves to be tuned out. This, though, is obviously the wrong way to go about things. One doesn't learn the day's news by looking at a random assortment of "newspaper articles" drawn from wherever; as with anything, you need to know what you're doing for it to be worthwhile.

[What's the deal with this post title?--ed. Here's a blog law that's worth naming: the phenomenon of reading something that warrants a blog post, procrastinating the actual writing, and then discovering that some other blogger has managed to post your precise feelings on the matter.]

posted by Dan at 03:22 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Is there still an Iraq window?

Over at Harper's, Marc Lynch answers questions from Ken Silverstein. In light of the Bush administration's desperate new embrace of the Iraq Study Group, I found this response particularly interesting:

Q: So what’s the best policy choice at this point?

A: The United States should commit to a withdrawal, not tomorrow but with a clear endpoint – benchmarks, or whatever you want to call them. The insurgents have made it pretty clear in a series of public statements and private communications that they’re willing to start talking and dampen down the violence if the United States commits to withdrawing from Iraq. We’re at a moment where there’s actually a chance for positive developments, because we have a common interest with the insurgents in defeating Al Qaeda and they are putting out clear signals that they are willing to make a deal. But everything hinges on the United States making a commitment to withdraw – politically, they can’t and won’t get in the political game without that because it would destroy their credibility and because, frankly, getting the United States out really matters to them. But there’s a window here that I’m afraid we’re going to let close because of domestic politics. The insurgency factions turned against Al Qaeda because its Islamic State of Iraq project has been growing in strength, and if they can’t show some gains soon the tide may turn against them within the Sunni community.

Question to readers -- is there any reason to doubt this assessment?

posted by Dan at 01:41 PM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

So this week I'll be playing the part of Tocqueville

For this work week, I'll be guest-blogging over at the Economist's Democracy in America.

My first post is already up, asking readers a question that puzzles me about the Bush administration's management style.

The blog here will not be neglected, but all my American politics-type stuff will be over there.

posted by Dan at 01:17 PM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

The most amusing sentence I have read today
"Like all red-blooded American women, [Michelle Obama] isn't afraid to publiclly mock her husband."
Laura McKenna.
posted by Dan at 09:39 AM | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)

Just how bad is Iran's international image right now?

If you're a developing country that reflexively opposes the United States, you have to work exceptionally hard -- I'm talking years of effort here -- to do anything that provokes the ire of Noam Chomsky. I mean, this is a guy who had few qualms about the Cambodian genocide because the Khmer Rouge was anti-American. Clearly, the bar of awfulness is pretty high to get ol' Noam's attention.

Amazingly, Mahmoud Ahmdainejad's Iran has pulled this off. Robin Wright explains in the Washington Post:

Momentum is building behind an academic boycott of Iran to pressure the government to release imprisoned American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was jailed in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison May 8 after more than four months under house arrest....

MIT professor Noam Chomsky also issued a statement today calling Esfandiari's detention "deplorable" and warning that the action by Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security was "a gift" to American policymakers trying to organize support for military action against Iran.

"Now is a time for diplomacy, negotiations and relaxation of tensions, in accordance with the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans and Iranians, as recent polls reveal," he said. "The intolerable treatment of this highly respected scholar and human rights activist severely undermines the efforts of those who are seeking peace, justice and freedom in the region and the world."

In his popular blog, University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole announced today that he has canceled plans to attend a conference this summer in Iran because of Tehran's imprisonment of Esfandiari.

"Everyone should be outraged about this story," he said. "Her arrest should be an issue for everyone who believes in human rights, in academic freedom, and in women's rights."

Cole added, "I don't see how normal intellectual life can go on when a scholar at the Wilson Center can't safely visit Iran." He also suggested that academics and others mobilize to protest in front of Iranian diplomatic missions around the world.

If you're interested in registering your own protest about this action to the Iranian government, Amnesty International has conveniently set up a website to send letters to Ahmdainejad and other Iranian leaders.

UPDATE: Wright's follow-up report is not good:

American scholar Haleh Esfandiari has been charged with trying to topple the Iranian regime, Iran's state-controlled television reported today.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry accused Esfandiari, director of Middle East programs at the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, of trying to foment a soft revolution by setting up a network "against the sovereignty" of Iran. Esfandiari was imprisoned May 8 after more than four months under virtual house arrest.

"This is an American-designed model with an attractive appearance that seeks the soft-toppling of the country," state TV reported, according to the Associated Press....

In a statement published by Iran's ISNA news agency, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security charged that Esfandiari had received money from George Soros's Open Society Institute.

"The long-term and final goal of such centers is to try to enable this network . . . to confront the ruling powers. This model designed by the Americans . . . is following the 'soft revolution' in the country," the statement said....

Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother who is a dual U.S. and Iranian national, was originally in Iran to take care of her 93-year-old mother when her passport was taken in a robbery as she was en route to the airport Dec. 30. When she went in to get a replacement, she was put under interrogation for six weeks.

I suspect that Iran's war against American "soft power" is going to have a lot of collateral damage.

posted by Dan at 09:27 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)