Friday, August 10, 2007

Iran and Afghanistan (and Pakistan)

Earlier this week President Bush differed with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai over whether Iran was a positive influence in Afghanistan (for more background click here and here).

Given this rare disagreement, it's worth checking the situation on the ground. And, hey, what do you know, the Christian Science Monitor did that very thing, sending Mark Sappenfield to the western Afghan city of Herat (side note: the CSM's international coverage is criminally underrated).

And what did Sappenfield find?:

In many places, paved roads, clean sidewalks, constant power, and relative security would be considered modest achievements. But in Afghanistan, they make Herat a model for what the country could someday become. The city is a window on how Afghan entrepreneurism can take hold when given the time and security to flourish – and what role Afghanistan's neighbors can play in helping to create these conditions....

Where once spices and camels found passage through this parched desert outpost, now cars and televisions from the Middle East are taxed in its customs houses, generating the wealth for what one expert calls the Dubai of Afghanistan.

"This is the culture of the people of Herat, and this is the positive influence of Iran," says Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, president of the Council of Professionals, a group of analysts and businesspeople here.

In contrast with Pakistani border areas, which have been overrun by the Taliban, Herat – just 75 miles from the Iranian border – has flourished with the help of Iran, one of the Karzai government's strongest supporters. In Herat, for example, Iran has linked the city to the Iranian power grid and built a highway to the border.

More important, the border areas have been largely peaceful, allowing Herat to concentrate on what it does best: business. Since 2001, Herat has attracted $350 million in private investment for industry – more than any other Afghan city, including Kabul, which is some 10 times larger. In total, 250 medium- and large-scale factories have been built in Herat, according to the Afghan Investment Support Agency. The northern city of Mazar-e Sharif comes second with 100 fewer.

It is a legacy of Herat's location. As a trading hub for more than a millennium, Herat has always had money. By some estimates, the money collected at customs houses in Herat is Afghanistan's largest source of revenue, bringing in $1 million a day in duties on goods imported from Iran and Turkmenistan....

In the shade of Khorasan Street, beneath tarps strung from second-floor windows to offer relief from the desert sun, Herati shopkeepers say they are eager for Afghan-made products. Among the multicolored boxes and bottles that look like a rainbow avalanche of soaps, shampoos, and cookie wrappers, merchants say many of the goods were made locally.

"Compared with the past, we have fewer things from Iran and we have more things from Afghanistan," says Abdul Qader, a shopkeeper.

I don't want to defend Iran too vociferously, but it appears that the worst thing you can say about Tehran's relationship with the Taliban is that it's not as hostile as it was when the Taliban actually controlled Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan has a far more destabilizing relationship with Afghanistan than Iran.

Note to President Bush: There's enough actual evidence to show that the Iranian regime is a bad actor in the region. Please stop ginning up bogus claims to pile on.

Please, leave Iran alone. Focus on Pakistan instead.

posted by Dan at 08:39 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Is Nick Kristof insane?

A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results (intriguingly, the same website attributes this definition to both Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein).

That definition came back to me after reading the opening of Nick Kristof's NYT ($$) column today:

Almost nobody has campaigned so energetically for the poor in Africa as Bono, but when Bono spoke at a conference in Africa recently, he was heckled. Several Africans scolded him for demanding more foreign aid, saying that’s not what Africa needs.

A handful of recent books and studies suggest that aid is sometimes oversold, including the superb new work called “The Bottom Billion,” by Paul Collier, the World Bank’s former research economist (it’s the best nonfiction book so far this year). A forthcoming book, “Farewell to Alms,” by Gregory Clark, a University of California economist, even argues that conventional aid can leave African countries worse off than ever.

And a study by two economists formerly of the I.M.F., Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian, forthcoming in The Review of Economics and Statistics, concludes:

“We find little robust evidence of a positive (or negative) relationship between aid inflows into a country and its economic growth. We also find no evidence that aid works better in better policy or geographical environments, or that certain forms of aid work better than others. Our findings suggest that for aid to be effective in the future, the aid apparatus will have to be rethought.”

So does this mean we should give up on foreign aid?

No, not at all. On the contrary, I believe there is an urgent need for more aid.

You can see why I would question Kristof's mental status.

To be fair, however, Kristof would argue that he's not proposing doing the same thing again. The rest of his essay basically argues that while the macro picture suggests aid does not work, the concentration of aid into certain sectors (health and education) and focused programs (the Millennium Challenge Account) has yielded greater gains (eradication of smallpox, etc.).

He has a point, but it's not as big a point as he thinks. Yes, health initiatives have yielded some impressive results, but they're often subject to similar screw-ups. As William Easterly pointed out in The White Man's Burden, foreign aid has distorted efforts to combat the spread of AIDS. By focusing on treatment of those already suffering from HIV, there has been underinvestment in public goods that would get a bigger bang for the buck -- like efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS or to encourage vaccination for other diseases.

So Kristof is not insane... but he might be a little funny in the head.

posted by Dan at 02:01 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

The advisor or the candidate?

Max Sawicky complains that the economists who were at YearlyKos -- and advising presidential candidates -- were not progressive enough. This fact makes Bruce Bartlett sleep easier at night:

[T]hese guys may be liberal by conventional political definitions, but they are hardly men of the left. [Max] finds this dispiriting; I find it reassuring. It means there is a chance that the Democrats may nominate someone I might possibly be able to vote for. I don't know Goolsbee, but he has an excellent reputation among economists. I know Bob and Gene and would anticipate that if they have anything to say about it, the next Democratic presidency will be a rerun of the Clinton Administration on economics--free trade oriented, fiscally conservative, pragmatic.

Frankly, this sounds good to me. I think we need a few years of sober economic management that is grounded in the real world. This used to be what the Republican Party stood for.

All well and good, but then we get to what the Democratic candidates themselves are saying. Over at Capital Commerce, James Pethokoukis summarizes the more inane comments that were made at Monday's debate. Let's just say I'm not as reassured as Bartlett.

Now, as Ezra Klein points out, the Republicans are hardly immune to uttering economic inanities. Nonetheless, the disconnect between who politicians get as advisors and what they say themselves prompts a question: when picking a presidential candidate, should you go by what they say or what their advisors think?

posted by Dan at 01:25 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Mike Lowell is a wise man

Clearly, I'm not the biggest Barry Bonds fan in the world. That said, Gordon Edes transcribes Red Sox third baseman' Mike Lowell's reaction to Barry Bonds breaking the home run record, and it's worth quoting in full:

"I watched it when they put it up on the Jumbotron," he said. "The thing I keep thinking about is the Duke lacrosse thing. If it hadn't turned out the way it did, maybe I'd feel differently. But the media and the whole country thought those lacrosse players were guilty as sin, and they weren't."

The Duke players were accused of raping a young woman in their fraternity house, charges that were later dropped, and the district attorney was later disbarred. "When the coach resigned," Lowell said, "I thought to myself, 'Wow, this thing is going to be something really deep,' and it didn't come close to being true. So they reinstated the eligibility of some of those players, but their whole lives were changed. And the seniors, they can never get that year back.

"That's why I think the best thing is, until we know more, until there are charges or they find pictures or something, that we recognize this as a legitimate record and hold to the belief that in this country, you're innocent until proven guilty.

"Do I believe [performance-enhancing substances] can help someone who is already in the big leagues do better? Yes, I believe that. But do I put Bonds in that category? Everybody has tried to get something on him, and yet he still hasn't been charged with anything. They indicted Michael Vick in 20 minutes because there was something there. But I'm also willing to reserve judgment in the Michael Vick thing."

Lowell said he didn't understand why commissioner Bud Selig raised the steroids controversy when Bonds tied Hank Aaron's record Saturday in San Diego. "We all know how [Selig] feels," Lowell said, "so why not just leave it at baseball? If he's wrong, then he's going to look like an [expletive]. If he's right, he can tell us all, 'I told you so.'

"But the number is unreal. I'm close to 200 home runs, and that's a number I'm not even dreaming about. People say [Bonds] was a great player already; this just takes him to another level."

posted by Dan at 11:32 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

A step in the right direction

Via Mark Thoma, I see that economist Willem Buiter wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times about a policy innovation that would vastly improve America's ability to promote democracy and economic development in Latin America, while threatening the viability of terrorist networks in Afghanistan:

A pragmatic argument against criminalising drugs is that criminalisation creates vast rents and encourages criminal entrepreneurs to use violence, intimidation, bribery, extortion and corruption to extract these rents. Another pragmatic argument is that it is pointless to waste resources fighting a war that cannot be won. The losing war on drugs wastes resources that could be used to fight terrorism and other crimes.

Another important argument for legalising, in particular, all cultivation of poppy and of coca (and their illegal derivatives) is that this would take away a vital source of income and political support for terrorist move- ments, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (Farc) and various paramilitary groups.

The United Nations estimates that opium production in Afghanistan grew to more than 6,000 metric tonnes last year with a value exceeding $3bn. It is the origin of more than 90 per cent of the world’s illegally consumed opiates.

A significant portion of the profits flows to the Taliban, who act as middlemen in the opium business. They combine extortion and threats of violence towards the poppy farmers with the sale of protection to these same farmers against those who would destroy their livelihood, mainly the Nato allies and the Afghan central government.

Following legalisation, the allies in Afghanistan could further undermine the financial strength of the Taliban and al-Qaeda by buying up the entire poppy harvest. If a sufficient premium over the prevailing market price were offered, the Taliban/al-Qaeda middle-man could be cut out altogether, and thus would lose his tax base. Winning the hearts and minds of poppy growers and coca growers is a lot easier when you are not seen as intent on destroying their livelihood.

This proposal for legalising poppy growing regardless of what the poppy is used for is much more radical than the proposal from the Senlis Council to license the growing of poppy in Afghanistan only for the production of essential medicines. The Senlis Council proposal would not end the problem of illicit poppy cultivation co-existing with licensed cultivation. With the illicit price likely to exceed the licit price, the Taliban would retain a significant tax base.

Is legalisation of all opiates an integral part of the proposal that the allies procure the entire poppy harvest in Afghanistan? Consider procurement without legalisation. The allies would find themselves each year with the largest stash of poppy the world has ever seen. What to do with it?...

So legalise, regulate, tax, educate and rehabilitate. Stop a losing war, get the government off our backs, beat the Taliban and deal a blow to al-Qaeda in the process. Not a bad deal!

I've said it before and I'll say it again -- drug legalization would yield enormous foreign policy benefits.

posted by Dan at 08:50 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

David Frum strives for accuracy

Forgive me a historical nitpick.

In a bloggingheads diavlog with Robert Wright, David Frum defends his partial coining of the term "Axis of Evil" by comparing it to the Axis Powers that banded together in World War II. Click here to see and listen (it's about a minute). I'll wait....

You're back? In an effort to be accurate, let's parse out where Frum is right and where he is wrong in his historical analogy.

Frum is accurate in stating that the Axis powers were not allies like the U.S. and U.K. were allies, because there was no integrated command structure. Of course, that's because, until 1945, very few allies have integrated command structures.

Frum is not accurate, when he says, "an axis is not an alliance." The original Axis powers did in fact sign the 1940 Tripartite treaty, which is commonly recognized as a traditional alliance.

More generally, the point is that the military policies of Germany, Italy, and Japan were far more coordinated in 1940 than Frum's Axis of Evil were in 2002.

That is all.

posted by Dan at 02:33 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Michael Ignatieff's incredibly long learning curve

I was in Montreal for the weekend (brief side note to the Department of Homeland Security -- loved that two-and-a-half hour wait at the border to drive across; much more friendly than the 15-minute wait to get into Canada).

While chatting with some McGill folk, the topic of Michael Ignatieff came up. Ignatieff was a Harvard political theorist who re-entered Canadian politics with great fanfare a few years ago. For a brief time, he was the frontrunner to be the head of the Liberal Party, before engaging in a series of blunders that have rendered him to backbencher status.

One of Ignatieff's difficulties during the leadership race was his vocal support for the Iraq invasion. He just wrote a sorta mea culpa in the New York Times Magazine, in which he tried to apply what he learned in the world of politics to his prior policy pronouncements as an academic:

I’ve learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life. Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.
Matthew Yglesias, Jim Johnson, and Brad DeLong all take Ignatieff to task for omitting the fact most academics with any expertise in U.S. foreign policy and/or the Middle East opposed the war. DeLong summarizes this point well:
I think what Michael Ignatieff is talking about is not an academic mode of thought but a student mode of thought--a not-too-bright-student mode of thought. A not-too-bright student achieves success by (a) figuring out which book on the syllabus is favored by the instructor, (b) taking that book to be the gospel, and (c) regurgitating large chunks of that book on the exams and in the papers.

It surprises me that Michael Ignatieff thinks that opining about a situation while knowing that one is massively ignorant about it is an academic mode of thought.

What's breathtaking to me about Ignatieff's essay is that it represents the apotheosis of what Ignatieff thinks is academic reasoning: lots of banal generalities and big ideas, very little about the particulars of Iraq (apparently, the exiles got to him). If you're going to write a mea culpa, you have to be more specific about your mistakes.

Also commenting on the essay, the Crooked Timberites have a go at one of my posts.

Henry Farrell challenges a question I made over the weekend: "If there are no virtues to a monolithic, cartelistic 'foreign policy community,' what are the virtues of an ideologically uniform, progressive foreign policy community?":

[I]t was less important to commentators’ careers to be right than to be “serious” (i.e. to fit somewhere within the limited spectrum of views that is considered acceptable by the community, not to challenge treasured shibboleths etc etc). This is where I think Dan Drezner is wrong, and Duncan Black is right. The netroots’ critique of the “foreign policy community” isn’t that foreign policy experts walk in lockstep on the wrong side of the aisle, and they should instead be walking in lockstep on the right one; it’s that there is something structural that is rotten in how this ‘community’ systematically excludes certain points of view while privileging others, even after the latter have been shown to be deeply, badly, and arguably irreparably flawed.
Kieran Healy also jumps in here:
Presumably if the outsiders had been wrong on Iraq this would have deepened Dan’s skepticism as well. But the guys who were wrong are still inside the tent, and this doesn’t seem to be a problem for him.
Kieran has misinterpreted me. I'm not condoning O'Hanlon and Pollack, and I agree that a price should be paid for getting things wrong. My point is that I'm unconvinced that substituting "netrootsy" people for the current foreign policy community will result in better policy or a better marketplace of ideas. The factors that restricted debate about Iraq -- individual desires for influence, a desire to please colleagues, etc. -- will not go away. Nor am I convinced that the netrootsy folks have a better grasp on foreign policy than the current mandarins.

Henry's structural point is well taken, but I see no reason why the structural forces will not apply to any group of individuals that believe themselves to be approaching the levers of power.

UPDATE: Over at Democracy Arsenal, Heather Hurlburt gets to a similar point while traveling down a different road:

Eventually, the people who are elected to office are going to have to work across party lines to fashion new policies for Iraq, anti-terrorism, global warming, etc. (If you've seen polling that suggests Democrats -- the left end of the party at that -- getting veto-proof majorities in both houses in '08, send it along. But I'm not holding my breath.) That means the policy professionals have to retain some minimum levels of respect and listening skills for each other. That doesn't mean we have to like each other. It doesn't mean that what John Negroponte oversaw in Central America in the 1980s is now ok, for example. But it does mean we need to evaluate his policy proposals -- or anyone else's -- on their merits.

Not everybody has to maintain minimum levels of respect and courtesy. That's the joy of the blogosphere. There's a vital place in American political discourse for the unbound truthteller, the glorious rant, the savage, scathing partisan. And there's a place for people who love the grey amid the black and white, the nagging details, who prefer to be up to their elbows in the guts of compromise that actually is policy-making on every issue -- because compromising, like ranting, is human nature.

The openness of new media and the blogosphere -- plus the depth of national anger over this misbegotten war -- is mixing up the two spheres in ways that are sometimees productive and sometimes not. Policy professionals need to grow thick skins fast -- and maybe get used to listening to what the non-experts have to say. Opinionators, for their part, could use a more visceral sense of how much harder making policy is than writing about it.

posted by Dan at 02:15 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

In honor of Tom Glavine

While I was away for the weekend, Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron's home run record, and Tom Glavine won his 300th game.

In honor of these accomplishments, it seems appropriate to resurrect the this Nike commercial from a decade ago, featuring Glavine, Greg Maddux, Heather Locklear, and a somewhat tarnished slugger:

Seen in retrospect, the commercial is ironic for two reasons.

First, does anyone doubt that Glavine (and Maddux) will be held in higher esteem from here on out?

Second, as Jack Wilkinson wrote in this story, Glavine was actually quite accomplished at the plate -- just not in the same way as Bonds:

"Tommy goes beyond pitching, though," said [Atlanta Bravers manager Bobby] Cox. "He's always been the best bunter. You can squeeze [bunt] with him with two strikes, which we did dozens of times. And he's a great fielder and an all-around guy. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, too."

posted by Dan at 12:10 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Territorial wars, R.I.P.

Foreign Policy has posted on its website a list of "The World’s Most Valuable Disputed Turf." The list is characerized as "real estate that, at least for some countries, just might be worth fighting for."

Their list consists of areas deemed significant because they either contain valuable raw materials or represent chokepoints for the access to raw materials. What's shocking, however, is how unlikely that force will be involved in any of the disputes. Part of this is because the actual value of the raw materials is open to question (see the Orinoco River Basin). In some of the other disputed areas (the Spratly Islands), tensions have ratcheted down dramatically.

The other part, however, is that the territorial disputes that tend to promote violent conflict are those parcels of land that affect a state's territorial security (Alsace-Lorraine) or its sense of nationhood (Kosovo, Kashmir). Indeed, if I was composing that list, my top five would be entire countries/almost-countries that appear ripe for annexation: Taiwan, Belarus, Kosovo, Somaliland, and Kashmir.

The fact that Foreign Policy came up with such a lame list is not a slight against them -- instead, it's a healthy indicator for why the world seems to be more pacific.

posted by Dan at 09:36 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Welcome to my musical demographic

After a long stretch of time in which I did not attend any large music concerts, I managed to attend two in the past ten days.

The first one was friggin' awesome.

The second one.... well, don't click on this link unless you're made of stern stuff. Several concert-goers have commented that the new lead singer can't match up to the old one.

As much of a musical whiplash as these two concerts created, I'm willing to bet that a fair number of people my age attended both of these concerts.

posted by Dan at 09:24 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)