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RIP: Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara was arguably one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. I summarized the highlights from his CV on my blog a few years ago:

He was a Harvard professor, an executive at Ford Motor Company (the first leader not from the Ford family), Secretary of Defense from 1961-1967, and then President of the World Bank until 1981.

This sentence omits the role McNamara played in World War II, which involved his assignment to the Office of Statistical Control for the Army Air Force. He evaluated the efficiency and effectiveness of U.S. B-29 bombers, which ultimately firebombed 67 Japanese cities under the command of General Curtis LeMay. In the Errol Morris documentary “The Fog of War,” McNamara states simply

LeMay said that “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.” “And I think he’s right,” says McNamara. “He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.” . . . “LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side has lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?”

McNamara considered himself a war criminal even without taking the Vietnam war into account.

In the early part of this decade, I had dinner with McNamara and some local colleagues after the former Defense Secretary spoke on the Louisville campus. I told him that I was working on the “Bush Doctrine” and he scoffed about America’s priorities. It was far too long ago to quote him, but I recall his noting that the U.S. was hypocritically developing burrowing nuclear weapons to be able to strike underground “WMD” (even chemical and biological weapons) facilities with nuclear weapons.

Also, he pointed out that he had recently traveled to Russia and personally observed WMD facilities guarded by a single man with a sidearm and a rather ordinary looking padlock.

McNamara spent more than a quarter century trying to redeem his past. I’m not sure that he succeeded, but he certainly attempted to do some good in the last 25 years. For example, McNamara was a prominent member of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Perhaps the public service of other talented people will be inspired by the post-government efforts of this man.



By now you’ve probably seen the news of Sarah Palin resigning as governor of Alaska. My first reaction was Whaaa?????? Since I too am aware of all internet traditions, my second reaction was to cruise over to LGM and see what DaveNoon had to say about things. My third reaction was to scan the blogosphere for newsy-political gossip. TPM, employing the patented Duck methodology of analysis, had as good a take as anyone:

It looks like a duck and quacks like a duck. Either Palin is resigning ahead of some titanic scandal (which should emerge in short order if it exists) or her resignation was triggered by an even more extreme mental instability than we’d previously suspected.

Why would she stick around as Alaska governor? Maybe to govern> Perhaps come up with some sort of signature program or philosophy on which to run? I know this all sounds crazy in the context of Palin, but those obsessed with the R nominee in 2012 need to relax. At this point 4 years ago, no one considered Obama a serious candidate. George Allen was still a contender. Palin is out for reasons that will certainly emerge over the coming weeks. I’m now officially done with 2012 until November 10, 2010.

(updated after reading the morning paper) Kurtz goes there–the press won’t have Sarah Palin to kick around anymore.

…really, I just couldn’t resist Marshall’s Duck line. How could any self respecting Duck blogger let that one slide??


The Barnes and Noble website is currently advertising a new and potentially interesting book slated to be issued later this summer: Historical Dictionary of Terrorism by Sean K. Anderson.

Unfortunately, the book pictured is not the one advertised — the second edition of the Historical Dictionary of Islam by Ludwig W. Adamec:

ISLAM is clearly readable in all caps and quite large font.

Anyone can make a mistake, but this one is particularly clumsy.

Here’s a screen capture:

Hat tip: freelance journalist David Zax. Check out his pieces in The Smithsonian.

Changes afoot

Our regular readers have probably noticed a general slowdown in the arrival of new content around here. The first week of the Iranian election masked this trend a bit, but it will likely continue. The reason? Fewer active bloggers.

Some, such as Charli and PTJ, are taking short leaves of absence. In contrast, Peter and I will soon be taking much more lengthy breaks–both of us are due to start fellowships with responsibilities that either preclude, or severely limit, blogging activity.

After some lengthy internal discussions, we’ve decided to bring on a stable of guest bloggers, many of whom may be around for quite some time. We’ll be making a comprehensive announcement once we finalize the list, but we’re very pleased with the quality of the new people who have already agreed to blog at the Duck.

Cheney: The Most Dangerous Veep Ever?

In the June 15 dead-tree version of The Nation (online since May 27), Jonathan Schell writes that the Iraq war was produced by torture. Everyone knows that the “war on terror” and the Iraq war produced torture, but few have focused on the reversed causal arrow. And we are still learning details of the prominent and apparently unprecedented role Vice President Dick Cheney played in approving torture and promoting war.

To document his charge, Schell references a remarkable blog post at The Washington Note penned by Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell:

what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002–well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion–its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s office that their detainee “was compliant” (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, “revealed” such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

There in fact were no such contacts.

Wilkerson says that the intelligence agencies stopped all forms of torture after the Abu Ghraib photos. “No torture or harsh techniques were employed by any U.S. interrogator. Period. People were too frightened by what might happen to them if they continued.”

Transparency works!

Schell also quotes Major Paul Burney, a former Army psychiatrist with the Army’s 85th Medical Detachment Behavioral Science Consultation team, whose April 2006 testimony appears in the Final Report of the Senate Armed Services Committee (p. 41), declassified this past April:

“[T]his is my opinion, even though they [captives] were giving information and some of it was useful, while we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful in establishing a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link … there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.”

The full title of that report is Inquiry Into The Treatment of Detainees In U.S. Custody,” dated November 20, 2008.

I know much of this information has appeared previously in the blogosphere, often in response to Dick Cheney’s outrageous claims about the successes of harsh techniques during the Bush years, but I wanted to note the key quotes here with original sources noted.

That same issue of The Nation includes a lengthy and disturbing review of reporter Barton Gellman’s book on Cheney (The Angler) written by NYU law professor Stephen Holmes. According to Holmes, “Gellman lavishes most of his attention on the fabrications Cheney used to enable the executive branch to circumvent constitutional checks and balances.” Again, however, it is clear that Cheney was pushing very hard to justify war against Iraq regardless of the costs or consequences. Here’s an example of how he fabricated truth to the House Majority leader in 2002:

Cheney’s “major role in bringing war to Iraq” likewise required a strategic twisting of the truth. Gellman details a private briefing in late September 2002 that Cheney provided to Republican Congressman Dick Armey, then majority leader of the House. Armey opposed an invasion of Iraq on the reasonable grounds that the United States should not attack a country that had not attacked it. Usually hawkish, Armey presented an embarrassing hurdle to the war party in the administration. As Gellman says, “If Armey could oppose the war, he gave cover to every doubter in waiting,” making him “the center of gravity of the political opposition.” Something had to be done, and Cheney did it. According to Gellman, Cheney, brandishing top-secret satellite photos, made statements about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear arsenal and ties to Al Qaeda that he knew to be erroneous: “In the privacy of his office, for this one crucial vote, Cheney leveled claims he had not made before and did not make again.” Some of these claims “crossed so far beyond the known universe of fact that they were simply without foundation.” Gellman concludes that Cheney deliberately told Armey “things he knew to be untrue,” bamboozling a Congressional leader of his own party just long enough to extract a go-ahead vote. Having been preapproved on false pretenses by a gullible or complicit Congress, the misbegotten invasion was launched six months later.

Read the entire review.

Bonus video

The Gazprom Song:

Friday Putin fix

In case you haven’t seen it yet….

Revisiting Skocpol on Iran’s Revolution

I happened to be consulting the triangle on page 83 of Skocpol’s Social Revolutions in the Modern World for an article I’m drafting, and came across her chapter “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution.” I decided to take a closer look to see if there were any insights that might help put recent events into a broader context. Indeed there were.

Now, Skocpol, a leading scholar of social revolutions before she was a scholar of health care reform, was commenting on the 1979 Iranian Revolution in 1981. It is striking how many of her insights could be useful today. On the context necessary for a revolution:

I have stressed, following Charles Tilly, that mass, lower-class participants in revolution cannot turn discontent into effective political action without autonomous collective organization and resources to sustain their efforts. Moreover, the repressive state organizations of the prerevolutionary regime have to be weakened before mass revolutionary action can succeed, or even emerge. Indeed, historically, mass rebellious action has not be able, in itself, to overcome state repression. Instead, military pressures from abroad , often accompanied by political splits between dominant classes and the state, have been necessary to undermine repression and open the way for social-revolutionary upheavals from below. In my view, social revolutions have not been caused by avowedly revolutionary movements in which an ideological leadership mobilizes mass support to overthrow an existing system in the name of a new alternative…

Currently missing in the current Iranian politics: open fracturing of the state security forces. Recent reports indicate that they are stacked (intentionally so) with Ahmadinejad loyalists. There is rampant speculation that there are rifts among the ruling elite, but no confirmation that any political splits between dominant classes and the state have actually emerged in a public fashion around which revolutionaries could mobilize.

Skocpol believed that

Revolutions are not made. They come.

The 1979 revolution challenged this wisdom, in that it was “made” to a certain degree. However, today, her original insight seems again prescient. Moussavi did not run as a revolutionary candidate, rather, his initial platform seemed much more of a modest reformer, and he has only radicalized post-election. Reflecting on the making of the 1979 revolution, Skocpol observed:

it was made through a set of cultural and organizational forms thoroughly socially embedded in the urban communal enclaves that became the centers of popular resistance to the Shah. Even when a revolution is to a significant degree ‘made,’ that is because a culture conducive to challenges to authority, as well as politically relevant networks of popular communication , are already historically woven into the fabric of social life. In an of themselves, the culture and networks of communication do not dictate mass revolutionary action. But if a historical conjuncture arises in which a vulnerable state faces oppositionally inclined social groups possessing solidarity, autonomy, and independent economic resources, then the sorts of moral symbols and forms of social communication offered by Shi’a Islam in Iran can sustain the self-conscious making of a revolution. No innovative revolutionary propaganda retailed to ‘the masses’ overnight, in the midst of a societal crisis, can serve this purpose. But a world-view and a set of social practices long in place can sustain a deliberate revolutionary movement.

In 1981, she was talking about the cultural resources of Shi’a Islam. Superimposing “the Internet” as the social network already woven into public life (as Iran has a rather high penetration of the internet and Farsi is one of the fastest growing languages in use on the web and blogosphere), and perhaps the infrastructure exists to sustain a deliberate revolutionary movement. As Gary Sick reminds us, don’t expect instant resolution to Iran’s political crisis. The 1979 revolution unfolded over the course of a year, with fits and starts, ebbs and flows, before the old regime collapsed.

Skocpol offers a useful reminder to temper our bold assertions made in the heat of the moment that any one particular event is necessarily a ‘game changer’ but at the same time, provides a framework for assessing how profound Iran’s political challenge are.

Is Obama channeling Bush?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that Barack Obama is behaving just like George W. Bush. Reuters, June 25:

Obama said on Tuesday he was “appalled and outraged” by a post-election crackdown and Washington withdrew invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend Independence Day celebrations on July 4 — stalling efforts to improve ties with Tehran.

“Mr Obama made a mistake to say those things … our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously (former president George W.) Bush used to say,” the semi-official Fars News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

“Do you want to speak with this tone? If that is your stance then what is left to talk about … I hope you avoid interfering in Iran’s affairs and express your regret in a way that the Iranian nation is informed of it,” he said.

Obama, of course, famously said last year that he would negotiate with Iran without precondition — even though the Bush administration considered Iran part of an “axis of evil.”

Conservatives have generally been criticizing Obama for failing to employ Bush’s brand of cowboy diplomacy toward Iran — talk tough and carry a big gun.

Yesterday, Obama made his toughest statements to-date about Iran:

“the United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days.”

The U.S. has few ties with Iran, so it has almost no leverage with which to bargain. Thus, the Bush-Obama divide largely reflects the problem of trying to advance foreign policy interests in such at environment.

Bush used tough rhetoric and threatening sticks to try to coerce Iran into doing what it wanted.

Obama apparently wants to soften U.S. rhetoric and offer potential carrots. He wants to find common interests that might set the table for some horse trading.

Neither approach is guaranteed to work, of course, but the U.S. has been using the stick approach for about 30 years. I would also note that the policy hasn’t worked very well toward Cuba either — and Obama recognizes that as well.

Health Care Reform

I don’t usually post on domestic policy issues. I’m even less likely to waste bandwidth explicitly seconding sentiments found on a big-time website. But, I’m afraid, that’s what I’m going to do here.

Theda Skocpol, author of, among other things, a bookthat insiders assure me gets a great deal right about why the Clinton health-care plan failed, gets it right.

Key leaps forward for U.S. public social provision — Social Security, Medicare, etc. — have NEVER happened through “bipartisan” compromises and they always happen in close votes. They have always sqweaked through after gargantuan effort, strong presidential pressure, and refusal to allow eviscerating compromises. Think of Social Security if the Clark amendment — allowing corporate opt-out — had passed in 1935. We would not have it. And conservatives and the medical and insurance establishments cried “socialism” in 1965, too. We would not have Medicare if we had listened.

Obama and the Democrats are coming off a historic, landslide election. They have all the popular support for robust reform they will ever have. Good policy design as well public desire for change and considerations of social justice and economic efficiency insist that they enact health care reform with a strong public plan in the mix. That is the only way to move toward cost control and guaranteed access with quality to all — especially for Americans in lower economic strata or in rural states where one or two private insurers call the tune. There is no need for “bipartisanship” and the calls for it from some weak-kneed Democrats are merely excuses for doing the business of the medical-insurance establishment. Senators Baucus, Conrad, Feinstein, Nelson, Landrieu, Bayh — this means you. All of you come from states where people really need robust reform and you should step up.

So far, though, the Democrats have managed to avoid one of the problems that doomed reform the last time around: a proliferation of alternatives offered by a slew of Senators, think tanks, and opinion-editorial writers. But beyond that, she’s totally right. The Senate Democrats can play the bipartisanship game as long as they want, but only so long as their endgame involves passing reform via the reconciliation process.

None of the “compromises” on the table are likely to garner enough Republican support without weakening reform beyond acceptable limits, although some of the ideas aren’t necessarily bad. For example, I can see an acceptable endgame in which the public-option bargaining chip gets traded in for two concessions from private stakeholders: (1) the creation of regional health cooperatives constituted with sufficient bargaining leverage to mitigate that lost from abandoning a public option and (2) the implementation of government mandates and strong regulatory powers concerning a portfolio of plans that private insurers would have to offer. But I just don’t see this kind of alternative as making much headway on the bipartisanship front.

So, when it comes down to it, I understand why Democrats from “Red States” are trying to cover their behinds. But pointing to a moderate Republican or two who voted for the bill isn’t going to make any difference to their re-election prospects. Swing voters are unlikely to turn against them for standing up to health insurance companies, who, I suspect, are locked in a tight competition with Wall Street firms for “least popular sector of corporate America.” And here’s the deal: there will be a backlash–aided by corporate money–against Democrats whether or not they pass a bill. However, if they pass a bill we’ll also see, for lack of a better term, a countervailing “prolash” in favor of the Democratic party. That lack of a “prolash” arguably made a big difference in the 1994 debacle that crippled the party for the next twelve years.

My Final Two Cents for the Summer

So starting this week I’m going on a six-week blogging hiatus to make an epic road trip west with my kids, visiting friends and family. Prepping for this trip while getting my book to the publisher and doing committee work hasn’t left me much time lately to weigh in on Iran, but by way of a temporary farewell, I decided to leave you with this final thought for the summer:

Is it not high time that the international community established an international regime for governing and adjudicating democratic elections in all countries?

Various international organizations already monitor elections in many transitional contexts on an ad hoc basis, with a fair measure of success; indeed for transitional countries, Judith Kelley argues that international election monitoring has become a norm. But this norm extends only to democratizing countries: current international understandings suggest that the mark of a genuine democracy includes an ability to monitor one’s own elections, so established democracies generally do not consider allowing international monitors to involve themselves in the democratic process, nor do they experience pressure to do so.

Yet this intersubjective understanding among countries seems completely counterintuitive and counterproductive given widespread perceptions among electorates – even in the most established liberal democracies – that the democratic process in their own country is at least somewhat suspect. Increasingly, it seems to me, the expectation of a democratic process, coupled with the perception that elections are rigged or unfair, and coupled with lack of credible evidence one way or the other, leads to the very domestic instability that democracy is expected to pre-empt. Iran is only the latest example.

In a global society that is or proclaims to be inching toward ever greater lip-service to democracy as a constitutive norm of responsible statehood, and in a global system whereby the outcome of elections in one country now have ripple effects around the world, it is quite easy to imagine treating genuine “free and fair domestic elections” as a global public good. This public good – “free and fair elections” is as plausibly and feasibly overseen through an international organization’s collective legitimation function as are various other global social processes, from the adjudication of trade disputes to the development of scientific consensus regarding climate change to the verification of compliance with weapons treaties to the prosecution of war criminals and genocidaries.

Why not elections as well? What if an independent international organization – separate from the United Nations – were created whose mandate it is to monitor national elections in every democracy? What if signing onto such a regime and abiding by its rules (that is, subjecting one’s national elections to international oversight) became understood as a constitutive element of a claim to be a democracy, a way of distinguishing sham democracies from the real McCoy? What if such a bureaucracy adjudicated electoral outcomes, rather than leaving it up to the internal machinations of the governments whose very interests are at stake? What if citizens of every genuine democracy came to expect no less, and came to trust in a disinterested third party to ensure a fair outcome?

I pose this question to readers not so much to invite a discussion about whether such an idea is realistic (the “how do we get there from here?” is another interesting question – but then again, all international regimes existing today would once have seemed infeasible). Rather, I invite a discussion about whether, if implemented, such a regime would not be a positive step for democracy and for global civil society. I think it would: am I wrong, and if so why?

I look forward to reading over the summer, participating in comments from time to time, and picking up the pen once again in the Fall. Ciao for now.

The US keeps coming back for more…

US and Kyrgyz negotiators reach a deal on Manas:

Kyrgyzstan said on Tuesday it would temporarily allow the US to continue using a military air base on its territory that is critical to coalition forces fighting the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Kadyrbek Sarbayev, the Kyrgyz foreign minister, said Washington had agreed to more than triple the rent for use of the Manas base, a transit hub used for refuelling aircraft carrying troops to Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan gave the US six months to vacate Manas last February after accepting a promise of $2bn of financial assistance from Russia which objects to the presence of US troops in former Soviet central Asia.

Mr Sarbayev said a one-year agreement signed with the US would increase annual payments for use of Manas to $60m from $17m. The US would also provide $67m to improve the airport and contribute funds to combat drug trafficking and terrorism in Kyrgyzstan.

Did we get played?

You betcha.

I expect next year will deliver yet another “rinse and repeat.”

We can hope that the US intends to use the “breather” to develop alternative supply routes so as to enhance our leverage–or even exit from the arrangement ourselves–next time around.

Another bad aspect of the process: we let the negotiations become framed entirely in terms of the amount of “rent” the US is willing to pay for the base. While we do, in fact, pay rent (in one way or another) for basing and access rights, the US government likes to pretend otherwise. And for good reason: turning basing negotiations into very public exercises in price negotiations is both undermines the legitimacy of the base and likely will put upwards pressure on future negotiations across much of the basing network.

Do you hear the people sing?

Three important steps in Iran over the past few days. Much of this is distilling the obvious, I think. Nevertheless…

1. The State has decided to confront the People directly, with violent force. In 1979, the Shah fled rather than order the security forces of the state to turn on the people as they revolted. Revolutions can fail and repressive often states survive uprisings through the use of repressive force. This raises the stakes considerably, as people will and have died to advance the cause of revolution.

It is at this point where the numbers really matter. Armed thugs can turn back a crowd of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands. Police can control large groups, but not hundreds of thousands of people determined to resist. If there are millions of people marching, it will take the military / revolutionary guards to repress them.

Regardless of how this ends up, the very act of the state ordering its security forces to suppress popular demonstrators in such a public fashion does rob it of its legitimacy. It is a tipping point–either tipping the regime to ultimate failure or tipping the regime to a true garrison state.

2. Based on the reporting in the Western press, there seem to be splits among the elites. This matters because these fractions within the regime rob it of its full power and ability to present a coherent counter to the resistance. As clerics and perhaps certain members of the military defect, it lends legitimacy to those countering the state. Most importantly, it impacts the calculus of the soldiers who may be asked to fire on the protesters–as they defect, the regime crumbles.

3. The position of the resistance’s leadership has “evolved” to give voice to the broad grievances the people are lodging against the government, providing a manifesto for revolution. In a sense, the leaders have finally figured out where their supporters are going and rushed to the front of the crowd. This is important, though, because revolutions need a voice, a theme, a message, a way to instill social purpose in a movement such that people are willing to put their lives on the line for the cause. With the state cracking down violently, it will be very important for the resistance to rally faith in the cause and move people to step up and stand in harms way–who will give all they can give so that a banner may advance?

Joking cousins

The most recent Utne Reader includes a short piece from Katie Krueger about the practice of “joking cousins” in Senegal:

This means that whenever we meet, as a sign of friendliness, we insult each other without hesitation. Every ethnic group in Senegal has at least one or two joking cousin groups, so meeting one is rare enough to be a delight but common enough that it is protocol.

Professor Brett O’Bannon of DePauw University (a former graduate student of mine) has written an academic paper arguing that such “joking relationships” are threatened by the forces of globalization. Yet, he notes, these localized relationships ordinarily play important roles in maintaining peaceful order in some societies.

In a short blurb describing his academic work, O’Bannon explains that the “joking relationship”

“binds families, clans or even whole ethnic groups into ties of imagined kinship. For example, when two people of the Ndiaye and Diop families (quite common family names in the Senegambia) meet, they are required to ‘dis’ each other. That is, they insult each others’ family heritage, eating habits, you name it. It’s pretty funny stuff, actually. The important thing is that they are not only required to engage in these insulting exchanges, but they are equally obligated not to take offense.”

“For one, these fictive relationships have been known to bring an end to quite serious conflicts. I document an instance in which a rebel group in southern Senegal actually released a carload of hostages because the driver successfully pleaded for their lives in the name of the Serer-Diola joking relationship. The Serer and Diola are two ethnic groups bound by a mutual pact of non-aggression, so to speak. The rebels in question are mainly from the Diola group and the terms of their joking relationship prohibit the spilling of the other’s blood. The potential for these kinds of indigenous institutions of self governance is significant.”

Apparently, the practice is fairly common throughout Africa — though O’Bannon’s field work (like Krueger‘s travel) has been based in Senegal.

In the Occasional Paper, O’Bannon views joking relationships as “quintessential indigenous governance institutions,” particularly important because rural Senegal faces conditions consistent with state collapse. Farmers and herders, for example, find themselves increasingly in conflict over natural resources. O’Bannon explains that neoliberal economic policies have wrought changes in rural Senegal that impose barriers between herders and ranchers that did not previously exist — individual property rights claims, for instance, which limit access to land. In his words, “the ties between these putative cousins are fraying.”

I find this practice an interesting supplement to my ongoing work on the comedy of global politics. In Medieval and other historical contexts, the court jester was similarly allowed to make jokes at the expense of the king — without fear of retribution. I see these as important elements in critical IR theory.

Note: the Krueger story originally appeared at World Hum.

I also fixed the typo in the title. Blogger doesn’t seem to identify spelling errors in the title.

Tripe for sale!

The burning question of the day: is Paul Wolfowitz and idiot or does he just think the rest of us are dumber than dirt?

In his latest missive, “‘No Comment’ is Not an Option,” Wolfowitz takes a little stroll down memory lane. He first reminisces about how Ronald Reagan dropped the ball and failed to call Philippine autocrat Ferdinand Marcos out for manipulating the results of the 1986 election. But, thanks to George Schultz’s efforts, the US got on the ‘right side of history’:

On Feb. 15, the White House issued a new statement: “The elections were marred by widespread fraud and violence perpetrated largely by the ruling party.” The following day, Marcos and Aquino each claimed victory. On Feb. 22, when Marcos ordered the arrest of two key reformers, as many as a million Filipinos poured into EDSA Square in Manila to block the arrests in a dramatic demonstration of “people power.”

Reagan’s final message to Marcos was delivered two days later, when the president’s close friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt, warned that Reagan opposed any use of force against the crowds and urged him “to cut and cut clean.” The next day, Marcos left the Philippines.

This was, in fact, a great moment for the Reagan administration. It withdrew support from a dictatorial regime; in doing so, it enabled a democratic transition in a US client state.

All of this would make for a nice analogy.. if Iran was a US client state. I don’t think the absurdity of the comparison should be particularly difficult to grasp: the major difference between the Philippines in 1986 and Iran in 2009 is that United States enjoyed tremendous leverage over the former, but lacks much of any in the latter. Marcos left because he knew the jig was up; the US even helped arrange for him to safely make his way into exile. He died of natural causes in Hawaii.

Wolfowitz, on the other hand, spins a little fairy tale in which the magical power of Reagan’s words (alone) worked an enchantment upon the Philippines, reaching deep into Marcos’ black heart and causing him to see the light.

But, at least in some respects, Wolfowitz’s second analogy strikes me as even more bizarre. He recalls the 1991 Soviet coup that threatened to restore Communist hardliners to power.

Responding early that morning, the [President Bush] refused to condemn the coup, calling it merely “a disturbing development.” He expressed only lukewarm support for Gorbachev and even less for Yeltsin, and neither was among the world leaders that he tried to contact about the crisis. He seemed focused on working with the new Soviet team, hoping that their leader, Gennady Yanayev, was committed to “reform.”

Although Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had argued consistently for the United States to support the peaceful aspirations of the Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet peoples, it was Yeltsin — with a powerful personal letter — who persuaded Bush to abandon equivocation and oppose the coup. By late afternoon, the White House had reversed course, condemning the coup attempt as “misguided and illegitimate.” Bush then called Yeltsin to assure him of his support.

The thing is, Wolfowitz doesn’t even bother to pretend that Bush’s (rhetorical) position made one whit of difference. Which, of course, it didn’t.

Still, despite the total irrelevance of any of this to Obama’s public stance on unfolding events in Iran, Wolfowitz wants us to believe that a failure to hand Ahmadinejad and his associates a rhetorical loaded gun to use against the opposition will somehow leave the Obama Administration culpable should Ahmadinejad hold onto power.

Maybe I’m not being fair to Wolfowitz. After all, he does let us know that decisive action “does not mean that we need to pick sides in an Iranian election or claim to know its result. Obama could send a powerful message simply by placing his enormous personal prestige behind the peaceful conduct of the demonstrators and their demand for reform — exactly the kind of peaceful, democratic change that he praised in his speech in Cairo.”

Quite right. After all, it isn’t like Wolfowitz just implied that it was the decision of past American Presidents to “take sides” that “tipped the scale” in favor of democratic movements. At least Wolfowitz is calling on Obama to change course and say, well, pretty much exactly what Obama’s already said to the world about Iran.

I admit we may be approaching a time when the calculations change. Khamenei dashed reformist hopes yesterday and threw down the gauntlet. We’ve already seen signs that the Iranian police state is starting to fully mobilize. But if, and when, that time comes, I think we can safely say that Wolfowitz’s mess of column adds nothing to our understanding of how, and under what conditions, to proceed.

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch indeed.

Why not just burn money instead?

I suppose that in an era of Credit Default Swaps, massively over-leveraged firms, and other assorted lunacies in the financial industry, we shouldn’t be surprised by much of anything. Still, I have to wonder which members of the “best and the brightest” thought insuring North Korean interests was a great business move?

The North Korean nuclear test: something doesn’t smell right

Now this is pretty damn interesting:

Researchers were scratching their heads earlier today at a meeting convened by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) over puzzling results from last month’s nuclear test by North Korea. While the test produced a clearly recognizable seismic signal that was picked up by CTBTO’s worldwide network of sensors, the organization’s atmospheric detectors failed to pick up a whiff of the expected radionuclides in air. Even a deep underground test is usually expected to leak radionuclides, so their absence in this case caused quite a stir. Anders Ringbom of the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm says CTBTO’s detectors for radioactive noble gases—a telltale signature of a nuclear test—can pick up a couple of hundred atoms from a cubic meter of air. On the lack of a signal, he said: “I was a little surprised, yes.”

Some 400 scientists gathered here, CTBTO’s home base, this week to discuss the results of a series of studies carried out by external researchers over the past year to test the capabilities of the system for detecting clandestine tests and to consider other scientific uses for the wealth of data collected. The system comprises 337 sensors across the globe looking for seismic signals, radionuclides, hydroacoustic signals in the oceans, and very low frequency infrasound in the air. Seismologists at the meeting say that the 25 May Korean test was an unmistakably man-made event and showed characteristics that make it almost certainly a nuclear rather than a chemical explosion. But the presence of radioactive xenon is considered the smoking gun for the nuclear nature of an explosion—and it wasn’t detected.

Here’s the problem: if the scientific community does not find evidence of xenon, then this raises questions about our ability to effectively monitor and enforce compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has failed to ratify. Susan Watts of the BBC writes:

But there was one thing everybody in the room wanted to know. Had the network of sensors picked up radionuclides from the North Korean explosion two weeks ago? Seismologists here today say they are comfortable that explosion was a nuclear test, but detecting radionuclide evidence in the form of radioactive gas is the “smoking gun”. And the big news here is that they have not found that signal.

What’s more, scientists don’t really seem to know why. One delegate, an expert on radionuclide detection from Sweden, told the conference how well the network performed after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006. Twelve days after that event the network picked up just a few hundreds of atoms of the noble gas Xenon 133 in Canada. He confessed to being “surprised” that this time round, so far, there has been nothing. He said he is sure the sensors are working properly. So why might there be no signal, and does it matter?

The eminent seismologist Professor Paul Richards from Columbia University implied it didn’t matter so much. The network includes a range of technologies – using seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide technologies precisely to give the world what he described as a “a quiver of arrows”. Thus if one arrow doesn’t hit the target, then others will; if one detection set-up sees no nuclear signature, others will. And his personal view is that this was most likely a nuclear test.

So was there a deliberate attempt by the North Koreans to contain the explosion? Or was the explosion contained by accident? Some larger yield nuclear explosions can apparently “melt” the rock around them, so less noble gas seeps out. Attempts to explain the lack of a noble gas signal remain educated guesses at the moment. The official line here is that all this highlights the need for more countries to ratify the Treaty, so that it can come into force, thus allowing on-site inspection teams to move in to check out such tests.

In the meantime, scientists here might be keeping their fingers crossed that something shows up soon, but they seem already to be resigned to the possibility that it may not.

Still, some news sources are raising the possibility that the North Koreans faked an explosion:

eports indicate that a global network of sensors designed to verify nuclear testing has failed to pick up radioactive gases from North Korea’s nuclear blast, which indicates that the country might have used conventional explosives to mimic a nuclear test.

North Korea conducted what it claims was its second nuclear test on May 25 this year. Within seconds, a global network of seismographs had detected the shock wave from the blast.

The seismographs are operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), a Vienna-based body that would enforce a global ban on nuclear testing if enough nations were to sign up to the treaty.

The CTBTO seismographs showed that the tremors caused by the explosion were of magnitude 4.5, far larger than the nation’s first nuclear test in October 2006.

According to a report in Nature News, the seismic signature of the test strongly suggested that the blast was man made, but the CTBTO hoped to use a follow-up set of measurements to verify its nuclear nature. […]

Zerbo points out that the CTBTO network is far more complete in 2009 than it was in 2006 and that all stations were operational at the time of the test.

“If we didn’t measure it, it’s unlikely that anyone outside of North Korea’s borders did,” he said.

The lack of isotopes has become an interesting puzzle for proliferation researchers. It could mean that the North Koreans used conventional explosives to mimic a nuclear test.

Such a mock test would be unusual, although not unprecedented.

In the 1980s, the United States government set off several multi-kilotonne chemical explosions to test how various weapons and communication systems would respond to a nuclear blast. (ANI)

Given that the last test struck many as a likely fizzle, I suppose this isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

What to watch for

As the incredible events in Iran unfold–in the streets of Tehran and on Twitter–the obvious question is: is this the ‘Green Revolution’ or something else for which we don’t have a pre-fab category.

I would call your attention to two outstanding posts that give a very good insight into what to watch for. The unifying theme was perhaps best articulated by an anonymous Iranian commentator at Salon: “Legitimacy, much debated by social scientists, actually turns out to matter. It’s not just force that rules…” (h/t). In short, this is a moment of contentious politics* where the legitimacy of the Revolution, Islamic Republic, Supreme Leader and a few other major social institutions in Iran is in flux.

1. Rob Farley at LGM notes that the most important actors in the entire process aren’t the protesters, but the police. Farley’s review of the Tilly-esque story of the development of the state reminds us of the central function of the modern bureaucratic state is, as Weber noted so long ago, to maintain the legitimacy that allows rules to rule. States exercise the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. When the security forces no longer feel compelled by the erstwhile legitimacy of the state, the state ceases to exist as we currently understand it. If you see the police, revolutionary guards, and others standing by, or even supporting the resistance, the game is up.

Now, I’m not an Iran expert, and as Dan has noted, you should take all our analysis with that major caveat in mind. So, I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the institutional structure of the regime. That said, two points. First, the gangs of pro-regime thugs beating up protesters should not be seen to be the same as the State going after protesters. These groups may be encouraged by the ruling elite, but they are not the official actors of the state. They are thugs who wouldn’t be able to use force in normal times. Its those legitimated to use force who matter. Second, given the unique nature religion plays in the Islamic Republic, one might argue that some senior clerics might exercise the legitimate use of rhetorical force, so they bear watching as well.

2. orgtheory reminds us that revolutions are actually social movements that must have a social and organizational structure. These social resources–social networks, leadership, organizers, mobilizers, and experts–require time and effort to build and deploy. Its important to see if the protesters can wield any other levers of power against the regime beyond sheer numbers of people. It matters how many people come out– as Dan noted, thousands can be dealt with by the repressive institutions of the state, millions not so much. Its possible that the ability to conduct offensive cyber-war against the regime is a step in this direction. The potential for success comes when an alternative power structure emerges that could replace the existing regime in running the state. If the Supreme Leader falls, someone else needs to be ready to step in and take his (metaphorical) place.

More to the point, orgtheory offers a very powerful reminder:

I’ll be a bit incendiary to justify these questions by pointing toward the invasion of Iraq: The kind of thinking which suggests that a large, loud, outburst topples governments and then magically leads toward the emergence of a new order which “makes more sense” was, in the end, what undid our efforts in Iraq. It was naive – of us then and perhaps of protesters today – to think that opposition and even toppling a regime is enough. It’s what comes next—the alternative power structures and institutions that will step into the void—which require our attention now. Because it will be a power struggle–just as it became in Iraq. Educating ourselves on the underlying layers of Iranian society is vital because understanding this is how the US and supporters of Iranians’ freedom can best lend target support. Now is the time to educate ourselves.

Meaning, we need to be paying much more attention to what Gary Sick is saying, and not go overboard with the idea that we can fight the war with the right twitter-feed.

*h/t PTJ who said this to me earlier today.

The not-so-twittered revolution

Some comments from a friend of Iranian extraction, who kindly agreed to allow me to repost them here.

As someone who has family members primarily outside Tehran and who has been following the revolt via them, I can say that what drives everything, that intensifies protest, that prevents a calming down of anger is the very clamping down on all press that the conservatives immediately mobilised and which they thought would be effective in suppressing protests.

Rumour has been intensely spreading about everything that it actually results in people in provinces feel they need to do “something”. So before last night (7 people were killed), there were no dead protestors, but people in the provinces were hearing casualties of 14 people, resulting in escalating anger.

There have been all sorts of rumours: that Rezaii (the ultra-conservative candidate) had endorsed Ahmadinejad’s win (he hadn’t), that Moussavi was under house arrest (he wasn’t), that the plain-clothes men beating people were imported from an ominous sounding “Arabic-speaking country” (they weren’t) and on and on.

I think the rumour mill here has been central to the escalation of protest and someone MUST do some research on this.

Finally, a note about Twitter. Twitter and Facebook and blogs are primarily for the protestors to reach outside Iran, not in the country itself. Furthermore, internet speed has apparently slowed to a crawl and mobile phone networks (and SMS capability) has been severely circumscribed. So, I’d be cautious about accepting at face value the accounts celebrating this as a “blogged” or “twittered” revolution! [emphasis mine]

How do you say ‘hanging chad’ in Persian?

The news yesterday that the Iranian Guardian Council has ordered what amounts to an inquiry into certain disputed ballots may at first glance appear as a positive development. However, it is not at all clear that simply recounting certain ballots is going to truly reconcile the apparent disparity between the expected results and the actual results. I would posit that right now you have the leadership in Iran scrambling to send signals both domestically and internationally that it will take the accusations seriously and act as an impartial arbiter, so as to avoid a number of unwanted outcomes (i.e. continued rioting, increased risk of internal revolt/revolution, international sanctions, etc). Of course, it isn’t clear what they could do to make these signals credible, but it is interesting that rather than simply suppress the outbursts by force (which is happening, although not to the full extent possible) they are taking care to not appear as a brazen oppressor and dictator–the optics still matter to them. Even dictators take into account how they are perceived by various audiences, even domestic.

In terms of the ‘re-count’, Renard Sexton at fivethirtyeight lays out the possible causes of the voting irregularities and what the corresponding recourse would be—with a re-count only helpful in one instance:

1. Intimidation and electoral violence: Reports of activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and paramilitary forces have been widely discussed. If Nate’s hunch is correct, perhaps 15% or more of the population was willing to abstain from voting.
Recourse: New round of voting

2. Deliberate misreporting of vote totals: The blogosphere has been buzzing with reports of Mousavi’s camp receiving word from the electoral commission that he had won the upwards of 60% of the vote, which was then retracted. If this was simply manipulation of the totals by loyalists in Tehran, and the political winds have shifted, the real total could possibly emerge.
Recourse: Recount

3. “Lost” ballots”: Allegations have also abounded that a significant number of votes were disposed of from areas of strength for Mousavi and Karroubi (probably Rezai as well, but few reports).
Recourse: New round of voting

4. Khameni decided ahead of time: There are commentators, expert and not, that have suggested that the whole electoral process in Iran is a sham, with the results dictated long in advance by the Supreme Leader. Similar allegations were leveled in 2005, when then-unknown Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a surprising second place in the first round.
Recourse: Rioting in the street; move to London

Of course, a political-coup was likely orchastrated with the explicit consent and participation of the various power structures in Iran, meaning that it is highly unlikely that a re-count would actually show evidence of widespread fraud. More than likely, they will show sporadic fraud–enough to appear as thought they acknowledge some mischief, but not enough to swing the election. More than likely the only way you see real action is if the social movements get so far out of control that the leadership decides it has to enter into some kind of bargain to have any chance of avoiding a ‘green’ revolution. The calculas is not straightforward and relies primarily on the leadership’s perception of risk and probability. At this point, I am hardpressed to see a how Moussavi gets declared the winner without increased social unrest and violence. More than likely, there will be some kind of compromise–what that looks like I don’t know. I think an Iranian specialist would need to weigh in on what a potential bargian (if any) could look like.

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