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Cyber-War: Emerging Threat or Phantom Menace?

Apparently the ruckus between Google and China amounts to a “cyber war.”

This sounds familiar. In late February, former director of national intelligence Michael McConnell declared on the WAPO opinion pages that we are losing some sort of “cyberwar.” Then earlier this month Obama administration cyber-czar Howard Schmidt announced “there is no cyberwar” at the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco.

At Government Computer News, William Jackson asks a useful question: “How can we be at cyberwar if we don’t know what it is?”

Words have consequences. War entails specific risks and responsibilities and should not be entered into lightly. The Constitution lays out requirements for engaging in war, and the United States is a signatory to treaties that impose legal restrictions on conducting warfare, such as distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants and military and non-military targets. And once a nation engages in an act of war, it invites retaliation, regardless of its motives.

As of now, we have no workable definition of what constitutes cyberwar, and more often than not we lack the ability to accurately distinguish it from act of online vandalism.

For what it’s worth, Ronald J Diebert and Rafal Rohozinski have a new article in International Political Sociology on the concept of cyber-security in which they analyze the parameters of the debate over what concepts like “cyberwar” or “cybersecurity” mean. They point out there there are two sets of rhetoric here – one about risks to cyberspace, and one about risks through cyberspace.
They also argue that governance may be emerging more clearly in the former arena than in the latter, which essentially remains contested.

Perhaps the conceptual corollary is helpful: genuine acts of cyber-war might be understood as efforts to target infrastructure, whereas much of what we critique as cyber-war “hype” are simply concerns over conventional forms of espionage or sabotage using new media.

It’s hard to see how Google’s withdrawal from China fits either category, though. In fact, at Wired, Ryan Singer argues that the cyber-war hype like this itself night be “the biggest threat to the internet” as the hype encourages citizens to imagine that increased government surveillance or control over web traffic would be a public good. To draw on Diebert and Rohozinski’s typology (of cyber-war as risks to cyber-infrastructure), cyber-war hype might itself constitute a form of cyber-war – or at least, cyber-war-propaganda.

Well, one thing’s for sure: I smell some interesting dissertations in the near future to organize our thinking around these concepts.

[cross-posted at LGM]

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"Girls Don't Do Math Past Algebra"


Today, a group of articles in the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other newspapers, comment on the AAUW (American Association of University Women) report which will be webcast this Thursday.

These articles reminded me of a teacher that I’d had when I was young, who, despite my stellar performances in math courses, told me that girls don’t do, or need to do, math past algebra. Apparently, I am not alone, as the report lets us know that 40% of women who are now in the surveyed “STEM” (science and engineering) fields were discouraged at some point in their academic career from being in the sciences. While, if anything, that teacher’s sexism encouraged me to seek out education in math and science, story after story both related to this report and more generally can be told where women were explicitly discouraged from participating in or excluded from work in the sciences and engineering.

Just five years ago, at-the-time Harvard President Larry Summers (and current Director of the National Economic Council) argued that women are underrepresented in the sciences and engineering because of innate differences between men and women. I think there are two important things to say to this discussion: first, that women CAN do science and engineering as well as men can and shouldn’t be discouraged from it on any sort of (innate or social) capacity logic. Second, though, it might be important to explore the argument that our very conceptions of science are gendered. I have written about this in International Relations specifically in the journal Politics and Gender, but will make the argument briefly here …

In these fields, women’s underrepresentation is so grave that this “failure” to make it cannot be understood as individual or incidental, but, rather, as a consequence of structural barriers to women’s participation. Incidental explanations identify some factor or set of factors, such as educational differences, differences in the subfields of international relations that women are interested in, age differences, methodological differences, and so on, and “blame” women’s underrepresentation on those differences. These explanations imply that, if women had the “same” education, the “same” interests, and the “same” methods, then their experience in the subfield of international relations would be similar to men’s. As such, many who look for women’s equality in these fields are actively interested in finding more women who do “good work” and including them among the ranks of faculties. I have heard several department chairs and deans lament that they simply were unable to find a woman who met their criteria, and thus were unable to hire a woman to fill a vacant tenure-track line. In this scenario, senior colleagues explain, were there to be a woman who did the same work at the same level as the (more qualified) male candidate, then the department would have no problem hiring the person — women who were “the same” would be treated that way.

The problem, then, for those who consider women’s underrepresentation incidental, is that women are not the same. Because of perceived inferior preparation, skills, research interests, research methodologies, or other qualifications, women are often understood as less qualified job candidates and less desirable contenders for promotion. Women’s underrepresentation could be fixed by assuring that women got the same training, worked in the same areas, and obtained the same qualifications.

Still, there is a sociology to what is counts as “traditional” or “good” work. Feminists have described this as the “malestream,” rather than the “mainstream” because even where women are becoming more accepted as scientists, it is largely conditional upon socializing themselves into disciplines as defined by the men who came before them. If what is “traditional” is endogenous, then the problem of women’s underrepresentation is structural rather than incidental. Even were women numerically “equal” to men in terms of their participation and rank in the sciences, they would still be participating in a men’s world.

Perhaps the problem, then, is not that women’s work is nontraditional. Rather, it is that we consider women’s perspectives outside of tradition because tradition is laced with gender subordination. If “tradition” excludes women’s perspectives, indoctrinating women into tradition will not “fix” the gender disparities in these professions.

As such, instead of focusing exclusively providing women the “same” education and the “same” opportunities, perhaps it is time to question the value sciences assign to sameness. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking that women fall outside of the norm, and start redefining the norm in terms of the presence and importance of women’s perspectives in the sciences.

“Girls Don’t Do Math Past Algebra”


Today, a group of articles in the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and other newspapers, comment on the AAUW (American Association of University Women) report which will be webcast this Thursday.

These articles reminded me of a teacher that I’d had when I was young, who, despite my stellar performances in math courses, told me that girls don’t do, or need to do, math past algebra. Apparently, I am not alone, as the report lets us know that 40% of women who are now in the surveyed “STEM” (science and engineering) fields were discouraged at some point in their academic career from being in the sciences. While, if anything, that teacher’s sexism encouraged me to seek out education in math and science, story after story both related to this report and more generally can be told where women were explicitly discouraged from participating in or excluded from work in the sciences and engineering.

Just five years ago, at-the-time Harvard President Larry Summers (and current Director of the National Economic Council) argued that women are underrepresented in the sciences and engineering because of innate differences between men and women. I think there are two important things to say to this discussion: first, that women CAN do science and engineering as well as men can and shouldn’t be discouraged from it on any sort of (innate or social) capacity logic. Second, though, it might be important to explore the argument that our very conceptions of science are gendered. I have written about this in International Relations specifically in the journal Politics and Gender, but will make the argument briefly here …

In these fields, women’s underrepresentation is so grave that this “failure” to make it cannot be understood as individual or incidental, but, rather, as a consequence of structural barriers to women’s participation. Incidental explanations identify some factor or set of factors, such as educational differences, differences in the subfields of international relations that women are interested in, age differences, methodological differences, and so on, and “blame” women’s underrepresentation on those differences. These explanations imply that, if women had the “same” education, the “same” interests, and the “same” methods, then their experience in the subfield of international relations would be similar to men’s. As such, many who look for women’s equality in these fields are actively interested in finding more women who do “good work” and including them among the ranks of faculties. I have heard several department chairs and deans lament that they simply were unable to find a woman who met their criteria, and thus were unable to hire a woman to fill a vacant tenure-track line. In this scenario, senior colleagues explain, were there to be a woman who did the same work at the same level as the (more qualified) male candidate, then the department would have no problem hiring the person — women who were “the same” would be treated that way.

The problem, then, for those who consider women’s underrepresentation incidental, is that women are not the same. Because of perceived inferior preparation, skills, research interests, research methodologies, or other qualifications, women are often understood as less qualified job candidates and less desirable contenders for promotion. Women’s underrepresentation could be fixed by assuring that women got the same training, worked in the same areas, and obtained the same qualifications.

Still, there is a sociology to what is counts as “traditional” or “good” work. Feminists have described this as the “malestream,” rather than the “mainstream” because even where women are becoming more accepted as scientists, it is largely conditional upon socializing themselves into disciplines as defined by the men who came before them. If what is “traditional” is endogenous, then the problem of women’s underrepresentation is structural rather than incidental. Even were women numerically “equal” to men in terms of their participation and rank in the sciences, they would still be participating in a men’s world.

Perhaps the problem, then, is not that women’s work is nontraditional. Rather, it is that we consider women’s perspectives outside of tradition because tradition is laced with gender subordination. If “tradition” excludes women’s perspectives, indoctrinating women into tradition will not “fix” the gender disparities in these professions.

As such, instead of focusing exclusively providing women the “same” education and the “same” opportunities, perhaps it is time to question the value sciences assign to sameness. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking that women fall outside of the norm, and start redefining the norm in terms of the presence and importance of women’s perspectives in the sciences.

Seeing the whole board on financial reform

Clive Crook does:

The problem is not just that specific rules – higher bank capital requirements, for instance – threaten profits and are therefore opposed. It is that all governments see themselves as partners of their industries in world competition. Regulators seek not a level playing field but one tilted to their own groups’ advantage. This is not a hidden bias. It is proudly advertised. A government that did less than stand up for its own companies would be seen as failing in its duty.

In finance, a footloose industry, this striving for regulatory advantage undermines rules imposed by other countries. Financial regulation will underperform until regulators work more closely with counterparts abroad than with those they police.

[…] Pieces of the needed reforms are reasonably clear. They include higher capital and liquidity requirements, linked to size and to the credit cycle. Orderly resolution arrangements must be designed for non-bank financial groups as well as banks. There is growing support for requiring contingent capital (bonds that convert to equity under stress) and subordinated debt (increasing creditors’ exposure to writedowns). These should strengthen market discipline over risk-taking.

Such measures will meet resistance, especially if done unilaterally. The industry will cry competitive disadvantage. International co-operation is therefore essential. But discussions among regulators are moving slowly. While America’s turf fights remain unresolved, it is not even clear who should speak for US regulators.

I would agree with Crook. If policy makers focus too much on the domestic arena their best efforts will be doomed to fail. Not only must they take into consideration how the effectiveness of their reforms will be partially determined by similar actions in other countries, but they should be using the international arena to their advantage.

One way would be to use international negotiations and commitments as a way to gain leverage over the powerful interests of the financial industry who see less regulation (even sensible regulation) as against their interests. There is a rich literature on the use of international organizations and agreements as commitment mechanisms, a way of “tying one’ hands” so that what are normally tough reforms domestically due to lobbying and special interest pressure become easier to resist. If the Obama administration wants to pass sensible financial reform it might consider focusing more on finalizing international standards across, say, the OECD in order to shift the domestic playing field to its advantage.

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

What is the status of CIA drone operatives in international law? (Short answer: I don’t know, but that shouldn’t matter.)


Despite our modern ideas about a separation between civilians and soldiers in international law (and then complain about the breakdown of the legal distinction in counterinsurgency conflict or situations like Pakistan), civilians have almost always accompanied military forces into the field. These include journalists, clergy (not within the armed forces of an army) and “camp followers” which may have included cooks, tailors, menders, prostitutes, etc.

That these individuals were there and an essential part of the operations of the armed forces, was accepted. Yet, because they were not formally “enlisted” they were considered as civilians and not subject to direct attack so long as they did not take a direct part in hostilities.
This doesn’t render the principle of distinction irrelevant of course. It’s still one of the key principles upon which the law of war rests. However, it does suggest that we sometimes forget that the line has not always been crystal clear between combatants and civilians.
Yet, a major recent difference has been the increasing technological dependence of the armed forces in their military missions. This has resulted in civilians working on computer and weapons systems, possibly crossing certain lines in terms of distinction and participating in a conflict in a direct way.
Efforts trying to regulate civilian participation have not been particularly successful. As is relatively well known, efforts to regulate private military firms (PMFs) have been less than satisfactory (and even the US government who employs them has trouble exercising jurisdiction over their behaviour). The Montreux guidelines are just that – guidelines – and without any enforcement mechanism.
However, the CIA drone issue is different from that of PMFs. The CIA is a state-sanctioned institution. It’s armed and uses force against other actors. So what does it mean for their status under their international law? Are they directly participating in hostilities? Is their participation allowed?


Other important “guidance” here comes from the (controversial) ICRC study on the direct participation in hostilities. This document has been, is and will be subject to a lot of scrutiny (and it will be interesting to see, exactly, which states consider it authoritative. I’m thinking not many…). However, for our purposes here, a lot of the criticism (typically directed to ‘insurgent’-like actors and a supposed ‘revolving door of protection’) does not really apply.


Actually, the position taken with regards to private military firms and civilian employees would seem consistent with what the United States has typically put forward:

III Private contractors and employees of a party to an armed conflict who are civilians (see above I and II) are entitled to protection against direct attack unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities. Their activities or location may, however, expose them to an increased risk of incidental death or injury even if they do not take a direct part in hostilities.

The fifth point of the study, (V Constitutive elements of direct participation in hostilities) is more controversial as some might deem the criteria as far too narrow for the purpose of modern fighting. (ie: On just one point, the United States would likely argue that someone who did financing for a terrorist organization was ‘fair game’). While this might provoke more controversy for their targets, for our purposes, the DPH guidelines suit the CIA Drone pilots rather well.


In order to qualify as direct participation in hostilities, a specific act must meet the following cumulative criteria:
i. The act must be likely to adversely affect the military operations or military capacity of a party to an armed conflict or, alternatively, to inflict death, injury, or destruction on persons or objects protected against direct attack (threshold of harm), and
ii. there must be a direct causal link between the act and the harm likely to result either from that act, or from a coordinated military operation of which that act constitutes an integral part (direct causation), and
iii. the act must be specifically designed to directly cause the required threshold of harm in support of a party to the conflict and to the detriment of another (belligerent nexus).

Regardless of whether or not the threshold is too high or narrow, there is no question that what the CIA drone pilots are doing falls into this category.


Therefore, I would argue the two most important legal issues here are:

1. Is there participation in hostilities legal?
2. Are they subject to attack?

The first question is more difficult to answer than the second. I would argue that the default position regarding civilians accompanying armed forces is that their presence may be authorized by a state/military force (because of the increasing essential tasks that they perform). In this sense, I would argue that their presence is legal if they are authorized by a state and armed forces AND they carry out their operations in line with the laws of war. This implies that all actors should receive instructions and training in the laws of war.

Key to this framework – and I think this is rather obvious from what is stated above – is that although civilians may accompany the armed forces and assist them in a variety of ways, they remain civilians – not combatants or non-combatants (which, in US military parlance are considered to be chaplains and medical personnel). However, they are different from “regular” civilians in that their functions in relation to combat render them targetable.

If we take the case of a contracted computer specialist who accompanies a unit to a forward operating base, I would suggest: 1) His presence is legal. 2) His activities may constitute direct participation in hostilities 3) He may be subject to attack. 4) He, like the rest of the armed forces, must carry out his activities in line with the laws of war.

I think it is clear that for policy reasons the military should do its best to ensure that his participation does not constitute combat functions – although where one draws the line in this day and age is almost impossible to tell.

Article 4(A) of the Third Geneva Convention also makes it clear that should these authorized individuals be captured in an international armed conflict that they are to be given POW status. States/armed forces must therefore provide such civilians with appropriate identification cards.
However, again the CIA case is difficult because it poses several direct challenges to this scenario.

As suggested above, legal questions surrounding the participation of civilians revolve around civilians accompanying the military into the theatre of operations. The CIA case is different – many, if not most, of the operations seem to be coming from abroad or within the United States. Are the civilians therefore within the theatre of operations? And does distance render this ‘arithmetic’ irrelevant?

An important question here is whether or not the CIA operations can be considered as supporting military operations? The CIA program seems to operate at arms length from the DoD/Air Force Program – although how near or far is almost impossible to say. It may be that the CIA and US government considers the Agency to be part of the broader effort in the abstract “War on Terror” and therefore, yes, they are supporting military operations. They may also see themselves as working within a “self-defence” scenario whereby they are responding to the threat of terrorism posed by radical extremists in Pakistan.

Others, however, may see this as problematic because, legally, the conflict in Pakistan must be considered separately – not as an international armed conflict, but as an internal armed conflict and subject to a different set of international rules.

I think questions as to the status of the legality of the conflict in Pakistan are jus ad bellum issues and I will ignore them for the purpose of this post. I am also going to work from the assumption that a drone attack is an “armed attack” for the purpose of the laws of war and that this makes it the appropriate law to apply when considering the CIA operations.

I would therefore apply the following argument regarding the CIA drone pilots:

1. They are civilians.
2. Their activities constitute direct participation in hostilities in a law of war context.
3. They may be subject to attack, regardless of their location. The same may be said for a civilian who provides logistical support for military operations at the Pentagon. Of course, the same may not be said of a civilian who works at the Pentagon Best Buy (and yes there is one) who is supporting the staff who work at DoD, but is not directly participating in hostilities. This individual may be at risk because he/she works at a military target, but is not targetable. He/she must be taken into a proportionality consideration when a strike is being considered or planned.)
4. Their armed attacks must be carried out in line with the laws of war.

But what about their legality?

There is no question that the CIA is not part of the armed forces of the United States. Typically referred to as “other government agency” in military documents, one typically struggles to see them named within the DoD literature.

Yet international law stipulates that armed forces are not necessarily the only groups which may participate on the battlefield. For example, in a situation of a “mass uprising” (levée en masse), civilians may participate in an armed attack with immunity. Similarly guerrilla/partisan movements which follow certain rules have been recognized by the law of armed conflict since 1949.

However, none of these categories work particularly well. The CIA operatives do not meet the standards of these categories and nor were these categories ever really intended to apply to state actors. Ultimately, the Agency represents not “the” armed forces of the United States but “an” armed force of the United States. And this is essentially the main difficulty with regards to their legal classification.

Therefore, I simply can’t help but conclude that the CIA program is operating in a legal grey area – there is just not enough law or examples to render a crystal clear verdict on the status of the CIA operatives. The state-sanctioning of the activity means that they are not simply rogue individuals who are operating like some kind of armed group (unless you want to consider it a state-sanctioned armed group – in which case I don’t know how you would distinguish this from the armed forces). There are differences and developments here which international law has not yet had a chance to catch up with.

Practically, however, this should not make an operational difference. As I have suggested above, I think regardless of who is carrying out the attacks, they must be done in accordance with the laws of war. This is the really important key factor – at least for me. Not who is carrying out the attacks, but whether they are actually done in accordance with the applicable law.

It seems to me that there is no doubt that the individuals who are carrying out these activities are directly participating in activities and are targetable. Additionally, their civilian status does not relieve them of law of war obligations.

To me it would seem that the legality of the participation becomes really important if someone wanted to arrest and charge the CIA pilots for their missions. Practically speaking, I find this highly unlikely.

However, there is a more important issue of accountability here – what happens in a case of gross negligence? Or A clear violation of the laws of war? Who is responsible? I think this is where there is more room to be concerned. And how this will play out remains to be seen.

I’m curious as to what other international legal-politicos out there think of this. Am I missing something? Law simply does not have all of the answers – at the end of the day, I think it will be more helpful if the CIA program is going to have to be judged on its effectiveness vs the amount of damage it does and this will likely be done on political and moral grounds.

Digital Burqa

A few days ago, Charli pondered “whether or not the Internet and social media empowers civil society or instead simply offers states new tools of repression and governance.” And she provided a link to an excellent video about Iranian bloggers. I haven’t been able to get the question or the video out of my head. This is not my topic/area of research, but I will offer a few tentative thoughts to see if it will spark some discussion…

What color is your burqa?

If we were to visualize the Internet, would we not see a vast social space populated by individuals (men and women) wearing burqas, niqabs, chadors, and hijabs? Even in social networks, how many people interact without securing a measure of (an admittedly illusory) “privacy”? Almost all of those who comment on this blog, for example, wear digital burqas, except the listed contributors who are hijabed. (For we are all aware of the Nietzschean dictum that to talk much about oneself is also a way to conceal oneself.)

(What fascinates me is that so many wear digital burqas voluntarily, particularly in societies which are nominally non-authoritarian. From whence does this fear of the gaze of others originate in supposedly free societies? But, I digress…)

If you ask individuals in authoritarian or non-authoritarian contexts why they inhabit these personal panopticons, they would probably tell you that their burqa gives them mobility in the public sphere while avoiding the gaze/persistent memory of undesirable others and perhaps the state. Their burqa also enables a measure of subversion and license (as does the actual burqa and niqab even in conservative societies.)

Repression is understood in this context as the lifting of the digital veil by the state and/or the incarceration of authors.

The real question for me is not why an authoritarian state occasionally seeks to lift the veil on suspected dissidents (all states do this), but why a strong authoritarian state tolerates this potentially subversive social space at all. Technophiles will say that the state has no choice in this digital age, but this argument is not convincing when one is dealing with strong, capable states. After all, how many blogs emanate from Pyongyang? Not many (if any) I suspect. States can attempt (and more of less succeed) to prevent the technology wholesale, the more challenging situation is to permit the technology but to censor/filter particular servers. So why take on this more difficult challenge in governing?

The Spider and the Web

There is often an assumption in debates about social networks in authoritarian countries that civil society is antecedent to the state. However, outside of the Anglo-American tradition civil society is certainly not an autonomous historical development. (Even within the Anglo-American tradition it is doubtful that civil society today is logically antecedent since the state shapes every element of civil society through public policies). Late developing states have consistently sought to create bourgeois civil society in a hothouse in order to catch up to the early industrializers. To borrow an evocative metaphor from Bruce Cummings’ work on the developmental state: the spider builds the web; there are no webs without spiders.

The challenge for late-industrializing states has traditionally been to create a bourgeoisie which can achieve hegemony over the existing social classes without fomenting a violent reactionary revolution.

I do not know enough about Iran since its (reactionary? alter-modern?) revolution to say why its state permits this potential site of resistance. However, I do think it is worth asking the question. My hunch (and it is only that) is that the state hopes to create a particular modern bourgeoisie with “Iranian characteristics” (on the Chinese model) while exposing and expunging the secular, cosmopolitan, counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. In Hegelian fashion, the state projects its role as restoring a threatened organic unity.

It is unclear to me whether the young bloggers/tweeters of Iran have established hegemony within their society. Internet penetration in Iran has grown dramatically in recent years and it is well above the regional average. However, the bloggers’/tweeters’ frequent appeals in English to a global audience cast some doubts in my mind. But again, I do not know enough and hope others will correct me. Perhaps, when the authoritarian state has stamped out real threats to its survival, it occasionally lets the reformers de-legitimize themselves by appealing to the international community in the language of the global hegemon. As the Iranian state frequently expresses concerns about foreign subversion, this seems like a plausible scenario.

In one conversation I had with an Iranian blogger (who ironically used Chinese software to acquire his/her chador), s/he rejected the notion that their struggles against the state were assisted by the US State Department’s efforts to buttress Twitter. Of course, the core issue is whether American assistance/intervention is perceived as marginal by the majority of the Iranian population.

Margaret Moth


Margaret Moth died over the weekend after a long battle with cancer. Margaret was an incredibly talented photo-journalist who covered numerous conflicts. It was her video work, shot during the first months of the Bosnian war for CNN, that defined the war and set the standard for the way journalists — especially camera crews — filmed and reported the conflict. In July, 1992 she was hit and seriously wounded by a sniper’s bullet on sniper alley in Sarajevo. Despite her serious injuries and the long and painful recovery that followed, she returned to work to cover the Bosnian War and other conflicts.

I was always struck by how matter-of-fact she was — as she pointed out, she after all had stepped into the middle of the fight in Bosnia. But, she also believed strongly in the power of her work and the importance of giving the world a visual element to understanding war. She was an impressive person on so many levels. She will be missed.

She was featured in “Fearless: The Margaret Moth Story,” this CNN documentary made last summer:

Methodology411: Nemesis


Nemesis. No, I don’t mean the tenth Star Trek film, a film that many of us Trekkers would like to simply imagine never happened (and thanks to J. J. Abrams’ rebooting of the franchise, we now can). Instead, I mean the long-theorized stellar companion to our Sun — perhaps a brown dwarf star — the existence of which could perhaps help to explain cycles of mass extinction on Earth. NASA’s WISE satellite, presently conducting a survey of the entire sky in the infrared spectrum, might be able to provide photographic evidence of Nemesis’ existence, although we wouldn’t be able to confirm that until about 2013 because of the time needed to process all of the data.

While it’s interesting in itself to think that we might be living in a binary-star system rather than in the single-star system that we’ve all been taught about for generations, what’s even more intriguing to me here are the curious methodological issues that the whole question of Nemesis’ existence or non-existence raises. Since we can’t see this hypothetical brown dwarf with any of our human-normal senses, any discussion of Nemesis necessarily takes place in the shadowy realm of the unobservable — which is a realm that anyone who has been following debates about scientific realism in IR or in the social sciences more generally has heard a lot about in recent years. In particular, we are often told that social structure, being unobservable, implies a scientific realist ontology in order to really make sense as a scientific concept.

I’m not sure that this is true either of social structure or of Nemesis, but not for the same reasons. There’s a key ambiguity in the notion of an “unobservable” that is sometimes exploited in scientific realist arguments in IR, in that the arguments often equivocate between things that theorists positing them say that we simply haven’t observed yet (like Nemesis) and things that theorists positing them say that we can’t possibly observe (like social structure, especially in the hands of scientific realists). Research implications follow, but first we have to be clear on the conceptual complexity involved.

First, a little basic ordinary-language philosophy. The most usual sense of the notion of “existence” involves something that we have direct sensory evidence of: I know that the book on my desk exists because I can see it, and can pick it up, and so forth. There are a whole series of conceptual calisthenics associated with teasing this notion out in a consistent way, many of which involve optical illusions or dreams or other hard cases, but I think that the basic point holds as far as ordinary speech is concerned and as long as we’re dealing with physical objects (and not definitionally transcendental objects like God or the soul; to say that such things do or do not exist gets us into a very tricky metaphysical realm that I want to avoid for the present discussion). If I don’t have direct sensory evidence of some physical object — if I haven’t actually seen a unicorn — it’s difficult for me to claim that it exists and to have those words mean what they conventionally mean in everyday speech.

In other words, our usual everyday notion of existence is pretty empiricist, to the extent that it relies on empirical evidence as the final court of appeal. Now, two caveats apply more or less immediately. First, relying on someone else’s direct sensory evidence does not seem to be a particularly complicated warrant, philosophically speaking; there are all kinds of practical or technical questions regarding the identification of reliable witnesses, but we do this all the time in everyday life so I see no reason that this ought to present any special conceptual challenge. Second, and a little more problematically, the boundary defining the things that are taken to be “direct sensory evidence” seems to be historically mutable. Most famously, the invention of the telescope did not immediately result in people regarding what one could see through a telescope as having the same epistemic status as what one could see with the naked eye; instead, it took time for the telescope to become popularly and philosophically regarded as a way of augmenting human senses such that telescope-mediated visual evidence was basically on par with direct sight. But once this was done, the telescope in effect ceased to present a perceptual problem, and looking through a telescope thereafter becomes a form of “direct sensory evidence.” Repeat the basic outlines of this story for the photographic camera, the scanning electron microscope, radar and sonar, etc., and we have a kind of “robust empiricism” which can deal with augmented human senses pretty easily.

The robust empiricist answer to the question of whether Nemesis exists, then, is pretty straightforward: look for it, and if you can see it, it exists. [I am not going to go into the various historical reasons why sight almost invariably gets privileged as the source of evidence in these discussions, but just realize that a) it does and b) that it does so is somewhat philosophically problematic, even though it doesn’t challenge robust empiricism to shift from sight to smell or touch.] One of the commentators on io9’s coverage of this story — which emphasizes the point that Nemesis is conjectured to cause periodic extinctions by disturbing the orbits of comets in the Oort Cloud and sending them speeding into the inner solar system — spells out the empiricist position on the issue quite well:

. . . we’re not even sure if the Oort Cloud is even there. Proof comes from observation, and not once have we EVER seen a comet at the distance required to prove the Oort Cloud is really there. We know the Kuiper Belt is there, because we can directly observe Kuiper Belt bodies. Not so with the Oort Cloud.

“Proof comes from observation” is the money-quote here, along with the implication that you could only really know that the Oort Cloud existed if you could get sufficient distance to actually see it and the comets that supposedly populate it. Otherwise, the Oort Cloud (the existence of which is accepted by basically all contemporary astronomers), and the brown dwarf Nemesis that might be affecting it, remain “theoretical” entities.

But note that this kind of robust empiricism has a directionality to it: even if we can’t presently have direct sensory evidence of the existence of the Oort Cloud or of Nemesis, there is nothing to prevent us from a) speculating about how its existence might help to solve certain puzzles and b) engaging in a more or less direct search for direct sensory evidence, which in this case means building a better piece of sensory augmentation equipment (the WISE satellite, which is basically designed to provide us with a better picture of the whole sky than we could get just by looking with our human-normal eyes — such survey-mapping is, so to speak, robust empiricism par excellence). Of course, we can’t say that something that we haven’t yet observed actually exists — or, better, we can’t say with any certainty whether it does or does not exist. But the point is that determining whether it does exist or not is a relatively straightforward matter of getting ourselves into the right position from which to observe it. Indeed, we might easily conclude that the point of scientific research is precisely to get ourselves in positions from which to observe as much as possible, and thus to steadily eliminate “theoretical” entities from our conceptual inventory by replacing them with observed ones.

In other words, Nemesis is what we might call an unobserved observable: an object that we could in principle observe under the proper circumstances, including the use of the proper sensory augmentation equipment. The appropriate research project for such an object, as I have suggested, is to find or build some way of observing it. Though there might be technical challenges or political obstacles to surmount in doing so, there is no reason in principle to suggest that the object couldn’t be observed, and hence no theoretical barrier to trying to do so. Matters are quite different with objects that the very theory and theorists that posit them declare to be in-principle unobservable: quarks, very high-energy fundamental particles like the Higgs boson, black holes, or social structures (at least as conceptualized by certain kinds of social theorists, in particular Marxists and feminists). The fact that the former three are thought to be in-principle unobservable because of physical laws, while the latter is thought to be unobservable because structures are dispositional conditions of possibility rather than entities reducible to their observed effects, is in this case immaterial; what matters is that all four of these objects are very different kinds of “unobservable” than Nemesis is.

As such, the terminus of research into any of these four objects cannot be a direct observation of them. According to the confinement principle of quantum chromodynamics, quarks cannot appear singly. The Higgs boson only exists at such high energy-levels that if one were to be created it would immediately decay into other particles (much like other fundamental particles, actually), so the best we can do is to indirectly detect such particles (which is why the massive machines built for the purpose are called particle detectors, and not particle observers). Black holes capture all of the energy within their event horizon, so all we can do is to infer their existence indirectly. And while we can observe what social structures make possible, we can’t build a structure-o-scope that would allow us to simply view capitalism or patriarchy — though we could and do measure the effects of those structures.

There’s more to say here, of course, particularly about how one might ever know that an in-principle unobservable object exists, and why it matters a lot if the unobservable in question is detectable or not — but I’ll save that for my next installment. For now, it suffices to conclude that whether or not Nemesis exists is a relatively straightforward question, easily answerable within the bounds of a slightly elaborated kind of common-sensical everyday empiricism, and the kind of fantastically impressive sensory augmentations that it easily accommodates.

Things I Learned Doing My First Bloggingheads Diavlog

1) A small puppy, if walked real hard first, will sit quietly outside long enough for a decent taping with no unseemly background noise. (I had worried about that.)

2) It’s important to spell out your acronyms on the first use in speech just like in writing.

3) I say “um” a lot more than I ever thought.

Anyway, check it out. UN Dispatch’s Mark Leon Goldberg and I talk about pirate economics, the Somalia aid scandal, gender politics, and the coming Cylon takeover how popular culture figures in UN public relations strategies.

The Latest on U.S. Militarism

In my U.S. Foreign Policy class this semester, students read the latest book from historian Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008). As in his prior work, Bacevich is critical of the apparent militarism in American foreign policy. Primarily, he argues that the U.S. is too willing to use military force as an instrument of policy and that the American people and its leaders overestimate the effectiveness of military power.

Arguably, another indicator of American militarism is its willingness to place former top military leaders into security policy posts that could well be topped by civilians. Already, the top military brass is very influential on U.S. foreign policy in their roles as military leaders. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Generals Petraeus and McChrystal have made all the key U.S. decisions bout Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most recently, for example, Barack Obama has selected retired Major General Robert Harding to head the Transportation Security Administration. Why should TSA be headed by a former general?By the way, Harding started a company that apparently overbilled the government millions of dollars for “interrogation” work in Iraq, so his nomination might not be assured.

Independent of that potential scandal, why should former military officials also currently serve in other top security posts? The former generals and admirals may well be qualified, but the U.S. assures greater civilian control of security policy if it keeps these positions in civilian hands. Yet, the Director of National Intelligence is former Admiral Dennis Blair. The current National Security Advisor is retired Marine General James Jones.

The practice of placing former military leaders into security positions in U.S. foreign policy is not unique to the Obama administration.

On my personal blog, I often wrote posts highlighting the fact that many former military leaders opposed the U.S. war in Iraq. Thus, I don’t mean to argue that all these leaders are dangerous hawks that threaten American democracy. Nor was I previously trying to argue that military opinion should trump the ideas pursued by civilian policymakers. Indeed, in those years, President Bush often said that he listened to his active Generals in regard to Iraq, so “the military’s” views were presumably heard (as if “the military” singular existed).

In this particular instance, I’m worried about the lack of civilian input on security policy issues. I’m in favor of listening to the views of people with military experience, but I also think that diverse perspectives should play a prominent role.

Are you #^&@%! kidding me?


Our political discourse is seriously out of control. Retired Marine Corps General John J. Sheehan — an ardent opponent of gays in the military – testified before the Senate Armed Services today that the decision by the Dutch government to allow gays to serve in its military contributed to the events at Srebrenica in 1995. Apparently, the Dutch decision –and the overall “liberalization” of the Dutch military — contributed to its “weak” combat capabilities.

This is just absurd. The Dutch failure at Srebrenica is one of the most thoroughly investigated events of the past twenty years. These reports include extensive reviews of a wide range of things — including the structural flaws of the UNPROFOR mission, the small force-to-threat ratio in support of the six UN designated safe areas, weaknesses in the Dutch training and doctrine, and a host of other issues. Not one, not one suggests that gays in the military contributed to the failings. Seriously, you just can’t go before the Senate Armed Services Committee and make stuff up.

Are you #^&@%! kidding me?


Our political discourse is seriously out of control. Retired Marine Corps General John J. Sheehan — an ardent opponent of gays in the military – testified before the Senate Armed Services today that the decision by the Dutch government to allow gays to serve in its military contributed to the events at Srebrenica in 1995. Apparently, the Dutch decision –and the overall “liberalization” of the Dutch military — contributed to its “weak” combat capabilities.

This is just absurd. The Dutch failure at Srebrenica is one of the most thoroughly investigated events of the past twenty years. These reports include extensive reviews of a wide range of things — including the structural flaws of the UNPROFOR mission, the small force-to-threat ratio in support of the six UN designated safe areas, weaknesses in the Dutch training and doctrine, and a host of other issues. Not one, not one suggests that gays in the military contributed to the failings. Seriously, you just can’t go before the Senate Armed Services Committee and make stuff up.

Pondering Social Media and Global Civil Society

Random connections between things: Today, I’m at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy giving a guest lecture on global advocacy networks, in a class on Statecraft taught by my colleague Dan Drezner, who has an article coming out in the next issue Brown Journal of World Affairs on whether or not the Internet and social media empowers civil society or instead simply offers states new tools of repression and governance.

Then, with all that freshly bobbing around in my mind, my doctoral student sent me this video, which speaks to the same question of whether social media primarily empowers citizens or states. I don’t have time to formulate an informed opinion on the issue because I’m off to lunch, but the video is very good, and I wonder what readers think about this question.

Iran: A nation of bloggers from Mr.Aaron on Vimeo.

The "Sea Witch," Ann Hopkins, and Why We Never Seem to Learn about Sex and Gender


In the print version of Time Magazine, the story linked in the title of this post is itself titled differently. Instead of “The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh,” the story is called “The Sea Witch.” Much of the story is the same, however: a female captain in the United States Navy was relieved of her command for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew aboard the U.S.S. Cowpens. Among the (ir)relevant tidbits about Captain Graf in the article are: that she remains single, despite the fact that her sister married; that a chaplain once told her she was “a nice lady” who had “a hard job”; and that she “acted like a man.”

The “punchline” of the story, for Time Magazine, is that the Navy had long ignored “warning signs about her suitability for command” because of her gender – that is, that the Navy was looking for women officers, so willing to ignore that the available ones were actually bad at their jobs.

Twenty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the United States Supreme Court paved the way for the award of one of the costliest individual verdicts in the history of U.S. jurisprudence to a woman named Ann Hopkins. Price Waterhouse had denied Ann Hopkins promotion to partner because she was a woman who didn’t comport herself as such – she was too “manly” – despite having risen quickly through the ranks of the company.

When I read the “Sea Witch” story in Time, I couldn’t help thinking how little we seem to have learned from Ann Hopkins and one of the landmark sex discrimination cases in U. S. history.


Other online articles and blogs (some not linked here in order to avoid potential spam for Duck of Minerva), characterize her “temperament” as “unnatural,” call Graf “leather-skinned,” blame her for humiliating men as well as women, call her a “bull dyke,” and questioning her sexual preference.

These comments are reminiscent of those made about Janis Karpinksi, the commander of several Iraqi prisons including Abu Ghraib during the prison abuse scandal, which I have written about elsewhere. But more, they are reminiscent of the comments made about Ann Hopkins that got the courts to award her backpay and partnership in the company.

Corporations, governments, and militaries are “including” women in their ranks at record levels, though women remain far from equally represented in positions of power. Still, this inclusion does not come with an automatic reform of the organizations which are adding women to their ranks. Instead, these organizations remain ones that value traits associated with masculinity (such as strength, rationality, and autonomy) over traits associated with femininity (such as interdependence, emotion, and care). This is, however, a catch-22 for their new women members, who can make a certain amount of progress by adopting traits associated with masculinity, but are constantly questioned about what has happened to their femininity.

Melissa Brown’s research about U.S. military recruiting ads captures some of this paradox. According to Brown, the U.S. military has begun to feature women in recruiting ads, either as the target of ads or alongside men. These ads, however, display women adept at the “masculine” jobs of the military, but with long hair, make-up, and often, high heels – which is not how many women doing military jobs actually look as they are doing them. The message seems clear: a woman soldier must be as capable of masculinity and masculine tasks as a (man) soldier, since masculinity is the measure of military prowess. But, as I have noted in analyses of the media coverage and military treatment of Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, women must pair that militarized masculinity with traits traditionally associated with femininity, such as softness, innocence, kindness, and feminine appearance.

When are we going to get, individually or as a society, that is not about men and women but about masculinities and femininities? Whatever else Graf was relieved of her command for, she was relieved of her command because her behavior was so far from traditional understandings of women’s gender roles that it was unrecognizable as femininity. As one Naval Officer quoted in the Time story related, “she acted like a man, and she is now being punished for it.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins should have taught us that expecting those we perceive women to be “like women” and punishing them when they are not is unacceptable in any professional environment.

I don’t know about Holly Graf’s leadership skills – if many of the stories are to be believed, there were serious problems with the way she ran her command. But the stories about her profanity, verbal abuse, and condescension are not unique in stories of military leadership. Perhaps it is time to start asking more questions about the gendered nature of military leadership, and why it took a woman’s hypermasculinity to get us talking about it.

The “Sea Witch,” Ann Hopkins, and Why We Never Seem to Learn about Sex and Gender


In the print version of Time Magazine, the story linked in the title of this post is itself titled differently. Instead of “The Rise and Fall of a Female Captain Bligh,” the story is called “The Sea Witch.” Much of the story is the same, however: a female captain in the United States Navy was relieved of her command for “cruelty and maltreatment” of her crew aboard the U.S.S. Cowpens. Among the (ir)relevant tidbits about Captain Graf in the article are: that she remains single, despite the fact that her sister married; that a chaplain once told her she was “a nice lady” who had “a hard job”; and that she “acted like a man.”

The “punchline” of the story, for Time Magazine, is that the Navy had long ignored “warning signs about her suitability for command” because of her gender – that is, that the Navy was looking for women officers, so willing to ignore that the available ones were actually bad at their jobs.

Twenty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the United States Supreme Court paved the way for the award of one of the costliest individual verdicts in the history of U.S. jurisprudence to a woman named Ann Hopkins. Price Waterhouse had denied Ann Hopkins promotion to partner because she was a woman who didn’t comport herself as such – she was too “manly” – despite having risen quickly through the ranks of the company.

When I read the “Sea Witch” story in Time, I couldn’t help thinking how little we seem to have learned from Ann Hopkins and one of the landmark sex discrimination cases in U. S. history.


Other online articles and blogs (some not linked here in order to avoid potential spam for Duck of Minerva), characterize her “temperament” as “unnatural,” call Graf “leather-skinned,” blame her for humiliating men as well as women, call her a “bull dyke,” and questioning her sexual preference.

These comments are reminiscent of those made about Janis Karpinksi, the commander of several Iraqi prisons including Abu Ghraib during the prison abuse scandal, which I have written about elsewhere. But more, they are reminiscent of the comments made about Ann Hopkins that got the courts to award her backpay and partnership in the company.

Corporations, governments, and militaries are “including” women in their ranks at record levels, though women remain far from equally represented in positions of power. Still, this inclusion does not come with an automatic reform of the organizations which are adding women to their ranks. Instead, these organizations remain ones that value traits associated with masculinity (such as strength, rationality, and autonomy) over traits associated with femininity (such as interdependence, emotion, and care). This is, however, a catch-22 for their new women members, who can make a certain amount of progress by adopting traits associated with masculinity, but are constantly questioned about what has happened to their femininity.

Melissa Brown’s research about U.S. military recruiting ads captures some of this paradox. According to Brown, the U.S. military has begun to feature women in recruiting ads, either as the target of ads or alongside men. These ads, however, display women adept at the “masculine” jobs of the military, but with long hair, make-up, and often, high heels – which is not how many women doing military jobs actually look as they are doing them. The message seems clear: a woman soldier must be as capable of masculinity and masculine tasks as a (man) soldier, since masculinity is the measure of military prowess. But, as I have noted in analyses of the media coverage and military treatment of Jessica Lynch and Lynndie England, women must pair that militarized masculinity with traits traditionally associated with femininity, such as softness, innocence, kindness, and feminine appearance.

When are we going to get, individually or as a society, that is not about men and women but about masculinities and femininities? Whatever else Graf was relieved of her command for, she was relieved of her command because her behavior was so far from traditional understandings of women’s gender roles that it was unrecognizable as femininity. As one Naval Officer quoted in the Time story related, “she acted like a man, and she is now being punished for it.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins should have taught us that expecting those we perceive women to be “like women” and punishing them when they are not is unacceptable in any professional environment.

I don’t know about Holly Graf’s leadership skills – if many of the stories are to be believed, there were serious problems with the way she ran her command. But the stories about her profanity, verbal abuse, and condescension are not unique in stories of military leadership. Perhaps it is time to start asking more questions about the gendered nature of military leadership, and why it took a woman’s hypermasculinity to get us talking about it.

Unlawful Combatants at the CIA

I’ve been thinking this weekend about Gary Solis’ WAPO op-ed of Friday about CIA drone pilots being unlawful combatants – unlike drone pilots serving in the US armed forces who may arguably be violating the laws of war but at least have the right under international law to engage in combat:

In terms of international armed conflict, those CIA agents are, unlike their military counterparts but like the fighters they target, unlawful combatants. No less than their insurgent targets, they are fighters without uniforms or insignia, directly participating in hostilities, employing armed force contrary to the laws and customs of war. Even if they are sitting in Langley, the CIA pilots are civilians violating the requirement of distinction, a core concept of armed conflict, as they directly participate in hostilities.

Moreover, CIA civilian personnel who repeatedly and directly participate in hostilities may have what recent guidance from the International Committee of the Red Cross terms “a continuous combat function.” That status, the ICRC guidance says, makes them legitimate targets whenever and wherever they may be found, including Langley.

I agree with his first point, but as I’ve explained at more length elsewhere, I think he is misreading the meaning of “continuous combat function.” And in so doing Solis makes a common conceptual error: conflating the lawfulness of combatancy with the legitimacy of targets.

Here’s the relevant part of the ICRC’s interpretative guidance on the issue of distinguishing civilians from combatants (that is, lawful v. unlawful targets) in asymmetric wars:

While members of organized armed groups belonging to a party to the conflict lose protection against direct attack for the duration of their membership (i.e., for as long as they assume a continuous combat function), civilians lose protection against direct attack for the duration of each specific act amounting to direct participation in hostilities. This includes any preparations and geographical deployments or withdrawals constituting an integral part of a specific hostile act.

In other words, the concept of “continuous combat function” only applies to members of the armed forces, never to civilians. You can shell a military encampment at night while the GIs are asleep (not participating in hostilities) and it’s not a war crime, because they remain military targets as long as they’re deployed in a conflict zone. However you cannot legitimately target a “civilian” – however guilty s/he may be of participating in hostilities at times – when s/he is not currently doing so. Or at least, so say the existing laws of war.

In correctly pointing out that there are unlawful combatants on both sides in the war on terror, Solis is implicitly suggesting that this makes those combatants – on both sides of the war – legitimate targets, a position that justifies military drone attacks on civilian terror suspects per se, rather than just when they’re engaged in hostilities. Not true.

UPDATED: A student of mine writing a humanitarian law dissertation pointed out an error in the earlier version of the post (now modified): civilians remain civilians (as opposed to combatants) even when they directly participate in hostilities.

IPT and the Ancient Greeks

Almost everyone in IR reads Thucydides, or at least puts the Melian Dialogue on their syllabi. Indeed, everyone should read Thucydides, although just reading the Melian Dialogue is not a good idea. The problem is that the Greek world is presented as a world of realism, thus reinforcing the view that it is the only theory with an ancient pedigree (a point made by Robert Gilpin’s chapter in the Keohane edited volume, Neorealism and its Critics). In fact, the Ancient Greek tradition provides a much richer source for understanding and teaching international relations, something that many working in IPT have long recognized.

There is certainly a standard way Thucydides appears in IR theory courses. Depending on your age, some of you may have encountered Thucydides in a cold war context. I first encountered him at Johns Hopkins in a graduate seminar led by George Liska, a classical realist if there ever was one. For Liska, the Athenians represented the Americans (sea power, democracy, Periclean ideas of freedom) and the Spartans represented the Soviet Union (land power, authoritarian state). We never really talked about the end of the book, though – the Athenians lose the war because of their hubris (the 1989 ISQ article by Daniel Garst is a great way to see Thucydides as a theorist of political ethics and history rather than a realist). Hmm, perhaps there is still some truth in linking America to Athens …

Outside of this cold war approach, though, Thucydides can be read in a wide variety of ways. One is through the lens of tragedy and honor, something Ned Lebow has recently done in The Tragic Vision of Politics (2003) and A Cultural Theory of International Relations (2008). [The Aberystwyth journal, International Relations, has had articles on the broader theme of tragedy over the past few years, with solid contributions from my colleague Nick Rengger (2005) and LSE’s Chris Brown (2007)]. Ned’s reading of Thucydides ideas of tragedy tends to reduce the Greek world to the idea of honour, an approach I have some problems with, but it demonstrates how the ancients can be used insightfully to develop some alternative approaches to international relations without reducing them to a caricature of “realists from the ancient past”.

What frustrates me, though, is how we fail to read anything else from the ancient tradition, either Greek or Roman. There is an incredible wealth of material that has relevance for IR, ranging from Herodotus (cultural encounters) to Aristotle (comparative politics) to Cicero (leadership and foreign policy analysis). The fact that Aristotle was a foreigner in Athens and that he tutored Alexander the Great provide lots of interesting ideas about the relationship between theory and practice and teaching IR as a national or global idea. Greek theatre also provide an immensely valuable source for political insight. My favorite thing to assign alongside of Thucydides is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – the play in which women try to end the Pelopennisian War by refusing to have sex with their husbands! A nice way to bring feminism and pacifism into IR classrooms, or at least generate some debate about those themes.

Even something like IR liberalism and the democratic peace thesis can be found in the ancient world. In the 2nd century BC, a Greek historian named Polybius wrote a history of Rome’s rise to power in 40 books that became known simply as The Histories. Known to classical and constitutional scholars as the theorist of the Roman Constitution, which was taken up by medieval theorists, Montesequieu and the American founders to justify the “mixed constitution”, Polybius was considered to be one of the most important historians of early Rome. The Histories is important for current debates in IR for two reasons (and others that I’m sure readers can suggest). First, Polybius’ text begins with a parallel account to that of Thucydides about what it means to be a historian, and connnects that question to the one Thucydies avoids, which is how to write a “practical history” or one with relevance for current debates about policy. Polybius suggests that debates about whether or not we are historians, social scientists, or policy advisors is not necessarily a new thing. Second, and even more useful in IR theory, Polybius’ famous Book VI on the Roman Constitution argues that Rome rose to power not just because of its military might but becuase of its political structure. His discussion parallels quite nicely the democratic peace thesis, at least at the general level – that is, internal political structure can play a key role in determining military and foreign policy. In other words, the realism of Thucydides might be read alongside of the liberalism of Polybius.

Some of my IPT colleagues might be nervous about using the ancients in this way (Will Bain’s 2007 International Politics article on the complexities of using historical figures in IR is a good place to start thinking about some of these issues). At the same time, I think to read and teach these works can disabuse us and our students of the assumption that there is only one ancient tradition of thought in IR, or that we are somehow discovering new problems in the early 21st century. If anyone has other suggestions for ancient texts, let’s hear them!

Rock 'n Roll 'n IPE


Just a shout-out to NPR Planet Money for sharing the rock ‘n roll reference in the Dodd financial reform proposal, or at least, Dodd’s summary of it. A “no escape” clause for companies seeking to evade supervision is called the Hotel California Provison. Yup, it’s right there in the text. We assume it’s referring to the line about how “you can check out any time you want…but you can never leave.” (although “we are all just prisoners here…of our own device” could also work).

Glad to know the people fighting the good fight for financial regulatory reform are totally cool folks. Now, whether they can get any bill passed is something else again.

Rock ‘n Roll ‘n IPE


Just a shout-out to NPR Planet Money for sharing the rock ‘n roll reference in the Dodd financial reform proposal, or at least, Dodd’s summary of it. A “no escape” clause for companies seeking to evade supervision is called the Hotel California Provison. Yup, it’s right there in the text. We assume it’s referring to the line about how “you can check out any time you want…but you can never leave.” (although “we are all just prisoners here…of our own device” could also work).

Glad to know the people fighting the good fight for financial regulatory reform are totally cool folks. Now, whether they can get any bill passed is something else again.

Battling a Straw Man and Still Losing

[I don’t mean to rail on the Washington Post’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan two posts in a row, but the coverage is honestly a bit dismal this week. In my last post, I showed why Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article “At Afghan outpost, Marines gone rogue or leading the fight against counterinsurgency?” completely misunderstood the strategic importance of the town of Delaram from which the report was written.]

An Op-ed article in yesterday’s WaPo by Michael O’Hanlon and Hassina Sherjan, “Five Myths About the War in Afghanistan” poorly argues the case for “toughing it out” in Afghanistan. Since my time is limited, let me just tackle the first myth they seek to refute (i.e. “Afghans Always Hate and Defeat their Invaders”). Even though I substantively agree with what they are arguing in this section, the way they argue is objectionable for the following reasons.

First, in seeking to dispute a crass Orientalist straw-man argument that Afghans “always hate and defeat their invaders,” the authors note,

“The Afghans drove the British Empire out of their country in the 19th century and did the same to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. They do fight fiercely; many American troops who have been deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have asserted that the Afghans are stronger natural fighters.”

Natural fighters? I am not quite sure what is meant by this phrase or why the authors would even concede to this notion.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not “natural fighters.” These groups have studied and carefully adopted tactics from the US and other countries. As Patrick Porter argues, Al Qaeda’s doctrine of “Long War” is partly inspired by Clausewitz (Porter 2009, 62). Copies of Clausewitz’s writings have been found in Al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan. In addition, Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are known to use manuals from the US and UK special forces as well as a collected anthology of asymmetric strategies from China and South America.

The Taliban has benefited from its interactions with Al Qaeda, in addition to the strategies and tactics imparted to the mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. In any case, since the Taliban have shifted tactics and strategies (e.g. to include suicide bombing which was once alien to the Afghan conflict), it is incorrect to state that they are “natural fighters.”

Second, O’Hanlon and Sherjan cite highly dubious survey data to support their case:

“Afghans are far more accepting of an international presence in their country than are Iraqis, for example, who typically gave the U.S. presence approval ratings of 15 to 30 percent in the early years of the war in that country. Average U.S. favorability ratings in recent surveys in Afghanistan are around 50 percent, and according to polls from ABC, the BBC and the International Republican Institute, about two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help.”

When this survey was first published, I (and many others who are monitoring this war) posted some reasons why we should be highly skeptical of this particular study, which claimed that 70% of Afghan respondents believe that “things” in Afghanistan are heading in the right direction (up from 40% the year before!).

The point that O’Hanlon and Sherjan want to make could be done without the use of such questionable survey evidence. In fact, as a general rule I think that surveys conducted in war zones should be considered as inadmissable evidence in an argument.

Third, they attempt to paint an image of a small Taliban force (25,000) relative to the mujahideen (250,000) who ousted the Soviets. My problem here is that any estimate of the size of the Taliban should indicate a range of the estimated size. Estimates that I have seen range from 30,000 to 40,000 for this year. So the authors seem to be low balling the estimate to suit their argument. Nevertheless, it is true that the current Taliban forces are much smaller than the estimated number of mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War. However, it should be noted that the mujahideen never overran a Soviet base, something which the current Taliban can at least boast (although US/ISAF completely disputes the Taliban’s characterization of events).

Fourth, they argue:

“Finally, though U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, today’s international presence there does not amount to an invasion. Foreign forces are present at the invitation of the host government, which two-thirds of Afghans consider legitimate, if somewhat corrupt.”

The idea that ISAF troops are present at the invitation of the host government is about as ridiculous as the same claim by the Soviets during their occupation of the country. The current head of state, Hamid Karzai, has been a crony of the CIA since the late eighties. Even he does not dispute the label of “puppet” to describe his regime. It would be more honest for O’Hanlon and Sherjan to acknowledge that this is an occupation but one that is not detested to the same degree as the Soviet occupation.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]

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