Page 167 of 239

Edward James Olmos at the United Nations

Watch the entire proceedings of the Battlestar Galactica cast’s visit to the United Nations here.


The Allah-father

Interesting post this morning over at The Argument on the similarities between the Taliban and organized crime. This idea echoes earlier (and interesting) work by Charles Tilly on the origins of the state. While I think Peters’ analysis is interesting and thought provoking, I don’t think it means we should ignore the religious aspect of the movement. Understanding the criminal aspects of their enterprise is useful for gaining perspective on their material capabilities and the methods through which they maintain and grow those capabilities. It also allows us to think thoroughly as to how we might cut off and put a strain on those capabilities. But in thinking about their likely actions, we would be limited if we just stuck to criminal/economic rationale and ignored the religious/political goals. I am not suggesting that Peters thinks or suggests we should go completely in this direction, just a general observation on my part.

Troubling Advances in Pakistan: Signs of Failure? (updated)

My first semester in graduate school I had the pleasure of attending a talk by General Wesley Clark (Ret.). He gave the talk not soon after the attacks of September 11th and the US offensive in Afghanistan. At the time, Clark was just begining a PR offensive that would eventually position him as a contender for the Democratic nomination in 2004.

During the Q&A I asked him a question about the regional dynamics going forward as a result of the Afghanistan offensive. While not criticizing the move (I was for it), I questioned what the potential fallout could be in terms of domestic politics within Pakistan and interstate dynamics, particularly with regards to Iran and Iraq. On Pakistan, I questioned whether we had a solid strategy for balancing our need for strategic support from the Pakistani government with the potential domestic disaster that might ensue as a result of their ‘switching sides’ and the longterm instability we would inevitably have to their north. I asked whether we had a plan to ensure domestically stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan when major military operations in the former ceased. He somewhat chuckled and asked, “You’re not talking about nation-building, right?” The line garnered some laughs from the audience and he then went on to basically avoid the question.

I bring up this anecdote because this remains a major issue for US foreign policy–one that I would say has become even more pressing given recent events, such as the ever increasing civil war (as Dan said, let’s call it what it is) within Pakistan.

Yesterday, Taliban militants managed to extend their control of areas in Northern Pakistan by taking the district of Buner–a mere 70 miles from the capital of Islamabad. This represents the continuation of a trend whereby the Taliban pushes deeper and deeper into Pakistan, even after a mid-February truce that effectively created a ‘safe haven’ for the militants in Swat Valley.

At that time, many called the truce a massive misstep, one that would undoubtedly backfire and lead to further aggression by the militants. One major reason was that the Pakistani military would move into a ‘reactive’ mode–rather than staying on the offensive against the Taliban and trying to both defend and recapture lost territory, the military would simply wait in reserve if the Taliban attempted to make further advances, thereby violating the terms of the truce. Yesterday’s events would seem a perfect example of such a violation. The question now is, what’s next?

That is unclear. The US has been expanding its covert war against militants in the tribal areas for some time, while at the same time pressuring Pakistan (in particular, the ISI) to sever ties to the Taliban and increase relations with India. Some believe this is a bad idea, or at least isn’t very pratical. In either case, it doesn’t address the more urgent and strategically relevant issue of whether or not Pakistan is now headed towards a true collapse into failed-state status. The country has long been internally fractured along ethnic, tribal, and religious lines. The state never had full control over its own territory, but the kind of territorial conquest that we are seeing now is, to my (admittedly limited) knowledge, unprecedented since at least the 1990’s (note: readers with better background please feel free to weigh in with comments).

Failed states are always dangerous and pose significant problems, both regionally and globally, for other states. Pakistan has the obvious capacity to pose a problem the likes of which we have never seen–as the combination of a nuclear state falling into the hands of religious militants strikes me as uniquely dangerous.

The US approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan post-911 seems to have helped lay the groundwork for the current situation. US military strategy in Afghanistan was both effective and flawed, allowing key militants to escape and regroup (notably in the Afghan-Pakistan border region). Additionally, without a clear plan to sure up domestic stability in Pakistan we essentially moved the problem of religious militants from one geographic location to another–one that will have a far greater impact on security if it goes the way of the failed state.

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t have pressured Pakistan into an uneasy alliance with the US post-911. What I am arguing is that by doing so without proper attention being paid to the longterm dynamics we would set in motion, and not adequatley planning to address those dynamics in a constructive way, we may have simply set off a very ‘long fuse’ that is nearing its end.

Update I

John Robb weighs in with his thoughts on the likelihood of Pakistan becoming a ‘hollow state’.

The reaction of Pakistan’s authorities has been ineffective to say the least. I’d say this is both a problem of will and one of capabilities.

As some have voiced, we could end up invading the country to secure their nuclear assets if things continue to deteriorate towards state failure…

Update II

Some positive developments, for now.  It appears that a compellent threat from the Pakistani military has worked and the Taliban is retreating from Buner.  But this is far from over, and by the end we are likely to see renewed fighting between the two forces and a further push towards Islamabad.

Update III

Joshua Frost at has a great ‘sanity check’ post with interesting history and perspective, as well as a reading list for those interested in the history of the conflict.


Peer reviewing: a call to arms (updated)

I just turned down a request that I review for a journal because, in part, they failed to send me an anonymized copy of the decision letter the last time I reviewed for them. And this despite the journal using an electronic review system that automates the process.

I can think of a number of reasons why all peer-reviewed journals should be required to supply reviewers with copies of their decision letters. In no particular order:

(1) It provides closure to the reviewer.

If I invested–at minimum–a few days in carefully reading an article and writing a review of anywhere from two to six pages, it seems like basic courtesy to let me know what the editors decided to do with the manuscript.

(2) It helps improve the quality of reviews.

I find reading other reviews helpful in assessing my own. Did I miss something important? How much of my opinion was shaped by my prior commitments? Did I otherwise do an adequate job of providing feedback? Was my review helpful to the editors? If I split with the other reviewers, was I able to swing the editors around to my point of view or not?

(3) It helps me with my own work.

About 50-60% of the reviews I do involve papers that intersect in some non-trivial way with my own research and writing (this is how peer-review is supposed to function). This means that I have some interest in gauging how reviewers will react to certain kinds of arguments and warrants for them. Reading the other peer reviews helps with this. And even if the manuscript isn’t related to my own areas of research, I find I still learn things about the process that can be quite helpful down the road.

UPDATE: a reader emails me a fourth reason:

(4) It keeps editors honest.
One other important reason why reviewers should see the other reviews: it keeps the editors honest. Some journals never communicates with their reviewers about the fate of manuscripts, and certainly never send around the other reviews because, if they did, then reviewers might more openly question the decision-making of the journal. Don’t want to be circulating positive reviews when a manuscript was rejected for other reasons [I’ve edited the email to eliminate references to a specific journal as an exemplar of these practices].

I think that’s right; for some journal editors, the arguments I made above amount bugs, not features, of providing reviewers with decision reports.

Almost all of the major North American journals in political science provide decision letters to reviewers.

The sociology journals I’ve reviewed for do as well, but, somewhat puzzlingly, send the letters via snail mail.

The European journals are much spottier in this respect. Some (*cough* Millennium *cough*) won’t even send these materials–unless requested to do so–when asking for a second-round review!

But, regardless, given the almost universal use of electronic systems for submission and review, there is simply no excuse for not providing anonymized decision letters to peer reviewers.

It seems to me that there’s only one way to ensure that journals “do their duty” on this front: refuse to review for them unless they do.

So I’m calling–right here, right now–for reviewers to boycott the holdouts.

Peer-reviewers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but lack of closure!

Routes and Bases: Developments in Central Asia

I’ve been hearing rumors to the effect that US negotiators have cut a deal with the Kyrgyz government to allow continued use of Manas. But media sources remain silent, except to note that the Russians are sending additional warplanes to their own base in Kyrgyzstan.

Instead, they report on a new US-Tajik agreement to allow transit rights for non-military supplies to Afghanistan. This adds to existing deals with Uzbekistan and Russia.

But, interestingly enough, U.S. Assistant Secretary Of State Richard Boucher made it very clear that Washington does not consider Tajik, Uzbek, and Russian deals true alternatives to Manas.

Because the United States does “a lot of different things through the base on Manas,” Boucher said, “it is not just a matter of picking it up [in Kyrgyzstan] and putting it over there [in Tajikistan].”

He also said that the United States has six months to discuss Manas’s closure with the Kyrgyz authorities, after which Washington will decide what to do.

On Monday I presented Alex Cooley’s and my working paper on the structural dynamics of the US basing network at the Mortara Center for International Studies. My new–and extremely impressive–colleague, Matt Kroenig, suggested that we might be wrong about the advantages of “heavy footprint” bases over “light footprint” ones because the latter allow the US greater exit options: if the US loses on base it isn’t that big a deal, because it can always shift to another one in the region.

What I said in response bears repeating here: that’s great in theory, but in practice we’re vulnerable to the kinds of cascading effects we’ve seen in Central Asia. With K2 gone [for analysis before Karimov kiccked us out, see here], and Manas in jeopardy, the US has been unable to develop equivalent assets to substitute for those bases.

On the other hand, the rumors I hear suggest that any new deal on Manas won’t be particularly unfavorable to the US.

We’ll see how this continues to unfold.

Can recession cause regime change?

Joshua Kurlantzick recently argued that the global economic downturn might spell doom for a number of autocratic governments around the world. Most, he argues, have staked their legitimacy on economic performance. Dramaticaly reduced world demand for consumer goods and energy threatens states like China, Russia, and Venezuela (and perhaps also Iran and other OPEC states):

Modern autocracies are very different from those of the past. Rather than ruling by strict ideology, ruthless internal police, and tight control of information, authoritarian regimes like Beijing and Moscow have remained in power primarily by making an implicit bargain with their most critical middle-class citizens — you might not have freedom, but you will have money. As long as the broad middle class, which is where the most dangerous dissent would take hold, is gaining ground economically, the regime is safe.

So while in the West, leaders worry that the global economy faces a second Great Depression, such an economic crisis poses a major threat to some of the world’s most resilient autocracies. A strong economy was their only backstop. Now, starved of the growth that keeps them in power and unable to repress their people as old-fashioned dictators did, these autocracies may have nothing left to fall back on.

He concluded with even stronger language:

The Great Depression fed dangerous new autocratic ideologies like fascism and communism; a second Great Depression could destroy them. While the economic crisis will cause untold human suffering in these and other countries, it is quite possible that, on the other side of it, we will see the end of that distinctive phenomenon of the late 1990s and early 21st century: the growth autocracy. And that, at least, would bring some light to a financial dark age.

That sounds almost hopeful, doesn’t it?

However, at least for China, James Fallows rejects this analysis in the April Atlantic:

Why do I think the Chinese have good reasons for hope?

One answer lies in the realm of straight economics. Some of the lost demand is sure to be picked up within China itself, thanks to a stimulus plan that, at some 4 trillion RMB (about $600 billion), is proportionately much larger than the one proposed by the Obama administration, because the Chinese economy is so much smaller than America’s.

Fallows then proceeds to explain the superior position of Chinese banks — they can (and will) lend money to prime the economy. Other sectors of the economy also have lots of tools and resources, he argues.

Fallows continues by rejecting the sociology and politics undergirding Kurlantzick’s thesis:

Beyond straight economics, the “China is over” hypothesis seems to miss important cultural and political realities. Its unspoken premise is that average Chinese people just barely tolerate the social bargain the government now offers—limited freedom, potentially unlimited wealth. So if the regime ever falls short on its material promises, the deal will be off and people will rebel.

This does not square with what I have seen. I have often wondered why so many people in different roles and regions in China seem vivid. The answer has to be more than contrast with my own blandness. I think it is because being in China today is like being in Western Europe in the 1950s. No one’s family story is dull or uneventful. People doing routine jobs have been through great hardships and dramatic swings of fate.

He then regales readers with stories of ordinary peoples’ prior reactions to the Cultural revolution, natural disasters, and other serious hardships in China. The people will tolerate the economic downturn and the government will survive. Indeed, the final section of his article explains how the recent downturn actually creates new opportunities for future Chinese successes.

He concludes with an interesting thought: is the U.S. similarly taking advantage of opportunities presented by the current downturn?

FYI: Over at my personal blog, I’ve posted (and critiqued) a couple of other pieces on the potential “upside of the downturn.” And like Fallows, I worry that some opportunities will be lost. For instance, though reduced energy consumption means less greenhouse gas emissions globally, it might also mean less government spending on alternative energy and attention directed away from environmental problems.

Cyber Developments: National Security Edition

The Wall Street Journal reported today that hackers have breached classified data on the United States’ Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program (the F-35). (For those without a subscription, here is the Reuters story). The scale and nature of information the hackers were able to obtain appears quite significant–however, the most sensitive data did not reside on servers connected to the web, which is good news.

The default suspect is, of course, China (why you say? see here). However, given the value of the data for both potential adversaries and, frankly, countries that are not in some way privey to this program (for an overview of international participants and potential buyers, see here), there should be no shortgage of potential suspects. I’d like to float a specific one: North Korea

North Korea has both the motive and, potentially, the means for carrying out such an attack.


The DPRK has both a security and financial motive for stealing information regarding the JSF program. Security wise, the US is an obvious adversary. It isn’t beyond reason that the JSF could, at some point, be used against them in some sort of defensive or preventive strike. Devising ways to counter the advanced aircraft would certainly be useful. Financially speaking, it is no secret that the DPRK is a major arms trader and has no qualms about doing business with regmies that are hostile to the United States and its allies. One can imagine a healthy market for such intelligence.
It’s all well and good to have motive, but could the DPRK actually pull it off? Possibly. The North Koreans have already launched cyber attacks against South Korea and, interestingly enough, hacked into the US Department of Defense. While information on the regime is always foggy, it appears that this is an area of relative strength for the North and one where they are investing for the future (for a summary of capabilities, see here).

Admittedly, this is all conjecture on my part. Regardless of the identity of the perpetrator, this event does raise some interesting questions about Cyber security and assymetric warfare.

I’m shocked, shocked to find insurgents in this region

It would be funny, except that it isn’t.

Taleban militants operating in Pakistan’s Swat region who agreed a peace deal with the government have expanded operations into nearby Buner.

Dozens of militants have been streaming into bordering Buner to take over mosques and government offices.

Buner is part of the Malakand region, which has just seen the implementation of Sharia law under the peace deal.

But the Taleban have mainly operated in Swat, where they fought the army from August 2007 until this year’s deal.

Under the deal the Taleban were expected to disarm.

If anyone with expertise on Pakistan is reading this, I have a question for you: the BBC map creates the strong impression that the Taleban is engaged in salami tactics ultimately aimed at Islamabad.

Does that match the actual on-the-ground geography?

Iraq: The Undead and the Dead

For some time, the media has been losing interest in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Portland at the International Affairs symposium I previously mentioned, Washington Post journalist Thomas Ricks named a handful of news agencies covering Iraq — and then claimed that no others remained in-country. He named his own paper, the New York Times, CNN, and McClatchey. He may have mentioned one or two more that I’ve forgotten, and he may have overlooked an outlet or two, but Iraq is clearly not receiving all that much coverage in the American media.

The blogosphere has largely followed suit and I’m as guilty as anyone. From September 2003, I’d estimate that three-fourths of my posts during my first two years of blogging dealt with the Iraq war and/or the wider “war on terrorism.” These days, the wars are more remote from the political debate — and I’m certainly not blogging about them very often.

This means that government statements about the U.S. wars are likely not scrutinized as closely as they should be. In my recent sojourn at Lewis & Clark, for example, I heard a claim about Iraq that I simply didn’t believe — but could not contest at the time. A U.S. military officer told a group of students that PTSD was not a major problem for the troops and that the military was certainly taking care of its soldiers’ mental health.

So I came home and did a little searching on the internet.

Last year about this time RAND released a very troubling study about the lasting effects of these wars:

Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan — 300,000 in all — report symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

In addition, researchers found about 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression.

Many service members said they do not seek treatment for psychological illnesses because they fear it will harm their careers. But even among those who do seek help for PTSD or major depression, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider “minimally adequate” for their illnesses.

Those numbers, by a relatively conservative source, suggest that PTSD is a substantial problem and that the military may not be addressing the problem all that effectively. The study’s co-leader, Terri Tanielian, called this “a major health crisis.”

Indeed, the wider political implications are also clear. Part of the reason the war is off the front pages is that Americans now believe Iraq is going “somewhat well.” Many of my students certainly believe that Iraq is substantially more stable post-surge and that fewer American troops are dying in the conflict. “All is well.” Right?

The U.S. death toll in Iraq is “only” about 4300, but many more soldiers and family members may be dying or otherwise suffering significant harm as a result of the trauma of war long after the soldiers leave the war zone.

Slowly, for instance, some suicide data is trickling into the public sphere. ABC News, May 2008:

During interrogation by [House Veterans] committee members, [Dr. Ira] Katz [a VA mental health officer] was asked why he questioned a CBS claim that 6,200 veterans had committed suicide in 2005.

Then, three days later, he wrote in an e-mail that there were about 18 suicides a day, or about 6,570 per year, among America’s veterans.

Does 18 suicides per day sound normal?

The active-duty suicide rate is much lower, but the military’s top brass is clearly worried:

“We must find ways to relieve some of this stress,” said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, vice chief of staff of the Army, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee.

“I think it is the cumulative effect of deployments from 12 to 15 months,” he said, adding that the longer deployments are scheduled to continue until June.

He cited long deployments, lengthy separations from family and the perceived stigma associated with seeking help as factors contributing to the suicides.

Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, vice chief of naval operations, said suicides are the third leading cause of death in the Navy.

“We must eliminate the perceived stigma, shame and dishonor of asking for help,” he said.

Data also suggest that returning veterans are committing significant acts of violence against their family members.

I fear that these war-related issues are receiving even less attention than the ongoing wars.

Revenge of the Geeks

(A blog response to “The Academy Strikes Back” by Dan Drezner.)

Also, see here and here.

Piracy and International Law

Before heading over to the YouTube Conference keynote, I tuned in for a few hours Thursday morning to the Harvard University Humanitarian Law and Policy Forum‘s latest live webcast. (Recording can be accessed here.)Thursday morning’s discussion: the status of pirates and piracy in international law.

I didn’t catch the whole thing because I had to run to an 11:00 meeting, but key points of discussion included:

1) Practical concerns such as the implications of listing pirates as terror groups (because then no ransom can be paid), the risks of using lethal force, etc.

2) The human rights of pirates

3) Policy options (including rerouting shipping around the Cape of Good Hope) and countermeasures (including PSCs on merchant ships)

and of most interest to me:

4) The legal status of pirates (defined not in humanitarian law but in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) and

5) How to reconcile universal jurisdiction and national sovereignty

As a crime of universal jurisdiction, all countries may capture pirates (if they fit a rather limited definition) on the high seas and prosecute – but, this does not hold true in a country’s territorial waters because of sovereingty issues (the patchwork of domestic jurisdictions / national laws of littoral states complicates a coordinated response to the problem.

I’m not trained in law (maybe I need to be in order to understand developments in this area), but a question left in my mind after the discussion is this: Why are the UNCLOS provisions being so strictly adhered to in what clearly remains a failed state situation? Legal analysts and policymakers seem hell bent on upholding Somali “sovereignty.” But what sovereignty? Beginning with SCR’s authorization of UNOSOM in 1991, the UNSC set a precedent of ignoring the requirement of state consent for operations needed for international peace and security in cases (also Somalia at the time) in which no functioning state is present to give consent.

Of course, even if it were recognized that countries besides Somalia have a right (and responsibility) to deal with piracy within Somali territorial waters, that does not solve the wider problem of how to restructure maritime law to deal with piracy as a global problem. The four United Nations Security Council Resolutions to date deal only with the situation in the Gulf of Aden; but many of the issues raised in that area apply broadly, so a patchwork approach really won’t do.

YouTube and Politics Part 3

A brilliant aspect of the conference I just attended was the the fact that presenters were required to create YouTube versions of their research. Some of the videos I liked best are here.

A radical idea: what if conference presenters at venues like ISA prepared 3-5 minute videos instead of giving 15-minute presentations. Panelists would appear but not speak until time to field questions. Each video would run, a discussant would present concise remarks for another 7 minutes, and questions would begin. Panel slots could perhaps be shortened somewhat. Imagine how much time this would leave for discussion and networking, perhaps even (!) for lunch.

YouTube Politics Part 2

Max Harper, who piloted the concept of the Blueprint for Change videos for President Obama’s 2008 campaign, provided a point-by-point playbook today for how the Obama campaign used Web 2.0 to win the election.

At first, I found myself wondering how he could speak so candidly about it. But then again, Harper and everyone in the room understood one key feature of the political revolution he was describing: that because of the dynamic relationship between information technology and politics, every single thing he told us about campaign strategy and Web 2.0 would be out of date anyway by 2012.


Over at Donald’s place, I predicted that the total turnout for the “tax protests” would be about the size of a single large Obama rally. Based on the numbers we’ve seen, that sounds about right.

Puts things in perspective.

I also noted that the AP story contains the following:

Organizers said the movement developed organically through online social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter and through exposure on Fox News.

All of the main guys handling the organization for this on Facebook were, from what I can tell, employees at conservative anti-tax foundations.

Just saying.

Significant developments on the WMD front

I would be negligent if I did not call attention to three important developments on the nuclear proliferation front.

First, the Ukrainian government claims to have arrested three of its citizens–including one local politician–who were trying to sell radioactive material.

The metal cylinder supposedly contained eight pounds of plutonium 239, a highly dangerous radioactive material that could be used in a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. The price: $10 million, sought by three Ukrainian men, officials said Tuesday.

The men did not make a sale, the officials said, but were arrested in an undercover operation in Ukraine last week that was conducted by the Ukrainian Security Service. Still, while the plot was foiled, it underscored longstanding concerns that unsecured radioactive material in the former Soviet Union might fall into the wrong hands.

Marina Ostapenko, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Security Service, said it had turned out that the radioactive material was not plutonium 239. A preliminary analysis indicated that the material was most likely americium, a much more common and less potent radioactive material, Ms. Ostapenko said in a telephone interview from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

She said americium could be deployed in a dirty bomb but not in a nuclear weapon.

An americum-based dirty bomb is actually a nothing to sneeze at:

Americium (Alpha Emitter)

If a typical americium source used in oil well surveying were blown up with one pound of TNT, people in a region roughly ten times the area of the initial bomb blast would require medical supervision and monitoring, as depicted in Figure 4. An area thirty times the size of the first area (a swath one kilometer long and covering twenty city blocks) would have to be evacuated within half an hour. After the initial passage of the cloud, most of the radioactive materials would settle to the ground. Of these materials, some would be forced back up into the air and inhaled, thus posing a long-term health hazard, as illustrated by Figure 5. A ten-block area contaminated in this way would have a cancer death probability of one-in-a-thousand. A region two kilometers long and covering sixty city blocks would be contaminated in excess of EPA safety guidelines. If the buildings in this area had to be demolished and rebuilt, the cost would exceed fifty billion dollars.

This episode underscores the continuing threat posed by “nuclear leakage,” particularly from the former Soviet Union. In many respects, leakage presents the most likely scenario for terrorist acquisition of WMD. Obama talked a great deal about strengthening various cooperative programs the US has in place to reduce leakage–programs that suffered from benign neglect under the Bush Administration–and it won’t be a moment too soon.

Second, the situation on the Korean peninsula seems to be headed from bad to worse. The conventional wisdom still holds that this is yet another of Pyongyang’s tirades in its eternal quest to extract greater concessions from the world. But the North Koreans have gone further than usual this time, and so experts are starting to worry that this is a more serious confrontation that those we’ve seen in the recent past.

Third, fears about Pakistan’s fate continue to mount. I suppose this isn’t really a “development,” but a way of saying that the prospects for the non-implosion of nuclear-armed state haven’t exactly improved of late, despite Islamabad’s strong denial of its own fragility.

This has been the latest installment in our occasional “we’re all doomed” series.

YouTube and Politics

As some of you may recall, I began my blogging career on the Duck by commenting on the political impact and appropriation of YouTube. Back then it was citizens using YouTube to ask questions of the Presidential candidates. Now President Obama is doing with YouTube what FDR did with radio.

Good thing my colleagues up here in the Pioneer Valley have organized a conference on the way YouTube is impacting US politics, so that I don’t have to divert attention from my real research agenda to follow up on the kinds of questions I asked in that long-ago post. The “YouTube and the 2008 Election Cycle in the United States” conference kicks off tomorrow at University of Massaschusetts-Amherst, and I urge you to check it out.

Reasons why I’m excited about this event, though I’m not an Americanist:

1) The 2008 Presidential campaign was historic not just because of the outcome, but because of the process: the breadth of re-engagement by both American voters and global civil society, largely through the netroots. Speakers include Max Harper, who ran Obama’s media campaign last year; and the Communications Director for the House Judiciary Committee. I’m bound to learn a lot about how IT is reshaping political culture.

2) Political scientists are paying much too little attention to Web 2.0 – not just YouTube but also other technologies that are revolutionizing the relationship between producers and users of information. This interdisciplinary crowd seeks to actively and rigorously study the politics of this transformation in the US context. How might IR scholars follow suit?

3) The conference is an organizational marvel, actively integrating Web 2.0 into the activities in novel ways. Like requiring presenters to create YouTube video versions of their research, which will be broadcast during the reception; and allowing audience members to post feedback and commentary directly onto the web-versions of the slides using Diigo (boy, ISA could take some pointers from these folks).

4) Also, the presentations will also be webcast live using Panopto for those not able to attend, which means we could discuss some of it here. Check out the program and online papers (each of which comes with its own YouTube video) and consider tuning in to some of this over the later part of the week.

Theory and Policy

Joe Nye has an op-ed in Monday’s Washington Post decrying the gap between theory and policy in political science. You should read it, in part because its the most press our discipline is likely to get this year, which almost proves his point. I am largely sympathetic to his view, and I lament the fact that our profession, which professes to understand how the world works, has seemingly so little to offer in terms of useful insight to those who might benefit from it. One would think, given all our collective study of foreign policies and state interactions, we might have something helpful that would construct better foreign policies and better state interactions. I recognize that, per Weber, politics and academics are two different vocations, but that doesn’t preclude the study of one from assisting in the practice of the other.

That said, I want to take issues with two of Nye’s points.

First, Nye says: “Yet too often scholars teach theory and methods that are relevant to other academics but not to the majority of the students sitting in the classroom before them.” While I want to agree with Nye here, I refrain because to do so, I will end up denigrating the IR theories I don’t like. Now, there are plenty of IR theories out there not to like, but one of the marks of a good theory is that it has some larger lesson for its adherents. All theories have this, when well taught. What bothers me about Nye’s assertion is that it can too easily be read as a back-door critique of all theories “post”—the typical slam against post-positivist, post-structural, and thicker construstivist theories is that they are too “impenetrable” and need to be more relevant to the real world. Now, as a card-carrying constructivist, I think that my approach to the analysis of world politics has plenty to offer policy makers, students, and other academics. There is a barrier to entry, though, in that you have to learn some terminology and a few foundational concepts from basic social theory. It’s the same way with a lot of the quantitative and formal theory. That stuff is not my cup of tea, but the good versions of it do hold powerful lessons for policymakers and academics alike. Don’t denigrate the theory for being difficult, sophisticated, or challenging. Denigrate a theory for being useless, offering empty ideas and unsupported conclusions.

The lack of theory speaking to policy is the Academy’s own fault. Nye is correct in identifying the most significant mechanism for change: “Departments should give greater weight to real-world relevance and impact in hiring and promoting young scholars.” Graduate Students and Junior faculty are driven by what they are told they will need for hiring and tenure. That is academic oriented work. The oft-repeated advice is wait until after tenure to dabble in policy. Unfortunately, this is not something that Joe Nye, scholar / practitioner can remedy. Rather, it takes Dean Joe Nye to offer a job to a policy-relevant, young scholars and provide tenure to that scholar for a portfolio of policy-relevant work.

Second, I do want to disagree with Nye on one major point. While much of the academy is at fault for marginalizing itself, policymakers deserve some share of the blame. In particular, I think that policy makers need to promote a greater appreciation for theory and method that the academy brings to its work and preparing its analysis. What passes for analysis, reasoning, and research in many government briefings is anecdotal analysis, poorly deployed historical analogies, and assertions. Policymakers should perhaps expect more rigor in their analytical work. Far too many line-officers in key national security agencies lack the methodological training to produce solid analysis. There is a culture to drafting cables and writing reports, but that culture doesn’t include some of the basics I teach in my undergraduate research methods class. A better appreciation of theory and method, and demanding that in new hires might help policy makers receive the better advice they seek.

Moreover, the policy world similarly needs to reward the type of work Nye seeks from academics. Nye calls for more regional expertise, and yet, the government policy making structure is designed to mute regional expertise. Foreign Service officers are expected to be generalists, regularly rotated in and out of assignments. Foreign Area Officers in the military are rarely (never?) promoted to flag rank. Making a career as a regional expert in the government service is not rewarded. There is substantial regional expertise, but all too often, policymakers are reluctant to tap into it, let alone create the institutional incentives to promote those individuals to positions of senior authority. While some areas of federal service have a highly educated workforce, replete with Ph.D.’s, there is rampant anti-intellectualism, particularly in the military, that dissuades the deployment of more sophisticated, academic arguments based on theoretical insights, researched conclusions, and sound methodological investigation. Read Tom Ricks’ account of the Army War College essentially blackballing authors who disagree with them.

Theory and Policy exist on a two way street. Theory informs policy, policy decisions and implementation form the material that we scholars study to generate our theories. For academics to be policy relevant, they must, as Nye suggests, emerge from self-imposed isolation. But policymakers need to meet them half way and be willing and able to listen.

Déjà vu all over again

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issues a report warning that the current economic and political climate bears some resemblance to the early 1990s and, therefore, the government should be concerned about an increasing threat from right-wing extremists, including the possibility of domestic terrorism.

Someone leaks the report.

The right-wing blogsphere collapses in a paroxysm of rage and paranoia. “Look!” various notables shout, “The Obama Administration is LAYING THE GROUNDWORK TO COME AFTER US.” Michelle Malkin, unaware of the obvious irony, writes:

In Obama land, there are no coincidences. It is no coincidence that this report echoes Tea Party-bashing left-wing blogs (check this one out comparing the Tea Party movement to the Weather Underground!) and demonizes the very Americans who will be protesting in the thousands on Wednesday for the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party.

Now, better (and more popular) bloggers than I have said most of what needs to be said about teh stupid involved here.

But it isn’t just teh stupid. In fact, these reactions actually enhance the report’s credibility.

Why? Those of us old enough to remember the Clinton administration have seen this playbook before.

The fringes of the mainstream right-wing movement accuse the President of seeking to destroy America, i.e., to institute a statist and collectivist regime: “The government is coming to take your guns!” “The liberals are out to pervert the rule of law!” “Marxism!” “Socialism!” “Radicalism!” They proffer dark conspiracies about the President’s rise to power and the activities of his close associates. And so on and so forth.

But when someone actually takes their claims seriously and does something like, I dunno, blow up a Federal Building, they play all innocent.

Am I being unfair? Yes. The militia movement had far deeper roots. Their view of the world was more extreme. Bad things would have happened no matter what.

I don’t blame the Limbaughs and American Spectators of the world for Oklahoma City. They were just trying to make money, win some elections, and depose the President–either de facto or de jure–in a constitutional coup.

But they were part of the climate that fed right-wing violent extremism in the 1990s. Much worse, they were mainstream vectors for ideas self-evidently poisonous to the body politic.

The fact that they would swing so quickly back into action, particularly after eight years of excoriating the Left for, well, basically the same behavior, is upsetting. It is not, sadly, surprising.

In sum, if they wanted to condemn the DHS report, it might have been better to do so in a way that wasn’t constitutive of the environment its authors worry about.

UPDATE: Dave Niewert makes the same point, but with far fewer caveats.

There Be Game-Changes Afoot

OK, in between wrapping up my tenure statement draft and taking my daughter to the orthodontist, finally a moment for some Monday pirate blogging. As Peter notes, the big news story since Sunday was the rescue of Captain Richard Philips off the coast of Somalia: as I implied earlier, the capture of American hostages was bound to be a game-changer in the region and globally.

A few thoughts:

1) First, irrespective of any further US leadership on the issue now that our man is safe, there’s the copycat factor. The US’ precedent could be repeated by any vessels in the region, but whether this will solve the problem or make it worse is unclear. The pirates themselves are “vowing to retaliate.” Yeah, right. Pirate spokesmen seem to be claiming that their unbroken record of not mistreating captives might be coming to an end, but if their policy is to immediately kill captives whose countries approach the vessels, seems like that will put a damper on negotiations for ransom? One could imagine calling the pirates’ bluff but only through coordinated and systematic games of chicken. I think this could work in the long term: emerging naval technologies are going to make it easier, not harder, to pick off pirates in situations like this, and the US could consider sharing the technology with regional forces willing to help it police shipping lanes. Nonetheless, this approach, even if effective in the long-term, would certainly come at the expense of hostages’ lives in the short-term. I predict the exhiliration will quickly wear off and the issue of extrajudicial killing of pirates become a hot legal topic at the UN Security Council in short order – a good thing. High time we resolved this one.

2) One idea floating in the public discourse is a strategy of prevention, rather than retribution: arming merchant vessels. But there are many good reasons not to go this route, particularly in cases of supertankers filled with flammable liquid. But I wonder why non-lethal weapons such as long range acoustic devices are not being routinely deployed on such vessels. They’ve had success at repelling pirate attacks on cruise ships, why not merchant ships as well? Perhaps a global strategy of subsidizing the acquisition of such systems by commercial shippers would be less costly than an all out war against piracy on the high seas, or the kind of sanctions regime it would take to force countries and companies to stop making ransom payments.

3) On the other hand, the Obama Administration appears to be developing a more comprehensive preventive strategy: to go after pirate bases on land while resolving Somalia’s failed state status once and for all. A noble idea, but don’t expect it to be very politically popular, or to bear fruit overnight.

4) There is an opportunity here to solidify a security regime drawing in a number of regional maritime powers including Iran. Securitizing piracy in the Gulf of Aden could create a focal point for diplomacy between the US/EU and Iran. Roger Cohen has more. On the other hand, as John Boonstra points out, there is also an opportunity to muck up through a blustery unilateralism this emerging security community. Will Obama seize, squander or squelch this range of possibilities?

UPDATE: At Fox News, Paul Wagensell answers my question about sonic weapons: they’re not as effective as one might hope due to the availability of easy countermeasures. He lists a variety of other anti-piracy weapons that might, however.

Who will buy the movie rights?

The dramatic conclusion of the Maersk Alabama Pirate encounter is now a wrap, and this screams for a movie. My only question is who will buy the rights to Capt. Phillip’s story? NBC? Lifetime? I happen to think its bigger than a made-for-tv production, worthy of like Michael Bay or John Woo. Staring Bruce Willis as Captain Richard Phillips, Mark Wahlberg as first officer Shane Murphy, Keifer Sutherland as Special Operations commander Jack Bauer, and of course Johnny Depp as a Pirate.

Updated: It looks like SPIKE has made the first move, green-lighting the docu-series “Pirate Hunters: USN.”
H/T to the Roguish Commonwealth crew for this treasure!

One “Meta” note here, though…

The incredible level of detail we’re getting on how the Navy SEALS carried out the rescue isn’t by accident. Its not that reporters are unearthing special sources revealing juicy morsels of information. Rather senior officials want us to know 3 things (as in image building enterprise going on here):

1–This was in fact a dramatic rescue and the technical expertise of the SEALS to make those 3 shots involves quite a lot of skill. To fire from a moving platform (bobbing up and down on the high seas) and hit a target on another platform, also bobbing about, but not in the same way, is certainly not easy.

2–The Navy, and Administration in general, feel vindicated for how they handled things, slowly and deliberately. Buying time through attempts at negotiations did work. They managed to get 1 pirate off the lifeboat and into US control, they managed to get a tow-line attached, and they had the entire plan all ready to go.

3–Obama was a decisive, effective commander in chief. He was briefed, and he issued a standing order to use force (twice) at the discretion of the on-the-scene Captain. He made a key, life and death decision, he trusted his commanders.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2015 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑