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Science Fiction, Popular Culture and the Concept of Genocide

Claims of “genocide” abound in policy discourse. So do misunderstandings about the concept.

Some recent examples. In the last two years, Russia claimed that Georgia’s attack on Tshkinvali was “genocide;” US House of Representatives accused Iran of inciting genocide in response to Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments about wiping Israel (as it is currently politically constituted) off the map; and Gideon Polya apparently discovered a correlation between countries experiencing “war, genocide and occupation” and the failure of those countries to win Olympic medals.

These examples demonstrate both the political salience of the “genocide” label as a catch-all term for “evil-doing,” and the general lack of understanding of a relatively narrow term which connotes a set of actions aimed to destroy national, political, religious or ethnic groups, not to describe all the other horrors against individual human beings of which Mankind is capable, and certainly not all forms of deadly political violence. At the heart of this misunderstanding is a confusion about the distinction between group rights and individual rights.

Popular culture often doesn’t help. So I argue in my new essay “The Enemy We Seek to Destroy,” just published in Adam Jones’ collection Evoking Genocide. The article analyzes narratives about “war crimes,” “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” in the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, and focuses particularly on the Federation’s understanding of ethical conduct vis a vis a truly genocidal enemy, the “Borg.”

Excerpts from my essay are below the fold.

Star Trek, a cultural phenomenon that encompasses the original TV series, five spin-off series, ten feature films, and numerous books, comics, games, magazines, and fan websites, has long been understood by cultural theorists as a political commentary on contemporary world affairs. Those of us who have followed it closely see it above all as a morality play. Episodes routinely discuss timeless issues of what it means to be a person; whether good can triumph over evil; the relationship between emotion and reason; the meaning of free will; and the nature of justice.

As a young person, and later as a budding human rights theorist, I perceived in Star Trek a commitment to liberal individualism and a respect for cultural self-determination. In that sense, the “United Federation of Planets” – the cosmopolitan organization that dispatches the Starship Enterprise to its distant realms – opposes violations of both individual and group rights. Growing up, the show was a constant touchstone for my emerging ethical and political consciousness. In several episodes, the Enterprise encounters planets where genocidal practices are in place. Each case is treated as the outer limit of the non-interference doctrine (the Prime Directive), which might be read as an early articulation of the norm of humanitarian intervention.

Against this background of appreciation for the show’s moral universe, I later found myself, somewhat to my surprise, disillusioned by a particular episode, one in which the Federation itself contemplated genocide against an alien collectivist culture. The Borg are a cybernetic race who evolve through assimilating organic species, and their technological distinctiveness, into their own cyber-collective – linking individual “drones” to a single collective consciousness. In the fifth season episode, I, Borg, the Enterprise encounters the crash site of a Borg scout ship, along with a lone Borg survivor. At the insistence of the doctor, Beverly Crusher, the drone is taken aboard for medical treatment – although the inclination of the other officers is to shoot the drone, since “the collective will come looking for it.” (In fact, the Borg have engaged the Federation previously, with the goal of assimilating Earth’s entire civilization into their collective. Picard was once abducted by the Borg, which possibly explains his no-holds-barred attitude.)

When the drone recovers consciousness, Captain Picard hatches a plan to introduce an “invasive programming sequence” into the drone’s subroutine. When the drone interfaces with the Borg collective, Picard hopes that the computer virus will “infect the entire collective” and “disable their neural network,” in effect shutting down their brain, and eliminating them as a threat to the Federation. Over the course of the episode, however, the crew is forced to reconsider this plan, as the Borg drone, now severed from the collective, begins to function as an individual, evoking the sympathy of the crew and respect for his rights.

What immediately struck me about this sequence is that, while the characters eventually come to view harming the individual Borg as wrong, the idea of genocide (as a crime against a collective) is never fully critiqued. Most of the officers accept with very little discussion that eradicating the Borg collective as such is an appropriate course of action. Crusher is alone in questioning the policy of genocide. Other officers concur with Picard: “We’re at war”; “They’ve attacked us at every encounter.” But even Crusher appears implicitly to accept the crew’s argument that exterminating the Borg as a collective could be justifiable on grounds of self-defense. Her disagreement focuses on whether exterminating individual Borg non-combatants is ethical. She does not concur with Picard’s argument that individual drones lack rights. Were collective rights her reference point, Picard’s argument about the Borg collective consciousness would not have been “convenient,” but would rather underscore the atrociousness of targeting that civilization-defining consciousness.

Subsequent to this scene, the morality of destroying the Borg collective as such is evaded. The ethical debate in the episode (for in Star Trek, there always is one) centers only on whether the “invasive program” would violate the rights of Borg drones as individuals. Dr. Crusher does argue on behalf of the Borg prisoner: “When I look at my patient, I don’t see a collective consciousness. I see a living, breathing boy who has been hurt and needs our help.” But this is reminiscent of protections for wounded prisoners enshrined in humanitarian law. She also continues to question the ethics of “using” an unsuspecting individual to destroy his people, though increasingly the targeting of “the people” itself is lost in the discussion.

Crusher’s claims are validated as the episode progresses. The drone, now separated from the collective, begins to exhibit individual traits, and becomes increasingly identifiable as a person. Thus, while early on Picard had used classic genocidal rhetoric in encouraging his crew not to become too attached to “it,” he eventually comes to view the prisoner as an individual worthy of respect, protection, dignity, and choice. In many respects, the episode is a study in the power of dehumanization to enable atrocity, and of rehumanization to restrain it. But rather than transforming Picard’s understanding of the Borg collective, this newfound sensibility simply provides him with a different set of concerns to weigh against the supposed moral viability of genocide. The goal of eradicating the collective continues to hold sway throughout the episode, but it becomes difficult to justify forcing the individual drone to return to the collective like, as Crusher puts it, “some sort of walking bomb.”

In fact, it seems that the ability to view the drone as worthy of rights at all is contingent on viewing him as distinct from the Borg, rather than as an individual of a sentient race that ought not to be exterminated on principle. This is perhaps best exemplified by Picard’s statement, when he finally concludes that it would be wrong to bring the plan to fruition: “To use him in this manner would be no better than the enemy we seek to destroy.” Destroying the enemy “as such” is not questioned – only the use of a sentient individual as a tool for this purpose. This is thoroughly inconsistent with the rules of war in liberal international society, as well as the rules of engagement in the Star Trek universe. There, one does not seek to destroy one’s enemies, but merely to defeat their military forces, and perhaps transform them into allies.

To my mind, the Borg episodes in general, and this one in particular, engage a range of ethical questions relating to the concept of genocide (or xenocide?). First, are genocidal strategies appropriate against an enemy bent on committing genocide themselves? That is, is genocide justifiable if committed in self-defense? If so, what is the burden of proof for demonstrating that defense against genocide is impossible with less draconian methods?

Second, if an entire society is mobilized (as the Borg arguably are), does treating that society as a military objective constitute genocide, or would it be consistent with the laws of war that permit targeting military objectives? (That is, is it only genocide if the targets are non-combatants, or is the reference point the existence of the collective entity itself?) Are the laws of war obsolete when defeating an entire military would, essentially, require the destruction of an entire society? Is destruction of a civilization as such acceptable, even appropriate, if the destruction takes place through non-lethal means and is carried out so as to liberate “oppressed” individuals from a cultural context inimical to their own individual freedoms? And how should a military officer respond, when given a command that could be deemed profoundly unethical?

“I, Borg,” and Star Trek more generally, offers an opportunity to meditate on these issues. Indeed, as a multimedia phenomenon, it promises (and often delivers) a careful, nuanced grappling with some of the important political problems of our day. In this instance, however, I think the show missed an opportunity to educate viewers about the nature of genocide both as concept and as crime: as something distinct from war, and from questions of individual human rights. Apparently, even the most liberal ethical narrative can accommodate genocidal thinking within certain parameters. This should give us pause.


Balancing Behaviors?

I was listening to a CFR podcast of a special conference call on North Korea’s nuclear weapons test yesterday during my much longer than usual commute. One key part of the discussion centered around Japan’s response to the nuclear test and missile launches. Japan, it seems, is taking steps to improve its military capabilities in response to North Korea’s actions. Even the most extreme option–Japan going nuclear–seems to be lurking near the table. The conference call participants saw China as a key to the North Korean situation, with greater action possible this time in part because China wanted to keep North Korea in check to mitigate any potential Japanese military expansion.

Recently, I supervised an excellent MA thesis that examined military policy among great powers in Northeast Asia in response to China’s ongoing military modernization from a neo-realist perspective. The question driving the thesis was that China, as the rising power expanding its military capabilities through its modernization program might provoke balancing behavior from the other great powers of the region. The conclusion was that there was no classic balancing behavior, rather there was some buckpassing and “hedging.”

This raised an interesting puzzle. North Korea is nowhere near a great power. While they do have a large military, it old, outdated, and oriented toward the DMZ. They do have WMD and missiles, though the missiles are highly unreliable. China is a rising great power with a highly capable military that is increasing its ability to project power.

For Japan, a state that has constitutionally limited its military power to self-defense missions and has a deep aversion to nuclear proliferation, to consider a military build up is a big deal. For the notion of nuclearization to even be broached is quite a major step. Good old balance of power theory might lead one to suppose that it would take the rise of a significant challenger to push Japan in this direction.

But my guess is that it would ID China as such a challenger well before it would tag North Korea.

Pseudononymity and Rulesets for the Blogosphere

I don’t know what you think, but in my mind, outing a psuedononymous blogger because you don’t like what he writes about you (or what someone else writes about you that he then agrees with) is pretty disturbing.

Ed Whelan of the National Review would argue that “anonymous blogging” (he doesn’t seem to grasp the difference between ‘anonymous’ and ‘psuedononymous’) is irresponsible because it enables the author to avoid any personal consequences of the arguments s/he makes (he ignores reputational effects accruing to the blogger’s online persona):

“One bane of the Internet is the anonymous blogger who abuses his anonymity to engage in irresponsible attacks.”

On the other side of the aisle seem to be everyone else whose reactions I’ve read on various posts regarding this matter, including most of the 264 commenters on publius’ post at Obsidian Wings, who see value in promoting free speech even by those whose jobs prevent blogging openly, who prefer to keep their politics out of their classrooms, or who choose psuedonyms for reasons as simple as being uncomfortable with their family attributing their political views to them.

That said, I don’t think Whelan’s behavior can be rightfully characterized as “libel,” as Mike Innes from the newly reconstituted Current Intelligence blog puts it. But it is certainly a violation of some kind of blogosphere etiquette. But what exactly? What is the off-line parallel for this behavior?

I must admit I’ve never seen a written copy of anything like a “Bloggers Code,” but certainly if there are not formal rules there are some norms and guidelines. If not, should there be? What form might they take? And if they’re nothing more than collectively held understandings about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, by what mechanism should bloggers who violate them be sanctioned?

UPDATE: Simon Owens at has an excellent piece up that includes an interview with both publius and Whelan.

Oh Deer, what can the matter be?

A deer has been wandering around the neighborhood over the past week, frequently sojourning in my fenced-in back yard. Sometimes the deer has a baby with it. After a while, they will hop the fence into the neighbor’s yard. Because its one of those Sundays, a few photos, of a deer in my back yard below the fold.

You can see the baby in the 2nd picture.

Obama Addresses Islamic World in Cairo, Egypt

Wordle version of President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, June 4, 2009.

Jobs and Vocations

I started this as a reply to Peter’s post in the Comments thread, but a) it rapidly got too long and b) from analysis of the site traffic I know that many of our readers don’t read comments, just top-level posts. So here is my final word on the subject for the time being — final because it’s also my final Duck post until September, since I have to get this book written this summer and so am taking a step back from blogging over here until it’s done. I am under no illusions that my reply ends the conversation, of course.

Peter’s post is an impassioned and trenchant analysis of what Weber would call the “external” conditions of the academic vocation — the institutional and organizational features of the contemporary academy, and their characteristic patterns and implications. He’s quite right that the actually-existing academy is getting to be a tougher and tougher place to exercise an academic vocation, and he’s equally right that it’s largely a matter of luck that some people get to approximate the external conditions of that vocation while others, equally talented and called, do not. Maybe that’s always been the case, although I think that luck has more to do with it now for two reasons:

1) there are simply more PhDs around, reducing the chances of anyone in particular landing a decent job (not an elite job, but a decent job — the elite jobs remain in the hands of the elite students of the elite faculty-members at the elite institutions, same as it ever was). Once you get out of the top 20 or so institutions, places that you’re not going to get serious consideration at unless you were a star at anotehr top 20 institution, you’re competing with more people for a job, and that increases the contingency of any matches that occur: maybe some hiring committees are impresed by the prestige of your doctoral institution, maybe some like your publication record, maybe some are in your extended network of professional contacts. Sure, you can game that system a little bit by attending a prestigious doctoral institution, but that only gets you so far.

2) academia itself is in such a state of flux, with jobs being redefined and modified all the time, that simply having a tenure-track job available which gives you the ability to both teach students and engage in scholarly research is a highly contingent affair. I know of at least one case of someone on the job market this year who was for all intents and purposes offered a job — nice job, decent institution — only to have the offer dissolve as the state legislature directed the university in question to freeze hiring, even though the hiring decision had already been made. Short-term fluctuations because of the financial crisis, sure, but also indicative of a broader effort (especially among state universities) to call the university to account in terms of its immediate contribution to narrower political and social considerations.

And I hasten to emphasize that it’s luck, not simply privilege. I was lucky to find a couple of very good advisers and mentors as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University (not an elite institution — certainly no more of an elite institution than Ohio State, where Peter did his undergraduate studies). I was lucky to be at Columbia during a time when there was still space to do the kind of critical constructivist scholarship that I do. My family aren’t academics either; I had no idea how to play the game until I was smack in the middle of it, and I still don’t play it well — witness my distinct lack of single-authored articles in top-ranked US IR and polisci journals, and my distinct lack of a job at an elite institution. I often feel like I stumbled into what I have, and I’m extraordinarily grateful that I can get this close to exercising my vocation — indeed, I understand part of my obligation because I’ve been lucky to involve publicly, and vocally, pointing out when things are going awry.

And things are most definitely going awry. Peter quite rightly observes:

But, the contemporary reality is the institutional forms in which one can realize Patrick’s vocation are disappearing. If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, then yes, this profession is for you. Expect significant suffering along the way. Be prepared to accept conditions you otherwise would find untenable to realize your dream. Realize that other portions of your life will suffer to fulfill this one deeply felt need.

Yes, they are disappearing, but they don’t have to. Not if people who understand the distinctiveness of the academic vocation stand up and hold the line, and honestly tell undergraduate students that education is not about training them for jobs but about giving them space to become who they are, and honestly tell graduate students that teaching is letting learn and research is enacted philosophy manifested as social-scientific methodology (and not, say, policy analysis or technocratic problem-solving), and honestly tell state legislatures and central administrators that there is no conceivable way that anyone can do these things unless they have reasonable workloads and decent wages — and honestly tell everyone that the value of academia is in its long-term contribution to our existence as human beings, both as a storehouse of traditions with which we bring students into encounter and as a speculative space within which we combine and revision elements of those traditions to equip them for the future. Step one in this process, I think, is to have a clear idea of what it is that we academics are supposed to be doing, and what we are not supposed to be doing. The academy serves society best by being itself, and not by being a sub-department of some other mundane social or political or God forbid economic sector.

But even in the absence of broad-based reform and revitalization, I would still argue that the academy remains the only place where one can — to slightly mis-quote Peter — engage in “the practices of teaching, mentoring, researching, and mastering a certain domain of knowledge.” Peter said “or,” not “and,” and that makes all the difference; he’s right if the vocation is defined as a disparate set of activities that can be differentially combined, but he’s wrong if the vocation is all of these practices together. For me it is all of these things together, and until the good folks over at Baseball Prospectus start offering seminars where we can engage philosophical notions and literary works and thorny, unresolvable questions of ethics and theology, only the academy — with all its imperfections — makes sense for someone like me. It’s not that the vocation is an essential way of being, but that the vocation involves simulating an essential way of being, approximating it, reproducing it, striving for it. That regulative idea, that utopian ideal, gives meaning to the disparate activities that make up the academic life; without it, various pieces of academic practice can be split off from one another, leaving us with (for instance) the terrible conceit of scholarship without teaching that presumes that it has answered questions rather than provoked thinking, and the equally terrible conceit of “teaching” without scholarship that falls all too easily into the transmission of supposed truths without opening space for thinking. Teaching keeps schoalrship honest, and schoalrship keeps teaching honest; one needs to be engaged in both in order to do a good job — an appropriate job — at either.

Try doing that outside of academia. Unless you’re independently wealthy and charismatic enough to attract students, you’ll likely fail. Or you could try the ministry, but that brings me back to the basic parallel I started off with: the academic vocation is like the ministerial vocation. It is closer to religion than to the mundane, secular way that people choose jobs or are told to choose jobs. It is not to be entered into lightly, and I do not recommend it to everyone, even everyone who is intellectually capable of doing it. I only recommend it to people who can’t not do it. Everyone else should take Peter’s grim picture as a reason not to go down this road, but for people with this calling, you have no alternative that will actually make you happy and content except to do this. If enough of us who understand the vocation are working in the job, hopefully we can change some of those external conditions over time — and in the meantime, there are students who need our teaching and a whole world of “experts” who need their putative intellectual authority kicked out from underneath them.

[I am now crawling into an ivory cave and writing about the philosophy of science for the rest of the summer. See you all in September, and may the Force be with you. The congregation responds, “Amen, Amen,” or “Live long and prosper” or even “So say we all” — we are, you see, a very ecumenical kind of church.]

Your life’s work

To respond to Patrick (and then I promise this will be the last I’ll say on this until late August…), I largely agree with important parts of what he says, but as a friend pointed out to me, to be able to occupy the position required to realize such a vocation requires a certain degree of luck and privilege. Moreover, I think it is perhaps time to apply some of Patrick’s own ontological commitments to the notion of a vocation itself.

As Patrick points out, the idea of a vocation, a calling, is explicitly religious. But our understanding (and his) of that concept is filtered through Christianity, and perhaps here is where some distance from that religion is helpful. In the classic sense, the vocation was a calling to serve one’s religion, and in the Medieval context, the only institutional form for such service was the Church. And to this day, it largely remains so—the vocational calling to religion in the Christian context has one institutional outlet, the Church (of whatever denomination), which sets the terms of service, traditionally through the clergy (to which Patrick compares scholars, the high-priests of knowledge).

Things are different today—this is not the world our students enter. Perhaps lets us think of a vocation not as an essential way of being, but as a set of practices that orient one’s life. Thus, the calling is not to embody a certain essence or acquire certain qualities, but rather to engage in certain practices, certain ways of life. The vocation is not to be a university professor, but rather to engage in the practice of teaching, mentoring, researching, or mastering a certain domain of knowledge. As a friend and colleague said to me yesterday—if I had realized that my vocation was teaching, I would have scrapped IR for a much more lucrative profession and taught technology or something.

The vocation to which Patrick aspires exists only in limited institutional forms—the small subset of top 100 (maybe 200 if we are generous) universities in the US (I’ll exclude the rest of the world for now as most of my students aren’t oriented in that direction, and understandings of scholarship and teaching differ enough in other cultural settings to matter for the purposes of this meta-discussion). To get a job in this realm, you usually need to have a Ph.D. from a top 20 school. You must do as Patrick did, not as he does now—a Ph.D. from our institution doesn’t position you all that well to get the type of job that allows one to realize the vocation Patrick describes. Most academic jobs are like that friend of mine just landed—-its tenure track at a small, second tier state school in the middle of nowhere. He’ll be teaching a 4-4 load of large classes to mostly mediocre students not all that interested in Political Science. His department is small, he’ll be one of 2 jack of all trade IR / comparative guys also required to teach a service section of US government every other semester. His research requirements are to stay active in the profession—an article here, a conference paper there, but not the degree of engagement in the profession that Patrick celebrates. Indeed, such engagement in the profession is difficult from such a position given the teaching load and paucity of resources available—resources one requires to attend conferences, conduct research, subscribe to journals and buy books to keep up with the latest research.

What worries me most about Patrick’s discussion is the idea that the University is the only institutional form in which his vocation can be realized. Rather, I think one must understand what vocation actually calls them, and then explore the ways of life in which that vocation can be realized. As I was recently telling a student currently at a crossroads in her life, trying to decide upon graduate school or some other path, realize that you can engage in these ways of life in any number of institutional and professional forms.

If the calling is to teach, one can teach many places. While the classroom is the traditional place for such exploration, there are many classrooms, and many more teachable moments. Professors teach. But so can high school teachers, coaches, nurses, movie producers, artists, parents, baseball analysts, and many others. If the calling is to mentor, one can mentor in the university, but also in the community center, as a youth group leader, or even in the professional workplace. If the call is to research or to produce knowledge, again, the academy has no monopoly on that.

Why must the production of knowledge and research only rest in the academy? I’m reading (slowly—as newborns don’t allow much free reading time) Peter Singer’s Wired for War, and the introduction to the book lays out his biography, his calling to research war. He has all the requisite “scholarly” training (Harvard Ph.D. no less), but he is able to research war from a think tank, and his work has significant impact on how many (including many in the policy relevant community) are thinking about war. Some tenure committee would probably reject the book as not at a university press and not methodologically sophisticated enough, but that’s not the point, and clearly he didn’t write the book for them. He wrote the book because he couldn’t imagine himself writing about anything else. Luckily for him, it also pays well.

So, the question is, what exactly is it that you couldn’t not do? What practice must you engage in, what way of life must you lead? These days, I would submit, there are many, many opportunities and institutional forms to realize that vocation, most of which are outside the academy. One can have a love of numbers, charts, research, and public policy, and start a blog about it and turn that into a job. One can love to teach, and find teachable moments in nearly any setting. One can mentor a Big Brother, a co-worker. Why couldn’t Patrick realize his calling working for Baseball Prospectus? They research rigorously, challenge conventional methodological orthodoxy, use innovative technology to teach those lessons to wide ranges of regular and fantasy baseball enthusiasts, and the results of these endeavors have fundamentally changed how many of us understand and pursue the passion that is baseball.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the children of academics do quite well in this profession. They want to enter it, they know what it is, and they know what it is they like about it. They understand the “game” and have an intuitive sense of how to play, having grown up steeped in the family business. I grew up steeped in welding equipment and industrial gasses (the Howard family business once upon a time—can you imagine me selling gas?). For quite a while, that led me to a math, science, and chemistry focus, though eventually my love of politics and fascination with the international let me to a shift away from a math-science track to a poli sci / IR track sometime in college.

To be able to realize the life of the academic in today’s institutional form requires a significant degree of luck and a significant degree of privilege in addition to a significant degree of skill. Being smart is no longer enough—indeed it was never enough—you must also know the right people, have the right pedigree, and be in the right place at the right time. One must get the right guidance as an undergraduate in order to know which graduate programs to apply to and how to get in—its not something you can do on your own. One must get into the right grad programs with the right advisers to be competitive for a job (and grants and publications and all those other things that help get a job). And, one must have the right topic (and theory and methods) that are ‘hot’ or ‘in vogue’ to impress hiring committees. Privilege can provide a lot of this—access to the right undergraduate situation, ability to engage in the practices that impress admissions and later hiring committees, and most importantly, time to contemplate. Luck also plays a role, as some are simply fortunate to find themselves in the right time. A very bright friend from high school went to Ohio University (not known as a gateway to anything, really) but happened to get along with his history professor quite well and have a strong appreciation of the subject. His history professor was lured away to Yale and brought my friend with him as his graduate student. Indeed, the luck of age is a significant part of this. Patrick and I have discussed where our top students should apply for graduate school to do what we do, to take the next step in realizing the vocation. It’s a tough conversation, as departments have changed and there aren’t a lot of top graduate programs that can train students in our line of inquiry—Patrick’s experience at Columbia is sadly no longer possible, as the particular configuration of faculty, environment, and students have moved on and Columbia is now a different place.

What’s missing here is of course the merit part. We like to think of the academy as merit based and merit driven, and on occasion it is. Brilliant people can in fact succeed by being brilliant. But, more and more, merit is merely a necessary but not sufficient condition for success in this field. There will always be room at the top for the best of the best, but none of us are that person (well maybe one of us is—but its not me). There will always be the exceptional student slightly more driven than the rest, able to overcome lack of privilege to succeed –Patrick and I have had such students, and I’m proud of one in particular to say she’s doing quite well as a young scholar and she’s going to make it in this field all on her own.

But, the contemporary reality is the institutional forms in which one can realize Patrick’s vocation are disappearing. If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, then yes, this profession is for you. Expect significant suffering along the way. Be prepared to accept conditions you otherwise would find untenable to realize your dream. Realize that other portions of your life will suffer to fulfill this one deeply felt need.

But for the rest of us, take the time to reflect on the calling you hear toward a vocation. Consider—what is it, exactly, that provides the satisfaction, that fulfills the desire, that provides a way to organize your life. This is in fact more difficult than it seems, and requires some serious personal reflection. It is not a choice to be made lightly. With that in mind, then set yourself free to realize that calling in all the novel and exciting ways that the 21st century provides.

Post script— the answer to the obvious is: Yes. But more on that later. I’ll endeavor to return to substantive postings on the actual IR stuff we all enjoy.

Some Rambling Thoughts on the Qual/Quant Pseudo-Divide

Perusing Drew Conway’s excellent blog Zero Intelligence Agents in response to his comment on a previous post, I came across this post of his, reacting to Joseph Nye and Daniel Drezner’s recent bloggingheads diavlog on the theory/policy debate.

You can watch the relevant portion above, though Conway has summarized a key point:

Drezner notes that quantitative scholars tend to have a ‘imperialistic attitude’ about their work, brushing off the work of more traditional qualitative research.

To be exact, by “quantitative scholars” Drezner was referring to those who use “statistical methods and formal models” and by “traditional qualitative research” he meant specifically “more historical / deep background knowledge that’s necessary to the policymaker.” Conway goes on to concur:

In some respect I agree. As a student in a department that covets rational choice and high-tech quantitative methods, I can assure you none of my training was dedicated to learning the classics of political science philosophy. On the other hand, what is stressed here—and in many other “quant departments”—is the importance of research design. This training requires a deep appreciation of qualitative work. If we are producing relevant work, we must ask ourselves: “How does this model/analysis apply to reality? What is the story I am telling with this model/analysis?”

I’d been wanting to put in my two cents since I saw this particular bloggingheads, so I’ll just do so now. I think there are three unnecessary conflations here.

First, between qualitative or quantitative methodologies as approaches and specific methods within either of these two approaches. Drezner is comparing large-N statistical studies to historical case studies. But case study research is only one type of qualitative work – not all other types of qualitative work are any more useful for policymakers than large-N statistical studies.

Second, I see a confusion here between qualitative methods as an approach to doing social science and interpretivism as a form of theory (and for that matter, between large-N empirical studies and abstract formal modeling). In his post, Conway equates qualitative methods not with historical descriptive work, but with political theory (or as Conway puts it, political philosophy) and interpretivism. There is a wide continuum of qual methods, some much more scientifically rigorous – that is, focused on description and explanation rather than interpretation or prescription – than others. I also think that there is a similar difference between large-N statistical studies and formal modeling – one relies on data to test theories, the other relies on abstract math and logic and is largely divorced from real-world evidence.

In both cases, I think the imperialism being described above (if any) is really the imperialism of empirical science over pure theory. I think that the imperialism of quantitative methods over qualitative methods must be judged, if it exists, against only qualitative approaches that are actually designed to be scientific. Within that context, you may be surprised how much respect these scholars have for one another’s work – though, perhaps that’s just based on my good experiences collaborating and communicating with quantoids, experiences others may not share.

Third and finally, I think researchers and their methods are being conflated here. is perhaps most guilty by labeling this clip “quals v. quants” as if these methods are mutually exclusive and as if scholars are defined by the methods they use. (And in fact, I just noticed I did it myself in the previous paragraph with the term “quantoids.”) But most of the doctoral dissertations I see coming out today use mixed-methods – that is, some combination of case studies and statistics. And much qualitative work, including much of my own, is actually quantitative as well. It’s qualitative insofar as I’m studying text data and using grounded theory to generate analytical categories. But it’s quantitative in the sense that I convert those categories (codes) into frequency distributions that tell us something about the objective properties in the text, and in the sense that I use mathematical inter-rater reliability measures to report just how objective those properties are through inter-rater reliability measures.

Anyway, as a self-identified qualitative scholar whose work varies between interpretivism and rigorous social science studies of text (and who therefore is quite conscious of the difference), but who is also quite open to collaborating with quantitative researchers depending on the nature of the problem I’m working on, I hate to buy into a discourse that pigeonholes IR scholars as one thing or another.

Ultimately, I think the distinction Nye and Drezner are really talking about here is not methodological. Rather, it’s between those scholars capable of translating their findings (through whatever method) into language accessible to policymakers, and those who refuse to learn those skills. As I argued once before, perhaps this process of translating is “methodology” of its own that we should be incorporating into our doctoral curriculum as a discipline.

The Academic Vocation

I spent the weekend in Jyväskylä, Finland, serving as the “opponent” — external examiner — on a dissertation about the first George Bush’s foreign policy towards Europe, and particularly the rhetorical justification of that foreign policy. Pekka Korhonen, supervisor of the dissertation and “custos” at the ceremony, is on my right in this photo; Aapo Jumppanen, the student who successfully defended his dissertation on Saturday, is on my left. Each of them is wearing a ceremonial Finnish academic outfit, or “frack,” as specified in the official regulations that I received upon agreeing to serve as Aapo’s opponent:

1. The doctoral candidate, custos and opponent should all wear similar type of clothes. Men should wear either a tailcoat with a black waistcoat or a dark suit; women should wear a black, long-sleeved dress with a small neckline without a hat. All can also wear the ceremonial gown of the University. The doctoral candidate chooses the style of clothing after talking to the custos. The opponent can also wear the ceremonial gown of his/her home university (not Finnish). The use of ceremonial gown is agreed upon with the porters of the administration building.

After successfully completing and defending his dissertation Aapo is now authorized to wear a doctor’s hat, which is a kind of black silk top-hat with the university logo on the front. (Pekka has one, and carried it at the ceremony as specified further on in the official regulations, but he doesn’t usually wear it on his head. This is apparently normal in Finland.) The regulations go on to prescribe certain verbal formulas that must be used at various times during the defense, when particular people may and must stand up or sit down, etc. It’s very elaborate academic theatre.

Remember, this is for a defense, not a commencement ceremony. This is an examination, and the candidate can fail if her or his answers are not judged satisfactory by the opponent (who has the sole discretion as to whether the dissertation is ultimately accepted as a piece of scholarship worthy of someone who is going to receive a doctorate as a result of it). As a result, the staging and the costuming adds to the gravity of the event, serving as a visual reminder that whatever academics are doing when they produce and defend their scholarly works, it’s not quite the same thing as we might expect to occur in a non-academic setting. That’s a reminder that we academics — particularly, perhaps, we U.S. academics — could use more of, because it underscores the distinctiveness of our endeavor vis-a-vis the worlds of business, government, or political activism, worlds that are continually threatening to absorb the academy and impose a very different logic on all of us.

Several weeks ago in response to one of Peter’s posts about hiring difficulties in academia, I promised a post of my own on the state of the contemporary academy — especially focusing on the question of whether one ought to go into academia, given Peter’s oft-expressed opinion here and elsewhere that the answer is a pretty unequivocal “no.” In fact, I don’t disagree that the answer for most people is and should be “no”; even moreso than for other professions, academia is simply not for everyone. I regularly give people, especially undergraduate students, asking whether they should go into academia the same excellent advice as my wife received when she first began thinking about going to seminary: if you can picture yourself being truly happy doing something else, then by all means go do it. Only go to seminary — or into academia — if you can’t imagine yourself not doing it and being happy. You do this because you have to, not necessarily because you want to; this is a vocation, not just a job.

For me the academic vocation, as I know I’ve said here many times before, means a dedication to teaching students and producing knowledge the worth of which stems mostly from its internal consistency and philosophical coherence. It’s a vocation rather than a job because, as Weber argued, it’s a basic orientation of one’s whole life rather than simply some set of skills that one deploys when necessary. To be oriented towards the academic vocation means to live for the systematic construction of scientific (in the broad sense) knowledge and the creative pedagogy by which spaces for letting learn are opened. The considerations of efficacy and efficiency that dominate most of the other spheres of modern life are, of necessity, set aside in favor of a concern with the rigor of reason, the clarity of vision, and the mystery of intellectual encounter: all those things that the hackneyed phrase “the life of the mind” doesn’t even begin to cover. There’s simply no room here for cost-effectiveness, or efficient delivery of information, or any of those other worldly considerations; there is only, as Weber said, “devotion to the subject.”

If this sounds like a religious vocation, that’s no accident. Weber deliberately used that resonance of the term in his writings, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s appropriate that the companies that make academic robes also make ministerial vestments, I think, since in both cases the garments serve to highlight the otherworldliness of the activities for which they are worn. They’re kind of a public notification that we’re definitely not in Kansas (or official Washington, or the corporate boardroom, or the NGO headquarters) anymore; we’ve stepped outside of and back from those realms, at least temporarily, so as to gain a bit of perspective on them. What we do when we operate as academics is to take those mundane relams and the logics that inform them and subject them to critical examination; that’s very similar to what ministers and priests do when they reflect on the secular world from their own distinct religious perspective, but the difference is that for academics the important thing isn’t — or at least, isn’t just — to render a transcendental normative critique of the actually-existing world, but to systematically produce knowledge of that world. Both ministers and academics also help their students by creating spaces for encounter and thinking and learning, spaces that are in the first instance distinguished by their separation, even temporarily, from the flow of everyday life. In that way, academics and ministers/priests are engaged in activities with a close family resemblance to one another.

Now, i am not so naive as to ingore the facts that a) what I have just presented is an ideal-type, a utopia of the inner logic of the academic vocation that is rarely realized in practice; and that b) academics have often functioned as spokespersons for one or another mundane segment of society, or used their academic post and the prestige that accompanies it as a platform for the pursuit of worldy goals; and that c) too much otherworldliness can lead to stultified doctrines, creakily arbitrary obstacles to fresh insight, and and bitter interpersonal politics (the old saying that the fights within academia are so intense because the stakes are so low rings very true, as long as we understand “low” to mean “low from the perspective of the mundane world”). Academia’s not perfect, and it’s even moe imperfect now than it was when I first started doing this fifteen years ago — budgets are tighter, and there’s more pressure to demonstrate productivity than used to be the case. And tenure seems to be dying, as more and more universities move towards contingent “flexible” staffing solutions — an unwelcome intervention of a business logic into the academy, but one that virtually no institution can avoid these days unless they somehow managed to keep their endowment safe from the general financial market collapse (and even some that did see an opportunity to save money, and so they jump on the bandwagon even though they don’t actually need to do so). There are proxy battles of the manifestly absurd kind, in which a political division gets sublimated into an argument about curriculum design that gets further manifested in a clash about how to run faculty-meetings or who gets to invite speakers to campus for what purpose. And students, especially doctoral students, sometimes get caught in the middle of all of that.

No, academia is not a pretty place sometimes, and it’s not universally living up to its vocational demands. But — and this is a very big “but,” something that probably ought to be italicized and capitalized and bolded like so: BUTthere is no other place where we even come close to those demands. In business, the bottom line is “make money.” In government, it’s “serve constituents and get re-elected.” In activism or policy analysis, “influence decision-makers.” All of those make it much, much harder to fulfill the academic bottom line: “get a critical perspective on the actually-existing present.” We might never quite achieve it in academia because of all of the inroads made by the mundane world — both those incurions that we can see, and those that maybe we can’t see at first but that later get pointed out to us when we engage in the self-reflection that ought to be central to the academic life, both for individuals and for institutions — but at least we have, so to speak, constitutive sanction to try.

That kind of permission is a rare and precious thing, something that we ought to be very conscious of sustaining by the very act of engaging in the rites and rituals of academic life. These days in U.S. academia we relegate our robes — our uniforms — to commencement; we would never think of wearing them to a dissertation defense, because we often forget ourselves and fall into thinking that what goes on when we discuss a dissertation is the same kind of thing that goes on when we discuss a business-plan or a marketing strategy or the draft of a political speech. It’s not. Those other, mundane settings are dominated by the logics of efficiency and efficacy, and having an effect is the primary goal. Not so in a dissertation defense, where the logic ought to be about the rigorous consistency of the account and the author’s ability to express and articulate a set of philosophical considerations that are — at least in the social sciences — then translated into analytical tools for the interrogation of the actually-existing world. “Efficacy” and “efficiency” have no place here. Wearing medieval robes helps to underscore that fact, and serves as a visual reminder of our distinct academic vocation: this is not a boardroom, this is not a campaigh headquarters, this is not a shopping center, this is a space of learning.

And that, despite the financial and employment challenges, despite the imperfections of the colleges and universities that actually exist, despite the continual need to fight to preserve what is and should be distinctive about the academic life, is why one goes into academia. There are no other good reasons. You do it because you have to — and because the world, even though it may not acknowledge it all the time, needs some segent of society to systematically reflect on it, preserve its traditional cultural and intellectual endowment, and envision alternate possibilities for its development. That’s the vocation — and if you, like me, can “do no other,” then welcome aboard. I never said it would be easy.

Is IR Really a Science? Let’s Find Out

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber alerted me to the fact that 3 Quarks Daily has instituted a quarterly award for the best blog post in the areas of science, politics, arts and literature, and philosophy.

Starting next month, the prizes will be awarded every year on the two solstices and the two equinoxes. So, we will announce the winner of the science prize on June 21, the arts and literature prize on September 22, the politics prize on December 21, and the philosophy prize on March 20, 2010.

About a month before the prize is to be announced we will solicit nominations of blog entries from our readers. The nominating period will last approximately one to two weeks. At the end of this time, we will open up the process to voting by our readers. After this period, we will take the top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main daily editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add a wildcard entry of their choosing. And finally, a well-known intellectual from the field will pick the winner, runner up, and third place finisher from these, and will write some short comments on the winning entries.

Just for fun, the first place award will be called the “Top Quark,” and will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the “Strange Quark,” will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the “Charm Quark,” along with two hundred dollars.

Well, I don’t know if posts here at the Duck or on other IR blogs would widely be considered science, politics, arts and literature or philosophy (though frankly, I suspect some of PTJ’s might count as all of the above.) But the way I see it, IR is a science, which means IR blog posts should qualify for next month’s contest.

So, since we haven’t yet gotten around to establishing our long-discussed Duck of Minerva “Top Quack” award for IR blogging, if it strikes your fancy head on over to 3QD to nominate an IR blog post of your choosing in the Science contest before June 21. It will be interesting to see which disciplines are ultimately represented among the science awards.

Petraeus Doesn’t Take the Bait

A New UN Super-Agency for Women

From the Guardian:

This autumn the UN general assembly will vote yes or no to a new “super-agency for women”; $1bn is being discussed as the starter annual budget.

A major role for the new agency’s work will be to close the gap between rhetoric and reality on existing international resolutions on sex discrimination and women’s human rights. The priorities cover a lot of ground – to help women earn increased income, stay in education longer, have access to proper health care, and have an equal say in decisions that affect their lives and the future of the planet.

Despite generations of international agreements on women’s equality, responsibility for improving the lives of the world’s women is spread thinner than Marmite across four poorly co-ordinated UN entities – Unifem, DAW, Osagi, and Instraw. Their senior staff are not part of the UN’s main decision-making fora. All have minuscule budgets, little power or influence in the UN system and virtually no operational capacity on the ground. Unifem, the largest of the four, has 47 staff and a budget of $129m to serve the world’s three and a half billion women.

All organisations within the UN system are officially mandated to address gender and women’s rights. Most treat women’s rights and priorities as optional extras, or entirely ignore their responsibilities to half the world’s population. A few UN agencies and UN missions in some countries do important work on gender equality and women’s rights, but it’s patchy and often depends on an individual champion to push for it.

Giant leap for womankind? Or just another expensive UN bureaucracy? My two cents: it may make a big difference whether this new agency consolidates/replaces existing UN gender machinery, or whether it simply adds another agency onto the existing mishmash. If the latter, it is likely to increase the visibility of gender issues within the UN, but also increase redundancy, buck-passing and institutional inertia.

Another thing to keep an eye on will be the power politics involved, once such an agency is established, in defining the UN’s agenda on women’s empowerment. Culled from comments on the Guardian article:

“The men of Africa are in far more need of help than the women of Europe, America, Canada, Russia, etc. By grouping your “3 and a half billion women” together and claiming they are one big lump of victimhood that has been “let down” you just make a mockery of the whole issue. Perhaps the budget should be targeted at those nations where women really do get a rough deal rather than becoming another plaything of the pampered feminists of the West (a group whose living standards are probably in the top 5% of the world’s population). Western women have far more in common with Western men than they do with third world women.

Sadly, the form in which such an agency is likeliest to be effective and transformative is also the one it is least likely to take. What is probably needed is not a “women’s” agency but a “gender empowerment” agency. The former approach would focus on women and be contingent on identifying some agenda for all women, which could be politically problematic. The latter would promote gender awareness at all levels of UN policy and could conceivably focus on human rights violations against all gender minorities. Of course, this would be a more radical and far-reaching step (and lots of countries in the UN don’t like the term ‘gender’) so it is politically unlikely.

So perhaps this is not a giant leap, but at least a small step in the right direction.

North Korea explodes nuclear device

Breaking news: North Korea has conducted a nuclear test, this one more successful and powerful than its initial test back in 2006.

You can read some (very) instant analysis, but the short story is that this move seems puzzling, out of context, which is to say that it doesn’t fit North Korea’s existing pattern of telegraphing its moves and using its nuclear program to extract maximum bargaining concessions from the United States. An initial and early read might be that this test does quite the opposite, confronting a new US administration broadly committed to diplomacy and alienating other could-be allies (Russia, China).

My only additional insight comes by way of Drezner, pointed out a very interesting article on the Administration’s take on North Korea’s succession politics. Re-reading that in light of the nuclear test reminds us to keep two key points in mind when making sense of this test:

1. This could be driven by domestic politics. From a theoretical point, this is entirely consistent with liberal foreign policy analysis approaches to the study of international politics. However, in areas such as nuclear weapons proliferation and such–the highest of the high politics of security–realism is generally assumed to have an advantage, and states are supposed to put international factors first in making such decisions. That a state would put domestic politics first in matters of such high stakes doesn’t fit our standard explanatory models of state behavior.

2. We have no idea what on earth is going on in North Korea. The DPRK is more than just Another Country, its perhaps the most closed and authoritarian regime in the world today. As Drezner points out, much of the analysis of the DPRK has a hint of Kremlinology to it, and we are right to be skeptical. Information is scarce, and context in which to make sense of that information is even more scarce. That said, even in an authoritarian regime there are politics, and in times of succession, the stakes are high. However, few, if any analysts have a clear picture of who the players are and how the game is played.

In that context, a meaningful and effective (from a US foreign policy perspective) response is difficult to construct.

Stephen Bosworth
will certainly have his hands full–though it is entirely possible that he’ll have his hands full of free time…


Sesame Street really has changed the way we think about our ABC’s. My 2-year old is quite the fan, he’s particularly into Ernie and Bert (though in our house, his Ernie has a special relationship with the teddy bear for some reason, not sure how Bert feels about that). Thanks to YouTube, we can spend a good half hour learning the ABC’s. For your own entertainment, my current playlist:

Elmo and India Arie do the alphabet

Sesame Street ABC’s Ray Charles and celebrities

Tilly and the Wall sing the ABCs

A very young Billy Joel does ABC’s

Kermit the Frog and Ladysmith Black Mambazo Alphabet

Lena Horne does the ABC

A classic animated Alphabet

Lou Rawls sings the alphabet

Richard Pryor’s Alphabet

Bill Cosby’s alphabet

Susan does the ABC’s—very classic

Patti Labelle sings the alphabet

Kermit sings the alphabet

Diva sings the alphabet

James Earl Jones reads the Alphabet

This post has been brought to you by the letters O and M and the number 2.

Sometimes a little IR theory goes a long way

This is just a quick observation for anyone who ever wondered about the value-added of IR theory — “IR theory” being defined in the broad sense of “tools for systematically reflecting on world politics.” The observation consists of four items, and deals with yesterday’s non-debate between Cheney and Obama.

1. theoretical claim

As a rule, not survival but other “national interests” are at stake such as the preservation of outlying bases and possessions, the protection of treaty rights, the restoration of national honor, or the maintenance of economic advantages. While it is a prerequisite of the system that nations attach a high if not the highest value to their survival, the same cannot be said of all of these other national interests. As a matter of fact, the moral dilemmas constantly facing statesmen [sic] and their critics revolve around the question of whether in a given instance the defense or satisfaction of interests other that survival justifies the costs in other values. . . . In every case the interpretation of what constitutes a vital national interest and how much value should be attached to it is a moral question. it cannot be answered by reference to alleged amoral necessities inherent in international politics; it rests on value judgments. Even national survival itself, it should be added, is a morally compelling necessity only as long as people attach supreme value to it.

–Arnold Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration, p. 60.

I note that 1) Wolfers is usually regarded as a realist, not a constructivist; and 2) this book is, sadly, out of print — “sadly” because it’s a more trenchant analysis of world politics than most of the garbage published by top-ranked IR presses and journals these days.

2. words from Cheney:

“The key to any strategy is intelligence and skilled professionals able to get that information in time to use it. In seeking to guard this nation against the threat of catastrophic violence, our administration gave intelligence officers the tools and the lawful authority they needed to gain vital information.

We did not invent that authority. It’s drawn from Article Two of the Constitution, and it was given specificity by Congress after 9/11 in a joint resolution authorizing all necessary and appropriate force to protect the American people.

[. . .]

Our successors in office have their own views on these matters. By presidential decision last month, we saw the selective release of documents relating to enhanced interrogations. This is held up as a bold exercise in open government, honoring the public’s right to know. We’re informed, as well, that there was much agonizing over this decision.

Yet somehow, when the soul-searching was done and the veil was lifted on the policies of the Bush administration, the public was given less than half the truth. The released memos were carefully redacted to leave out references to what our government learned through the methods in question.

Other memos, laying out specific terrorist plots that were averted, apparently were not even considered for release.

For reasons the administration has yet to explain, they believe the public has a right to know the method of the questions, but not the content of the answers.”

3. words from Obama:

“I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The documents that we hold in this very hall — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights — these are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality, and dignity around the world.

[. . . ]

I know that we must never, ever, turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset — in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.

It’s the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s Armed Forces than from their own government.

It’s the reason why America has benefitted from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp, moral contrast with our adversaries.

It’s the reason why we’ve been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism and outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free peoples everywhere in the common cause and common effort of liberty.

From Europe to the Pacific, we’ve been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law. That is who we are. And where terrorists offer only the injustice of disorder and destruction, America must demonstrate that our values and our institutions are more resilient than a hateful ideology.”

4. theoretically-informed observation: the contrast and controversy between Obama and Cheney is not a dispute about whether extraordinary or “enhanced” interrogation techniques work. It is instead a moral debate about what the proper criteria ought to be for making a decision about the use of such techniques, with Cheney invoking the dangerous world of the international as justification for these techniques (which he then claims were also effective) and Obama invoking the constitutive identity of America as a particular or even peculiar kind of country as justification for not using such techniques (which he then suggests are outweighed even in potential benefits by the benefits provided as a result of American’s shining-city-on-the-hill bastion-of-liberty global identity).

What does IR theory — good IR theory — do for us? Like all good social and political theory, it clarifies the issues, explicates the stakes, and helps us better understand what particular controversies are actually about. It does not tell us how to resolve those controversies, but it helps us confront them in a more direct way. And it prevents us from simply accepting anyone’s political framing of an issue; instead, we can step back and consider that framing itself, as we make explicit things that are often only implied or glossed over in the manifest text.

Ire of Newt

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has declared war on current speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Why? Well, Gingrich says Pelosi lied when she claimed that the CIA withheld information from her about waterboarding in 2002 briefings.

Here’s Gingrich on Fox News, May 17:

I was really surprised and even stunned by her comments yesterday, where she alleged that the American intelligence agencies routinely lied to the Congress. I know it’s false. I know that it demeans every person who’s working to defend this country….

I think Speaker Pelosi’s in enormous trouble. I think that lying to the country on national security matters and lying to the House is a very, very dangerous thing to have done.

The next day, on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Gingrich called for Pelosi to resign, arguing that “She really disqualified herself to be the speaker.”

“She has a unique responsibility for national security. … She made this allegation that smears everyone who’s trying to defend her.”

Leaving her in her place would be “very dangerous for the country,” Gingrich added.

Other Republicans have piled on as well, including House Minority leader John Boehner who has called for Pelosi to apologize to the CIA. Democrats have defended Pelosi. It all looks fairly partisan.

What’s interesting here is the nature of Gingrich’s attack. He’s saying that the speaker of the House cannot accuse a U.S. foreign policy agency of misdeeds during wartime because that is a threat to national security.

Did he forget his own past? Does anyone else recall Gingrich’s war-time broadside against the State Department? In a July/August 2003 piece for Foreign Policy (read the full article here) entitled “Rogue State Department,” Gingrich argued that “the president should demand a complete overhaul of the State Department.”

In a right-wing on-line publication, Gingrich also wrote in 2003 that State was engaged in “a deliberate and systematic effort to undermine the President’s policies.” That one almost implies treason.

Gingrich added more in yet another interview with Fox News, in April 2003:

“The last seven months have involved six months of diplomatic failure and one month of military success. The first days after military victory indicate the pattern of diplomatic failure is beginning once again and threatens to undo the effects of military victory,” Gingrich told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

Much of Gingrich’s rhetoric was aimed at the Near East Bureau of the State Department. Among the complaints, Gingrich blasted [Secretary of State Colin] Powell for planning a trip to Syria, working with Russia, the European Union and the United Nations on a Middle East peace road map, and focusing on prewar weapons inspections rather than regime change.

How embarassing for Gingrich on so many levels. At the time, incidentally, Bush officials said Gingrich had “stepped in it” and his comments were “out of line.”

In 2005, Gingrich accused Joseph Wilson of lying about his visit to Niger in the so-called Valerie Plame affair. Wilson, of course, went to Africa for the CIA.

In 2007, Gingrich called the National Intelligence Estimate about Iran, produced by the intelligence community (including CIA) — “fundamentally dishonest.” In Gingrich’s defense, he seems to think NIEs are produced by the State Department (which is apparently OK to attack at will).

And finally, when did Republicans start to stifle their critique of government? Or, do they only trust national security agencies?

Why do they trust them absolutely?


Republicans say they don’t want terrorists in their backyard — even if their backyard is a federal maximum security prison.

Apparently, Democrats in Congress are somewhat frightened by this stance because they have refused to provide $80 million to finance the closing of Gitmo. They will deny funds until the Obama administration provides a plan to provide justice for the prisoners at Gitmo.

While that use of leverage might make some sense, the Republican argument against moving prisoners to the US is purely political theater. It simply doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny. Consider:

1. U.S. federal prisons already host a number of convicted al Qaeda terrorists.

2. The U.S. has more people in prison than any other country — both in absolute and relative terms. The U.S. is good at confining people.

3. Many U.S. prisoners were really bad people on the outside — and some of them tried to inspire violent action by likeminded people. Charles Manson. John Gotti. Timothy McVeigh. Jeffrey Dahmer.

4. Very importantly, most of the detainees at Gitmo are not hardened terrorists. In fact, the evidence to-date reveals quite the opposite.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a bad man, but he’s a mid-40s guy in custody and largely isolated from the outside world.

I’m pretty sure the U.S. could imprison him and other inmates without too much trouble.

The War that Matters

There is a massive fight simmering just below the surface here in DC, one that looks to get really ugly, really quick, and with major long-term consequences for national politics. No, its not the pending SCOTUS confirmation fight, but the battle over the Pentagon budget. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has taken on one of the most powerful and entrenched political forces in Washington, the Defense spending lobby, and as Eisenhower had warned, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” How right he was, and its taken a SecDef as powerful as Gates to launch the fight to bring this to the foreground.

The spark for this conflagration was Gates “reform budget” that reallocated defense spending. His proposal to cut or cap certain weapons systems while promoting others has rankled the Services, and their ideas of how they ought to provide for the common defense. Indeed, the US military is now about to embark on the one war it is most prepared to fight–the war for budget share and major weapons systems. Ten years ago, a fantastic little book described the DoD’s attitude toward the budget process as This War Really Matters, and its the fight that the Services, Contractors, and Congress are best prepared to wage.

The issues of the day involve the decision to shift money from legacy weapons systems designed to fight a “peer competitor” force (was USSR, now China conveniently fills that role) with weapons better suited for counterinsurgency operations, ie the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I trace part of this struggle to the historical evolution of an overlapping, unclear, and muddled command structure of today’s US Military establishment. In World War II, the fights between Army and Navy were epic, leading to two separate theater commanders in the Pacific (MacArthur and Nimitz) fighting, essentially, two separate wars against Japan. The National Security Act of 1947 unified the services under a civilian secretary, creating DoD. However, the Secretary was initially weak and the Services were strong, leading to several subsequent reforms. The most significant was the Goldwater-Nichols Act, giving us the structure we have today. As a result of Goldwater-Nichols, there are two separate structures of authority in the US military. Operationally, the chain of command passes from the President through the Secretary of Defense, and directly to the Combatant Commander who has complete and total command over all units in his theater (or functional area). However, for procurement, training, and equipping the force, authority passes from the Secretary to the Service Secretary and Chief of Staff of the uniformed service, who determine what the services should buy and how they will use it. Thus, the services sense of identity and mission have a huge role in procurement. Thus, combatant commanders must go to war with the army/navy/air force they have, not the one they would like.

Gates seeks to change this, privileging the needs of current combat operations over long-term service identity. Consider the most high profile of these cases in the Air Force. The AF has long seen strategic bombing and air to air combat as its core missions, and has thus pushed for a 5th generation air superiority fighter and new bomber. Gates wants to cut the future bomber and cap the F-22, instead buying more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and UAV’s. Indeed, some have speculated that the F-22 is the last manned fighter plane of its kind, with the future of air-war employing UAVs in combat roles. Current operations in the CENTCOM theater bear this out. The F-22 has not been used at all in either 6+ year long war, while the demand for UAV’s has skyrocketed, and they have become some of the most significant (if not controversial) weapons platforms in use. But, what is a modern US Air Force without fighter pilots?

Now the services and Congress are notorious for thwarting Pentagon budgeting plans. Congress sees the DoD budget as an unchallenged lard-fest, where government subsidies can be thrown to companies in a local district. Contractors facilitate this by actively distributing weapons system production in key Congressional districts, gaining allies for particular programs on the Hill. The Services have long had back-channels to lobby Congress to save particular weapons systems or insert new procurement that the Administration did not request. Gates seeks to end this practice.

The stakes are high. Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake. Contracts, careers, and jobs are on the line. And, somewhere in there, the idea of American National Security almost matters. There will be principled arguments on both sides about the legitimate security needs of the United States. There will be a detailed discussion of the trade-offs between a counter-insurgency focused force vs. a peer competitor force. However, these principled and well reasoned arguments will probably be in the minority. Instead, we’ll see a lot more poorly reasoned arguments (I’ll let Ricks call it dumb) and faux-grandstanding about the rising China threat designed to produce only one logical conclusion: The Army/Air Force/Navy absolutely must must have the FCS/F-22/DDG-1000 to counter the “real” threats of the future.

Be wary of such arguments. Beneath all the posturing, beneath the future threats, dire warnings, and beneath the demands of 21st century warfare are good old fashion pork-barrel politics, of who gets what from whom: the most lucrative contracts in all the Federal Budget, supplying major weapons systems to the DoD.

If Gates can win this war, it will be as significant to the overall conduct of US National Security policy as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, This War Really Matters.

Seizing the Middle Ground?

This is an open thread about President Obama’s remarks about abortion at Notre Dame’s Commencement Speech.

Comment away.

Boldly go [contains spoilers below the fold]

I finally managed to see the new Star Trek film yesterday. Unlike the terrible travesty that was the Watchmen film — to which I had such an adverse reaction that I still can’t manage to grind out a coherent blog post about it, despite having tried on multiple occasions to do so — this re-imagination and re-invigoration of the franchise actually got it right, in my view: what we saw on the screen combined the best elements of classic Star Trek with a newly open-ended optimism about the human future that captures Gene Roddenberry’s initial desire for a “wagon train to the stars.”

I am going to follow Charli’s example and hide any potential spoilers below the fold. but let me just say at the outset that although this probably doesn’t make my top ten list of IR films, I will almost certainly teach it the next time (Spring 2010!) I get to teach my (in)famous undergraduate seminar “Social/Science/Fiction” — and I’ll pair it with Anders Stephanson’s Manifest Destiny, which I’ve traditionally paired with some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In our surprisingly authoritative paper on the Borg and U.S. foreign policy, Dan and I introduced what we referred to as a “political economy of consumption” perspective for analyzing serial pop-culture artifacts like Star Trek: a serial pop-cultural product occurs at the sometimes-tense intersection of audience, narrative, and technical considerations. “Technical” catches up the conditions of filming and distribution, including — especially important for a science fiction film — the state of special-effects technology; “narrative” catches up the “internal” continuity of the fictional universe; and “audience” catches up the cultural and interpretive resources that the viewers bring to the product, as well as acknowledging the important role of the audience in co-producing the phenomenon in question. We further suggested that by examining how representational dilemmas were resolved in practice — in this case, on the screen — could tell us interesting things about the state of the world, and in particular about world politics and the articulation of foreign policy — itself something of a serial pop-cultural production.

This latest Star Trek film is no exception. I won’t say anything about the technical aspects except to join Charli in marveling at how good ILM has gotten at doing CGI space battles and how good Abrams’ team was at learning from Battlestar Galactica and the original Star Wars about the pacing of such battles. Wow. Especially in IMAX. I also won’t say much about narrative continuity — I already did my über-geeky reconstruction of the Star Trek timeline in comments to Charli’s original post — but suffice to say that the producers did their homework about fictional Star Trek history. They also managed to create narrative continuity by doing a remarkable job of casting the major parts; the whole bridge crew pretty much nailed their efforts to channel the characters that we already know so well, and I for one had no trouble accepting these new versions as plausible takes on the old versions (special kudos to Karl Urban’s turn as McCoy and Simon Pegg’s Scotty).

And then there were the fan-community shout-outs: the red-suited Ensign Expendable, Sulu having experience in fencing, classic moments like McCoy referring to Spock under his breath as a “green-blooded hobgoblin” and of course Scotty complaining the the engines “canna take any more.” Tip-o-the-hat to former Duck Maia Gemmill who pointed out that I, my wife Holly, Dan, and she herself were some of the only people in the theatre laughing at such moments, which shows what a good job the filmmakers did in crafting a film that appealed to a broader audience than simply the fan community. The fact that the film continues to do well in its second week of release, and has reportedly made back its production budget in only ten days of release, is further testimony to its broad-based appeal. The film largely eschews the technobabble that traditionally accompanies Star Trek movies; instead we get — as J. J. Abrams famously promised — something that feels much more like the original Star Wars films, in which technology is basically magical and doesn’t get explained. Instead, it becomes a plot device: the producers don’t get hung up on the physics of black holes, but they instead have Nero and Spock fall through a PLOT DEVICE to get them back to where they are supposed to be for the action to ensue, carrying with them the PLOT DEVICE (“red matter”) that fuels the epic events that unfold.

“Epic” is key; this film is more grandiose, more space-operatic, than Star Trek often is and has been since the days of the orignal series. And here’s where Abrams really is channeling Roddenberry, since what he’s presenting on screen is a view of the human future in space, suitably updated to avoid the “continuation of the Cold War, but with the Klingons” that the original series featured. The Federation in the canonical timeline was basically an empire in a galaxy of other empires that it did not recognize but instead maintained “neutral zones” with; in this film it’s a universalist project from the start, constitutively engaged in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief efforts. (It will be interesting to see — since I think the studio would have to be completely nuts not to at least give us another couple of films expanding on this re-imagination, if not a new television series (please please please) — what happens to the Klingons in this new version; do they get invited into the Federation earlier on this time through the chronology?) So this Federation is unencumbered by the paradox of limited universalism characteristic of the Cold War, at least from the outset; this is not the post-Cold War world, but the post-post-Cold War world.

That, to me, is the most striking thing about this film: its open-endedness. The parallel-timeline trick basically allows the producers to do whatever they want to with these characters and the essential situation. They’ve managed to get Kirk in command of the Enterprise faster than that happened in the original canonical timeline, and have managed to assemble the crew already. The weight of future history is gone, since even “Spock Prime”‘s memories won’t be of much use to anyone in this timeline any longer; pure unfettered universalism has been restored, and optimism seems to be the order of the day. At any rate, it’s a big galaxy, and the Federation’s flagship is now in command of a brash young captain with a gift for inspiring his followers. Is this change we can believe in?

And: what will be the Khan-equivalent in this re-imagined Star Trek — the moment that makes the optimistic humanitarians confront the consequences of their attempts to be merciful?

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