Sunday, January 28, 2007

Kerry and Khatami at Davos

Andrew Sullivan linked approvingly to this blog post ripping into John Kerry for making comments critical of the Bush administration at the World Economic Forum in Davos, in the presence of (gasp!) Mohammad Khatami, former president of Iran. That disturbed me, so I sent him this email:

Mr. Sullivan,

I would be interested to read an explanation for your approving link to Hot Air's blog post ripping John Kerry for his comments at Davos. His comments seemed fairly reasonable; we have consistently burned our diplomatic bridges whether the topic was Iraq, global warming, the International Criminal Court, land mines, nuclear weapons, capital punishment, or torture. And we are facing a crisis of confidence and international isolation. We have been, as Kerry said, diplomatically tone deaf, and it has hurt us badly. I think Kerry is hardly wrong in voicing these concerns. For the most part, they don't seem terribly contrary to comments you yourself have made.

Is the crime merely that he voiced these opinions in the presence of Mohammad Khatami (or "the pig" as Hot Air refers to him)? Should our policy discussion be stifled whenever a Muslim might be listening? Should we imagine that none can see our network news, or read our newspapers or (heaven forbid) your blog? Hot Air suggests that "Khatami's masters" will thrill at these comments critical of the Bush administration. I thought you had disowned the idea that dissent gives aid and comfort to our foes. Isn't frank and open discussion part and parcel of deliberative democracy, even when others are listening? It's not as if they didn't hear all of this from Kerry in 2004 (and having heard it, Iran famously endorsed George W. Bush in the general election -- so much for being thrilled by Kerry's rhetoric).

Furthermore, I'm not certain that vilification of Khatami is terribly useful. Many responsible statesmen have suggested that engaging Iran in a regional dialogue would be to our benefit. Who do we think that dialogue will be with? We may not agree with Khatami across a broad array of issues (and certainly I agree his policies on homosexuality were abhorrent), but is Ahmadinejad better? Is Khamenei? Within the spectrum of politics in Iran, we might not do much better than Khatami. He at least pushed in directions we favored on democracy, on foreign relations, on the rule of law. If we wait to find someone who agrees with us on everything before even engaging in dialogue, then we'll wait (as the Bush administration has) for something that will never happen. Iran is not Iowa, and it is not going to become Iowa simply because we refuse to talk to them. If politics is, as Otto Van Bismarck stated, the art of the possible, we should realize that moderates like Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani are our most likely allies in Iran. That doesn't mean we have to agree with them or even treat them as friends, but gratuitous demonization is not going to further our dialogue.

The 'Supporting the Troops' Mantra

Is the fact that all modern politicians feel obligated to preface and conclude any remark on the war with testimony to their deep and profound support for the troops based on a lie? Jerry Lembcke, a sociologist at Holy Cross College, researched and wrote a book on the phenomenon of people spitting on Vietnam veterans. His conclusion? It never happened (see here for a Slate review of the book). And nobody even claimed it did until 5 years after the last Americans came home. Writes Lembcke: "A 1971 Harris poll conducted for the Veterans Administration found over 90 percent of Vietnam veterans reporting a friendly homecoming. Far from spitting on veterans, the antiwar movement welcomed them into its ranks and thousands of veterans joined the opposition to the war." Given how politically powerful the notion of people defiling the troops has become, Lembcke's findings are frankly astounding to me. It makes for quite a study in memes and conventional wisdom. This urban legend has left a deep mark on the way we think and talk about war in America, and I don't doubt in the least, has had an impact on the general lack of resistance to Bush's Iraq policy. And it could very well all be bullshit. Wow!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Crime Not War

A follow-up to my post from December about the Brits tiring of the "war on terror" meme, CSM reports that Britain's top prosecutor, Ken Macdonald, criticized war-based rhetoric for provoking a fear-driven response and threatening traditional civil rights. Said Macdonald: "London is not a battlefield. Those innocents who were murdered on July 7 2005 were not victims of war. And the men who killed them were not, as in their vanity they claimed on their ludicrous videos, soldiers." Macdonald followed-up: "On the streets of London there is no such thing as a 'war on terror', just as there can be no such thing as a 'war on drugs'." Ouch.

Well, I'm sure Alberto "the Constitution just doesn't say that" Gonzalez will come out with some equally thoughtful and well-considered statements any day now.

Scooter and Me

Nick Bromell, an English professor at UMass - Amherst, has written a a brilliant column on his childhood friend L. Scooter Libby, fundamentalism, liberalism, and truth. I can't recommend it highly enough. He gets a bit abstract at points, but his discussion of liberalism and self-doubt and Truth is, I think, dead on the money (and quite Rawlsian at that).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Behavioralism and Foreign Policy

or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon have an interesting article in Foreign Policy Magazine applying behavioral theories to foreign policy. Their finding echoes Cass Sunstein's mortality salience theory (discussed on TBWJ last August). Kahneman and Renshon write:
In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.
This is hardly a surprising finding to me, and, in fact, this is largely what we discussed back in August. Hawkish foreign policy theories seem to be far more politically attractive than they are meritorious. Kahneman and Renshon discuss a few examples in the article, but it would be interesting to see Renshon's book which goes into greater depth on the topic.

The "vision problem" discussed in the article strikes me as particularly troubling. The inability or unwillingness to try to understand (often coupled with scorn and derision directed towards those who try to understand) the context around the actions of others and to try to see how our own actions appear from other perspectives seems to underlay a great many of our foreign policy difficulties.

Telecom Mergers and Net Neutrality

Tim Wu, who you might recall led the push (along with Larry Lessig) for net neutrality last year, has a great article in Slate about the state of telecom regulation after last week's approval of the AT&T-BellSouth merger. We're basically down to AT&T and Verizon now. As Wu says, Ma Bell is back.

I am fairly impressed, however, with the concessions the Democrats forced on the AT&T-BellSouth merger (Copps's concurrence here). The new entity will operate under a fairly robust net neutrality requirement for two years, will be prohibited from tying DSL to other services, and will be required to provide naked DSL for no more than $20/mo. It will be obligated to offer broadband to 100% of its customers by the end of the year, with at least 30% of new deployments directed to low income and rural areas. It will be divested of some of its wireless spectrum licenses. It will repatriate 3000 overseas jobs to the US. Finally, the FCC reinstituted price-capping on enterprise services for the new company for the next four years. Not bad..