Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bushbabies, Yum!!

I was also browsing the foreign policy blog, I find this more "politically" interesting. To see pictures of bushbabies, click here, now I am off cooking some dinner

Commanding Heights

I wanted to point out a fantastic documentary we've been watching called Commanding Heights: the Battle for the World Economy. It's a 3-part, 6 hour show created by PBS in 2002 based on a book of the same title by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. You can actually watch the entire thing from that web page (although we netflixed it). It is tremendously educational about the economics of the second half of the 20th century (the entire first episode is devoted to the competition between the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich von Hayek). It pulled together a lot of previously unconnected pieces for me. I recommend it highly, and I would be very curious to hear Henry's thoughts about it.

Also, unrelated, I believe this might be the greatest news report of all time (and it happened in Oconomowoc).

Friday, February 23, 2007

It's Not the Culture, Stupid

The Foreign Policy Magazine blog (a good blog to keep tabs on, by the way) noted a theme in their recent coverage invoking Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations idea. Part of it, an essay by David Frum, is subscriber only (and I've never found Frum to be much worth reading anyway), but this column about Iraq by W. Patrick Lang is interesting. The conflict in Iraq is likely to drag out in some form or another for a very long time, but in a general sense the post-mortem is already well underway. No doubt we will see a great deal of debate over the narrative to take away from Iraq and what it means for our future.

Lang's take is that we underestimated the cultural differences between Americans and Iraqis. He and Frum (as excerpted in the blog post) believe that the neocons were fundamentally wrong in thinking that most people are basically like us. Lang points to the failure of democracy in Iraq, where voters cast their ballots based on tribe or sect rather than political policies. He notes that Nuri al-Maliki is not interested in serving the nation's best interests, but in promoting the interests of Shiite Arabs.

Lang's criticisms of the naiveté of neocon policymakers is on target, but I think his underlying analysis is off. Moreover, I think the idea that there are deep and permanent (or semi-permanent) cultural rifts between Western culture and the rest of the world is a dangerous one.

Maybe Tom Friedman does, as Lang charges, take the flatness of the world too far, but I think Friedman is more right than he is wrong. I look at my experience at Motorola where on a given day I would be working (on site or remotely) with people from China, India, Australia, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore, Taiwan, Israel, Russia, and Spain. Not many Arabs there, granted, but we had a tremendous diversity of cultures and no conflicts that I was ever aware of. People interacted with one another with virtually no regard for national, cultural, religious, or ethnic backgrounds.

The difference between that situation and Iraq is not, I think that the cultures are any less different, but that these were people in stable political and economic situations. It's not the culture that we failed to understand in Iraq, but the basic situation on the ground. Lang is right to assert that cultural identity now lies at the bottom of the conflict in Iraq, but the point is not that there is something characteristic about the Shiite, Kurd or Sunni cultures that is the problem, but that people are choosing tribal and sectarian identities over national identities (or Friedman's internationalist identity). When that happens the results appear to be the same whether the particular cultural identity is Sunni or Shiite or Serbian or Croatian or Pashtun or Tajik or Hutu or Tutsi. Looking specifically at the cultures is digging one level too deep -- the question is how do we keep people from going tribal in the first place?

What we failed to recognize in Iraq (despite strong warnings from many quarters) was the basic lack of national cohesion and the incredibly polarizing effect of US occupation (particularly without a UN mandate and a truly international coalition). The only particular significance of the culture in Iraq was the highly antagonistic approach of the US towards Arab and Muslim populations since 9/11. The BBC poll cited in the FP Mag blog post shows a broad international agreement that the differences between Islam and the West are political rather than cultural (and this Zogby/Gallup poll also highlights the political factors driving ever-sinking Arab opinions of the US). I've also pointed out on several occasions analysis to the effect that the US is at considerably less risk of home-grown terrorism (as compared to European nations) because Arabs integrate far more effectively here than in Europe. This should also illustrate that there is no inherent or fundamental incompatibility between Western and Arab culture.

I agree with Lang that we would benefit from learning more about foreign cultures. Lack of cultural understanding has been a problem in Iraq, particularly with respect to the winning of hearts and minds and understanding how Iraqis view American actions and policies. But I think we stand to make far greater gains by understanding foreign political and social situations. There's no reason why we can't do both, but if the take-away from Iraq is to throw up our hands and declare Islamic culture completely incompatible with Western government, economics, and values we'll be making a very serious mistake.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Is Experience the New Electability?

In 2004 John Kerry became the Democratic nominee because of a consensus that he was electable. In other words nobody voted for him because they wanted to vote him, they voted for him because they thought other people would want to vote for him. Turns out they were wrong. Electability never had any real meaning in substance, although there were certain traits that people assumed defined it: a long political record, national exposure, lots of money, military service, a boring enough personality to stay out of trouble. But the reality is that no one really knew how any of these traits related to a candidate's general election prospects (and we ultimately found that they relate very poorly). Despite the utter lack of a rational basis for the electability theory, however, there was an overpowering consensus among talking heads and political wags that electability existed and had the basic form described above. I found it infuriating at the time, and still do.

A considerable amount of ink has been spilled in the past few weeks on Barack Obama's prospects as a candidate, and I'm concerned that I'm starting to feel a new, and equally unfounded (and equally pervasive), consensus forming on the matter of experience. Take, for example, this Slate column by John Dickerson. Dickerson's experience discussion is focused on Vladimir Putin's provocative remarks at the recent Munich security conference.

(As an aside I'd like to mention how remarkably refreshing it was to see Bob Gates respond to Putin in a responsible and helpful fashion. It's taken six years, but the Bush administration finally found someone who can talk foreign policy without sounding like a petulant child.)

Dickerson compares Obama to John McCain, who in Dickerson's view clearly has the requisite foreign policy experience to be a good candidate. Obama, he suggests, doesn't have the experience to "sit across from blunt and tough leaders like Vladimir Putin". But the fact is very few Americans do have experience dealing with foreign leaders. Some of them have already been president, most of the others were cabinet secretaries (who for whatever reason rarely run for the presidency), and maybe you count a few senators like McCain (and longstanding senators have hardly distinguished themselves as successful presidential candidates). In general the vast majority of presidential candidates have been in the exact same position Obama finds himself today. Why is his experience level being singled out?

Dickerson gives Obama a backhanded compliment saying that at least he has more experience than Bush did in 2000. But rather than compare Obama to the worst foreign policy president in recent memory (maybe ever), why not compare him to some of the better ones. How much foreign policy experience did Bill Clinton have when he took office (or, if you're so inclined, Ronald Reagan)? It wasn't experience that made Clinton successful, it was his intelligence, diligence, compassion, and empathy. He learned about foreign nations, analyzed problems, and was able to connect with foreign leaders and people.

And how has experience helped John McCain? Dickerson's example of McCain's response to Putin shows that at least he has some judgment, but what about Iraq? McCain has been monumentally wrong for the past four years about the biggest American foreign policy blunder in decades. How has his experience helped him there? McCain, maybe more than any other politician I'm aware of, demonstrates the danger of too much experience in Washington. He's been burned too badly and too many times and is simply not the man he was six or eight years ago. His long exposure to the viciousness of national politics has consumed him.

Obama shares all of the traits that made Clinton one of the most internationally popular presidents in US history. He is phenomenally intelligent, broadly educated and well-read, intellectually curious, and intuitively able to connect with audiences and convey important ideas so that they can be understood by everyone. And his mixed national, ethnic, and racial heritage gives him, as Dickerson acknowledges, a leg up on the competition in terms of foreign perception of him, and, by extension, the US.

As Obama gets further into the process and has to formulate more of a foreign policy agenda, I will certainly be open to substantive criticisms of his positions and plans, but can we please not discount him based on this specious conception of the need for foreign policy experience? At this point he looks at least as good as anyone else in the race on foreign policy, maybe better. Let's just wait and see what he has to say before riding him too hard.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Covering the Important News

This made me laugh. What would we do without cable news channels?

Update: And watch this to see CNN's version of the Harris/Sullivan dialogue. It's the proverbial car wreck you can't stop watching... As one of the comments suggests, replace the word atheist with black or Jew, then imagine how this clip plays.

A Dialogue On Faith

I've been meaning to point out a wonderful dialogue taking place on faith and atheism between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. It started several weeks ago and is still ongoing. Harris has, I think, done a bang-up job. It's an enjoyable read.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

And Here We Are Again...

So I was recently poking around wikipedia trying to find a quote from the documentary Fog of War, and, on the Fog of War wiki page, I came across a list of 11 lessons that appeared in Bob McNamara's book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. These lessons are different from the ones that appeared in the film (that list was actually developed by the filmmaker, Errol Morris, over McNamara's objection). Reading this list I was quite stunned at how accurately and completely they sum up our current disaster. It's eerie. Keep in mind that the book was written in 1996, seven years before we embarked on our Iraq adventure. Here they are:

1. We misjudged then — and we have since — the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries … and we exaggerated the dangers to the United States of their actions.

2. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience … We totally misjudged the political forces within the country.

3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.

4. Our judgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.

5. We failed then — and have since — to recognize the limitations of modern, high-technology military equipment, forces and doctrine…

6. We failed as well to adapt our military tactics to the task of winning the hearts and minds of people from a totally different culture.

7. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of a large-scale military involvement … before we initiated the action.

8. After the action got under way and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course … we did not fully explain what was happening and why we were doing what we did.

9. We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Our judgment of what is in another people's or country's best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our image or as we choose.

10. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action … should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.

11. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.

Score One for Edwards

After Russ Feingold dropped out of the '08 sweepstakes I was a little bit surprised how quickly liberal bloggers (the Kossacks in particular) hitched themselves to John Edwards's wagon. I didn't care terribly for Edwards in '04, and I'm not that excited about his candidacy this time either. However, Edwards scored points with me when he made waves recently by stating that he would raise taxes to support his universal health care plan. I haven't seen much critical discussion of his plan, and the details I've seen reported are fairly vague. In other words, I don't know if his numbers are realistic or if the plan is a good one. But the mere fact that the man is willing to admit that it will cost money, and that those costs will have to be offset with higher taxes speaks highly to me of Edwards. We've been hearing about health coverage as a major issue for many election cycles at this point, but nothing has been accomplished (nor we have even come close to making progress), because delivering on health care promises will be expensive and painful, and while voters have expressed their desire for health care reform, they've never ratified any willingness to make sacrifices (in terms of taxes or other spending cuts) in order to make it happen. Of course, voters have never had a chance to do so, because politicians (on both sides of the aisle) are content to promise reform while pretending no sacrifice will be necessary. If real progress is to be made, we need to have a serious and frank discussion about what it will cost and how to pay for it. Edwards is the first candidate I've seen who seems to be willing to take part in that discussion. Kudos to him. I'm a long way from jumping on the Edwards bandwagon, but I'm now willing to start taking him seriously.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Israel's Right to Exist

Since Palestinian/Israeli negotiations have been hung up for a couple years over the issue of Hamas refusing to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, international lawyer (and Palestinian advisor) John Whitbeck has written a column what the right to exist means to Palestinians. He points out that Israel has never clearly spelled out its own borders, and Israeli texts show all of Palestine as encompassed within Israel. Moreover, it would be an acknowledgment of the moral justification of the initial expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and for all that has followed since then:
To demand that Palestinians recognize "Israel's right to exist" is to demand that a people who have been treated as subhumans unworthy of basic human rights publicly proclaim that they are subhumans. It would imply Palestinians' acceptance that they deserve what has been done and continues to be done to them. Even 19th-century US governments did not require the surviving native Americans to publicly proclaim the "rightness" of their ethnic cleansing by European colonists as a condition precedent to even discussing what sort of land reservation they might receive. Nor did native Americans have to live under economic blockade and threat of starvation until they shed whatever pride they had left and conceded the point.
Forcing Palestinians to make this concession, Whitbeck argues, is a tactic in bad faith and a roadblock to progress to peace negotiations.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A Sane Iran Policy

Jacob Weisberg (with an assist from Ken Pollack) breaks down the US strategic policy towards Iran. Weisberg notes that our aggressive saber-rattling will have the same effect in Iran as it has had in so many other places around the globe: to entrench the very regime we hoped to unseat.
Such belligerence seems unlikely to produce the result we desire for a variety of reasons. For one, our bluster is essentially empty. The United States lacks plausible military options for taking out Iran's nuclear program and dealing with the potential reaction, especially now that we are bogged down in Iraq. It is also proving extremely difficult to get the rest of the world to go along with the kind of comprehensive sanctions that would bite. Meanwhile, America's hostility is supplying Ahmadinejad with an external demon for his propaganda and helping him cover over his domestic failures. This American push for futile sanctions follows a familiar pattern, extending from Cuba to Burma to North Korea to pre-invasion Iraq—places where economic isolation and threats have fueled not regime change but regime stabilization.

On the other hand, it is difficult for the US to support human rights and democracy advocates, because a) they tend to say a lot of bad things about us and b) the Bush administration is too toxic for any Iranians to want to be associated with it:
The president, who has managed to make democracy a dirty word in many parts of the world, may by now retain only the ability to taint liberal heroes with guilt by association. Last summer, Iran's other leading dissident, Akbar Ganji, declined to meet White House officials when visiting Washington, saying—with reference to both Iraq and Iran—that "you cannot bring democracy to a country by attacking it."
Weisberg believes that, if the US let him, Mohamed ElBaradei could pour cold water on the situation and maneuver the parties to a negotiating table, where the US could simultaneously make progress on the nuclear weapons issue and undercut Amedinejad domestically. It's worth a shot...