Archive for the ‘International Affairs’ Category

Look, I get it. A big majority of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, independent of any UN inspections. Congress voted with substantial majorities to authorize the use of military force.

But I can’t help but notice a similarity among the names touted for key administration positions: every single one favored the invasion of Iraq in 2003. John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, Michele Flournoy, Susan Rice — they all supported the initial invasion. Yes, there are lots of reasons to pick someone for a job, especially one running a large bureaucracy. And I also dislike litmus tests generally; a good nominee will necessarily have some flaws.

Still, were there really no Iraq War opponents available? None? Zero? Couldn’t find anyone?

21 Senators opposed the AUMF. Were they just not “serious” enough? Want to appoint a Republican? How about Brent Scowcroft? Want to appoint someone with military experience? Maybe former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Hugh Shelton is more your speed.

Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in no small part because of his opposition to the Iraq War from the beginning. It gave him liberal credibility against Clinton, and signaled a clear break from the Bush administration policies of preemptive war and a national security state run amok.

Instead, he has shown himself to be, on the state of our military and national security state, to be of a piece with his predecessor. Worse, he has shown that the only way for a Democrat to be taken “seriously” on national security is to be a hawk.

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Last night was the “foreign policy” presidential debate, which takes place in a magical fairyland with no connection to the real world.

The President’s signature foreign policy — drone strikes and targeted killing — received a brief mention and total agreement from Mitt Romney.

Both Obama and Romney “talked tough” on China, but failed to mention that a currency war with China would mean 20% inflation. But let’s ignore that, why not?

Both Obama and Romney said that they would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons using diplomacy, but failed to mention what concessions the United States might make. After all, in negotiations, if one side gives something up, the other side has to give something up.

As bad as Romney was, Obama was almost as bad — dodging every question of substance (Iraq/Afghanistan draw-down, military funding, Syria, Libya) and pivoting to areas of strength.

Obama has always prided himself on treating the American people like adults. In the case of foreign policy, unfortunately, there is nothing but demagoguery, jingoism, and rah-rah over-the-top patriotism.

Is there any hope for the foreign policy debate? Goofy though they are, at least the domestic policy debates give some notion of the kind of economic policy the candidates espouse. The foreign policy debates are simply untethered from reality.

One solution might be the questions asked. Schieffer did all right, but consider what was not discussed. Our allies? Forget them. Free trade agreements? Never heard of ’em. Latin America? One platitude by Romney. India? Nonexistent. Japan? Only mentioned in a question about Israel. Although geopolitical hotspots are of great importance to us, America’s success in the next century will have more to do with our allies than our perceived enemies. Instead of just asking questions about how best to warmonger, we should be considering America’s full foreign policy when asking who will lead us.

Foreign policy wonks seem to believe that the American polity simply can’t handle nuanced foreign policy discussions, but that strikes me as massively cynical. The only way to combat this is with genuine engagement with the issues by public figures, like, say, presidential candidates. Otherwise, we may as well just give the presidency to the guy who waves the flag the hardest.

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In a Gallup poll, Americans have named Iran as their “top enemy.” But I think part of the problem here is the framing of the question. This assumes that the United States has “enemies” in the sense of nation-states out to compete against or injure the United States. And even with a country such as Iran, I think both the imminence and scope of the threat are not so great as to render them “enemies.”

China is only our “enemy” insofar as America and China have occasionally divergent geopolitical goals, but those goals do not necessarily come at the expense of the other country. Yet, China’s international political goals of favorable trade policies and stability in developing countries’ regimes are quite similar to our own. Iran, even in pursuit of a nuclear weapon, can barely get a handle on its own population and its neighbors, let alone the United States.

Put differently, just because a country exists with geopolitical goals different from our own does not make them our “enemy.” And Gallup, by framing the question as such, continues the militaristic assumption that America must have an enemy at any given time.

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Slate is touting this blog post as “The one graph that explains why America is losing power so quickly.” Well, that sounds promising. Let’s see it!

That may look scary, but notice that the big convergence occurs after 2010-2011. More importantly, look how straight the projection lines are!

And yet, the lesson of the first half of the graph is that conditions are often unpredictable. A straight line projection from 2000 would have drastically understated India and China’s growth and overstated Russia’s. Similarly, a straight line projection may under- or over-state their growth in the future.

There are signs of slowing in Chinese GDP. And frankly, China may not want that level of growth for too long.

I’m not saying that China won’t surpass American GDP. They have a billion people and a sea of capital; I’m sure they’ll do it sooner rather than later. But despite the bold straight-line predictions of the graph, such projections are almost always wrong. (See the housing bubble.)

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This viral video (Not Safe For Life… seriously, fairly disturbing) of a Chinese toddler getting run over by a van has been making the rounds. Most infuriating, the video shows many bystanders passing the toddler and refusing to help. This has led to substantial discussion about how cold-hearted the Chinese are, as well as other cultural stereotypes.

But one thing worth noting here is that many cultural differences stem from the incentives developed in default rules.

Consider this quote from the driver of the van:

According to reports the van driver had just split up from his girlfriend and was talking on his mobile phone when he hit the girl.

“If she is dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan ($3,125). But if she is injured, it may cost me hundreds of thousands yuan,” said the driver over the phone to the media, before he gave himself up to the police.

This sounds like absolutely vile cost-benefit analysis bordering on straight-up murder, but the way that costs are distributed in accidents changes our behavior before and during accidents. Vile though it may be, were the costs shifted differently, and the costs of death higher than the costs of injury, perhaps the driver would have behaved differently.

Similarly, much outrage has been directed towards the “cold-hearted” bystanders who watched for seven minutes before a rag collector moved the girl to the curb. Why a rag-collector and not one of the middle-class shopkeepers and shoppers? China does not have a Good Samaritan law that protects bystanders who help in an accident. As a result, there are cases picked up in the media like this one:

In November of 2006, an elderly woman surnamed Xu in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, suffered two fractures after falling at a bus station. She later successfully sued a man named Peng Yu, who claimed to have voluntarily helped her.

Despite a lack of evidence, a local court ruled that Peng was guilty and ordered him to pay compensation of over 40,000 yuan ($6,184) to the woman. The verdict was based on the “logical thinking” that it was highly possible that Peng had knocked the woman down, otherwise he would not have helped her to hospital. The case was eventually settled out of court with mediation from provincial officials.

Since then, the name “Peng Yu” has become a label for such cases, leading many to believe that helping out an old lady might not be the best idea.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The reason you would get out of your car to help someone injured in the road has nothing to do with your legal liability. Because of the kind of person you are, you would risk your life, financial standing, etc. to help a person in need.

But we live in a society where that background norm is enforced through Good Samaritan laws, and a strong presumption in favor of the person coming to aid. If the background norm were different, you might behave differently. And if the incentives moved in the other direction, one might expect many fewer Good Samaritans.

Consider a final example. The Japanese famously return stolen and found goods to the authorities (most notably after the recent earthquake and tsunami). Many chalk this up to a cultural norm that the Japanese have of honor, duty, and communal strength. Yet, it is also a reflection of a legal regime that strongly encourages finders to return stolen goods and encourages police to return goods to owners. Police boxes dot Japan for people to place found goods, and finders get a small reward for found property. Furthermore, keeping the found goods counts as embezzlement with a substantial fine. Japan also has firmer policies in place regarding police return of stolen goods. (As James May puts it on Top Gear, “I would have obeyed the speed limit, officer, but frankly, the police never found the TV that was stolen from me.”)

Maybe the Japanese return goods because they are naturally honest and communatarian. Maybe the Chinese commit hit-and-runs and ignore injured toddlers because they are naturally cold-hearted.

Or maybe cultural differences have as much to do with legal incentive structures as with innate culture.

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Some commentators, such as Ceng Ugyur and others (rounded up by On the Media here), have expressed skepticism about the alleged Iranian-planned assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

They note that a car salesman isn’t a likely choice for Iranian assassin, and that Iranian intelligence generally looks to its own agents rather than independent contractors. Typical reaction:

Are we to believe that this Texas car seller was a Quds sleeper agent for many years resident in the U.S.? Ridiculous. They (the Iranian command system) never ever use such has-beens or loosely connected people for sensitive plots such as this.

Yet, the fact is that most assassination plots are nutty, ill-conceived, and poorly executed.

Let’s not forget that the CIA tried to enlist the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro (not a joke!).

Let’s not forget that the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln was a loose band of Confederate irregulars and sympathizers.

Russian spies are basically just running real estate scams at this point, and national intelligence agencies increasingly use contractors to avoid their own culpability.

My point is, just because this assassination plot sounds wacky doesn’t mean it didn’t actually happen. Outrageous bullshit and national intelligence agencies go hand in hand.

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The New York Times Magazine printed a chat dialogue this past weekend between Michael Ignatieff, David Rieff, James Traub, Paul Berman, and Ian Buruma, about the aftermath of 9/11 and its effect on foreign policy.

The chat, between liberal writers (mostly reporters), gives a fair view of the chats inside the salons of liberal intelligentsia. As such, it also epitomizes everything that is wrong with the liberal response to 9/11.

From the outset, the discussion is entirely between well-to-do, white, male, Western writers, none of whom speak Arabic or have spent an extended time in the Middle East or Central Asia (despite all being “experts”). This is not merely a cosmetic criticism — any discussion about post-9/11 foreign policy is almost meaningless without someone from the Arab/Muslim (not interchangeable, I know) world, which is actually targeted by our wars. Here are a bunch of armchair intellectuals trying to fumble with what the “Arab Spring” “means” — without talking to any Arabs! Many more Iraqis and Afghans have died than coalition forces, and yet, here we are debating if we maybe should have done things differently.

Beyond that initial complaint, the discussion largely centers on the competence and scope of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the only participant in the discussion who seems to think that American intervention for “liberal” causes was largely a bad idea is Buruma. This excerpt is typical:

MALCOMSON: In terms of what should be done now, two questions: Do you (each) believe that the Western or American public, having financed and fought most of this since 9/11, is eager to engage in further advancement of liberal arguments? If not, does that matter? And relatedly, President Obama has to figure out what to do himself, pretty practically. (He makes little public reference to 9/11, interestingly.) Where do you see whatever lessons we might have learned in the past decade taking policies in the near future?

TRAUB: On the first question, this is what troubles me about David’s response. There is a big difference between humility and despair. I think we have learned a lot about limits. But I don’t think the lesson is: We can do nothing to shape better outcomes in the world; we only make things worse. I would say that the American people, far from being interventionist, as they were in the aftermath of 9/11, are now heavily isolationist. How does one find the language that justifies a significant and positive American role in the world? Obama is searching — not so successfully, right now.

BURUMA: One way is to be concrete. I really don’t know what “advancing the liberal argument” means, except that it is supposed to make us feel warm all over. Are we talking about U.S. government policies? Fine. Military intervention, to topple regimes, the Napoleonic enterprise of revolutionary war, is almost always a mistake. Humanitarian intervention is the way this is phrased these days, but in fact this is often not so different from the Napoleonic way. There are things a powerful government can do to help democrats and liberals in other countries short of military force. Sometimes it is better to do nothing much at all. I believe that Obama’s relative passivity vis a vis the Green Revolution in Iran, for example, actually helped. It gave room for people in the Middle East to find their own way, without fear of being seen as America’s boys.

BERMAN: I think that “advancing the liberal argument” has a simple meaning. We should try to demonstrate the falsity of horrendous ideas — e.g., the false nature of Islamism. Islamism is not “the solution,” as it claims to be. It is a compilation of modern and ancient ideas, admixed with a great many horrendous European ideas. We should try to expose the nature of these doctrines. Very important, for instance, is to put up an argument against anti-Semitism, a key element in totalitarian doctrines, sooner or later. Women’s rights: another big theme.

Do these arguments mean nothing? We know very well that, in Iran, the universities are a center of resistance. Do people in other parts of the world listen to our own arguments? They do. They argue back. Exchanges go on. This — THIS — is the actual solution: the advancing of lucidity. I wish Obama did a bit more of it, given that, unlike Bush, he has the talent to do so. But it is not ultimately for politicians to do. This is something that intellectuals, writers, artists, journalists can do — something that quite a few NGO’s have been doing, with success too, as we have lately learned.

BURUMA: If only everybody in the world would read The New Republic, the world would solve all its problems.

Buruma’s snark at the end, although not entirely professional, was a necessary counterbalance to all the chest-thumping. In Berman’s world (and even Traub’s), the question about 9/11 has been all about us. It’s “what about America?” and “what should America do?” rather than considering what we have done and who it has affected. (Luckily Malcolmson addresses this point, if only briefly.) If only we intervened in the “right” way with the “right” types of force, we could succeed in winning hearts and minds. But this ignores entirely the question of our right to be in a war in the first place.

The discussants here fail to see 9/11 and our subsequent foreign policy in terms appropriate in scale for the event. Malcolmson goes so far as to compare the post-9/11 era to the Civil War — about as far from a comparable situation as one can get. 9/11 does not represent the potential end of the republic the way the Civil War did. The “existential threat” that 9/11 represented was never existential at all. 9/11 was al Qaeda’s best shot, and it was an attack on a symbol, not a military target — never a good strategic turn. (Attacking symbols rather than military targets was why the London Blitz failed… also, radar.) All the bloviating about “the threat to our way of life” as an excuse to go somewhere else and blow people up, and for what? Military responses to terrorism have almost always failed historically (see, for example, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), and yet that’s exactly what we rushed to do.

I’ll end on a pacifist note. Every discussant here believes that military intervention is appropriate in a variety of circumstances, with differing beliefs on what those circumstances are. The pacifist voice has been consistently marginalized in “serious” foreign policy debates, and anyone who says anything resembling pacifism is treated as participating in an intellectual exercise rather than the real world. When discussing post-9/11 foreign policy, the debate is always about “how much” military force to use, rather than “whether” to use force at all. “Give peace a chance” may be derided as unrealistic and naive, but I’d note that nobody has actually tried it.

(Side note: Try as I might, I could not find any similar roundtable discussion by Arab-American or Muslim about the American response to 9/11. How strange.)

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