When Andrew Sullivan announced last week that he was taking his uber-blog, The Dish, independent and relying solely on reader subscriptions to fund the operation, the first thing I thought of was...
Not because the announcement made me yearn for a nice IPA, but because it made me wonder whether what is happening to the media environment is in some ways analogous to the extraordinary improvements in brewmaking over the past couple of decades, especially here in North America.
Back in my youth, beer in America was a consistently bland and homogeneous product. Watery lagers predominated, because the big brewing companies all sought to appeal to the median drinker. There just wasn't much difference between Bud, Miller, Schlitz, etc., which is why beer like Coors -- which had even less flavor but was hard to get in much of the country -- could become a fad for awhile. Beer snobs sometimes drank imports like Beck's or Guinness, but the major U.S. brands were boring, conventional, and competing to be more-or-less like each other. Kinda like Detroit's Big Three automakers or the three major TV networks.
Enter the microbrewery revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, enterprising Americans in search of good beer began drawing on artisanal brewing traditions and techniques from Europe, leading to an explosion of small craft breweries whose main selling point was creativity and diversity. Not to mention taste. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, microbrews thrived by presenting unique and interesting products that could actually hold a beer fan's interest. Instead of putting out a cheap product to be swilled in front of the TV or at a football game, microbrewers sought to produce something you could savor, discuss, and get seriously passionate about. No wonder I haven't sipped a Bud in years. Even the Obama White House has caught the bug, producing its own Honey ale in recent years.
So too with blogs. As Sullivan has realized, you don't have to be connected to some big media giant like the New York Times or the Economist in order to have a significant readership. It helps to be part of a well-known brand, of course but it's not essential, especially if you're more interested in appealing to a smaller group of engaged readers than in grabbing as much market share and advertising revenue as you can.
Furthermore, as the diverse set of writers that Sullivan often features on his blog illustrate, those who work primarily in the blogosphere are usually more interesting, provocative, willing to experiment, and well-informed than the mainstream commentators and pundits writing for the big media outlets. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm constantly impressed by how many smart people and good writers now inhabit the internet, and I frequently find myself in awe of how well so many of them use language and how much genuine pleasure one can get from reading them. By contrast, outstanding writing is becoming harder to find in a lot of mainstream media platforms, and its almost an endangered species in the hallowed halls of academe. It's not that they are bad writers, it's just that they are mostly so cautious, predictable, and bland. You know: like PBR.
Given the effectiveness of modern search engines, interested citizens can get lots of information from the web if they're willing do a little bit of dedicated trolling, which in turn makes it harder for governments, interest groups, or big media conglomerates to control discourse anymore. And that's why authoritarian governments in countries like China or Iran have worked so hard to slap restrictions on this free-wheeling environment, lest their own actions and legitimacy get undermined by the unconstrained flow of ideas.
None of this is big news by now, and Sullivan isn't the first blogger to rely solely on reader support. He's just the most visible and prominent, and his experiment reminds us that the information revolution that we are all living through is still in its early stages. But I hope Sullivan's venture succeeds and that others follow his lead. I don't know what the information industries will look like a decade or two into the future, but it's certain to be different than it is today and a lot different than it was when I was a kid. I'm already reconciled to the fact that I'll eventually have to give up my cherished morning newspapers and get almost everything in digitized form. I'll heave a nostalgic sigh when that happens, but in the end I think it will be for the best. Why? Because I also believe that the open exchange of information and ideas eventually leads to greater collective wisdom and better public policies. For this reason, the break-up of big media oligopolies and the proliferation of independent voices is a good thing.
And on that happy note, I think I'll have a beer.
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A thought struck me as I was reading the obits of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Several accounts highlighted Brubeck's role as a cultural ambassador, through his participation in various goodwill tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. A number of other prominent jazz artists -- including luminaries like Louis Armstrong -- were featured in these tours, which were intended to show off the appealing sides of American culture in the context of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. This was a Bambi-meets-Godzilla competition, btw, with the Soviets in the role of Bambi. I like Shostakovich and respect the Bolshoi, but Soviet mass culture was outmatched when pitted against the likes of Satchmo.
But here's my question: why isn't the United States doing similar things today? The State Department still sponsors tours by U.S. artists -- go here for a bit more information -- but you hardly ever hear about them and it's not like we're sending "A-list" musicians out to display the vibrancy of American cultural life. Celebrities and musicians are more likely to do good will tours to entertain U.S. troops in places like Iraq, but the sort of tours that Brubeck and others did in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have become a minor endeavor at best.
The problem, I suspect, isn't a lack of interest in cultural diplomacy or even lack of funding. Instead, I think this is an consequence of globalization. Today, someone in Senegal or Indonesia who wants to hear American jazz (or hip-hop, or blues, or whatever) just needs an internet connection. The same is true in reverse, of course; I can download an extraordinary array of world music just sitting here in my study at home. And that goes for videos of performances too, whether we're talking music or dance or in some cases even theatre. Plus, top artists tour the world on their own in order to make money; they don't need to go as part of some official U.S. government sponsored tour. And given the unpopularity of U.S. foreign policy in some parts of the world, official sponsorship is probably the last thing some artists would want.
But there may some exceptions to that rule, in the sense that are a few countries where artistic exchanges might open things up in ways that diplomats cannot. Iran isn't likely to welcome Madonna, Christina Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake, perhaps, but have we thought about an artistic exchange with some slightly less edgy U.S. performers? If table tennis could help thaw relations with Mao's China, maybe jazz, acoustic blues, or even classical music could begin to break the ice with Tehran. Iran's has a large under-thirty population that is by all accounts hungry for greater access to world culture, so this sort of exchange would build good will with the populations that will be rising to positions of influence in the future. Plus, Iran has plenty of gifted performers who might find a ready audience here. And you can send a delegation of American musicians without violating UN sanctions or having to answer a lot of thorny questions about nuclear enrichment.
Update: In response to this post, Hishaam Aidi of Columbia University and the Open Society Institute sent me this piece, which takes a critical view of the State Department's more recent efforts to use hip-hop artists as a form of cultural outreach. Well worth reading, and my thanks to Hishaam for sending it to me.
The California Museum via Getty Images
I've been too busy to blog much this week, but I thought I"d mention that I've taken the plunge and signed up for Twitter (@StephenWalt). I'll probably use it sparingly, but who knows? Please bear with me until I get the hang of it. Brevity has never been my long suit, so this may take awhile.
Is modern media -- the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, and all that other stuff -- making realism obsolete? More specifically, if the essence of realism is the hard-headed pursuit of national interests, and especially the cool and dispassionate weighing of the costs and benefits of different policy choices, then is that approach undermined when policymakers are buffeted by viral videos of tyrannical outrages (e.g., Libya in 2011, Syria today) and well-crafted online campaigns to mobilize support for benevolent intervention? If ordinary citizens can watch carnage unfold wherever it might occur, how can national leaders remain aloof and conduct statecraft in the careful and prudent way that realism recommends?
Pretty easily, I'd say, although there will obviously be a few cases where presidents and prime ministers are pushed to take action by public outcry fueled by greater access to information. But on balance, I doubt the greater ease with which information now flows around the world will have a powerful systematic effect on what leaders ultimately decide to do.
In fact, this issue is just the latest incarnation of a rather old debate. Walter Lippmann famously argued that public opinion was too fickle to be a reliable guide to policy, and that better-informed elites would have to "manufacture consent" in order to lead effectively. Realists like George Kennan used to worry that democracies were no good at statecraft because public passions would warp the conduct of foreign policy, although other scholars have argued that democracies often out-perform authoritarian states because they are better at correcting their mistakes. Social scientists have long debated whether media coverage has any systematic effect on wartime behavior, military intervention, or other foreign policy elements. Check out the seminal works of Dan Hallin, Lance Bennett, or my colleague Matt Baum for more detailed coverage of this broad issue.
Meanwhile, what about the infamous "CNN effect" (or its modern cousin, the "YouTube Effect")? This is the idea that media coverage or internet avalanches can force policymakers to act when they would rather not. Scholarly research on this question suggests that the effect is pretty modest and highly conditional: Media coverage can affect decisions when policymakers are undecided, but it rarely sways them when they have firm views on the proper course of action. And that's just another way of saying that when it is obvious that one should stay out of an ongoing conflict, a lot of lurid media footage and YouTube videos of carnage aren't going to convince national leaders to do something really stupid.
There's another reason why the greater transparency that modern media provides does not produce a systematic shift towards intervention and away from realpolitik. Although seeing horrible events live-and-in-person triggers our sympathies and may mobilize activists, it also creates a powerful and vivid impression of just how much of a mess a given society might be. While reinforcing our sense of outrage, in short, such images also highlight the costs and dangers of getting involved. On balance, therefore, the greater availability of images and other unmediated information might even make ill-founded interventions less likely.
Furthermore, political leaders of all kinds still prefer to conduct a lot of their business in the dark, especially when the use of force is concerned. Iran and China have tried to make it hard for outsiders to hear about domestic crackdowns, and North Korea remains the poster child for a society that does its best to prevent outside scrutiny. But let's not forget that democratic leaders sometimes prefer to do the nation's business in the dark. Dick Cheney never did tell us who was on that energy task force of his, and the Obama administration still refuses to talk candidly about drone strikes and special forces operations. And remember that infamous Wikileaks video of an Apache helicopter killing a Reuters journalist in Iraq? Those images didn't do anything to encourage public support for the war effort, which is perhaps one reason why the U.S. government launched an all-out assault on Wikileaks itself.
Bottom line: The ubiquity of information and the growing ability to see far-flung events for ourselves is undoubtedly having some impact on what we (think we) know about the world, and in some cases may push undecided policymakers in surprising directions. And as I've noted before, the leaders of powerful countries like the United States may be particular vulnerable to such pressures, in part because they've convinced themselves that they have a responsibility to "lead" and in part because the U.S. is so powerful that it is sometimes hard to remember that we can't do everything. But on the whole, the globalization of information doesn't free national leaders from the need to think first and foremost about what is in their own country's interests, and thus to weigh costs, risks, and benefits carefully. In short, realism is not dead.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
Remember the Golden Rule? "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's not normally regarded as a cardinal rule of foreign policy; in that realm, "an eye for an eye" seems closer to the norm. But lately I've been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.
This past week, the New York Times has published two important articles on how the Obama administration is using American power in ways that remain poorly understood by most Americans. The first described Obama's targeted assassination policy against suspected terrorists, and the second describes the U.S. cyber-warfare campaign against Iran. Reasonable people might disagree about the merits of both policies, but what I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It's not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I've noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn't know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.
Remember back in 2009, when Obama supposedly extended the "hand of friendship" to Iran? At the same time that he was making friendly video broadcasts, he was also escalating our cyber-war efforts against Iran. When Iran's Supreme leader Ali Khamenei reacted coolly to Obama's initiative, saying: "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president. We are observing, watching, and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago," U.S. pundits immediately saw this as a "rebuff" of our supposedly sincere offer of friendship. With hindsight, of course, it's clear that Khamenei had every reason to be skeptical; and now, he has good grounds for viewing Obama as inherently untrustworthy. I'm no fan of the clerical regime, but the inherent contradictions in our approach made it virtually certain to fail. As it did.
We keep wondering: "Why do they hate us?" Well, maybe some people are mad because we are doing things that we would regard as unjustified and heinous acts of war if anyone dared to do them to us. I'm not really surprised that the U.S. is using its power so freely -- that is what great powers tend to do. I'm certainly not surprised that government officials prefer to keep quiet about it, or only leak information about their super-secret policies when they think they can gain some political advantage by doing so. But I also don't think Americans should be so surprised or so outraged when others are angered by actions that we would find equally objectionable if we were the victims instead of the perpetrators.
And if we keep doing unto others in this way, it's only a matter of time before someone does it unto us in return.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Apart from a few brief sojourns at various think tanks, I've spent most of
my professional life in the academic world. Seven of these years were spent
helping run various programs, first as deputy dean of social sciences at the
University of Chicago and later as academic dean here at the Kennedy School. I
have one child in college and another heading there in two years. You can
therefore assume I have a certain professional and personal interest in the
whole business of higher education.
Which is why I find discussions of how technology might transform this whole enterprise quite fascinating. It's hard not to read such articles and wonder how my own job might change in the years ahead, and to reflect on how I think it ought to change. I have not studied this issue in detail, so what follows are some purely impressionistic observations, based mostly on my own experience.
1. I think there's no doubt that the traditional model of the academic lecture is headed the way of the dodo. I say that with a certain wistful regret, because I enjoy lecturing and like to think I'm fairly good at it. But it's hardly an efficient mode of information-transmission, and there are plenty of studies suggesting that students don't learn particularly well in this sort of passive "I-speak-while-you-listen-and- take-notes" experience. Lecturing of the old-fashioned sort can be entertaining and inspirational, but real learning requires students to engage and wrestle with the material instead of just hearing some older person declaim about it.
2. Given that top-flight faculty are among any college or university's scarcest resources, having them stand in front of a handful of students and talk is especially inefficient, and all the more so in basic introductory courses. In other words, you probably don't want Nobel Prize winners teaching basic statistics, Economics 101, or even Intro to Biology -- especially when there may be lots of less renowned people who are actually better at doing that. But you do want students to have the opportunity to interact with the most brilliant minds, to argue with them, to see how they do their work, and to be inspired by their example. And that means creating different sorts of educational experiences (seminars, workshops, mini-courses, etc.) rather than just one.
3. Information technology is making it possible to transmit educational content at almost no cost; you can put course materials on the web and stream lectures to anyone with an internet hookup. This is what MIT is doing now, and it doesn't seem to be discouraging people from wanting to attend full-time and pay full-freight. There are also online teaching programs that might do a better job of teaching basic materials (such as introduction to microeconomics, statistics, calculus, etc.) than that old model of the single lecturer with a chalkboard and a pile of notes. This suggests that we ought to be thinking of ways to use faculty rather differently -- in more interactive and personal modes--where hands-on attention, genuine inspiration, and pedagogical ability can produce big payoffs, while using online tools to deliver basic factual or technical content.
4. I suspect that in the near future we are going to see a lot of experimentation with new forms of higher education, reflecting the fact that these institutions in fact serve many purposes other than merely transmitting knowledge/skills to students. One reason MIT can make its content available for free is that students understand there is a difference between watching lectures online and actually being in the class, being on the campus, and being immersed in the broader in-person environment. In the United States, at least, universities and colleges also provide a relatively safe space for making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. They are environments where young people can meet future spouses of similar class or social backgrounds, have lots of arguments with peers and with their professors, and get a lot of preconceived notions challenged. For many young people (though not all), college is about a lot more than just what they learn in class, which is one reason parents are willing to pay through the nose to make that whole experience possible.
What I'm describing here, of course, is the traditional model of a liberal arts education, and it's hardly the only model out there. Other institutions (e.g., commuter colleges, junior colleges, vocational institutes) serve somewhat different educational functions and are already organized differently. My guess, therefore, is that changes in information technology and the overall globalization of information and education is going to produce an explosion of innovation over the next few years. The traditional four-year university/college won't disappear, but it will be coexisting and competing with a lot of other models.
Lastly, this is going to be a painful process. Universities are filled with brilliant and innovative people -- as individuals -- but they are also incredibly conservative institutions (not politically, but in the sense of being wary of change). As a former Harvard president reportedly said, "trying to change the curriculum is like moving a graveyard." Faculties don't like having to retool and alumni and other stakeholders often have powerful emotional attachments to traditional ways of doing business. And the older and more successful a university is, the more impervious to change it is likely to be.
Plus, coming up with new educational models is hard to do if you're already working pretty hard teaching the existing program. But there's no stopping this sort of Schumpeterian "creative destruction," and I'd hate to be working for the educational equivalent of Polaroid -- a brilliant and innovative company that proved unable to adapt to a rapidly changing technological frontier.
Now if we can just get universities out of the business of running semi-professional athletic teams...
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A graduate student at UC-Berkeley, Allan Dafoe, has asked for my help in a project he's conducting (in collaboration with researchers at Uppsala University) on the impact of perception in international crises. To be more precise, what he really wants is your help. Part of his project involves collecting responses from "foreign policy elites" to a hypothetical crisis scenario, and who better than the enlightened readers of this blog?
Because FP readers are hardly typical -- even among "foreign policy elites" -- there is obviously a potential problem of sampling bias here. But that is for Allan and his collaborators to sort out. If you'd like to become a data point in his project, go to this link and take the survey. It will take you about five minutes, and you'll be helping extend our knowledge of crisis behavior. Then you can go back to sticking pins in your voodoo doll of whichever U.S. politician you think is most responsible for the embarrassing spectacle that has been playing itself out in Washington.
I'm in New York today, to appear at a symposium at the Open Society Institute. We'll be discussing Evgeny Morozov's new book Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and I'm looking forward to hearing how Evgeny and the other panelists view the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. If you're so inclined, you can watch a live-stream of the event here.
I won't be blogging from the road on this (short) trip, but I would also call your attention to Thanassis Cambanis's piece on the case for a more restrained U.S. grand strategy that appeared in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe. Most of his attention is on the recent writings of Barry Posen, John Mearsheimer, and Andrew Bacevich (deservedly so), though he does drop in a brief reference to yours truly. My only question is: Why does he think I'm "ornery"? Acerbic, maybe; judgmental, perhaps; but "ornery"? :-)
Today's NY Times reported the death of Gladys Horton, lead singer of the Marvelettes, whose recording of "Please Mr. Postman" was Motown Records first No. 1 hit. I first heard the song in the Beatles' cover version (which ain't bad), but the original is even better: sharp, urgent, and it's got that classic Motown groove (courtesy of the immortal Funk Bros.)
There's something rather symbolic in the timing of Ms.
Horton's death, especially in light of what's going on in the Arab world. You don't see the
connection? Consider the lyrics of
Please Mister Postman, look and see? (Oh yeah)?
If there's a letter in your bag for me? (Please, Please Mister Postman)
Why's it takin' such a long time? (Oh yeah)?
For me to hear from that boy of mine?
There must be some word today?
From my boyfriend so far away?
Please Mister Postman, look and see?
If there's a letter, a letter for me
I've been standin' here waitin' Mister Postman?
For just a card, or just a letter?
Sayin' he's returnin' home to me"
The song is an anthem to anticipation, uncertainty, and longing -- why hasn't she heard from that absent boyfriend? -- and the entire premise of the song depends on that fact she's waiting for an actual physical letter to be delivered. It's back in the era of snail mail, folks, when long-distance telephony was prohibitively expensive and there was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, no way for ordinary people to communicate instantly on a regular basis over long distances. That also meant you were really dependent on whatever newspapers, TV, and radio chose to tell you.
I remember my first trip overseas in 1976, to study at Stanford's overseas campus in Berlin. Correspondence with my then-girlfriend took a minimum of three weeks (round-trip), and longer if one of us was slow in responding. Like the singer in the song: you waited for a letter, and wondered what no news meant. If a letter was delayed, you agonized over what it might imply. It was a world where events moved more slowly, precisely because it took time for news to spread. Today, my teenaged son and daughter are surprised and irritated if a friend doesn't respond to a text in five minutes.
Now consider what we're seeing in the Middle East. Whatever the ultimate outcome of events in the Arab world, the speed with which large numbers of people have responded to events far away is remarkable. Just as audiocassettes of the Ayatollah Khomeini's sermons served as a medium of transmission in Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, here a combination of modern mass media (Al Jazeera, the Internet, email, Twitter, etc.) has clearly played a major role in driving the pace of events.
At the same time, we're living with a nearly unprecedented outpouring of previously hidden information, via Wikileaks and the "Palestine Papers." This is the wave of the future, I suspect, because the Internet is making it impossible to contain a secret once it's out. Even if governments convinced some news agencies to suppress a secret, somebody somewhere else would release it and then we would all find it on the Web. That gives leakers a bigger incentive to release classified information, precisely because they can be more confident that the leak will get noticed and have an impact. This situation is bound to have significant second-order effects, as governments have to choose between supporting greater transparency, taking harsher action against leakers, or being more reluctant to speak candidly or to record confidential exchanges in ways that could be leaked.
In "Please Mr. Postman," the Marvelettes began by exhorting him to "Wait!" In today's world, the mediasphere isn't waiting for anyone.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
There's been a lot of thoughtful reaction already to the appalling shooting in Tucson, much of it focusing on what it says about the polarized state of American politics and the violent and overheated rhetoric that has been a staple of right-wing political discourse over the past decade or so. I don't have anything deeply profound to add to this discussion, but I do want to offer two thoughts.
First, when something horrific like this happens, we can only hope that we learn something from an otherwise awful event. In my course on the causes of war, I tell students that learning valuable lessons from the history of human conflict is a way to make the losses suffered in war worth something; it is a way of at least partly redeeming the sacrifices that others made. The greatest benefit we could derive from the Tucson madness would a lot of genuine soul-searching within our political establishment, and especially among the pundits and media figures who have made hateful and violent rhetoric a key part -- and in some cases, the only distinctive element -- of their discourse. And frankly, I don't know what's worse: when politicians use extreme and demonizing rhetoric to advance a political agenda, or when media figures use hateful and violent rhetoric merely to make a buck. If this tragedy helps delegitimize such behavior, and restore some measure of civility to our political discourse, we will all have gained something from a tragic and senseless event.
Second, those of us who do some or all of our work in the blogosphere should do some soul-searching ourselves. Rhetoric in the blogosphere is a lot more combative and even violent than what you'd typically read in your local newspaper, or what you'd read in a scholarly journal. And this isn't just a monopoly of the political right: You can find some pretty hot language coming from bloggers on the left as well. Bloggers like to use verbs like "demolish," or "eviscerate" when discussing those with whom they disagree, as in "Smith offers a new justification for the war in Afghanistan, and Jones shreds it here." Or we get into heated exchanges that degenerate into name-calling and various forms of character assassination. Sometimes editors make this worse by going for edgy or combative headlines to titillate readers and drive up page-views. Edginess is part of what makes the blogosphere entertaining, I guess, but is it also contributing to the coarsening of our political values and the erosion of any sense of shared identity, humility, and common humanity? And don't get me started about the flame wars that occur in the "comments" sections, where people exploit anonymity to voice all manner of vile accusations.
I've tried to avoid that sort of thing in my own postings, but I suspect you could find a few places where I went further than I should have. So as we mourn the victims, hope for the survivors, and reflect on what this says the state of our country at this moment, let's spend some time looking in the mirror. Words matter, people, and if we are all going to be part of a public conversation, we owe it the society of which we are part to conduct it in a spirited, frank, but civil manner. Or we will reap what we sow.
Postscript: I'm leaving for an extended trip to Southeast Asia today, to attend some meetings at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and to give a series of lectures there and in Vietnam. It's my first visit to the latter country, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity. Blogging will be erratic while I'm on the road, although I'll try to squeeze a few posts in when I can.
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This is the time of year when pundits (and party-goers) get asked to offer predictions for the New Year. I'm going to resist the temptation, because as Yogi Berra warned, "prediction is really hard, especially about the future." He was right.
In 1849, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "war is on its last legs, and universal peace is as sure as is the prevalence of civilization over barbarism." In 1911, British scholar G.P. Gooch wrote that "even a successful conflict between states can bring no material gain. We can now look forward with something like confidence to the time when war between civilized nations will be considered as antiquated as the duel, and when the peacemakers shall be called the children of God." And we all know about the famous forecast that humanity had reached the "end of history," or the claim that globalization would eventually force other states to copy America's farsighted combination of markets, financial innovation, and "rule of law" if they wanted to enjoy economic prosperity. Yeah, right.
But it's not just these optimistic forecasts that turn out to be off-base; fortunately, some pretty pessimistic predictions did not pan out either. In 1950, a smart guy named Albert Einstein warned that "unless we are able, in the near future, to abolish the mutual fear of military aggression, we are doomed." In 1961, physicist and novelist C.P. Snow predicted that "The nuclear arms race is accelerating: within at the most ten years, some of these bombs are going off. I am saying this as responsibly as I can. That is the certainty." The late Herman Kahn, another physicist and self-proclaimed futurologist, offered a similar forecast at about the same time, declaring that "unless we have more serious and sober thought we are not going to reach the year 2000 -- or even 1965 -- without a cataclysm."
These failed forecasts might lead you to conclude that you simply shouldn't listen to predictions by physicists, but even a good realist like Hans Morgenthau got it badly wrong at times. In 1979, Morgenthau predicted that "the world is moving ineluctably toward a third world war -- a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it. The international system is simply too unstable to survive for long." All I can say is that I'm glad he was wrong.
For a longer list of failed predictions about war and peace, check out the appendix to John Mueller's Quiet Cataclysm, which was my source for the quotations offered above. I'm not saying that scholars, pundits, and prognosticators don't get it right from time to time, but trying to offer specific predictions for the next year or so strikes me as a harmless but not very serious exercise. Social scientists can forecast certain broad trends, and our theories can certainly identify recurring tendencies that can help us anticipate broad features of the emerging strategic landscape. But the combination of human imagination, agency, contingency, and unanticipated consequences generally plays havoc with efforts at crystal ball-gazing.
Case in point: at a New Year's Eve party two years ago, I predicted that at least one country would leave the eurozone within the next year. I was clearly wrong about the specifics, but not about the general problems that the euro would face. Which merely goes to show that you can be broadly right but still be precisely wrong.
In any case, I'm not going to offer any predictions this year (at least not until I've had a glass or two of champagne). Instead, I'm taking the social scientist's normal cop-out and will look in the rearview mirror instead. And instead of just gazing back at 2010, here's my Top Ten Global Events of the past decade, in no particular order of importance:
1. January 2001: The inauguration of President Gore (oops, I mean Bush). The contested U.S. presidential election in 2000 proved even more momentous than we realized at the time, because it brought George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and a gaggle of neoconservatives to power. I'm not saying Al Gore would have made a great foreign-policy president, but it's hard to imagine anyone doing a worse job than Bush and Co. All in all, a hell of a way to start a decade.
2. 9/11. No surprise here, of course. 9/11 altered the course of U.S. foreign policy as dramatically as Pearl Harbor in 1941, and mostly for the worse, and because the United States is so powerful, its response to 9/11 had far-reaching implications all over the world. As horrific as that day was, the real damage came in the form of self-inflicted wounds (such as the invasion of Iraq) that proved even more costly than al Qaeda's original attack.
3. The Beijing Olympics. I pick this as a symbol of China's emergence as a major player in global politics, which is of course precisely what the Chinese government intended. One could also argue that it marked the end of China's self-effacing strategy of a "peaceful rise," and the beginning of a more self-assertive approach to advancing Chinese national interests. In other words, they're starting to act a lot like the great powers of the past, which implies increased great-power security competition in the decades ahead.
4. The Crash Heard 'Round the World. When the history of the 21st century is written, the financial meltdown that began in 2007 is bound to receive plenty of scrutiny. Unless, the same institutions whose greedy machinations helped produce it -- and who are still largely in place -- manage to generate something even worse in the years to come.
Yesterday I learned that one of my posts-to be specific, my thoughts on the Cordoba House/Park 51 controversy -- is a finalist for 2010 Prize in Politics from the internet aggregator website 3Quarks Daily.
The winners will be chosen by journalist and writer Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper's, and announced on Dec. 21. I'm grateful to anyone who mentioned me during the nomination period and I feel honored to be among the finalists. I will now start preparing my "concession" post for Dec. 22.
See 3Quarks Daily nominations here.
While the demonization of Julian Assange continues apace, the following thought occurred to me (it probably occurred to you already). Suppose a reporter like David Sanger or Helene Cooper of the New York Times had been given a confidential diplomatic cable by a disgruntled government employee (or "unnamed senior official"). Suppose it was one of the juicier cables recently released by Wikileaks. Suppose further that Sanger or Cooper had written a story based on that leaked information, and then put the text of the cable up on the Times website so that readers could see for themselves that the story was based on accurate information. Would anyone be condemning them? I doubt it. Whoever actually leaked the cable might be prosecuted or condemned, but the journalists who published the material would probably be praised, and their colleagues would just be jealous that somebody else got a juicy scoop.
So if one leaked cable is just normal media fodder, how about two or three? What about a dozen? What's the magic number of leaks that turns someone from an enterprising journalist into the Greatest Threat to our foreign policy since Daniel Ellsberg? In fact, hardly anyone seems to be criticizing the Times or Guardian for having a field day with the materials that Wikileaks provided to them (which is still just a small fraction of the total it says it has), and nobody seems to hounding the editors of these publications or scouring the penal code to find some way to prosecute them.
I don't know if the sex crime charges against Assange in Sweden have any merit, and I have no idea what sort of person he really is (see Robert Wright here for a thoughtful reflection on the latter issue). I also find it interesting that the overwrought U.S. reaction to the whole business seems to be reinforcing various anti-American stereotypes. But the more I think about it, the less obvious it is to me why the man is being pilloried for doing wholesale what establishment journalists do on a retail basis all the time.
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I am traveling a lot this week -- first to D.C. and then to Toronto -- so blogging is likely to be light through Friday. Before I head off to get poked and prodded by the friendly TSA personnel at Logan, I thought I'd leave you with a hypothetical to ponder, inspired by the latest WikiLeaks releases.
Here's the question: How much difference would it really make if all these "private" diplomatic meetings were public? Suppose there was no such thing as a "private" diplomatic meeting or a back-channel discussion. I can easily imagine that world leaders wouldn't like it very much -- but how much would world politics change if all these conversations were held in public so that people could see and hear what was being said?
I don't have a firm answer on this issue, but one possibility is that this hypothetical situation would pose a much bigger problem for authoritarian leaders than it would for democratically elected ones. If an autocrat knew that their conversations would all be public, they wouldn't be able to say one thing in private and then say something else when speaking on the record. And that means that some of them might have to adopt positions that were more in accordance with their populations wishes, particularly if their hold on power was tenuous. It would all be on the record. By contrast, a democratic leader would just have to take positions that they felt would appeal to their electorate, which isn't such a terrible idea on its face.
Of course, there's a downside here: you'd get a lot more posturing, and maybe even diplomatic rigidity, as leaders of all kinds tried to show that they were tough bargainers. And public opinion is a fickle thing, and you wouldn't want leaders to be nothing more than weather vanes mouthing whatever their latest poll told them to say. It's also likely that some diplomatic conversations would be empty and stilted, because nobody wanted to talk about anything serious in the full glare of open disclosure. But diplomatic problems still need to get solved, and a world of full disclosure might actually force leaders of all types to explain the realities behind their decisions a bit more, and educate the population when public opinion was off-base.
But my real question remains: Would it really make that much difference? Would a world of "open covenants, openly arrived at" (to use Wilson's phrase) really be that different than the world in which we live today? And aren't all those people who are now defending the importance of diplomatic confidentiality really saying that there is a lot of information that our leaders have to keep from us, or else the world will all go to hell?
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As with earlier WikiLeaks "revelations," the latest batch of classified communications is bound to be something of a Rorschach test. With a wealth of cables from which to choose, readers will be inclined to see in them what they want to see. I've been reading some of the latest releases and I've read the New York Times accounts pretty carefully, but thus far, I haven't seen anything that fundamentally alters my views about U.S. foreign policy. Nor have I seen any other commentator who says that they've changed their mind about some important contemporary issue either. That said, here are a few tentative reactions.
First, everyone should remember that these documents are not revealed truth or literal transcripts of an event. Like most forms of diplomatic reportage, they are a version of events or a summary of impressions, as seen through the eyes of the person (in most cases mid-level officials) who are drafting the message. Even when one is just summarizing a meeting, whoever is drafting the cable gets to emphasize certain things and to omit or downplay others, and that includes the possibility that they misheard, misinterpreted, or misunderstood what was said. Context matters too: what foreign officials say will be shaped by what they are trying to accomplish and also what they think their American interlocutors want or need to hear, and it's hard to identify the full context from these releases alone.
Please note that I am not arguing that there isn't useful information here. My point is that we bear in mind that these cables are the products of individual human drafters who have their own agendas and frailties, and that the discussions they are summarizing do not occur in isolation. And although these documents clearly tell us something about a number of key policies, they are a very incomplete picture.
Second, as with previous WikiLeaks releases, we need to be very wary about our initial conclusions. Only a small number of cables have been released so far, and the media outlets that were given access to them (the New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel) are picking and choosing from among the one's they've seen. Until we've had a chance to see the full set of releases, a degree of interpretive caution is in order.
Third, I am less troubled than some others about the possibility that these documents will expose gaps between what governments say they are doing and what they are actually doing. Some commentators worry, for example, that these documents have exposed the hypocrisy of the Yemeni government, which has been pretending that it wasn't allowing the United States to conduct drone strikes on its territory. Others probably fear that some particularly pungent comments about various world leaders might get exposed, and thereby creating undesirable frictions. There's also the concern that foreign representatives will be less candid in the future, for fear of being exposed by some subsequent leak.
But let's get serious for a second. I doubt there are any major world leaders who once believed that we held them in the highest regard, and who will now be crushed to learn that some of our officials had reservations about them. (I'm willing to bet that plenty of foreign cables say less-than-flattering things about U.S. officials too, and that those officials wouldn't be entirely shocked were those reports to go public). I give most leaders a bit more credit than that: most people know when there are significant differences between allies and even personal points of friction, even if they are papered over with appropriate diplomatic niceties. It's mildly embarrassing to have this out in public, but I'm not sure anybody is going to feel seriously betrayed or misled.
And as for the possibility that American diplomats will be exposed as less than 100 percent honest: at this stage in our history, is all that even remotely surprising? I mean, after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Iran/Contra, the cruise missile attack on Sudan, Colin Powell's cooked-up testimony to the Security Council in 2002, how many people are under that many illusions about the dark underbelly of U.S. foreign policy? And it's hardly headline news to learn that the United States has been obsessed with Iran's nuclear program, reflexively solicitous of Israel's concerns, worried about North Korea, or deeply concerned about al Qaeda. Some of the details in these cables are interesting, but none of the dispatches I've read or the news accounts I've seen suggest that a major rewriting of recent diplomacy is in order.
Fourth, the recurring theme that I keep seeing in these documents -- it's my own Rorschach, I guess -- is how everybody around the world wants Uncle Sucker to solve their problems. South Korea and the U.S. talk about what to do if North Korea collapses. Israeli officials keep demanding that we deal with Iran and preserve their "qualitative military edge." Some Arab leaders in the Persian Gulf want us to stop an Iranian bomb too, but they don't agree on the steps we should take to achieve that aim. And so on.
You'd expect these documents to contain a lot of this sort of special pleading, of course, because they are reports from American officials who have been meeting with various foreign counterparts and trying to figure out what they think or want. Nonetheless, it is still striking how many pies the United States has its fingers in, and how others keep expecting us to supply the ingredients, do most of the baking, and clean up the kitchen afterwards.
Fifth, the big story in the early releases -- at least as highlighted in the Times -- seems to be the combination of the clear U.S. obsession with Iran and the fact that some Arab leaders expressed great concern about the prospect of an Iranian bomb. It was as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow that hard-line advocates of doing whatever it takes to stop an Iranian bomb would immediately seize upon the initial releases to buttress their case, but the documents don't actually support that conclusion. As Andrew Sullivan points out, the same people who routinely dismiss Arab calls for a different U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian peace process are now suddenly convinced that these same Arab leaders are pillars of wisdom. In any case, it is hardly a revelation to learn that some Gulf rulers would a) prefer a non-nuclear Iran, and b) would prefer it if the United States did the heavy lifting and bore the onus of taking care of this problem. It would be astonishing if they thought any other way.
But the crucial question all along has been how to address that issue, and here these releases show some ambivalence. There is hardly a consistent chorus of voices telling the United States to go ahead and bomb the place. Some leaders seem inclined in that way; others much less so. I've heard other senior Arab and Muslim officials say that it would be a calamity if we did.
Lastly, the big question I keep pondering is this: would it be all that bad if diplomats understood that secret deals and two-faced diplomacy wasn't going to be that easy anymore, because the true facts might leak out sooner rather than in twenty or thirty years time? I can think of a few cases where secrecy has been useful (Kennedy's deal over the Jupiter missiles in Turkey during the Cuban Missile Crisis comes to mind), but in general I think human beings -- and this include foreign policy-makers -- are more inclined to do bad things when they think they can do so without being exposed. If you have to keep something secret, that's often a sign that you shouldn't be doing it at all.
And at the risk of seeming like a naïve Wilsonian (the cruelest thing you can call a realist like me!), the whole episode raises the larger issue of whether the citizens of a republic have the right to know exactly what representatives are doing and saying in their name, backed up by the money and military power that the citizens have paid for with their taxes. And I don't mean finding out thirty years later, but now. I'm sure that most diplomats would prefer to minimize democratic scrutiny of their activities, as it would surely be annoying if Congress or the media or (God forbid!) ordinary citizens were to peer over their shoulders while they are trying to line up foreign support. But given that I am less and less convinced that our elites know what they are doing, I'm also less inclined to want to let them operate outside public view.
But there is a real downside, which is why I retain some concerns about this latest batch of revelations. If diplomats start fearing that any conversation or cable might get leaked, they will either stop talking, stop taking notes, or stop sending message back to headquarters in any sort of republishable form. There's an old line from Chicago city politics: "Don't write if you can talk; don't talk if you can nod; don't nod if you can wink." Somehow, I'm not sure our diplomacy will be enhanced if our representatives are reduced to making facial gestures, and communicating back home only through secure telephones.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
George Orwell once wrote: "In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." I thought of that line as I tried to sort through my reaction to the latest set of releases by Wikileaks, consisting primarily of detailed action reports from Iraq. My question is: Are we better off having an organization exploiting the viral potential of the internet in order to make public information that government officials would prefer to keep secret?
On the one hand, it doesn't thrill me to see individuals inside the national security bureaucracy take the classification process into their own hands and decide to leak large quantities of information. As much as I admire the courage of a whistle-blower like Daniel Ellsberg, government agencies can't operate without a certain degree of discipline and there's always the danger that someone will leak material that isn't just political embarrassing but actually contains information that might put us at greater risk. There's also the obvious concern that leaked information might expose people who have been helping us in places like Iraq or Afghanistan (although Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has acknowledged that earlier Wikileaks releases did not in fact compromises sensitive information or methods). Still, I think some secrets need to be kept, and that belief makes it hard for me to see Wikileaks' activities as an unalloyed good.
But several other considerations override these concerns, and lead me to conclude that, on balance, Wikileaks is performing a valuable service. To begin with, official outrage at Wikileaks' activities is more than a little disingenuous given the frequency that top officials leak classified information when it suits their political purposes. If former Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal can successfully tie a president's hands by leaking a confidential report calling for more troops, then why shouldn't others use Wikileaks to share information that they believe the public ought to know? And as long as senior officials try to advance their political agendas by sharing inside information with sympathetic journalists in off-the-record "background" briefings, it is hard for me to feel outrage when their subordinates decide that the information to which they are privy deserves a wider audience.
Furthermore, we live in an age of "universal deceit," when it is hard to trust anything someone in the national security world tells you. From the very moment that the Iraq War was conceived, for example, top U.S. officials deployed a vast array of disinformation and deceit -- supposedly based on top-secret intelligence information -- to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein posed a mortal threat to U.S. national security. Nor were they the first leaders to lie to the American public. And the lies continued well in to the war, as former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Ellen Knickmayer makes clear here. (H/T to Glenn Greenwald, whose own posts on this topic are well worth reading).
As Eric Alterman and John Mearsheimer have both documented, it is clear from the historical record that all governments lie for a wide variety of reasons. But unless you're willing to believe that the people in charge are always right and that their lies are therefore justified (and if you think that, you haven't been paying attention), you ought to be in favor of any mechanism that brought more facts to light.
It is also increasingly clear that the U.S. taxpayer is funding a vast array of clandestine activities of which they are only dimly aware, and whose value they have been asked to take almost entirely on faith. If some of these activities are misguided, then not only will we get stuck with the bill, but we are paying for activities that could be making us less secure.
Furthermore, if we have no idea what our government (or that growing army of private contractors) are really up to, then Americans won't understand why other countries may not like us very much. If we don't know about all the bad stuff we're doing, we'll think they hate us for "what we are" instead of "what we do." As I've noted before, Arab or Muslim hostility to the United States really shouldn't be a mystery, given the policies that the United States has adopted towards many of these societies over the past several decades. Do you really expect Iraqis to be grateful that the U.S. invaded their country and set off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died and millions became refugees?
The Founding Fathers thought that separation of powers and an independent press would ensure accountability, and but it's not as if Congress were performing rigorous oversight over all these activities, engaging in spirited debates over the merits of military intervention, or forcing either this administration or the last one to justify what it is doing overseas. The mainstream media hasn't exactly covered itself with glory over the past decade either, despite some isolated bright spots that subsequently disappeared down the memory hole. And lord knows that few, if any, of the architects of our recent foreign-policy debacles have been held accountable in any meaningful way.
Realist that I am, I believe that human beings are more likely to misbehave if they think they can shield what they are doing from public view. For that reason, I also believe that democratic societies are more likely to adopt better policies when information is plentiful and when government officials cannot determine which facts are available to the public and which are not. Because its primary function is to make more information available on issues that concern us all, I therefore conclude that what Wikileaks is doing is on balance a good thing.
Given the great power at the United States' disposal, I want the people running foreign and defense policy to know that what they are doing might be exposed to public scrutiny. I want them to think twice about whether the policies they are pursuing are defensible on either moral or practical grounds. I wish we'd known the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, or that we'd known the truth about Saddam's WMD (and his non-existent links to al Qaeda) before we invaded. And I'm glad we're finding out more about the Iraq War now, because that knowledge might help us avoid similar quagmires in the future. And if our elected officials, their appointed representatives, and a politicized and co-opted media won't tell us what we have a right to know, then I guess I'm glad that Wikileaks will.
Postscript: Contrary to FP colleague Peter Feaver's view, I don't think the documents offer that much help to defenders of the so-called "surge." No one denies that violence went down after the surge began, and those who discount the impact of the surge concede that the additional troops and new tactics played some role in that development. The new releases also confirm that changes within Iraqi society were also critical; i.e., violence also declined because Iraqis were war-weary and because prior ethnic cleansing had eliminated the mixed-sectarian neighborhoods where much of the prior violence had occurred.
The new releases also confirm that Iran was meddling in Iraq and backing some of the insurgents. This is not news, of course, and Iran's behavior was hardly surprising, given its obvious interest in trying to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq. Moreover, the U.S. is hardly in a position to accuse anyone of "interfering" in Iraq, given what we started in 2003. But this not-very-stunning "revelation" doesn't mean the surge was a success, because it didn't end Iranian influence in Iraq any more than it led to political reconciliation among the various Iraqi factions (who still can't manage to form a government). Once the United States had dismantled Saddam's Ba'thist and predominantly Sunni regime, Iraq's Shi'ites were bound to be more powerful and Iran's influence was bound to increase. (Too bad the Bush administration didn't think about that possibility before the war!) The surge didn't reverse that trend, and so the new revelations don't demonstrate that it was anything more than a tactical success whose long-term achievements remain very much in doubt.
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Some readers may recall that I've been a skeptic about the whole "cyber-war" business, and suggested that it was an ideal policy arena in which to expect threat-inflation. To be clear, I did not argue that there was absolutely nothing to it, or even that we could afford to ignore the problem, but there's no question that I've been less than fully persuaded by a lot of the hype.
It is therefore a fair question to ask whether the whole Stuxnet affair has altered my views on this matter. (For those of you just returning from a month wandering in the desert, I refer to the computer worm whose origins remain obscure but which has apparently affected a number of industrial control computers in Iran, presumably with the intent of disrupting their nuclear enrichment efforts).
So has the Stuxnet worm convinced me that the cyber-war/cyber-terror threat ought to be taken more seriously?
Yes and no.
On the one hand, this incident has provided a vivid demonstration of the potential impact that various cyber-weapons could have, and so it has led me to revise my concerns about the problem upward. But as noted above, I never said it should be ignored; only that we had to be careful not to over-hype it.
On the other hand, I think this incident also demonstrates why this whole problem is still so hard to evaluate, and why we really need greater information and assessment before we'll know if we are over- or under-reacting. Although some people undoubtedly know who made the Stuxnet worm and how it got into Iran's industrial control systems, it hasn't been made public thus far. Indeed, private computer security experts are reportedly miffed that the U.S. government isn't providing them with everything it may know about the Stuxnet problem. So it's hard for us laypersons to judge just how broad or serious such a threat might be, or how easy it would be for others to do something like this to us. The apparent success of the Stuxnet attack may not tell us very much about the vulnerability of other systems (including military systems), especially when they are equipped with more sophisticated defenses.
The reports I've seen also suggest that the worm was almost certainly the product of a sophisticated programming team, and most analysts seem to think that a wealthy and/or advanced country had to be behind it. If so, then one might be justified in concluding that cyber-war in the future will be a lot like conventional war in the past: the richest and most advanced countries will be better at it, simply because they can devote more resources to the problem. Even if Stuxnet suggests that cyber-war has more potential than people like me had previously believed, it doesn't herald some sort of revolutionary shift in the global balance of power, in which a handful of clever computer-wielding Davids suddenly strike down various lumbering, computer-dependent Goliaths.
In any case, the one thing I haven't changed is my desire to see this problem analyzed in a more systematic and public fashion, and by a panel of experts with no particular professional or economic stake in the outcome. Ironically, in the aftermath of the Stuxnet attack, I'd like to see that even more.
Today I want to call your attention to two on-line debates, each dealing with an important issue on contemporary world affairs.
The first is an extremely interesting back-and-forth between Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, on the question of whether President Obama was correct in authorizing the CIA to kill several U.S. citizens (including Anwar al-Awlaki) who is believed to be actively aiding al Qaeda in Yemen. You can read the various posts here, here, here, and here, and each links to useful comments from other people as well.
One sign of the quality of their exchange is that I found my own views shifting back and forth as I read each one. In the end I think Greenwald has the better of the argument -- at least so far -- but that may well be because it's closer to my own prior views. I don't really believe Obama's decision puts us on a slippery slope to totalitarianism, but I do think there is a genuine danger in allowing any president the authority to order the killing of a U.S. citizen without due process.
I am also deeply leery of the increasingly widespread use of the "state secrets" doctrine to defend executive actions from public scrutiny, simply because I do not trust people not to abuse their authority in the absence of accountability. Moreover, the "state secrets" doctrine is a powerful tool for threat-mongering ("trust me, if you knew what we know, you'd be really, really scared"), and keeping people terrified is a good way to get them to go along with all sorts of foreign policy foolishness.
But read their exchange and make up your own mind. And kudos to both of them for conducting it in a spirited but civil fashion. (UPDATE: Sullivan has a new reply to Greenwald and others here.
The second debate I can't resist plugging is a Bloggingheads conversation I did last week with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. The topic is "AfPak Dilemmas" and it is mostly a discussion about conditions in the region and the proper course for U.S. policy. Peter and I have different views about the nature of the challenge we face in Central Asia, and about the merits of continued military involvement there. Those disagreements are clear in our conversation, but we had an excellent exchange of views and some of you may find it enlightening.
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I won't be posting anything today, because I'll be speaking at a conference at the Palestine Center in Washington. The topic is "Blogging Israel-Palestine," and my fellow panelists are Jerome Slater of SUNY-Buffalo, Adam Horowitz of Mondoweiss, and M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America. The event goes from 11 to 2:15 EDT, and I'm told you can watch it here.
CNN has fired senior editor Octavia Nasr for tweeting that she was "Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah ... One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot." Fadlallah was one of the spiritual leaders of Hezbollah, and regarded by the U.S. government as a terrorist. Nasr subsequently clarified that she was referring to Fadlallah's "pioneering" positions on womens' rights (among other things, he issued fatwas condemning honor killings and affirming the right of women to protect themselves from domestic abuse), and she expressed regret for trying to address a complex issue like this in a brief tweet. But in a gutless decision that brings it no credit, CNN has shown her the door.
Needless to say, the double-standard here is both remarkable and distressing. As Juan Cole noted this morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki openly praised Fadlallah after the latter's death, and in terms far more lavish than Ms. Nasr used. Al-Maliki is the democratically-elected leader of Iraq and supposedly a U.S. ally; does his praise for Fadlallah mean that we shouldn't say anything positive about him either?
More importantly, plenty of American journalists and politicians have shown "respect" (and in some cases, fawning admiration) for various world figures with hands far bloodier than Ayatollah Fadlallah -- including Mao Zedong, Ariel Sharon, the Shah of Iran, or even Kim il Sung -- but it didn't cost them their jobs. And let's not forget that plenty of American journalists treat our own leaders with plenty of deference and "respect," even after the latter have launched unnecessary wars in which tens of thousands have died or authorized the torture of detainees. And as Josh Marshall notes over at TPM, getting fired after a successful twenty-year career over a 140-character tweet "just doesn't seem right."
This incident is also distressing because CNN was essentially caving into a black/white, us vs. them, good vs. absolute evil view of the world. Because the United States had labeled Fadlallah a "terrorist," expressing any sort of positive comment about him was a firing offense. But the real world is more complicated than that: people who support some good things sometimes embrace bad things too, and we ought to be able to acknowledge and "respect" them for their positive actions while recognizing and condemning their errors or flaws. Nasr is correct to have expressed regret for having tweeted on a subject that requires more nuance, but her firing will only reinforce the simplistic stereotypes that already prevail in mainstream political commentary. (For a more nuanced appreciation of Fadlallah's positive and negative contributions, go here.)
Mind you, I'm not defending Fadlallah's views on terrorism or Nasr's ill-advised tweet. But CNN's spineless response to this incident strikes me as one more reason why mainstream journalism is increasingly seen as morally bankrupt and why the blogosphere is slowly taking over.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
According to the New York Times, that viral video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attacking a group of people in a Baghdad suburb -- an attack that killed two Reuters reporters -- has now been viewed at least two million times on YouTube. I was one of those two million viewers, and it's pretty horrifying, especially when you know as you watch that the targets were in fact innocent victims.
But you should watch it anyway, if you want to understand why many Iraqis now want us out of their country and why the United States is less popular than its citizens and leaders think it ought to be. For me, the most remarkable thing about the video is the business-as-usual dialogue between the pilots and crew of the Apache and the ground controllers that are guiding their actions. Although they clearly perceive this as a combat situation -- and there were insurgents operating in their vicinity -- nothing in their exchange suggests that the situation is unusual or that they were in imminent danger themselves. The tone is calm, with occasional moments of frustration at not having a clear shot and elation after the targets are hit.
It is the "banality of combat." The crew followed normal procedures, obtained authorization to shoot before firing, maneuvered to get a clean line of fire, and then unleashed a devastating fusillade. (If you're unfamiliar with the firepower of modern weaponry, the video is graphic and revealing). The self-congratulatory banter and occasional laughter following the attack -- after the violent death of fellow human beings -- is downright chilling.
This tells me that this incident wasn't unusual, which is of course why no disciplinary action was taken against the personnel involved. What is different in this case is that two Reuters journalists got killed, and eventually a video got leaked and put on the internet. And if this particular episode is just one among many, there must be plenty of Iraqis who lost relatives to American firepower or at least had reason to fear and resent it. Not too hard to figure out why pressing for a rapid U.S. withdrawal now wins votes there.
Notice that I am not suggesting that the personnel involved failed to observe the proper "rules of engagement," or did not genuinely think that the individuals they were attacking were in fact armed. Rather, what bothers me is that they were clearly trying to operate within the rules, and still made a tragic error. It reminds us that this sort of mistake is inevitable in this sort of war, especially when we rely on overwhelming firepower to wage it. When we intervene in other countries, this is what we should expect.
One last point: one of the fundamental problems for a country with an interventionist foreign policy is that it frequently does things that others don't like and sometimes resist. If U.S. citizens do not know what their own government is doing, however, they won't understand exactly where that hostility is coming from. Instead of recognizing it as a reaction to their own policies, they will tend to assume that foreign opposition is irrational, a reflection of deep ideological antipathies, or based on some sort of weird hostility to our "values." Believing ourselves to be blameless, and motivated only by noble aims, we will misread the sources of anti-Americanism and overlook opportunities to reduce it by adjusting our own behavior.
It is therefore vital for American citizens to know about the various things that are being done in the name of our national security. We need to know about drone strikes, targeted assassinations, civilians killed by mistake, support for corrupt or vicious warlords, "covert" actions against foreign regimes, etc., as well as similar activities undertaken by allies with whom we are closely identified. Whether those various policies are still justifiable and/or effective is a separate issue (i.e., the benefits may be worth the price of greater hostility, though I am personally skeptical) but at least we won't be surprised when those who have experienced the sharp end of American power are angry at us, and we won't be as likely to misinterpret it.
And that means that organizations like Wikileaks are performing a public service, by exposing incidents and activities that the government would rather you didn't know about. The administration and the Pentagon are very good at telling us about the positive things that they do (and don't get me wrong, there are plenty of them), but an intelligent republic needs independent, tough-minded journalists (and bloggers) to tell us the rest. Because it is more difficult for entrenched interests to control or manipulate, the Internet and the blogosphere is a major asset in the fight for greater public awareness. For more on this latter point, I find Glenn Greenwald convincing.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
Am I the only person -- well, besides Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Poulson -- who thinks the "cyber-warfare" business may be overblown? It’s clear the U.S. national security establishment is paying a lot more attention to the issue, and colleagues of mine -- including some pretty serious and level-headed people -- are increasingly worried by the danger of some sort of "cyber-Katrina." I don't dismiss it entirely, but this sure looks to me like a classic opportunity for threat-inflation.
Mind you, I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of shenanigans going on in cyber-space, or that various forms of cyber-warfare don't have military potential. So I'm not arguing for complete head-in-the-sand complacency. But here’s what makes me worry that the threat is being overstated.
First, the whole issue is highly esoteric -- you really need to know a great deal about computer networks, software, encryption, etc., to know how serious the danger might be. Unfortunately, details about a number of the alleged incidents that are being invoked to demonstrate the risk of a "cyber-Katrina," or a cyber-9/11, remain classified, which makes it hard for us lay-persons to gauge just how serious the problem really was or is. Moreover, even when we hear about computers being penetrated by hackers, or parts of the internet crashing, etc., it’s hard to know how much valuable information was stolen or how much actual damage was done. And as with other specialized areas of technology and/or military affairs, a lot of the experts have a clear vested interest in hyping the threat, so as to create greater demand for their services. Plus, we already seem to have politicians leaping on the issue as a way to grab some pork for their states.
Second, there are lots of different problems being lumped under a single banner, whether the label is "cyber-terror" or "cyber-war." One issue is the use of various computer tools to degrade an enemy’s military capabilities (e.g., by disrupting communications nets, spoofing sensors, etc.). A second issue is the alleged threat that bad guys would penetrate computer networks and shut down power grids, air traffic control, traffic lights, and other important elements of infrastructure, the way that internet terrorists (led by a disgruntled computer expert) did in the movie Live Free and Die Hard. A third problem is web-based criminal activity, including identity theft or simple fraud (e.g., those emails we all get from someone in Nigeria announcing that they have millions to give us once we send them some account information). A fourth potential threat is “cyber-espionage”; i.e., clever foreign hackers penetrate Pentagon or defense contractors’ computers and download valuable classified information. And then there are annoying activities like viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and other things that affect the stability of web-based activities and disrupt commerce (and my ability to send posts into FP).
This sounds like a rich menu of potential trouble, and putting the phrase "cyber" in front of almost any noun makes it sound trendy and a bit more frightening. But notice too that these are all somewhat different problems of quite different importance, and the appropriate response to each is likely to be different too. Some issues -- such as the danger of cyber-espionage -- may not require elaborate technical fixes but simply more rigorous security procedures to isolate classified material from the web. Other problems may not require big federal programs to address, in part because both individuals and the private sector have incentives to protect themselves (e.g., via firewalls or by backing up critical data). And as Greenwald warns, there may be real costs to civil liberties if concerns about vague cyber dangers lead us to grant the NSA or some other government agency greater control over the Internet.
Third, this is another issue that cries out for some comparative cost-benefit analysis. Is the danger that some malign hacker crashes a power grid greater than the likelihood that a blizzard would do the same thing? Is the risk of cyber-espionage greater than the potential danger from more traditional forms of spying? Without a comparative assessment of different risks and the costs of mitigating each one, we will allocate resources on the basis of hype rather than analysis. In short, my fear is not that we won't take reasonable precautions against a potential set of dangers; my concern is that we will spend tens of billions of dollars protecting ourselves against a set of threats that are not as dangerous as we are currently being told they are.
I hasten to add that this isn't my area of expertise and I may be completely wrong about it. What I would really like, therefore, is for an objective, blue-ribbon commission to look carefully at this question. Here's a possible example of what I have in mind, but I can't tell how reliable its conclusions are likely to be. Why? Because I can't tell how many of its members are people with a stake in the outcome. Makes me wish somebody like Richard Feynman was still around to chair it.
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Here's a quick recommendation for all you terrorism mavens out there. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) has a fascinating and very useful website up and running, which you can access here.
According to its operators (a program headed by Professor Robert Pape), the site contains all known instances of suicide terrorism between 1981 and 2001, and will eventually be brought completely up to date. Three features of the site are especially interesting. First, it lets you perform interactive searches along multiple dimensions (location of attacks, the target type, the weapon used, demographic and biographical characteristics of attackers, etc. For example, if you wanted to know how many suicide attacks were conducted by women in Kashmir between 1995 and 2000, you can enter those parameters and it will give you the results. Second, the site provides the external sources used to document each attack, so that you can check up on the coding of any specific incident. Third, each incident in linked to GPS data on location, so that you can explore the geographic patterns of contemporary suicide terrorism. On the latter point, by the way, the data shows that almost all these attacks are concentrated in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Afpak, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine, a finding consistent with Pape's well-known argument that suicide terrorism is primarily a response to perceived foreign occupations.
All in all, a very useful tool. But the skeptic in me has to ask the following question: will the existence of databases like this one tend to feed our fascination with conventional terrorism, a threat that is almost certainly exaggerated and overblown? (WMD terrorism is another matter, although we may be overstating that danger too). That's not a criticism of the Chicago Project -- which is doing excellent work -- it's just a warning to us all not to fixate on a phenomenon just because it's something we can count.
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Last week a colleague who has been facing repeated and unfair attacks in the media and the blogosphere (for making arguments that cut against the conventional wisdom) sent around an email asking a number of friends and associates (including me) for advice on how to deal with the attacks. Having been smeared in similar fashion myself, I circulated a list of the lessons I learned from my own experience with "grabbing the third rail." A few of the recipients thought the list was helpful, so I decided to revise it and post it here. If any readers are contemplating tackling a controversial subject -- and I hope some of you will -- you'll need to be ready should opponents decide not to address your arguments in a rational fashion, but to attack your character, misrepresent your position, and impugn your motives instead. If they take the low road, here are ten guidelines for dealing with it. (The advice itself is politically neutral: it applies regardless of the issue in question and no matter which side you're on.)
1. Think Through Your "Media Strategy" before You Go Public. If you are an academic taking on a "third rail" issue for the first time, you are likely to face a level of public and media scrutiny that you have never experienced before. It is therefore a good idea to think through your basic approach to the media before the firestorm hits. Are you willing to go on TV or radio to defend your views? Are there media outlets that you hope to cultivate, as well as some you should avoid?
Are you open to public debate on the issue, and if so, with whom? Do you plan a "full-court" media blitz to advance your position (an article, a book, a lecture tour, a set of op-eds, etc.), or do you intend to confine yourself to purely academic outlets and let the pundits take it from there? There is no right answer to these questions, of course, and how you answer them depends in good part on your own proclivities and those of your opponents. But planning ahead will leave you better prepared when the phone starts ringing off the hook and there's a reporter -- or even someone like Bill O'Reilly or Jon Stewart -- on the other end. Don't be afraid to listen to professional advice here (such as the media office at your university or research organization), especially if it's your first time in the shark tank. It's also a good idea to let your superiors know what's coming; deans, center directors, and college presidents don't like surprises.
2. You Have Less Control Than You Think. Although it helps to have thought about your strategy beforehand, there will always be surprises and you will have to think on your feet and improvise wisely. Sometimes real-world events will vindicate your position and enhance your credibility (as the 2006 Lebanon War did for my co-author and myself), but at other times you may have to explain why events aren't conforming to your position. A vicious attack may arrive from an unexpected source and leave you reeling, or you may get an unsolicited endorsement that validates your views. Bottom line: life is full of surprises, so be ready to roll with the punches and seize the opportunities.
3. Never Get Mad. Let your critics throw the mud, but you should always stick to the facts, especially when they are on your side. In my own case, many of the people who attacked me and my co-author proved to be unwitting allies, because they lost their cool in public or in print, made wild charges and ad hominem arguments, and generally acted in a transparently mean-spirited manner. It always works to your advantage when opponents act in an uncivil fashion, because it causes almost everyone else to swing your way.
Of course, it can be infuriating when critics misrepresent your work, and nobody likes to have malicious falsehoods broadcast about them. But the fact that someone is making false charges against you does not mean that others are persuaded by the malicious rhetoric. Most people are quite adept at separating facts from lies, and that is especially true when the charges are over-the-top. In short, the more ludicrous the charges, the more critics undermine their own case. So stick to the high ground; the view is nicer up there.
4. Don't Respond to Every Single Attack. A well-organized smear campaign will try to bury you in an avalanche flurry of bogus charges, many of which are simply not worth answering. It is easier for opponents to dream up false charges than it is for you to refute each one, and you will exhaust yourself rebutting every critical word directed at you. So focus mainly on answering the more intelligent criticisms while ignoring the more outrageous ones, which you should treat with the contempt they deserve. Finally, make sure every one of your answers is measured and filled with the relevant facts. Do not engage in ad hominem attacks of any sort, no matter how tempting it may be to hit back.
5. Explain to Your Audience What Is Going On. When refuting bogus charges, make it clear to readers or viewers why your opponents are attacking you in underhanded ways. When you are the object of a politically motivated smear campaign, others need to understand that your critics are not objective referees offering disinterested commentary. Be sure to raise the obvious question: why are your opponents using smear tactics like guilt-by-association and name-calling to shut down genuine debate or discredit your views? Why are they unwilling to engage in a calm and rational exchange of ideas? Let others know that it is probably because your critics are aware that you have valid points to make and that many people will find your views persuasive if they get a chance to judge them for themselves.
6. The More Compelling Your Arguments Are, The Nastier the Attacks Will Be. If critics can refute your evidence or your logic, then that's what they will do and it will be very effective. However, if you have made a powerful case and there aren't any obvious weaknesses in it, your adversaries are likely to misrepresent what you have said and throw lots of mud at you. What else are they going to do when the evidence is against them?
This kind of behavior contrasts sharply with what one is accustomed to in academia, where well-crafted arguments are usually treated with respect, even by those who disagree with them. In the academic world, the better your arguments are, the more likely it is that critics will deal with them fairly. But if you are in a very public spat about a controversial issue like gay marriage or abortion or gun control, a solid and well-documented argument will probably attract more scurrilous attacks than a flimsy argument that is easily refuted. So be prepared.
7. You Need Allies. Anyone engaged on a controversial issue needs allies on both the professional and personal fronts. When the smearing starts, it is of enormous value to have friends and associates publicly stand up and defend you and your work. At the same time, support from colleagues, friends, and family is critical to maintaining one's morale. Facing a seemingly endless barrage of personal attacks as well as hostile and unfair criticisms of one's work can be exhausting and dispiriting, which is why you need others to stand behind you when the going gets tough. That does not mean you just want mindless cheerleaders, of course; sometimes allies help us the most when they warn us we are heading off course.
One more thing: if you're taking on a powerful set of opponents, don't be surprised or disappointed when people tell you privately that they agree with you and admire what you are doing, but never say so publicly. Be realistic; even basically good people are reluctant to take on powerful individuals or institutions, especially when they might pay a price for doing so.
8. Be Willing to Admit When You're Wrong, But Don't Adopt a Defensive Crouch. Nobody writing on a controversial and contested subject is infallible, and you're bound to make a mistake or two along the way. There's no harm in admitting to errors when they occur; indeed, harm is done when you make a mistake and then try to deny it. More generally, however, it makes good sense to make your case assertively and not shy away from engaging your critics. In short, the best defense is a smart offense, even when you are acknowledging errors or offering a correction. For illustrations of how my co-author and I tried to do this, see here, here, and here.
9. Challenging Orthodoxy Is a Form of "Asymmetric Conflict": You Win By "Not Losing." When someone challenges a taboo or takes on some well-entrenched conventional wisdom, his or her opponents invariably have the upper hand at first. They will seek to silence or discredit you as quickly as they can, so that your perspective, which they obviously won't like, does not gain any traction with the public. But this means that as long as you remain part of the debate, you're winning. Minds don't change overnight, and it is difficult to know how well an intellectual campaign is going at any particular point in time. So get ready for an emotional roller coaster -- some days you might think you're winning big, while other days the deck will appear to be stacked against you. But the real question is: are you still in the game?
The good news is that if you have facts and logic on your side, your position is almost certain to improve over time. It is also worth noting that a protracted debate allows you to refine your own arguments and figure out better ways to refute your opponents' claims. In brief, think of yourself as being engaged in a "long war," and keep striving.
10. Don't Forget to Feel Good about Yourself and the Enterprise in Which You Are Engaged. Waging a battle in which you are being unfairly attacked is hard work, and you will sometimes feels like Sisyphus rolling the proverbial stone endlessly uphill. But it can also be tremendously gratifying. You'll wage the struggle more effectively if you find ways to keep your spirits up, and if you never lose sight of the worthiness of your cause. Keeping your sense of humor intact helps too; because some of the attacks you will face are bound to be pretty comical. So while you're out there slaying your chosen dragon, make sure you have some fun too.
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No profound thoughts to offer today;
instead, ten rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip impressions -- some of them snarky -- from
my current road trip. Readers who want to discount what follows can chalk
it up to some serious jet lag.
1. British Airways has mastered the art of predatory pricing. First, they canceled my initial flight to London, which meant I couldn't make my connection to Paris in time for my first commitment. So I had to buy a separate one way ticket on Air France to preserve my schedule. But did BA offer to refund the unused portion of my itinerary (which was unused because they canceled the flight)? But nooooooooo! If I wanted a refund, I had to cancel my entire itinerary (which involved four more flights) and then rebook all four of the remaining legs under a new reservation number, but at a new, higher price that cost more than the original ticket. Heads they win, tails you lose. Resolved: avoid BA whenever possible in the future.
2. Alas, Air France is not an appealing alternative; it's no longer a great airline but instead is merely adequate. I still have vivid and glowing memories of flying first class to Paris on my honeymoon (a gift from my mother-in-law, who had a gazillion frequent flyer miles back then). I wasn't in first class this time, but even taking that into account, it was a pretty mediocre experience. And the "tournedos" they served for dinner would have made Escoffier tear his hair. Some poor vache died for no good reason.
3. Public transportation. On the other hand, there were a few experience on the road that put les États-Unis to shame. In Paris, there's a direct train from the airport into Paris, or you can take an Air France bus that leaves frequently, is cheap, and gets you to one of several convenient Metro stops. In London, the "Heathrow Express" rail line is equally convenient, and a virtually seamless way to get from the airport to central London. As you leave customs, there's a guy standing there with a credit card swiper. Thirty seconds later, you have your ticket, the trains leave every 15 mins., and they get you to Paddington in about 20 mins.. Consider that you can't take a train to Dulles or JFK and it reminds how bad most public transport and infrastructure is in the Land of the Free(way).
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday, the New York Times online service hosted a "debate" about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, in response to the leaking of commanding general Stanley McChrystal's memo stating that more troops were necessary to avoid defeat. Unfortunately, the six people they asked to debate the issue (Gretchen Peters, James Morin, Vanda Feldab-Brown, Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, and Kori Schake) all seemed to be open supporters of the U.S. military commitment there. So when asked "how should additional troops be deployed? What types of specialized personnel are needed now?" none of the Times's chosen panel responded by saying "more troops are not the answer." In short, the six panelists managed to avoid the real question that President Obama (and the nation) faces: should the United States increase its presence in the hopes of reversing the situation, or should it cut its losses and get out? Would it really have been so bad to have at least one genuine skeptic of the war included among the respondents?
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I've been studying politics a long time now, and there are still lots of things about it that at some level I just don't get. I'm not saying that I have no idea why these things occur or suggesting that they are totally inexplicable. I'm just saying that I still find them a bit baffling.
So I made a list, and thought I'd share a few of them. Maybe some of you will share my confusion.
1. I've never really understood why plenty of smart people think the United States still needs thousands of nuclear weapons (or ever did). I'm familiar with the abstract theology of nuclear weapons policy and I don't favor total nuclear disarmament, but the case for an arsenal of more than a few hundred weapons eludes me. See here or here for convincing arguments to this effect.
2. I'm still puzzled by why Americans are so willing to spend money on ambitious overseas adventures, and yet so reluctant to pay taxes for roads, bridges, better schools, and health care here in the United States. My fellow Americans, where's your sense of entitlement? And frankly, I’m also surprised that the U.S. armed forces haven't put up more resistance to the seemingly open-ended missions they keep getting handed by ambitious politicians. I can think of various reasons why they remain willing to make these sacrifices (it's a volunteer force, there’s a long tradition of civilian authority, our soldiers, sailors and airman are dedicated patriots, the top brass are often chosen for their political malleability, etc.), but it still surprises me.
3. I don't understand why many people think invoking God is a compelling justification for their particular policy preferences, and why they assume that this move is a trump card that ends all discussion. The idea that Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Odin, or Whomever gave some people permanent title to some patch of land, dictated how men and women should relate to each other for all eternity, or provided the incontestable answer to ANY public policy question is simply beyond me. Yet it remains a common feature of political discourse at home and abroad. Weird.
4. I'm equally baffled by when someone invokes "history" to justify a territorial claim and assumes that this basis is unchallengeable. This view assumes that sovereignty over some area is infinitely inheritable (no matter what has happened in the interim), ignores the fact the borders have changed a lot over time, and further assumes that there's only one version of history that matters. I understand why Serbs invoke the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to justify their current claims to control that region, why Israelis and Palestinians invoke different readings of history to justify their positions on Jerusalem, or why certain Asian states invoke different historical claims to assorted rocks in the South China Sea -- they are all looking for some way to persuade others to let them have what they want. What's odd is that people who make such claims tend to think their view is simply incontestable and other equally valid historical claims aren’t worth paying attention to. You're entitled to your version of history, I suppose, but why do you assume that anyone is going to be persuaded by it?
5. I do not understand why Americans are so susceptible to the self-interested testimony of foreigners who want to embroil us in conflicts with some foreign government that they happen to dislike. A case in point would be Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, who sold a lot of fairy tales to the Bush administration prior to the 2003 invasion. As Machiavelli (himself an exile) warned in The Discourses: "How vain the faith and promises of men who are exiles from their own country. .. Such is their extreme desire to return to their homes that they naturally believe many things that are not true, and add many others on purpose; so that with what they really believe and what they say they believe, they will fill you with hopes to that degree that if you attempt to act on them, you will incur a fruitless expense, or engage in an undertaking that will involve you in ruin." This sort of thing goes back to the Peloponnesian Wars (at least), and you’d think we’d have learned to be more skeptical by now.
6. I certainly don't get the business model that informs the content of the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page. The rest of the newspaper is an excellent news source, with reportage that is often of very high quality. The editorial page, by contrast, is often a parody of right-wing lunacy: the last refuge of discredited neoconservatives, supply-siders, and other extremists. Do the Journal's editors really think democracy is best served by offering the public such a one-sided diet of opinion? Do they feel no responsibility to offer a wider range of views to their readers, as the rival Financial Times does? More importantly, wouldn't their market share (and profits) be increased if they offered a more diverse range of views? I'm equally puzzled by the op-ed page of the Washington Post: what's the business model that says cornering the market on tired neoconservative pundits is the best way to attract new readers? (FP is now owned by the Post corporation too, I might add, but anyone who follows this Web site knows that there isn't any discernible party line here.)
7. A related point: I can't figure out why newspapers aren't hiring more bloggers to write columns for them on a regular basis. I started reading blogs because the stuff I read on the web tends to be smarter, funnier, better researched, and more entertainingly written than the pablum that appears on the op-ed pages of most newspapers. A lot of bloggers seem to produce more material too; frankly, doing a column twice a week sounds almost leisurely compared to what some bloggers pound out. There are dull bloggers and some excellent mainstream print pundits, of course, but I'm amazed that more bloggers aren't breaking into the so-called big-time mainstream media. Probably another good reason why newspapers are dying.
8. In an era where the United States is facing BIG problems at home or abroad, it is both puzzling and disheartening to observe the amount of ink and airspace devoted to the Skip Gates arrest, Michael Jackson's demise, or the "birther" controversy. But then I didn't get the Princess Di phenomenon or the whole reality-TV thing either.
9. I don't understand why academics defend the institution of tenure so energetically, and then so rarely use it for its intended purpose (i.e., to permit them to tackle big and/or controversial subjects without worrying about losing their jobs) When it comes to politics at least, the Ivory Tower seems increasingly populated by methodologically sophisticated sheep.
10. I'm both amused and annoyed by the highly intrusive security procedures that now exist at airports, which are almost certainly not cost-effective. The key to preventing another 9/11 wasn’t to have us all removing our shoes or carrying shampoo in a plastic bag; the key to preventing another 9/11-style attack was to put locks on the cockpit doors, so terrorists couldn't gain control of the airplane and turn it into a weapon. (A smarter Middle East policy wouldn't hurt either). I'll concede that additional screening is probably preventing a few additional incidents, but I question whether the extra expense and inconvenience is ultimately worth it. Alas, nobody is going to relax those procedures now, because they’d worry about being blamed the next time someone managed to blow up an airliner. I understand the CYA impetus that will keep these procedures in place from now until doomsday, but the irrationality of it all annoys me every time I fly.
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My point was about not recognizing now. As to the future, we have to see what it brings. A day is a long time right now in Iranian politics. So let's take this one day at a time for now."
Fine by me. And his blog has been a fascinating read since the election, not least for his spirited debunking of a lot of foolish neoconservative posturing on these events.
As we watch the riveting and disturbing events from inside Iran, bloggers and other commentators are already beginning to raise the political and rhetorical stakes. Over at the Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan (whose coverage of the events in Iran remains remarkable) declared today that "the first and absolute requirement of all Western governments" is not to recognize Ahmadinejad as president.
I can understand the sentiments behind this view, and I hold no brief for Ahmadinejad or the clerics behind him. But how far is Sullivan willing to take this? Suppose the existing regime survives the current turmoil and remains in power -- which is likely -- and that Ahmadinejad winds up serving as president for another term despite what appears to be clear electoral chicanery? Are we to have no dealings at all with Iran, despite the many issues of contention between us and them?
And notice the double-standard at work: we recognized China while Mao Zedong -- a murderous despot -- still ruled there and maintained relations with it after Tianenmen Square. We cut various strategic deals with Uzbekistan after 9/11 despite its lamentable human rights record and we had numerous direct dealings with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. We remain closely allied with Saudi Arabia despite its treatment of women and the complete absence of democracy, and we subsidize Israel generously even though it denies political rights to millions of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and killed more innocent civilians during the Gaza operation than Iran’s ruling authorities have done since last Friday.
Obama's measured response to the events in Iran strikes me as more sensible: we can and should deplore the abuses of basic rights and the democratic process, while making it clear that the United States is not interfering and remaining open to the possibility of constructive dialogue. Given our long and troubled history with Iran (which includes active support for groups seeking to overthrow the current government), any sense that we are now trying to back Moussavi is likely to backfire. Trying to steer this one from Washington won’t advance our interests or those of the reformists.
Here's a hypothetical question for you to ponder. Which world would you prefer: 1) a world where Ahmadinejad remains in power, but Iran formally reaffirms that it will not develop nuclear weapons, ratifies and implements the Additional Protocol of the NPT, comes clean to our satisfaction about past violations (including the so-called "alleged studies"), permits highly intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, and ends support for Hamas and Hezbollah as part of a "grand bargain" with the West; or 2) a world where Mir Hussein Mousavi -- who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister from 1981 to 1989 -- wins a new election but then doesn't alter Iran's activities at all?
This is hypothetical, of course, and almost certainly does not reflect the likely policy alternatives. But your choice of which world you'd prefer probably reveals a lot about how you conceive of the national interest, and the degree to which you think foreign policy should emphasize concrete security achievements on the one hand, or normative preferences on the other.
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The mainstream media caught up with the Charles Freeman saga today. It gets page 1 treatment in the New York Times and more detailed and extensive coverage in the Washington Post, with some solid reportage by Walter Pincus, a column supporting Freeman by David Broder, and an overwrought editorial attacking Freeman's defenders for advancing a "conspiracy theory." The ever-alert Glenn Greenwald dissects the latter's contradictions here.
This level of attention is probably not what Freeman's attackers wanted, because these stories demolish the claim that the fracas was about his views on Tibet and Tianenmen Square or even the fact that the think tank he headed had received a small portion of its funding from Saudis. It is now clear that Freeman's "sin" was the fact that he had publicly said some critical things about Israeli policy, though his views were in fact no more critical than comments frequently made by more moderate Israelis. Indeed, if Freeman were Israeli, he could write a regular column in Ha'retz and nobody would bat an eye.
The level of attention this case has now received stands in sharp contrast to several other examples where valuable public servants were denied key posts due to opposition from groups or individuals in the lobby. Jimmy Carter reportedly wanted to make George W. Ball his secretary of state in 1976, but he knew that groups in the lobby would oppose the appointment and so he went with Cyrus Vance instead. The late Richard Marius, a long-time Harvard lecturer, recounted that he was offered a job as a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore and then fired before he began work, after Martin Peretz falsely charged him with anti-Semitism, based on a book review Marius had written for Harvard Magazine. And in 2001, when Bruce Riedel was leaving his post handling Middle East issues at the NSC, Peretz's New Republic reported that the Pentagon had "held up the appointment of Riedel's designated successor, Alina Romanowski, whom Pentagon officials suspect of being insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state." Who got the job instead? Elliott Abrams.
The same litmus test operates on the Hill, of course. As influential Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA) told an online chat group during the 2006 election: "there will be some Democratic congressman who may not share all my views or have as clear a perspective on Israel as I do, but they will not be chairing committees dealing with Israel and the Middle East."
What is different about the Freeman case is that the campaign against him got waged out in the open, and many people figured out quickly what was going on and were willing to say so, mostly in the blogosphere. At that point, even the mainstream media started paying attention.
It bears repeating the real issue here is whether U.S. interests are best served by making uncritical support for the "special relationship" a de facto criterion for public service in important foreign policy positions. How about people who think the United States and Israel should have a normal relationship, one similar to our relations with other democracies, and who believe that this would be better for the United States and Israel alike? Is that really such a heretical view?
One more thing: this case shows that discourse on this issue is changing and that is all to the good. It didn’t move fast enough to save Freeman, but maybe it can move fast enough to rescue the United States from some of its past mistakes, and prevent it from making more.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.