Thursday, June 5, 2008

Identity Matters: Italy

Anyone taking a passing glance at European political trends in the past few months might be prompted to ask, along with Alex Harrowell, 'what's going on in Italy?' Harrowell amplifies the considerable angst expressed by the Guardian's Martin Jacques over some of the cultural touchstones that accompanied recent Italian elections. Rome, which has not had a conservative mayor since Italian fascism collapsed in 1943, has elected Gianni Alemanno, a Berlusconi ally who ran on a vociferously anti-immigrant platform, to lead the city's government. At Alemanno's victory rally, his supporters gave the Roman salute while evoking Mussolini, shouting, "Duce! Duce! Duce!" The shift to the nationalist - detractors would say xenophobic - right played out nationally as well, putting Berlusconi in power at the head of a coalition that includes the regionalist and virulently anti-immigrant Northern League, as well as the National Alliance, which descends directly from the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

The new government wasted no time fulfilling its promises to crack down on immigrant communities, initiating a massive, high-profile police sweep of migrant shanty-towns and arresting hundreds on various charges. Perhaps more unsettling to those whose political sympathies don't lie with the Italian right, though, were the concurrent vigilante attacks against immigrant communities. The New York Times reports:

On Saturday, [May 10,] several hundred Italians attacked a camp of Roma, or Gypsies, on the eastern outskirts of Naples brandishing sticks and throwing homemade incendiary devices, after a 16-year-old Roma girl was accused of trying to steal a baby. The police were called to restore order and no one was injured, but the episode led national news programs.

This got a paragraph in the Times, but to me this is the real story. Based on accusations of baby stealing (sounds a bit like 'well poisoning' to me, though evidently it's more than just an unattributed rumor), a crowd of Italians rampaged through an immigrant community with clubs and molotov cocktails. That's not just letting off a bit of political steam. That's an ethnic riot - a pogrom if you like - in Western Europe, in the twenty-first century. That the government responded not with outrage that such a dispicable event had blackened Italy's good name, but rather with a police sweep through immigrant shanty-towns, suggests that anti-immigrant violence now has the tacit backing of the Italian state (if you can read Italian, check out some of the charming responses that local school children gave to the violence).

That statement might seem a bit harsh, but the patterns of ethnic violence that we begin to see exhibited in Italy have parallels in other areas of the World. I have referred before to the work of Paul Brass on "institutional riot systems" and the way in which they fuel and direct anti-Muslim violence in India. Based on my (admittedly superficial) reading of the current state of events in Italy, it appears that there are formal elements within the Italian political system that both fuel and feed off of violence against and hatred toward perceived outsiders.

Please understand, I'm not suggesting that Italy is on the verge of breaking out into the kind of orgiastic ethnic violence that has been seen in areas of India and other parts of the World. I have too much faith in the Italian people and in Italian - and European - legal and governmental institutions (however comically dysfunctional they may appear at times) to think that such atrocities would be tolerated there. Still, given the recent virulence of some on the Italian right, given the fact that unabashedly anti-immigrant parties now have a very prominent place in the Italian government, and given the fact that other European countries are or will soon be facing similar political and demographic dilemmas, it is worth analyzing what brought things to this point, and thinking about holistic steps that European elites can take to keep their integrative project from backsliding into poisonous ethnic chauvinism.

Italian Identity

It is worth noting that immigration is relatively new as a national issue in Italy when compared with the experience 0f other European countries. Indeed, until the 1970s, more people emigrated from Italy than immigrated to it (a professor of mine once pointed out that a famous scene in Antonioni's film La Notte had to be understood in the context of an Italy in which black people were virtually non-existent). Before then, the principal cleavage of Italian national identity was regional; in particular, the cultural and economic divide between the industrialized north and the rural, largely impoverished south. Kowalczyk and Popkewitz, in a paper from a few years ago, write that the immigration issue has re-mapped Italian identity, submerging (if incompletely) the north-south divide by introducing a new group to be confined to "otherness." The attitude of many Italians is perfectly encapsulated by an anonymous quote in the paper: "An Italian thief is a thief, a Moroccan thief is a Moroccan."

Channeling Frustrations

There is another element that I think may be at work here, albiet as only part of the story. The Italian political system, it would seem, is in rather severe straits. Italy's economy is anemic, its government inefficient, and its elites corrupt. I bring this up cautiously, because I am generally skeptical of arguments that rest on "false consciousness," whereby people filter the problems and insecurities in some aspects of their lives through an unrelated ideological construct in order to make sense of them. I think this is too often used as an intellectually lazy crutch by (particularly left wing) academics who don't want to admit that not everyone is a socialist who just doesn't know it yet. Still, I think that it is true that, with organization and foresight, political elites can construct narratives that channel and focus generalized frustration in particular directions, at least in certain circumstances.

Italy's political-economic stagnation is serious, and the usual stopgap measures that governments have used in the past to mollify the Italian populace (economic protectionism, currency devaluation) are now off limits due to the constraints of the E.U. In such an environment, the creation of a narrative of immigrants as a cancer on Italian society (never mind that, with Italy's pathetic birthrate, they are in fact an urgent economic necessity), fits logically into a larger picture of national malaise and an uncertain future. Some of the Northern League's iconic posters (one reading "Further from Rome, Closer to You," another calling for "Fewer Taxes to Rome, More Money to Pensioners," and another provocative one that pictures an American Indian and reads "They Allowed Immigration, Now They Live on Reservations") support this link between frustration with Italy's political institutions and virulent animus towards immigration from abroad. Certain Italian elites have managed - at least among some constituencies - to link immigration to the widely shared sense that something is rotten in the state of Italy. The fact that some on the radical right, who are now in positions of real power, have openly advocated state violence against immigrants, as well as made reference to the mobilization of extra-legal mobs to support their cause, adds up to an environment that is conducive to the kind of ethnic violence that Italy witnessed in May.

What is to be Done?

As I noted when opening this series, the multi-level reconstruction of the notion of citizenship that is now taking place in Europe - wherein citizenship is at once local, national and European - is almost certain to produce a certain amount of dislocation. Sensible immigration policies that seek to integrate immigrants into Italian society through schools, job and language training, and social support are critical to reversing the kind of ethnic balkanization that can prime a population for violence and regressive politics. Likewise, extensive government reforms that restore popular faith in civic institutions may be able to blunt the appeal of purosangue narratives of Italian identity.

It is finally worth noting that Italy's shift to the nationalist right - though notable for its extremity - is not unique within Europe. Problems of identity will need to be confronted at every step of Europe's integrative project. Europeans need to find a better way of navigating their perils.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

And I'm Left Speechless

So, apparently the Fulbright Program, a government-sponsored institution that provides scholarships for students from around the World to come study in the United States (and vice versa on occasion) has decided to withdraw the grants that it had awarded to Palestinian students in Gaza, because Israel will not let them leave.

Does anyone else occasionally feel as though they've become a character in some post-war French absurdist play on which the curtain just won't close?

First off, the Israelis really won't let some of Palestine's best and brightest leave Gaza to come to the United States to study? It makes sense I suppose. After all, what possible good could come from allowing the intellectual roses that have managed to grow in soil poisoned by forty years of occupation, poverty and war to see a side of Western culture and society that doesn't involve precision-guided missiles and helicopter gunships? That would indeed be dangerous.

And even if Israel really is too short sighted to see that cropping the dreams of Gaza's future intellectual elite might not be in its own best interest, why on Earth would the United States withdraw the grants? Representatives of the Fulbright Program have expressed "concern that the grant money for the Palestinians would go to waste if they were forced to remain in Gaza."

So, what? We can't afford it? For some perspective, the President's 2009 budget request for all State Department educational and cultural exchange programs - increased from last year - amounts to $522.4 million, or about seventeen and a half hours in Iraq, give or take a few minutes. Would it really be that difficult to keep the portion of that money dedicated to Palestinian recipients available should Israel reverse its stance? Are we really so insensitive to the plight of the Palestinian people, particularly in Gaza, that we won't at least make a symbolic gesture in support of their socioeconomic development?

I feel as though there ought to be more to say, but this leaves me simply at a loss for words.

Breaking the Camel's Back?

Quick hit: Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has finally stopped being coy and called for Kadima to find new leadership. She stopped short of directly calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Olmert, but for the first time she is publicly counting herself with those who support his ouster. Let's see if this pushes Olmert over the edge.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Identity Matters: Language

By way of introduction to what I intend to be a series of posts examining the politics of identity in the twenty-first century (a subject that any regular readers will know is near and dear to my heart), I'd like to direct readers to a great post at Freakonomics on language and globalization. Four thinkers give their thoughts on the interaction between economic globalization, cyberspace, colonial legacies, and language. I found a few quotes to be particularly illuminating.

John Hayden, president of Versation, speculates on the effects that emerging economies will have on the primacy of English as the World's lingua franca:

English is a tool, just like a piece of technology. Much of the world’s economy is tied up in English-speaking countries and for that reason, English is like a cell phone provider offering the best plan. But if the dollar continues to drop, the most viable option could shift. Mexico and Korea don’t need English to communicate if Korea begins to find it profitable to learn Spanish.

Mark Liberman, a linguistics professor at UPenn, addresses some of the more overtly political implications of language in the coming years:

Much of today’s linguistic politics are rooted in the residues of colonial rule, itself an earlier form of globalization — but paradoxically, the recent spread of former colonial languages is sometimes driven by local resistance to domination by outsiders...

Kurdish officials resist being forced to do business with the central government in Arabic, and sometimes insist on English, even if their command of Arabic is excellent. They recognize that they can’t force the central government to deal with them in Kurdish, but they see English, the language of the former colonial power, Britain — and of the current occupying power, the United States — as a symbol of resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of the Arabic-speaking majority...

And at the same time that big languages like English, French, Chinese, and Arabic have been spreading among present or past imperial subject populations, local linguistic nationalism has been increasing in strength, and winning some victories.

In Belgium — which is number one in the 2007 KOF Index of Globalization — Flemish cultural nationalism, very much based on language, is threatening to split the country in two...

Paradoxically, the force that freed “regional and minority” languages throughout Europe was exactly the economic and political unification created by that poster child of globalization, the European Union.

If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result. And once you admit a dozen or so national languages to official status in the resulting union, why not throw in a hundred more — even if the local nation-states have been busily trying to promote national unity by suppressing them for the past few centuries?

Hayden and Liberman touch on a whole mouthful (brainful?) of issues, which I couldn't begin to fully address here; but, I'll offer a few thoughts on which I hope to later expand. There are many "dark sides" to the emergence of the global economy, and though I think that globalization on the whole has been - and can continue to be - an immensely positive phenomenon for people all over the World, our political institutions have done a poor job addressing the very serious environmental, economic and cultural dislocation that has accompanied its emergence. The immense changes that have taken place in the past few decades have upended the lives of billions of people in the space of a single generation, affecting not merely the size of their pocketbooks and the cleanliness of their drinking water, but also the way in which they perceive their place in the emerging global order. The complex mix of family, tribe, race, gender, religion and language that defines the boundaries of political kinship is changing, and if we as a species are to address the myriad economic, political and environmental challenges that face us, we must have a handle on the opportunities and limitations that such changes will present.

Liberman's comments on the European Union, for example, are particularly intriguing. Europe as a society is playing a fascinating multi-level game with the identity of its citizens. Just as the ethno-nationalist project that has occupied European peoples for the better part of two hundred years has come to fruition, Europeans are being encouraged to subsume their national identities in favor of a larger, pan-European one. At the same time, increased immigration from other areas of the World is challenging Europeans' identities at a time when they are uniquely plastic. Responses have run the spectrum from ethno-localist xenophobia to cosmopolitan acceptance, with most people falling somewhere in between. Language, as the premier marker of nationalism in the modern era, remains powerful in its potential to both unify and divide Europeans as they lurch haltingly towards their post-modern "paradise."

The situation around the rest of the Globe is no less complex.

Before I launch into what I hope will be a fruitful discussion, I do want to make a couple of things clear. First, though a person's political identity is, in my opinion, a social construct - "imagined" if you like - that is not the same thing as saying that it is false. The facile crutch of "false consciousness" has blinded thinkers and politicians from Marx to Obama to the very real concerns of people whose identities are inseparable from their dignity, and who legitimately seek to pass both on to their descendants. Second, identity is not an inherently moral concept. What a person does with their identity, whether they harness it for peace and unity or for power and violence, is of course morally relevant, but identity itself simply is. If we as citizens - and this is one issue in which citizen involvement at all levels of global society is absolutely crucial - are going to navigate the complex and treacherous waters of twenty-first century geopolitics, we must all give due respect to the values and aspirations of communities with whom we do not feel an immediate bond, and we cannot do that while sitting in perpetual judgment.

Much has happened in recent weeks that is highly relevant to this discussion, from elections in Europe to violence in India and South Africa. I hope to address many of them soon, but in the mean time, I would love to hear what readers think of this issue, where they see trends in global political identity heading, and what role, if any, language plays.

Cluster Bombs

The BBC reports today that more than one hundred countries have agreed to back an international ban on the production, transfer, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions. The problems associated with these weapons - chiefly that unexploded "bomblets" remain on the battlefield and pose a danger to civilians long after the fighting ends - were put on full display after Israel's extensive use of cluster munitions during the 2006 Lebanon war.

The report notes that the U.S., China and Russia (among others) have refused to back the agreement, raising some question as to how effective it will actually be. Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch evidently believes that the treaty has some value, noting that a similar group of countries refused to sign the 1997 treaty banning land mines, but that the stigma created by the ban has established a strong norm against their use to which even non-signatory countries have adhered.

This is actually a very interesting test case that political scientists would do well to watch over the next decade or two. I recall from my undergraduate days that the debate over what effect, if any, behavioral norms have on international actors remains one of the principal controversies of the study of international relations. Whether or not a normative principal established by the world community, but rejected by a number of Great Powers, can nevertheless compel compliance is the kind of question that theorists love to ask but seldom get to test. The next time the U.S., Russia, China or Israel goes to war (and trust me, there will be a "next time" for at least some within that group), see how, if at all, they use cluster munitions. It would make for a great paper.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fearing to Negotiate

I've done several posts now on the wisdom (or not) of holding high-level talks with unfriendly groups and regimes. I do indeed have ideas about other topics, to which I hope to move very shortly, but given recent events, as well as the continuing national dialogue about how the United States ought to relate to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and governments like those in Damascus and Tehran, I think one final post is in order.

Today's Times features an op-ed by Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins that critically examines Kennedy's willingness to negotiate with Kruschev - a relevant topic because of its lately ubiquitous use as an example of America's appropriate diplomatic flexibility in the face of a determined adversary. Thrall and Wilkins essentially argue that for all of Kennedy's lofty talk about 'never negotiating out of fear, but never fearing to negotiate,' the talks were in fact a disaster, convincing Kruschev that Kennedy could be pushed around and leading the U.S.S.R. to dangerously escalate the Cold War in Berlin and Cuba.

Recent days have also revealed that Israel, against American advice (though with American knowledge), has been negotiating with Syria through Turkish intermediaries on the final status of the Golan Heights. I must say I was surprised to hear this (I've always been a bit skeptical of Israel's true willingness to give back the Golan, since Syria hasn't been able to put the kind of intense pressure on Israel that groups in the West Bank and Gaza have), and am reluctant to be too optimistic about the results, particularly given Olmert's current political weakness, but am happy to hear that the issue has been taken up in a real way for the first time in nearly a decade.

Finally, against some fairly steep odds, Lebanon's feuding factions seem to have reached a power sharing deal that should keep the recent violence there from metastasizing into a full scale war (at least for now). Though Hezbollah's increasing political power is cause for serious concern, a war in Lebanon would be an absolute disaster for both American and Israeli interests in the region, and the agreement at least gives everyone some breathing space.

Lest the reader think I am merely jotting disparate sentences about recent events to post in an incoherent mess, let me explain my thinking. As I have argued before, Washington's strategy of attempting to isolate its adversaries in order to induce either changes in behavior or changes in regime - a strategy that it has pursued with a fair degree of consistency since the end of the Cold War - is now ill-matched to the global balance of power. I do take Thrall and Wilkins' point, though, that high-level negotiations, when pursued without appropriate diplomatic preparation, a detailed and focused agenda, and clear attainable goals, can be even more counterproductive than silence. Many think, for example, that poor preparation before the Israeli-Arab peace talks in the waning days of the Clinton/Barak/Hafez al-Assad administrations left all sides unclear about each others' final goals, and led everyone involved to take overly hard-line bargaining positions, which came across as simple obstinacy, leading to the breakdown of the talks even though a mutually acceptable solution was there for the signing. The Camp David talks were not in and of themselves problematic - they tried to address the real and resolvable strategic concerns of everyone involved - they were just badly executed.

This brings us to recent news. The power-sharing deal in Lebanon means that war (which would irrevocably harden the regional balance of power) has been averted but at the price of a strengthened Hezbollah. The fact that Israel has been negotiating with Syria gives the United States an opening (which we should have seized long ago) to "flip" Damascus, helping to engineer a mutually acceptable settlement on the Golan in exchange for Syria ceasing to support (and ceasing to be a conduit of Iranian support for) Hamas and Hezbollah. This would have the dual effect of cutting off an important source of arms and political cover for Hezbollah in Lebanon, opening the way to re-strengthen the pro-western factions there over time, as well as severely weakening Iranian proxies in the Levant, putting the U.S. in a stronger position to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program and Iraq.

That's how one negotiates in a strategically practical and intelligent way.

Don't get me wrong, negotiations aren't a panacea. They can, and do, fail. I don't want to come off as naively assuming that if everyone just sat down and had a good talk all of our problems in the Middle East would be solved. Iraq is still oscillating between low and high levels of sectarian bloodletting, with U.S. troops and Persian Gulf oil (now priced at $135 a barrel and rising fast) stuck in the middle. Much depends on the byzantine workings of the Iranian and Syrian governments, and the extent to which power brokers there believe it is in their interest to refashion their relationships with Israel and the West. Much depends too on the political viability of the Israeli government (opposition parties are already claiming that Israeli-Syrian talks are just a means of distracting from Ehud Olmert's legal troubles), its willingness to make the concessions that are necessary for peace, and the ability of the United States to apply sufficient pressure to all sides (as Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar seems to have done in Lebanon). Hamas and Hezbollah, of course, could also prove to be spoilers, particularly if they feel that their backs are to the wall (which is why, albiet with many misgivings, I think it's time to begin talking with them as well).

The bottom line is that, voluminous depressing headlines aside, the political situation across the Middle East is actually quite plastic at the moment. Ending up in a strong position will take cunning, flexibility and foresight on the part of American leaders. All the more reason, in my view, to put an end to our absurd refusal to negotiate.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Bush and King Abdullah

So, according to the Times, President Bush's requests that Saudi Arabia increase its oil production and lower its prices have once again been rebuffed by the Saudi political leadership at a high-level, highly public, meeting. You know, at this point, you'd at least think the President could do a bit of prep work to establish whether or not these visits will produce any tangible results so as to avoid repeatedly embarassing both himself and the United States. It's bad enough to be begging the Saudis for oil. It's downright humiliating to be refused.

Almost makes you nostalgic for the times when we were considering just taking the stuff.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Long, Unfortunate Shadow of Munich

The New York Times reports today that President Bush issued a "veiled attack" on Senator Obama during his address to the Israeli Knesset. From the article:

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along,” Mr. Bush said. “We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

First off, that's not much of a veil. That's a pretty direct attack on Obama's foreign policy proposals, and his campaign responded quickly and angrily, calling the President's remarks an "extraordinary politicization of foreign policy." I've repeatedly avoided getting into the tit-for-tat of the American election, so I won't belabor the specifics. Suffice to say that my view of the situation is closer to that of Mr. Obama than to that of Mr. Bush. The President's address, though, brings up a larger issue that has nagged me for some time, to which I would like to take an opportunity to speak.

I would like to respectfully request that statesmen, political scientists, pundits and analysts the world over stop making historical analogies to the Munich conference, and to the supposed universal folly of "appeasement." Any benefits of Munich as an instructive historical precedent are now far outweighed by the analogy's power as an intellectually lazy rhetorical cudgel that is too often used to bludgeon any diplomatic initiatives that are, well, diplomatic. Not every autocratic country is Nazi Germany. Not every foreign dictator we don't like is Hitler. Not every threatening situation is most appropriately handled by eschewing diplomacy in favor of a "firm stance."

Please understand, I am not suggesting that thinkers and decision-makers stop allowing history to inform their judgement. Such a course would be asinie in the extreme. I would submit, though, that an oversimplified and overgeneralized reading of the events that immediately preceded the Second World War has haunted Western political elites for more than half a century. Aversion to "appeasement" among the post-war generation played a role in escalating the Cold War beyond any sane level, it played a role in America's tragic inability to rationally assess the situation in Vietnam, and in a more contemporary context, it played a central role in the thinking that led to the Iraq war, and is now informing those who would advocate the same in Iran. The "lessons of Munich" - that dictators must always be strongly opposed, that firey rhetoric must always be taken at face value, that diplomatic give-and-take is a fatal sign of weakness, that we must always be ready to fight to defend our perceived interests - obscure the reality of an international problem far more frequently than they illuminate it. Invoking such "lessons" unfairly paints those with different views as modern-day Chamberlains, unable to perceive the intractible perfidity of a determined enemy, and thus frames the debate in narrow and destructive terms wherein the only appropriate response to a problem is sanction and force, and all who think otherwise are weak, or cowardly, or both.

To bring things back to specifics, Iran is not Nazi Germany. Though the Iranian regime is anti-democratic, and espouses values that are indeed antithetical to those of the liberal West, the notion that Iranian armies and proxies are poised to make a genocidal sweep across the Middle East is absurd. Even the Iranian nuclear threat, though serious, shows every sign of being able to be contained with an intelligent deterrence policy (should things come to that). Iran does not have a particularly impressive industrial base. Its infrastructure is mediocre, its economy is sclerotic (propped up only by high oil prices), and its regime is unpopular. Even the outrageous statements about Israel made by President Ahmadinejad should be taken with a grain of salt, remembering that the Iranian President is not the head of state, and that he is acutally at odds with much of Iran's clerical leaders.

Obama's willingness to talk with the Iranian leadership is not a sign of weakness or delusion. It is a sign that he understands that there are things we want from Iran (cooperation in Iraq, nuclear disarmament, reduced political and material support for Hamas and Hezbollah) and things Iran wants from us (a security guarantee, diplomatic relations, a lifting of sanctions, membership in the WTO), and that a deal might be possible that is more amenable to American interests than the current situation. Clear-headed strategic thinking is sorely needed among American leaders today. It is time to stop letting ideological blinders, reinforced by poor analysis and bad history, get in the way.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Military Procurement

Today, we find a member of the Bush Administration who is, at least at first blush, making some pretty good sense. The New York Times reports that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates "issued a clear warning to the military and its industrial partners on Tuesday that expensive, new conventional weapons must prove their value to current conflicts, marked by insurgency and terrorism, if they hope for a place in future budgets."

You probably can't hear it, but that's the hallelujah chorus singing in the background.

The article goes on to say that Gates's pronouncements "are certain to alarm advocates of the newest generations of high-tech and high-cost weapons programs, in particular the Army’s Future Combat Systems and the Air Force’s F-22 advanced warplane. Both have come under the scrutiny of Pentagon budget officers questioning whether either would be required for missions similar to the current operations in Iraq or Afghanistan." Alarmed, and rightfully so. If I were C.E.O. of a high-end defense contractor (or a congressman with one in my district), I'd certainly be making a few phone calls right now. Still, this is a welcome injection of sanity into the perennial debate over the United States' bloated defense budget.

Actually, to be honest, I'm a little bit conflicted about all of this. On the one hand, given the gargantuan government budget defecits that are driving down the American dollar and generally contributing to the erosion of America's global economic good standing, I'm glad to hear that the defense department is beginning to reorient its priorities away from half-trillion dollar boondoggles whose value has yet to be proven in the real world. On the other hand, while Iraq and Afghanistan will almost certainly remain the central focus of the American military over the next three to five years, I'd actually be in favor of reorienting American defense policy (and, concurrently, its global posture) away from such conflicts in the medium-to-long term. Invading countries, conducting large-scale occupation and counterinsurgency operations, and generally continuing to act like we've acted over the last decade is not in the best interest of the United States. Such heavy handed tactics are reminiscent of the nineteenth century, are seldom worth their material and political cost, and given the increasing multipolarity of the international system, will likely be strategically un-feasible before too long anyhow.

I would generally be in favor of tailoring American military capabilities to operate best at the very highest and very lowest levels of power projection (and please understand that I am speaking as a layman, not as a soldier or highly-trained strategic analyst). In other words, I would be in favor of increasing the role of special forces, intelligence, and other flexible mechanisms to quickly and effectively strike at small terrorist groups that operate in numerous corners of the globe (without the burden of changing regimes and building countries from the ground up), as well as maintaining America's technological advantage to ensure our ability to fight major conventional conflicts on the sea and in the air. Large scale, long-term ground operations like we now see in Iraq and Afghanistan should be avoided.

In some senses, this vision would mean that high-end aircraft, new ships, and other expensive military hardware would remain important. I refer back, though, to my earlier praise of Richard Betts's Foreign Affairs piece on American defense expenditures, in which it is argued that we ought to continue aggressively funding research and development of cutting edge defense technologies, without taking on the burden of broadly equipping our military with such hardware until such time as the international situation truly demands it (disconcerting as China's recent military expansion is, we're a long ways away from a showdown with Beijing). As such, we don't need to order hundreds of the latest F-22 fighters. We do want to start designing the plane to replace them.

I suppose I should also mention, cliche though it is at this point, that the pushback from Congress against cuts in many current defense projects will likely be fierce. Here's hoping that Secretary Gates's pragmatism carries through to the next administration, and that enlightened leadership can slowly begin to steer the American military-industrial complex towards a defense posture that is better tailored to the World of the twenty-first century.

Update from Lebanon

The BBC reports this morning that the Lebanese Army has announced it is prepared to use force to disarm the gunmen that have been clashing across the country in recent days. Though such suppression would be ecumenical in theory, in practice it would mean the army going up against the armed wing of Hezbollah, which has been the principal force working to undermine the current Lebanese government (such as it is). The United States has gotten into the act, with President Bush saying that "the US would ensure the Lebanese military had 'the practical equipment' it needed to act against Hezbollah's armed wing." The American Navy has evidently also sent the missile destroyer USS Cole into the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the BBC, "[sources] have warned that any hint of American intervention would lead it to abandon the few red lines it has observed in its campaign to undermine the government."

I have a few thoughts. First off, as the article above notes, the fact that the army has remained neutral in the current political deadlock has been the major factor keeping Lebanon from spiraling into another round of full-blown civil war. If I were an American decision-maker, I would be very wary of encouraging or enabling any actions that could push Lebanon over the edge, because once full-blown fighting starts, stopping it will likely be wholly beyond our ability. Lebanese militias fought viciously for fifteen years without fundamentally changing the country's political balance, stopping only once the conflict's outside backers (Syria and Israel) deemed continued fighting to be no longer to their advantage. Any major fighting in Lebanon would surely draw in (at least through proxies) Iran, Syria, Israel, and likely the United States. This would give Iran yet another battleground on which to cause headaches for the U.S. at a time when it can ill afford them, and make cutting a deal on Iraq and nuclear development even more difficult. Likewise, it would further undermine what remains of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and shelve any notion of serious Israeli-Syrian talks.

Oh, and of course there'd be mass death, displacement and destruction in Lebanon. There's that to think about too I suppose.

I of course understand that Hezbollah and the Lebanese government have now upped the ante to the point that cooling tensions will be difficult (the government moved to shut down Hezbollah's communications infrastructure, Hezbollah and its allies have barricaded much of Beirut and shut down the capital's airport, which has led to fighting between Sunni and Shia forces). There is also the issue, as Rayyan al-Shawaf argues in the Daily Star, that Lebanon will always be perched on the brink of conflict until both Hezbollah, its allies, and its Sunni and Christian tribal counterparts have their militias disarmed and the Lebanese army attains a reasonable monopoly of violence. Shawaf notes that one reason for the army's neutrality so far is a fear that, in the event of full-blown fighting, it may split along sectarian lines as it did during the last civil war, and the only institution capable of holding the state together will have disintegrated. I sympathize with Shawaf's desire for the army to be more assertive, but very much understand his and others' fears that escalating the conflict will only fragment things further.

I have no particularly sage advice for how to handle Lebanon at this point. Politics there are too complex for me to follow in the kind of detail necessary to map out a detailed solution that would be palatable to the key players involved (this is a problem, as best I can tell, that is shared by regional experts - witness this editorial in the Daily Star that, for all its attempts to seem wise, doesn't propose any kind of concrete way out of the current mess), but for now, were I in any kind of position of influence, I would counsel the army to remain a relatively neutral referee, because once the last bastion of Lebanese stability gets involved in the fighting, all bets will likely be off.