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.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Trials of Ehud Olmert and Next Steps in Israel

Anyone who pays attention to Israeli politics (which perennially vie with those of Italy for the title of 'most apathy-inducingly labrynthine') knows that Ehud Olmert is in some trouble. In some ways this isn't a new situation. He's been in trouble at least since the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, and in my opinion has been overmatched by events around him since Ariel Sharon's stroke earlier that year. Still, even by the standards of his rather dubious tenure as Israeli PM, Olmert is having some pretty serious problems these days.

He's being investigated for corruption related to some putative campaign contributions. The charges may or may not have any merit. Corruption seems to go hand in hand with modern Israeli politics (even more so than with those of other countries), and frivolous charges trumped up for political advantage certainly aren't unknown. Still, I have a difficult time seeing how Mr. Olmert is going to survive this affair while maintaining any ability to effectively govern. Already hobbled by the remaining political aftertaste of his government's abysmal performance in Lebanon, leader of a shaky centrist coalition that, in its desire not to antagonize either side of the Israeli political spectrum simply fiddles while Jerusalem burns, Olmert confers no possible benefit - either to Israel or to his own legacy - by stubbornly clinging to his post. A recent scathing editorial in Haaretz makes the case for Olmert's removal better than I ever could:

...the prime minister must realize he has lost his ability to continue leading the state. After the disclosure of the investigation's details, few people believe him, believe in him, lend credence to his statements and accept his claims that he is capable in his situation of focusing on affairs of state. His position has been undermined, even if he continues to bear the title of prime minister. He is incapable of leading the state into battle, if such were to become necessary, just as he is incapable of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians or Syrians. If he tries to initiate anything out of the ordinary, the criminal investigations against him will be exploited to undermine his authority to make or implement decisions.

The day-to-day running of the state is also vulnerable to the continuing erosion of his position resulting from the suspicions swirling around him. What then is the logic behind perpetuating the government in the conditions in which Olmert has trapped himself?

My thoughts exactly. Olmert's troubles mirror those of the Israeli polity more generally. Even as an American (and thus no stranger to intractable political deadlock), I must marvel at the inability of one of the most representative governments in the world to implement crucial state policy that is supported by the great balance of its constituents. Part of this obviously has to do with the chaos on the Palestinian side and the "facts on the ground" created by the Israeli settler movement that immensely complicate any effort to solve the current political crisis (either through a deal or through unilateral disengagement), part of it has to do with the extreme political fragmentation that has arisen in Israel over the last two decades (Kadima, the largest party and anchor of the current Israeli government, has only 29 seats in the Knesset for a whopping 24% of the total - in some ways it's a wonder that the government has lasted as long as it has) and part of it has to do with the fact that the Israeli populace has completely lost confidence in its own political class. This last problem is perhaps the most troubling, because people will not sacrifice for leaders who they do not trust, and now more than ever a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take sacrifice. Israel needs a leader, and it cannot afford to wait.

In his handicapping of the current situation, Attila Somfalvi envisions two possible scenarios following an Olmert resignation (which, despite my previous premature predictions, might actually happen this time). First, he envisions Ehud Barak pulling Labor out of the Kadima-led coalition, forcing elections. Somfalvi notes that Barak would have a difficult time justifying propping the government up any longer, and would have to trigger elections if only to prove he still has a spine.

The problem, of course, is that vagaries of political polling in Israel aside, many people think that Likud would win, presumably forging a government with the National Religious Party, Yisrael Beiteinu and a smattering of other conservative groups to prop up a right wing coalition. Some people may not think that this would be the end of the World. Sometimes, after all, the political pendulum must be allowed to swing fully in one direction in order to be able to swing back the other way. My problem with this scenario though, even if it provided moral vindication to the Israeli center-left and positioned it for future victories, is that Likud's conception of Israeli foreign relations has now become so divorced from strategic reality as to be almost farcical (a farce in which many, many people end up dead). The pursuit, in this day and age, of "Greater Israel" as a practical matter of state policy ignores every lesson learned since 1967, and unlike the 1990s, peace negotiations will not survive another hiatus while the Israeli right wing indulges its expansionist fantasies. Israel needs a government with the will and muscle to make peace. That won't come from Likud, and it won't come from Ehud Barak gloriously jumping on a political grenade.

It might come from a revitalized Kadima, and a revitalized Kadima might come from current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. My limited understanding is that Livni remains one of the few political figures in Israel who can command a certain amount of respect from the Israeli populace. Somfalvi seems to think that she can hold Kadima's coalition together, even though Shas may have some slight problems with her gender as well as her previous statements about the relationship between religion and the state. If she can be viewed as sufficiently separate from the many failures of Kadima's tenure at the head of the Israeli state, she may be able to muscle the Knesset into doing what is necessary to advance the cause of peace. Thus far she hasn't played her hand particularly agressively, but she may want to before too long. Too much is at stake to continue the current deadlock.

Blogging at Foreign Policy Watch

On a brief administrative note, I will be guest-blogging over the course of the coming Summer at Foreign Policy Watch, which any regular readers know I have linked heavily in the past. I will be cross-posting most of what I write there at Rational International, and I'll probably have a few posts that go up exclusively here, so by all means continue to check out both blogs. I'm honored that Jeb over at FPW has invited me on. It's a great blog and I'm excited to get started.

Friday, May 9, 2008

If They'd Only Give a BIT of Thought to PR...

There is news today that the Pentagon will rescind the assignment of Maj. General Jay W. Hood, who had been slated to be posted as America's top commander based in Pakistan. The turnaround comes after vociferous protests in Pakistan, given one of General Hood's previous posts as commander of the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.

I'm going to ask the reader to pause for a moment to let that sink in.

The Pentagon took a previous commander of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, the symbol of American perfidity and hypocricy worldwide, the place where prisoners have been tortured, Islam defamed, and America's global standing reduced to a pile of radioactive sludge, and they sent him to Pakistan.

Deep breath.

Please understand that this is not necessarily an indictment of General Hood himself. I don't know what role he did or didn't play in everything that went on (and still goes on) at Guantanamo. I have absolutely no idea how much influence he had over the mission he was given, so I won't criticize him for it. I won't excuse him, but I won't criticize him because I simply don't know the facts.

One doesn't have to be clairvoyant, however, to recognize that sending a man rightly or wrongly tainted by his association with one of the great geopolitical scandals of the early twenty-first century - a man under whose tenure, by the way, Korans were allegedly flushed down toilets, sparking protests and riots across the Muslim world - to a country like Pakistan is a terrible, terrible idea. At least the Pentagon has been sensitive enough to the protests to cancel the assignment, but the fact that nobody picked up on the problems it would cause worries me. It worries me, because it sends the signal that at least some high up in our military and civilian establishment still have not gotten it through their heads the catastrophic extent of the damage that Guantanamo Bay has done to Ameircan credibility around the world, and until they figure it out they cannot hope to remedy the problem.

Battles in Lebanon

So it would seem that things in Lebanon are slowly but surely escalating. There have been open street battles in Beirut over the last day, with Shiite militias pushing aside rival forces. Though calm appears to have returned, albiet in a fragile state, I haven't seen any indication that a larger political solution is viable yet. Majority leader Hariri's proposal to make Army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman President as a solution to the deadlock doesn't seem to have gained any traction with Hezbollah. That group's response to the proposed deal troubled me especially:

...Al Manar television, which is run by Hezbollah, said the group had rejected Mr. Hariri’s proposal. The station cited a pro-Hezbollah official, who said the group and its allies would reject any ideas for ending the conflict that were not proposed by Mr. Nasrallah.

I really hope that's just posturing. It's one thing to reject a deal, it's another thing to categorically reject the notion of any deal not proposed by one's own side. If Hezbollah has basically decided that they are in a position to dictate terms - and who knows, before long they may be - then I'm not sure what the way is out of this mess.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Violence in Lebanon

There are reports this morning that gunmen have begun taking Lebanon's political gridlock to the streets, escalating the worst crisis since the end of the country's civil war. This hasn't gotten much play in the news (evidently there was some kind of election thing last night) but needs to be paid attention to. Unfortunately, I doubt there's much the U.S., or any outside actors with the possible exception of Syria and Iran who both have a degree of influence over Hezbollah, can do about all this. American credibility in Lebanon is, from what I can tell, completely shot since our greenlighting of Israel's bombing campaign back in 2006. This crisis, in many ways, stems from the political instability created in the aftermath of that conflict. Was it Machiavelli who said that wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you like?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Moral Complexity of Nationalism

Barnett Rubin at Informed Comment has a piece entitled Against Holocaust Denial, Against Naqba Denial that ought to be required reading for anyone who pays attention to 21st Century geopolitics. Though the principal focus of Rubin's post is the (extraordinarily well articulated) history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he manages to highlight the painful tension that underlies the very notion of nationalism everywhere, and provides powerful insight into who we all are as members of political communities.

To be sure, I don't accept everything implied by Rubin's analysis. In particular, I am more forgiving, even supportive, of the Zionist project than he. I do, though, take to heart the tragic contradiction at the bedrock of modern nationalism that his account illuminates; namely, that nationalism, taken to its logical conclusion, is both abhorrent to liberal morality and necessary to its exercise.

Allow me to explain. The story Rubin tells, of genocide, migration and ethnic cleansing, of a catastrophic chain reaction of misery from Spain to Russia to Jerusalem to Tehran, lies at the heart of the modern world. The creation - still in progress - of the political communities in which we all reside has necessarily involved the disruption of that same community for others. The nations of Western Europe were midwifed by the oppression and expulsion of national minorities and the forcible suppression of local culture. Through a complex interplay of private enterprise and state policy, Provence, Bretagne and Languedoc became France, Piemonte, Sicilia and Napoli became Italy, and dozens of tiny duchies, principalities and bishoprics east of the Rhine became Germany. As old continental and colonial empires - which had been ethno-linguistic melting pots, composed with no thought to nationalist logic - faded, even more dramatic events preceded the formation - again, still in progress in many places - of modern nation-states. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire set off nationalist powder kegs across the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Within a few decades, the hellish tides of the Second World War swept across the continent, leading to history's greatest genocide, as well as to unprecedented population movements as Soviet troops cleared conqured territories of ethnic Germans. Meanwhile, the great European colonial Empires gave way to the resistance of nascent national movements worldwide, and in the wake of their retreat left a state system grafted onto polygot mosaics of ethno-linguistic and religious communities. As in Europe, this often led to conflict to resolve the tension of states and political communities that were alien to each other. Millions of refugees flowed back and forth across the borders of India and Pakistan, fleeing the violence and chaos that accompanied partition. Jewish and Arab inhabitents of British Palestine violently tore their land asunder, bringing one of the modern world's most intractable conflicts into full flower. Sectarian divisions flared up in new states across Asia, Africa and the Middle East as people sought harmony between the bounds of geography and those of identity.

I won't belabor the point further. Suffice to say that the conflict in Israel and Palestine is but one example (albiet a very instructive one) of the fundamental conflict of liberal nationalism. With its notions of individual freedom, liberalism does not sit well with a conception of political identity that, to quote Benedict Anderson, is "both limited and sovereign" in the sense that nations can by definition never be universalized (we cannot imagine a scenario in which the whole world is French) and must find political expression in a sovereign community. Nationalism necessarily includes some, excludes others, and thus limits the freedom of all.

On the other hand, from a practical perspective, a liberal society requires that its members have a basic level of affinity with one another, a kind of loose bond of political kinship that can serve as glue for the social contract. Since the industrial revolution, nationalism has proven to be by far the strongest adhesive. Jerry Muller's recent Foreign Affairs piece Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism should be required reading for anyone interested in a brief exposition of nationalism's enduring vitality. Even one of the founding lights of the modern study of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson, the British socialist who famously labeled nations "imagined communities" was spurred to write not out of a belief that progressive ideologies like socialism would trump nationalist feeling, but out of puzzlement at nationalism's enduring power even within (what was at the time) the communist world. The fact is that nationalism is a uniquely effective social glue, perhaps a necessary one if the freedoms promised by liberal champions are ever to be exercised.

Coming back to Rubin's piece, the question becomes what is to be done going forward. Europe presents both a compelling and unsettling model to follow. On the one hand, European populations seem to be slowly-but-surely recasting their political community based on shared value affinity and history that goes well beyond their own national groups. On the other hand, as Muller argues, that transformation may only be possible in an environment where the separatist nationalist project - the desire to give every nation a state and every state a nation - has largely succeeded. It should rightly bother us that this success rests on some of the greatest atrocities - murder, ethnic cleansing and conquest - in the history of mankind. Need the route to the transcendence of our more parochial national attachments be paved in misery and soaked in blood?

I answer with a qualified "no." Even if the kinds of actions that were once employed to bring about ethno-nationalist unity weren't as ethically problematic as they are in this day and age, the major movements of global population that emigration has brought about in recent years make the creation of nationally homogeneous societies impossible today. One needs only to look at the problem Japan is having with an aging populace to see that state policies of ethnic stasis create as many problems as they prevent. Still, this only further illuminates the need for ethnic polities to be honest about the contradictions of their own pasts, and to recognize the necessity of carving out space - within and without state borders - for nationalist aspirations to operate. Sometimes this will happen through the devolution of power and the recognition of group rights, problematic as this can be for true liberals. Other times this will mean a re-fashioning of a dominant national identity to include the history and ideals of those formerly confined to "otherness." This is something that, on balance, the United States does exceptionally well, and with enlightened leadership is something that we can help other societies to achieve.

Nationalism in the 21st century needn't be the immiserating, bloody mess that it was during the 20th. That will only be avoided, though, if we are honest about our collective history, honest about the tensions that exist within our own ideals, and honest about the fact that neither is going away any time soon.

Pandas to Tokyo

You know, with all the tension between China and various foreign powers these days, you have to wonder if they're going to run out of pandas.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hezbollah Training Iraqis in Iran

Today's New York Times reports that the American military has found compelling evidence that Hezbollah has training camps set up in Iran for the purposes of training Iraqi Shiite militias. I'm still digesting this, but my first reaction, assuming that the reports are credible, is that it undermines the notion that Iranian support for Iraqi militias is confined to certain enclaves within the Iranian military and intelligence services and is not part of Iranian state policy. Arms leaking over the border is one thing. I can legitimately imagine that Tehran could not completely control that even if it wanted to. I have a tough time believing, though, that Hezbollah could be operating multiple training camps within Iran without the consent, if not the direction, of the Iranian central government. Coupled with Iran's suspension of talks with the U.S. over Iraqi security matters this morning, this does not bode well.

Friday, May 2, 2008

On J Street

The invaluable weekly "News from the Front" roundup of news on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over at Foreign Policy Watch has directed me to a pair of op-eds in the Jerusalem Post relating to the new lobbying organization J Street. J Street aims to provide a more progressive counterweight to AIPAC and other hard-line pro Israel lobby groups, describing itself as the "political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement." It is dedicated to the notion that the United States can best help Israel by working aggressively towards negotiating a peace deal with Palestine, rather than by reflexively supporting some of the Israeli government's less constructive policies.

The first op-ed, by Isi Leibler, blasts J Street as essentially an anti-Israel group in disguise. The second, by Andrew Silow-Carroll, takes a somewhat more nuanced view, noting that all would benefit if mainstream U.S. politicians didn't have to obsessively pander to the right wing. Both pieces are worth reading, but I must say the first one made my head hurt a bit. In arguing that the Israeli government already bows compulsively to U.S. pressure (a pretty misguided notion if you ask me - often as not it seems to be the other way around), Leibler asserts:

...the Olmert government has lost the confidence of its people precisely because of unilateral concessions which undermine Israel's security and embolden terrorists. His government is an amen chorus which capitulates to every demand imposed on it by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It has provided weapons to the Palestinians which will almost certainly once again be redirected against Israel; it has released and granted amnesty to terrorists; and despite bitter opposition from the IDF, it has closed checkpoints and acceded to demands compromising security which have already resulted in Israeli casualties.

I suppose, in the strictest sense, Leibler is right (though I'm frankly pretty tired of policy being made based on a desire not to "embolden" one's enemies; once people are at the point where they're willing to blow themselves up in the middle of nightclubs, motivation becomes a pretty academic issue). The Olmert government has indeed made some concessions in recent months, opening a few border crossings, closing a few checkpoints etc. Anyone being honest, though, would acknowledge that Israel has consistently refused to make concessions on the one issue that really matters: settlements. As I have said before, Israelis need to decide - soon - whether they are truly willing to mortgage the future of their nation to the minority of hard-liners who view Israel's occupation of the West Bank as a religious calling. As Mr. Silow-Carroll points out, Prime Minister Olmert understands full well the implications of such a course. He is quoted as saying that:

"If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights [among Palestinians of the occupied territories], then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished."

In other words, Israel simply cannot continue to occupy the West Bank and remain a democratic and Jewish state. That Mr. Olmert evidently lacks the political muscle to act on this realization is regrettable, but does nothing to diminish its prescience.

I am not so naive to think that a final peace deal in the Levant would be based exactly on the 1967 "Green Line." More than half a million settlers live in the West Bank. Some will almost surely have to stay there. The problem, though, is that settlements have been built so as to carve up the territory in such a way that it could never constitute a viable state. No sovereign people can be expected to navigate a maze of foreign military checkpoints in order to move around in their own territory. George Kennan once said that power makes a mockery of sovereignty. Such a situation would be more than a mockery; it would be a farce.

Finally, it is worth noting that, over the last decade, the political situation in Israel and Palestine has deteriorated dramatically. The Palestinians are weak and divided, with half their people under military occupation and beholden to a semi-functioning government of questionable legitimacy, and the other half trapped in an impoverished, crowded battle zone, beholden to a government that is not even recognized or dealt with by the rest of the world. The Israelis, meanwhile, are stuck in political deadlock with the far right slowly creating "facts on the ground" that increase the difficulty of a final deal with each passing day.

In this environment, an American lobby that pushes for both sides to make real concessions and come to a lasting peace strikes me as long overdue.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Vagaries of a Common Currency

Today's Times has a terrific article on the tenth anniversary of the Euro (my how time flies). Evidently a resurgent German economy combined with a falling dollar has been reopening the north-south economic divide between prosperous northern Europe, which wants to keep inflation in check, and more sclerotic, export-driven (and therefore highly sensitive to currency fluctuation) southern Europe (Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal), which wants a weaker Euro to push up exports and raise standards of living.

The article, though, echoes my sense that European integration, at least at the economic level, long ago passed the point of no return. As much as the incoming Berlusconi government might like to have a lira to devalue and thereby juice the Italian economy, the overall political and economic costs of abandoning the centerpiece of the Maastricht Treaty wouldn't be worth it by a long shot. Still, it'll be interesting to see how such tensions play out in the coming years, and in particular how the newer E.U. states of Eastern Europe line up. I'll need to do a bit more research into the state of their economies in order to make any kind of informed analysis (and even then it'd be on the amateurish side - my economics knowledge doesn't get much past the Macro 101 level), but stay tuned in any case.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


This is a pretty frivolous aside, but Robert Schlesinger (son of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., son of Arthur Schlesinger) was on the Daily Show this evening, wearing an eye-poppingly multicolored bow tie. Anyone who has ever seen pictures of his father should recognize the homage. A great interview as well.

UPDATE: You can catch the interview here.


Check out Arif Rafiq's recent piece on the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. A very insightful and practical set of prescriptions in my view. He refers to Senator Biden's proposal as a model for building a relationship with the Pakistan people, not just the upper echelons of Pakistan's government, and advises Washington to stop interfering in Pakistan's internal politics.

I have a couple of quibbles. I'm not sure how realistic it would be to replace NATO troops in Afghanistan with those from non-bordering Muslim nations like Turkey and Indonesia, but I guess it might be worth a shot some day. Also, I'm not always sure what authors mean when they say that the U.S. shouldn't "interfere" in others' internal politics. If what Mr. Rafiq means is that Washington ought to be dispassionate and uninterested in Pakistan's political winds, that strikes me as pretty unrealistic. If, on the other hand, he means that America should step back, and try to influence Pakistan's long term political development by putting itself on the right side of events rather than trying to tinker in the country's political minutae, then in my view he's being quite insightful.

In any case, definitely worth a read for anyone interested.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ahmadinejad in India

The New York Times reports that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is currently on a high-profile visit to India. Though no major new breakthroughs in Indian-Iranian relations (which are fairly good, and based on real mutual strategic interests) are expected, the visit gives the Indian government a chance to show its independence from the United States by dealing with a leader openly loathed by Washington. I'm sure some people in this town are wringing their hands at the visit, but frankly, I think in the long run, it's a net positive for the U.S. It allows the Indian government to deflect criticism that it is Washington's pawn without having to make concrete strategic moves that would damage America's position in South Asia. It might even help get our stalled nuclear deal back on track, which I continue to support, albiet cautiously.

More to the point, India will never be an American client state, nor, probably, a steadfast ally in the Western European mold; however, solid relations with India are both achievable and desirable for Washington, if only because the state has cultivated links with so many other important international actors (Iran, Russia, China, Japan) that will require a delicate hand in the coming decades. Engaging India as a strategic partner in managing such relationships - both the good and the bad - makes imminent practical sense. America's relationship with Iran is going to have to change, either for better or worse, over the next decade. Overall I think it's a good thing that a potential American partner on Persia's doorstep keep relations open with Tehran.

Monday, April 28, 2008

And I So Naively Thought We'd Be Able to Avoid This...

Yesterday's New York Times article about Debbie Almontaser, a New York educator who helped start a public school with an Arab focus, is making me cringe a bit. The article describes Almontaser's vision for the school thusly:

Children of Arab descent would join students of other ethnicities, learning Arabic together. By graduation, they would be fluent in the language and groomed for the country’s elite colleges. They would be ready, in Ms. Almontaser’s words, to become “ambassadors of peace and hope.”

Sounds like a terrible concept doesn't it?

Evidently there have been numerous problems at the school, most of which aren't really the concern of this blog (I'm not particularly qualified to make pronouncements on modern primary and secondary pedagogy), but the upshot is that Ms. Almontaser has been forced out of her position as principal by "a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda." Significantly, the article puts this incident into a larger context of groups in America that have begun bracing against what they call "soft jihad" waged by law-abiding citizens who seek to promote a creeping Islamicization* of American society.

The article takes particular note of Daniel Pipes, a trained historian who heads up the Middle East Forum and who helped lead the oh-so-constructively-named "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" against Ms. Almontaser's school. According to the article: the authorities have stepped up the war on terror, those critics have shifted their gaze to a new frontier, what they describe as law-abiding Muslim-Americans who are imposing their religious values in the public domain.

Mr. Pipes and others reel off a list of examples: Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia, the Islamic code of law.

The danger, Mr. Pipes says, is that the United States stands to become another England or France, a place where Muslims are balkanized and ultimately threaten to impose sharia.
“It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Mr. Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system — the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like — you can promote radical Islam.”

A gym at Harvard adopting female-only pool hours? Quel horreur! I'd better hide my booze and get used to eating halal, because it would seem like a full-blown Islamic revolution is right around the corner!

In all seriousness, though, to act as though minor accomodations to a few Islamic cultural practices represent the first step toward imposing sharia law in the United States is simply absurd. Some European countries are having problems with their Muslim populations because of a combination of foolish immigration policies, status-quo economic management, and the perpetuation of inflexibly antiquated conceptions of their own political communities. The French have a model of "Frenchness" that is exclusivist to the point that nobody from another culture could ever hope to strike a proper balance between fidelity to their own traditions and accomodation with those of the society around them (this phenomenon, ironically enough, was one of the catalysts of the Zionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century). The United States is supposed to be different. We are supposed to have the kind of nationalism that is supple, that absorbs others' cultures and traditions even as it assimilates them into its own. I am supremely confident that we will be able to incorporate Muslims into American society without sacrificing our sovereignty to some nebulous "radical" threat posed by Islamic practices.

Confident, that is, as long as conservative yahoos who have Samuel Huntington complexes and are somehow offended by foot washing basins in public bathrooms - people like Mr. Pipes - are relegated to the margins of national discourse. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when talking about American politics - one that goes all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts - is that whenever someone starts talking about vague, underground, conspiratorial movements to radically alter the face of American society, it's probably bull$@#!. The fact that a few cabbies won't give you a ride because you're carrying booze, or that a few colleges have put foot sinks in their bathrooms so that Muslim students can wash their feet before prayer without breaking their necks, or that for a few hours a week some pools are restricted to women, isn't a sign of some nefarious plot to islamicize American society. It's a sign that institutions are making some reasonable accomodations to the cultural practices of the people around them. It's the very definition of an appropriate, balanced, liberal response to cultural difference. Last time I checked, after all, Christmas was still a Federal holiday. I doubt we'll hear Mr. Pipes complaining about that any time soon.

*I have no idea if this is actually a word, but I like it and have decided to use it going forward.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Weapons in Lebanon

The Washington Post reports today that Lebanese civilians are beginning to arm themselves in anticipation that there will be no resolution to the country's political deadlock. This is evidently reflected in skyrocketing prices for small arms. All I can say is this can't be good.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hamas and a Peace Deal

Jimmy Carter - a man for whom I have enormous respect, whatever some of his detractors say - has reported that the leadership of Hamas has told him that they would be open to a peace deal with Israel if it were approved by Palestinian citizens in a referendum, even if the deal contained some provisions with which Hamas disagreed. I must admit that I've been back and forth about whether or not Israel and the international community should bring Hamas into peace negotiations. I very much understand that Israel doesn't want to negotiate with a group that continues to deny its right to exist and thereby put that issue "back on the table" so to speak, but I think it's time to face up to the strategic reality that Israeli sanctions haven't brought about the collapse of the Hamas government in Gaza, and that as long as Hamas controls such a large portion of the Palestinian populace, no agreement will be possible without its assent. The Hamas leadership's statements to Carter might be sincere or they might be tactical, but for hard-nosed strategic reasons I think it's time to give them the benefit of the doubt and bring Hamas to the table in some capacity, if only because there aren't many other viable options.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Thursday, March 20, 2008


The New York Times reports that a number of factors, including the heavy cracktown on Tebetian dissent by the Chinese government, have made upcoming elections in Taiwan unexpectedly close. The Nationalist party, which still favors some type of reunification with the mainland, was on course to win by a substantial margin, but the recent actions of the Chinese government seem to have given the voters some pause. Taiwan strikes me as an area in which the United States should be more heavily engaged. Our policy of strategic ambiguity in the China-Taiwan dispute has kept things relatively quiet over the last several decades, but as China's power grows along with Taiwanese sentiment for independence, it would behoove the United States to facilitate negotiations for some kind of permanent status agreement between the two countries (or "political entities" if you prefer) before we find the issue forced, and we are caught between the options of abandoning an ally and risking major war.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Parag Khanna

Sorry for the absurdly long absence. I've got a few posts in the works and I promise I'll be back into form soon. For those of you in the D.C. area, I highly recommend you come to the Politics & Prose bookstore this evening for a 7:00 talk by Parag Khanna, author of the new book The Second World. I'm in the process of reading it and it's an absolute tour de force.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Responding to rocket attacks from Hamas is one thing. I understand that the Israeli government has a responsibility to protect its own people. To be honest, though, the continued officially-sanctioned building of settlements in disputed territory, coupled with the government turning a blind eye to unsanctioned ones, is beginning to seriously undercut my sympathy with Israel's position vis a vis the Palestinians. All through the last two decades of on-and-off negotiations with the Palestinian authority, the Israelis have made no serious effort to curb settlement activity. From a perspective of U.S. policy, if the Israeli government is really not willing to restrain the more reactionary, destructive impulses of some Israeli citizens, we ought to re-think the nature of our relationship with the country.

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that we abandon the Israelis, but the level of aid and political cover that the American government gives to that of Israel has got to have some relationship to U.S. strategic interests. Israel's continued colonization of the West Bank is clearly and unequivocally not in the interest of the United States. Our foreign policy ought to begin reflecting that.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Good Idea of the Evening

A recently released report commissioned by Britain's Royal Society has called for the creation of an international database of global nuclear programs in order to improve nuclear forensic capabilities and provide incentives for governments to secure their nuclear materials. The idea is that if there were a global databank detailing the scope, extent and nature of civilian and military nuclear activity, it would increase the chances that smuggled nuclear material or - God forbid - the remains of a nuclear attack would be traced back to their source. If governments know that they will be blamed for rogue groups using their nuclear stocks, they will take better care of them. Also, in the chaotic atmosphere that would surely follow a nuclear attack of unsure provenance, having the outlines of an appropriate response in place beforehand would reduce the possibility of knee-jerk reactions that could amplify the crisis.

Best of all, the Society's proposal has few downsides for most international actors, meaning that it is realistically implementable. Certainly opaque nuclear powers like Israel and emerging powers like Iran would be reluctant to disclose the information necessary to participate, but even if they remained outside of the databank regime, it would serve its purpose, as the chances that their nuclear materials would be identified would be increased through the process of elimination. For most established nuclear powers, whose arsenals play the role of strategic backstop, the diminished threat of 'loose nukes' would be well worth the marginally uncomfortable disclosure process. Here's hoping this idea is picked up by those in positions of global leadership.

Abbas Resumes Peace Talks

So, for what they're worth, Abbas has agreed to back down from his suspension of peace talks with Israel. He had previously demanded a truce between Israel and Hamas as a condition for talks to continue. While I think it's great that Abbas has decided that continuing talks is preferable to a bloody stalemate, his original point is well taken. Israel understandably doesn't want to enter into full-fledged peace negotiations with Hamas, which would confer upon the group the status of a legitimate governing entity, but it strikes me as both reasonable and prudent to negotiate a cease fire, if only to stop the photographs of Israeli military strikes in Gaza from reaching the West Bank and further undermining Abbas's already tenuous position.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

And the Rationale Would Be...?

Blake Hounshell over at FP Passport makes an interesting and logical point about the way that the U.S. sometimes uses its military. How, precisely, is a missile destroyer off the Lebanese coast supposed to bolster the current government? Hounshell notes that all the move is likely to do is remind the Lebanese of U.S. sea-to-land shelling during the 1980s (I actually had a Lebanese professor in college, one of whose earliest memories was the sound of American shells shrieking overhead into the mountains), ratcheting up tensions rather than calming them. I'm not a military man. Perhaps the ship has some political or strategic value that I just don't see. Still, while gunboat diplomacy can be useful in certain circumstances (I at least understand, for example, sending more U.S. ships into the Gulf to send a message to Iran), it doesn't seem to hold much potential to improve things in Lebanon.

Monday, March 3, 2008

On Iran and Nuclear Weapons

The IAEA today has stepped up its criticism of Iran's nuclear program, following a presentation last week by the agency's chief inspector, which presented evidence that Iranian scientists have been engaging in work "not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon."

I, along with most engaged citizens, breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing last November's National Intelligence Estimate which showed that Iran had likely stopped nuclear weapons development in 2003. I was relieved not out of any belief that Iran's nuclear ambitions had been curbed, but out of a sense that any justification that the Bush Administration might use to unilaterally attack Iran before leaving office had evaporated. The damage to America's geostrategic position caused by such an attack would have been incalculable and irreparable. Along with many people better informed than myself, though, I worried that the NIE would make dealing with Iran's nuclear program more difficult, as it would provide cover to members of the international community who were wary of confronting Iran in the first place, and who underestimated the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose to global security. Unfortunately, those fears now appear to be well-founded, as the U.S. and France remain the only countries really standing tough against Iran on the issue (my how unthinkable such a situation would have seemed only a few short years ago).

Let us be clear: an Iran armed with operational and deliverable nuclear weapons would be a serious threat to both regional and global security. I don't share the worries of some that a nuclear Iran would endure self-immolation in a messianic quest to destroy Israel - I give the Iranian leadership more credit than that - and I also doubt that the Iranians would give a nuclear device to a terrorist group, both because state governments are loathe to relinquish control over nuclear weapons and because acts of nuclear terrorism would almost certainly be traced back to their source. The greater danger comes from the multidimensional nuclear chess game that would emerge in the Middle East as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and perhaps others followed Iran down the nuclear path. I tend not to agree with the notion of "nuclear peace" whereby nuclear weapons are said to introduce stability to inter-state relations. Rather, I paraphrase the wisdom of former Secretary of Defense McNamara - someone who once looked into the abyss of nuclear war - who said that the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons can only lead to disaster. In the blindingly complex chess game of Middle Eastern politics, nuclear weapons cannot be placed on all sides of the board.

It has been a common for U.S. officials to say that 'all options remain on the table' with regard to stopping Iran's nuclear program. The problem, though, is that such statements have not yet been true. The United States has not shown itself particularly willing to offer carrots - security guarantees, diplomatic recognition, trade agreements - to match its sticks, and so has been negotiating at a profound disadvantage. I would recommend Reuel Marc Gerecht's piece in the Times recently as a way forward in Iran that is neither blindly hawkish nor willfully blind about the problems Iran poses. Global security demands that Iran not attain nuclear capabilities, but toothless sanctions and foolish obstinancy won't stop that from happening. It's time for a different approach.

Visit to Iraq

Shaun Mullen makes a depressingly good point.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Modern Slave Trade

If anyone is looking for some happy, uplifting news to perk them up in time for the weekend, I'd suggest checking out E Benjamin Skinner's article in Foreign Policy (subscription required) titled "A World Enslaved," based on four years of research into the modern slave trade. This is an issue that has finally gained some popular currency in recent years, but I imagine that even well-informed people would be shocked by the scale of modern slavery. I certainly was. Here are just a few gems from Skinner's piece:

There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history...

Standing in New York City, you are five hours away from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl... for 50 bucks...

In South Asia, which has the highest concentration of slaves on the planet, nearly 10 million languish in bondage...

300,000 children are in domestic bondage in Haiti...

In a Bucharest brothel... I was offered a mentally handicapped suicidal girl in exchange for a used car. But for every one woman or child enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 men, women, and children enslaved in other fields, such as domestic work or agricultural labor...

You really have to read the article to get the full effect. The section in which Skinner negotiates the purchase of a 12 year old girl in Haiti, complete with adoption papers so that she can be taken back stateside, is particularly charming. I'm still digesting this, and I plan on picking up Skinner's forthcoming book, but to say the least this is an issue about which world governments need to get far more serious. India, evidently, is one of the principal centers of global slavery. I continue to be a huge proponent of improving American relations with India, but if we're going to berate the Chinese government for locking up journalists, we might at least mention to the Indians that cleaning up their act with regard to slavery would pay diplomatic dividends.

The (theoretical) ban on the global slave trade was supposed to have been one of the lasting achievements of the nineteenth century. We're well overdue in making that achievement mean something to millions in bondage around the world.