30 June, 2010

Reading Assignment

Last week Prospect Magazine published a significant essay written by Boston University professor of international relations Stephen Kinzer. The ideas contained inside are more than reasonable, though they will be deemed radical by most who read it.  If you can only read one article today, I ask that it be this one:

Stephen Kinzer. Prospect. 14 June 2010.

Professor Kinzer proposes that a new 'power triangle' become the foundation of America's position in the Middle East. America, says he, has two natural allies in the region: Turkey and Iran. Yes, that Iran. 

It is my belief that America's global alliance structure is dangerously outdated and in need of several major realignments. I have planned to write series of posts detailing my thoughts on the matter, and Mr. Kinzer's essay has given me the impetus to start. It is my suggestion that the readership of the Stage read his piece carefully. Though they differ in a few details, the central ideas of his essay mirror my own.     

Addendum onTyranny

Recently I wrote a post where I attempted to define "tyranny" as the word is used here on the Stage. I have given the matter some thought since then, and would like to add few points to this earlier effort.

I concluded the post with the following operative definition of "tyranny":

Tyranny can be found in any policy, regulation, law, or action designed by those in a position of power to disenfranchise and violate the rights of the citizenry directly, or that causes, by intent or accident, such fear, apathy, or distraction in the minds of the people that they are unable to protect their liberties or exercise self government.

This definition is admittedly long-winded and clumsy. Simpler definitions can be found, but they suffer the downside of being both general in scope and subjective in application.  In this rare case, usefulness cannot come without long-windedness.

The definition can be split into two clauses. The first, "any policy, regulation, law, or action designed by those in a position of power to disenfranchise and violate the rights of the citizenry directly" describes the most obvious forms of tyranny. The tyrannies of the gulag, punishments ex post facto, censorship, torture, midnight searches and seizures, and government purges are clear. The abject despotism of each needs no explanation.

But it is not abject despotism we need fear. Tyranny of this sort is the province of autocracies, not the liberal, modern democracies in which most of my readers live today. Ours is a different danger. In the words of Tocqueville, "the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world" (Alexis de Tocqueville,  Democracy in America. trans. Henry Reeves. Vol II. p. 290).*

The second clause of the definition, " any policy, regulation, law, or action that causes, by intent or accident, such fear, apathy, or distraction in the minds of the people that they are unable to protect their liberties or exercise self government", captures the essence of this menace. While the end result of the policies described in the first and second clauses are the same (the arbitrary exercise of power over a group of people to the point where they no longer retain the ability to resist those wielding power) the means by which this end is attained are quite different. The first extends control over the physical. It destroys and confiscates property; it detains and murders persons. The second seeks control of the psychological. It does no damage to material objects or beings. It is an assault on the spirit of he or she it seeks to dominate.

Psychological tyranny is nothing new. Ibn Khaldun penned an accurate description six centuries ago:

As a rule, man must be dominated by someone else. If the domination is kind and just and the people under it are not oppressed by its laws and restrictions, they are guided by the courage and cowardice that they possess in themselves. They are satisfied with the absence of any restraining power. Self-reliance eventually becomes a quality natural to them. They would not know anything else. If however, the domination with its laws is one of brute force and intimidation, it breaks their fortitude and deprives them of their power of resistance as a result of the inertness that develops in souls of the oppressed.

-- Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. trans Franz Rosenthal. Vol I. pp. 258-259

Khaldun lived in an age defined by tribal feuds and extortionate kings. A man of the agricultural paradigm, Khaldun had seen no clan or man take power save through the bloodied sword. He could no more imagine a government without brutality than he could imagine a ship without a sail.

Though the days of violent kingships have passed, the basic pattern of psychological domination observed by Khaldun is still relevant today. Indeed, four hundred years after Khaldun's time, another man, this one living on the cusp of modernity, would come to very similar conclusions. The man's name was Alexis de Tocqueville. In his early years he traveled across the young American Republic, marveling at the self-reliance of the people who populated North America's interior. Tocqueville realized that such a people would never be tyrannized by the brute force of past ages. In a democratic world, "inertness of the soul" could not come through cruel oppression. Tyranny's vehicle would be a soft despotism.

Said Tocqueville:

It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them....

Democratic governments may become violent and even cruel at certain periods of extreme effervescence or of great danger, but these crises will be rare and brief. When I consider the petty passions of our contemporaries, the mildness of their manners, the extent of their education, the purity of their religion, the gentleness of their morality, their regular and industrious habits, and the restraint which they almost all observe in their vices no less than in their virtues, I have no fear that they will meet with tyrants in their rulers, but rather with guardians....

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain....

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. trans. Henry Reeves. Vol II. pp. 290-293

This is tyranny. Its ultimate result is no different than a campaign of censorship, raids, and renditions:  a servile and inert people incapable of controlling their government or themselves. 

And it is against this tyranny we must remain the most vigilant.

*Readers will do well to note that this is an inferior translation. I much prefer Penguin Classic's Gerald Bevan translation.  Alas, as I am currently vacationing far away from my library, I have little choice but to use the Reeves translation, which is available for free online. For those who own a better copy of Democracy, all excerpts used in this post can be found in volume II, book four, chapter 8.

26 June, 2010

For Those Tickled by Geopolitics (III)

The Washington D.C. based Jamestown Foundation warrants the attention of all interested in geopolitics. In particular, the foundation's China Brief is a valuable resource. Using open source documents and statements originally published in Chinese, the Jamestown Foundation fellows create a short brief on the internal debates and political developments occurring within the Chinese Communist Party and People's Liberation Army. 

A few of the more interesting articles from the June 2010 China Brief are linked to below.

David Szerlip. China Brief. 24 June 2010.

Willy Lam. China Brief. 24 June 2010.

Joseph Y. Lin. China Brief. 24 June 2010.

25 June, 2010

Pakistan and China: BFFs

In case you missed it: Chinese firms have brokered a deal to construct two nuclear reactors for the Chashma Nuclear Complex in Pakistan. Pakistan, and in particular, Punjab (the state in which the complex can be found) suffers from chronic energy shortages. After a series of rolling black outs this April, the Punjab Chief Minister announced that there was a 6,000 Megawatt gap between the state's electricity production and demand. While not an immediate remedy, increasing the capacity of the Chashma Complex is the only tenable option Punjab has to meet its rising energy needs.  

And of course, the Chinese have are happy to help the Punjabis do just that.

The contrast between American and Chinese aid projects is striking. America prefers to buy her friends; Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of American aid money. The Kerry-Lugar Bill provides Pakistan with some $1.5 billion in non-military aid every year, and Pakistani arm purchases often exceed $3 billion on the annum. The problem with buying friends, however, is that we have little control over how they use the money we give them. Much of it disappears as it is passed from hand to hand; that which remains is blatantly misspent.   

In contrast, the Chinese eschew money payments. Their preferred method of aid is the modernization of Pakistan's infrastructure. Two nuclear reactors at Chashma, a deep sea port in Gwadar, a university in Islamabad, mines and highways in Balochistan, a gas pipeline leading straight to China - the list is a long one. In contrast to American aid, almost all of these projects are investments that will benefit Chinese businesses as much as they will help the Pakistanis. And unlike cash payments, which are here today and gone tomorrow, China investments are long term endeavors. 

This is the true difference between China and the United States. We have been outbid. Not in terms of gross dollar amounts, of course - we have given more to the Pakistanis than the Chinese have invested in the entire region. But the gifts we bring are fleeting. Long after the last American dollar has been siphoned away to some Pakistani politician's secret Dubai bank account, the Chinese will still be mining in Balochistan, maintaining the port of Gwadar, and overseeing the reactors at Chashma.

The Pakistanis are the friends of America as long as the money keeps flowing. They are friends of the Chinese forever.

Photo Credit: The Diplomat.

24 June, 2010

America Quibbles as Mexico Crumbles

America is aflutter with talk of General Stanley McChrystal. The story is now old news and hardly needs to be repeated; the possible consequences and causes of General McChrystal's intemperate remarks have been discussed by every person capable of articulating an opinion on the matter. Tonight I had planned on adding my voice to this clamorous chorus.

Then I read this.

MONTERREY, Mexico – A group of around 20 men armed with assault rifles attacked city hall and the police headquarters in Los Herreras, a city in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, city officials said Tuesday.

The attack occurred Monday night just after 11:30 p.m. in the rural city, located more than 110 kilometers (68 miles) northeast of Monterrey, the capital of Nuevo Leon.

Initial reports are that the gunmen, who were wearing uniforms and arrived in several SUVs, opened fire with AR-15s on city hall, where police headquarters is also located.

The gunmen then went inside and killed the three officers on duty.
The assault at Nuevo Leon comes midway through a month that has already been declared the bloodiest since Mexico's fight against the cartels began. Though the rising number of bodies are frightening in and of themselves, it is the pattern this month's attacks have taken that gives me the greatest cause for alarm. Concurrent with the growing number of assaults has been an increase in their complexity and scope:

Chris Hawley. Arizona Republic. 15 June 2010.
The attacks have driven the death toll of police and soldiers to record levels this year and fueled fears that government forces, often outgunned by the cartels, are now being out-strategized as well.

"These are war-fighting tactics they're using," said Javier Cruz Angulo, an expert on crime at the Center for Economic Investigation and Education, a graduate school in Mexico City. "It's gone way beyond the normal strategies of organized crime."

On Monday, gunmen sealed off a highway with buses that they set ablaze, boxing in a convoy of federal police trucks in Michoacan. They launched a gunbattle from high ground on both sides of the highway, killing 12 of the officers. Then they whisked away their own dead and wounded.

The wave of ambushes began on June 11, when the Familia Michoacana drug gang launched 15 coordinated attacks over two days on police stations and patrols in eight cities across three states. In one attack, gunmen surrounded a police bus and killed all 12 officers on board.

The sophistication of the ambush described rivals that of the world's most successful insurgents. That La Familia's members had access to the buses, knew the route the convoy would take, and were able to melt away after the attack without fear of pursuit or discovery is a testament to the cartel's hold on southern Mexico. These are not petty drug dealers. La Familia not only runs the full gamut of illegal criminal operations across North America, but operates a complete parallel state in its home territory of Michoacan. Self styled champion of the poor and pious, La Familia is famous for exacting taxes from local businesses and using the funds to hand out Bibles and staff health clinics. The problem is exacerbated by the close connections between the cartel and local politicians. In many communities it is difficult to tell where the Michoacan state government ends and La Familia begins.  If there is any cartel capable of usurping the role of the Mexican state, it is this one.

One can thus understand my sense of alarm upon learning that the cartel has launched a region-wide assault on the federal government.

While the inner workings of La Familia's decision making process can only be guessed at, the rationale behind the timing and target of this offensive can be sketched out. The popularity of the federal government's war against the cartels has waned as the causality count have risen. If elections were held today, polls predict that the party holding both the Presidency and the Congress, the National Action Party (PAN), would lose both. In an effort to save the electoral fortunes of his party President Felipe Calderon began a desperate PR blitz this month. The central claim of this blitz is that the violence tearing Mexico apart is not the result of the Calderon administration's policies, but rather the visible and inevitable outcome of inter-cartel violence.

La Familia's string of violent, high profile attacks on federal officers destroyed the President's claim before he had the chance to rise to the bully pulpit. It was a public relations disaster, and one that could not have come at a worse time for a government facing a crisis in credibility. The wire accounts tell the story of this crisis better than I:

Nicolas Casey. Wall Street Journal. 17 June 2010.
MEXICO CITY—Last month, Mexicans were stunned when Diego Fernández de Cevallos, a former presidential candidate, was abducted from his ranch.

But then came a second surprise: Within weeks, despite no discovery of the 69-year-old, cigar-smoking politician, the Mexican Attorney General's office said it was suspending its investigation of the case at the request of Mr. Fernández's family. The state investigator for Querétaro, the state where the crime occurred, said it has done the same.

The decision to halt the search—unprecedented in such a high-stakes kidnapping—has sparked a controversy in Mexico. Although the family wouldn't explain why it intervened, it is widely thought thatauthorities pulled out so that the family could negotiate a ransom directly with Mr. Fernández's captors.
The event shows that in Mexico, elite families now may not feel that even the most powerful institutions are up for the task of solving an abduction. Mr. Fernández's own ruling party was seeking to outlaw ransom payments to discourage criminals—a measure that seems to have been ignored in this family's case.

Associated Press Wire. New York Times. 19 June 2010.
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The leader of President Felipe Calderon's conservative party said Saturday he wants federal police to patrol 14 Mexican states that are holding local elections this year.
National Action Party leader Cesar Nava charged that state governors from the old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party are planning to use local police in favor of their candidates.

''Recent history shows us that some PRI governors are preparing to use police to make it easier to round up voters for their party and impede the free movement of our supporters,'' Nava said at a gathering of his party's leadership in Mexico City.

He said such acts suggest ''the lack of conditions for free and genuinely democratic elections.''
Nava said he will ask the federal Interior Department -- which oversees domestic security -- to consider the dispatch of federal forces to the states with elections scheduled. Local police usually provide security for local elections.

The people no longer trust the Mexican government to protect them while the elite unabashedly use the government as tool for factional power plays. In Michoacan the state has been consumed by the cartels. In Juarez and Neuvo Leon it slowly erodes, caught in the crossfire of a war it is powerless to stop. Mexico's federal government is compromised by rights abuses, corruption, and collusion with the country's largest cartel.

This war is no longer a matter of drugs. This is fight over the integrity of the Mexican state itself.

And it is a fight the cartels are winning.


As the lede to this post may suggest, I began writing this the day General McChrystal's Rolling Stones profile hit the press. Life intervened and I was not able to finish until well after the General had been fired and replaced. I have decided to keep the original opening, however, as I believe there is an important point to be made. Our priorities cannot be more messed up. More ink was spilled on useless speculation in the hour following the profile's publication than has been used over the last two months on the subject of Mexico's cartel war. The amount of attention each issue has been given by analysts, newsmen, and bloggers does not reflect the threat each poses to the United States. Let us be frank: the dangers of a Mexican implosion make our travails in Kandahar look like a game of patty cake. 

This is not a threat we can afford to ignore.

If This Does Not Make You Think the French are Weird

...Then nothing ever will.

Other videos in the series can be seen here and here.

H/T to the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

21 June, 2010

Tyranny, Towards a Definition

Over the past few months this author has taken some heat for an allegedly liberal use of the word tyranny. As I do not plan on using this word less liberally in the future, it is prudent to have on hand a succinct explanation for what exactly is meant when I speak of tyranny.

Tyranny, as originally defined by the Greeks, simply meant the rule of a man who attained a position of executive power by unorthodox means - that is to say, through means other than hereditary secession, constitutional procedure, or any of other types of power transfer traditionally sanctioned by the various Greek city states. It is easy to see how this definition slowly changed over the centuries. By the time of the Romans it came to mean any executive who ruled without clear limitations in the exercise of his power, regardless of how he obtained it in the first place. Today the word has moved quite far from its original definition, and is commonly used to describe any man or system that survives on the basis of unjust and harsh governance. Thus the most commonly consulted dictionary in the English-speaking world defines 'tyranny' as:

1. arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.
2. the government or rule of a tyrant or absolute ruler.
3. a state ruled by a tyrant or absolute ruler.
4. oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler.
5. undue severity or harshness.
6. a tyrannical act or proceeding.

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary provides a similar definition:

1. oppressive power; especially : oppressive power exerted by government
2. a government in which absolute power is vested in a single ruler; especially : one characteristic of an ancient Greek city-state b : the office, authority, and administration of a tyrant
3. a rigorous condition imposed by some outside agency or force
4. a tyrannical act

While 'tyranny' is most commonly recognized as an ornate substitute for 'oppression', it is not in this sense I use the word. Watering down definitions cheapen their value. Tyranny must be more than rhetorical ornamentation if it is to have any real utility. Failure to properly limit the word's definition will leave it useful only to demagogues; if simply a fancy synonym for perceived injustice it can be used by no other.

However, I am wary of limiting the word solely to governments headed by a single absolute ruler, or even instances of illegal executive power. Doing so makes it impossible to use terms like "tyranny of the majority", or discuss tyrannous laws passed by legislative bodies. It leaves us with a hole in our vocabulary when the need arises to discuss the present day's most common forms of arbitrary coercion. The best definition of the word lies between the two extremes.

One such definition was provided by Noah Webster in his 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language. It reads:

Arbitrary or despotic exercise of power; the exercise of power over subjects and others with a rigor not authorized by law or justice, or not requisite for the purposes of government. Hence tyranny is often synonymous with cruelty and oppression.

I favor this definition for several reasons. The first is that it draws a distinction between behavior that is tyrannical and behavior that is oppressive. Tyranny is more than cruelty. It is more than Webster's definition for oppression, "the imposition of unreasonable burdens". Tyranny describes a relationship. There must be a subject and an entity capable of wielding power over him. Oppression is a matter of affliction and misery; tyranny is a matter of control.

This definition is still a very general thing. Suitable for a dictionary, perhaps, but lacking in practical utility. For how does one translate it the mess of reality? What constitutes "a rigor not authorized by law or justice?" It is one thing to know what tyranny is in the abstract and another thing altogether to recognize tyrannous power as it is exercised.

Any search for an operative definition of tyranny would do well to begin with a popular aphorism coined by John Basil Barnhill:
"Where the people fear the government you have tyranny. Where the government fears the people you have liberty." *

-- John Basil Barnhill. "Barnhill-Tirchener Debate on Socialism", Rip-Saw. (St. Louis, Mo: Rip Saw Publishing Company.) p. 64.

The worth of Barnhill's law is found in its spirit, if not the exact letters used to write it. States and governments are tools of the citizenry. In an ideal world there would exist no more fear between the citizenry and its government than exists between a carpenter and his workshop. Alas, ours is not an ideal world, and our workshops are apt to become terrors in their own right. The central turning point in this process is one of control. A carpenter does not work for his workshop. A man must rule his tools. Likewise, governments – and those in its employ – must remain tools in the hands of the citizenry. If this relation is reversed the people are no longer citizens, but serfs.

It is thus my suggestion that an operative definition for tyranny read as follows:

Tyranny can be found in any policy, regulation, law, or action designed by those in a position of power to disenfranchise and violate the rights of the citizenry directly, or that causes, by intent or accident, such fear, apathy, or distraction in the minds of the people that they are unable to protect their liberties or exercise self government.

*This phrase is often mistakenly attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

Image credit: James Montgomery Flag. Unconditional Surrender to All Tyrants! 1943. Taken from artnet.com.

20 June, 2010

My Anti-Library Erodes, Bit by Bit

I am happy to announce that my antilibrary is one book shorter. Earlier this week I finally beat my way through Vaclav Smil's encyclopedic Energy and Nature in Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems.

The book was a fascinating one and I imagine that before July comes I will write a post or two on the (many!) things I have learned from it. However, it is only one book of many I wish to complete before summer's end; my slog through large and exhaustive tomes has only just begun. I purchased the following books at the beginning of this month, ostensibly with the hope of completing them all before August:

And were I not glutton for punishment as it is, I also decided to pick up Vaclav Smil's other encyclopedic qausi-reference work, The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change.


16 June, 2010

North Korea: Views From the Inside

Via Foreign Policy Watch comes this entertaining documentary on the North Korean film industry:

Less than 1,200 Americans have been allowed entry into North Korea since the Korean War. The accounts of their experiences in the bizarre other-world that is North Korea are fascinating - and terrifying. They are enduring testaments to facts normally forgotten: North Korea is not an other-world. It is our world. These snippets are a necessary reminder of the horrors that are and still may be.

Of those I have read, the most powerful account of this type  was penned by Patrick Chovanec, professor at Tsinghua University and author of a blog on Chinese economics. He writes of his (mandatory) visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace:

Patrick Chovanec. An American Perspective From China. 29 August 2009.

We were instructed to form up, platoon-style, in front of a massive door. The North Koreans are well practiced lining up for everything, but among the Americans I was probably the only one who had ever done this before in the army, so we shuffled back and forth in disarray for a while as our hosts shook their heads, unimpressed. Then the doors swung open and we marched into a large hall where, at the far end, a great statue of Kim Il-Sung, about 30 feet tall in the purest white marble, stood facing us. On a screen behind it, the warm pink glow of a sunrise was just beginning to emerge below a clear blue sky.

There are moments in life when you are reduced to silence. It could be the moment your bride walks down the aisle, or when you hold your firstborn child in your arms, or when you witness death up close. Time stops, and you cross an invisible boundary where you confront something so fundamental that it escapes either word or thought. And that moment stays with you forever, coloring all that you are.

For me, walking across that hall, seeing that statue loom larger and larger, with that sunrise behind it, was one of those moments. It sounds trite to say that it reminded me of Big Brother in 1984, that I felt I had walked into the pages of that novel, except this was real. It sounds clichéd to say it made me appreciate being born in a free country or made me realize, for a moment, what it might have been like not to be. But that statue and that hallway conveyed something very simple, a feeling I will never forget: I am big and you are small. I am powerful and you are nothing. And the worst part was knowing that, at that moment, it was true.

There was a popular and very influential TV ad by Apple Computer, a take-off of 1984, where a lone renegade enters a great assembly hall presided over by an image of Big Brother, and heaves a giant hammer that destroys it. Obama supporters even parodied the ad last year, in a dig at Hillary Clinton. It’s a romantic notion, one that could only be entertained in a free society. In that room, beneath that smiling statue, it became painfully obvious how inconceivable and futile such an act of defiance would be, in real life. What if this were the only reality I knew? What if the consequences of even thinking, even imagining something different would be devastating, for me and my whole family? This place was no book. It was no ad. It was no joke. What if this were my life and I couldn’t just walk out of here and fly back home?

  I recommend reading the full thing.

14 June, 2010

How to Win Allies and Influence Statesmen

Suggestion the first:

"In general, the Chinese rarely resort to such high pressure tactics. They usually do not make demands for action, only demands that actions not be taken, which is one reason many countries have good relations with them."

--Michael D. Swaine and Tiffany P. Ng. "China", Is a Regional Strategy Viable in Afghanistan? (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for Peace). 2010. pp. 69

13 June, 2010

Notes From All Over 13/06/2010

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

As I have spent much of the last two weeks away from the blogosphere, this one is a bit smaller than usual.


Commentator's Disease
Fred Reed. Fred on Everything. 11 June 2010.

Mr. Reed identifies what is perhaps the greatest flaw of our pundit class - and I will admit that it is a flaw I find often in my own writings. It is nice to say that every American should read Democracy in America or have a nuanced understanding of the dynamics of energy flows in society. But these things are simply not something every person is capable of. Too often is it that we - both the libertarian and the leftist - forget the flawed nature of our Earth. Yet may we forget it or not, it is the only world we have to work with. (H/T Fabius Maximus.)

High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration
John Schmitt, Kris Warner, and Sarika Gupta. Center for Economic and Policy Research. June 2010.

From the report:

We calculate that a reduction by one-half in the incarceration rate of non-violent offenders would lower correctional expenditures by $16.9 billion per year and return the U.S. to about the same incarceration rate we had in 1993 (which was already high by historical standards). The large majority of these savings would accrue to financially squeezed state and local governments, amounting to about one-fourth of their annual corrections budgets. As a group, state governments could save $7.6 billion, while local governments could save $7.2 billion.

It is about time we step back and ask ourselves whether our war on drugs is worth its costs. I suggest you read the report in full (or at least its executive summary) to see the full extent of this problem.


 Headless Chicken vs. Magic Bullet
"Joseph Fouche". Committee of Public Safety. 8 June 2010

JF continues his stellar series on the "strategy of the headless chicken." Much recommended.


Whats in a Name?
"Galhran." Information Dissemination. 8 June 2010.

A practical example of information operations (broadly defined) in action.

Director of National Intelligence Shortfalls: is it the Man or the Mission?
Stephen Johnson.  Shadow Government. 13 June 2010.

Adventures in Futility: Covert Paramilitary Action as an Instrument of State Power
"NerveAgent". Visions of Empire. 31 May 2010.


Don't Fight the Last Insurgency
Ashok Malik. Corner Plot. 1 June 2010;

Though rarely discussed in the American COIN community, India has had a long history of defeating insurgencies. But those insurgencies - defeated with a brutality akin to the campaigns that destroyed the Tamil Tigers a year ago - are a bad model for India's conflicts of today. The Naxalites, argue Malik, realize they cannot win a typical Maoist insurgency through force alone. But unlike past attempts to do just that, they do not have to do so. The Naxals know how to play the game of media-saturated politicians; in such an environment, and against such opponents, the iron hand of past campaigns would do more ill than good to the Indian effort. You can only bomb so many of your own citizens before the protests begin.

What to do About North Korea
Nick Nielson ("Geopolitcratus"). Grand Strategy: The View From Oregon. 8 June 2010.

The money quote comes at the end of the post:

A state apparatus in the capture of a dictator represents a real threat to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the world. Such a state of affairs ought to provoke a robust response, but as the willingness to consider unconventional options decreases, the behavior of the most stable and wealthy nation-states becomes increasingly predictable. This predictability becomes something that emerging dictators and rogue states can play upon. If that predictability could be removed, or even lessened, not by careful diplomacy but by diplomacy that looks reckless even while it is in fact rational, the options of those who would play upon the predictable behavior of stable nation-states would be narrowed, and their ability to act, especially to act with impunity, would be constrained.

This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with an informed friend on the subject of Iran. My friend proposed that President Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian ruling class were mad. Perhaps they are. But even if they are not, they have a vested interest in acting as mad as possible.

Brace Yourself: Good News On Africa.
Karen Rothmyer. The Nation. June 2010.

This is another case of narrative trumping reality. Poverty rates across Africa have been falling steadily since 1990. The several dozen international agencies and NGOs that define themselves as crusaders against African poverty will never recognize this, however - if Africa's poverty is declining, they will never be able to drum up the money they need to survive. Such is the institutional imperative.


Virus Ravages Cassava Plants in Africa
Donald McNeil Jr. The New York Times. 31 May 2010.

Cassava is one Sub-saharan Africa's core staples. It is not the cash crop used by most African farmers, or even the region's main source of nutriment, but it is the steady back-up poor farmers rely on when all other crops have failed. The death of these plants is the death of their resiliency.

The 800 lb Gorilla in the Ocean 
Matt Scalia. Global Warming: Man or Myth? 6 June 2010.

A helpful introduction to ocean acidification, its causes and consequences. My thoughts on the matter can be found here. (H/T Sublime Oblivion.)

Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it.
John Vidal. The Guardian. 30 May 2010.

In sum: Nigeria has had oil disasters on par with that of Deep Horizon. And nobody here gives a dip. (H/T NewsHoggers.)


Explaining the Origins of the Tea Party: A Rebuttal of Mark Lilla

John Sides. The Monkey Cage. 2 June 2010.

In an earlier Notes From All Over I highlighted Mark Lilla's essay for the New York Review, "Tea Party Jacobins." My initial impression of that piece was that Lilla had brilliantly captured the source of America's discontent. Now I am less sure. (H/T Howl at Pluto).


Who Are the Most Widely-Cited Historians?
Dave Lieberson. History News Network. 25 May 2010.

This list was an interesting one. On it can be found men of three types:

  1. Popular writers whose books were widely read (and presumably cited) outside of historical academia (e.g. McCullough, Johnson, Zinn). 
  2.  Historiographical pioneers whose methods impacted entire generations of historians (e.g. Braudel, Fogel). 
  3. Historians who have written comprehensive "go-to" books on selected subjects of intense popular interest (everybody else).
All but one of the fifteen or so listed are historians specializing in Revolutionary America, the U.S. Civil War, American racial history, the rise of 20th Century totalitarianism, or the Cold War. These same subjects were the focus of the popular writers who earned a place on the list. I have written before on the potential dangers of using small slices of history as a template for the future. Our slices are small indeed.

Speaking of popular history:

That Barnes and Nobles Dream: Academic Historians vs. Popularizers
David Greenburg. Slate. 17 May 2005.


When Do People Learn Languages?
Mark Rosenfeld. Zombpist.com.

An interesting article on language acquisition.

Infographic: Tallest Mountain to Deepest Ocean Trench
Karl Tat. Our Amazing Planet. 7 June 2010.

The coolest infographic I have seen in a long time. (H/T ThreeSources.)

All I Will Ever Say About the BP Oil Spill...

...has already been said:

(H/T NewsHoggers).

Adds Fabius Maximus:

Obama’s press conference says much about him – and us.
"Fabius Maximus." Fabius Maximus. 30 May 2010.

This is sad, that the President of the world’s most powerful nation must perform such acrobatics. Pretend to hands-on management of things beyond his competence. Pretend to take responsibility for something over which he has no control. The Kabuki of face time at disaster sites, photo ops wearing a grave expression.

We expect — even require — these things to feed our dreams of an omnipotent leader. Dreams suitable for sheep — not citizens. If we whine long and loudly enough, perhaps someone on a white horse will come along to take on the burden of governing ourselves.

06 June, 2010

The Shangri-La Dialogue

Today is the final day of the 2010 Shangri-La Dialogue. Named for the Singapore hotel it is hosted in, the dialogue is an annual summit of generals, ministers, and defense professionals from across the Asia-Pacific region. The dialogue is noted for its plenary sessions, whose speakers usually include the U.S. Secretary of Defense, the People Liberation Army's Chief of General Staff, and the Japanese Defense Minister, among others. These sessions are valuable to citizen and analyst alike; there are few other places one can find a collection of articulated grand strategies (as each country wishes theirs to be perceived) gathered in one place and translated into English.

While I have yet to read any of the remarks made in Singapore, I plant to devote a sizable chunk of my Sunday afternoon to sift through the addresses and speeches of the region's greatest power brokers. It is my suggestion that you set aside a bit of time to do the same.

A map of countries that participate in the Shangri-la Dialogue. Image credit:Wikipedia.

01 June, 2010

In Transit, and a Video To Make Up For It

To the readership:

As he is heading to the mainland to visit family for a month or so, this author will be in lost in transit for the next few days. Expect posting to be light over the next week. Likewise, I ask the proprietors of the other sites I frequent (and occasionally start arguments at) to forgive any discussions that may be dropped during this time.

For those dearly wanting the type of intellectual stimulation and insight this author likes to imagine he provides, it is my suggestion that you set aside 40 minutes this week to listen to the following lecture (H/T Committee of Public Safety):

Jeremy Black. University of California Television. Posted 31 January 2010.

Black makes several points that would deserve their own post if time permitted. These include:

  • Man has developed two metaphors to conceptualize that institution we call the state:  the machine, created as a tool and ruled by Newtonian mechanisms, and the animal, a living thing whose existence is due to organic development, not conscious design. Black proposes that the true divide in American politics is between those Americans who subscribe to the organic view, and those who subscribe to the mechanic.

    For those interested, my thoughts matter were expressed in an earlier post: "The Death of a Nation"
  • Totalitarian regimes were fond of calling subversive elements "sicknesses" and "cancers" that needed to be eradicated. While this seems quite horrid to us democrats of the modern day, the incessant "wars" we declare (on poverty, drugs, ect.) are not far removed from the totalitarian metaphor.
  • When asked why Europeans were able to so successfully dominate Native Americans and Australian Aborigines but never do the same in Africa or Southern Asia, historians often point to the many tropical diseases that slowed European conquest and stunted European settlement in these regions. However, this explanation leaves us with a paradox. As Black points out, the European hold on Africa, India, and Southeast Asia was weakest just as European powers had banished these diseases to the point of irrelevancy.
Consider the comment thread a free space to discuss any of these points (or any of the other interesting asides Black makes - there are many) until I return. Cheers!