Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Huntington on Vietnam

Samuel Huntington, in a memo to Lyndon Johnson in December 1967:
History shows that American instincts are usually revolutionary but that our talents are most accommodative.
Available in Box 59, NSF Country File, Vietnam, Johnson Library, Austin, Texas

Thursday, October 19, 2006


In a brief but judicious piece on the history of the idea of totalitarianism, Anson Rabinbach explains (as gently as possible) the two key dangers that liberals face by embracing the notion that the current struggle with Islamic extremism can be usefully analyzed via the word "totalitarianism":
[First,] antitotalitarianism, as I have argued, can both illuminate and obscure. By asserting that totalitarianism encompasses Baathist dictatorship, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda, crucial distinctions are lost. At the same time we are led to believe that, as in the Second World War and the cold war, resolution and military power alone can bring about a democratic outcome. False analogies carry serious consequences.... [Second,] antitotalitarianism, for all its highmindedness, almost always means making a compact with unwelcome allies. Just as the antifascists had to embrace communists during the 1920s and 1930s, just as anticommunist liberals found themselves helpless in drawing boundaries against McCarthyism or against Vietnam hawks, today’s antitotalitarians face a similar dilemma: how to stand their ground against those on the left who wantonly minimize or deny the danger of terrorism and Islamist fundamentalism without at the same time falling into line with the failed neoconservatives whose vision of pax Americana has come to a very bad end.
In other words, there are two basic problems with trying to use the concept of totalitarianism to analyze our current global strategic challenges. First, from a policy perspective, the idea of totalitarianism tends to pave over crucial distinctions which ought to be retained if we are to adopt a properly nuanced strategy in the global struggle against Islamic extremism, on the one hand, and anti-Americanism, on the other. Second, from a political perspective, the antitotalitarian impulse almost always ends up forcing liberals into uncomfortable political coalitions with people they really ought to keep their distance from, be they (neo)McCarthyites or neoconservatives.

To really drive home his point, Rabinbach might have made one additional point, which is that this latter political point is exactly why the Right embraces the concept of totalitarianism: because it undercuts liberals' ability to effectively criticize the Right. So what if the "totalitarian" concept has the collateral effect of screwing up American strategic thinking about our global challenges -- the important thing is that it screws liberals!

Now, I guess I can understand how, if I were a neocon or neoMcCarthyite, I might embrace a concept that while analytically misleading is at least useful for skewering my domestic political enemies. (It's disgusting, but understandable. Then again, one suspects that the reasoning in these circles is actually the reverse: e.g., if it screws my domestic political enemies, then it must be a globally useful theory.) What's completely incomprehensible, however, is why liberals like Paul Berman, George Packer, Ken Pollack or any of the other liberal hawks would themselves embrace a term which is not only analytically pernicious from a policy perspective, but also politically suicidal. The neocons may be knaves, but the liberal hawks are fools.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Glamour cities

In an article on San Francisco's architectural deficit, Slate elaborates on the concept of "glamour cities":
Glamour cities are centers of international business (New York), political power (Washington, D.C.), and the New Economy (Boston). They usually have a 19th-century infrastructure of museums, concert halls, and well-preserved residential architecture, and they are where the wealthy, the well-educated, and the ambitious want to live. High-end demand, in turn, produces real estate values that—even in the current slump—are an order of magnitude greater than elsewhere. These cities are vibrant, livable, prosperous, and well-managed.
Washington DC... "well-managed"?! Somewhere, Marion Barry is smiling....

Monday, October 16, 2006

Communities of Practice

Francis Fukuyama:
"Communities of practice..." involve informal sharing of intellectual property based on reciprocity.... In such communities, a great deal of knowledge cannot be formalized (i.e. written down) because it is not possessed by any one individual and only emerges as a consequence of their interaction.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The bottom

Frank Stella: "You start at the bottom in New York, and the bottom is pretty bottom-like in New York."

Monday, October 09, 2006

Most surreal moment in Iraq

Peter Devlin, the Marine Colonel who recently filed a secret report claiming that "there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation" in Western Iraq, describes his "most surreal moment" in Iraq:
Watching Marines arrive at my detention facility and unload a truck load of flex-cuffed midgets. 26 to be exact. We had put the word out earlier in the day to the Marines in Fallujah that we were looking for Bad Guy X, who was described as a midget. Little did I know that Fallujah was home to a small community of midgets, who banded together for support since they were considered as social outcasts. The Marines were anxious to get back to the midget colony to bring in the rest of the midget suspects, but I called off the search, figuring Bad Guy X was long gone on his short legs after seeing his companions rounded up by the giant infidels.

Mission Accopmplished: North Korea Edition

It's not an insight, but nevertheless worth repeating, that every single foreign policy action of the Bush regime has blown up in their (and our) faces.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

In honor of Foleygate, tonight we'll be eating...

... Fagioli al Fiasco.

The Proper Objectives and Methods of Social Science

Francis Fukuyama:
It is certainly desirable for a social science to be rigorous, empirical and seek general rules of human behavior. But as Aristotle explained, it should not try to achieve a rigor that goes beyond what is possible given the limitations inherent in the subject matter. In fact, most of what is truly useful for policy is context-specific, culture-bound and non-generalizable. The typical article appearing today in a leading journal like the American Political Science Review contains a lot of complex-looking math, whose sole function is often to formalize a behavioral rule that everyone with common sense understands must be true. What is missing is any deep knowledge about the subtleties and nuances of how foreign societies work, knowledge that would help us better predict the behavior of political actors, friendly and hostile, in the broader world.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Like a gracile wine glass being sung to by a heavy soprano"

Alaskan storm cracks giant iceberg in Antarctica.

4 weeks to go

The NIE saying that Iraq was making the terrorism threat worse didn't outweigh the massive Republican media blitz of the Dems being soft on terror. But apparently the Foley scandal may really cost them: the punters in Iowa just doubled the odds that the Dems will retake at least one chamber.