Friday, April 25, 2008

Syrian reactor?

Yesterday's testimony about what exactly our intelligence community thinks it was that Israel bombed in Syrian last Fall was pretty interesting. The timing of this announcement, half a year after the events in question, raises questions about what motivates this testimony now. Juan Cole nicely sums up the various hypotheses about what may have prompted the Bush administration to send these guys up to the Hill.

The real question is the timing of the announcement, since the bombing happened a long time ago. It is suspicious to me that the announcement was made just after a spy for Israel was arrested in the US who had stolen US nuclear secrets. Is it diversionary?

Syria expert Josh Landis discusses a different theory of diversion, having to do with revelations that Syria and Israel are closer to an agreement on the future of the Golan Heights.

I'd add that former president Jimmy Carter's recent trip to meet with Hamas leaders has put pressure on Israel to come back in a serious way to the negotiating table. Also Hamas's own apparent change in stance on diplomacy, as Helena Cobban discusses.

Bush's own remarks Thursday that he is seeking a viable Palestine that does not look like Swiss cheese revealed some of what the administration must have been pressing the Israelis on in recent months in preparation for Bush's trip in May.

So the timing of the Syria reactor announcement does seem suspicious in Middle East terms. If the US doesn't in fact think there is any evidence that the reactor had weapons implications, then it is really a non story, and releasing it can only be for hoopla reasons.

To update Mark Twain for the Age of Bush: "Lies, damned lies, and unclassified intel briefings for Congress."

How Globalization works, in one picture

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Which party is it that supports the troops?

Some good ole boy GOP Congressman by the name of Paul Broun has decided that the best way he can think of to support the troops is to ban the sales of Playboy and Penthouse on U.S. military bases. Given the fact that the troops seeing combat today probably have less access to women than any expeditionary force in history, this seems like a rather uncharitable proposal.

Better yet, Broun's proposal has caused quite a kerfuffle in GOP circles, pitting libertarians against god-squadders, and bringing to light the difficulty of any simple notion of what it means to "support the troops." Over at the National Review, Lisa Schiffren weighs into this debate by rather sensibly suggesting that people stop kidding themselves about what life is necessarily like in any army capable of effective fighting. But then she closes her post with the following charming anecdote of how the military used to deal with, ahem, male urges back in the good old days of the first Gulf War:
Back in 1991, during Desert Storm, I worked at the Pentagon. I was, at first, taken aback to see routine message traffic cross my desk discussing explicitly the logistical arrangements for "R&R" for the troops. How were the boys at bases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and how were they going to get action? The problem, I still recall, was that the normal ports of call in nearby Africa were having problems with AIDS, which was still newish. Whichever country was the traditional port was very miffed at losing the business, because those soldiers at the bars and brothels were a big source of hard currency. Almost anywhere in a reasonable distance was under the sway of the mullahs. I bet you're wondering how the military solved this problem. My recollection is a little hazy, since this was something I followed mainly for entertainment (as did my Special Ops colleagues). But I believe the government of Romania made an offer. Eastern Europe was just emerging from the Soviet boot, and a bunch of those countries really wanted the business. Romania was judged to have better resort infrastructure than most. And I also believe that one of the less religious Gulf emirates decided that it would allow a few huge "party ships" to dock just offshore. I suppose we transported our troops to Romania. I don't know who brought the hookers to the ships. Everyone winked and nodded, and the troops carried on.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Alleged Israeli spy arrested in New jersey

The accused is eighty-four years old and did his spying three decades ago. Those G-men definitely showed patience on breaking this one.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The housing crisis

The BBC has some nice graphics describing the mechanics and evolution of the housing crisis in the U.S., with some particularly shocking visualizations of what's happening in Cleveland.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Quote of the day

Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, who led the raid on the polygamist compound in West Texas this week, explaining why he waited four years since receiving the first indication that young girls were being "married off" at puberty to middle-aged polygamists:
We are aware that this group is capable of [sexually abusing young girls]. But there again, this is the United States. We are going to respect them. We're not going to violate their civil rights until we get an outcry. I've said that from day one.
The way I read this, I guess what Doran means is that if there's enough of an outcry, then, sure, Texans of course have no problem violating a person's civil rights.

Sheds a certain light on how we got ourselves into Gitmo, now don't it?

Historiography agonistes

It will be a positive sign that this country is getting itself right again with its core values if some of the senior members of the Bush regime are eventually brought up on war crimes charges for approving torture. For the sake of our country's moral integrity, we must hope that one day we as a nation will look back at what went on in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. with the same sense of national shame that attends today to the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII or the McCarthy inquisition during the 1950s. Even John Ashcroft appears to have worried that "History will not judge this kindly."

However, we would be foolish to take for granted that the values of the country will naturally right themselves in this fashion. Whether such a collective national shame about the Bush era takes root will have a lot to do with the pattern of asymmetric historiographical contestation that Small Precautions referred to the other day.

Anyone who is complacently confident that the Bush era will go down as a shameful period in the nation's history should bear in mind that even today, the Japanese internment or McCarthyism are not universally regarded as shameful events. On the contrary, the right-wing counter-academic historical industry has been industriously attempting to redefine the meaning of these events over the last few years, realizing that the historical memory of those events from the past will color the political understanding of the Bush administration's actions in the near-term political future. For example, the single most popular individual political blogger in the United States, Michelle Malkin, has published a book defending the Japanese internment. Likewise, Ann Coulter--who despite her buffoonish character continues to receive rapturous applause at top-drawer right-wing functions--has written a book defending McCarthyism as a wrongly maligned instance of righteous American nationalism.

Professional historians can scoff at the historiographical credentials of Malkin and Coulter all they want, but the sad fact of the matter is that writers such as these often have a greater impact on popular understandings of key historical episodes than all but a handful of professional-academic historians. Books such as these can have far more political impact on the national memory of these events than do peer-reviewed scholarly articles or books on the same subjects. This is true because books such as these are explicitly written and marketed as political tools, with a functional goal of impacting current debates on contemporary policy choices. This contrasts sharply to most academic historiography, which aims to uncover the actual truth about the past, with the functional goal of promoting the author's career within the academy.

As long as there exists this fundamental asymmetry of historiographical methods, progressives would be wise to not assume that there is anything inevitable about this country's eventual shame about the Bush era.

Monday, April 07, 2008

61 percent of historians think Bush is worst President ever

In an informal, unscientific survey of professional historians by the History News Network, 61% consider George Bush fils the worst President ever, with another 35% putting him in the bottom ten. The article also includes glosses by some of the historians justifying their rankings, that include these gems:

No individual president can compare to the second Bush. Glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self, he has bankrupted the country with his disastrous war and his tax breaks for the rich, trampled on the Bill of Rights, appointed foxes in every henhouse, compounded the terrorist threat, turned a blind eye to torture and corruption and a looming ecological disaster, and squandered the rest of the world's goodwill. In short, no other presidents faults have had so deleterious an effect on not only the country but the world at large.
And this one:
With his unprovoked and disastrous war of aggression in Iraq and his monstrous deficits, Bush has set this country on a course that will take decades to correct. When future historians look back to identify the moment at which the United States began to lose its position of world leadership, they will point—rightly—to the Bush presidency. Thanks to his policies, it is now easy to see America losing out to its competitors in any number of area: China is rapidly becoming the manufacturing powerhouse of the next century, India the high tech and services leader, and Europe the region with the best quality of life.
Then again, Matt Yglesias begs to differ:
Bush is probably correct to think that history will remember him kindly. American presidents associated with big dramatic events tend to wind up with good reputations whether they deserve them or not. One possible Bush analogy would be to Woodrow Wilson, who did all kinds of things with regard to civil liberties that look indefensible today and whose foreign policy ended as a giant failure, but who was associated with both big events and with big ideas that were influential down the road. Someday, I bet there will be democracies in the Middle East and some future Republican president will figure out a way to put meat on the bones of "compassionate conservatism" and Bush will be looked upon as a far-sighted figure who made some mistakes in a difficult period of time. Will he deserve a good reputation? No. Will he get one? I'd say yes.
I would say that Wilson actually has a very bad reputation among most professional historians. Undoubtedly influential (as, alas, Bush will no doubt be) but hardly influential in a good way for the country.

Before Bush, Wilson was my personal favorite as the most awful President of all time, though objectively you'd have to say Andrew Johnson and Buchanan were worse. Here's how I ranked all the presidents a few years ago.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Modernization theory and neoconservatism

David Milne's new biography of Walt Rostow, America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War, is explicitly conceived and written as a prequel to the intellectual errors that led us into the current quagmire in Iraq. At two points he becomes explicit about how Rostow's version of modernization theory, including its relationship to military intervention, adumbrates the intellectual and political errors of the neocons:

Sunny in disposition and generous to a fault, Rostow took the most expansive possible interpretation of where U.S. interests lay. In some respects Rostow's vision for American foreign policy was a forerunner of the global vision advocated by today's neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. The main difference between Rostowism and neoconservatism is that the former placed its emphasis on global social justice, while the latter stresses the unilateral extension of political freedom and the transformative power of capitalism. Both worldviews share a common theme, necessitating U.S. military intervention anywhere at any time. And Rostow, like today's neocons, devoted less time to considering how the government might finance such an activist foreign policy....

Rostow's story will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in contemporary international relations. His apparent duality of personality (the development-minded dove and anticommunist hawk) has found parallel expression in the career of Paul Wolfowitz. Indeed today's neoconservatives have taken up Rostow's internationalist, crusading mantle and have run with it to potent effect. The former president of the World Bank, and architect of the second Iraq War, Wolfowitz is identifiably Rostovian with respect to his reading of international relations: it is beholden upon the United States, as the world's preeminent nation, to democratize and do "good"00at the bayonet's point if necessary. Both Rostow and Wolfowitz seem influenced by the Genevan Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau's illiberal injunction that "freedom" does not necessarily arise from personal volition: "Whosoever refuses to obey the general will shall be forced to be compelled to so by the whole body. This means nothing else than that he will be forced to be free." All ideologies can do awful things when they are pursued with unyielding determination.

One thing I also learned from Milne's book is that apparently Walt Rostow's brother Eugene had a hand in setting up the 1970s vintage of the Committee on the Present Danger. Set up in the late days of the Ford administration to serve as a fifth column against the strategy of detente, the CPD would wage political guerrilla warfare against the Carter administration and eventually supply the most hawkish members of the Reagan administration, including Wolfowitz and Dick Pipes--the same ones who would denounce Reagan for being a fool for believing that Gorbachev actually wanted to end the Cold War.

These guys just keep getting the big stuff right, decade after decade after decade.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The death of modernization theory?

Gary Karbon writes a blog post with a title that could have been written any time in the last third of a century, namely that "____ is the last nail in the coffin of modernization theory"--in this case, the rise of China. He then trots out a familiar series of examples of how the rise of China undermines at a theoretical and empirical level the central tenets of modernization theory.

All of this is well and good and true--and also mostly beside the point. Almost from its theoretical inception, the popularity of modernization theory has had less to do with its ability to provide an accurate empirical description of the developmental patterns of poor countries than with its ability to articulate in seemingly "objective" social scientific jargon a justification and explanation of American global dominance in a manner that resonates with liberal political and economic sensibilities. Insofar as there exists an audience within the United States for such a narrative, the theory has been popular--which helps explain the great return into vogue of modernization theory during the 1989-2004 period in the United States (a rehabilitation initiated, of course, by Francis Fukuyama's famous essay on "The End of History," which he later candidly confessed was but a more philosophically grounded revivification of modernization theory).

Likewise, what appears to cause modernization theory's domestic popularity to wane--for example during the 1970s and again, dramatically, in the last few years--is not its empirical refutation by events in the developing world. Since those events never much supported the theory in the first place, they can't explain the fading of the theory's popularity. Rather, what causes modernization theory's domestic constituency to wane is the implosion of faith in the United States as the ideological and technological model which the rest of the world is destined to follow. To put it technically, the popularity of modernization theory in the United States is essentially a dependent variable that closely tracks America's ideological self-confidence on the global stage. What goes on in China may or may not have an impact on that self-confidence, but the key variable is that self-confidence, rather than the performance of China's (or Ghana's, or Mexico's, or Japan's, or whatever) political economy.

Now, there's an interesting twist to all this, which is that alternate versions of modernization theory have been taken up and developed in other countries in ways that suit those countries' elites' own ideological ambitions. (The reasons and forms of this uptake is variable, and is the subject of quite exciting scholarly research today in the United States, Germany, China, and India.) At a high level, it is not hard to explain what motivates modernization theory's uptake in a variety of contexts outside the United States. It follows from a desire to articulate a secular theory of political and economic progress according to a blueprinted model, and to do so in terms of a language of social science that, by seeming "objective" and "scientific," can help to neutralize political controversies that attach to any particular set of developmental choices. As long as there exists (and wherever there exists) a constituency for social scientific articulations of a liberal developmental inevitablism, modernization theory is likely to continue to reappear, staggering up out of its grave like some undead monster, a nightmare from the past, weighing on the brains of the living.

Io & Daphne, March 2008

Io & Daphne, March 2008, originally uploaded by nils_gilman.

Enough to turn me into a conservative...