Saturday, July 31, 2010

One Part Fatigue, Two Parts Snark

It is apparently really, really hard to be democratic, and impossible to be successful as an elected democratic leader if your last name isn't Roosevelt and the year is anything past 1932. Or at least, that's the impression I get reading Stephen M. Walt's piece "What Hath Obama Wrought?" in which the sitting president's failure is plotted from... well, I'm not sure exactly.

He starts by claiming "[Republicans] will almost certainly pick up a lot of seats in Congress come November, which is the normal mid-term pattern after a big swing the other way." Which is true, but so irrelevant to his point that it risks undermining it. Presidents almost always lose support during midterm elections, barring something tragic that is seen as entirely beyond their control. To label this a failure of Obama's is to set the bar for presidential success during the first 18 months in office at "suffer 9/11, receive benefit of public sympathy." Which is impossible for any president to replicate (Exception: conspiracy theorists, chime in now!) So that's not a loss. That is dull, tried-and-true routine.

The next paragraph hits the Poli-Sci 101 (or AP government) level truism that voters care most about the economy. This is a fact! And he follows with the Poli-Sci 201 truism that "Voters don't care about the disasters-that-might-have-been-but-weren't." Also a fact! Voters have a very, very bad sense of perspective relative to presidents, and tend to punish them for it. Voters are sometimes selfish jerks, but they have to be because otherwise they'd start caring about things like foreign policy. This is why a minority party can, should they so desire, tank efforts of the majority to go as far as they need in rebuilding an economy, and be rewarded for it.

So if the economy isn't something the president can claim credit for (and he can't! avoiding econocolypse by steering the ship of state into recession harbor means you're still not at Candy Island and everyone is tired of how boring the cruise is; at least an iceberg would have spiced things up), what can the president claim? Foreign policy is totally his arena, so let's look at a highly selective list of foreign policy choices that voters might think about. (Side Note: did you know that the US operates embassies and, therefore, foreign policies in a fuckton of nations? Neither do most voters!)

So what foreign policies do voters care about that the president, as head of state, will be judged by? Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and Afghanistan. Oh, goody.


Walt is perfectly right in saying that Iraq is Bush's fault, and Obama doesn't deserve to be blamed for it. But apparently the one Bush success in a steaming pile of everything gone wrong was the surge, and Walt sees that being undone. Perhaps it is! Over at the Atlantic, there's a handy checklist of things the surge has failed to do. Note that of the 4 items on the list, only one is a US action. Which is withdrawal. Which is what the voter cares about most anyway. Also, they throw in that al Qaeda in Iraq has been mostly decapitated, which is about as explicit a US success as you can claim (we needlessly arrived in a hostile environment, watched the country fight through a civil war, decided to start pulling out during a shaky peace, and all the while casually defeated the enemy whose whole existence is built around our destruction, in a nation where they had the potential for ample support? I'm declaring V-aQ-in-Iraq day TOMORROW.) Also, maybe the surge wasn't even the kind of thing that could have success.

Omar Khdhayyir over at gorilla guides says of the surge: "it fit into a series of converging and violent dynamics on the ground, coinciding expediently with a shift in the balance of power. That is what the empirical evidence shows." Maybe this has something to do with the fact that in insurgencies, as Abu Muqawama said, "actions of local actors matter more than those of external forces." Those 3 items on the Atlantic list that show the surge has failed? Those are all Iraqis being unable to reach political settlement, despite the efforts of the US to create a climate in which they can do that. So Obama, here, will get knocked for the internal politics of a foreign nation not lending themselves to compromise. Awesome.

(Sidenote: Walt is upset that we'll leave a "government that is sympathetic to Iran" in Iraq? Iran and Iraq fought the largest conventional war of the last 30 years against each other, and that conflict itself convinced Saddam to go for Kuwait. I think it's safe to say that if they can make friends, the whole stability of the region will be less in jeopardy.)


I stand by my assertion that, if the 2008 election had gone the other way, US tanks would have rolled towards Tehran during 2009's "Green Revolution." Why do I say this? Call it a fucking hunch.

Honestly, I think Obama can borrow entirely from Woodrow Wilson and campaign on a "he kept us out of the war" platform in 2012, and win.


"Two-States" talk, that perpetual project of US presidents from Nixon onwards, has suffered an awkward pause in dialogue, and this will frustrate voters at home. Probably true, but it's the most predictable of frustrations - talks have halted every single time an election has brought a hardliner into power in one of the relevant countries. This first happened when Nasser accidentally started a war in 1967 because the US and the USSR wouldn't facilitate talks, and has continued onwards as Egypt regained territory but abandoned claims to Gaza, as Begin proclaimed the idea of "Greater Israel," as Jordan lost and then relinquished its claim to the West Bank, as the Palestinian Liberation Organization moved from exiles in Algeria to an old man under house arrest in Ramallah, as Israel elected another former general, as the PLO became the Palestinian Authority, and as Hamas decided to seize power in Gaza after Abbas and Olmert's talks proved fruitless. Really, Netanyahu and the continued existence of Hamas rule in Gaza fit the pattern of slow moves toward progress falling short every other election cycle. Soon enough, after a stalemate here, Israel will elect a moderate who will probably loosen restrictions on Gaza, and Hamas will have to show itself just as capable of compromise as it is of bombastic defiance. But that's an election cycle or two from now.

Obama will get a little bit of heat for this, as the respective Israel and Palestine lobbies are long-suffering. But the staggeringly slow pace of progress here at all times means that this is just a given, and the amount of votes lost nationwide will probably be in the dozens.


Let me start by saying that the wikileaks information doesn't reveal anything beyond the names of afghans the US has worked with, and the fact that a bureaucracy at war generates paperwork. In 92,000 documents, there is enough evidence to cherry pick every single perspective that can be written on the war. So to claim that the information in it "doesn't matter" and then use it to justify your already established opinion is sheer laziness and shitty journalism.

So what is happening in Afghanistan? Lots. Like the high success rate of embedded 12-man special forces teams in facilitating dispute resolution that doesn't involve adding or using guns. But there is a lot that isn't going well. Karzai protected his office at the expense of ruining elections. This is both a) an act of local agency and b) insanely frustrating. And that's been the biggest failure of Afghanistan since Obama was elected, which is, again, something he doesn't have control over.

But if Obama's commitment to Afghanistan is problematic in the eyes of the American voter (and it is! kind of!), there is no way he could have not committed to fighting the faction that housed al Qaeda without suffering an equally negative blow to his ratings.

Remember the 1990s, when the democrats tried to play humanitarian with the military, got black hawk down, then played cautious, got Rwanda, and then didn't really know what to do in Bosnia and Kosovo so we had cluster bombs in villages missing Serbian tanks and almost risked a war with Russia? That sucked. As the first Democrat commander-in-chief since then, Obama has handled the wars he inherited fairly well. Focusing explicitly on the nation most closely identified with the actual attack on US soil wasn't something he could have chosen not to do.

Does this matter?

Walt seems to think that the cautious approach Obama has pursued in his foreign policy will turn off voters, who will see it as largely unchanged from the second Bush term. That's sheer craziness - voters haven't made a real distinction between the diplomacy of the Bush terms, and still associate him with pre-emption and two long stupid wars we didn't really need to fight. Obama's caution will be seen as distinct from that, and because it is uninteresting to be cautious, voters won't care about it. Which makes the whole article (and, um, this critique) unnecessary. Voters are thinking about other things.

They are thinking that there isn't food on the table and a British company has ruined the gulf for the next 50 years. They'll hate Obama for that.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fantasy Wargaming: Nuclear Weapons in Videogames

When I started this blog, I initially wanted to write about gaming. That's the reason for the "plastic" in the title. That my attentions went elsewhere are unsurprising - I play less games than I did before I started college, and I suddenly had all these new exciting things to write about, like Nukes and Iran and elections and rights and things. So I'm really excited to find an intersection between my dorktastic hobby and my dorktastic studies.

Nuclear weapons feature in many, many videogames, and a friend of mine had expressed concern on how their presence in videogames relates to public perception of their effects. Games writ large are too diverse to treat as one mass, so I figured I'd start by breaking down the ways nuclear weapons feature in games.

1. Gameplay mechanic itself
  • Missile Defense
  • Balance of Power
In Missile Defense, nuclear war is abstracted to the point that a successful nuclear missile strike leads directly to defeat. Consequences of such a strike don't need to be more descriptive than game loss, because in a game, that's enough. Not being able to play any more is as deadly as the abstraction can get. (I haven't played DEFCON or Balance of Power, but from their description they seem similar.)

2. Narrative Device (Modern warfare, Metal Gear Solid)
  • Modern Warfare (First Person Shooter, FPS)
  • Modern Warfare 2 (FPS)
  • Metal Gear Solid (FPS)
  • Frontlines: Fuel of War (FPS)
  • The Ace Combat series (Flight Simulator)
  • Trinity (Text adventure)
  • Nuclear Strike (Shooter)
  • Metal Gear series (FPS)
  • Tom Clancy's EndWar (RTS)
  • Warhammer 40,000 (Minature wargame/RTS)
  • Warzone 2100 (RTS)
  • Syphon Filter series (3rd person shooter)
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction (FPS)
  • others
The size of this category should be unsurprising - since 1945, nuclear weaponry, nuclear strikes, and post-nuclear wastelands have all featured heavily in fiction. Games are, to a large extent, a story-telling medium, and the first-person shooter is a narrative vehicle, as a character follows along and plays through scripted experiences. Plots in these games include nuclear weapons often as a climactic moment in the story, mid-plot twist, or prologue which creates a setting different from the present day but featuring similar weapons. That's commonly done in every medium - Orwell uses a nuclear war as premise for the stalemate society he depicts in 1984. The same needs-of-narrative fuel RTS's, and all of the above have nuclear weapons as plot-points but not in game weapons.

3. Weapon available to the player
  • Starcraft (RTS)
  • Empire Earth (RTS)
  • the Civilization series (Turn-Based Strategy, TBS)
  • World in Conflict (FPS)
  • War Front: Turning Point (RTS)
  • Supreme Commander (RTS)
  • Spore (RTS, at least for the stages in which players can use nukes)
  • Mercenaries 2 (FPS)
  • Metal Gear Solid 3 (FPS)
  • Rise of Nations (RTS)
  • Ratchet and Clank (third person shooter)
  • the Unreal series (FPS)
The games here again are divided between strategy and shooter, and the way they depict Nuclear weapons is different. In Ratchet and Clank, the Unreal series, and Metal Gear Solid 3, a nuclear rifle appears, usually as the games' BFG. This use is both entirely unrealistic and fitting within the nature of these games as fantasy. For Unreal, that fantasy is FPS combat isolated of plot, meaning, or worlds. For Ratchet and Clank, it's a fantasy galaxy, inhabited with nonhuman creatures, where the main characters are a robot and a cat-alien. In Metal Gear Solid 3, the weapon is a doomsday machine that is part of the plot. The nuke rifle is a fantasy allowed by videogames.

In the World in Conflict and Mercenaries 2, tactical nuclear strikes are an unlockable weapon. These games depict small nuclear weapons as not only viable, but as an option that would be similar in usage to a predator drone (to emphasize this effect in Modern Warfare 2 predators are unlockable for much the same purpose).

In the RTS games listed, tactical nuclear weapons are available. In Starcraft, they are the superweapon of the humans against both a horde of buglike aliens and another more advanced alien race. In Empire Earth, nuclear bombers can be built from WWII onwards, and while they are a deadly attack, the area and permanence of the blast is limited in keeping with the aims of game balance. War Front is a science-fictional retelling of WWII, and nuclear weapons are again used within the context of that conflict. In Spore, both city- and planet-destroying nuclear weapons are available. In Supreme Commander, nuclear weapons are fired from silos and deal damage in a smaller area than one would expect. In Rise of Nations, nuclear weapons can be used, though anti-missile lasers can be purchased and a missile defense shield can be researched which protects one's entire territory from nuclear strikes. Rise of Nations also has an Armageddon clock the limits the total number of nuclear weapons that can be fired before the game ends in defeat for everyone. Civilization, though not a real-time strategy game, also offers nuclear weapons that can destroy cities, and with it's more advanced resource system, can slowly have the world die out from after-effects of nuclear weapons.

4. Some combination thereof
  • Fallout series
The Fallout series is set after a total nuclear war, and cold-war culture is the substance of the games. It also features, in Fallout 3, a tactical nuclear rifle.


So what does it mean to have nuclear weapons be part of videogame culture? For the most part, it is no different than having nuclear weapons in fiction, in movies, in comic books, and in song. Sometimes, they will be treated with proper understanding, sometimes they'll be used as a cheap plot accellerant, and more often than not they'll used somewhere between. This is fine, because that's the state of our cultural understanding of nuclear weapons right now.

Games could make a strong statement about tactical nuclear weapons, and on the surface they appear to do so. After all, games, more than any other medium, feature small nuclear strikes. But this isn't really an argument for the use of more nuclear weapons - this is a constraint of game design. When games feature realistic, all-destroying nuclear strikes, they are exclusively plot devices/scripted events, and happen outside the control of the player. When players are given control, nuclear weapons are small, because, and this is important, players will be using these against other players online, and instant-game-ending shots don't make for popular or enjoyable games.

Nuclear weapons could be depicted realistically, but if history has shown us anything, the more powerful a nuclear weapon is, the less likely people are to want it used against themselves. And, in the games-design universe, the certainty that players will use a horribly destructive weapon in a setting where consequences are low translates directly to scaling-down weapons so that they are a balanced component of gameplay. It's not realistic, but it's also very clearly not reality.