Sunday, December 11, 2011

So long and thanks for all the comments.

I started this blog five years ago, late into high school and headed towards Tulane. I originally thought this was going to be about gaming and politics, but I soon found myself writing about race and Unitarianism at least as much as politics, and I wrote about gaming here all of once. I'm going to leave it up, in the grand tradition of nothing on the internet ever really going away, but for now it's done. It remains as an archive of my youthful speculation, with all the warts, rash decisions, embarrassingly naive decisions I wrote here left intact. I am still blogging, now with a narrower focus, over at wordpress.

Thanks for reading. It's been good.

That's All Folks by Scott Campbell from Purple Magazine on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The wars of the future will be the legacy of the austerity of the present

Half the fun of reading foreign policy wonks is that at times they feel like the hipsters of the commentariot; "Oh, sure, we're still involved in three wars, but c'mon, focusing on what we're doing right now? Sooooo last decade." It is this insistence upon forward-looking that most informed me as I read the following three articles.

The first, and most far-reaching, was John F. Cooper's assessment of the strategic importance Taiwan plays in the grand strategy of the United States. As long as Taiwan remains sovereign and supported by the American navy, then it will remain the primary focus of Chinese military power, much as (to use Cooper's analogy) the independent American Indian nations remained for a century the primary focus of US expansion and campaigning. As Cooper relates, if Taiwan were to fall, China will be able to project her power globally, through a navy that was no longer
“contained” by a proximate chain of islands extending southward from Japan, through the Ryukyu’s, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia."
What's fascinating about Cooper's piece is the emphasis it gives to preparing for and/or safeguarding against great power war as the primary goal for US strategy. Decades ago, this had been a given; throughout the Cold War many smaller wars were fought with the ultimate objective of making the situation favorable to the United States should a great power war break out. But since the fall of the USSR, the United States has had a clear and uncontested global reach but no similar singular focus. Part of Cooper's argument is that this has been possible because our probable global rival has been singularly focused on an enemy just off their shore. The wider implication of Cooper's piece, though, is that our military focus (and, explicitly in the piece, budget priorities) should guarantee our military strength against other great powers.

I read Cooper's article the same day that the New York Times published this editorial, about the experience of NATO in Libya. This was the first war undertaken by NATO where the United States was insistent upon taking a secondary role to the militaries of Canada and Europe. While Qaddafi's regime was ultimately toppled by the NATO-supported Libyan rebels, it was a success more guaranteed by the weakness of the opponent than the prowess of the Western forces involved. The editorial cites ammunition shortfalls and outdated technology as the genuine problems, and suggests more broadly that the combination of austerity measures during the economic downturn has only exacerbated a general trend in Europe of allowing the largess of the Pentagon to substitute for European defense spending. It ends with this condemnation
European leaders need to ask themselves a fundamental question: If it was this hard taking on a ragtag army like Qaddafi’s, what would it be like to have to fight a real enemy?
The nations of Europe, it appears, are unready for any war, and are notably unprepared for a great power war for the first time in centuries.

This is fine if one believes that the coming wars will not be symmetric ones. Such skeptics of major conflicts can point to the aughts most memorable strategist, who has spawned a whole school of thought focused on how big powers fight the little wars. Given the present balance of power, and cognizant of the last half-century of American warfare, this makes sense. But such a narrow focus has limitations. Spencer Ackerman writes
With the wars of the future looking likely to occur in sea, air, space and cyberspace, a generation of Army officers forged in counterinsurgency — critics call it a cult — will be challenged to adjust
The nature of wars that will be fought in the future remain a fortunately-unanswered question. But the defense priorities set now, in a time of austerity for the West, will profoundly shape the warfighting of the next decade and beyond.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fetishizing the Peasant

Peasants into Frenchmen is a classic text in a niche field that hits at the very central problem of modernity: how does a nation convert its population from subsistence farmers into modern citizens? This problem is as old as the concept of citizen itself: it is easy to have a collective identity within a city, and urbanites have formed the early core of states since we have had states, and in many cases a dominating city has gone on to found or anchor empires and civilizations. There's a clear urban bent in history, which makes sense given that cities had the wealth and literacy to devote to writing history.

Outside the city, life for most people, throughout most of human history, has been very much the same: live in a village, grow as much as you can, hope the crops don't fail and the taxes aren't too high and that the neighbors don't raid, and then survive to do it all again next year. There is a simplicity to this, a romanticism, that emerges almost exclusively in urbanites at least three generations removed from having to live like this.

It is seemingly without any knowledge of this history and informed by romantic notions filtered through the modern environmental movement that articles like this are written. Subsistence farmers are, in the strictest sense, "locavores," but very rarely are they so by choice. It is, instead, a lifestyle adopted by necessity, or maintained when they are no seen to be no viable alternatives.

Pushing for development away from subsistence farming, maligned here as the specific failing of USAID programs in Afghanistan, has been the whole project of modernization for the last several hundred years. In The Great Transformation, economist Karl Polanyi documents the century of legal changes it took to provoke small-time farmers in England to give up their farms and take jobs elsewhere. The labor-intensive nature of agriculture has traditionally hindered nations in their attempts to pursue any other path of economic development, whether it be the command systems of Soviet Russia and Communist China or market economies of the West. Encouraging development in other directions is not about trying to destroy what is unique in Afghanistan, but is instead about understanding what the term development means.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Death of an Enemy

The gestation period for revenge is 9 years, 7 months, 20 days. Or for justice. Or for closure. However you read the death of Osama bin Laden, it took about twice as long as the Manhattan project to go from notion to completion. We messed it up once before - in November 2001, just two months after the attacks of September 11th, we failed to capture him in a battle at Tora Bora. We have kept a military presence in Afghanistan since then, with it escalating over the past several years into counterinsurgency against a resurgent foe. We went chasing other demons abroad, declared that we had found one in Iraq and embroiled ourselves in a regime change there as well. For just shy of a decade, the man who twice bombed the World Trade Center evaded capture, to the point that seven years after 9/11, prioritizing his capture became a presidential campaign promise. It became the stuff of far-ranging speculation (not to discredit these guys - their approach to the problem was both novel and damn close to accurate). And yet, here it is, the death of America's Most Wanted.

Other people have more interesting and informed accounts of what his death mean. Here's my favorite of the facty ones, in ten bullet points. Here's my favorite emotional reaction read, in lots of words. And here's my least favorite spot-on response, in 140 characters: "Recall, this is a huge operation, a huge cost (over $1 trillion since 9/11/01) to get an elderly man on dialysis in a small town in Pakistan"

The 9/11 attacks cost $500,000. That's chump change to pay if the goal, as it was stated in later years, was US bankruptcy. What bin Laden did was unquestionably an act of evil. But it was one that provoked something very much like an allergic reaction - in responding to one threat, the US spent over a trillion. We as a nation failed to adequately respond to the threat. Not that we didn't respond - we did, with excess and paranoia and jingoism and two wars, one relatively justified and one entirely superfluous. We surrendered civil liberties, made air travel a farcical exercise in security theater, and justified torture and indefinite detention of people who we maybe had evidence on. We ignored large swaths of the constitution and made ourselves less safe. The way we responded to 9/11 was all out of proportion. Hunting down the criminal took a year of intelligence work, the cooperation of Pakistan's government, and a strike team consisting of exceptional skilled men in boots on the ground.

What this means going forward comes from the writer at Transitionland with, I think, the best short statement of the impact this will have:
To be clear on Osama bin Laden's death: 1) I wish he had been captured alive. 2) His death isn't a blow to the Taliban, because his life was pretty irrelevant to the post-2001 Taliban. 3) For better or worse, bin Laden's death will be used to cement US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
This isn't really a moment about that future, though. This is a reconciliation with a long overdue past. In late September 2001, my uncle wondered "why are we focusing on getting the messenger, instead of getting the message?" I was 12 when this happened, and never particularly clear on the message we were supposed to get (was it that America must acknowledge bin Laden's demands? was it that we were responsible for generic capitalist unpleasant byproducts in the world at large that turn people against us?).

I like to think it was "maybe the US should stop explicitly supporting autocrats so that radicals direct their frustration with domestic politics outwards at us," which I like to think it was, and we did. It is still supremely satisfying to know that, at the very least, we have reached a moment of closure, if not exactly a moment of justice.

Amidst the immediately jubilant atmosphere of last night, a couple of friends, posting in various places, quoted the same line of scripture, which is especially fitting for the moment. "Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles. Proverbs 24:17"

This is a time of closure, a awareness that this worst moment of the last decade is, finally, over.