Saturday, October 31, 2009

Witch Jokes Would Be Too Easy

So, stop me if you have heard this before: Sarah Palin asks for $100 grand to speak at a conservative political event in Iowa.
For Palin to show up in Iowa looking for a check, rather than bearing one from SarahPAC--which brought in three-quarters of a million dollars in the first half of this year and has already drawn scrutiny from FEC--means that she is either the most dim-witted presidential aspirant ever, which I seriously doubt, or her interests clearly tilt toward cashing in on her star-power. Although one might ask for a $100,000 speaking fee from a giant corporation or trade association, requesting it from a non-profit 501(c)3 group--no less one that promotes conservative family values and is based in Iowa--is about as stupid as it gets. (Italics and bold added, Fivethirtyeight)
Sarah Palin is the gift that keeps on giving.  I was lecturing about Russia in the 1990's last week, suggesting how it looked a lot like Weimar Germany, including the rise of Vladimir Zhironovsky and his outrageous promises to bring back the lost territories of the Russian Empire, including Finland and Alaska.  It was then obvious where I had to go from there--to Sarah Palin and keeping an eye on those Russians.

The National Tax Revisited

I pondered months ago the source of the nationalist tax in Quebec. I speculated about why taxes are higher in Quebec than in any other part of North America yet the quality of public services are lower than most/all.  I suggested that this paradox could be explained by the money spent on nationalist efforts (language police, pseudo-embassies, etc), by the ties between unions and a certain party, and/or by the lack of accountability in the political system due to the dominance of the nationalist issue in any election. 

In the past week or two, we have a new contender, perhaps just a bit related to the ones I already mentioned, CORRUPTION.  A spate of stories have documented some very troubling dynamics--that the costs of construction are something like 35%-50% higher here than elsewhere in Canada because of collusion amongst the corruption companies and their ties to all of the major parties.  In today's Montreal Gazette, a story posits that every party has a bagman and then documents a variety of ways in which a supposedly transparent contracting process can be gamed. 

This all is coming out during a municipal election--a competitive one.  So, the good news is that the electoral process is causing some disclosure about on-going practices that undermine the quality of public service.  The bad news.... well, there is much bad news:
  1. The primary challenger, Louise Harel, had to dump her key ally because he was directly implicated in some of the shenanigans.  This limits her appeal as a reform candidate who clean house, which was already damaged by her past--as a separatist and as the person who led the forcible merger of the cities on the island of Montrea into one mega-city.  This merger probably made corruption worse by increasing the size of the contacts and reducing the number of decision-makers.
  2. The incumbent, Gerald Tremblay, has basically claimed that he knew nothing about the various shenanigans, but will be able to do something about it now.  Something like "I was oblivious before but trust me now."  Sure.
  3. The secondary challenger, Richard Bergeron, has not been taken seriously until the two other candidates started to self-destruct.  
  4. And turnout is expected to be light, as people care more about the provincial elections.  Last night, I caught a series of ads on TV that sought to increase turnout by pointing out that municipalities are responsible for trash and recycling and other such stuff.

 A bit of French is appropriate here: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Said by many, including apparently Snake Pliskin in Escape from LA.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fast Food Map of the Year

Check out this map.
Much to learn from it--the spread of Starbucks and of Mickey D's.  I was most surprised to find that McDonald's customer satisfaction is the lowest of the fast food companies. However, once it moved from having food wrapped and ready to go under a warmer to making each burger quickly as one orders, I did become less of a fan.

McDonald's apparently does not Stan well, with only a presence in Pakistan but not in the other six Stans.

On the other hand, the farthest one has to drive in the US to get to a Mickey D's is 107 miles.

Trick or McTreat?!

Transitive Property of Evil

At Entertainment Weekly, there is a post on the Halloween episodes of The Mentalist and Castle, both fun shows indeed, and the writer mentions the Transitive Property of Evil--that a character actor that is evil on one show is the likely killer on another show.  I sort of agree with this, but there is the more fundamental rule--the Kathy Saideman rule of fiction that has ruined me forever.

The Kathy Saideman rule of fiction refers to the identification of key props or individuals early in a tv show or movie that will have to become relevant later on.  I can now almost always identify the killer or key object upon which the plot ultimately turns early, thanks to my instructions at the plot master. 

Lesson, as always, is either: a) the wife is always right; or b) don't marry an editor

Least Useful Op-ed on Afghanistan?

You be the judge: David Brooks of the NYT asserted that the real question in Afghanistan is determination--is Obama sufficiently stubborn to carry through an open-ended war?  As a supposed hardliner on Afghanistan, I think that staying the course is perhaps the best option, that a mini-surge might be the right idea, but I wouldn't question Obama's ability to be determined.  Think about how he got here--by winning a campaign against the Chosen One (Hillary Clinton) who had the party machine on his side.

But Brooks does remind me of a key bit of magic--how to disapparate--how to disappear and teleport in Harry Potter?  It requires deliberation, determination, and destination (as opposed to the five D's of dodgeball--dodge, dip, duck, dive and dodge).  Certainly, Obama is deliberating pretty seriously, meeting with the Joint Chiefs today.  Brooks questions his determination, but there is a pretty fine line between determination and self-destructive obsession.  But really, the big obstacle is destination--can we really get to a semi-self-sustaining Afghanistan?  Can Karzai (or Abdullah if he somehow wins) do the stuff that is necessary to build a semi -competent, semi-corrupt government?  It may be the case that Obama doubts that we can get to the destination.  Certainly, events since March have given us all pause--the level of violence, the election fraud, etc--so I really do not mind the President taking a few weeks to re-evaluate things in light of new information.  That seems preferable to staying the course without any review despite significant changes on the ground.

Honduras Follow-up

US actually insists on returning President Zelaya to power, even if only for a month until the new elections!!

The Obama Administration has refused to recognize the new government of Honduras and said it would not recognize the outcome of the scheduled election unless the old president was allowed to come back to power.  And it worked. 

I didn't predict this outcome in my posts last June, but apparently coups, like conquest, are no longer quite as legitimate as they used to be.  And, even more surprising, the lack of legitimacy might actually matter.  

Still, given that various actors in this dispute all sought to act outside of the constitution, this might not be the last time Honduras appears in the category of civil-military relations stories.

Halloween Special--Zombie Songs/Videos

As we approach Halloween, I thought I would highlight a few Zombie related songs/videos

Zombie Song #1: Jonathan Coulter, "Re: Your Brains"

Zombie Song #2: Single File, "Zombie Ate My Neighbors" (apparently based on a videogame)

Zombies meet Beyonce

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where Are the Shackles When We Need Them

Slate's Explainer explains what I have been wondering--why they don't just drag Karadzic into court since he is being detained down the street?
the optics would be wrong. International courts already struggle to assert their legitimacy, and applying force might make the legal process seem like a show trial or give on-lookers undue sympathy for the defendant.
 Oh, and a trial in absentia is better?  I don't think so.  The piece goes until to discuss how it is legitimate in this case because Karadzic is essentially allowing this to happen.  Still, not very pretty.

I vote for chains and drag his sorry ass into court. Courts are supposed to be coercive.  Those that let defendants run all over them are the ones that are seen as illegitimate.  Until ICTY can act like a real court, it is not going to be seen as a real court.

Striving for Adequate

Adequate is good enough for Afghanistan.  When I worked on the Bosnia desk of the Joint Staff in 2001-2002, I didn't see the goal to make Bosnia like Norway but perhaps Norway.  And Kosovo, if it became Bosnia, might not be too bad.  So a piece that suggests that Bangladesh might be best that Afghanistan can become in the medium (long?) term, that resonates with me.  Certainly, high expectations are not something we should have at this point.

One remaining question from this piece, if there are four countries that are more corrupt than Afghanistan (Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar, and, last, Somalia), then, well, yuck!

Great Moments in Publishing

Bill Simmons, aka the Sports Guy, has written a book so long on basketball, that it can stop a bullet.  To be clear, it can only stop a 9mm, but not a bullet for a .44 magnum. 

I now have a new publishing goal--to write a book that can stop a bullet.  Perhaps just a bb.

Halloween: Random Thoughts and Memories

  • I use Halloween to illustrate the wide cultural gap between Lubbock and Montreal.  In the former, most of the ads focus on "Family Fun Festivals" that are usually Church-related efforts to distract and divert kids from satanic Halloween rituals (we did dress up young Jessica as a little devil!).  In the latter, the big ads are for the "exotic" shops selling sexy costumes.
  • The trick or treating was lousy in Lubbock--the only two good events were a trick-or-treat along fraternity and sorority row which included a few haunted houses and the Science Spectrum's party.  
  • I seem to remember only one Halloween party in grad school.  The folks at UCSD really did it up very, very well.  Two costumes stick out--John Carey's minimalist play on words--he dressed up with a cape and a baton--Super-Conductor; and Dave Auerwald's pirate (or gypsy) costume--very stylish.  I do remember dressing as a red pepper that year.  
  • I have dressed in costume the last couple of times my big Intro to IR class coincided with Halloween.  The first time, the day was the same as my lecture on imperialism, so I dressed up as that noted thief of third world antiquities--Indiana Jones.  The second time was during my cold war lecture, so Che was the choice.  The latter was specifically part of a UNICEF effort to get students to give money in exchange for their profs wearing a costume on Halloween.  No such effort this year.
  • Strangest Halloween Experience: my brother came back from college, majoring in religion and got me to join him to dress up as Buddhist monks and use begging bowls for trick or treating.  I had given up on trick or treating by then, but he was mighty persuasive.  
  • Best Enduring Legacy of Lubbock Ultimate: We went to a distant tourney in Fort Collins in October and our team dressed up as either cows or milkmaids (and yes, most of the guys were the milk maids).  So, since then I have had a cow costume that I break out every year for one game around this time. And, yes, the udders are obscene but yet highly entertaining.

Piggy, Piggy: Fluish Spews

  • The flu may be spreading, but fear of it is spreading faster.  My daughter's school made the news as it lost half of its attendance this week--not so much because of real flu sufferers (although they have a couple) but because parents are keeping their kids at home so that they are not exposed. 
  • Oh, and ignorance is spreading faster as well, given internet-based fears of the vaccine.  The internet is good for a great many things, but getting the best medical advice may not be one of them.
  • I don't think anyone's health care system is really up to the task.  Quebec has announced its schedule for vaccinations, with the average folks getting theirs December 7th or afterwards.  Read into the symbolism of Pearl Harbor Day what you will, but December will be pretty late in this game, it sounds like.  Especially for those lecturing to 600 disease-carrying/spreading undergrads.
  • The good news is that much of family might be semi-immune.  My wife and daughter might had it last June while I was in Europe.  The bad news, of course, is that I am almost certainly not immune and will almost certainly get exposed (the aforementioned 600 plague carriers).  Strategically, it would have been far sounder to be really boring and lame the first week or two of class so that students would either drop or just not attend, minimizing my exposure.  Unfortunately, I am an attention-seeking hound (or else this blog might not exist).  Plus changing my beginning lectures to make them less interesting might require some work and imagination.  
  • I am just very glad I am not in the health care profession.  This has got to be awful--not just the risk of getting the flu, but having to deal with the volume, the panic, the criticism, etc.  International relations and ethnic strife remind me that not all problems are solvable and even those that can be remedied take time, patience, resources, intelligence, imagination and wisdom.    

Great Innovation at McGill--By Political Theorists No Less!

Jacob Levy and his pesky band of political theorists have come up with a great idea--a contest to enter work into a manuscript workshop.  I almost, just almost, wished I was a political theorist for a just a second.  I have participated in a couple of manuscript workshops, where the outsiders (I was an outsider in both cases) are brought in to read someone's book manuscript, along with the person's colleagues at their department, to give advice on how to revise the book so that it can be published and be better. 

Both experiences (at Dartmouth and Buffalo) were heaps of fun, as it was interesting to see how different folks converge and diverge when reading the same work, and to see young scholars face such challenges. 

The political theory group at McGill really has its act together, with Jacob taking the lead.  I am most jealous as the group has demonstrated in a very short period of time what can be achieved with some hard work and reasonable accommodation (Montreal-specific pun intended).

Anyhow, folks should take a look at this workshop idea and the other efforts of GRIPP (one of many unfortunate, illness-sounding acronyms--the new one for the security group sounds like sepsis)--as this theory group is a role model for other collaborations amongst scholars

Further Evidence Hollywood is Running Out of Ideas

I blogged early in the summer that Hollywood was running out of ideas--with a Lego movie in the works.  Now, NBC is planning a tv show around a fallen magician who solves crimes.  That sounds nothing at all like the Mentalist, which is a fun, fun show.  Of course, old ideas can be good--with CSI taking a twist off of Quincy.  But, they could be a little more creative.  Or stick with good shows that they dump too soon, like Southland.  At least Chuck is now getting a semi-full order. 

Still, I must admit some Schadenfreude as Jay Leno's show tanks.  It is not so much I dislike Jay, but that I am not happy to see five hours of potentially decent shows disappear.  Moving darker dramas from 10pm Eastern Time to 9pm is probably not a good idea for a variety of reasons, but that is what NBC has to do with the late hour blocked off. There is no room now for the next ER. 

It will be interesting to see if NBC's moves are a preview of the rest of the major networks or just its own spiral downwards.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Football Follow-up

Check out the hearings in the Congress on brain injuries and football. Seems like the NFL is still being weasel-esque.

South Park, the Dolphins and the Japanese

I have to wait until Friday (South Park is televised two days later in Canada), but the Americans can get this tonight:

I cannot wait for the South Park spin on international environmental politics.

Insert Required Springsteen Reference

Apparently, we were born to run.*  Fun piece at NYT that displays the new science of running--that humans can outrun (not out-spring) all other mammals--sweating it out is better than panting.

Why would evolution favor the distance runner? The prevailing theory is that endurance running allowed primitive humans to incorporate meat into their diet. They may have watched the sky for scavenging birds and then run long distances to reach a fresh kill and steal the meat from whatever animal was there first.  Other research suggests that before the development of slingshots or bows, early hunters engaged in persistence hunting, chasing an animal for hours until it overheated, making it easy to kill at close range
 Persistence hunting?  Good thing we have grocery stores today, as the only thing we are persistent in hunting is a parking spot close to a store or mall entrance.

Other evolutionary advantages of humans for running are:
  • short toes, straight big toes
  • relatively hairless (again for cooling)
  • "springlike ligaments and tendons in the feet and legs are crucial for running. (Our close relatives the chimpanzee and the ape don’t have them.)
  • "A narrow waist and a midsection that can turn allow us to swing our arms and prevent us from zigzagging on the trail. 
  • "Humans also have a far more developed sense of balance, an advantage that keeps the head stable as we run. 
  • And most humans can store about 20 miles’ worth of glycogen in their muscles.
and most amusingly of all:
And the gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the human body, is primarily engaged only during running. “Your butt is a running muscle; you barely use it when you walk,” Dr. Lieberman said.
No wonder I enjoy playing mixed (co-ed) ultimate!

* Sorry, Steve G., embedding disabled.

From Bad To Worse

More broadly, some American officials argue that the reliance on Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful figure in a large area of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, undermines the American push to develop an effective central government that can maintain law and order and eventually allow the United States to withdraw. (NYT)
Turns out that the CIA has been paying Karzai's brother, despite the fact that he is perhaps the Al Capone of the heroin trade.  Lovely.  The good news is that the revelations about this are likely to mean the end of this practice. 

Just when you thought the CIA had lost all credibility, it finds some more to sell.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pre-Movie Review: Green Zone

Just caught the trailer of Green Zone--the new Matt Damon in Iraq movie.  The movie looks like a lot of fun--kind of Jason Bourne in Iraq.  The funny thing is that the movie is "based on" an excellent book: Imperial Life in an Emerald City by Rajiv ChandrasekaranThe book does an excellent job of documenting the many dimensions of US failures in occupying Iraq--banking, education, power, etc.  It has little to do with the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction (which seems to be Damon's mission in the movie), nor is there really much action in the book.  A movie that is really based on the book could be a farce like the Buffalo Soldiers or MASH.

I look forward to seeing the movie as it looks to be entertaining, and perhaps one game to play is to spot the questionable link to the book. 

Reverse Globalization

McDonalds is abandoning Iceland, apparently as it has been getting killed by the decline in the Icelandic currency.  The local franchisee is going to keep the stores open by changing the name and using local products.  This is seen as a good thing from the standpoint of the Salon writer, but does this increase the risk of Iceland going to war?  Folks have written that countries with McDonald's franchises do not fight each other (although there have been some obvious exceptions).

More importantly, the withdrawal of Mickey D's from Iceland shows that globalization is not a steady upward trend.  Things like exchange rate fluctuations can upset the plans of multinational corporations.  Likewise, the spike in oil prices a year or so ago started to put a crimp in the outsourcing of production as shipping became more expensive.

So, we should not take for granted that globalization is a permanent trend.  It may be in the long run, but there will be ups and downs.  And that is not even counting for the existing barriers, such as those leading to my incredibly poor credit rating when I moved to Canada.

The Weenie Party

Why do the Democrats always seem to wimp out?  When Lieberman went postal against the party, the Dems should have cut him off at the knees, dropping him from leadership posts on key committees.  But no, they let him again and again screw the party.  The latest, of course, is health care.  That Joe would betray the voters of Connecticut (guessing that the public option is popular there) is hardly surprising.  That the Democrats will probably flail and then fail will also be expected.

Are there any prominent Democratic politicians in the state that can run the next time Lieberman's seat is up?

Girls, Girls, Girls [updated]

Interesting debate amongst women about whether there is progress or back-sliding on the status of women in the US. The timing of this article was particularly apt for me as I had given one of my female students some friendly teasing yesterday for referring to an adult women as a girl. I informed her that I was educated at Oberlin long ago that women are women and girls are girls, that she would not use boy to describe a man. Her comeback is that adult males are guys and that the parallel term to guy is girl. Um. Okay.

Of course, I just complained that people focused on the gender composition of Obama's basketball games were over-reacting. So, does any of this symbolic stuff matter a great deal?

As prospect theorists would argue, it really depends on your basis of comparison. In a conversation with my daughter about Mad Men, she was surprised to hear that date rape was not really a crime back in the early 1960's (I am skeptical of the view of divorce laws presented in the latest episode, but the legal status of women was atrocious until fairly recently). Similarly, the roles of girls and boys in schools have been significantly reversed, where there is now a "crisis" since boys are falling farther and farther behind.

In terms of political science, there has also been a sea change. When I started out, nearly all of the young women at the conferences were the book reps, not advanced grad students or junior profs. Not anymore. Indeed, my speaker series this fall accidentally became quite female-dominated, as I was choosing speakers based on who was doing interesting work, especially in International Security. Of course, there is still a lag, as there are far fewer women at the higher ranks, and the rumor blogs tend to blame affirmative action when women get interviews and get hired, rather than the quality of their work. Indeed, as the Salon piece indicates, the internet allows the worst form of sexist rants to proliferate.

So, is the glass half-full or half-empty? Again, it depends on the basis of comparison, but, at least in my profession, women are better off now they they were when I started in the early 1990s.

[update]  See here for latest stats on women in the workplace.

Shoot Last? Perhaps Not Anymore

For a brief glimpse of what Dave and I have been studying the past couple of years, see this piece in the NY Times (yes, I said it was dead, but occasionally they do decent work). The article focuses on the Germans, although other NATO nations have similar constraints (I am thinking of Italy, but Spain and others as well).

Driven by necessity, some of the 4,250 German soldiers here, the third-largest number of troops in the NATO contingent, have already come a long way. “They shoot at us and we shoot back,” said Staff Sgt. Erik S., who, according to German military rules, could not be fully identified. “People are going to fall on both sides. It’s as simple as that. It’s war.” The sergeant added, “The word ‘war’ is growing louder in society, and the politicians can’t keep it secret anymore.”

Indeed, German politicians have refused to utter the word, trying instead to portray the mission in Afghanistan as a mix of peacekeeping and reconstruction in support of the Afghan government. But their line has grown less tenable as the insurgency has expanded rapidly in the west and north of the country, where Germany leads the regional command and provides a majority of the troops.
Some of the restrictions upon the Germans include:

Germany’s military actions are controlled by a parliamentary mandate, which is up for renewal in December. The German contingent has unarmed drones and Tornado fighter jets, which are restricted to reconnaissance and are not allowed to conduct offensive operations.

German soldiers usually stay in Afghanistan for just four months, which can make it difficult to maintain continuity with their Afghan partners. The mandate also caps the number of troops in the country at 4,500.

To be clear, as our work has found, not all of the restrictions come from the Bundestag. The German legislature's mandates focus on the size of the force (aka force cap), where it can operate (Regional Command-North--the Northeastern sector) unless the Minister of Defense consents to a short redeployment, and limits upon the use of Tornados. BUT other limits, such as the short rotations, the rules of under what conditions a German soldier can fire, and the like are made within the Ministry of Defense, as far as we can tell.

Of course, this example shows a risky element to our current project--that we are studying a moving target--the thing we are studying is changing as we study it. Makes for a fun time. We hope to finish the book by the end of the summer 2010.

NFL Followup

The National Football League has taken the problem of concussions seriously, by promising to complete a study that will almost certainly downplay the problem. By seriously, I mean, of course, covering it up. Thus far, its on-going study has few fans outside of the NFL.
Every independent expert in epidemiology and neurology contacted by The New York Times cited at least one of the following issues: that the study’s paucity of subjects will leave it unable to find any statistically significant difference in dementia rates; that a study financed by the N.F.L. and run by its committee doctors cannot be considered trustworthy; and that Dr. Ira Casson, the league’s primary voice in discrediting all outside evidence, should not personally be conducting all of the neurological examinations.

“The design suffers from a total lack of statistical power to detect an effect if one truly exists,” Borenstein said.

So, I wonder what the odds in Vegas are of the NFL convincing people that Gladwell was wrong.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Another Rite Destroyed

Check out this piece on apple picking. Turns out that apple-picking is a scam, keeping alive inefficient orchards by over-charging, etc.

But these trees are hardly natural. They aren't the sort of majestic, voluptuous apple trees you would have found in the Garden of Eden. They're dwarf apple trees, stumpy bushes engineered so that their fruit grows just a few feet off the ground. They're the veal calves of the fruit world.
So, we end up over-buying, getting too many apples, many that we will have to throw out.

This piece might be just a tad more cynical than necessary, as part of the price being paid is for the fun of picking. The kids enjoy being pulled around on a hay wagon and get to run around an orchard. I guess the question is whether the various fuels and other inputs are doing damage to the Earth. Otherwise, what's the harm?

If you thought comparing apples to oranges was a fruitless endeavor, try comparing apples to apples.
Here is the proof that this guy does not know what he is talking about. My students know only too well that one can compare apples to oranges.

Numbers Bad!

It turns out that facts can be quite inconvenient. Quantitative analysis has found its way into military history, potentially exploding key nationalist myths. Damn those truth-seekers!


Salon has a piece pondering the desire folks have for attention, building on the recent balloon boy hoax.
But attention doesn’t just represent the filling of a hole in our love-starved hearts. It’s money.
I just thought to mention this before I appear on CTV Montreal on their noon news program again to talk more about Afghanistan. I know I am a media whore. Glad to know I am not alone!

I should ponder the responsibilities of academics who appear on TV, radio and elsewhere as "experts." Perhaps later.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

NATO's Biggest Fan? Not so Much

I spent much of the non-driving time this weekend reading General (ret.) Rick Hillier's autobiography. I am about 2/3's of the way through, just at the start of his time as Commander of ISAF in Afghanistan in 2004. His reputation for being outspoken is well deserved in this book. Hillier was not a fan of the United Nations in the Balkans in the early 90's and has a pretty harsh view of NATO in Afghanistan.

He asserts that NATO had no strategy when he took command of ISAF, which is pretty problematic. To exacerbate things, his immediate boss was German General Gerhard Back, who Hillier suggests was a micromanager:

"He told me it was his job to ensure I knew how to obey orders, and I told him that as soon as I received some intelligent ones, I would."
Oh my! I am eager to get to the part of the book where he recounts his days as head of the Canadian Forces.

The Death of the NY Times

We are gathered here to mourn the death of the Gray Lady--the NY Times. It used to be one of the finest newspapers in the world. The poor lass was gravely wounded by the Iraq war, when one of its reporters, Judith Miller, became a flack for the Bush Administration.

Dr. Peter Baker did his best to heal the patient with his keen insights and dogged determination. But alas, it was for naught. With its reputation in tatters, the paper now resorts to highlighting articles that focus on the folks who play golf or basketball with President Obama, suggesting a boys club inside the White House.

Where was the Times when various Bush officials held prayers before all kinds of meetings? The Times duly notes that the females in the White House do not really seem to care that much about being left off the tee. So, is there a story here? Perhaps the Times needs to watch Jon Stewart to figure out which sotries are worth covering.

Obama is certainly not perfect, and has been slow to follow through on some stuff, but has he developed policies that are harmful to women? Are his opponents promoting policies that hurt women? How about a little more focus on the stuff that he does that actually matters?

Bill Simmons, a.k.a. the Sports Guy, has railed against newspapers, arguing that their downfall was not the advent of the internet but how they reacted to it--focusing more on immediacy and less on quality of writing and reporting. This kind of story, much ado about nothing, may be another strategy--not so much being the first with an under-sourced story but presenting non-stories as something worth printing. "All the News Fit to Print" indeed!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tower of Babel--Divisions and Conflict

First, if you are sensitive about religion, read no further today. This post is about my reactions to the text of a Bat Mitzvah reading today.

Ok, my niece had her big moment today, and, in the services each week, a portion of the Torah (the bible) is read, and it rotates throughout the year so that the entire book is read. This week's passages had to do with Noah, the flood and the tower of Babel. Having avoiding temples/synagogues since my own Bar Mitzvah, with the except of the events of my various family members, I had forgotten about this story.

So, I was quite struck not just with the tale but with the context today. The tale is that humans were cooperating so well but with so much hubris to build a tower that would reach the heavens that God made them speak different languages and scattered them around the globe. So, of course, my first reaction is: this is the biblical explanation for ethnic conflict, nationalism and war!

Then the first Rabbi had a short sermon where he focused on a set of events today to raise awareness about global warming. This was ironic, to me anyway, since any effort to combat global warming will require significant international cooperation--which, of course, is made much more difficult by the divisions amongst humanity, apparently created by God.

The second and more senior Rabbi followed this up with a tale about a doctor working in Gaza, and, once again, it seemed, if one follows the Tower of Babel story, that this too was the result the division of humanity along language (and other) cleavages.

As a result of my background (educational, that is), I cannot help but see these ironies and contradictions. Good thing they didn't let me speak at the service.

Theme of the Day: Flashing Back

Bob Dole has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, again causing me to think about the past. Dole appropriately questions Europe's ability to do any heavy lifting, having failed bigtime at its first opportunity in 1991-95.
Speaking for the European Community, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos famously declared, "The hour of Europe has dawned." Unfortunately, that was an hour of passivity and noninterventionism, and it turned into years of carnage and the worst European genocide since World War II. The slaughter ended only when the U.S. led a NATO military campaign to halt the violence.
Of course, that is a bit unfair since it is unlikely that the US could have done much to prevent the war either.

Still, the op-ed seems to be mostly on target (although I have not been following events in Bosnia closely these days), that the changes that the EU and US are recommending to the Dayton Accords seem to be exactly the wrong ones. Weakening the Serbian entity (the RS as we called it) is the right way to go, not empowering it.

Thanks to Bob Dole, I am resolved to re-focus a bit and see what is going on in Bosnia while we have all been looking elsewhere. I don't often agree with Dole, and was not a big fan when he was a Senator, but he does demonstrate what a loyal opposition can do when it is not captured by the wingnuts of ruthless opposition.

NAC DM: Flashing Back

The acceptance by NATO defense ministers of General McChrystal’s approach did not include a decision on new troops, and it was not clear that their judgment would translate into increased willingness by their governments, many of which have been seeking to reduce their military presence in Afghanistan, to contribute further forces to the war (NYT)
Caveats meet Steve's past. One of my memories from my year on the Joint Staff was prepping for the bi-annual meetings of the NATO Defense Ministers aka NAC DM. Most (all?) of the work was in the prep as the meetings usually were events to announce decisions long in the works. This year is a bit different in that Gen. McChrystal came to brief the defense ministers. BUT these meetings are usually used, like conferences by professors, to set artificial deadlines to create momentum to get stuff done. This particular NAC DM is constrained because Obama has not finished his review nor made his decision.

And on the whole "Obama dithers" debate, given that the military outcome rests on the governance side, it makes sense both to see what happens in the election in Afghanistan before making a decision AND using that decision as leverage to get Karzai to play by the rules.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ask the Reader: Commenting about Comments

Just a quick observation. The commenting on my blog seems to focus mostly on the pop culture type stuff and not the IR stuff--what should I make of that?

Mall Comparisons and Early Reading Responses

Blogging is going to be lite as I am on the road this weekend for a family event in Providence.

Was amused to see my daughter so utterly surprised to see almost no hockey stuff at the sporting goods store in Providence. Montreal has trained her to expect heaps more of that stuff. I am relieved to be out of the early hockey season, if only briefly.

On the way down, I alternated between two books--Gladwell's book of essays and General (ret.) Rick Hillier's autobiography. The former starts with an essay on gadget pitchmen, especially Ron of Ron. Typical Gladwell--fascinating but still confused about the larger message. Other than the product is the star. For the latter, I have gotten as far into Hillier's career as the late 1990's--between his two missions to Bosnia. The book reads well, and he does not hide his views of the state of the Canadian Forces or the quality of leadership he observed. This is good news for the Steve and Dave project, as we made a bunch of assertions about his views based on one interview that lasted an hour and based on others' views of him.

But as I remember from the interview, Hillier is blunt about what he wants to be blunt about, but discrete about that which he wants to be discrete. So, "outspoken" within limits. Still, some fun reading on the New England roads.

and for views on Canada far more obnoxious than my own, catch up with How I Met Your Mother--one of the leads, Robin, is perhaps the most visibly out-of-the-closet Canadian characters on recent TV. Many digs at Canadians ordinarily but a very CA-specific episode, partly based at a Tim Horton's this week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Most Typicially Appropriate Inappropriate Campaign Strategy

At the very least, it's a book that you can stick next to your toilet, read 5 pages at a time and finish five months from now. It will be the best five months of dumping you've ever had. Your colon is going to love this book. Bill Simmons, ESPN Sports Guy, publicizing his book

I am not a huge basketball fan, but I am a big Sports Guy fan, which has certainly influenced how I blog. So, I will get this book and read it quickly, colon or no colon health care program. You should, too.

Oh, and Bill was a poli sci major, so Tom Coburn is wrong again, but for a more indirect reason.

All Politics is Local

Marc Lynch has a post considering a possible divide between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, citing a post at Jihadica by Vahid Brown. Marc compares the situation to the web debate between Iraqi factions that served as a preview to the Awakening. As a non-scholar of Islam but as a scholar of nationalism, I think the division is between nationalists who care about the situation within their country and those who have a bigger ambition--a caliphate or Islamic entity covering the entirely of the Islamic world, give or take.

This should not be terribly surprising as Pan Arabism failed precisely because folks within countries cared more about their plight than about their larger shared identity group, something that Marc and I discussed in a volume he edited with Shibley Telhami.

And this theme appears again, coincidentally, in Kin or Country: that most people have a stronger affinity within those in their own country--they have shared experiences that give shared meaning to their identities. Folks elsewhere may follow the same religion or speak the same language or whatever, but they are not as much "us" as many (although not necessarily all) of those who reside in the same country. This is a poor basis for irredentism in our cases, and is a likely point of contention between those focused on a global struggle and those focused on the challenges at home.

The lesson, as always, is not just that all politics is local, but that identity is complex, with many meanings attached, so that just because some folks have the same label does not mean they see the world the same way.

Better than Cats

Avenue Q is back. I do not have to say anything else!

Does Size Matter?

In the discussions about the possible enlargement of the US effort in Afghanistan, there has been much talk about whether the "xenophobic Afghans" will be upset by the increased American/foreign presence.

Kristof raises the issue of Pashtun nationalism:
When Pakistani troops enter Pashtun areas, the result has sometimes been a backlash that helps extremists. If Pashtuns react that way to Punjabis, why do we think they will react better to Texans?
Actually, it can go either way. Punjabis are part of a longer history of conflict with Pashtuns and are likely to stick around for the long term, so Pashtuns might mind them more than Texans, who are temporary and not carrying historical baggage. Nationalism does turn on us and them, but who is the most relevant and hated them is not always so obvious (see Kin and Country).

Moreover, it is not so much the size of the force, but how it is used. A larger force on the ground might actually mean less collateral damage as there would be more intel, more capability to target more precisely, less reliance on drones, etc. And Kristof is not really disagreeing with McChrystal by arguing for a greater focus on the cities. The problem is that securing the big cities (such as they are) might require more troops, rather than less. This is a typical confusion between numbers and strategy/tactics. You can change either or both. McChrystal proposes both, and that the greater numbers will facilitate the new strategy.

I am increasingly of the mind that the stakes are sufficiently high that we ought to give the new strategy a chance--failure is an option, just not a desirable one. In the grand scheme of things, the costs of additional troops is not huge (Kristof suggests what the money would buy in the US, but we can dream), compared to the on-going and past investments. This is, admittedly, approaching a sunk costs argument. But I think an increase here while downsizing in Iraq and seeing how things work is a pragmatic approach. Obama needs to make clear that McChystral cannot keep asking for more troops every six or twelve months.

For a pro-surge argument, see Boot in the same NYT:

The key to success in Nawa — and in other key districts from Garmsir in the south to Baraki Barak in the center — has been the infusion of additional United States troops. The overall American force in Afghanistan has grown to 68,000 from 32,000 in 2008. That has made it possible to garrison parts of the country where few if any soldiers had been stationed before. Before the Marines arrived in Nawa, for instance, there were just 40 embattled British soldiers there. The chronic troop shortfall made it impossible to carry out the kind of population-centric counterinsurgency strategy that has paid off in countries from Malaya to Iraq.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Coalition or Runoff

I was asked today whether the international community should favor a coalition or a runoff in Afghanistan. I had not expect that question, but as I started blathering, I realized that it really depends on how the outside world wants to place its bets: on individuals or institutions? If it is just about individuals, then a coalition would be welcome as it would end the uncertainty of who governs. And you might expect that it would increase the number of folks who would be behind the government--Karzai's Pashtuns and Abdullah's Tajiks. Woo hoo.

But then again, it means that elections are not really that important, that they would have to come up with new rules/norms that would include Abdullah since there are not (at least to my limited understanding) powers that would go to a "coalition partner." This is a presidential system, so I am not sure that there is much room for power-sharing. So, a coalition would probably undermine existing institutions as the politicians would have to come up with new procedures on the fly.

Elections are ugly, but I can only imagine how ugly a coalition would be.

What Does America Stand for?

Below is an amazing bit of video on equality of gays and lesbians.


Too Clever for Their Own Good?

In retrospect, I have come to see this as the moment I realized economics had a cleverness problem. How was it that these students, who had arrived at the country's premier economics department intending to solve the world's most intractable problems--poverty, inequality, unemployment--had ended up facing off in what sometimes felt like an academic parlor game?
Noam Scheiber has kicked off a bit of a kerfuffle by attacking Freakonomics a la Steven Levitt (Levitt's response is here). The question is: "What if, somewhere along the road from Angrist to Levitt to Levitt's growing list of imitators, all the cleverness has crowded out some of the truly deep questions we rely on economists to answer?"

When I raise this issue with Levitt, he is almost apologetic: "There needs to be a core for work on the periphery to make any sense. I don’t think we would want to have a whole profession with dilettantes like me out doing what I do." But, in nearly the same breath, he adds: "The simple fact is that it's hard to do good research. ... To the extent that you can do interesting research that teaches us something about the world, and entertains along the way, that's not so bad."
I don't know much about current economic research, but some have suggested that this is also a problem for political science. Certainly, an obsession with tools (quantitative or formal modeling) was a problem a decade ago, but I would hazard a guess that this is not so much a problem today.

What kind of data can we use to assess what is valued in Political Science? I would suggest that we take a look at what kinds of work have played well on the job market to discern that which is valued by the discipline. I don't follow the American or Theory fields, but it seems to be the case that the kind of work that has tended attract lots of interest in IR/Comparative (again, my knowledge of the job market is anecdotal rather than systematic) has been work that has been asking important questions and executing systematic research designs, using whatever methods that may be appropriate.

There has been an increased interest in the quasi-experiments highlighted in the Sheiber/Levitt exchange, so that a person who is able to draw up the monitoring scheme for a national election and then use that as part of her work is likely to do well on the job market (Susan Hyde, a UCSD product and now at Yale). But the question of how to properly monitor elections is not an irrelevant question, but an important one for policy and for developing democratic institutions.

As I discussed the other day, Political Science is an incredibly big tent with all kinds of work getting attention from big questions to small. The only real trend I have detected is that the current generation of young scholars are being asked to be far more careful about figuring out how to do their research and they are engaging in far more work to get to their conclusions--researching in multiple countries, interviewing heaps of dangerous folks, etc.

While I often rue coming out on the job market during a recession (1992-93) and other bits of bad timing, I have to say I am glad I don't have to compete with this generation--they are better trained in multi-methods, they have incredibly ambitious projects, and are executing them quite well. And supervising them is, well, a challenge as well.

With Great Power....

Comes Great Responsibility, as noted Political Theorist Ben Parker asserted in his conversation with Peter Parker. This is relevant today as it always, and especially in Afghanistan. The NY Times piece indicates that the administration pushed Karzai very hard and from many angles to get him to respect the election commission's decision.

There is a delicate balance here, as making Karzai seem like a US stooge would be bad for him, for the US and for Afghanistan. But Karzai's instincts do not seem to run towards institutionalizing the rule of law and other such behavior that is necessary for COIN success. So, careful persuasion is required: Senator Kerry, not Holbrooke; Gates and Jones calling the Afghan Defense Minister and making it clear that American reinforcements are dependent on this decision, etc.

So, what happens next? My guess is that Karzai wins the runoff with less obvious fraud, that there is no coalition, and that Obama goes ahead and provides McChrystal with much of what he asked for, but perhaps not all of it. But it is just a guess.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book I have Not Read but Will Read [update]

Gladwell has a new book. Well, a new book of old pieces. The review does a nice job of highlighting Gladwell's strengths. Gladwell is great at juxtapositions, at developing puzzles that draw the reader in. Sometimes, his conclusions are banal, but he presents heaps of interesting information along the way. Tipping Point is a fun book for presenting lots of social science to a wider audience, but realy only tells that things spread depending on the idea, the context and messenger. Blink tells us that our first intuition is often but not always right. Outliers tells us that success depends on timing, hard work, and talent. None of this is really that pathbreaking, but the fun is in the journey from the puzzle to his proposed answers.

The key, I think, is that he makes the reader think, even if he does not persuade the reader that there is a single answer to the puzzle.

Update: It was at Costco today, so it is now third on my reading list behind a John Sandford novel I have almost finished and the autobio of Rick Hillier (former head of the CA armed forces).

Getting It Partly Right: Cohen on Afghanistan

Roger Cohen has a mostly good post this morning, arguing that the real issue is not so much the size of the American force in Afghanistan but the duration--that the US needs to be in Afghanistan for many more years to come. Absolutely. Cohen's complaints about Obama taking his time on this decision, on the other hand, are less useful or instructive.

Again, it comes down to the Afghan government. Even with this morning's news that Karzai might respect the election commission's finding of significant fraud, we will be stuck with Karzai for a good deal longer. How should we deal with this?
We have to tell Karzai, here’s a contract and either your signature is on it or your brains will be,” a British general told me. I’d say that’s about the right tone.
Ironic, coming from a country that has made some pretty bad deals with Shia in Iraq and Taliban in Afghanistan. And, of course, hard to make such a threat credible.

Politics Yes, Science No.

Check out this list of hottest heads of state. I would say that Putin is over-rated just a tad, but I am not an expert. I would say the Malaysian leader is under-rated, for his headwear alone. The young starlets of Italy would disagree with Berlusconi at 65. Assad of Syria should be lower than 106--he is nearly as scary-looking as Sarah Jessica Parker. Merkel of Germany should certainly be higher than 109--definitely not less hot than Assad. And for headwear, got to like the Thai King despite his ranking at 144. I do like the only guy in a tux is the head of Monaco.

I wonder if the NSF would fund a study to rank the hotness of leaders and then see what that correlates with. There might be some bias in this particular list with the Pope and Kim Jong-il finishing at the bottom and Mugabe and Raul Castro finishing 168, 169 out of 172.

What say the readers?

NSF, Coburn and Poli Sci continued (updated)

The New York Times has a short piece looking at Political Science and its internal debate about its relevance. Having such a debate should not be seen as evidence that Poli Sci is not relevant, but rather it takes the issue of relevance seriously. I do like Arthur (Skip) Lupia's best quote:
After the fall of Communism, “when Eastern European governments were writing their constitutions, I can guarantee you they weren’t calling George Stephanopoulos,” Mr. Lupia said.
Aside from Skip's ill-fated loyalty to the Buffalo Bills, he is, as always, on target here. Not just Eastern Europe, but also South Africa and the rest of the late democratizers called upon the expertise of political scientists, including UCSD's Arend Lijphart, to help advise them as they wrote their constitutions.

Political Science does have lots of conflict within about what is good and appropriate work, how much should our stuff speak directly to policy, how do we know what we know, etc. These debates are healthy, as they force us to consider our assumptions and improve our arguments. To use such debates to say that Poli Sci is irrelevant is just as ill-informed to use debates within biology about the theories of evolution to deny the fact that there has been evolution.

As another Lupia quote in the NY piece suggests, our work is complicated by the fact that our subjects "can argue back." Not only that, but they know they are being observed so they may disguise their motives. Rats in a maze will not do that much.

Perhaps Coburn is doing us a favor by making us justify our existence. He is unlikely to win the day in the Senate although his hectoring about the tiniest portion of federal spending may win a few votes back home. Of course, those folks back home, if properly educated by political scientists, can see this for what it is--pandering to the ignorant and not a sincere effort to fight deficits.

[update: see Drezner for his take]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Best Canadian Commercial!

Check this out:

Runoff or Run Away?

The election panel has ruled that enough fraud occurred so that Afghanistan needs to hold a run-off. Ah, but will that actually happen? Karzai has been undermining the panel and accusing the international community of trying to subvert his rule. So, we are at a pivotal point--in democratizing systems, the key question is--will institutions bind behavior? If Karzai agrees to a runoff, then we can have a bit more confidence in the strength of Afghan institutions. But if he does not, then we will know that institutions do not bind behavior.

The fun thing about this is that his decision will be both cause and effect. That is, his actions will be determined by his sense of the institutions--is he bound by these laws and those who implement them? And his actions will determine the future of these institutions. George Washington could have been re-elected over and over, but he chose to step down. It took about 150 years for another President to violate that institutionalized behavior and a very short period for the institutions to hit back with term limits. If Karzai ignores the panel, then not only will we know that institutions did not bind his behavior but they are not going to bind others either.

Plugging Latest Work

I wrote a piece for the University of Ottawa's Centre for International Policy Studies on the Future of NATO Peacekeeping. CIPS is perhaps the most "happening" IR research center in Canada, so I was proud to be asked to do this. Also, it was part of the deal for my trip to London last summer.

Anyhow, take a look--I essentially argue that because of the sour experiences with caveats (national restrictions on units deployed to Afghanistan) and the values gap between Afghanistan and the NATO countries, it is unlikely that NATO will engage in another peace operation in the near to medium future.

Funding Civil War continued

I blogged last month about the myriad ways in which a group of rebels could fund themselves. Today, the NY Times agrees. Given the performance of the "gray lady" lately, I am not so sure I am in great company
The Taliban in Afghanistan are running a sophisticated financial network to pay for their insurgent operations, raising hundreds of millions of dollars from the illicit drug trade, kidnappings, extortion and foreign donations that American officials say they are struggling to cut off.
And, of course, the Taliban needs less cash to operate than the Afghan government.
“Their operations are so inexpensive that they can be continued indefinitely even with locally generated resources such as small businesses and donations,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service and a former analyst of the region at the C.I.A.
Indeed, one of the really difficult tricks of building a self-sustaining Afghan government is the funding. Afghanistan can only export so many pomegranates. But before we think about funding the Afghan government, we need to have one. One that matters in much of the country and is not just seen as yet another band of chicken stealers (reference to the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles).
And American officials are debating whether cracking down on the drug trade will anger farmers dependent on it for their livelihood
I don't think that is the question. The question is whether the anger is too destructive to the rest of the effort, because the anger will happen with any anti-drug effort.

I was asked an interesting question last night after ultimate by my captain: what happens if the electoral commission in Afghanistan says that a runoff is required? Karzai is busy delegitimating the panel and the international community, so it is not clear he would go along. So, my response to my captain was--good question.

Quote of the piece:
American officials say they are working closely with the Afghan government to dry up the Taliban financing, but as one senior American military officer in Afghanistan put it last week, “I won’t overstate the progress.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

We are all Michael Vick [updated]

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece last week that has quickly gained much notice--that football players are ravaged by the game, that we know that (more or less) and watch anyway. What makes us different from those who watch and wager on dog-fighting? Gladwell makes the comparison quite explicit. The article focuses on the brain damage caused by lots of collisions:

chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), which is a progressive neurological disorder found in people who have suffered some kind of brain trauma. C.T.E. has many of the same manifestations as Alzheimer’s: it begins with behavioral and personality changes, followed by disinhibition and irritability, before moving on to dementia. And C.T.E. appears later in life as well, because it takes a long time for the initial trauma to give rise to nerve-cell breakdown and death. But C.T.E. isn’t the result of an endogenous disease. It’s the result of injury.
The article documents how much higher the rate at which ex-football players have dementia-like symptoms, especially on those younger than fifty.
At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt. Something like stock-car racing, by contrast, is dangerous, but not unavoidably so.
Yes, but actually, what makes dogfighting so repulsive is not just that violence and injury are inherent in the sport, but that victory is out-injuring the other side. In football, injuries affect the game, but are not the game. It is not quite Deathrace 2000. Sure, we find ourselves somewhat happy when the other side loses a player so that our team's chances of winning are increased, but we are not rooting for the injury itself. Of course, the past ten years or so have seen a greater fetish for big hits, replayed by EPSN and simulated in videogames, and that should raise questions. I am not saying that the comparison is not a good one, just that the analogy has some limits.

This is not the first time, of course, that this has come up. Teddy Roosevelt got involved at the turn of the century. One doctor at the time referred to college football as: A professor at the University of Chicago called it a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” And that statement is still pretty accurate.
What if you did everything you could, and banned kickoffs and full-contact practices and used the most state-of-the-art techniques for diagnosing and treating concussion, and behaved as responsibly as Nascar has in the past several years—and players were still getting too many dangerous little hits to the head?
What can we do?
There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else—neither considerations of science nor those of morality—can compete with the destructive power of that love.
Well, that might be an overstatement. A writer who spent a short time on a football team has a variety of recommendations that would improve things a bit, giving the players a few more rights and making the doctors more independent from the team. Another piece in the NY Times focuses on the problem of repeated head injuries that are short of concussions, arguing that teams might want to reduce the intensity of practices--that practices would not have tackling.

So, we can improve the medicine, we can reduce the intensity of practices, we can change the game (as they did in the early 1900s) by eliminating kickoffs (the league did away with the wedge strategy during kickoffs before this season). Fundamentally, we can take better care of the players. Gladwell talks about how Vick's former dogs are being cared for, but what he surprisingly overlooks is the current scandal that is the NFL's retirement package. As we approach the next contract/work stoppage, one of the issues may well be how well do the players get taken care of after they leave the league. There have been plenty of stories of retired players living and dying in poverty.

Given that so many people make so much money on such a damaging sport, it should not be that hard to take care of those who play the game. Eliminating the game or fundamentally altering is not going to happen, but we could do a better job of taking care of those who pay the price of our Sundays and Monday nights.

No small irony that I write this on a Sunday morning with plans to watch a game or two this afternoon.

[Update] New article on CTE afflicting those who only played in high school or college:
The focus of the discussion of brain-trauma issue has been on the N.F.L. — it really needs to be on youth players,” Nowinski said. “Ninety-nine percent of football players in this country are college and below. They’re not being paid. They don’t have as good access to medical people. And the fact that they’re at risk for this disease should give us great pause.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Snarky Line of the Week

[Referring to Beck's opposition to Swine Flu vaccination] With this latest misinformation campaign, Fox stands to become the first network to actively try to kill its viewers.
Slate has a piece talking about the Obama Adminstration's pronouncement that Fox is essentially an agent of the Republican Party. Which actually could be considered the most obvious statement of the month. Fair and Balanced? Well, Franken had a great deal of fun with that in his book, and, ironically, has now become one of the best performing Senators, asking good questions of Sotomayor, talking about health care at a country fair, and so on.

Anyway, I guess one is not supposed to say such things, but yes, Fox is entirely biased and worthy of a heaping spoonful of contempt.

Afghanistan Review continued

Max Boot, one of the military experts at the Council on Foreign Relations, has a judicious assessment (although he gives too much credit to the Kagans) of McChrystal's review, the basis for the current policy debate. His critique of Counter-terrorism only is particularly persuasive:

What we have tried is the other strategy, the counterterrorism strategy, and it has been found wanting. This should not come as a surprise, because it is hard to point to any place where pure CT has defeated a determined terrorist or guerrilla group. This is the strategy that Israel has used against Hamas and Hezbollah. The result is that Hamas controls Gaza, and -Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It is the strategy that the U.S. has employed in Somalia since our forces pulled out in 1994. The result is that the country is utterly chaotic and lawless, and an Islamic fundamentalist group called the Shabab, which has close links to al-Qaeda, is gaining strength. Most pertinently, it is also the strategy the U.S. has used for years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The result is that the Taliban control the tribal areas of Pakistan and are extending their influence across large swathes of Afghanistan.
And he cites political scientists, Andrew Enterline and Joseph Magagnoli, who have found that population-centric approaches to counter-insurgency work two-thirds of the time. I do not buy all of Boot's assertions, but it is a very reasoned and reasonable analysis of McChrystal's review and of the situation as it stands now.

Life Imitating Blog: Limits to my Narcissism

I have found over the past few days referring to my blog in conversation: as in, well, I discussed x or y in my blog. But this really does not push forward the conversation, as my fellow conversers are not necessarily readers. My readership, if truth be told, varies from 40-70 on a given day, so it is far more likely that the folks with whom I am talking have not read my blog. So, perhaps I should not refer to it in conversation as if it were the NY Times or the Daily Show.

Wither the 'Stache? Good or Bad Pop Sociology

Hat tip to the bearded Jacob Levy to this piece on the decline of the mustache.

The mustache survived Hitler. It could not survive porn, disco, or Magnum P.I.
The article is interesting, but has so many wild assertions that it is hard to buy the premise--that American males are no longer man enough to rock a mustache.
This is, sadly, our loss. Without the mustache, we’ve lost a whole language of facial hair - the sleek pencil mustache, the villainous curl. An entire universe of mustaches is now relegated to contests and annual conventions. It may not be too late to reclaim this legacy, though. What the mustache needs isn’t another pretender. What the mustache needs - no, what the mustache demands - is a hero.
Every few years, I shave off my beard, mostly to shock and awe those who have never seen me beardless. And also to drop about ten to fifteen years in my appearance. In the process, I do toy with a mustache for a few minutes before the rest of the fuzz goes down the sink. I don't stick with the mustache for a couple of reasons: a) I go bearded because I hate to shave, so a mustache does not really address that problem--shaving would still take place; b) mustaches require more careful upkeep since it can be come asymmetrical; and c) yes, I think I look cheesy with a mustache.

It has little to do with disco or Tom Selleck and more to do with the way it looks on me. Of course, I am generalizing from my experience. But then again, it's my blog.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Schadenfreude and Pakistan

Pakistan is facing an escalating, coordinated string of attacks. It is, of course, wrong, but I cannot help but feel a twinge of Schadenfreude (nicely explained below by Avenue Q in a marginal video--download the song via Itunes). Why? Because the groups attacking Pakistan now have received significant support from Pakistan in the past--to fight against India so that Kashmir could be unified under Pakistani rule, to fight against the Afghan government (the Taliban), and to fight against everybody else (Al Qaeda).

The [Pakistani] government has tolerated the Punjabi groups, including Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, for years, and many Pakistanis consider them allies in just causes, including fighting India, the United States and Shiite Muslims. But they have become entwined with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and have increasingly turned on the state.
So now, Pakistan is reaping what it has sowed. The US is no stranger to this kind of blowback, so I am probably a bit of a hypocrite.

Obviously, Pakistan becoming a failed state is not a good thing for the neighborhood or the world, so taking delight in its current troubles is wrong. And, of course, the folks paying the price are mostly those who had little influence over the policies. One of my frustrations with the US invasion of Iraq was that it made the US and NATO far more dependent on Pakistan as the focus shifted from Afghanistan when the real threat to international peace and stability has long been Pakistan.

Once again, there are no easy solutions, as Pakistan must fight its domestic opponents and must develop far better control over its own agents, such as the ISI. Its counter-insurgency effort may have created far more insurgents than it killed, but tolerating or appeasing the Taliban in Pakistan was a bad idea. External assistance to Pakistan may not actually help the situation, as it may be diverted to the conventional forces confronting India or to repressing domestic political opponents (one of my newer students is asking questions about aid and repression).

Perhaps Coburn is right--ignorance might be bliss. Perhaps if we ignore Pakistan, it will go away. Or not.

Danger: Truth Ahead

Christian Davenport and Allan Stam have been researching the course of violence in Rwanda in 1994. The linked piece tells the tale of their project--how it started, where it led them, and what they found. To summarize, they sought to understand who got killed and where, but that produced many puzzles, including the reality that many more Rwandans died in those 100 days than the number of Tutsis (the target of the genocide) counted in the most recent census. This meant that, in addition to the genocide, there was much political violence that had also taken place, causing as much or more death and destruction.

So, Davenport and Stam became quickly labeled as genocide-deniers because they could, well, do simple math. But their project became far more than that, as the piece indicates--a dogged and potentially dangerous search for any kind of data to tell them who was where when and what happened. They ultimately found that violence occurred in three places--where the Hutu government/extremists held control (FAR, Interahamwe), where the invading Tutsi army (RPF, which now serves as the government of Rwanda) were expanding their control, and where these forces met. It turns out that while the genocidaires committed more of the violence, killing Hutus and Tutsis, the RPF did a significant share of the killing. No wonder that the current government of Rwanda, led by Paul Kagame, has been trying to repress this research once it figured out that the scholars actually had heaps of integrity, skills, and determination.

I have followed this research for a quite a while since I know Christian and have met Allan once or twice. It has been a fascinating tale told over beers at a series of conferences. Read the linked piece and then go to [I seem to having problems with the quicktime graphics today, but has worked in the past] There is a heap of information there, including graphics that show where the violence occurred and who controlled the land under which the violence took place. I kept asking Christian about what happened in the areas controlled by the French interveners---and now you can see for yourself.

And by the way, some of this research was, indeed, funded by the National Science Foundation. I wonder if Senator Tom Coburn has checked out this project when he considered Political Science unworthy of funding. This project alone undermines Coburn's assertions.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Messing Up the One Good Thing

The Republicans in the House of Representatives now want to investigate the influence of the Council on American Islamic Relations. One of the best things Bush did in the aftermath of 9/11, undermined by pretty much everything else he did, was to define the Muslims in the US as not a fifth column but as Americans with whom we can work to fight the terrorists. And now the Republicans, searching desperately for an issue, are trying to alienate this key minority. I guess this is partly fair treatment, since the GOP has alienated African-Americans and Latinos, so Muslims might just be next in line.

But seriously, I have already found the Quebec treatment of Muslims to be counter-productive--keeping girls off the soccer field if they wear a head scarf, one of the events that kicked off the Reasonable Accommodation debate, was stupid enough. But, to pick on a key lobbying group of a threatened minority seems to be a bad idea. Yes, there are some Islamic charities that might be fronts for terrorist groups, but CAIR is not one of them, and Muslim Americans should be discriminated against in their pursuit of employment or political access.

Let's bring back the House Un-American Activities Committee--not to persecute the Muslims, but to consider the efforts to undermine American values, including rule of law, due process, and equality under the law.

Those Wacky Italian Prime Ministers!

In my series of posts on wacky leaders, the next entry is Berlusconi. Slate has a good piece explaining why folks continue to vote for him despite (because of?) his corruption, his reputed orgies, his failed promises, etc.

While the lack of an alternative is one hypothesis, one of the keys seems to be media dominance that makes Fox look like a yapping chihuahua:

Of course, Berlusconi also has at least one tool that none of the others have: popular television. He controls three mainstream channels and various digital channels because he owns them. He also effectively controls state television because he is the prime minister.
The other explanation is that he is what Italians aspire to be--newly rich, a lover, a force in soccer, etc.

Either way, he keeps things interesting, and what more could you want from an Italian Prime Minister than that? All the Canadians have now is a dispute between the Prime Minister and the Governor General about whether the latter is head of state or not. Zzzzzz.

Another Predictable Recommendation on Afghanistan

Robert Pape has an op-ed in today's NY Times, arguing that occupation causes terrorism and that has been the increased presence of foreigners that have led to the escalation of violence. His recommendation is a small footprint and an over the horizon/offshore effort.

Two problems with this argument: the basis of the argument--Pape's statistical work--has been, well, shredded; and he asserts that we could work through the locals--renting them. But why would the locals trust us if we leave?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Canada in Afghanistan

Another short follow up today. Much speculation and confusion about Canada's role in Afghanistan after it pulls out most of its troops in 2011. The latest news suggests hat the role is to be more minimal that I had expected. The CA military will train Afghans but only on protected bases. This would be the end of CA OMLTS (omletes), which would be too bad, since these are high priority efforts towards creating a competent Afghan National Army at some risk.

And the numbers the spokesman is referring to suggests that any development done in Kandahar by the Provincial Reconstruction Team is going to have to rely on American troops or those from elsewhere--not Canadians. And that would be most problematic since the PRT might not be a priority, and so the Canadian diplomats and aid types may not be able to leave the base if there are no spare Americans/others available on any given day.

So, this is looking more and more like a token Canadian flag in Kandahar but no real effort at development/governance once the troops go home despite some grand plans. While one can debate how ISAF should go forward, we ought to be clear about what will and will not be happening post-2011. Of course, it could change after the next election, but we are unlikely to see a majority government here anytime in the near future.

NSF Follow Up

See this article for the latest on the Coburn attempt to end NSF funding for political science. We are probably wasting more bandwidth on this than it deserves as Coburn is a, ahem, loon and is unlikely to win. On the other hand, complaceny rarely leads to good things.

Coburn is apparently suggesting that this is a big decific issue--$9.3 million a year or so. Which is so silly that it is hard to fathom, and then he compares it to waterboarding. Anyone doubting his loon status (as in lunatic, not the $1 canadian coin) should consider this statement:
But Coburn said that continuing to spend taxpayer money on programs that don’t deserve it will amount to the “waterboarding” of American children.

Shouldn't take long for a journalist or political scientist to find boondoggles for Oklahoma des[ote Coburn's stands on earmarks.

Hat tip to Mrs. Spew for this link.

AQ and War in Afghanistan

Here is an extended article on Al Qaeda's links to the war in Afghanistan and the implications of a US/NATO defeat. Even if half of the stuff is true, it is quite suggestive--that the links are strong, that Biden is wrong, and that we need to do more than just counter-terrorism.

Just another argument to consider. No wonder Obama is taking his time.

Trendy Day?

After the post on trends in Z movies, I got to thinking about trends in general. We tend to cluster reality according to our own messed up sorting mechanisms. So, we often see three celebrities dying in short succession because we notice the first three that catch our eye and ignore the fourth or ignore the times when only two die.

Well, in the past couple of days, I think I have noticed a trend but cannot at all be sure--the students in my Intro to IR class were far more comfortable in sharing their anxiety about the first paper, asking questions upto the last minute. Usually, I get hit hard a few days out, and then those procrastinators do not contact me much at the last minute.

Is it the case that students are bolder in their procrastination? Did I do something to make them more comfortable about their procrastination? I did mention several times in class that I was expecting them to pull an all-nighter even though they had two weeks to write the assignment? Is it because it was due shortly after Canadian Thanksgiving so they didn't start until Tuesday (due today)? Is it because the paper topic was perhaps a bit more challenging?

I have no clue. I just am realizing that trying to figure out trends probably requires numbers. Hmmm.