Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Very Social Military

Interestingly, on the non-secure internet, US Department of Defense types can do all the social networking they want.  I guess if it is good enough for the Chairman, it is good for the rest.

We Are Not the World

SNL nails it.  Thanks!  (and HT to the Sports Guy for calling it in a recent podcast with Seth Myers)

Down the Rabid Hole?

Frank Rich does a nice job of addressing the Tea Party Movement, Stack the kamikaze pilot, and flashbacks to the time just before Oklahoma City.  While I have taken comfort that the Republican Party is doing its best to be as narrowly appealing as possible, alienation is not a recipe for political stability or domestic peace.  These times are more than just interesting--they are disturbing. 
Such violent imagery and invective, once largely confined to blogs and talk radio, is now spreading among Republicans in public office or aspiring to it. Last year Michele Bachmann, the redoubtable Tea Party hero and Minnesota congresswoman, set the pace by announcing that she wanted “people in Minnesota armed and dangerous” to oppose Obama administration climate change initiatives. In Texas, the Tea Party favorite for governor, Debra Medina, is positioning herself to the right of the incumbent, Rick Perry — no mean feat given that Perry has suggested that Texas could secede from the union. A state sovereignty zealot, Medina reminded those at a rally that “the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” [These folks have a mighty lose definition of tyrant]
Stout was echoing Palin’s memorable final declaration during her appearance at the National Tea Party Convention earlier this month: “I will live, I will die for the people of America, whatever I can do to help.” It’s enough to make you wonder who is palling around with terrorists now.

I would not mind a reasonable center-right party in the US to balance against a center-left.  Democracy requires competition and accountability.  Right now, we have one feckless, disunited party that runs when it sees its own shadow, and another party that is simultaneously trying to prevent anything from happening while pandering to those who are delusional.  We could blame Obama for not exerting strong enough leadership, but I wonder if he has tried but we did not hear him through the whining of the left and the rage of the right. 

When A Train of Thought Goes Off The Rails

There is an op-ed in today's NYT by Efram Karsh that does a great job of showing how disunited the Islamic world is.  Not that this is really news, especially when the piece focuses on Iran vs the rest, but not a bad reminder of that dynamic.  Or that Islam's original prohibition against nationalism was tossed away long ago when more narrow appeals became convenient. 
 In this history of a single body of water, one sees a perfect example of the so-called Islamic Paradox that dates from the seventh century. For although the Prophet Muhammad took great pains to underscore the equality of all believers regardless of ethnicity, categorically forbidding any fighting among the believers, his precepts have been constantly and blatantly violated.
Still, this reminder is useful, especially after the Iraq invasion did so much to unite temporary many folks with differences of interest, opinion and identity.

The op-ed then goes off the rails when it suggests that using force against Iran is, thus, not so problematic.  Um, sure.  Not too many folks were big fans of Iraq and Saddam Hussein yet that invasion did much to solidify much of the Islamic world against the US.  Moreover, the critics of using force against Iran are not so focused on upsetting the Islamic world or not but the efficacy of the effort.  It is hardly clear that any military campaign, not to mention one while the US is already committed to two, yes, TWO, other wars in the region, against Iran will succeed in any way.  That is, using force is unlikely to remove Iran's nuclear weapons project, it is unlikely compel via coercive bargaining Iran to give it up, and it is unlikely to produce any positive side effects at all.  Even if other parts of the Islamic world would not mind.

While it is dangerous enough for political scientists to speculate about the future, it makes even less sense to pay attention to historians of religion about military options today. 

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Which Is The Best Trend?

Monster mashes like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Viral ads for books?

Of course, better still, the two combined:

HT to Mrs. Spew

Olympic Reactions, Canada-Style

I am off to the slopes today so the blogging is going to be light and late today, but before I head out, I must say that I am most amused by this juxtaposition:
  • the Canadian Women's Hockey Team wins, swills beer and champagne and earns the Intl Olympic Committee's ire in the process.  Hey, they are competitors and they are all above the drinking age.  Drinking on the ice vs in the locker room?  Who cares?  Some honest emotions--celebrate!
  • On the other hand, the Canadians I know are getting quite smug about the rematch in Men's Hockey with Team USA.  I would not be surprised by a Canadian victory, but I would also not be surprised if the hubris that is now present leads to disappointment.  This display is challenging the reputation of Canada as a polite country.  
Of course, I am conflicted, as I like to see the joy of the women, but not so thrilled by the arrogance of Canadians (not the players, but the public) before they have won the game.  I guess I believe that one should earn it before one flaunts it.   On the other hand, Canadian nationalism is, well, kind of cute.

Friday, February 26, 2010

When Politics Gets Really Fun

Folks really enjoyed Obama's appearance in front of the Republicans a few weeks ago, and Question time for the British Prime Minister has long been seen as a highlight on C-Span or wherever else it can be found.

And now we combine that kind of spectacle with the joy that is the European Union:

Olympics Near the End

Last night was a big night for Canada and for my daughter's school.  Marie-Philip Poulin, the Canadian who scored both of the goals in the women's hockey final, graduated from my daughter's school!  So, we can claim partial credit for the victory since I never ran her over while dropping my daughter off.

While we root for the US in most cases, hockey is a bit different.  We rooted for Canada (I was less enthused than Jessica) because hockey is so very important here.  I am still remain smug that the most important Olympic hockey moment will always be 1980, which leaves the Canadians put out.  But given all of the pressure and hype, it would be ok if they won the men's gold medal as well. 

This whole thing has been quite entertaining and perhaps more than a bit revealing.  Canada never won gold on their home soil before, despite hosting two previous games.  Now they have at least eight and will get more than that with the curling finals ahead.  But they have not "owned the podium" which was their goal--to lead or be near the lead in the total medal count.  Indeed, it has been the women who have carried the day up here with 2/3s of the medals.  Perhaps the pressure has been too much for the male Canadian skiers and skaters.

Still, hockey is the great unifier (not curling, which many folks simply do not care for) up here besides the near religious belief that the Canadian health care system is superior to the American one.  Gold in the men's game is expected, and anything else would be a failure.  I expect them to win, and would feel sorry if they did not.  But, of course, I cannot help it if I want to see the US take down another favorite, if only so that I can relieve my youth.

The Readers Get Pushy

So, I finally meet the legendary Doug Gibler at the ISA and he starts getting all pushy in my blog, asking for more analysis.  

Doug asked:
Do you think that US/NATO forces are pushing (or giving) enough to make the Taliban leadership consider talks? What kind of compromise would that look like? As for Pakistan, is it believable that a sweep is so easy and just a matter of willingness? What does this say about US leverage over Pakistan? Not enough compared to their worry about their border and possible insurgency from within?
  1. Too early for the Taliban to be convinced by one offensive that they should talk. They see the Dutch leaving, Canada close behind, and Karzai is still Karzai.  What you may see is them waiting til 2011 and then seeing if the US scales back.  These guys are patient.  Still, that would not be a bad thing for our side, as it would break the momentum and give the Afghan govt a chance to make progress--and fewer casualties would mean lower political costs back in the US, UK and elsewhere.  People forget there are still significant numbers of NATO troops in Kosovo, but no news is good news.
  2. Compromise?  I really don't see one right now.  Folks I have talked to mention a combination of decentralization--provinces rule, Kabul acts as intermediary with international community and Karzai gets a golden parachute and splits.  But the real compromise that might be imaginable is a split among the various folks that make up the opposition, with some taking $$$ and positions, leaving a smaller hard core of Taliban to fight.
  3. US has no leverage over Pakistan.  US history with Pakistan is one of endless frustration.  The US depends too much on Pakistan, and they know that.  What has changed is that more Pakistanis realize that the Taliban (Pakistan's Taliban) is a significant threat, and that the Afghan variant may not be quite as useful. 
    1. Still, Pakistani military officers see Afghanistan as strategic depth, which makes absolutely no sense to me.  In a war with India, how does influencing events in Afghanistan help? It is not like Pakistan would use Afghanistan as the Soviets used the territory east of the Urals during World War II.  This concept just eludes me.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that people keep saying Afghanistan is harder than Iraq because of Pakistan.  Well, Afghanistan is probably harder for a variety of reasons--landlocked, poppies versus oil as exports, etc.  But I am not so sure having Pakistan mess around with Afghanistan and truly provide strategic depth to the Taliban (see Idean Salehyan's work on rebels and bases beyond)  is actually any worse than the role of Iran in Iraq.  The big difference I see today is that there is a nationalist backlash brewing in Iraq, even among some Shia (as Marc Lynch's tweets and blog suggest).  Still, Pakistanis are not beloved in Afghanistan either.

Xenophobia is not just a problem for the west, but for interloping neighbors as well.  Once again, I find that xenophobia has a positive side.

So, Doug, does this meet the mail?

We Need Some Cool Rules Ourselves or We'll Be Bogus Too

Jeff Spicoli's take on the American Constitution still stands.  And Roger Cohen does  a nice job of elaborating the complexity of targeted killings, especially the US drone war into Pakistan.  There are difficult choices to make, and Cohen comes up with a good set of standards:
I want to know that any target is selected because there is verifiable intelligence that he’s actively planning a terrorist attack on the United States or its allies; that the danger is pressing; that arrest is impossible; and that civilian lives are not wantonly risked.
I find the latter two restrictions are a bit more important and should be tighter constraints.  If Bin Laden is found but we cannot tell if he is actually planning anything, does that mean he is not fair game?  Does one use a standard of reasonable doubt--what one needs to get a conviction in court?  Or would the standard be something like what it takes to be indicted?   I am no lawyer nor do I pretend to be one, so I have no clue about standards of innocent. 

What I do know is that the intel requirements that Cohen suggests might mean no drones strikes at all. Which may not be a bad thing.  Active planning is a tough threshold because you would need to know more info than if the standard was: we are fairly certain that person x (she?) is a senior leader of Al Qaeda.  For me, that would be good enough.  I think drone strikes to kill the lower level guys do not make sense unless they are active--moving to a location to engage in a violent act or are in the midst of a violent act.  Otherwise, these guys are pretty replaceable which makes the tradeoffs tip the other way.

Cohen is clearly right that we need to have a process that is not capricious, that is accountable and where oversight does actually exist.  My work on restrictions in Afghanistan have led me to the conclusion that the right combo for delegation is to delegate a great deal but provide clear instructions (commander's intent) and strong oversight.  Combining micromanagement with either strict or loose oversight seems to be a bad idea as is delegating and forgetting.* 

*Thanks to Scott Gates for pushing me at the ISA into thinking more about the discretion contribution of the current project.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Only Thing We Have to Fear is a Commercial Ripoff?

I guess I never heard the stuff before "The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself."

So, this commercial is really quite moving and appropriate for today except, well, it is a commercial for insurance and not a message to the public to suck it up and ignore the demagogues (Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Frank Gaffney, etc.)

But, if Allstate reminds us, indirectly or directly, that we should not be so fearful, then I am ok with that.  Plus they paid us off after our car was stolen a couple of years after we moved to Montreal.

NATO Necessarily?

Fred Kaplan criticizes NATO's performance in Afghanistan and suggests that if countries do not want to participate, that it is ok.  He is arguing that Afghanistan should not be about saving NATO's reputation or giving it a mission in the aftermath of the Cold War.

I liked reading the piece because it highlights the topic that I have been obsessing about the past couple of years--what countries will and will not do in Afghanistan.  I do disagree with some points:
  1. The NATO nametag is not a deterrent to Muslim countries of the Middle East.  The intensity of the effort and the unpopularity of the mission are sufficient explanations.  Perhaps in 2001, but not after 2003.
  2. The piece suggests that NATO as an institution provides little added value to the campaign.  My guess is that there would be fewer troops on the ground if countries were not signing up to support an institution that they need.  Romania, Poland, the Baltics, and the like provide some forces, some more significant than the others.  Canada's participation would probably have been much shorter since supporting NATO has been a key motivation, and Canada has played a significant role.  
But I concur with the argument that we should not hector those that are leaving or those that have tight caveats.  We can try to finesse the caveats behind closed doors, but embarrassing countries is only going to backfire.

How To Be a Military Dictatorship

I used to think there was only one good way to learn how to run one's own country via military regime: the game of Junta.  But now we have nifty powerpoint slides.

So, what do we know now?
  • Respect the law (and Cartman's authoritay)
  • Members of the military never harm civilians.  Um, sure.
  • Excessive force is bad.  Check.
  • Personal weapons: bad.  Poison and such are also bad.  Got it.
  • Respect medics (Red Cross and those wearing the symbol).
  • Treat everyone humanely, including prisoners.
  • Officers should follow only lawful orders.
Civil-military relations in a few easy slides, I guess.   Too bad this firm was unable to keep the job.  Assassinations ruin all of the fun.

Nothing here about turning over the regime to the civilians or how to corrupt an election.  Perhaps those are for the advanced class.

Interesting Times

What is going on with Pakistan and the Taliban?  I have no idea, but this piece raises the right questions.  Much success in capturing the top guys suddenly and lately.  Why is Pakistan making strides now?  What impact will this have?   Check out the piece--it frames things quite well.  And the uncertainty one has at the end...., well that is quite appropriate. 

I don't think we are near the end of this, but we might be past the beginning.

Holy Self-Deception, Batman!

Check out this link for a quick summary of the misperceptions Saddam Hussein had piled up that made his decision-making in 2002-03 understandable.

He thought that Desert Storm was a victory since he didn't lose power.  Plus he received information from his subordinates that minimized the losses and maximized the successes--wildly so.  This put him in a position to think that the US was a paper tiger, so wishful thinking turned out to be a disease on both sides in 2003. 

Jervis made clear long ago that misperception is rife and can cause heaps of conflict.  And 2003 has proven him right yet again.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Restraint By Choice

“Proportionality and the letter of the law,” Gen. McChrystal observed last July, “will allow you to do a lot, but you will be operationally ineffective as a result.” cited here
 When reading this about Afghanistan, my first thought was about an argument I had with some fellow frisbee players the other night about Olympic hockey--that the Canadian and American women were so much better than the other teams that they ran up the score.  I argued for restraint, as winning is sufficient and that they actually risk the future of women's hockey at the O-games if they embarrass other teams too badly.  My fellow ultimate players argued that competing less is an insult and that the rules, including scoring differentials shaping rankings, make running up the score fair game. 

So, when a US army general argues that following the law may undermine the mission and engaging in restraint might lead to better outcomes, I find myself wondering if he would get the spirit of the game in ultimate.  Or sportsmanship more generally.  Yes, in football, relative rankings are shaped by how big the margins are, but decency suggests limits.  And, yes, the Patriots have been known to run up the score in football. 

Sports, like war, is a dynamic, interactive process, so behavior produces responses.  Killing civilians by accident undermines the mission, so taking short-term risks to encourage better long-term outcomes makes sense.  And the same is true in sports, I would argue.  Shooting at the goalie instead of trying to get the puck in the goal makes sense when the score is eight-zero.  To argue that the rules allow for more or that scoring differential matters, one look at the tourney suggests that none of that really matters.  And, just as importantly, even if it does matter to a degree, don't our values count the most when they expose us to a bit of risk?

Terrorism, American-Style

I have been mentioning off-hand that the guy who flew the plane into the IRS building in Austin was a terrorist but the first Tea-Party terrorist?  I will let someone else connect the dots.

The manifesto he left behind reads, “I know there have been countless before me and there are sure to be as many after. … I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be whitewashed and ignored” — at which point, God willing, “the American zombies wake up and revolt.” This man was, by prevailing semantic conventions, a terrorist.
So, his act is clearly terrorism.  But is he a tea-bagger?  (hee, hee--hey, if they want to use a term that has sexual connotations, we can certainly have fun with it).
In the end, the core unifying theme of the Tea Partiers is populist rage, and this is the core theme in Stack’s ramblings, whether the rage is directed at corporate titans (“plunderers”), the government (“totalitarian”) or individual politicians (“liars”).
I don’t doubt that Tea Partiers are on balance on the right, and if their movement ever crystallizes into a political party that will be its location. But until the requisite winnowing happens, a person with Stack’s fuzzy ideology wouldn’t feel terribly alone at a big Tea Party.
You could, on the one hand, follow this logic to the conclusion that Joseph Stack was the first Tea Party terrorist.
 But then the piece suggests that this might be a bad idea.
But you could instead conclude, as both Yglesias and the blogger Glenn Greenwald kind of suggest in their posts on the Stack episode, that maybe we should just quit using the word “terrorist.” After all, if we start thinking of the Tea Party movement as housing terrorists, then — “terrorist” being the policy-shaping word that it is — we’ll be more inclined to wiretap Tea Partiers and infiltrate their gatherings. And subjecting excitable people with a persecution complex to actual persecution could lead to more excitement than I’m in the mood for.
 It does worry me that we are living in a transition period that is alienating people, giving platforms to the various demagogues (is that giving Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin too much credit?), and seeing hate crimes of various kinds increase.  And this transition period is not just an economic one, where men are getting fired more than women and where people's savings are turned to dust, but also a demographic one.  That is, I wonder how much of the Tea Party movement and similar rage is less about the economy and more about what Obama represents to them--the changing of the guard in US politics from whites running the show to a more diverse cast (in their minds, only non-whites, which shows they suck at math). 

It is clear that winning national elections these days requires playing beyond one's ethnic group, as gaining a plurality of whites or of non-whites is not going to cut it.  In ethnic politics scholarship, this is seen as a good thing, as it forces those who seek to win office to moderate to appeal behind narrower identities.  But what this literature perhaps ignores is that the transition is pretty difficult .  The losers (and white folks who only see white folks as representing their interests are going to be losers in electoral terms) do not go quietly in the night. 

The parallel that come to my mind right now would be the 1960's, where you had parallel movements--peaceful and violent.  MLK Jr, civil disobedience and civil rights acts, but also assassinations, domestic terrorism, police overreaction.  And this has shaped American politics ever since.  Right now, we have few politicians with the courage to take a stand against the haters, and the media is so twisted, that I am not so confident about how this will all turn out.  My guess is that numbers and incentives will win out--that Obama will win a second term because the Republicans will become the party of white rural America--and most voters are not limited to that category.  But first, we must go through a nasty set of elections that are likely to be more like 1994 than anything else.

Not a happy way to begin the morning, so I will just think of last night's Lost, and the opportunity to sing "Hurley's got Sarah Palin arms" to the tune of Kim Carne's "Bette Davis Eyes."

Should We Stay or Should We Go? Iraqi Variant

Tom Ricks has an op-ed at the NYT that sums up his blog conclusions about the Iraqi unraveling.  I think Ricks is nearly right on everything but this: there is simply no political will in DC or in Iraq to keep a sizeable American force around. 

Ricks argues that the US forces could serve as a deterrent to civil war after the upcoming and perhaps fatally flawed election.  Agreed.

Ricks argues that the surge and Petraeus and all that just bought breathing room for the Iraqis to make the big decisions, which they have entirely avoided.  Agreed.

What Ricks fails to mention is that the Status of Forces Agreement already restricts the US from doing much besides hanging out in bases.  On the other hand, SOFA's can be twisted or played so that 100k soldiers can still have a meaningful impact. 

I do worry that there will be a rush to get from 50k to 0 just as the Canadians are going from 2.8k to 0 in Afghanistan.  Small numbers can have outsized effects, so an agreement that keeps some number of Americans in Iraq could have a positive effect on training and even on the questions of civil wars, coups, and other things that might spin out of control.

But Obama is facing a huge deficit, an outraged base, and limited resources.  At this point, I cannot imagine any other attitude than "screw Iraq, we need to get our own house in order."  I may not think this is the best course of action (I am not sure it is not), but it is certainly the most likely, even before one considers the nationalism in Iraq that makes it hard for any politician to say out loud "I'd like the Americans to stick around."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mirror, Mirror, Mirror--21 years of bad luck--first lost thoughts [Spoilers]

As usual, spoilers below,

No Monopoly on Grim Triggers

The US debate about Iran (referenced in my previous post about Admiral Mullen) sometimes overlooks that the US President might have to react to events.  This post does a nice job of discussing the other relevant actor:

At some point in the future, that calculation could change. Since Americans often assume that everyone else perceives the world the same way we do, it is worth repeating the obvious here: Many Israelis regard the Iranian nuclear program as a matter of life and death. The prospect of a nuclear Iran isn't an irritant or a distant threat. It is understood directly in the context of the Iranian president's provocative attacks on Israel's right to exist and of his public support for historians who deny the Holocaust. If you want to make Israelis paranoid, hint that they might be the target of an attempted mass murder. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does exactly that.
While I am more worried that an Israeli act is more likely to start a war, I can see how they might worry about Iran acting first.  And that is why spirals of fear and concerns about preemption make this whole thing mighty dicey.  I am just glad that we do not have to worry too much about a US stupid move.

War Games

This piece does a great job of addressing the complexities of ever-increasingly realistic computer simulations/computer war games used by the US military

Olympic Aspirations

In sum, to become an Olympic-level figure skater, one has to have talent, composure, burning desire, financial backing, good looks, a compact body type, pain tolerance, and a lot of luck. As already indicated, I was lacking in many of these categories. Additionally, I had an aversion to cold. (Slate)
I found this post interesting for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I have a relative that is spending incredible amounts of time and money (and sleep!!) on kids who are skating competitively (although I don't think they have Olympic aspirations, but I could be wrong).  In a conversation with my wife, I realized that no kid of mine will ever be an Olympian.  We just don't have the budget or the obsessive focus necessary to spend on a worthy but very difficult endeavor. 

Besides, my daughter is a jack of many trades and master of none yet.  As I have mentioned here and elsewhere, she skis and plays ultimate, but also is interested in other sports.  Her school activities challenge our ability to coordinate (debate, drama, newspaper, yearbook, etc).  I don't know where she gets this from--my major activity at her age was watching old TV shows (Gilligan's Island, Brady Bunch, Hogan's Heroes, etc).  I did play a bunch of sports, never getting great at any one of them, while growing up.  I did specialize in college and since, as any reader of this blog knows, in Ultimate.  But even there, I have not had the obsessive focus necessary to be the best.  I never got serious about conditioning, as my teammates past and present can attest.  

Anyhow, this slate post puts the games into some perspective.  

Public Diplomacy Indeed

I have recently been following the tweets of Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.  It turns out he has a blog as well.  This is what he says after a visit to the Middle East about addressing the threat of Iran and nuclear proliferation.
we owe the Secretary and the President a range of options for this threat. We owe the American people our readiness. But as I have said many times, I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and economic levers of international power ought to be the levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and consistently pulled.
No strike, however effective, will be in and of itself decisive.
 Too bad he did not have the big seat in 2003.  Of course, Rumsfeld selected the CJCS and being independent and skeptical of the use of force and thinking about unintended consequences would have disqualified Mullen. 

I was originally posting about his tweet and his blog just to note that he has both (along with facebook and other linkslisted in his blog!) and then found this opinion on Iran.  I really like the Gates/Mullen team.  What can I say?  I am a sucker for pragmatism by the folks who are responsible for the military.  Ideology or bureaucratic gamesmanship (depending on your view of Rummy) is so yesterday..

Manners, Manners

There is apparently an email exchange between a student and a business prof that is going viral.  The gist of it is that a student walked in an hour late the first day of class, apparently sampling three of them in one night, and got kicked out by the prof for being late.  The student emailed to explain, and the prof then sent an email to the student and to his entire class explaining his policy.  The punchline:

"Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance...these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility...these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades. It's not too late xxxx..".
Even if this prof is an ass, which may or may not be the case, this is great advice.  Get the easy stuff right--such as being considerate and having a dose of common sense.  I have often joked that my dogs (now one dog) are more strategic than my graduate students.  Of course, my dogs (past and present) have demonstrated keen strategic thought so that the bar is not low.  Still, students, graduate and undergraduate, can still surprise me with some thoughtlessness.  Not all students at all, just a distinct minority that not only surprise me but stun other students as well. Such as:
  • At my old job, I had no window, so I kept the door open.  Which meant students would not only ask me for directions (a minor foul), but to borrow a pen or a stapler (medium foul), and even to borrow my phone or to print something out (major foul).  
  • The prof in the exchange is more annoyed by lateness, but also registers annoyance with what the student did in his other classes--get up and leave early.  I find this far more distracting.  At TTU, I once set my TAs upon those who would flee early.  I do not do that anymore as the flight of both the rude one and his/her pursuers just amplified the distraction.
  • I have had students try to argue with me before class to use the microphone to announce something to my captured audience.  I now have a strict policy of no announcements other than those related to my department.  Otherwise, I would have a line out the door for folks who want to announce things to 600 students.  The entitlement here drives me nuts--that I ought to give time to anyone who has any thing to say as their causes are noble and just in their minds, which they probably are.
  • Last year, in the middle of class, there was a student who raised his hand, and I thought it strange that he was still wearing his coat, but in a class of 600, I don't know every face.  So, he proceeded to start to announce his love or lust for one of the students in the class and to give her a gift.  I interrupted him and kicked him out.  I then told the lady in question that she should keep in mind that her boyfriend lacks judgment.  She agreed.
  • And, of course, the banal "I missed class for excuse x, did I miss anything important?"
To be clear, the students at McGill are great, but some are a bit immature and need to think a bit before acting/talking.  Of course, I am still more than a bit immature and probably should think a bit before posting blog entries like this.  Ooops, too late.

Lost Giddiness [Spoilers]

If you did not see Locke-centered "The Substitute" then do not go below the fold:

Monday, February 22, 2010

ISA Awards, 2010 Edition

A post at the poli sci rumor mill asked who won the big awards year, referring to book of the decade (I am on the committee to select the next book of the year), and such.  Actually, besides book of the year/decade, I am not sure what other awards are there, other than those awarded by individual sections for best paper of last year, distinguished scholar or the like.  But, it got me thinking--I could hand out some awards, which having blog entitles requires me to do.

So, with no drumrolls:
  1. Biggest Mistake: Perhaps leaving early since some of the most interesting panels were on the Saturday of the meeting.  But, I wanted to get back with my Aussie trip staring me in the face.
  2. Best Panel: The one honoring Pat James.  Just a love-fest.  The Anti-Cartman.
  3. Panel I Most Wish to Have Attended: Either the Battlestar Galatica one or the one with the bloggers.  Sure, I am not a serious IR blogger like Drezner or the others, but it would have been educational. 
  4. Most Persuasive Book Rep:  Norton, as they were trying to get me to adopt a new text for my intro class, and I am probably going to follow through, even though it will require some serious re-thinking of the course.
  5. Best Display at Mardi Gras:  Two guys with signs.  That is all I can say here.   My first thought when I saw the signs--it only has to work once.
  6. Person I Was Least Likely to Talk to despite Two Scheduled Meetings: You know who you are.
  7. Biggest Surprise: I did more grading/reading of grad student stuff/article reviewing on planes than I expected.  I always bring a bunch, but I actually did some this time.
  8. Best Airport: Houston.  More food choices than all the others combined.  But New Orleans had free wifi.
  9. Best Beignet: Cafe Du Monde, although the Hilton's were quite good as well.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Manifestos I Have Read But Not Read Myself

I have not read the writings of the folks who blow up buildings or crash planes into them or kill people.  Good thing that Dave Cullen has at Slate.  Better him than me. And his findings suggest a few things:

  • Despite my best efforts and the text on the right side of this blog, I may be a lousy narcissist despite my best efforts.
  • Stack, the terrorist of the week, was not oppressed by the system--he did just fine--just didn't like taxes.
  • Being in a group can be worse than being on one's own:
"Stack made some awful choices on his taxes, but surrounding himself with like-minded zealots may have been just as dangerous in the long run. In his insightful FBI study "The Lethal Triad," Dr. Kevin Gilmartin describes intellectual isolation as a key factor when extremists lash out violently. It's counterintuitive, but joining certain groups can be more isolating than living alone. Stack found a group that encouraged and validated the idea of avoiding taxation, which might have been difficult for him to sustain on his own. The moral support he found appears to have helped him sustain a rather nutty concept for 20 to 30 years, in spite of the economic distress it inflicted on him"
  •  Finally, to put it as bluntly as possible, the dude was a dick:
"Before Stack crashed the plane, he burned his family out of its home. How to justify that vindictive act in the diatribe?"

I am a Master of the Obvious

I have been asserting lately that Obama is not a one-term president, comparing him to Bill Clinton--that the cycles will work out, not this year, but in 2012.  Well, I guess I am just one of many.  See this Salon piece for the argument.  I was thinking that perhaps I was engaging in wishful thinking, but realizing that Cheney was predicting one term for Obama makes me feel much better.

How Full is the Glass?

This is the story I have been waiting for on the offensive in Helmand.  The two big questions for this effort are: how is the ANA (Afghan army) performing; and how well will the government, especially the police perform once the military offensive is over, more or less. 

At the squad level it [the ANA] has been a source of effective, if modestly skilled, manpower. Its soldiers have shown courage and a willingness to fight. Afghan soldiers have also proved, as they have for years, to be more proficient than Americans at searching Afghan homes and identifying potential Taliban members — two tasks difficult for outsiders to perform.
By all other important measures, though — from transporting troops, directing them in battle and coordinating fire support to arranging modern communications, logistics, aviation and medical support — the mission in Marja has been a Marine operation conducted in the presence of fledgling Afghan Army units, whose officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told.
So, is the glass half-full or half-empty?  Of course, the answer is yes.  Or both.  Getting the ANA to fight and fight reasonably well is a big accomplishment.  But leadership and all of the technical stuff is apparently lacking.  However, this does not kill the hope that transitions can begin in 2011 (or at least contemplated then), as a fighting force of Afghans with assistance in leadership, logisitics, intel, fire control, etc is not a bad future.  I have talked about OMLTs before (Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams) that are small groups of outside military folks serving in Afghan battalions.  If we end up replacing large units of outside forces with Afghan units led or assisted by small units, that means lower costs and casualties and then more patient (or ignorant) publics. 

Also, one key challenge in COIN is the mantra--better to have the indigenous personnel do something adequately than the outsider do it better/perfectly.  But it is really hard for the Marines to stand aside and let stuff happen--they are actors, not watchers.  So, one key challenge in future operations will be for the outsiders to be patient and really let the Afghans run the show, even if that means it goes poorly.  Perhaps this operation is too important to let that happen, but future ones will have to become Afghan shows, for better or worse. 

There are building blocks:
“They are a lot better than the Iraqis,” said the sergeant, who served a combat tour in Iraq. “They understand all of our formations, they understand how to move. They know how to flank and they can recognize the bad guys a lot better than we can.”
And this latter skill is huge!  Plus, to say that we have been doing this for eight years is just silly.  Most of the serious effort is fairly recent.  Blaming the ANA for the failures of Rumsfeld and his gang is quite mistaken.  Still, we need to be clear where we see progress and where we do not, to build on the former and fix the latter.  The development of the ANA is one of the key pieces of the puzzle.  And it bears much watching.

Social Skills Absent?

When telling and hearing tales at the ISA this week, or in reading the stories about the killer professor in Alabama, I ponder the following question: does the profession of professing attract/reward those with deficient social skills? Are our politics worse than in other professions?  I am not sure.  I do think we suffer from confirmation bias--that we notice the outstanding cases that confirm our views, that we ignore those examples that do not, and, just as importantly, we have no clue as to how things play out in other professions.

Certainly, tenure and its lifetime job security make it hard to punish or select out those who are pathological if people can cover up their flaws for five or six years while accumulating a tenurable record.  It may also be the case that this profession attracts those whose social skills are not great because the emphasis is on research, despite the fact that social skills might be handy for teaching.

Another problem is that we are not trained to do administrative stuff, either for positions within departments (chair/head, graduate director, whatever) or within professional organizations, so that we get folks into positions of authority who have no clue how to lead or manage. At one of my old jobs, the guy who had been chair as the place spiraled down more than a decade ago threw his hat into the ring to be the chair again this past year!!!  To be clear, I have had good department chairs and bad ones, and ones in between.  So, if one of my chairs (past or present) is reading this, I am talking about someone else.

However, if we profs had better knowledge of the rest of the world's jobs, we might not be so quick to think we are exceptional.  My year in the Pentagon demonstrated to me that a hierarchy where management and leadership are trained, rewarded and emphasized, where evaluation is a regular exercise, where selection is an on-going process (up or out for the officers), you still get the stinkers who are bad managers--the Tommy Franks types who kiss up to superiors and kick down inferiors.  While the Joint Staff was largely filled with excellent people, there were folks out there (including a defense attache who served in the Balkans during my time that I will not name) who were deeply flawed human beings.  And, of course, the recent story about the Canadian Air Force colonel arrested for multiple murders among other crimes suggests that this is not just an American thing.

And to be fair, I don't mean to pick on the military, as all professions have their flawed individuals.  It is just that militaries and universities are probably on opposite ends of the spectrum for job security, especially after the first few stages.

So, what can we conclude?  Nothing really.  I don't think our job is more stressful.  Indeed, this one prof's story is so outrageous in part because we do not go "postal" on a regular basis.  It is not as an easy a job as people make it out to be, but it is a good life.  It is probably easier to live in a difficult academic situation than under a tyrannical boss in a regular business--we can usually control what we do (our research, our teaching) and how we do it.  We just have limited ability to do it where we want to do it--which explains why I spent six years in West Texas.  And this academic job market is going to make it hard for many folks to escape the bad situations

PS  And as the NYT story suggests, we do not screen for criminal records when we hire, at least not as far as I can tell.  The story does suggest something though--PhD's who insist on being called Doctor might, just might bear more watching than those of us who prefer to be called Prof.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

End of Conference Writing Assignment

What did I do at the ISA?  In terms of actual professional and semi-professional stuff?
  • I was a speaker at a panel honoring Pat James for his work on ethnic conflict.  Despite huge temptations to roast him a la Jeff Ross, I killed him with kindness rather than brutal, nasty insults.  Lost opportunity?  Perhaps.  (Should I insert smiley face here?)  Yes, tongue firmly in cheek.  It was great to see a great guy get a heaping plate of compliments and touching tales of mensch-ness.
  • I presented two papers
    • One, with MJ Zahar of U de Montreal, focuses on the balancing act that governments have to engage in between being threatening enough to deter crime/rebellion/etc and assuring the populace that the coercive power of the state will only be aimed at those who earn such wrath (rebels) and will be proportionate.
    • Second one, comparative caveats with Dave Auerwald of the US National War College, quickly explaining our latest piece, which suddenly got more relevant with the collapse of the Dutch government.
  • I did my annual duty as Convenor or Chair of the Minorities at Risk Advisory Board.  My main job is to make sure we get out at a reasonable time, and I think I did that.
  • I met with now-graduated graduate students to make sure that they are spreading my wisdom far and wide.  What else are disciples for?  Well, actually, as I have blogged earlier, my students rarely work on stuff related to mine, and when they do, they tend to argue against me.  Poor training, indeed!
  • I met with co-authors on nearly finished (regarding the first presentation) and nearly started projects (waiting for money for the diaspora project).
  • I was elected to the board of the Foreign Policy Analysis section.  I have participated in similar sections before (Ethnicity, Nationalism, Migration of ISA; Foreign Policy of APSA). 
  • I went to the meeting of the Foreign Policy Analysis journal's editorial board--at a brew pub with a very nice wheat beer.
  • I met with a bunch of other people, and several of these inspired spinoffs off of current projects, so I have some cool ideas to play with.
  • And, of course, I ate well--yummy beignets and some mighty fun beer, but that was not so professional.

Last Tiger Post (Until the Next One)

Much hullabaloo about Tiger's speech.  Reading a statement rather than speaking with notes, controlled audience, no questions, etc.  While I am not quite as cynical as Bill Simmons, ESPN's SportsGuy, I think Tiger might be a smidge sincere in all of this, but Simmons is probably more right than not when he suggests that many athletes are bad at monogamy and it is probably not something that is a disease requiring therapy. 

But the point that BS really gets right is that the event directly contradicted a key theme in the statement--that Tiger has to play by ordinary rules just like everyone else.  With no opportunity for questions, he gets to control the situation, even though he says that he needs to live like others, within the constraints imposed upon society.  But here he is imposing constraints on the press, leaving much unasnwered.  While he is right to protect his kids (although keeping his pants zipped would have been better protection), he should have been willing to answer questions now that he will certainly be asked later.  He could have skipped the questions that are too touchy (what did he do with whom) but satisfied some of the curiosity about some of the stuff.  Instead, he can be accused of being robotic.

Of course, much of this will fade once he wins again and again.  After all, Kobe Bryant was tried for rape, and is now quite popular since the Lakers won last year.  Americans love a winner, even if they are quite flawed.

One last note: the most shocking part of the statement (other than the refusal to specify anything about golf) is that he said he was a Buddhist.  I pondered via twitter whether this will cost him more than the rest of it.  That is, while Americans are not hostile to Buddhists the way that many are to Islam (and not just Americans either), it is still mighty strange to the average non-dead American.  It will be interesting to see how that part of this plays out.  But, of course, that part might be ignored, since we are more interested in sex (the partners) and violence (the golf club/car interaction).

Resistance is Futile?

Any research project has to limit its scope--the realm of its coverage--to be clear, coherent, and not infinitely long.  My work with Dave Auerswald on NATO's mission in Afghanistan is almost entirely focused on how countries control their operations in this distant multilateral effort.  We have not sought to explain why countries chose to participate or focus that much attention on decisions to leave.  But this may be hard to sustain the collapse of the cabinet government in the Netherlands yesterday over whether to extend or end their military effort in Afghanistan.

This event does not undermine our explanation of the patterns we see in the behavior on the ground in Afghanistan, but as one person in the audience of my presentation at the International Studies Association conference this week put it--isn't leaving the ultimate caveat?  That is, our focus on variations in the restrictions placed upon troops in the effort should consider the very end of the continuum from flexibility to constraint--when troops are pulled out. 

This event in the Netherlands is surprising to me insofar as I thought that the Dutch mission's departure this year was a foregone conclusion.  It appears to be the case that one party sought to continue the effort, perhaps in light of the renewed US commitment and the pseudo-surge by NATO.  But the two parties could not agree (which does provide more evidence that our basic approach to the issue is on target).  My guess is that this decision to leave will stand. 

And, of course, the Canadian decision to leave in 2011 is now put into stark relief.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper can breathe a sigh of relief that he has decided to remove the Canadian Forces (pretty much all of them) in accordance with the parliamentary mandate passed in 2009, rather than re-visiting it or interpreting it to mean that a smaller force might stay behind (to staff the Provincial Reconstruction Team so that the civilian reconstruction types do not have to depend on Americans for a ride). 

These decisions by the Dutch and Canadians are significant in their impact on alliance cohesion--will others follow?  But with the influx of US troops, this is not as important as it would have been two years ago.

Still, it is regrettable as both contingents have been making a difference.  The mission is a difficult one, but its outcome is not a foregone conclusion. 

Friday, February 19, 2010

Airplanes and Suicide Terror.

After 9/11, there was much speculation about small planes being used as vehicles for suicide terrorism.  And it took nearly a decade for it to come to pass in the US.  By a right wing tax protester.  Since I am bleary from the conference and have not had time to get a good grasp, here are some quick, ill-informed thoughts:
  • Will Pat Robertson blame the licentiousness of Austin, Texas?
  • Will this act be viewed/defined as terrorism by the right?
  • Will Tiger Woods apologize for this attack?
  • Will there be any coverage of this suicde attack in the aftermath of Tiger's apology?
  • Will this event signal the rise of right-wing violence, as encouraged by the venom spewed by Glenn Beck, the Tea Party folks, and other pseudo-populists who seek to turn anger and frustration into bad public policy?
  • Will folks realize that terrorism is what we make of it (to sound very constructivist)?  That is, people will react to this event according to how it fits into their beliefs and to how we end up defining it together?
  • Small planes apparently are not that useful for terrorism--not that dramatic despite yesterday's pics-unless amplified by some sort of WMD?  Or not? 
How is this playing out in the US?  Any attention now that Tiger has seized the stage from the Olympics?

Conferences Are Not Just for Research

While the big conferences like this one--the annual meeting of the International Studies Association--seems focused on the presentation of research, and, if not that, then networking, it is actually also for helping our teaching.  Really.  In the course of events, I have had several interactions that will shape what I use next fall for both of the courses that I am teaching: Intro to International Relations and the IR of Ethnic Conflict.

For the former, I have been using the same text forever--a "reader" that consists of articles by different political scientists, providing different perspectives of various theoretical debates.  I think I am going to move, dare I say it, to a textbook that is a co-written volume that presents a thematic approach to IR that is very much akin to my own.  Not identical, but similar.  Doing so would force me to a significant amount of work--changing both the order of my lectures but also my content.  Why bother?  I get good evals right now and I get my stuff across pretty well.  Because I have not really re-thought this class in a while and changing the text will force me out of my comfort zone.

For the latter, an upper division class on the topic that is been the focal point of my research until recently, I need to re-think the course as well.  I have not taught it in a few years, and meeting a prof here and chatting with him about his work made me realize that his book will provide a different take on international organizations and their impact on ethnic conflict. 

If I remember, I will let y'all know how these experiments play out.  The good news for both classes is that if they fail miserably, I can always revert to the tried and true.  Wish me luck!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Perspective, Steve, Perspective

Not much blogging this week, since the ISA keeps me busy--meeting with friends, colleagues, co-authors past and present, etc.  And I am behind on my surfing, but I did catch this piece, that was tweeted via Rob Neyer (a baseball analyst).  This has nothing to do with baseball.  It is Roger Ebert's blog, providing his take on an Esquire piece entitled Roger Ebert's Last Words.  I will eventually read the Esquire piece, but perhaps it is unnecessary when I can get Ebert's take.  We live in interesting times when folks can comment quite widely on stuff written about them. 

Anyhow, like other news I have heard this week about stuff happening to people I know quite well, it puts into perspective the various bumps and bruises I have experienced.  And they are nothing in comparison.  I have a great job with great students, fun research that engages me and teaches me new things every day, great Associate Professors and Assistant Professors in my department, a relatively healthy family, a spunky and sharp child, a tolerant wife whose sense of humor is a match for my own, terrific friends, and heaps of ultimate.  I need to keep that in mind when I get some bad luck (like losing in a poker hand to an idiot who has only one or two outs and manages to win the hand), even if my spewing entertains myself and anyone else. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spotty Conference Attendence (Lost spoilers)

I am at the ISA, but had a chance to watch Lost via since I failed to sleep late.  Spoilers, as usual, below the break.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

ISI Leads the Way?

Ok, I am really confused and it has nothing to do with Lost.

Today, Pakistani and US folks captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, apparently the most senior military commander of the Taliban.  And the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service led the way.  I am confused since the ISI has long been an obstacle to any success against the Taliban.  So, does this mean the ISI is now fighting the Taliban?  Does it mean that Baradar has simply outlived his usefulness to the ISI?  Is there a split in the ISI?  I have no clue as I am not an expert on Pakistan, but I doubt that these folks have a strong grasp on this either. 

But it bears watching and is a highly significant event.  Are things starting to turn in Afghanistan?  We need to gather all the data that Kilcullen recommends (in the past several posts on A-stan here and at  Too soon to tell, but the news thus far is not bad at all, and could be good. 

Fleeting Impressions

I am on the way to the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, which is in New Orleans this year.  Yes, the conference starts the day after Mardi Gras, which is both boon and bane.  Boon because I get to arrive on Mardi Gras and get to experience the craziness.  Bane because it might mean that the cab will not be able to reach the hotel, so I might have hoof it for the last several blocks.

So, this is my first experience flying since the underwear bombing episode.  I was able to make it through security pretty quickly, but it is clear that things are amped up just a bit.  I have a strong feeling that this is all symbolic, to protect politicians' behinds, rather than actually make us safer.   As a recent piece (I forget where I saw it) reminded me, there were acts of airplane terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s that did not cripple us although  it did lead to metal detectors and all the rest.  I guess my take is that we should figure out what is sensible but not overreactive.  Risk analysts should be able to figure out the marginal utility of various protocols.  We can never reach zero risk and pretending to do so is deceptive and bad policy. 

Traveling does cause one to miss opportunities--not just missing Lost, but I just got invited to be appear on Al Jazeera (their English station) to talk about the offensive in Afghanistan, but had to decline since I will be presenting tomorrow morning, not to mention out of town.  However, having such an experience might have made my airport travel more complicated.  On the other hand, my old Afghanistan visa on my old passport never made much of a difference.

Anyhow, blogging may be light over the next several days as I schmooze with my fellow IR types.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Metrics 'R Us

Ricks has followed up his posts of Kilcullen's paper on metrics with another voice (Army Reserve Lt. Col. Chad Storlie, author of the forthcoming Combat Leader to Corporate Leader) that does a nice job of advising how best to use metrics (that is, measures of success). 

Read the whole piece, but here are some highlights (things that are likely to be overlooked):

5. Establish a Base Line. Once you have metrics, and a collection plan, then collect for 3-4 weeks. You cannot start to act until your understand the base line of performance.
6. Incorporate Opinion. Metrics systems by themselves can become disconnected from reality when there is no opinion to support them. Use e-mail based surveys of your frontline troops.  If your metrics say the economy is improving and your Marine's opinion does not, then you have a data disconnect.

8. Design Checks to Your Scorecard. Be skeptical. Metrics must be mutually supported by intell, HUMINT, operations reports, population surveys, and soldier opinion. Metrics and Scorecards are Descriptive, Not Predictive.  A formulaic approach driven by metrics will not work in counter insurgency. Security + 2 schools + 1 health clinic does not necessarily equal success.
9. Use the Metrics to Drive Change. The entire use of counterinsurgency metrics is to see where you are, understand the situation better, and then do something. Seldom if ever will the way be clear. You will have to employ pilot projects to test solutions and see if they work before large scale, broad implementation. 
10. What works in one location may not work in another.

PR Offensive

I think the most surprising part of the big offensive in Helmand is how much attention it is getting back in the U.S. and Canada.  Each day, the papers are filled with stories about offensive, and the messaging getting out has mostly been exactly what NATO would have wanted
  • this is a big effort;
  • it is more focused on governance than before so the ultimate success hinges on the Afghans;
  • ISAF is staying put rather than fighting and then leaving;
  • the Afghan National Army [ANA] is a big part of the effort;
  • much effort to minimize casualties, including announcing this effort ahead of time, deliberately removing any chance for strategic surprise.
So, of course, I wonder what has happened to the NATO I have come to know and love--one that could not communicate basic math to an AP calculus class (no offense to my pals in NATO public diplomacy).  Clearly, this effort in Helmand has at least four targets:
  • the Taliban types in the area;
  • the Afghan population--to show them that ISAF gets it and is operating differently than in the past
  • the Afghan government--that they better do well here, because they will have fewer excuses
  • the publics in the US and other troop contributing nations--to show them that ISAF can be successful as much of the new conventional wisdom on casualty aversion (thanks to Peter Feaver) focuses less on body bags coming home and more on the perception of success.  That is, people will be less opposed to a military mission if it is seen as successful.
Whether it is a matter of McChrystal enforcing his will or the US military finally buying into the Petraeus playbook or NATO finally getting it, the effort thus far has been pretty impressive in terms of its coherence--and that is a pretty significant change from the past.  Still, it is too soon to tell.

PS  I was thrilled to see that the Canadian OMLT [ELMO?] is in the effort, sticking with the Afghan battalion it is mentoring.  Why?  Because my presentation at the ISA in a couple of days will still be accurate!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Challenge of Arriving Later

I finished reading the first Percy Jackson book and then saw the movie adaptation last night.  Reviews of the latter are fairly unanimous--the movie is not as good as Harry Potter and might even be a horrible ripoff.

While I was a bit disappointed in how the movie adapted the book, I think that kind of review is profoundly unfair.  Explanations and assessments below the break.  Spoilers below.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Olympic Opening

I didn't watch too much of the opening ceremonies, but was delighted to hear Bob Costas try to explain to Americans this mysterious country to  the north.  Hmm, the Queen, really.  Oh well.

The NYT has a good piece that combines snark and admiration:

The ceremony was long, a little dull at times, but it was also thoughtful and stirring. It was authentically and unabashedly Canadian.
Is the reviewer suggesting that Canadians can be dull but thoughtful and stirring as well?   Hmm.

Friday’s ceremony was not a cast-of-thousands spectacle, and no children were subjected to voice dubbing, though a doping committee may want to look into what the aboriginal people were taking that enabled them to dance without stopping for three hours straight.
 I was wondering the same.  How could they keep it up for so long?  How very un-American to provide such a prominent stage for such a small minority.  Canadians do think more about their identity and their multiculturalism than Americans do, I think.  That was demonstrated pretty clearly last night.

Holy Rant! Average American, Indeed!

If you think I spew much, check out this blog [and if that is not strong enough for you, check out the very distinct link in the piece!]. It raises a very valid question--why do folks consider farmers to be Real Americans, as they are a very, very distinct minority?  And have been for quite some time.  My guess would be that path dependence is pretty hard to break.  Plus journalists and other commentators (such as myself) are lazy.

Anyhow, check it out while I giggle when I think about the phrase "average American."

HT to Jacob Levy's tweet.

New Offensive in Helmand

This article provides a good perspective on how this effort is different--not the size of it but what the effects will be afterwards.  It is less about clearing and more about holding and building, so it is less about NATO forces in play today (US, UK, Canadians, Danes, Aussies and others) and more about the capacity, resolve and intent of the Afghan officials who move in afterwards. 

Still, this is the kind of effort that is only possible after Obama's decision last spring (not this winter) to reinforce the US contribution and SecDef Gates to put Gen. McChystral in as head of ISAF.  His predecessor might have been inclined to do the same, but the statements by all involved reflect a coherence and adherence to a particular playbook that was not there last year.

Too early to tell how this will play out, but at least it looks like they are applying the appropriate strategy and vigorously so this time.  The enemy does get a vote and do the people, but, again, the most important actors in all of this will be the Afghan government at all levels.  Will the Afghan police act professionally or rapaciously?  Will the Afghan National Army perform well or not?  These are the big questions not just for today but for the long run.  Again, see the cliff notes version of Kilcullen that Ricks has posted over the last week.

Tenure, Life and Death [updated]

The academic lifestyle is often portrayed as an easy, relaxed way of being.  Yesterday's events at U of Alabama-Huntsville suggest otherwise.  A woman was denied tenure, and she reacted with extreme violence, killing three and seriously wounding three others.

Tenure is often treated as a life or death decision because of the job security that is either gained or lost, but people can bounce back from being denied tenure to get good academic jobs elsewhere or good jobs beyond the academic world.  I have several friends who went through incredibly stressful experiences but moved on and are happy and successful.  I have had my own career hit a variety of stumbles along the way, provoking not just a little anger.

So, analysts may focus on the current academic job market and the stress it induces.  They may consider whether tenure is an appropriate means to protect academic freedom, given its impact not just on individuals but also on the incentives of all involved.  But what is relatively clear, even this early in course of events, is that individuals can go "postal" in any occupation.  Most people do not react to job stresses and job losses by killing people, so the roots of yesterday's events lay in individual psychology much more so than in the system, even if the system is flawed.  Lots of people get denied tenure.  Lots of people have lost their jobs over the past year or two, but violence remains quite rare thankfully.

Perhaps we need to think about how to make the tenure process more humane and less stressful, but we should do that because it is the right thing to do, not because of this singular event.

So, those are my quick and dirty and ill-informed first thoughts to these events.

UPDATED:  See here for six takes on this by a bunch of academics.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Good Panels Gone Bad

Every few years, pop culture meets political science.  Scholars will take some hunk of pop culture and run with it.  And this can be a great idea (I recently read Dan Drezner's Zombie and IR textbook manuscript, and it will be assigned reading and not just for my class).  I heard of a legendary Elvis panel at a Southern Poli Sci Assn meeting (I think). There have apparently been panels in the past on Star Trek (I had a class on the Cultural Relevance of Star Trek back at Oberlin just as the second series was starting).

I attended a Harry Potter and IR panel at the ISA a while back after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  And it was both entertaining and educational. It was interesting to consider some of international political elements of the books (rules against flying carpets as trade barriers).  Some of the papers over-reached a bit, at least in my view because I am not a huge fan of literary criticism or postmodern approaches to IR. It did produce an edited volume that is worth checking out. 

I raise this because I spotted a panel that could have been interesting: "'Galactica Actual'; How Battlestar Galactica Explains World Politics."  Unfortunately for my tastes, it seems to be entirely personned by critical theorists.  It would be unfair to say that critical theorists lack senses of humor, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate either.  Plus their tendency to create new jargon or obscure words (aleatory?) tends cause my head to hurt, so I will not be attending.  A pity, as it could be fun.  BSG had heaps of angles that political scientists can play, including civil-military relations (the coup in the last season was the most obvious civ-mil crisis but far from the only one); diasporic politics; politics in new democracies; post-conflict reconciliation and justice; immigration politics; ethnic conflict; democratic peace; alliance politics; etc.  Unfortunately, the papers on this panel touch on none of these.

If anyone wants to organize a panel on Zombies and IR (if only to pimp Drezner's text), Brisco County and IR, Indiana Jones and the Lost Theory of IR, or Lost and Anarchy, I would be willing to sign up as long as I am not the only un-critical theorist.

PS  And sub movies, I can do a panel on that as well. Thanks to Dan's blog du jour for reminding me of that.

Olympian Statistics

Predicting the medal counts is now fair game for economists.  And the prediction is that Canada edges the US in total number of medals.  More likely with Lindsay Vonn injured, but I doubt it.  Lots of pressure on Canadian athletes since they did not win any gold in Calgary or Montreal.  But perhaps. 

I have a friend who is volunteering at the Olympics so I have been getting FB updates about the preparation and the abundance of snow for the big events and the rain and warmth downtown that challenge the newer, less traditional snowboarding/jumping events.  I might be into these games if I had not become so annoyed by the pre-games over-coverage/over-advertising.  So, instead, I am glad that the International Studies Association meeting overlaps and will distract me.  I can watch an event or two sans sound in the New Orleans Hilton bar.  Which is where I will be most of the time ;)

Palin is Over-rated? Really? Say It Ain't So.

Salon piece combines numbers and reviews various pieces to show that:
some poll results:

Although Palin is a tea party favorite, her potential as a presidential hopeful takes a severe hit in the survey. Fifty-five percent of Americans have unfavorable views of her, while the percentage holding favorable views has dipped to 37, a new low in Post-ABC polling. There is a growing sense that the former Alaska governor is not qualified to serve as president, with more than seven in 10 Americans now saying she is unqualified, up from 60 percent in a November survey. Even among Republicans, a majority now say Palin lacks the qualifications necessary for the White House.
[Perhaps Americans are not as stupid as commonly depicted in Super Bowl ads]
As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, that means Palin's running worse numbers than that divisive, devilish Hillary Clinton ever did:
To put this bluntly--Sarah Palin is more hated than Hillary Clinton at any point in Clinton's political career, and yet engenders very little of the love that made Clinton a political force.
I am looking forward to the Republican primaries in 2012 (which, of course, started as soon as McCain bit the dust in 2008).  Should be wildly entertaining.  I know that some folks may be wondering if Obama is going to be a one-term President, but things are mighty early, and I expect the economy to be turned around by then.  And with Palin in the mix, the Republicans are just going to alienate the median voter and then some.  Just think about Clinton and his health care reform bill and his mid-term elections .... 

Snarky Movie Review of the Week

those things [Anne Hathaway's performance and Jessica Biel's legs] helped me sit through "Valentine's Day" rather than flee to some happier place, such as an Iranian prison.
From Salon's review of Valentine's Day.

But perhaps more revealing about the reviewer:
Taken as a whole, though, "Valentine's Day" involves watching talented and attractive people squander their energies on a pointless and random exercise, which ... hey! Wait a second! That's an excellent description of what the real Valentine's Day does to the rest of us (less talented and attractive though we may be).
Hostility to this flick is not terribly surprising given the current backlash against romantic comedies (when was the last really good one?) and the ritual Hating Valentine's Day.  Of course, I cannot partake of either, as I am a sucker for silly romance AND my daughter was born on V-Day, so I cannot hate the holiday, no matter how socially constructed it is.

The bigger disappointment for me are the reviews of The Lightning Thief since I just picked up the book and am really enjoying it.  Reviewers cannot help the Harry Potter comparisons especially with Christopher Columbus directing.  But then again, my family is pretty reviewer-proof so the only question is which one we will see first?

Sad Day for Disk Fans Everywhere [Updated]

Frisbee inventor dies at 90
By DOUG ALDEN, AP Sports Writer

SALT LAKE CITY - Walter Fredrick Morrison, the man credited with inventing the Frisbee, has died. He was 90. Utah House Rep. Kay McIff, an attorney who represented Morrison in a royalties case, says Morrison died at his home in Monroe, Utah, on Tuesday. McIff is from Richfield, Morrison's original hometown.
That simple little toy has permeated every continent in every country, as many homes have Frisbees as any other device ever invented, McIff said. "How would you get through your youth without learning to throw a Frisbee?" Morrison's son, Walt, told The Associated Press Thursday that "old age caught up" with his father and that he also had cancer. He was a nice guy. He helped a lot of people, Walt Morrison said. "He was an entrepreneur. He was always looking for something to do."
Morrison sold the production and manufacturing rights to his "Pluto Platter" in 1957. The plastic flying disc was later renamed the "Frisbee," with sales surpassing 200 million discs. It is now a staple at beaches and college campuses across the country and spawned sports like Frisbee golf and the team sport Ultimate.
An official disc golf course at Creekside Park in the Salt Lake City suburb of Holladay is named for Morrison.
Morrison co-wrote a book with Frisbee enthusiast and historian Phil Kennedy in 2001. Kennedy released a brief biography about Morrison on Thursday, wishing his late friend "smoooooth flights."
According to Kennedy, Morrison and his future wife, Lu, used to toss a tin cake pan on the beach in California. The idea grew as Morrison considered ways to make the cake pans fly better and after serving as a pilot in World War II, Morrison began manufacturing his flying discs in 1948.
He would hawk the discs at local fairs and eventually attracted Wham-O Manufacturing, the company that bought the rights to Morrison's plastic discs.
Kennedy says Wham-O adopted the name "Frisbee" because that's what college students in New England were calling the Pluto Platters. The name came from the Frisbie Pie Co., a local bakery whose empty tins were tossed like the soon-to-be Frisbee.
Walt Morrison said his father is survived by three children. The family is planning a service for Morrison's friends and relatives Saturday at the Cowboy Corral in Elsinore.

[HT to Chris Ball, founding member of Oberlin Ultimate.]

and check out this page of pics (including a topless Bill Clinton throwing a disk on a beach--possibly safe at work) [HT to Sparta!]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's the 1970's-80's All Over Again

When I was in grad school, I was introduced to the poli sci literature on strong and weak states--referring not to country's relative power, but to each government's ability to resist their publics as they make hard decisions to adjust to the economic shocks of the 1970's.  So, Japan and France looked mighty good compared to the US, which could not/would not impose significant taxes on energy and stopped building nuclear power plants and all the rest.  However, as the decade progressed and then into the 1990's, it seemed that the Japanese miracle was not so wonderful after all, leading to a dark decade of stagnation.  The US, despite bumps and bruises and bubbles along the way, did pretty well.

Fast forward to the past two years: the US pops, government acts to bailout various sectors (finance, autos) while Europe and Japan get smug about the fallen giant.  But that is short-lived, as the US is experiencing incredibly high growth (although it has not yet dented unemployment) now while the European Union is facing an existential threat in the form of Greece (and Italy, Spain, and Portugal) going pop.  And the Japan auto industry is in a crisis as nearly every Toyota is facing a recall. 

So, what does this tell us?  Well, the strong/weak state distinction tended to conflate strong with smart and weak with dumb.  To be clear, the French and the Japanese and other supposedly strong states did do some stuff that was smart and did work out.  But these folks tended to face some accountability challenges--such as the faceless bureaucrats of Japan that largely ran the economy.  The US often accidentally does the right thing because it is so penetrated by interest groups and where politicians do their best to prevent the others from enacting policies.  President Clinton developed budget surpluses precisely because of the conflict with the Republicans.  On the other hand, those parts of government most protected from public opinion failed us the most--that would be the Fed, which fed the real estate bubble AND did not regulate the banks.  Good work, guys.  How can Alan Greenspan criticize anyone at this point is beyond me.  I guess he belongs to the Dick Cheney Club of Denial. 

Anyhow, the point of this rant, I think, is that insulation from public opinion can be a good thing in moderation, as the public may be too focused on the short term.  However, those who are insulated need to keep grounded, or else they can lose touch and do as much or more damage than interest groups, unions, and corporations.  As always, difficult tradeoffs that must be faced rather than ignored.

More Advice for SNL

There is a facebook movement to get SNL to have Betty White host.  Imagine having a talented comedian as host.  Of course, the material might still suck, but she could sell it.  It will be interesting to see if SNL decides to go with the obvious and correct move or not.

Valentine's Day Advice

Not from me.  No siree.  But from slate--which movies to avoid.

Of course, this article does suggest a basic challenge--is the early date supposed to be part of the vetting process?  If so, then do take a person to a movie that might alienate someone who is not the perfect soulmate.  If the aim is a bit more, ahem, short-term, then different criteria come to the fore.

Any readers have any suggestions?  Obviously, this blog would recommend Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, or a Zombie movie, given past posts....

For romance, the HP to see is Half-Blood Prince, with the Ron-Lavender-Hermione triangle and the Harry-Ginny courtship, although Order of the Phoenix has the Harry-Cho romance.  Both books end in death, but, in Phoenix, romance dies due to perceived betrayal.  So, HBP > OP.

For Indiana Jones, Raiders uber alles.  Karen Allen and Harrison Ford have the best chemistry, and no bouncing nuked frig in this one. 

Star Wars: Empire. There is some relevant romance in Return, but Empire has the best response to "I love you" that I can remember.  And, of course, "Who you calling scruffy-looking?"  Of course, you have to ignore the brother-sister kiss, but that is early enough not to spoil things.

Zombies: Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland both have a nice combo of comedy and romance.  And the scary stuff just might work to get a couple closer together.

Of course, there are other options. Say Anything is a classic, but only if neither viewer has either been stalked or been picked up for stalking.

Any suggestions from spew-fandom?

Oh, and some more advice for dining out on V-Day.

Membership Card?

Who is a card-carrying member of Al-Qaeda?  Where can one find applications?  Is there a hazing ritual?  What is rush like?  This piece is quite sharp in considering the complexity of the present day--that AQ labels are applied in ways that may be deceptive.  To call AQ a coherent organization is a big mistake.  I used to think of it as the Ford Foundation of terrorism--providing grants for projects that match the mission of the funders.  Another model is McDonalds-that each branch of terrorists out in the world can have the AQ label as a franchise operation--locally owned, locally run, but some level of coordination with home office, and that the brand means something.

But the reality is that there are folks who are labeled as tied to AQ that are simply not.  Either outsiders (like Western governments or the media) have an interest or a simplistic model that leads to application of the AQ label.  Or the folks themselves want to tie themselves into a larger movement, whether or not they have any connection with the home office.  Or AQ identifies folks as members even though they have no connection just to promote itself.

The relevance of all of this is that it reminds us that fighting terrorism is fighting a tactic, not a movement, not an organization, not something that can be defeated.  Terrorist strategies can be countered, their impacts can be minimized (or maximized by overreacting), and so forth.  AQ as an organization/network can be and should be attacked, but this will not stop individuals with loose or non-existent ties from being inspired by AQ or just trying to make themselves more important. 

Countering terrorism and fighting AQ require multidimensional efforts, heaps of intel to discriminate between bigger and less threats, and some awareness that there may be other things that may be more important, like remaining relatively true to one's values, preserving alliances against other threats, maintaining healthy economies and so forth.  Overreacting is playing into the hands of the terrorists, even if it is also good politics in the short run.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snarky Post of the Week

Slate had a contest--where to put the big terrorism trails now that NY is bailing.  No surprise that the readers of Slate are pretty snarky, indeed.

Detroit won (see the post for explanations, but think--minimal collateral damage).  But my favorite two are:
Wasilla, Alaska. Steve (he (?) didn't give a last name) suggests that if the KSM trial were to be held in Wasilla, "The national press can cover this trial and the Bristol Palin child custody hearings at the same time."

Niagara Falls, N.Y. Notes Lee Neville: "Escape by jumping over the falls and swimming to Canada is almost suicidal. Bonus: Even if KSM survived a jailbreak, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police would be waiting. Their unofficial motto: 'We always get our man.' " Neville also points out that "it would be counterproductive for terrorists to fly airplanes into the waterfalls because Osama bin Laden is an outspoken environmentalist" and that local "souvenir stands are not just shovel-ready but kitsch-ready. Sample: 'KSM got the death penalty but all I got was this mist-proof hoodie.'
To be clear, the Steve mentioned above is not me. I would like to take credit, but cannot.  And the Niagara Falls entry is just brilliant.

More Lost Thoughts on Kate Does

Just a couple of thoughts after reading various blogs

The Longest Story Ever Told?

No, not Afghanistan again.

As I have indicated before, I am a big fan of How I Met Your Mother.  It fills the niche that Seinfeld occupied--comparative social theory testing.  But, of course, just as Seinfeld strained believability with much of its stuff, HIMYM has a basic problem with the premise--a father telling his kids about how he met their mother.  The video below illustrates this quite well--that the story is taking a long, long time to get to the mystery that the kids already know the answer to (unlike the eminently re-watchable Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher movie--Definitely, Maybe) and includes a bunch of material that one would not tell one's kids. 

Not that there is anything wrong with that.