Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wuffle's Law

One of the recurring themes both in my blog and at the Poli Sci Job Rumor site is that of rankings.  See here, here, and here for a start of my fixation.

Anyhow, I am always reminded of a simple fact when I see any poli sci ranking of journals, presses, departments whatever: that whenever a ranking is suggested or revised, it is always suggested by someone who benefits from the new ranking.  Nobody ever proposes a ranking that puts their department lower.  So, Godwin's Law is that the longer any internet discussion, the probability of Hitler/Nazis/Holocaust being mentioned approaches one.

What would we name the following law: Any ranking of any aspect of the academic enterprise will produce revised rankings that improve the standing of the folks who produce the revised rankings? In honor of a semi-anonymous person who published amusing pieces at PS (see here for an example if you can--gated), so how about Wuffle's Law?

Russia Fits!!!

In my book with Bill Ayres (again, the non-terrorist one or perhaps just the secretly terrorist one), we argued that Russia was one of the cases of the silent dog that did not bark--that Russia did not engage in irredentism, despite being voted most likely to engage in such activities at its prom in 1991.   We contended (daringly, I say, as non-specialists) that Russia's identity crisis (what does it mean to be Russian sans Ukraine et al.) was poor grounds for any significant effort to annex neighboring territories inhabited by Russians even with 25 million Russians left outside of Russia when the Soviet Union fell apart.

But then Russia has been playing around with supporting separatists in Georgia--the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians, even issuing some of these folks passports.  Yet Russia did not annex these territories or really threaten to do so.  Plus Russia still has not been so enthused about Belarus returning to the fold even though this most dysfunctional ex-Soviet ex-Republic has occasionally expressed interest.

So, we were never convinced that the interventions with Georgia really were irredentism since it was never about identification with kin and never really about a Greater Russia.  Now we have a bit more evidence to our central thesis--xenophobia can serve as a brake on foreign adventures and even encourage retrenchment:
“In Russian public opinion for both subjective and objective reasons there has gradually been the adoption of a view that Russia has more to profit by distancing itself from the Caucasus and its problems, though formally maintaining territorial integrity.”  (Italics in the original, red not so much).
The piece concludes with this:
Russia’s new nationalism is a mixed blessing for Europe. The chances of an expansionary ‘Weimar Russia,’ feared during the Georgia War are minimised – but the danger of a Russia that is more racist and at risk of a bloody divorce in the North Caucasus should keep Europe awake at night.
I don't know--if I were the Poles, Baltics, and especially the Georgians, I would be happy for some retrenchment rather than adventurism, even if it meant a more racist Russia.  Yes, there are tradeoffs as more xenophobia is not more happiness--it has mixed effects.  As we raise in the book, you get less irredentism but more discrimination at home.  I know how the neighbors would vote, just as I am pretty sure that there are significant folks within Russia that find this rising xenophobia to be less than appealing.

But, since this is my blog, it is all about me.  And these trends suggest that Bill and I were on target.  If Russia fits, our theory acquits?  Um, never mind.

PS  I think this post sets my non-Olympic record for number of parenthetical expressions in one post.

PPS That Russia is critical of France for arming the Libyan rebels makes me giggle.  Russia has hardly been restrained from arming folks it wants to arm.

Where's Wallace? Rocking on FNL

While I am miffed at the bridge situation (see previous post), one of the advantages of living here is that I am getting the last few episodes of Friday Night Lights nine days before the Americans who rely on NBC (and about six months behind the folks who got it with DirectTV).  And it is ending so very well.

Spoilers lurk below, but consider this before you jump: is there any city or state/province in North America that sounds like an alien species better than when you refer to somebody from Calgary as a Calgarian?

Because You Have No Credibility

The title is the answer to the following question: Why would Montrealers, including the local newspaper, really need to see the inspection reports for the Mercier bridge?  Sam Hamad, the head of the relevant agency, basically told the newspaper to screw off.  Just because everything that we have been told for the past few years seems to have been a pack o' lies and/or omissions, why should we have any need to see the reports?

Oh, because we would only understand half?  Perhaps the newspaper might have some experts that they could interview.  Oops.

The good news is not all of the bridges connecting Montreal to the surrounding areas are on the verge of collapse.  Just two of the four major connections to the South Shore--the big suburbs on that side of the river but also the shortest route to the US.  The Champlain bridge apparently has more traffic on it than any other bridge in Canada or close to it, and it was designed so badly it only has a fifty year life span. And getting a new one built requires heaps of federal-provincial wrangling.  The Mercier Bridge is half-closed with a crater in the open half.  Double oops.  And repairing that is complicated since it lands on the south shore on the lands of the Kahnawake, who understand only too well how much leverage this gives this First Nations tribe. 

The bridge folks, like the folks running the city of Montreal (who have managed to take the new innovative bike rental business, Bixi, and turn into a money-losing, law-violating, heart-breaking venture), have simply no credibility.  So, when they deny access to reports, people suspect that they might be hiding something.  And they can deny the Canadian equivalent of Freedom of Information requests, Access to Information, by saying that the material contains opinions or recommendations, that the recommendations have not been acted upon, or that it would affect bidding.  So, damn, the Access of Information Act is actually a wonderful shield for the bridge people and any other government officials that are running their cities or province into the ground (or the water, as the case may be). 

I am now pondering how my family will get to New York for our summer vacation--will we dare to try to cross one of these broken bridges or will we go West to go East and add an hour or so to the trip?  I have already changed my Ultimate habits--I no longer play regularly in the summer leagues as they require a commitment to travel anywhere in the Greater Montreal area during rush hour to get to a game.  Instead, I will sub for a team that thinks it needs me if the game is on the western half of the Island of Montreal--I will not cross bridges or drive through the Turcot interchange (which is also falling apart--hence the nets under the overpasses--see the pic) even though I love to play ultimate.

But I guess we should trust the bridge folks, right?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Blog Burnout Day: Let's Re-Hash NATO

I had a surprising hard time writing a piece for Current Intelligence on Afghanistan and the Obama announcement.  Should have been easy.  I am hitting some serious writer's block, so I am posting today an op-ed that didn't make it.  On NATO.  Not a surprise that newspapers did not find it seductive enough (how come I still think of Debbie Harry when I hear or use the word seductive?  Oh, never mind).

Is NATO’s Cup Empty?
Stephen M. Saideman, McGill University

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has gotten much attention for his speech blasting NATO and pondering its relevance.  The speech should not be that surprising since such critiques are a grand tradition.  Not only did Gates’s predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, say similar things, but even the ordinarily polite Canadians expressed much frustration at the restrictions limiting what other countries were doing in Afghanistan.  Gates is getting much attention because he is viewed as being far more deliberate and discreet than Rumsfeld and far more aware of the tradeoffs that come with the realities of military deployments.  Opponents of NATO and of the Afghanistan and Libya missions will take this speech and assert that NATO is a dying organization.  The reality is a bit more complex as NATO is indeed constrained, but still has consistently provided significant contributions since the end of the cold war. 
            It is clear that the members of the alliance do not contribute equally nor have they ever.  During the 1980’s, the burden-sharing debate was focused on whether countries spent enough of their gross domestic product on defense.  During the 1990’s, countries varied in their participation in the NATO stabilization efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo AND there was much frustration at the intra-alliance bargaining over how to bomb Serbia.  During the 2000’s, the debate over burden-sharing became far more real as some countries paid a far higher price for their operations in Afghanistan.  The Danes and Canadians led in terms of killed in action per capita while the Germans, Italians and Spaniards faced much criticism for being restricted from engaging in combat in the South and East of Afghanistan.  These restrictions, known as caveats, were the subject of multiple NATO summits and are likely to be of increased relevance over the next few years as the transition plan for the NATO mission in Afghanistan implies moving troops around the country.
            The ability of individual countries to opt out of specific operations or entire missions is integral to NATO’s existence and to any of its efforts.  Why?  Because decisions are made by consensus, and we are simply not going to get all twenty-eight countries to agree to a decision if they are obligated to do whatever is commanded.  Indeed, Article V, which is the focal point of the organization, “an attack upon one is considered an attack upon all” provides an exit option, as each country is responsible for responding to such an attack “as it deems necessary.”  One cannot fix the caveat problem since it is foundational to the organization.
            Even with these handcuffs, NATO has made an impact, if not efficiently, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Libya.  The difference between the UN force and the NATO effort in Bosnia 1995-1996 was one of night and day, as the latter had far more robust rules and could successfully deter attacks by any of the sides against each other.  We overlook the reality that there has been no significant violence in Bosnia since the entry of NATO, which sharply contrasts with the years of UN failure.  NATO, despite significant disagreement within the organization and despite a very visible lack of commitment by its members with promises of no ground forces, was able to compel Serbia into essentially giving up a politically, culturally, and historically significant piece of territory.  Yes, it took about eighty days, but it is a pretty impressive effort, given how little the NATO countries, including the US, were willing to risk.
            The allied troops vary in how efficient they are in Afghanistan, but they have been providing much added value to the effort.  While the US was distracted with Iraq, the Canadians were preventing Kandahar from falling to the Taliban and the British and Danes were keeping the insurgents at bay in Helmand.  The Germans, much criticized, were at least keeping a NATO presence in a less dangerous area.  If NATO fails in Afghanistan, it will not be entirely due to the caveats and other restrictions on the troops in the country.  We have the three P’s that are more responsible: poppies, Pakistan and President Karzai. 
            Libya is far from over, and the NATO effort is borne very unevenly with the US, the French, the British, the Canadians, the Danes and the Norwegians doing nearly all of the work.  So, why bother with NATO?  Why not just do it alone or with coalitions of the willing.  Well, Iraq teaches us a couple of things.  First, countries that participate in coalitions of the willing may still have caveats, as the Spaniards, Australians and others proved in Iraq.  Second, NATO provides a multilateral gloss that provides greater legitimacy so that other international organizations are more likely to help out.  Third, a NATO effort is seen as less imperial to international audiences and those in the country that is the object of the intervention than a solo American one.  Fourth, it is very hard to get significant contributions from other countries if NATO is not involved.  In the domestic debates over deploying to Afghanistan and Libya, less enthusiastic political parties had to consider whether opposing a NATO mission would impact whether they were perceived as serious parties.  While the UK and France were willing to participate in the Libyan operation without a NATO cover, the other countries now participating in the effort would faced far more difficulties at home and Italy might not have provided bases for the effort.
            NATO is not a perfect organization by any means, and it is not known for efficiency.  But no other multilateral security organization comes close and coalitions of the willing have similar problems while not providing any of the legitimacy.  The US has all kinds of reasons for not wanting to go it alone, and its allies would very much prefer that the US does not go solo into these kinds of efforts.  The reality is that NATO will be around for quite a while to come as it can and does provide meaningful contributions to the important problems of the day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sports Media Gripe of the Week

The National Football League and those who cover it have conspired to make news by releasing a list of the top 100 players in the league.  Since there is no real way to measure the value of a particular wide receiver versus a linebacker versus a right guard, this just provides heaps of fodder for endless and meaningless debates.  It is hard enough comparing two quarterbacks since they belong to different systems with different personnel.  Sure, there are stats out there that can help, although one should beware of stats in team sports.

This might all be a fun diversion from the NFL lockout, but I will not fall for it.  I choose not to read any of the posts online about the magic list of 100.  That should reduce my online time waste-age by 3.47%.

Funny-Looking or Funny Ha-Ha

Tim Goodman recently articulated something that I had been mildly displeased with for years--that the comedy category of the Emmys tends to focus on stuff that is not at all comedic.  That is, not funny. 

Other folks have taken Tim's challenge and ranked shows by how funny they are.  The list is not a bad effort, but I do have some suggested revisions, focusing solely on the shows that I have watched more than once recently.

This is their list, edited down.
43. "Mad Love"
42. "Episodes"
29. "Chuck"
12. "The Big Bang Theory"
10. "The Office"
6. "How I Met Your Mother"
3. "Community"
2. "Modern Family"
1. "Parks and Recreation"

My list would be from most funny to least:
  1. Community
  2. Parks and Rec
  3. South Park (where is it in the established list--is it not a sitcom?)
  4. Chuck (always some good laughs with some interesting drama and heaps of Yvonne S.)
  5. Modern Family (some of the humor is just too painful for me to watch--I hate embarrassment gags)
  6. Big Bang Theory
  7. How I Met Your Mother
  8. The Office
  9. Episodes
  10. Mad Love
I would also put Shameless in the middle of this list as it is often very, very funny.   And yes, my recommendations for Emmys for Best Comedy would be the top five here.  The Showtime "comedies, except for Shameless, don't amuse me, except the old years of Weeds.  And I do not get the TBS/TNT/FX comedies reliably thanks to the vagaries of Canadian programming.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fussing with Our Pool

It looks like anyone who had June or before is going to lose in the Qaddafi pool o' regime change.  Pundits are now pondering whether the involvement of the International Criminal Court will lead to an earlier or later resolution, including the NYT's Nicholas Kristof who tweeted:
Int'l Criminal Court Issues Arrest Warrant for Qaddafi An office pool for date he's arrested?
As followers of my blog now, we already have a pool, but it is a broader one of regime change.  Qaddafi may or may not be arrested and sent to The Hague.  That is one possible outcome that one could wager on in my on-going pool.  The relevance of the arrest warrant is whether it will speed up or slow down Qaddafi's departure from his Iron Throne (or whatever they call it).  Roland Paris in his new blog at the Canadian International Council, R2P v. ICC?, suggests that there might be a bit of a tradeoff between doing what is right (indicting) and doing what is best (getting the bastard out of power). 

However, as others have tweeted, Qaddafi has never seemed likely to walk away, so it is not clear that the threat of an arrest if he steps aside changes things much.  There has been talk of negotiations but not clear that they can go anywhere.  Still, the war goes on.  Oops, the conflict short of hostilities goes on.

The old pool has these options left:
June 20th to July 3rd--things start to get too hot for Qaddafi, jail cell in cool Hague sounds good.
July 4th--if it is good enough for Will Smith, it is good enough for Qaddafi.
July 5th-28th--Qaddafi wants to give a gift to me or my many relatives who have a birthday in this period.
July 29th-August 30th--Qaddafi wants to sneak out while most of Europe is on vacation.
August 31st-Sept 4th--Big events seem to happen during the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (Katrina), so Qaddafi will quit while most of the American experts are otherwise indisposed.
Sept 5th to the end of the year--slow but steady wins the race?
Last possible choice: Qaddafi lasts as long as the world (if the world ends on Jan 1st 2012).  This is the choice for the NATO doubters--that the effort fails and Qaddafi sticks around.
Matt Eckel has most of July,Stephanie Carvin has APSA, and Chris C. has August.   Thus, we still have until July 3rd, July 4th, the rest of the year, and next year and beyond open.  

Oh, the stakes are: winner gets to post in my blog whatever they want, including snarky takes (true or false) to embarrass me.

By Jove, We Have a Crisis in Civ-Mil Relations, part two

What is the best way to deal with a crisis in civil-military relations?  How about accusing the less discreet generals and admirals of endangering the pilots, sailors and troops involved?
“We must be very careful, those of us who have authority in defence, in discussing the sustainability of our mission. People’s lives are at stake. There can be only one message that goes out to Libya that is we have the military capability, political resolve and legal authority to the through what we started.”
 Well, that will do the trick.  Problem solved, right?  Or perhaps the senior officers might just suggest that the civilians are the ones endangering lives by cutting back the military so deeply.  I am not saying that they would be right, but simply that trying to shut up the senior officers by telling them that they are betraying their troops may not be the way to go. 

Perhaps the officers would not be so uppity if they felt that they had some say in how the deep defence cuts would play out.  Perhaps not.

I do think all these British folks need to get behind some doors and have some frank discussions so that there is less of a need to air their dirty laundry to us all, even if random academics find it to be both entertaining and useful for their research.

Question for The Belgian Readers

Belgium has announced that it is removing half of its troops from Afghanistan.  This surprises not a bit, as NATO has already committed to a glidepath to the door by 2014-15.  They call it transition.  What is most interesting about the planned Belgian drawdown is that they are removing their forces around the Kabul airport and the trainers from Kunduz while keeping the F-16's based in Kandahar.

I don't know the exact costs of all of this, but usually the planes and their logistics are pretty steep.  Plus Guards and trainers are less likely to cause controversy back home than fighter planes which can bomb the wrong place.  I don't know what rules of engagement the Belgian pilots must obey (and, yes, those would be Belgian rules, not NATO ones), so it might not be so risky. 

Still, given that Belgium's air force is almost certainly stretched by its participation in the Libyan mission (F-16's again), it is interesting that the ground forces, largely out of harm's way and otherwise unoccupied, are going out the door first. 

Of course, the other striking thing is that Belgium still lacks a government, with caretakers making major decisions.  Perhaps government is over-rated?

I'd appreciate any Belgians or experts on Belgium to provide any perspectives they might care to share. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

When Realism Lacks Realism

The Realist tradition in International Relations long ago won the big battle by getting the best name.  By calling itself Realism, the realist tradition makes all other approaches to IR seem idealistic, based in dreams but not realities.  Anything but grounded in hard, cold calculations of how things really are.  But the joy of realism is how often its acolytes indulge in fantasy.  Ah, but only if we could have the good old days of the cold war, for instance.* 
*  Insert gratuitous cite of Mearsheimer's piece in International Security.
Who do realists look to as their latter-day Bismarck?  Henry Kissinger, of course, who was a Realist thinker at Harvard before serving as National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State.  So, it is far from an accident that Gideon Rose cites the Kissinger/Nixon exemplar when suggesting to Obama a way out of Afghanistan.  Leave by lying.  The best way to preserve national power and enhance national security would be to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, as frittering away more resources on an unwinnable war is anathema to a realist, just as it was when the drain was South Vietnam.  But just picking up and leaving quickly hurts the reputation, so try to leave in a way that provides a decent interval between exist and the collapse of one's ally.  And lie about it.

Rose acknowledges that this is hard, due to domestic politics, but more or less wishes away such constraints.  More problematically, he does not recall the consequences of the Kissinger/Nixon strategy, especially when you"lay down suppressive fire so the enemy cannot rush into the gap you leave behind."  That would be bombing Cambodia and Laos and invading the former (not to mention the War Powers Act).  Rose cites drones as being better than the "ham-fisted" approach.  Sure.  But what happened to Cambodia after the US left?  Just a smidge of genocide.  Ok, perhaps the most catastrophic episode of genocide in per capita terms--one quarter of Cambodia's population if I remember correctly.

So, the big question is really not so much what happens to Afghanistan after we leave if we do not leave well, but what happens to Pakistan?  A nuclear-armed Pakistan, with a most broken set of civil-military dynamics, on-going insurgencies, deep poverty, extreme corruption, an irredentist campaign targeting its larger and nuclear-armed neighbor.  Hmmm.  I guess it is better to be a Realist** and ignore this ugly bit of reality. 
**  Some of my friends and students confuse me for a Realist since I do tend to think that power has a great deal with shaping outcomes. I just don't think power or security influence the choices leaders and states make as much as Realists aver.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Detainee Obession and Distraction

First, a couple of caveats: I am not a scholar of international law; and I am not a Canadian who lived through Somalia of 1993.  Second, I do respect that Canada holds its troops and leaders to more accountability on detainee issues than the US.  I find it appalling that few folks paid a significant price for Abu Ghraib.

Having said that, I do not think the Canadian public has been well-served by the media's and the opposition parties' focus on detainees in Afghanistan.  To be clear, the issue is not about whether the Canadian Forces deliberately transferred Afghans they picked up so that they could be tortured by the Afghan authorities.  This is not a question of American-style rendition.  Nor is it a question of whether the Canadians abused Afghans.  No, the question is: what happens to the detainees once they are handed over to the Afghanistan authorities? 

Clearly, some were abused, as Afghanistan has not had the same set of standards or capacity that Canada does.  Is this a serious issue?  Certainly.  Has the Canadian military taken this seriously?  Well, I have not read the thousands of documents, but I am pretty sure.  Indeed, it is very clear that the detainee issue is one of the four highest priorities for any and all Canadian commanders sent to Afghanistan.  The problem is one of working in a sovereign country (sort of) without the ability to rely on the traditional mechanism (hand detainees off to the Americans who usually are big enoguh to have a facility).  While the original agreement with Afghanistan was far from perfect, the Canadian Forces did stop handing over detainees when they found the Afghans to be abusing them.  How do I know this?  I observed it on a ten day trip to Afghanistan in December 2007.  I am pretty sure the reporters embedded in Kandahar had a good idea of what was going on back then.  The funny thing is that this timeline shows the abuses but does not show that transfers did stop for a while.

Again, to be clear, was there a risk of abuse?  Yes.  Did the CF know that this risk existed.  Sure.  Did they know that guys were certainly going to be abused?  No.  I am pretty sure international law (again, I am not a lawyer) focuses on probabilities, not possibilities.  

Anyhow, the detainee issue has been the focal point of media coverage and of the opposition in parliament.  I find this to be a distraction because these same folks have obsessed about this rather than focus on much more significant issues for the success of the mission, for Canada's impact in the world, and for the accountability of politicians at home.  What would those be?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Keep on Swimming: Pool Update

Ok, perhaps I got a bit enthused about the Libyan pool of regime change with the hope of a June outcome.  These things always take longer than we hoped.  Funny how doing as little as possible (no ground troops, no American A-10's or AC 130s) can prolong a mission.

Which will break first: Qaddafi or NATO? The Italians made some noises after this week's errant air strike, but the French and British quickly re-asserted their commitment.  And folks (if Senator McCain counts as a folk) are now saying that if NATO fails here, then NATO is toast.*  So, the contest will continue. 
*  No, NATO is not a dead organization if it fails here.  This is not a core mission nor essential to NATO's identity as a security organization for Europe.  It would dent NATO's reputation, but there will be plenty of interest/inertia in keeping NATO around.  The EU has not come close.  And you are not going to see folks jettison an institution unless there is a replacement.
Putting NATO's reputation on the line is just part of the Chicken game that is playing out here (but apparently not in the new Footloose remake!).  Thus far, Qaddafi has played the game as well as one can: by burning bridges, acting like he does not care about dying, and so forth. The NATO allies have been playing chicken quite poorly, demonstrating a lack of resolve any chance they can get.  But, as with Kosovo, the institution's reputation will become the stakes that people really care about and not so much the people of Libya. 

So, June is looking to be out, July may be too soon, but August is looking pretty good.  Too bad everyone will be on vacation. 

Branding Over Substance?

Apparently, Bin Laden was considering how low Al Qaeda's reputation had sunk and was seeking a new brand when he died.  Count on the web to come up with a survey of new names for the organization

As tempted as I am to vote for the League of Extraordinary Bears, I have a beard and thus must not vote for that one.  Perhaps iQaeda to appeal to the kids.  Or not, since the whole AQ thing was aimed at going back a few centuries. 

Anyhow, check out the site and register your vote for the new name for AQ.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Parlez Vous Schadenfreude

Back to an old theme of schadenfreude.  When a leader of a party in a democracy has to demand loyalty oaths from members of her party, you know the leader and the part are in deep doo-doo.  Marois seems to be responding well to the accusations of being too authoritarian by being just the right amount of authoritarian.  And I must admit that my delight is amplified by the fact that this latest intra-Parti Quebecois bout started (more or less) with disagreements over how to attract an NHL team to Quebec (and public funding, now out of favor in the US, seems to be a chois). 

The best part is that the PQ was in the verge of victory as the local Liberals have been in power way too long, allowing all of the usual corruption scandals to fester and, even better, to be in power while the bridges are collapsing.  Sure, the PQ can make a comeback, but there is little interest in their main raison d'etre of sovereignty.  Now, folks just want a few bridges, some functional government, and maybe a doctor in the neighborhood.

Given that the PQ has threatened in the past to kick my daughter out of her current school, to limit her choices when she reaches CEGEP (unique Quebec school between high school and university), to cut the funding for my school, etc., I cannot help but enjoy the fratricide that is sovereigntist politics in Quebec.  And more fun yet to come as Gilles Duceppe, who led his party into a crater, is now speaking again, saying that he supports Marois because he has to: "'She was elected. We have to work with her."  If that is not tres enthusiastic, I don't know what is.

Game of Thrones and IR Theory

Charli Carpenter has thrown down the gauntlet.  She has pondered whether/why IR folks have not been blogging about Game of Thrones.  Why?  Because we are tired.  Every episode is such great TV that we are left in awe.  Our brains are so focused on getting the names straight, understanding the dynamics within each family and between them, that we no brainpower left to use.

Spoilers lurk below:

Headed to the Door

Lots to react to, lots to think about regarding Obama's speech last night.  I am not going to say much here and now because I have to think about it and read a dozen or so other posts about it.  And because I am writing about it for my column at Current Intelligence for my July post and I don't want to step on it here.

So, just a few tweets of mine last night as I reacted to the news after a day of driving to and from Ottawa to interview a general and have a beer with Roland Paris, with some elaboration as necessary.

First, Obama has a better sense of timing than the Canadians or Dutch.  The big steps down in the US presence occur after fighting season while the two early departers (and then returners*) set July and August for their withdrawals.
*  I need to spend a bit of time writing up one of the bits I developed from my visit to the Netherlands about how Afghanistan is not unlike the Hotel California--you can check out anytime you'd like, but you can never leave.   Both Canada and Netherlands had decisions this year to send training missions to Afghanistan.
Of course, Obama's decision, like the Canadian one, about timing was political.  That it means he keeps his various promises before the next election.

Which gets to a second set of tweets: that the decision was political and not military.  While Clausewitz may be obsolete as a strategist (and dead, too), the definition of war as politics by other means still stands.  So, to say that the decision was not military ignores the fundamental reality that all war is political and COIN is doubly so.  In so many ways, but two stand out here: that Obama is doing this to play to the domestic audience and that COIN involves not just killing people but getting support for the government.  Regarding the former, duh.  To keep the war going, Obama needed to throw a bone or two to Congress, which is increasingly frustrated with the war.**
** Perhaps Obama should have submitted the Libyan endeavor to more Congressional involvement to get more support for the Afghan war, but he has not.  Frustrates the hell out of me, but I do kind of see the point of not willing to have the GOP play politics with it.  On the other hand, wouldn't it be a good thing to force GOP to either look like they were playing politics with it or having them support it?  Like Ryan's Medicare plan, part two?  Another post, I guess.
Which leads to my big conclusion of the moment: the planned withdrawals were big enough to meet the promises he had made when he started the surge but delayed enough not to impact operations that much until 2012.  It is true that this will make it harder to re-deploy and shift the focus to Eastern Afghanistan as the military had hoped.  But that could still happen.  The twitter folk are focusing on comments made by senior admin official, but if things work out well on the ground (big, big if), one can see redeployments as the speech does not prohibit that.. 

One of my greatest frustrations has been that we wasted so much time.  Whenever anyone says we have been doing "this" for ten years, I want to scream.  We have been doing stuff in Afghanistan since 2001, but not real efforts to fight the insurgency with enough troops and a good strategy and reasonably coherent NATO command and control  All of this really started in 2009.  Five years (with 2014 as the new deadline, more or less) is a very short time to do a counter-insurgency campaign.  But the reality is that US and NATO leaders (mostly Bush's fault, in my humble opinion) blew a lot of the time on the clock.  Democracies in the modern day only have so much patience for war, even "warlike" ones like the US that got hit hard ten years ago.  So, this decision is not surprising.  Especially in a time of economic stress. 

While this may not be the best decision for Afghanistan, I cannot help but to ask: what other choices were left to Obama?  He was constrained by Bush's decisions and then by his own.  Should he have not committed to starting a withdrawal two years ago?  Probably.  But there are many Americans who will be glad that the US is on a similar glidepath in Afghanistan as it is in Iraq. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The False Tradeoff

Butter or guns?  Mayors and Senators are now griping about the costs of the US wars, arguing that we should be spending the money at home.  I get that.  The US has a fiscal crisis, but even given how expensive the wars are (and the Iraq costs are about to hit zero, more or less, after December), the crisis is not about spending.  It is about revenues.  Tax rates are historically low, and commitments have not changed to reflect this.  Not just international commitments, but commitments to old folks in the forms of medicare and social security.  Certainly, we need to reduce the defense budget, and getting out of Afghanistan would help.  But to present it as if that is the only way or the best way to address the fiscal mess is problematic in the extreme.  The anti-tax mania must eventually be confronted by politicians who have some guts, because that is the enduring threat to American prosperity, security, and posterity. 

There are plenty of good reasons to oppose the war in Afghanistan.  But the fiscal crisis is not really one of them.  We can do important things at home and abroad if we are willing to pay for them.  And if we are not willing to pay for them, cutting the Afghanistan mission is not going to make that much of a difference.

By Jove, We Have a Crisis in Civ-Mil Relations

Usually, when we think of crises in civilian-military relations, two possibilities come to mind: a coup someplace or the American military and civilians are not getting along.  But now we have the Brits doing a very nice imitation of a classic US civ-mil crisis.

We now have British naval, air and army leaders making assessments about current missions that are at odds with the messaging of the British government.  Heads of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have indicated that fighting two wars is unsustainable with current capabilities and budgets. 

Prime Minister David Cameron:
"angrily told RAF and Navy chiefs who questioned the mission in Libya: “You do the fighting, I’ll do the talking.”

And now,
General Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff, suggests in a television programme that Mr Cameron’s 2015 “deadline” to end combat operations [in Afghanistan] could slip.
Is this inappropriate?  Depends.  It seems to be the case that the officers are taking their cases to members of parliament and the press rather than to the Prime Minister:
Mr Cameron is understood to be particularly unhappy that some of the military concerns expressed about Libya to MPs and the media have not been raised with him. A senior source said: “In some ways, it’s a good thing that the chiefs are prepared to stand up to ministers and aren’t just 'Yes’ men. But it would be much more helpful if they did it in private instead of in the papers and in Parliament.”
But it is more complex than that.  There are at least two ways to look at this conversation amid deep cuts in the defence budgets (and in all other budgets):
  1. The military is upset about the budget cuts and is using these events to demonstrate that the cuts, made deeply and bluntly, have a significant impact on British standing in the world.  Thus, the crisis du jour is really about the military being opportunistic.
  2. Given how the cuts in the budget were made, the military has learned that Cameron makes decisions without taking seriously the advice they give him, and thus have learned that they must go outside of the normal procedures to have any impact.  So, the crisis is not so much about the military whining about a loss in £'s but the military feeling that the Prime Minister neither understands their concerns nor cares about them. 
Which one is it?  Probably a bit of both, but Cameron does seem to be reacting quite poorly, as the division of labor he proposes (military fights, he speaks) raises the question of whose job is it do the thinking?  To be clear, having a crappy leader (not saying Cameron is or isn't) is no excuse for military leaders to run amok.  However, in the first case, the Admiral was talking to members of parliament (despite Westminister systems having poor oversight over their militaries)* and should be speaking what he considers to be the truth.  But it is quite clear that there is a crisis in civil-military relations here in that both sides have lost confidence in the other. **
* One of my projects, on a backburner, is considering how British-style parliaments do oversight over their militaries. 
**  Of course, I am no expert on British civ-mil relations, so I could be wrong.
The timing here is most interesting, as the US may be seeing a bit of a storm brewing over how much Obama should be reducing the forces in Afghanistan and how quickly.  The difference: the storm is likely to be as much or more within the US military as between the military and the President.  For much of the American armed forces, Afghanistan is not a high priority, and they would like to get on with the job of preparing for the next big war (with China).  I will be writing more about the big US decision after Obama's speech tonight rather than speculating wildly now.  Instead, I am wildly speculating about the Brits.

Drones Overboard

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have become very prominent over the past few years and very much so over the past few days.  Erica Chenoweth does a great job of reviewing the state of scholarship on the effectiveness of Drone strikes.  And now an unarmed UAV has been downed over Libya.

I tweeted that perhaps folks were overreacting as the one of the key reasons to have UAVs is to put robots in harm's way rather than people.  I got a bit of a pushback from NATO's friends via!/NATOSource/.   The counter-tweet noted that losing technology to the bad guys is not a good thing and, given that UAVs are a scarce commodity (in military jargon: low density, high demand), losing one is pretty significant.  So, I apologize for being flippant about this.  I realize that these UAVs are expensive and scarce.  Moreover,  we do not want to share the technology with the Libyan government who can learn how to counter these systems and/or sell the parts to countries that might not be friends of ours. 

I guess my tweet was due to frustration--that losing a helicopter in Afghanistan is not really news these days but losing a UAV in Libya is.  While this is the first downing of a UAV in Libya, we have lost UAVs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so this is not a unique event or the first time we may have lost some technology that could be exploited by other folks.

I guess the media got more excited (or I have exaggerated the media's excitement) because it happened over Libya.  Why?  Because the media tends to obsess about stuff that is being hotly debated in national capitols, and Libya certainly is a hot issue in DC, Ottawa, London, and elsewhere.  Afghanistan comes and goes, but Libya is the show right now, so one UAV and one errant strike get far more play than their strategic significance would suggest.

I also tweeted that folks were overreacting to the NATO strike that killed some civilians.  Again, this is a serious issue, but it, by itself, should not really raise that many questions or change that many minds about the mission.  Any military campaign will inevitably kill bystanders.  The difference is that for NATO, these unfortunate people were unintended casualties and not targets, whereas Qaddafi's force continue to aim at the civilians.  The ratio of civilians killed by the Libyan government vs NATO forces must be starker than the Taliban/NATO ratio.  Yes, hitting civilians can undermine the effort, but NATO is doing as much as it can to avoid that.  Hard to do without having ground troops providing intel, but that is where UAVs fill (partially) the gap.  So, we risk losing UAVs not just to avoid NATO casualties but also to limit "collateral damage."

So once again, I will say that losing a UAV is an acceptable (and expected) price for doing this kind of business.  We don't have to be happy about it, but nor should we fret that much.  I am reminded of a classic scene in M*A*S*H: "Rule number one of war is that young men die.  Rule number two is that doctors cannot change rule number one."  Times have changed, so it is now young people with women now playing greater roles in combat; AND because now we have found some ways to beat rule number 1--with technology and via political restrictions (no boots on the ground).  Perhaps in the future, rule number one will be: in war (and hostility like events), machines die.  Again, I may be sounding flippant, but war is destructive and we are spoiled if we think that only the other side is going to pay the price.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Innovate This!

Canada apparently does not innovate so well:
Canada ranked 14th out of 17 peer countries in overall innovation performance in the Conference Board’s How Canada Performs: Innovation report card (published in 2010). Moreover, Canada has obtained consistent “D” grades in innovation performance since the 1980s. 
Perhaps Canadians are too busy trying to stay warm to spend time tinkering with the latest widget.  Nope, Sweden is ranked ahead and it is mighty cold here.

Perhaps Canadians do not innovate because those who do, such as Jim Basillie and the folks behind Blackberry, are denied the fruits of their labor (NHL is not letting Basillie move a team to Hamilton, Ontario). 

Perhaps it is because Canada produces few PhDs:
 Yet Canada is a consistent top performer overall in the Education and Skills report card, ranking second only to Finland in the most recent release. Canada’s ranking slips, however, as we move from high-school completion (second) to university completion (fifth) to PhD graduates (last of 17).
Apparently, PhD production is correlated with innovation. Perhaps unemployed PhDs can develop critical mass and then propose all kinds of new ideas?  It is this point that raises the hairs on the back of my neck.  Given the current employment crisis for PhDs, I fear that the desire for more innovation would lead to encouraging more programs to produce more PhDs but not necessarily jobs for those PhDs. 

The funny thing is that the Canada Research Chairs program and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation were aimed at reversing the brain drain, bringing back lost Canadian scientists and bringing in folks form elsewhere to compensate for the lost Canadians.  So, it is apparently my fault, as I enter my tenth and final year in the CRC program (the junior chairs are for five years and can only be renewed once) that Canada is failing to innovate.  I have not come up with enough new ideas, invented any widgets, or produced enough brilliant PhD students.  Well, the latter I have in great surplus but most of them have gone south for jobs.

Aye, there is the rub.  I am not sure we can figure out how innovative Canadians are anymore since there are plenty of Canadians innovating in the US and plenty of foreigners innovating while in Canada.  There is no Silicon Valley up here, but then again, Silicon Valley is not what it used to be.  I guess I have a hard time seeing how business and academics are supposed to work together to foster innovation since there are few corporations in the Irredentism business.  And those that might be would probably not make it past a research ethics board.

The only thing I can recommend is: more slots for academic researchers.  But you knew that i would be saying that.

What Do You Think About While Time Traveling?

Nice to see the enduring relevance of Back to the Future:
From College Humor.

My version would be somewhat different, as I am not a birther nor a fan of Doctor Who (despite my daughter's new infatuation with the Doctor).  I might have some Biff in me (must remember who wins the big games and when to sell stocks).  What else would be on my mind as my Delorean reached 88 miles per hour?*  Hmm, mostly girls I should have and shouldn't have asked out long ago in high school and at camp, not falling for my daughter's ploy to get a cat (how about you guys get a divorce and we can have a cat in house and the dogs in another?), perhaps getting some stuff published in grad school, and worrying that any nose bleed might be a sign of forthcoming doom unless somebody spins the donkey wheel again.

 *  I love that these are the results you get from typing 88 miles per hour into google:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Deja Vu, Canadian Style

Canada is leaving Kandahar.  That is old news.  It is going to forget about some of the key lessons learned.  The Unarmed Aerial Vehicles [UAVs] or drones were only leased, not bought.  So, Canada will not be taking back its squadron of drones back home, despite the fact that they proved to be most handy in this war and proved their usefulness for future military operations.  Instead, the folks who flew these flying robots will be dispersed.

The military is kidding itself if they buy this claim:
"There's probably going to be a hiatus of somewhere between two and five years. But those people will still be in the military, and those people will have this experience, and they'll be able to move forward with the yardstick when the time comes."
No unit means no training, no refinement of expertise, no lessons being learned and transmitted.  Drones have proven to be lifesavers (and lifetakers, but the Canadian kind, which are unarmed) and are now known in military jargon as enablers and force multipliers.  Cheaper, far cheaper than F35s, far more likely to be used in most missions, but hey, a lease is a lease.  Easier not to buy the stuff in a time of budget cuts.

The only good news in this is for me personally--if the Canadian Forces are losing their drones, it might just mean they are betting on no new ground deployments in the medium term.  And I do have a bet on that.

Good TV, Bad TV

Game of Thrones vs The Killing.  Had heaps of fun today reading the reviews of both. In general, folks loved the former and hated the latter.  Sometimes I wonder how much my opinion is shaped by the reviewers.  Did I hate the Killing that much before I read Sepinwall's review and then the various tweets?

Spoiler break

21st Century Dilemma for Narcissists

What to do?  What to do?  If one has an active twitter account, it is likely that one will attract undesirable followers.  There are programs/spambots that will choose to "follow" your twitter account to promote their products.  Usually, the avatar of the twitter-bot is an attractive female, suggesting that they are marketing only to straight men (and lesbians?).  I tend to block these folks from following my twitter account, as I do not want to be associated with this stuff.  But, on the other hand, it reduces the number of followers I have.  My guess is that I would have at least twenty-five percent more followers and perhaps even fifty percent more if I did not block these folks.

Alas what is a 21st century narcissist to do?  Accept the unwelcome followers who have agendas?  Or block them and then have a lower follower number?  I have chosen the latter, but ponder whether it makes a difference at all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sucker for 70's

Ah, Spielberg and Abrams know how to go retro.  Super 8 did a great job of not only replicating life in the late 1970's with one exception, but also replicated the heart and humor of the classic Spielberg flicks with Super 8 as a mix of Jaws, ET and Close Encounters.  Spoilers below

Best Part of Father's Day

What is the best part of Father's Day?  Breakfast in Bed?  Pretty cool.  Is it the tough decision to figure out which book to read first?  Yep, books tend to dominate the gift list.  Is it the token hug from my kid?  Nope, she gives better, more enthused hugs at other times.  Nope, it is when I get to see the card my daughter has made for me.  She combines her sharp computer skills with Microsoft's hegemony to produce a homemade card each year.  And each one demonstrates her wonderful sense of humor and keen smartass talents.  This year, I am "Better than Vader."  What more could I want?

Oh, and I get to choose the movie.  Hard choice between Super 8 and Green Lantern as both appeal to the geeks in my family (that would be all of us).  But Super 8 has some father-child stuff perfect for today, and no need to try to figure out how to avoid the 3D version. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

More Micro-Management, Please!

This op-ed piece re-plays the usual arguments--profs teach too little, class sizes too big, make profs teach more.  There is something to this--I teach an intro course with 600 students.  This does not bother me so much as the 80 kids in my senior level class.  We do offer seminars for honors students but not enough of them. 

But to blame profs for reduced courseloads (and yes, I have been enjoying such a reduction due to my Canada Research Chair-ness) is to overstate that problem, compared to underfunding/over-admitting; incentives for grad programs; and administrative bloat.  Oh, and not understanding the research part of a research university.  Let me make this self-serving argument point by point.

First, the author of the piece, Simpson, acknowledges that provincial officials (for the US, think state governments) tend to emphasize access, producing larger and larger groups of incoming students but funding has tended to be shrinking.  So, they want us to do more with less.  The original source of McGill's big bloat in class size, at least in my department, was in the 1990s when there were steep budget cuts.  My guess is that our classes will get bigger still because of the new cuts that means we cannot hire as many temp folks.

Second, some of our classes are really quite small--we call them graduate classes.  Funding schemes often give departments more money if they have more graduate students despite the fact that the academic job market is rather poor and will continue to be so.  Indeed, there are still departments around North America starting new PhD programs--which is semi-unconscionable.  We are a very bad guild and having too many grad students in the pipeline is a collective bad  so we might be better off if governments reduced some of the incentives that reward universities for having heaps of grad programs and students.  This would have to be carefully done so that we do not penalize the students in the pipeline now nor underfund future ones.

Third, if you track where the funding has gone over the past 10 or 20 years, the area that has seen the most growth is administration.  Even when other areas are being cut, it seems to be the case that we have more Vice Principals (Vice Presidents or Chancellors at US schools), Associate Provosts, and so forth. These folks are not only expensive in terms of their salary but in terms of their staff requirements.  So, before we start asking profs to teach more, how about we look at administrative positions?

Fourth, the article here entirely underplays the notion that a research university is supposed to do research.  If we up courseloads to 3-3 (three course a term) or 4-4, which would be the only way to really get class sizes down significantly without adding more resources or cutting the numbers of students, then profs would be doing far less research.  That's ok as long as you realize that time is finite and there are tradeoffs. And if you don't value research.  But if you do value knowledge creation (oh, what a wonderfully arrogant way to put it), then perhaps you might want to keep some of the universities in the research game.  Relying on the private sector is a risky way to go, as Canada (or the US) would still be in a world where research is publicly funded via universities and thus at a competitive disadvantage.  And private research money may not examine government output since that might risk their funding.  Tenure does have a purpose--such as allowing folks to challenge the prevailing wisdom, whether it is in cancer research, foreign policy, or provocative art. 

Update: I forgot to mention that the idea that teaching and research are unrelated is also problematic.  As I have mentioned here at the Spew many times, my teaching is informed by my research (and vice versa).  And not only in the more specialized upper division courses but even in the big intro to International Relations class.   More knowledge is.... more.

Simpson is essentially calling for more micro-management of universities.  That may be ok in Ontario, but I think we get enough of that here in Quebec, thanks.

Is there a problem with class size?  Yes.  Is asking profs to teach more a simplistic solution?  Indeed.