Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

February 16, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Identity and the Nation-State – Once More With Feeling

“…if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” - E.M. Forster

Dani Rodrik has a good post over at Project Syndicate arguing for the continued relevance of the nation state. He argues that despite the current prominence of international and super-national economic and political institutions, and despite levels of inter-cultural communication beyond the most fevered dreams of Johannes Gutenberg, the nation state remains the locus of political, economic and cultural buck stoppage. The Daily Dish‘s Zack Beauchamp felt that Rodrik gave unduly short shrift to the arguments of cosmopolitan thinkers – specifically Peter Singer and Amartya Sen – who see the emergence of an ethical consciousness and identity space that is truly global. Since much of Rodrik’s argument boils down to these issues – the nation state remains the central site of politics because it continues to hold the strongest claim on peoples’ ethical allegiance – it’s not a peripheral critique. And indeed, given the unprecedented thickness of political, economic, social and cultural networks that bypass the nodes of the nation state, there’s likely something to the notion that global ethical duties and even regional and global identities are more strongly felt by more people more of the time than has historically been the case. Countering my recent point about identity being strong enough to compel mutual sacrifice, Zack noted the ubiquity of NGOs dedicated to human flourishing across borders, extant pressure for humanitarian economic and military interventions around the world, and an increasing sense of the globalized consequences of problems like climate change.

Still, while Rodrik might give cosmopolitans short shrift in his piece, his overall point stands. Sen, for all his undeniable brilliance, ignores crucial realities in Identity and Violence. Yes, identities are fluid, and at least partly the result of iterative choices made by both individuals and societies. And yes, in an objective sense, reducing people to the sum stereotypes of any particular ascriptive identity is absurd. Much of the power of the modern state, though, stems from its capacity to inculcate and reproduce identities that people feel with particular intensity, as well as to leverage those identities to compel mutual sacrifice. Charitable giving, service with NGOs, humanitarian interventions; all are important instantiations of a globalized ethics that acknowledge the moral worth of people across borders. They are fundamentally different, though, from state-directed sacrifices in the form of taxation, labor and military service. The former acknowledge a general (and fairly diffuse) ethical duty toward others. The latter acknowledge the right of an institutionally-defined in-group to compel sacrifice from its constituent members. To use a pre-national example, the Crusades were premised on the notion that the institution of the Catholic Church had the right to direct thousands of people across “Christendom” to take up arms on behalf of a plot of land with which none of them were intimately familiar. In the modern era, the state has taken this role, developing mechanisms of solidarity that require regular and intense sacrifice from citizens, extracted by both implicit and explicit force. To riff off Carl Schmitt, the state remains the locus of primary identity in the extreme case, when for reasons of material scarcity or threat of violence, the rank ordering of identity is crucial. That may not be true everywhere (think of Yugoslavia), but it still applies for the great mass of humanity, and I’m not convinced that the globalizing trends of recent decades have fundamentally changed the dynamic. Indeed, at least in some instances, the cultural dissonance globalization engenders may strengthen parochial identity by reaction.

The cosmopolitan view of identity falls most egregiously short in its unwillingness to deal with the importance of conflict in deepening the connection people feel to their various identities. David Berreby argues in Us and Them: The Science of Identity that we understand our identities in entirely oppositional terms, even when such oppositions aren’t imbued with conscious animus. The modern state, with its capacity to combine physical coercion with an extraordinarily wide array of formally and informally-attached institutions of ideational reproduction (national education, national law, national media, national politics, national parks, national museums) is in a unique position to mediate those oppositions. Furthermore, given the enduring power of national identity, the incentives for political elites to exploit those oppositions for temporary gain will likely remain strong. Identity is, in some sense, the trump card of the nation state. Unless and until post-national institutions or ethical constructs can lay consistently and sufficiently strong claims on people’s identity to take primacy when it really matters, reports of the nation-state’s death will remain exaggerated.

Picture: Anti-Huguenot propaganda from 16th Century France. The Wars of Religion were a crucial mechanism through which early-modern political elites were able to mobilize mass constituencies and build contemporary national identities. 

February 9, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

A Note on Meaningful Identity

James Joyner has a post up on Mario Monti’s fears of a political “backlash” arising from “mutual resentments” between northern and southern Europe. It points to some interesting meditations on the interaction of economics, politics and culture that are more sophisticated than usually spring from the mouths of sitting politicians. Or maybe not; maybe I’ve just lived in the United States for too long. In any case, the post reminded me of a review article (paywall) I just read addressing some recent academic work on the creation of a European cultural and political identity. Having waded through more than a few volumes of this kind of thing while writing my MA thesis, I’m always struck by the slightly banal nature of the relevant debates. Some observers see a meaningful European identity forming at a mass level, and point to various sociological manifestations of it. Others see it as basically an elite phenomenon and point out how closely people still identify with their constituent nations. Others note that, well, multiple ascriptive identities are possible and that in a globalized world we shouldn’t expect people to privilege just one, etc. etc.

People talk (write) past each other depending on what they want to see.

For me, the relevant way to think about identity isn’t simply whether it’s something people feel attached to. Likewise, it’s not that helpful to think in terms of rank order (if some kind of European identity exists, it’s going to be a long time before people truly privilege it over their respective nationalities). The relevant question is whether people feel sufficiently “European” to pass a basic threshold of mutual sacrifice. In other words, do citizens of Europe feel sufficiently invested in their continental community of fate to bear material and psychological stress for one another?

The recent economic crisis casts doubt on the notion that they do. The robust solution to Southern Europe’s economic woes – loose money, a tighter fiscal union – requires that Germany be willing to bear some economic burden for the good of the whole; likewise, the continued attachment of the southerners to the Euro requires that they be willing to deflate their way out of a debt crisis, which is always painful. Mutual sacrifice is necessary, and leaders are constrained by the fact that their populations really aren’t in the mood. Contrast this to the United States, where people from Massachusetts don’t spend too much time complaining about subsidizing the lazy profligacy of Mississippi. Yes, Americans have state-level identities, but their national consciousness is sufficiently developed to compel mutual sacrifice without too much difficulty. Unless and until the Europeans manage to develop some similar level of affinity, political integration will remain a fragile project.

February 7, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Intervention Means Taking Sides

I have zero sympathy for the Russian and Chinese governments who decided to block a U.N. Security Council resolution to amp up the pressure on the Assad regime in Syria. I’m not sure the resolution would have been decisive in ending the bloodshed there, but Marc Lynch made a decent case that it could have kept some hope alive for a kind of “pacted” regime transition, rather than a long and bloody civil war. I don’t know enough about what’s happening on the ground in Syria to speak intelligently as to what happens next; I suspect it will be very ugly.

Steve Walt argues that the precedent set in Libya, where international forces supposedly exceeded their mandate by engineering the overthrow of Qaddafi, is partly to blame for the current diplomatic impasse. Color me unconvinced. Yes, UNSC 1973′s explicit language called for civilian protection, and excluded foreign military occupation. Yes, the stated goals of the international mission were murky and ill-defined (which I noted at the time). In the end, though, did any member of the Security Council that supported the resolution really believe they weren’t authorizing an air campaign to end Qaddafi’s rule? Such a belief would seem to fly in the face of basic logic. Qaddafi’s forces weren’t driving on Benghazi out of some generalized desire to be violent. They were trying to put down an armed rebellion intent on regime change. It’s unclear to me how an air campaign designed to prevent the completion of that task would have any viable endgames beyond the defeat of one side or the other. Was NATO air power expected to enforce a stalemate along a particular front line and foment a geographic fracturing of Libya? What would a more “limited” intervention have actually looked like in practice? Intervening in a civil war – which is what was happening in Libya and what appears to be happening in Syria now – isn’t possible without, in some sense, taking sides in that war. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Now, the course of events in Libya might have given the Russians and the Chinese a bit more rhetorical ammunition to oppose a policy in Syria that they don’t like anyway. But the notion that both powers agreed to the Libyan resolution without realizing they were implicitly backing the Libyan rebels just seems incredible to me. For the record, I was deeply ambivalent about intervention in Libya. I remain so. I’m even more skeptical of unilateral intervention in Syria (even in “indirect” ways). The failure of the U.N. Security Council to take appropriate action further limits the range  of options. I’m not convinced, though, that policy in Libya was a proximate cause of that failure.

January 30, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Nationalism and Imperial Decline

I recently confessed that I’ve spent precious little time watching the marathon of Republican debates this campaign season. Maybe this makes me a bad citizen, but my tendencies toward psychological masochism have their limits. That said I have tried to keep an eye on the general tenor of conservative discourse, and some exchanges from back in the Fall have gotten me thinking about the nature of contemporary American nationalism, and worried about its evolution over the coming decades. President Obama’s supposedly deficient faith in American exceptionalism has emerged as a potent talking point this primary season, with candidates tripping over themselves in person and in print to demonstrate that they “believe” in the vaguely-defined doctrine. None of this is new, though the need to forcefully assert American greatness rather than leaving it implicit does point to an uncharacteristic self-doubt that needs a good quashing. Blame it on a rough economy I suppose.

What this debate does reflect, though, is the extent to which American material dominion and ideological superiority has been woven into the fabric of American nationalism, rather as British and French nationalisms of earlier decades were inseparable from those countries’ imperial projects. Empires upon which the sun never set buttressed the psychological potency of those nations’ identities, helped garner mass support for state projects, and defined the boundaries of political possibility both at home and abroad. This was fine as far as it goes (for those living in the metropolitan center anyway), but led to destructive, cognitively dissonant political behavior as those empires crumbled. The quixotic (and tragic, and lethal) tenacity with which France clung to Indochina and Algeria, the delusions of imperial grandeur on display during the Suez crisis, the brutal British suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya, the Gaullist pique that led to France’s operational withdrawal from NATO; all bore the mark of a political class and even a citizenry that hadn’t expunged dreams empire from its own nationalist consciousness.

Like it or not, though the United States will surely remain quite powerful over the arc of the coming decades, the cold logic of GDP means the level of primacy the U.S. has enjoyed since the mid-twentieth century is unlikely to endure. In the long run this may prove to be a net positive on the balance sheet of American blood and treasure. In the short run, though, the psychological work required to recalibrate American national identity away from imperial bravado will be difficult and painful. It may also lead to catastrophes of military and financial overextension. At the very least, it would be nice if political elites began laying the groundwork for that transition, rather than inflating dreams of grandeur that retreat ever-further from material reality.

January 18, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Political Ethics in a Complex World

I’ll echo Greenwald in encouraging people to check out Freddie De Boer’s post on liberalism and American empire (and incidentally Ron Paul, but not really). Part of my political id instinctively responded in exactly the way De Boer laments, both for valid reasons and invalid ones, but the post is challenging and worthwhile regardless of your ideological predilections. Check out as well Robert Farley’s response, which is well-argued. Both get at fundamental questions of political ethics in today’s world that are as uncomfortable as they are important. De Boer starts with a painful reminder of the atrocities committed under the Suharto regime in Indonesia; atrocities committed by American-armed, American-trained forces under orders from an American-allied regime:

The “conservative estimate”– that is, the one that won’t get you laughed at by Very Reasonable People– is that 500,000 Indonesians were slaughtered, all under the considerable support of the United States. Some Indonesians I know find that estimate a laughable, inflammatory underestimation, but okay. Render unto Caesar. Half a million people, stuff underground or thrown into the sea. Lined up and shot in the back of the head, or hacked to death with machetes, after having been forced to dig their own graves and those of their families. You’ve heard it before. You’ve likely even heard that we supported it in every way conceivable, providing intelligence, arms, and funding to the new junta, including a literal hit list. If I know the average political mind today, many could read about these events with only eye rolls. They don’t deny the factual accuracy of the claims. They don’t even deny their horror. They just react as if talking about them is something gauche, uncool, boring. Few could deny their truth, at this point; the declassified CIA documentation is, as always, terribly frank. You’d be amazed at how many offer justifications to me. These people were commies, after all.

I want those who profess belief in liberalism and egalitarianism to recognize that they are failing those principles every time they ignore our conduct overseas, or ridicule those who criticize it. What I will settle for is an answer to the question: what would they have us do? If you can’t find it in you to accept our premises, at least consider what you would do if you did. For those of us who oppose our country’s destructive behavior, there is no place to turn that does not result in ridicule. Every conceivable political option has not only been denied by establishment progressives, but entirely dismissed. The idea that one should criticize the President from the left is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The notion of primarying President Obama is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. The idea of supporting a candidate from a different party is not just wrong but self-evidently ridiculous. Every conceivable path forward, for those of us who demand change in our conduct overseas, is preemptively denied. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. What am I supposed to do?

Farley responds:

Here are two assumptions embedded in this post:

1. The Indonesian government wouldn’t or couldn’t have carried out serial pogroms and violent state-building exercises without the support of the United States.

2. A President Paul, by withholding support and instigation, would have prevented these bad things from happening.

The first is a matter of historical debate. The CIA surely played a role in the fall of Sukarno and the murderous rise of Suharto; it’s far from clear, however, that CIA influence was determinative either in spurring the conflict or in producing a specific outcome. It’s also surely true that the United States maintained good relations with the Suharto regime for commercial and what it perceived to be strategic reasons, and that the US continued this support while Indonesia engaged in a variety of exceedingly violent statebuilding projects at various points in its periphery. The United States continued to sell Indonesia weapons during this period, took some steps to shield Indonesia from international scrutiny, and largely avoided using commercial ties as leverage over Indonesian behavior.

Again, we can debate as to how much this amounts to “piling up dead” for which the United States presumably holds responsibility. For my part, I think that lots of countries have brutal, bloody factional conflicts, and lots of countries engage in brutal statebuilding efforts without any assistance from the United States, so in general I’m inclined to think that US positive influence (making it happen) over these events is fairly minimal, with the real responsibility of the US in this case lying in its rejection of using any tools of negative influence (political or economic leverage, which was considerable) to moderate the behavior of the Indonesia government. Political leaders have terribly good reasons to kill other people for political effect; the United States rarely has to try very hard to convince them to do so, and often cannot convince them to refrain from doing so.

These two excerpts get at the crux of ethical dilemmas that everyone – leaders, writers, citizens, subjects – need to think long and hard about. I’m frankly a bit hesitant to write about this, because there’s no way my opinions won’t ring a bit hollow. I live a life of reasonable comfort and security. I’m not afraid that I’ll be dragged out of my house in the middle of the night by my government and shot, nor am I particularly concerned that a wayward Hellfire will obliterate my apartment. Intellectualizing these kinds of questions – generally my Freudian defense mechanism of choice – seems crass. But they’re important.

To live in a modern, developed state (the U.S. in particular, but this generalizes well) is to acknowledge a measure of complicity in organized violence. Liberal democracies, social democracies, bureaucratic autocracies; all are first and foremost states. And states at their core are institutions dedicated to the controlled dispensation of physical and psychological violence, within their borders and without. Progressives of every modern generation have fought hard to carve social space for human flourishing within that context, occasionally even harnessing state institutions to that purpose, but the fundamental nature of the state remains, and is difficult to substantially remake even for those who stand at its helm. To make this a bit less abstract, the United States, for better or worse, is a central node of global power that distributes military force, economic largesse and ideological discourse across a huge and immensely complex network. This means that the U.S. government is in some ways ethically implicated, by commission or omission, in most major global events. But precisely because of that network’s structural resilience, it’s hard to pose valid moral counterfactuals. As Farley points out, even without official U.S. government support, elites within the Indonesian state would have faced powerful incentives to deploy horrific violence against their domestic enemies. And absent a herculean domestic and international effort, they likely would have found the resources to carry out their plans. Just look at Syria.

None of this absolves U.S. leaders of standing idly by while this went on (goes on, far too often, in far too many places). It certainly doesn’t absolve them, or those who support them, of actions over which U.S. elites exercise more direct control (drone campaigns, secret prison complexes, foolish wars). It does contextualize political action in a consequentialist framework that acknowledges that all of us – citizens, writers, presidents – have limited control over the macro-historical trajectories of the necessary and terrible social machines we’ve inherited from our forebears. There’s only so much one can expect.

Getting back to Freddie, though, I think that an essentially consequentialist political morality means some progressives need to lighten up on their own left flank. Launching a primary challenge against Obama isn’t self-evidently foolish. It’s a means of incentivizing the President to act differently, and to pay attention to arguments that currently have limited currency but high value. Loud policy critiques that incumbent Democrats find inconvenient aren’t cliquish, personal betrayals. They’re means of applying political pressure to salient points. Thinking in structural, consequentialist terms rather than those of personalization and tribalism actually means opening up the range of possibilities for political action, even as it narrows the range of likely transformative outcomes. So criticize the hell out of the Obama Administration and the entire U.S. government, but then view voting as a strategic political act, rather than an fraught act of political self-actualization, and vote for Obama in the general election, especially if you live in a swing state.

January 14, 2012
by Jeb
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The Deviance of a Few?

There is a certain grim but obvious irony in the outrage of pundits and military officials to the recently released video depicting American soldiers urinating on the bodies of several fallen Taliban fighters. As is typical when the shameful actions of war are exposed to public scrutiny, every effort is being made to characterize the dehumanizing acts as entirely isolated, as the deviance of a few “rogue” Marines. The narrative is a familiar one to those whose political consciousness developed amidst this last decade of endless war. Haditha, Guantanamo, Bagram — each killing, act of torture, and incident of brutality on the part of American soldiers has been characterized as some sort of sick deviation from the military’s commitment to waging a highly ‘professional’ and spotlessly ‘humane’ war. When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, military officials presented a similar explanation — that of lone soldiers straying from established military procedure. It was an explanation that the vigilant watchdogs in the American media — the New York Times, the Washington Post, and our cable news networks — seemed happy enough to accept.

Yet, as with every scandal involving American military actions abroad, virtually no one in the mainstream press (with one or two exceptions) has raised her voice to challenge the pervasive narrative about the benign role of the US military. Nowhere do we find any suggestion that intrinsic to the functioning of a successful military force is the dehumanization of the opposing side — and that, as an expected result, actions like these should come as no surprise at all. Indeed, what is most bewildering about these incidents is not that they occur (we should assume that they occur, undocumented, fifty times as often as we read about them). It is the reaction of mainstream punditry: that confused sputtering of those who just can’t believe that our military forces — trained to commit the most dehumanizing act of all: the killing of another human being they’ve never met and know nothing about — could ever engage in such a “shocking” and “craven” act as urinating on a dead person.

January 11, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

C’est Quoi le Libéralisme? C’est Quoi l’État?

There’s been a fascinating debate in recent days over the relationship between liberal principles and Paul-ite libertarian thinking (that’s Ron Paul, not St. Paul), and whether Paul’s largely odious and/or asinine overall platform* should disqualify liberals from appreciating and applauding his anti-war and anti-imperialist politics. I won’t wade into the specifics of the debate because a) I’d add little new, b) Ron Paul isn’t going to be the next president, and c) I’m extremely skeptical that the kind of anti-imperialist baptist-bootlegger coalition that some progressives hope for will have any material effect on U.S. foreign policy any time soon. Empire is an elite affair. It’s nature and viability depends principally on geopolitical constraints filtered through elite preferences. Democracy has precious little to do with it, except at the margins. For those who have somehow missed the debate and yet are still reading this blog, check out Glenn Greenwald, Katha PollitKevin DrumCorey RobinAndrew SullivanGary WeissSteve Walt, and Falguni Sheth for a primer.

One of the original catalysts for the debate was a post by Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism (to which he’s added a follow-up) arguing that Paul “challenges” American liberals by pointing out implicit tensions between their political economy and their broader ideology:

…the same financing structures that are used to finance mass industrial warfare were used to create a liberal national economy and social safety.  Liberals supported national mobilization in favor of warfare and the social safety net during the New Deal and World War II (and before that, during the Civil War and WWI), but splintered when confronted with a wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  The corruption of the financial channels and the destruction of the social safety net now challenges this 20th century conception of liberalism at its core (which is heavily related to the end of cheap oil).  Ron Paul has knitted together a coalition of those who dislike war financing, which includes a host of unsavory and extremist figures who dislike icons such as Abraham Lincoln and FDR for their own reasons.  But Paul, by criticizing American empire explicitly and its financing channels in the form of the Federal Reserve, also enrages liberals by forcing them to acknowledge that their political economy no longer produces liberal ends.

A lot of the responses to the Stoller piece focused on the part of the analysis involving Ron Paul, but a subset waded into the (perennial) debate about what liberalism is and what policies it implies.** David Atkins argues that there is no tension, because the core of liberalism is unavoidably paternalistic intervention in the name of curbing abuses of power. For Atkins, liberals argue amongst themselves about when, where, how and how much to intervene, but these are tactical concerns rather than philosophical ones. In the same space, Digby offered up a more ends-oriented definition: “I will simply say that I define my own liberalism as a belief in egalitarianism, universal human rights, individual liberty and social justice, all tempered by a pragmatic skepticism of all forms of power, private as well as governmental.”

For my part, I’ve always liked Judith Shklar’s elegant definition: “Every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every other adult.” I find this encapsulation, and the broader argument to which it is attached, compelling because it keeps the focus on individual freedom while acknowledging that threats to said freedom (hence “The Liberalism of Fear”) come in many forms. The state, for instance, can be both oppressor and liberator. As can capitalist economic institutions. As can organized religion. As can culture, broadly speaking. It is the Janus-faced nature of the institutional and ideological frameworks through which liberal ideology takes earthly form that Stoller tries to capture with his argument about the Federal Reserve. But modern central banks are just the latest step in a long evolution of strategies employed by elites to collect revenue in wartime. Indeed, according to one prominent argument, the imperative to finance warfare literally gave birth to the national state in an iterative process that began during the Renaissance. “Liberal” institutions like civil liberties, property rights, the rule of law, social service bureaucracies and democracy didn’t emerge because humans became more empathetic or enlightened. They’re the price extracted from elites over centuries in exchange for the financial wherewithal to do what they do best: send their subjects, armed, to die.

This isn’t a contradiction within liberalism at all. It’s the air liberalism breathes. It’s the torrent liberalism attempts to productively channel. Stoller is right that a state capable of launching the New Deal is also a state capable of launching the Vietnam War, and an exceptionally charitable look at someone like Ron Paul does, I suppose, throw that fact into relief. But it’s nothing unique to the United States, nor to the industrial age. The injustices of post-industrial America doesn’t mean liberals need to re-think their philosophy. It means they have to negotiate a better deal with the ones holding the guns.

*Protip: If you literally do not understand what money is and think it needs to be tied to finite supplies of randomly-selected heavy metals, stop talking. And I don’t mean “stop publicly making political arguments.” I mean stop verbally communicating. Don’t order food in a restaurant. Don’t say “good night” to your spouse. Don’t complain about the weather. You’ll be doing the rest of us a favor.

**The English, French and Italian versions of the Wikipedia article on “liberalism,” for example, all carry different definitional emphases.

January 9, 2012
by Matt Eckel
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Matt Eckel

Defense Spending and Innovation

With something vaguely resembling resource cuts looming for the Department of Defense, there have been discontented rumblings about the effect such cuts could have on U.S. innovation. Defense spending has, historically speaking, been a driver of technological progress in some respects (though how much so is vigorously disputed), thus concerns that cuts could harm America’s innovative capacity aren’t entirely off-the-wall. Ezra Klein and Clifford Bob do yeoman’s work pointing out that relying on the DoD to be an economic dynamo is inefficient and wrongheaded, and I mostly agree. The most efficient way to fund innovation is to fund innovation, not fund the military in the hope that innovation will be an ancillary benefit. I’m also generally in favor of trimming our extremely bloated defense budget.

There are, though, two reasons why Pentagon-funded research might have some unique benefits. The first reason, touched on by both Klein and Bob, is that it is politically easy to fund things the military wants. Congress sees very few defense appropriation bills it doesn’t like; thus, R&D funded through the Pentagon carries a measure of inoculation from small-minded political attacks. This is a depressing comment on the state of American political culture, but true nonetheless. The second reason, which hasn’t been mentioned much, is that military planners aren’t trying to turn a profit through innovation. The possibility therefore opens for research into areas that lack immediately obvious financial returns, but could nevertheless drive significant growth in the long run. Something like DARPA almost certainly couldn’t be sustained as a private sector enterprise, yet we wouldn’t have the internet without it. Nobody in the early 1960s had to convince a group of investors that their idea for a packet switching network would, in a few decades, allow for huge profit opportunities in e-commerce and communications. They just had to make a military case. Likewise, the impetus for the microprocessor came from NASA’s need to miniaturize computers in order to send men to the Moon, not from the logic of the market.*

Obviously none of this singles out defense as such as a driver of innovation, but given the technical complexity of many military problems, the political ease with which defense R&D can be funded, and the relative insulation of such projects from short-term monetization pressures, there is something to the notion that defense research drives innovation.

But that still doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trim the fat at the Pentagon.

*Yes, I know NASA isn’t DoD, but the logic is similar.

December 23, 2011
by Matt Eckel

Matt Eckel

Conflict at the Periphery is the Price of Empire

Matthew Kroenig has an article in Foreign Affairs arguing for an attack on Iran. I don’t agree with his logic. Largely for the reasons Steve Walt and Michael Cohen outline. I’ll leave it at that.

Underlying his narrative, along with the narratives of many Iran hawks, though, is a broader argument about vital interests that needs to be challenged; namely, that all potential threats to the most expansive conception of American interests require aggressive confrontation. Always. Kroenig is level-headed enough to acknowledge that the Iranian leaders are unlikely to launch a suicidal nuclear exchange with Israel or U.S. regional forces just for shits and giggles. His most reasonable concern seems to be that “[h]aving the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy.” The logic here merits more than a couple of sentences, but I’ll stipulate that, all else equal, a nuclear Iran would have a marginally easier time engaging in regional proxy conflicts and flexing its coercive muscles. An Iran with the bomb would be m0re or less insulated from regime change via conventional military invasion, since this is the one scenario in which the regime in Tehran could credibly threaten to unleash its arsenal. This would, I suppose, reduce American strategic flexibility. A bit.

To my mind, though, this is simply a cost of defining one’s national interests on a global scale. At a certain point, American leaders need to decide what interests are worth aggressively defending, and then acknowledge that some level of running conflict beyond those red lines is inevitable. It’s not like Iranian conventional capabilities are sufficient to overwhelm American and allied forces in the Persian Gulf, or anyplace else in the region. It’s this inability to brook any challenge to American dominance anywhere that got the U.S. mired in Vietnam. It’s this same basic mentality that got the British into costly and stupid wars in Afghanistan during the 19th Century (the Russians are someplace out there and if we don’t lock down the Hindu Kush they might somehow threaten India someday!). I’ll acknowledge that, the global energy economy being what it is, keeping oil stably flowing out of the Persian Gulf is a vital American interest. It’s one that should have been dealt with long ago via domestic technological and infrastructural improvements, rather than a decades-long military commitment halfway around the world, but it is important regardless.

Imagining, though, that the U.S. requires absolute and unchallenged dominance of the entire Middle East, and that it’s worth starting a potentially catastrophic war in order to prevent the eventual possibility that such dominance might become more strategically expensive, is wrongheaded. If Americans are unwilling to acknowledge that some hostile relationships require management rather than decisive transformative action, they have no business trying to run a global empire.*


December 8, 2011
by Jeb
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Moral Responsibility and the Walters Interview

It is impossible to imagine the type of grilling that Barbara Walters gave Syrian President Bashar al Assad — in an intense, aggressive interview broadcast today — being directed at any American policymaker. We witness these kind of media charades from time to time on the cable networks; I wrote recently, for example, about Anderson Cooper’s tough exchange with the Syrian ambassador to the UN. These hard-hitting interviews make some predictable headlines around the internet, and they serve the simple purpose of promoting an image of these networks as ‘serious’ and ‘legitimate’  outlets of journalism. This perception quickly fades among most viewers, I think, but it still serves a useful (if passing) function. Of course, it is quite easy to condemn the actions of other nations. And it is not particularly courageous to do a tough, no-bullshit interview with one of the most isolated and hated leaders in the world. Surely our foremost responsibility is towards the actions of our own government, not someone else’s. And this is where our media — and our media personalities, like Walters — repeatedly fail us. It is a basic moral point: that we are primarily responsible for the consequences of our own actions, not for the actions of others. In turn, our efforts — as journalists, democratic citizens, etc. — should be focused primarily on critiquing our own government’s policies in the world. Yet in the news media this type of logic has been flipped on its head. What we see is very limited (and often non-existent) scrutiny of American crimes — the assassination of American citizens, the launch of illegal wars, the deaths of whole families from US drone attacks, the establishment of extraordinary rendition programs and indefinite detention facilities like Guantanamo, etc.  – and heavy criticism of the brutality of other regimes.