I've spent a rather alarming portion of this week wading into intellectual pissing matches, so I'm loath to respond to Michael Kinsley's response to last week's brouhaha over austerity policies. But one paragraph does merit some pushback. After noting the backlash to his last column, Kinsley writes the following:
There are two possible explanations. First, it might be that I am not just wrong (in saying that the national debt remains a serious problem and we’d be well advised to worry about it) but just so spectacularly and obviously wrong that there is no point in further discussion. Or second, to bring up the national debt at all in such discussions has become politically incorrect. To disagree is not just wrong but offensive. Such views do exist. Racism for example. I just didn’t realize that the national debt was one of them.
Kinsley assumes that it must be the second explanation, and then goes on from there.
I can't speak for anyone else who pushed back against Kinsley's column from last week. Speaking for myself, however, I blogged about it because Kinsley was "spectacularly and obviously wrong." I say this because almost everything I wrote in my response to Kinsley I knew at age 18 after taking Economics 101 in college.
To explain, let me focus on Kinsley's motivation for thinking that the austerians have a point:
Austerians believe, sincerely, that their path is the quicker one to prosperity in the longer run. This doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the lessons of Keynes and the Great Depression. It means that they remember the lessons of Paul Volcker and the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s. “Stimulus” is strong medicine—an addictive drug—and you don’t give the patient more than you absolutely have to.
This is wrong for three reasons, one pedantic and two substantive. First, to be pedantic, the austerity debate is about the wisdom of using expansionary fiscal policy -- i.e., running a significant federal budget deficit -- to alleviate downturns. Paul Volcker was the chairman of the Federal Reserve and thereby responsible for setting monetary policy. He had nothing to do with fiscal policy. This is a distinction that I learned in my first few lectures on macroeconomics. So either Kinsley phrased this badly or he's confused about what this debate is about.
The substantive errors can be explained more easily once you look at this chart of the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP:
So, looking at the above, you find Kinsley's two substantive errors. First, during the period that Kinsley seems to find so relevant -- the late 70s -- you discover that the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP was shrinking and not growing. So, to repeat a theme, I'm not sure where Kinsley is getting this notion that expansionary fiscal policy is responsible for the high inflation of the 1970s [Maybe Kinsley would argue that stagflation was an aftereffect of the spending spike that followed the 1973-1975 recession?! --ed. OK, except a glance at that chart shows that compared to the 1980s, the 1970s was a period of fiscal probity. Oh, and as I said before, there was that whole expansionary monetary policy/commodity price shock thing happening as well. Which I learned about from my Econ 101 textbook oh so many moons ago.]
Second, contra Kinsley (and Charles Lane while we're at it), stimulus is not an addictive medicine. The above graph shows budget deficits expanding during recessions and then shrinking again as the economy recovers.
Look, this isn't rocket science -- Kinsley made an argument about austerity that got a lot of basic economic facts about the 1970s and the current era very, very wrong. Dare I say, spectacularly and obviously wrong.
So there's really no point in further discussion.
In an offhand tweet today, I believe Matthew Yglesias might have stumbled onto a heretofore undetected threat to the American way of life. Here's the tweet:
Cab drivers thinks new construction is creating too many traffic jams. #friedmaning— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) May 22, 2013
Now #friedmaning refers to the common foreign affairs columnist trope of quoting a cabbie to get a "man on the street" feel to any kind of reporting.
But this tweet reminded me that another Friedman obsession is America's crumbling infrastructure. Which got me to thinking: What if the United States government started listening to Friedman? What if the government actually started to invest in shoring up its crumbling infrastructure, particularly in metropolitan areas frequented by Friedman? I think you'd face the much-feared Friedman Feedback Loop:
1) Tom Friedman calls for new infrastructure investment.
2) New investments in infrastructure inevitably lead to traffic snarls.
3) Cabbies, bearing the brunt of said traffic jams, start grousing to passengers.
4) Whether firsthand or secondhand, Tom Friedman hears about the clogged roads.
5) Worked up into a lather, Friedman pens many, many more op-ed columns dedicated to boosting spending to improve American roads.
6) Even more spending on infrastructure leads to even greater traffic jams.
7) Go back to Step 2 and repeat.
Unless infrastructure repair could somehow outpace Friedman's output -- highly unlikely -- entire cities would soon be awash in renovation projects and traffic jams, leading to the overuse of Amtrak, thereby crippling America's rail system as we know it.
One can only hope this looming threat is discussed at next month's Friedman Forum.
As someone who is pretty friggin' wary about the use of American force in Syria, and as someone who does not shy away from snark in the blogosphere, I found Steve Walt's top ten warning signs of liberal imperialism to be more alienating than endearing.
Part of it is the "liberal imperialism" label -- as I noted when Mearsheimer first coined the term, it obfuscates far more than it reveals. Part of it is the absurdity of claiming that those advocating for intervention in Syria turn a blind eye to U.S. government abuses of civil liberties. Part of it is the post-Arab Spring pooh-poohing of non-Western desires for democracy. And part of it is the abject failure to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, there are conceptual flaws contained within the realist worldview. Walt's failure to acknowledge fallibility makes the entire post an exercise in elite condescension.
There's a lot of that going around these days -- see, for example, Roger Cohen's New York Review of Books evisceration of Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett's new book Going to Tehran. If you read the entire review, it's clear that Cohen sympathizes with large chunks of the Leveretts' argument -- that current U.S. policy toward Iran is blinkered, a ratcheting up of the conflict will accomplish little, so maybe some kind of rapprochement should be attempted. Despite Cohen's sympathies to their logic, however, we get these passages in his review:
The eerie effort to whitewash the Islamic Republic in Going to Tehran is so extreme that it would be comical if it did not stray close to obscenity.…
The overarching problem is that the Leveretts’ urge to defend the Islamic Republic’s every act destroys their credibility. It makes them implausible critics of US policy at a time when new thinking on Iran is urgently needed and a third US war in the Middle East looms. Going to Tehran could have been a useful book but it is buried in heavy doses of one-sided drivel.…
The Leveretts write:
For most Egyptians and other Middle Easterners, the “main division in the world” is not between democracies and dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated to the United States and countries who exercise genuine independence in policymaking.
On the contrary, everything I have seen and heard in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia over the past two years suggests it is precisely the quest for freedom from despotism that has driven brave people to revolution—the freedom at last to write and say what they like, act to change their lives, and join the modern world. This does not mean they want societies that are secular clones, or lackeys, of the West. But they are saying they do not want to live any longer in cowed societies riven by fear under the sway of an unaccountable authority. Khamenei’s Iran, and his position itself, is on the wrong side of this political tide.…
The Leveretts might have made a strong case for such creative diplomacy. A pity, then, that they see dark conspiracy in every US failing—and no failings on the other side. They blame America’s “imperial turn” and even suggest that President Obama’s “attempt to salvage Washington’s failed drive for regional hegemony could wind up doing more damage to American strategic prospects than George W. Bush’s debacles did.” They blame “liberal imperialists” (John Mearsheimer’s phrase), who, in the Leveretts’s telling, seem to include everyone from Secretary of State John Kerry to Leslie Gelb and Tom Friedman. They blame the neocons, of course, and they blame the Israel lobby, embodied by institutions like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy where, as a note acknowledges, Hillary Mann Leverett once worked (and, as is not mentioned, wrote a paper in 1998 denouncing “Iranian links to international terrorism”).
They also blame the Iranian diaspora. And, in customary egregious style, they write that all four of these groups “use human rights issues as a tool to support American dominance over the Islamic Republic.” In the land of the Kahrizak Detention Center, scene of the worst abuses in 2009, and Evin Prison, human rights are a grave issue involving brutal mistreatment, not a “tool.”
Iran has been widely portrayed in the United States as an incarnation of evil. The Leveretts might have offered a counterbalancing account. Instead they have fallen prey to their own dangerous mythology of a benign Iranian order loved by its citizens. Their book is a disservice to truth and a betrayal of all the brave Iranians who, for more than a century now, have been seeking a political order that provides a genuine reconciliation of freedom, representative government, and faith.
This is the kind of review that makes it very easy to dismiss the entire book -- regardless of the merit of the policy argument.
What is it that causes Walt or the Leveretts (or Paul Krugman, if we're going to go there) to cloak arguments in self-defeating exaggerations and overheated rhetoric? I don't have a definitive answer, but I do have a hypothesis: This one of the lasting legacies of Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom altered the landscape in United States foreign policy about the use of force -- but those in the foreign-policy community who argued against the war (and failed to dent either public or elite attitudes) have not caught up with that fact. It's as if, over the past decade, prominent realists have adopted the worst rhetorical tropes of their ideological adversaries.
People who already decry the use of American force in Syria or elsewhere will enjoy Walt's essay and the Leveretts' book -- they're playing to their ideological base. As exercises in persuasion, however, they don't just fail -- they actively harm their cause.
Since I was a young boy studying global political economy armed with little but an Economist subscription and a smile, I've noticed that, at some point, every country and their neighbor tries to do something to create their own Silicon Valley. Whether it's Great Britain, China, France, Brazil, or even North Korea, it seems as though every country in the world is trying to hit upon the right policy formula to create their own hub of high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship.
tax avoidance value-added created by Silicon Valley, this is no surprise. At the same time, all of this is the IPE equivalent of Gretchen Weiner's efforts to coin urban slang in Mean Girls:
I don't mean this in a "HA HA HA, you stupid non-Americans!!" way. I'm pretty sure that the conditions that created the actual Silicon Valley had more to do with serendipity, fortuna, and happy accidents than any conscious set of policies (though see here for my deeper thoughts on this subject).
Which brings me to Russia's efforts to grow its own version of Silicon Valley. It launched Skolkovo Innovation Hub, a pet project of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, and then paid MIT a boatload of money ($300 million) to set up a school and design a curriculum to attract Russia's best and brightest. High-profile western firms like Cisco have gotten involved. In all, the Russian government has thrown an estimated $4.2 billion at this project.
So how's it going? Well, Courtney Weaver and Charles Clover have a Skolkovo update over at the Financial Times. Here's how it starts:
Just over a month ago, Tony Blair and Colin Powell were sitting in Moscow’s towering World Trade Centre, helping Kremlin officials brainstorm how they could attract more investment to Russia. A few storeys above them, employees of Skolkovo, the government’s flagship high-tech project, received a few visitors of their own.
At 9.30am on April 18, more than a dozen agents of Russia’s domestic security agency stormed Skolkovo’s office, confiscating mobile phones and removing reams of paper.
Skolkovo was meant to be Russia’s answer to Silicon Valley – a Kremlin-sponsored technopark with research centres for the world’s leading science and technology companies. But over the past few months it has found itself caught in the crossfire of Russian politics, causing those involved to question the project’s future....
People close to Skolkovo, including [Kremlin "gray cardinal" Vladislav] Surkov, have suggested that the volume of charges and their highly public airing are signs that the investigations are not part of an anti-corruption drive but are politically motivated. The crackdown comes amid a power struggle within the government between more liberal ministers led by Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister and former president, and hardliners who are pushing back against the pet programmes of Mr Medvedev’s presidency, the most visible one being Skolkovo.
So, a few things:
1) Here's a thought: if you are trying to woo high-tech foreign direct investment and your go-to guys are Tony Blair and Colin Powell, then you can pretty much forget trying to clone Silicon Valley. Only Russian politicians could envision the following script playing out:
SILICON VALLEY MOGUL: Set up a major investment in Russia? Yeah, they've got the human capital, but the downside risk is massive. It's government by diktat, and Putin blows hot and cold with foreign investment. There are too many ways we can lose our lunch.
EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT: Pardon me, but I have Colin Powell on the line. He says he'd like to talk to you about investing in Russia.
SILICON VALLEY MOGUL: Did you say Colin Powell???!!! Hold my calls for the next hour. It's not every day you get to hear the business musings of a man who has limited business experience and hasn't been in office for close to nine years!!!
2) Correct me if I'm wrong, but any time Putin and Medvedev have a policy disagreement or turf war, Putin wins. Why, if you're negotiating some kind of Russian venture, would you ever feel secure with any arrangement with Medvedev?
3) Wait, scratch #2 -- even if you cut a deal with Putin's men, would you ever feel secure about it? As I said at the outset, it's hard enough trying to incubate an innovation hub in the best of circumstances. Trying to do so with a government that doesn't understand the words "credible commitment" makes it damn near impossible.
Am I missing anything?
So last week there was some interesting data clean-up in the foreign policy blogosphere, and some less interesting commentary on it. Let's dive in!
Max Fisher posted an item at the Washington Post relying on World Values Survey (WVS) data to generate a global map of racism. He found a Foreign Policy write-up of a Kyklos paper that two Swedish economists published that relied on WVS data. Fisher's map was based on a response to one question:
The survey asked respondents in more than 80 different countries to identify kinds of people they would not want as neighbors. Some respondents, picking from a list, chose “people of a different race.” The more frequently that people in a given country say they don’t want neighbors from other races, the economists reasoned, the less racially tolerant you could call that society.
Fisher constructed a global map based on the responses to that query, a map that contained some striking findings. Western countries seemed to be far more tolerant (or far savvier at answering this survey question). Countries such as Pakistan seeming to be way more tolerant than India and Bangladesh, for example.
Fisher's post generated a lot of attention (full disclosure: I tweeted about it) -- so much so that some social scientists started to look at the WVS data and found some serious issues with it. The Fletcher School's Ashirul Amin, for example, dug into the data found that the reason for the seemingly low tolerance of Bangladeshis was a data entry error on the World Values Survey site -- the number of "tolerant" and "intolerant" respondents were reversed for one particular year.
Other social scientists, including Steve Saideman, also weighed in with methodological criticisms.
Going further, Siddhartha Mitter pointed out ways in which different nationalities view "race" as a different kind of social construct, thereby making inter-country comparisons a problematic exercise.
The biggest problem, of course, is that “race” is impossible to operationalize in a cross-national comparison. Whereas a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country, a person being of “another race” depends on constructs that vary widely, in both nature and level of perceived importance, country to country, and indeed, person to person. In other words, out of all of the many traits of difference for which the WVS surveyed respondents’ tolerance, the Swedish economists – and Fisher, in their wake – managed to select for comparison the single most useless one.
The reason I'm blogging about this, however, is where Mitter went after lodging these criticisms. According to him, the fault lies not with the data entry, but with the foreign policy blogger:
The problem here isn’t the “finding” that the Anglo-Saxon West is more tolerant. The problem is the pseudo-analysis. The specialty of foreign-affairs blogging is explaining to a supposedly uninformed public the complexities of the outside world. Because blogging isn’t reporting, nor is it subject to much editing (let alone peer review), posts like Fisher’s are particularly vulnerable to their author’s blind spots and risk endogenizing, instead of detecting and flushing out, the bullshit in their source material. What is presented as education is very likely to turn out, in reality, obfuscation.
This is an endemic problem across the massive middlebrow “Ideas” industry that has overwhelmed the Internet, taking over from more expensive activities like research and reporting. In that respect, Fisher’s work is a symptom, not a cause. But in his position as a much-read commentator at the Washington Post, claiming to decipher world events through authoritative-looking tools like maps and explainers (his vacuous Central African Republic explainer was a classic of non-information verging on false information, but that’s a discussion for another time), he contributes more than his weight to the making of the conventional wisdom. As such, it would be welcome and useful if he held himself to a high standard of analysis – or at least, social-science basics. Failing that, he’s just another charlatan peddling gee-whiz insights to a readership that’s not as dumb as he thinks.
Cards on the tale: earlier in the post, Mitter indicates he doesn't think much of Foreign Policy bloggers either, so I'm pretty sure he won't think much of my own musings here. And I understand Mitter's anger about a misleading map coming from an outlet that generates a lot of eyeballs. That said, his critique is off-base for two reasons.
First, in this instance, the primary fault lies not with foreign policy bloggers, but with academics. It's not like Fisher commissioned a bogus survey and then wrote up the findings in a misleading manner. Rather, he relied on a survey that goes back three decades and has been cited pretty widely in the academic literature. He got to that survey via an academic article that got through the peer-review process. Almost all journalists not in possession of a Ph.D., going through that route, would have taken the data as gospel. It's not clear to me why Mitter thinks a full-blown foreign correspondent would be better versed in the "social science basics." Would Mitter have expected, say, Ryan Avent or Matthew Yglesias to have ferreted out Reinhart and Rogoff's Excel error, for example? I'm all for better education in the ways of statistics and social science methodology in the foreign affairs community, but methinks Mitter is setting the bar extraordinarily high here.
Second, the blog ecosystem "worked" in this particular case. Fisher posted something, a bunch of social scientists looked at the post and found something problematic, and lo and behold, errors in the data were discovered and publicized. As I've opined before, one of the signal purposes of blogging is to critique those higher up in the intellectual food chain. I understand that Mitter would prefer that the original error never take place. By its very nature, however, the peer review process for blogging takes place after publication -- not before. That's a bit messier than the academic route to publication -- and, because Fisher has a larger megaphone, one could posit that with great traffic comes great responsibility. Still, I suspect that anyone who titles a post "The Cartography of Bullshit" probably wouldn't want too heavy of an editorial hand to be placed on their prose.
At the heart of Mitter's lament is his untested hypothesis that foreign affairs blogging has caused the decline in research and international reporting. This strikes me as more correlation than causation, however. Furthermore, it implies that they are substitutes when in fact they are complements. The source material for a lot of foreign affairs blogging is academic research and in-depth international reportage. If Mitter wants to see a better informed public, then there needs to be as much focus on the quality of the primary source material as in the quality of the transmission mechanism.
Am I missing anything?
UPDATE: Mitter has responded in part here, and at more length in a constructive comment to this post. Both are well worth reading, and put some more context into his original post. He's getting to some interesting tensions about the nature of expertise and "publicity" in a changing media landscape that are worth mulling over before responding.
Paul Krugman is a very smart and very annoying person. Over the past few years he's been hammering away at political and economic advocates for austerity policies with unmitigated glee and derision. He does so with a brio and condescension that some people can find off-putting -- but that doesn't mean that he's wrong.
After pummeling "austerians" for much of the essay, Krugman then endeavors to explain why so many policymakers and pundits still favor such policies:
The turn to austerity was very real, and quite large.
On the face of it, this was a very strange turn for policy to take. Standard textbook economics says that slashing government spending reduces overall demand, which leads in turn to reduced output and employment. This may be a desirable thing if the economy is overheating and inflation is rising; alternatively, the adverse effects of reduced government spending can be offset. Central banks (the Fed, the European Central Bank, or their counterparts elsewhere) can cut interest rates, inducing more private spending. However, neither of these conditions applied in early 2010, or for that matter apply now. The major advanced economies were and are deeply depressed, with no hint of inflationary pressure. Meanwhile, short-term interest rates, which are more or less under the central bank’s control, are near zero, leaving little room for monetary policy to offset reduced government spending. So Economics 101 would seem to say that all the austerity we’ve seen is very premature, that it should wait until the economy is stronger.
The question, then, is why economic leaders were so ready to throw the textbook out the window.…
Everyone loves a morality play. “For the wages of sin is death” is a much more satisfying message than “Shit happens.” We all want events to have meaning.
When applied to macroeconomics, this urge to find moral meaning creates in all of us a predisposition toward believing stories that attribute the pain of a slump to the excesses of the boom that precedes it—and, perhaps, also makes it natural to see the pain as necessary, part of an inevitable cleansing process. When Andrew Mellon told Herbert Hoover to let the Depression run its course, so as to “purge the rottenness” from the system, he was offering advice that, however bad it was as economics, resonated psychologically with many people (and still does).
By contrast, Keynesian economics rests fundamentally on the proposition that macroeconomics isn't a morality play—that depressions are essentially a technical malfunction.
Now this sounds a little far-fetched -- I mean, it's not as if pundits and policymakers can be that economically illiterate, right?
And then, as if Krugman planned it all along, along comes Michael Kinsley in the New Republic -- responding to a different Krugman essay that makes similar points -- with an essay titled "Paul Krugman's Misguided Moral Crusade Against Austerity." I think one of the points Kinsley is trying to make is that the policy divide between austerians and anti-austerians in Washington isn't as great as Krugman portrays. That's likely correct in Washington. During debates this year, even austerity "advocates" like John Boehner have made noises about not wanting to turn off the fiscal tap too soon, and even austerity "critics" like Barack Obama have talked about the need for fiscal rectitude. So yes, even austerity's critics sound austerity-curious at times.
Still, the guts of Kinsley's essay are … problematic. Some highlights:
It’s easier to describe what the anti-austerians believe than the austerians themselves. Anti-austerians believe that governments around the world need to stop worrying about their debts for a while and continue pouring money into the economy until the threat of recession or worse is well and truly over. Austerians want the opposite. But what is the opposite? Is President Barack Obama, for example, an austerian? To Republicans and conservatives, no: He pushed through a stimulus package of almost a trillion dollars early in his first term, and remains a symbol of “big spending.” To liberals and Democrats, yes: They feel we need a second and much larger stimulus and Obama has let us all down.…
Austerians believe, sincerely, that their path is the quicker one to prosperity in the longer run. This doesn’t mean that they have forgotten the lessons of Keynes and the Great Depression. It means that they remember the lessons of Paul Volcker and the Great Stagflation of the late 1970s. “Stimulus” is strong medicine—an addictive drug—and you don’t give the patient more than you absolutely have to.…
Krugman also is on to something when he talks about paying a price for past sins. I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. And future sufferers are not necessarily different people than the past and present sinners. That’s too easy. Sure let’s raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians. In other words, they are you and me. If you make less than $250,000 a year, Obama has assured us, you are officially entitled to feel put-upon and resentful. And to be immune from further imposition.
Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. They, for the most part, honestly believe that theirs is the quickest way through the suffering. They may be right or they may be wrong. When Krugman says he’s only worried about “premature” fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert. [Emphasis added.]
OK, so, a few things:
1) No Republican or conservative, anywhere in the United States, will claim that Barack Obama is an austerian. I'm just gonna assume that this is a typo and move on. [Editor's note: The typo has been cleared up on the New Republic's website, and the block quote above has been corrected.]
2) Stagflation in the 1970s was caused primarily by an inward shift of the aggregate supply curve due to a surge in commodity prices, particularly energy. Some central banks responded with accommodating monetary policies that accelerated inflation even further. Fiscal policy was an innocent bystander to this whole shebang. So I honestly don't know what the hell Kinsley is talking about.
More importantly, the current macroeconomic climate is really, really different from the 1970s. Inflation was a Big Bad Problem during that decade. It is not a problem right now. If inflation were spiking, then a genuine debate could be had on macroeconomic policy options. But that's not the case.
3) In his final paragraphs, Kinsley has managed to epitomize the exact critique that Krugman has served up.
The irony of this whole thing is that the Congressional Budget Office's recent figures put the lie to Kinsey's hidden assumption that the federal budget deficit is getting bigger and bigger. Right now it's shrinking at the fastest rate in postwar economic history.
The CBO also warns that the deficit will start to balloon up again due to entitlement spending, which suggests that Kinsley has half a point about thinking through entitlement reform. The thing is, that's a structural problem, not a business cycle problem. Kinsley et al. are acting as if the current fiscal climate demands immediate budgetary actions. And it doesn't -- it really, really doesn't.
Look, I think Paul Krugman has a few policy blind spots. His method of argumentation alienates as many people as it attracts. But he's not wrong when he's talking about austerity. In his response, Michael Kinsley has managed to embody the conventional wisdom in Washington -- and in doing so, embody every policy caricature of Paul Krugman's worldview.
Am I missing anything?
An awful lot of international relations can be dispiriting. A glance at the Syrian conflict reveals its awful humanitarian toll, which stands in stark counterpoint to the coldly realpolitik nature of great-power foreign policies toward that country. My point is, it's very easy to feel beleaguered when studying world politics.
But then, every once in a while, comes a story that cries out for its own theme song.
Yesterday the Russians busted an American spy. The Washington Post's Will Englund and Greg Miller provide the straight reporting:
An American diplomat accused by Russia of spying for the CIA was ordered to leave the country Tuesday after a highly publicized arrest that seemed designed to embarrass the United States and its premier intelligence service.
The expulsion of Ryan C. Fogle was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, and footage on state-run television showed him wearing a blond-streaked wig and a baseball cap as he was held facedown and handcuffed.
The Soviet-style episode came just days after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited the Russian capital in an attempt to soothe diplomatic tensions over the conflict in Syria and the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing.
A statement released by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which appeared intended to put the United States on the defensive, said, “While our two presidents have reaffirmed their willingness to expand bilateral cooperation, including between intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism, such provocative Cold War-style actions do not contribute to building mutual trust.”
For somewhat droller reporting on the incident, one needs to surf over to the New York Times, where it's clear that David Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry just enjoyed the dickens out of filing this report:
The circumstances of Mr. Fogle’s unmasking seemed bizarre, even given the long, colorful history of spying by the Soviet Union, Russia and their rivals.…
[T]he Russians released the videos and photographs of Mr. Fogle’s assortment of props, which also included two pairs of sunglasses, a pocketknife and a protective sleeve made to shield information held on the electronic chips now routinely imprinted on passports, transit passes and identification cards.
He also carried a decidedly un-smart phone that from a distance looked like an old-model Nokia. Unlike its counterpart in the “Get Smart” television series, it was not built into the bottom of a shoe.
The most recent comparable spy folly came at the Russians’ expense. In 2010, the American authorities arrested 10 “sleeper” agents who had been living in the United States for a decade, posing as Americans. Some were couples with children; some had well-developed careers in real estate and finance.
What they had not done was send any classified secrets back to Russia, and when they were caught they were not charged with espionage but with conspiring to work as unregistered foreign agents. They were eventually expelled to Russia in a swap that included the Kremlin’s release of four men convicted of spying for the West.
If Americans then wondered exactly what sort of high-level intelligence the Russian government had expected its operatives to find while living humdrum lives in places like suburban Montclair, N.J., the case of Mr. Fogle seemed to pose its own curious questions:
What exactly did he expect to accomplish with a shaggy, ill-fitting wig that seemed to fall off his head at the slightest bump? And why would a counterterrorism officer, trained by the Russian special services, need a letter describing how to set up a new Gmail account without revealing personal information?
Perhaps the overarching question was just: Really?
Looking at the details of what Fogle ostensibly had on him, it's hard to take this event seriously at all. The letter in particular is just one or two Nigerian princes away from looking like a spam email.
The other reason it's hard to take the arrest seriously is that it appears that neither was it a sensitive intelligence operation, nor will it affect bilateral relations all that much. If Fogle's endeavor was truly significant, it's doubtful that the FSB would have gone public like this -- instead, it would have strung out the operation as long as possible in an effort to deceive the United States. And Fogle won't be rotting in a Russian prison, as he' has already been expelled. Post-capture, both Russian and U.S. officials are playing down the incident.
More generally, this won't affect the bilateral relationship -- which, at this point, is based on the occasional mutual interest (counterterrorism), the more frequent clashing interest (Syria, energy), Vladimir Putin's calcified state of feeling aggrieved at the hands of the United States, and the Obama administration's conscious decision to not get drawn into petty rhetorical games with the Russian leadership.
No, instead, one must stand back and gape in wonder at how reality breeds fiction, which then breeds reality. As the NYT story referenced, the last public espionage story involving Russia and the United States involved the placement of deep-cover Russian intelligence agents in U.S. suburbs, which didn't produce much in the way of intelligence, though it did lead to at least one lad magazine pictorial. That scandal, in turn, inspired former CIA officer Joe Weisberg to create FX's The Americans, a truly outstanding show about deep-cover Russian agents operating in the United States during the early Reagan years. And while I cannot recommend the show highly enough, one of the few farcical elements of it is the number of wigs that the lead characters used during the first season. Ostensibly, the lead male character, played by Matthew Rhys, has such extraordinary wig work that he's able to woo and marry an American FBI employee!! It makes Fogle's wigs seem pretty crude -- so crude one wonders if they were planted by Russia's FSB.
The closing of the first season of The Americans played one of the best Cold War-tinged songs ever written, Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers." That song was perfect for the closing scene because it matched the emotional heft that the show managed to serve up for all of the main characters. Alas, in comparison this scandal seems to feel far more farcical. Readers are thereby warmly urged to suggest what song should accompany this particular espionage episode. I, for one, would suggest this little ditty.
Am I missing anything? Seriously, am I -- is there anything serious to draw from this case?
I've read and blogged a bit on conspiracy theories, and the basic conclusion I've come to is that they are like weeds in a garden. Without careful tending and ample sunlight in the public sphere, they are all too easy to sprout up -- and next to impossible to eliminate once rooted in the soil.
They're really hard to eliminate if they turn out to contain a nugget of truth, however:
For more on how this particular scandal is not limited to an Internal Revenue Service field office, click here.
Nor does it address the fact that the same IRS office that inquired into Tea Party organizations also apparently investigated groups with ties to Israel:
The same Internal Revenue Service office that singled out Tea Party groups for extra scrutiny also challenged Israel-related organizations, at least one of which filed suit over the agency’s handling of its application for tax-exempt status.
The trouble for the Israel-focused groups seems to have had different origins than that experienced by conservative groups, but at times the effort seems to have been equally ham-handed.
Look, there's no easy way to say this: The U.S. government has just given intellectual cover for every paranoid group in the country to articulate why their conspiracy theory has been validated. The thing is, now everyone else must give some patina of plausibility to those beliefs, no matter how bats**t crazy they sound at first glance.
As Politico reports, the Obama administration's political levers at the IRS are near infinitesimal. That really doesn't matter, however. This is now a political problem. Unless the White House finds a way to indicate that it's taking these scandals seriously and fixing the problems, this will be the defining meme for Barack Obama's second term.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.