In recent weeks there's been a low hum of pretty interesting and not-so-interesting essays asking why there has been so much attention paid in the zombie apocalypse, and what that attention signifies.
I bring this up because the Discovery Channel will be airing it's Zombie Apocalypse documentary this evening. The New York Times' Neal Genzlinger reviews it and finds it... pretty wanting:
Thank goodness we’ll all be wiped out by the Maya doomsday by week’s end. That will spare us the discomfort of having to go through the impending zombie apocalypse....
The National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers,” among others, has already introduced viewers to people who go to seemingly extreme lengths to get ready for terrorist attacks, the collapse of the financial system, nuclear power plant disasters and more, so perhaps it’s no surprise that, at least according to this program, there are some among us who are seriously preparing for a zombie attack. What makes this program different is that among clips of the preppers spewing nonsense about how to shoot a zombie, it intercuts interviews with credentialed academics who say that, yes, a virus or some such that attacks the brain could find its way into humans, disseminate rapidly and cause symptoms that would make us resemble all those zombies we know and love from the movies....
The program also gives you the rare experience of hearing a professor (Daniel W. Drezner of Tufts University) described as the “author of ‘Theories of International Politics and Zombies’ ” — on Monday, No. 40 on Amazon’s list of best sellers in its sub-sub-subcategory of international and world politics. And it provides a new entry for the list of you-must-be-joking organizations: apparently there actually is something called theKansas Anti Zombie Militia.
But it’s hard right now to take this program in the pop-culture way it was intended, especially the idiocy that comes out of the mouths of the various preppers. “Some people’s epiphany,” says one, Matthew Oakey, “is when they realize that the guy that lives on their block with all the guns and ammo isn’t crazy.”
I haven't seen the documentary yet, so I can't really comment on it except what I recall from their interview of me three months ago. Three thoughts, though:
1) Given the reported claim that Nancy Lanza was in fact a doomsday prepper, I have to share Mr. Genzlinger's concern about the unfortunate timing of this broadcast. Some television networks have made alterations to their broadcasts because of the Sandy Hook attack. I'm not sure this program rises to that level, but the timing makes me wince, which is probably not a good sign.
2) Damn, I need to update my Fletcher page. Seriously, that thing is at least three years out of date.
3) Regarding my participation in the documentary, well, I'll just reprint what Newsday's Verne Gay wrote:
One of the "experts" quoted here is in fact a respected scholar in foreign policy at Tufts who has written widely on zombies, though largely as metaphors for chaos in world markets and how people adapt. In an email, I asked Dan Drezner about the program, and he responded that a book he had written on the subject was "intended to be funny [but] one of the points I make is that fears about zombie apocalypses are exaggerated because people underestimate the adaptability of humans." He added, "I have no idea if that got in or not."
Sorry, professor -- it did not get in, and the documentary is not funny.
That's unfortunate... and it gives rise to an almost sacrilegious question: have we hit the law of diminishing marginal returns on the living dead? On the popular culture front, when Twilight-like books and films are being made about zombies (though I gotta admit I like what I see from the trailer) and the sign of Nick's loserdom in The New Girl is that he's working on a lame zombie novel, I fear we've hit saturation point.
On the utility-of-the-metaphor front, I will defend the use of fictional analogies as a way of stimulating creative thinking and calling attention to useful policy measures until my last undying breath. I wrote Theories of International Politics and Zombies because I thought it would make some people laugh and make some people think; it was a subversive way to get some book-learning into the cerebellum. Since the book has come out, however, I find that the questions I get from reporters and documentarians about the living dead have morphed from seriocomic to just dead serious.
I share Alyssa Rosenberg's concern that people are focusing way too much on being in the apocalypse as opposed to how we get to the apocalypse and whether it can be stopped. Analogies free up certain pattens of thought while also constraining others. Because so many zombie narratives assume that no matter what humans do, we wind up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, there's a tendency to presume that this must and always be so. That constraint is starting to become more prominent.
So to sum up: I'm in a zombie documentary this evening, it's apparently not that great, I'm quite confident that the zombie apocalypse won't happen, and my Fletcher page is badly in need of updating. That is all.
Back in the days when the Doha round was being negotiated, and it was dragging along interminably, inevitably some columnist would trot out a cliche like "time is running out" or "we're in the red part of the red zone" or "the edge of the cliff" or some such line of alarmist rhetoric. It got to the point where the rhetoric itself invited mockery.
I think the new "Doha" is Iran's nuclear program. I don't mean to trivialize the concerns about that nuclear program, but it seems that every month like clockwork some Israeli official
tells Jeffrey Goldberg writes or says something to the effect of "time is running out" for negotiations with Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu in particular likes to say this again and again and again and again. Today Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren joins in the rhetoric.
Israel does itself no favors with this gambit. Constantly warning that a window is closing and not having it close degrades the signal-to-noise ratio of the warnings. This is particularly problematic if the Iranian threat actually is getting worse. Haaretz's Barak Ravid reports that Western intelligence agencies have grown more concerned in recent months (hat tip Micah Zenko):
New intelligence information obtained by Israel and four Western countries indicates that Iran has made greater progress on developing components for its nuclear weapons program than the West had previously realized, according to Western diplomats and Israeli officials who are closely involved in efforts to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss intelligence information said the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Israel agree on that assessment.
Not good -- but here the history of Western intelligence agency estimates of Middle East WMD programs also undercuts the signal juuuuust a wee bit. The Haaretz story also cites as evidence a Daily Telegraph report based on the information of "the Iranian opposition group Mujahideen al-Khalq." Well, that's one way to describe that group, although the U.S. State Department has a different designation.
There's something else in the Haaretz story that is worth discussing:
Netanyahu told U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that an Israeli or American military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was likely to help topple the ayatollah regime, just as the 1976 Entebbe raid led to the defeat of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, according to a senior Israeli official.
The comment came when Romney asked Netanyahu during their July 29 meeting in Jerusalem whether he thinks an Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities would unite Iranians, ultimately strengthening the regime, the official said.
In explaining why he thinks that would not happen, Netanyahu recounted what he said was Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's statement to him that the raid ultimately led to Amin's downfall three years later.
"Ugandan President Museveni told me the Entebbe raid was a turning point in the effort to topple Idi Amin," the Israeli official quoted Netanyahu as saying. "He said the operation strengthened Amin's rivals because it revealed how vulnerable his regime was."
Now I've seen bad analogies used on Iran before, but this is definitely a new one.
Look, let's put it this way -- despite all of the factionalism within the Iranian regime, it's still a hell of a lot stronger and more institutionalized than Idi Amin's government was in Uganda. Furthermore, the only way military action would cause the Iranian people to rise up against the current regime would be if the regime, after enduring years of crippling sanctions as well military attacks, turned around and acquiesced to the world's demands. That reversal would likely prompt the Iranian people to say, "That's it?! Then why the f**k did you put us through years of pain?"
So, to sum up: I don't know what to believe anymore when Israelis talk about Iran -- except that Iran is not Uganda.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
I enjoyed the first season of Game of Thrones but was somewhat underwhelmed with efforts to use it as a window to understanding world politics today. The second season, which concluded this past Sunday, however, did much better on this score. I think this is because in season one the primary narrative dealt with one ruler of Westeros coping with
stupendously naive staff contending factions, whereas this season dealt with a more variegated set of leaders, which worked far better for the show. Two signs of this: First, whereas the Daenerys Targaryen plot in the first season was fun and diverting, I found season two's Dany sections distracting and deadening. Part of this might have been because Dany was whining more, but it was also because she was largely operating in a political vacuum and therefore less interesting. Second, whereas Cersei Lannister seemed like a master Machiavellian in season one, in season two she appeared to be just a little out of her depth. It's not because she got dumber, but because the protagonists who interacted with her were wiser or more powerful than Ned Stark.
Season two's War of the Five Kings allowed for greater contrast between different styles of political leadership and political culture -- and was therefore all the richer for it. Leadership ranged from Stannis Baratheon's humorless determination to Tywin Lannister's stolid competence to Joffrey's sadism to Robb Stark's efforts to preserve humanitarian norms to Balon Greyjoy's sheer bloody-mindedness. The staffers were great too. I'm sorry that Tyrion Lannister and Davos Seaworth never got to share a scene together -- that would have been a hoot. Similarly, the interactions between Tyrion and Varys -- especially this one -- were delicious.
Indeed, the final episode alone is so rich in its contemplation of political leadership alone that it made up for the less comprehensible parts of the plot (why the hell did Bran, Hodor, and company need to abandon Winterfell?) Tyrion's explanation for why he wanted to stay in King's Landing was one of those rare moments in television in which a character was honest about his enjoyment of politics. As Alyssa Rosenberg shrewdly observes, the Throne Room scene in which much political kabuki theater transpired was a powerful reminder of how the victors write the history. And the Varys-Ros alliance bodes well for political machinations in season three.
For all of this -- and zombies too! -- the finale was great. What put it over the top, however, might be the best rejoinder to the Great Speech Theory of Politics that I have ever seen -- Theon Greyjoy's efforts to rally his troops in the face of overwhelming odds during the siege of Winterfell:
Anyone who calls for better political "leadership" should watch this again and again and again. Yes, leadership matters on the margins -- but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more.
The end of the episode promises an even wider array of political actors -- Mance Rayder, the White Walkers, a returning Dany -- influencing activities in Westeros. This bodes very, very well for season three.
What do you think?
I know that Daniel Klaidman's Newsweek cover story on the Navy SEALs is supposed to make me feel all warm and safe because of the uber-competence of SEAL Team Six and President Obama's comfort with using them adroitly:
This is a Special Ops moment. The Navy SEALs, in particular, have never appeared so heroic and effective. They killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, and just last month rescued two aid workers held hostage in Somalia. At a time when many Americans think their government is incompetent, the SEALs are public employees who often get the job done. They’re a morale booster, and they know it.
The thing is, one of Klaidman's more detailed anecdotes actually gives me great pause about the decision-making process within the Obama administration about the use of force:
The CIA and military had been hunting Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan for years. He was a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and had been directly implicated in other deadly terrorist attacks in East Africa, including a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned resort in Mombasa. He was an important link between al Qaeda and its Somalia-based affiliate, and a potential wealth of information on how the jihadist networks operate. Killing him would have been a significant victory, but capturing him alive could have been even better.
After months of patiently watching him, American intelligence officers suddenly learned that Nabhan was preparing to travel along a remote desert road in southern Somalia....
McRaven told the group that Nabhan’s convoy would soon be setting out from the capital, Mogadishu, on its way to a meeting of Islamic militants in the coastal town of Baraawe. The square-jawed Texan and former Navy SEAL crisply laid out the “Concepts of Operation” that had been developed in anticipation of this moment. Several options were spelled out, along with the military hardware that would be required for each, as well as collateral-damage estimates:
The military could fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from a warship off the Somali coast. This was the least dangerous option in terms of U.S. casualties but not the most precise. (Missiles have gone astray, hitting civilians, and even when they strike their target, they don’t always take it out.) Such missile strikes had been a hallmark of the Bush administration. For all of its “dead or alive” rhetoric, the Bush White House was generally cautious when it came to antiterrorist operations in anarchic areas like Somalia. The second option was a helicopter-borne assault on Nabhan’s convoy. There was less chance of error there: small attack helicopters would allow the commandos to “look the target in the eye and make sure it was the right guy,” according to one military planner. The final option was a “snatch and grab,” a daring attempt to take Nabhan alive. From a purely tactical standpoint, this was the most attractive alternative. Intelligence from high-value targets was the coin of the realm in the terror wars. But it was also the riskiest option.
Unstated but hanging heavily over the group that evening was the memory of another attempted capture in Somalia. Many on the call had been in key national-security posts in October 1993 during the ill-fated attempt to capture a Somali warlord that became known as “Black Hawk Down,” after a book of the same name. That debacle left 18 dead Army Rangers on the streets of Mogadishu, and inspired al Qaeda leaders to think they could defeat the American superpower. As Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said during the meeting: “Somalia, helicopters, capture. I just don’t like the sound of this.”
As everyone left the meeting late that evening, it was clear that the only viable plan was the lethal one (emphasis added).
The mission was a success, and I'm sure that there's more to this decision than is in Klaidman's story. That said, based on the story, this decison-making process seems flawed. The deciding factor appears to have been that the more aggressive option had echoes of the 1993 Black Hawk Down fiasco. Because the situations seemed analagous ("Somalia, helicopters") the worst-case outcome -- a botched raid -- also seemed likely.
Here's the thing though -- as analogies go, this one seems somewhat ill-suited. The most obvious difference was that this raid wasn't going to take place in a city but a remote desert road. It was extremely difficult and bloody for U.S. forces to battle their adversaries in the urban anarchy of Mogadishu. In the open, with no civilians to use as shields, I would think JSOC has the advantage. Even if the snatch-and-grab option was the riskiest option, it does not seem as risky as U.S. efforts to rescue the downed Black Hawk crew back in 1993. In this instance, the worst-case scenario would have been some JSOC soldiers killed -- but given the terrain, the lack of civilians and cover, and the likely firepower advantage held by the Americans, a Black Hawk Down II outcome sounds unlikely.
Despite these differences, analogical reasong triumphed. The mission succeeded in taking out Nabhan, but it sounds like the slightly riskier option would have yielded greater rewards.
Let me stress, yet again, that I'm not an expert on special ops. I'd welcome commenters explaining to me why I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. Still, based on this story, the guiding factor in this case appears to have been a poor analogy. I hope this is the exception and not the rule for the current administration.
Am I missing anything?
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book The Escape Artists, Noam Scheiber has a behind-the-scenes story in The New Republic about how the Obama administration mostly botched the debt ceiling negotiations with Republicans last year. I'm guessing that Scheiber's best sources were the Treasury folk, because they come off looking the best -- advising Obama to cut a deal with the Republicans in December 2010, telling him to not negotiate policy concessions to get a debt ceiling boost, and so forth. Obama did not listen to them, and we all know what happened. Scheiber goes on to note that after the debt ceiling drama of the summer, Obama learned to attack conservatives rather than compromise with them, thereby improving his political fortunes.
He closes the essay with the following:
For voters contemplating whether he deserves a second term, the question is less and less one of policy or even worldview than of basic disposition. Throughout his political career, Obama has displayed an uncanny knack for responding to existential threats. He sharpened his message against Hillary Clinton in late November 2007, just in time to salvage the Iowa caucuses and block her coronation. He condemned his longtime pastor, Jeremiah Wright, just before Wright’s racialist comments could doom his presidential hopes. Once in office, Obama led two last-minute counteroffensives to save health care reform. But, in every case, the adjustments didn’t come until the crisis was already at hand. His initial approach was too passive and too accommodating, and he stuck with it far too long.
Given the booby traps that await the next president—Iranian nukes, global financial turmoil—this habit seems dangerously risky. Sooner or later, Obama may encounter a crisis that can’t be reversed at the eleventh hour. Is Obama’s newfound boldness on the economy yet another last-minute course-correction? Or has he finally learned a deeper lesson? More than just a presidency may hinge on the answer.
There are two big problems with this kind of formulation. The first is that, for all of Obama's stumbles and bumbles on the debt ceiling issue, it's hard to argue in retrospect that he lost that political fight. Since the debt ceiling dispute, Obama's approval numbers have moved north while Congress has become historically unpopular. The improving economy likely explains some of this -- but if that was the only part of the story then Congress' numbers should be rising as well.
It's not that Obama handled the debt ceiling talks terribly well -- it's just that Scheiber misses the point that the Republicans made an even bigger hash of things. Obama came off as someone willing to deal and the House GOP came off as a group of people looking forward to the apocalypse. Looking more reasonable that one's adversaries occasionally matters in domestic politics -- and it's not in Scheiber's account (full and fair disclosure: I would have been in agreement with Scheiber six months ago).
The more interesting question is whether there's any validity to Scheiber's larger point -- that Obama's initial passivity in responding to political crises suggests he's ill-prepared for handling global crises. Does Scheiber's pattern of how Obama responded to domestic political challenges match up with his foreign policy?
I think Scheiber has half a point. As I've noted in the past, the administration's first set of foreign policies were predicated on the same basic impulse that Obama had domestically: deals and bargains were possible in many parts of the globe. However, as the administration found itself rebuffed and frustrated by various international actors (Iran, China, etc.) it quickly pivoted to a more aggressive -- and more fruitful -- counterpunching approach. Similar to how the debt ceiling negotiations play out, Obama has benefited from his initial outreaches; he can say he tried the olive branch before turning to the stick. When it comes to global actors that Obama perceives as enemies or rivals, his administration has been pretty ruthless.
Where Scheiber might have a point is with how Obama has handled America's friends and allies. Obviously, these countries should have more common interests with the United States, so by and large they should be less obstreperous. When issues have flared up, however -- with Israel on housing settlements, with Europe on the sovereign debt crisis, with post-reset Russia on anything, and with G-20 allies on quantitative easing -- the administration seems slow-moving, awkward, and occasionally shocked that these countries might have interests that diverge from the United States.
Pressuring and cajoling allies is a tricky and delicate business. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the Bush administration did a great job of it. Still, as the latest iteration of the Eurocrisis plays out, Scheiber might have hit on the Achilles heel of Obama's foreign policy acumen.
What do you think?
Your humble blogger has been rather persistent in pointing out the virtues of bridging the gap between international relations scholars and policymakers, and rather adamant in insisting why this hasn't happened:
Now I see in The Forum that James Lee Ray is also arguing that political science merits a greater role in foreign policymaking. The abstract for his article:
Foreign policy decision makers tend to rely on historical analogies. The “surge” in Afghanistan, for example, was inspired in part by the “surge” in Iraq. Processes for dealing with foreign policy issues involving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were substantially different from those processes in the Bush and Obama administrations aimed at dealing with economic crises in 2008 and 2009. The latter processes were influenced extensively by economists, especially in the Obama administration. The decisions to send additional troops to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan involved relatively few political scientists. More substantial input from political scientists in the decision making process about the surge in Afghanistan might have produced more knowledgeable and informative analyses of relevant historical and political data in the form of structured focused comparisons of the wars and counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as analyses and interpretations of data on larger numbers of cases pertaining to broader phenomena of which the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are examples. Perhaps political scientists deserve a role within foreign policy making processes more similar to that reserved for economists in processes focusing on economic issues.
Within the article itself, Ray is quite explicit in comparing the influence of political scientists to economists:
[I]t is probably safe to say that no President would consider appointing anyone but economists to the Council of Economic Advisers. So perhaps there could be a space for political scientists in foreign policy-making processes analogous to that niche for economists on the Council of Economic Advisers in processes set in place by the U.S. government to deal with economic issues?...
It is true, perhaps, that economics is a more coherent academic field of inquiry than political science, or than the subfield that deals with international politics. Perhaps for that reason, economists are better placed to offer advice to governmental decision-makers than are political scientists. Nevertheless, the argument here is that the greater deference shown to economists by government officials when economic issues are dealt with than that accorded to political scientists when foreign policy issues arise is not entirely justified....
If the argument here is valid, then perhaps there should be more space set aside in foreign policy-making processes in the U.S. government for political scientists. For example, perhaps National Security Advisers should be political scientists, for reasons analogous to those that have up to this time led to the appointment of nothing but economists to the Council of Economic Advisers.
I pretty sympathetic with Ray's conclusions, and therefore I really, really want to agree with his causal logic. It's just that I don't.
The gist of Ray's evidence is that the Obama administration relied on analogical reasoning in deciding on the Afghan strategy in 2009, and therefore concluding that a "surge" there would work as it did in Iraq. If more political scientists had been in the room, Ray posits, perhaps this cognitive failure would have been avoided. In comparison, Ray observes that the Iraq surge decision was lousy with advanced poli sci degrees (including David Petraeus, William Luti, Eliot Cohen, J.D. Crouch, and FP's own Peter Feaver).
There are a few holes in this analysis. First, I'm not totally sold on the cases used by Ray. True, political scientists played a large role in the surge decision in Iraq, which is conventionally viewed as having worked. The thing is, political scientists (Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol) played an even larger role in the decision to invade Iraq , which is conventionally viewed as having not worked. Ray's case slection is too circumscribed.
Second, had Obama consulted more international relations scholars, he would have received perfectly muddled advice. Ray himself acknowledges this:
The evidence just reviewed that is potentially relevant to the decision by the Obama Administration about the surge in Afghanistan tends to point in diverse directions. Some of it casts doubt on the prudence of the Obama Administration’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while other findings could be used to support that decision.
Had Obama or his advisor consulted extensively with academic IR specialists, he still would have needed to exercise political judgment to determine which advice was worth following.
To be clear, I strongly favor having more Ph.D.s in political science in the loop on foreign policy decisionmaking. I'm just not sure Ray's case is all that persuasive.
What do you think?
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The rest of FP's hard-working, award-winning contributors will provide plenty of reactions to Obama's Afghanistan speech from last night. I don't have anything new to add that I didn't say, oh, about a year ago to the week.
So let's talk about.... Game of Thrones!!!
Set in a fictional medieval-type world (that looks juuuuust a bit like England) with a wisp of fantasy, there's a lot for culture vultures and international relations geeks to like. Based on a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, the first season on HBO just ended on a ratings high. Essentially, Game of Thrones consists of a lot of palace intrigue, a healthy dollop of transgressive sex, and a whiff of zombies. So you can see the attraction to your humble blogger.
Having finally caught up with the entire first season, however, I'm still puzzling out the show's applicability to current world politics. I think there are a few, but there's a bias in the show that does suggest some serious constraints [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD].
On the one hand, Game of Thrones' best feature has been demonstrating the importance of strategic acumen in politics. The first season's protagonist, Ned Stark, is a stalwart friend, accomplished soldier, and dogged bureaucrat. He was also a strategic moron of the first order, which was why I didn't bewail his beheading in the season's climactic moment. Yes, it's a shame that the good man died. The thing is, he had so many, many opportunities to avoid that end, had he only demonstrated a bit more ability to think about how his rivals would react to his actions. Important survival trip: don't reveal all of your plans and information to your rival until you have engaged in some rudimentary contingency planning. Or, to put it more plainly:
On the other hand, I'm just not sure how much the world of Westeros translates into modern world politics. Realists would disagree, of course. Cersei Lannister makes the show's motto clear enough: "in the game of thrones, you win or you die." That's about as zero-sum a calculation as one can offer. In this kind of harsh relative gains world, realpolitik should be the expected pattern of behavior.
Which is also part of the problem with Game of Thrones. World politics is about the pursuit of power, yes, but it's not only about that. What do people want to do with the power they obtain? Social purpose matters in international affairs as well, and there's precious little of that in Game of Thrones. Sure, there are debates about dynastic succession, but there are no fundamental differences in regime type, rule of law, or economic organization among the myriad power centers in this world. I hope this changes in Season Two.
My favorite touch in Game of Thrones is the words of each house in Westeros. For House Stark, "winter is coming"; for House Lannister, "hear me roar"; for House Baratheon, "ours is the fury"; and my favority, House Greyjoy, "we do not sow." In case you were wondering, for House Drezner, our words are, "it is time to read." Alternatively, "Chinese food is coming."
Readers are warmly encouraged to proffer the words of House Obama, House Clinton, House Bush, House Saud, House Putin, House Chavez, or House Singh in the comments.
So far, few politicians have embraced my plan for a Marshall Plan Tax. The idea is that every time a think-tanker, op-ed writer or retired senator calls for a new Marshall Plan or a moonshot-type initiative to solve a social problem, they would have to pay a tax of $50. Within a few months, we’d have enough money to pay for an actual new Marshall Plan.
The problem with my proposal is this: Do Marshall Plans work? If this country really did galvanize its best minds and billions of dollars to alleviate poverty somewhere or to solve some complicated problem, could we actually do it?
Well, the U.S. has been engaged in a new Marshall Plan for most of the past decade. Between 2002 and 2010, the U.S. spent roughly $19 billion to promote development in Afghanistan. Many other nations have also sent thousands of aid workers and billions of dollars....
This experience should have a chastening influence on the advocates of smart power. When she became secretary of state, Hillary Clinton sketched out a very attractive foreign policy vision that would use “the full range of tools at our disposal: diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural.” But it could be that cultural and economic development works on a different timetable than traditional foreign policy.
Perhaps we don’t know enough, can’t plan enough, can’t implement effectively enough to coordinate nation building with national security objectives.
Brooks looks at development in Afghanistan and safely concludes we haven't gotten much bang for the buck.
Brooks' points on Afghanistan seem on the mark, but my problem is with his framing. First of all, it's not like the foreign policy community is clamoring for more Marshall Plans. Given the current U.S. budgetary picture, I think it's safe to say that foreign aid will be the first thing that will be cut in any fiscal deal. Indeed, here's thje Google Trends analysis of the term:
Third, and most important, the Marshall Plan was implemented in an environment in which traditional security has already been secured. It's one thing to promost economic development in a place in which security is assumed. Trying to promote economic development, peace and statebuilding at the same time is a hell of a lot harder.
Brooks is right to highlight the massive problems with statebuilding in Afghanistan. His attempt to generalize from that woebegotten, landlocked Central Asian battle zone to the rest of U.S. foreign aid is a serious analogy foul, however.
In yesterday's Boston Globe, James Verini trotted out the latest historical analogy for Barack Obama, arguing that the president he's really like is George H.W. Bush. If you read the article, however, you'll see that Verini's argument is primarily based on how the events are similar, rather than the men:
In the first year of Bush's term, he was beset by three unforeseen calamities that are eerily resonant. First was the savings & loan crisis…
Then, in the spring of 1989, student-led protestors began assembling in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and in June Chinese police and soldiers took to beating and murdering them. Like Obama, Bush came into office with higher than average respect from foreign leaders, but he had to shelve plans to improve American-Chinese relations, a blow to his larger ambitions to redefine American engagement with the Communist world…
That didn't turn as many people against him as what was, until this year, the worst man-made natural disaster in American history. In March of 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound… Bush, a former oilman, bore only somewhat less blame than Exxon.
Jump to 2009-10: The Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus, are seen by many Americans as bailouts, not legitimate attempts to stave off economic catastrophe. (TARP was created by the George W. Bush administration, but according to recent polls two-thirds of Americans attribute it to Obama.) Obama, who has arrived in office with the hopes of foreign leaders and populations riding high, wants to redefine relations with, most of all, the Muslim world, but before he has the chance there are protests, and then violent crackdowns, in Tehran. (Unlike the crisis Carter faced in 1979, this was not a revolution, and the Iranian government was in no danger of crumbling.) He is criticized for not expressing enough support for the protestors, criticism that pales in comparison to that of his handling of the BP oil spill.
George H. W. Bush came into office facing what many economists called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, accompanied by a collapse in the real estate market and a Wall Street racked by scandal and stock market decline. He succeeded a president, Ronald Reagan, who staked his reputation on limited government while expanding it in certain costly areas, particularly the military, leaving record deficits…
Twenty years later, Obama followed on the heels of a self-proclaimed Reagan Republican whose tenure ended in straits like those Reagan's had…
I really don't think this holds up terribly well for a number of reasons. I
don't know which economists called the 1989 "downturn" the worst
since the Great Depression, but I'm sure they were
smoking something not
looking at all of the data. That downturn wasn't even the worst one of the
1980's -- the 1982 recession was far more severe in its effects. Plus,
beginning with the fall of 1989 the Bush administration started reaping
unparalleled foreign policy developments -- the collapse of Eastern European
communism, the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the cresting of the
third wave of democratization, yada, yada, yada.
Still, Verini's essay points to the ways in which humans can't help but search for historical analogies to try to explain the present day. We're hard-wired to look for patterns like this, even if they are exaggerated. Indeed, I've just spent a week of conferencing about the future of the global political economy in which various historical analogies were deployed to explain the current moment. It's possible that I contributed to this analogy-fest just as much as I consumed others.
I'll get to those historical analogies in a later post, but for now, I'll leave it to readers -- which past U.S. president do you think Barack Obama evokes?
Analogical reasoning can be very dangerous in foreign affairs. The human impulse to see patterns everywhere can lead to the use of inexact analogies -- "X is another Vietnam" or "Y is another Minuch." This in turn leads to bad foreign policy decisions, as anyone with a passing familiarity with this book can tell you.
So one of the things I liked about Obama's speech last night was his willingness to confront some analogical reasoning head-on. Consider this section, for example:
[T]here are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we're better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing. I believe this argument depends on a false reading of history. Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.
One could quibble a bit with some elements of that paragraph -- the U.S. really did have allies contribute troops in Vietnam -- but that's a decent analysis as far as it goes.
The thing that nags at me, however, is the implicit analogy in last night's speech, and in the policy discourse that will surround this decision: Afghanistan in late 2009 parallels Iraq in late 2006, and therefore a surge strategy now will have similar effects.
Glenn Greenwald has already catalogued the parallels in rhetorical tropes between the two instances (and Steven Metz chronicles the actual policy parallels). Greenwald believes this will expose the hollowness at the core of Obama's strategy, but I don't think he gets the politics of this at all. My hunch is that the surge is perceived to have worked pretty well -- Iraq in 2009 is in better straits than Iraq in 2006. If policymakers are unconsciously adopting this parallel, then the strategy will sell.
The thing is, Afghanistan is very, very different from Iraq. As tough a nut as state-building is in Iraq, it's a country with fewer ethnic and linguistic divisions, better infrastructure, a better educated citizenry, more natural endowments, and a longer history of relative "stability" than Afghanistan. Whatever you think about the surge strategy, the odds of success in Afghanistan are lower than in Iraq.
This doesn't mean that Obama's other policy options are better -- but I'd like to know the extent to which the administration recognizes the flaws in the surge analogy.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.