Steve Coll breaks some news about Afghanistan at The New Yorker. He reports that the Obama administration is now "entered into direct, secret talks with senior Afghan Taliban leaders."
Readers should feel free to debate the wisdom of this move in the comments. I was struck by Coll's concise one-paragraph description of the situation on the ground:
[T]he Obama Administration has understandably concluded that the status quo is untenable. The war has devolved into a strategic stalemate: urban Afghan populations enjoy reasonable security, millions of schoolgirls are back in class, Al Qaeda cannot operate, and the Taliban cannot return to power, yet in the provinces ethnic militias and criminal gangs still husband weapons, cadge international funds, and exploit the weak. Neither the United States nor the Taliban can achieve its stated aims by arms alone, and the Administration lacks a sure way to preserve the gains made while reducing its military presence, as it must, for fiscal, political, and many other reasons.
Now, Coll states above that this situation cannot last. Here's my question: why?
I'm not saying the status quo is good, mind you. I'm just wondering -- exactly what fiscal or political pressure will force a change in U.S. policy? As previously noted, there's not much daylight between the Obama administration and the GOP on Afghanistan. The Obama administration's position has mutated from "firm withdrawal in 2011" to "did we say 2011? Cause we really meant 2014." Even if the war is unpopular with the American public, I see no groundswell that would force a political response.
As for the fiscal question, it's true that the Afghanistan conflict is not cheap. It's also true, however, that overseas military adventures are not the primary driver of the deficit, and there's no chance in hell that the GOP will embrace defense cuts because of fiscal strictures.
One could argue that the negotiations themselves are a signal that the administration wants to change the situation. That's undeniably true, but Coll notes that these negotiations will take quite some time: "Yalta this is not."
There's a tendency, when analysts see a stalemate or deadlock, to assume that something has to give. Surely, one side or the other will indicate a willingness to negotiate a change. This is particularly true if the analyst doesn't like the status quo. Sometimes, however, the intolerable situation can last a good while longer than anyone wants it to. I suspect that will be the case in Afghanistan.
There are two ways to understand the current dynamics playing out on the Korean peninsula.
First, everything you need to know about the standoff on the Korean peninsula is encapsulated in this James Blitz analysis in the Financial Times:
[O]n one point there is broad agreement: military conflict between North and South would have unimaginable consequences, in terms of fatalities and economic devastation.
A range of factors have long convinced military strategists that war is pretty much unthinkable, however unpleasant the rhetoric may get.
For North Korea, the fundamental risk of any conflict is that it would almost certainly lose, given its conventional military weakness. For South Korea, the risk is that while it might ultimately win, it would suffer immense casualties.
Second, in an expert display of connecting any international relations crisis to Kevin Bacon in less than six steps [I'm pretty sure that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon covers something different?!--ed. Well, it works for IR flashpoints too!!] you can learn the fine art of playing Chicken by watching the tractor fight sequence from Footloose:
This has been North Korea's bargaining advantage for decades -- everyone else in the world thinks they're crazy enough to stay on the tractor. This means that the rational thing to do is to get off the tractor, which translates into granting them concessions.
Alas, Kevin Bacon doesn't explain everything under the sun in international relations. As Christian Oliver explains in the FT, there are many possible explanations for the Cheonan incident, and some of them involve internal discord in the Hermit Kingdom. Paradoxically, as Thomas Schelling explained oh so many decades ago, sometimes domestic weaknesses can be parlayed into international strength.
This puts South Korea in a big bind. So long as China is reluctant to sanction North Korea -- and they're very reluctant to do this -- Seoul either needs to out-crazy Pyongyang or come up with a punishment that hurts North Korea without escalating military tensions.
So my suggestion, based on this Reuters backgrounder, would be to either ban broadcasts of the 2010 World Cup tournament in North Korea, or even better, ban North Korea's side from participation in the tournament due to start next month. There is precedent for this: Yugoslavia was barred from participating in the 1994 World Cup because of ongoing United Nations sanctions. It's also a sanction that would not benefit any internal hardliners responsible for the Cheonan.
I confess I'm grasping at straws here -- I'm holding out for a hero who can solve this policy conundrum. Readers are encouraged to offer their own policy suggestions in the comments.
Philip Tetlock has a must-read review essay on political forecasting in the latest issue of The National Interest. Tetlock is the author of Expert Political Judgment, one of my all-time favorite books in political science.
Tetlock reviews books by three political prognosticators: Stratfor's George Friedman (who has been mocked just a bit by your humble blogger), FP and Eurasia's Ian Bremmer (who has been panned just a bit by your humble blogger) and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (who was on your humble blogger's dissertation committee and is therefore the source of much Good and Light in the world).
You'll have to read Tetlock's essay to get his assessment of all three books -- but I do like this one-paragraph summary:
The authors are all entrepreneurial futurists, but each offers a strikingly distinctive approach to prediction. I organize these approaches under three headings: the superpundit model in which readers take it, more or less on faith, that the forecaster has a pipeline into the future not available to ordinary mortals (a category into which I place George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years); the technocratic-pluralism model in which the authors never get around to making falsifiable predictions of their own but do offer readers a pretty comprehensive survey of forecasting mistakes and an inventory of tools for avoiding them (a category into which I place Ian Bremmer and Preston Keat’s The Fat Tail); and the scientific-reductionist model in which the author embraces a particular theory from the social sciences and shows how, if you apply that theory thoughtfully to real-world contexts, you can derive surprisingly accurate forecasts (a category into which I place Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s The Predictioneer’s Game).
What I found more intriguing was Tetlock's formulation for how to use pundits:
I wonder if such an exercise would actually work. One of the accusations levied against the foreign policy community is that because they only talk to and read each other, they all generate the same blinkered analysis. I'm not sure that's true, but it would be worth conducting this experiment to see whether a Village of Pundits does a better job than a single pundit.
The best thing I can say for the superpundit model is likely to annoy virtually all of that ilk: they look a lot better when we blend them into a superpundit composite. Aggregation helps. As financial journalist James Surowiecki stressed in his insightful book The Wisdom of Crowds, if you average the predictions of many pundits, that average will typically outperform the individual predictions of the pundits from whom the averages were derived. This might sound magical, but averaging works when two fairly easily satisfied conditions are met: (1) the experts are mostly wrong, but they are wrong in different ways that tend to cancel out when you average; (2) the experts are right about some things, but they are right in partly overlapping ways that are amplified by averaging. Averaging improves the signal-to-noise ratio in a very noisy world.... From this perspective, if you want to improve your odds, you are better-off betting not on George Friedman but rather on a basket of averaged-out predictions from a broad ideological portfolio of George Friedman–style pundits. Diversification helps.
Two interesting articles of note over the weekend. The first is Clive Thompson's essay on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita (otherwise known as BDM) and his
Fabulous Foreign Policy Game Theory Contraption forecasting model-for-hire. Bruce is the leading proselytizer of using game theory as a predictive tool in political science -- and he has quite the forecasting business to back him up.
Bruce seems to merit one of these every two years or so, and Thompson hits most of the same sources and critics of BDM's approach. He does add this nugget of information, however:
Those who have watched Bueno de Mesquita in action call him an extremely astute observer of people. He needs to be: when conducting his fact-gathering interviews, he must detect when the experts know what they’re talking about and when they don’t. The computer’s advantage over humans is its ability to spy unseen coalitions, but this works only when the relative positions of each player are described accurately in the first place. “Garbage in, garbage out,” Bueno de Mesquita notes. Bueno de Mesquita begins each interview by sitting quietly — “in a slightly closed-up manner,” as [U.K. telecommunications company Cable and Wireless Richard] Lapthorne told me — but as soon as an interviewee expresses doubt or contradicts himself, Bueno de Mesquita instantly asks for clarification.
“His ability to pick up on body language, to pick up on vocal intonation, to remember what people said and challenge them in nonthreatening ways — he’s a master at it,” says Rose McDermott, a political-science professor at Brown who has watched Bueno de Mesquita conduct interviews. She says she thinks his emotional intelligence, along with his ability to listen, is his true gift, not his mathematical smarts. “The thing is, he doesn’t think that’s his gift,” McDermott says. “He thinks it’s the model. I think the model is, I’m sure, brilliant. But lots of other people are good at math. His gift is in interviewing. I’ve said that flat out to him, and he’s said, ‘Well, anyone can do interviews.’ But they can’t.”
Patrick Appel links to this essay because of BDM's Iran predictions (according to him, the student protestors will be more powerful than Khamenei by the fall). He notes, "Let's hope his model is right, but I'm skeptical that these questions can be predicted by equations alone." Except as the above quote suggests, it's not just equations alone -- it's knowing what values to plug into those equations. This requires a different set of skills -- and rare is the person who excels at both.
Speaking of brain skills, I found Emily Yoffe's Slate essay on brain chemistry to be kind of interesting. The argument in a nutshell:
Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains, which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic last year, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" speculates that our constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing. Like the lab rats, we keep hitting "enter" to get our next fix....
[O]ur brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. "The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire," [University of Michigan professor of psychology Kent] Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the possibility of a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one....
Actually all our electronic communication devices—e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter—are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. [Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak] Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably—as e-mail, texts, updates do—we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
I fully recognize the biochemical reward system discussed in the essay, and I've certainly heard this argument applied to bloggers who allegedly lose the ability to engage in long-form writing. But based on my own experience, I don't buy it.
True, blogging, updating, etc. brings excitement. But I get the same thrill from perfecting a longer stretch of prose. When I'm polishing up a case study or trying to refine a theoretical argument, I usually feel the desires for new information that I get when I'm blogging. Indeed, the biggest mental rush I get from writing is tackling a completely new subject and then, 10,000 words later, retackling the first draft with renewed vigor and the promise of molding it into something better. Once I think I have something of merit, oooh, does the dopamine kick in.
But that's just me. Tell me, dear readers -- are your electronic gadgets hampering you ability to do long-form work?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.