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March 31, 2010

Democracy Arsenal and NSN are now on Twitter
Posted by The Editors

To our wonderful readers: Democracy Arsenal can now be found on Twitter under the handle @demarsenal. In addition, our sponsor, the National Security Network, also has a new Twitter feed. NSN can be found @natsecnet.

The @demarsenal feed will send a tweet every time there’s a new post on this blog. The @natsecnet will cover the progressive national security community and weigh in on the debate – all in 140 characters or fewer.

Let the tweeting begin!

It's Politics, Stupid
Posted by Patrick Barry

Writing in today’s New York Times, Robert Pape, Lindsey O’Rourke and Jenna McDermit address what is sadly an insufficiently understood subject in terrorism discourse: the political motivations for extremism.  Looking at the bombings in Moscow, Pape and Co. argue:

"Chechen suicide attackers do not fit popular stereotypes, contrary to the Russian government’s efforts to pigeonhole them. For years, Moscow has routinely portrayed Chechen bombers as Islamic extremists, many of them foreign, who want to make Islam the world’s dominant religion…Chechen suicide attackers do not fit popular stereotypes, contrary to the Russian government’s efforts to pigeonhole them. For years, Moscow has routinely portrayed Chechen bombers as Islamic extremists, many of them foreign, who want to make Islam the world’s dominant religion…As we have discovered in our research on Lebanon, the West Bank, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, suicide terrorist campaigns are almost always a last resort against foreign military occupation."

The ideological pigeonholing of the sort discussed above is something I and many others typically associate with today conservative movement.  Indeed, when discussing terrorism in the context of the American experience, certain conservatives seem happy to lump most of the world’s Muslims into a millenarian casserole. 

Still, I wonder whether progressives are, to some extent, also guilty of ignoring Pape’s message – that political grievances push extremists towards savage acts of violence. But whereas conservatives tend to focus more on ideology, progressives tend to place strong emphasis on conditions such as poverty or poor education when explaining terrorist acts. Take John Brennan’s much lauded articulation of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, in which he points to the need for a U.S. counterterrorism strategy that addresses “the upstream factors—the conditions that help fuel violent extremism.”  In Brennan’s view, if the U.S. fails “to confront the broader political, economic, and social conditions in which extremists thrive, then there will always be another recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream.”   While I should say that I mostly agree with Brennan in the sense that I suspect a U.S. foreign policy based on promoting dignified standards of living would confer some positive benefits on efforts to undercut extremism, it’s important to recognize the body of evidence that says that the conditions-extremism connection is overdrawn and may discount political motivations that determine predilection toward terrorist violence.

For instance, in his book What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, economist Alan Krueger argues that the relationship between poverty and terrorism is dubious.  And, in an article for International Security analyzing motivations for extremism in Pakistan, Christine Fair and Jacob Shapiro find that “commonly suggested palliatives intended to reduce generalized support for militancy—economic development, greater democratization, alternatives to religious education, and so on—are unlikely to be effective” for reducing demand for militant activities.  Rather than focus on conditions alone, what Fair and Shapiro recommend, and what I think is echoed in today’s op-ed by Pape and his colleagues, is that policymakers try to address the “core political concerns” of militant groups.  

It's also worth pointing out that what is true for Pakistan and Russia is also largely true for the United States, particularly when it comes to hot spots like Afghanistan and Iraq.  America could improve education, increase political access and accountability, and lift thousands of Iraqis and Afghans out of poverty, but so long it presides over large-scale military occupations in those countries, there are still going to be a sizable number of people who view terrorism as a political tool for resisting that reality.

March 30, 2010

SUCK ON THIS Revisited - Or Why Journalists Make Lousy Foreign Policy Analysts
Posted by Michael Cohen

Matt Yglesias posted this absolutely disgusting clip of Tom Friedman declaring his rationale for the Iraq War as a message to the Arab World of SUCK ON THIS. It's appalling and worth watching in its entirety just to get the full effect of Friedman's horrifying sanctimony and utter seriousness. That this is considered serious foreign policy analysis is the clearest indication imaginable that much of what masquerades for foreign policy analysis in this country is anything but serious.

But I link to this because it is a further reminder of one of my greatest, yet somewhat incoherent, pet peeves - the notion that journalists make for insightful foreign policy analysts. Friedman has consistently shown himself to be less than stellar in this regard - especially in his advocacy for the Iraq war - and in this particularly appalling op-ed about escalation in Afghanistan. His shortcoming, as is the case with so many journalists, is the inclination to overdramatize the importance of anecdotal experiences; like placing great importance on a) a conversation he had with a cab driver or b) conversation had with foreign CEO or c) meeting two little girls in Afghanistan. 

I would just ascribe these faults to Friedman, but I feel like it's endemic in the profession - a propensity to make grand simplistic pronouncements based on anecdotal experiences rather than rigorous analysis. Granted this is a problem in not just foreign policy, but it seems particularly bad in this field. Maybe its because foreign correspondents are seen to have some sort of unique insight; when in fact the opposite is quite likely true because they are basing their analysis on immediate experience rather than actual historical or cultural study. Or maybe it's the difficulty that journalists face in getting to the heart of a story - a point bravely raised here by Jerome Starkey in regard to Western coverage of NATO's efforts in Afghanistan.

Or maybe its because journalists are somehow taught to think and write in black and white terms and don't necessarily address the nuances that are endemic in foreign policy analysis. (The Friedman clip above is perhaps the quintessential example; I mean seriously is there anything more simplistic or stupid than believing if the US military comes into Baghdad with a "big stick" it will "teach" Muslims to stop engaging in terrorism).

Or maybe its because DC journalists tend to get sucked into the overwhelming aura of groupthink that dominates that town - and parrot conventional wisdom as if they've wandered into some great and insightful analysis.

Or maybe its because news programs prefer journalists to academics . .  .which makes the growing inclination of academics to blog one of the better recent developments in foreign policy analysis.

I really don't have a good answer to this issue, but I don't think I'm crazy in thinking this a maddening feature of foreign policy coverage today. It can't just be that Thomas Friedman says really crazy and simplistic things on TV about the Iraq War and yet is still seen as one of the country's top foreign policy analysts. Surely there is something else going on here . . .

March 29, 2010

A Tale of Two Stories - UPDATED
Posted by Michael Cohen

So over the weekend, nine religious fanatics were arrested in Michigan for plotting to kill law enforcement officers. Their hope was that such violence would spark an uprising against the US government. The alleged perpetrators were even going to imitate the tactics utilized by Iraqi insurgents and use IEDs to attack the funeral procession for the officers killed in the initial attack.

However, for some reason the New York Times refers to these white, Christian fanatics as "extremists" as opposed to the name they used to describe the two Muslim suicide bombers who killed more than three dozen people in Moscow today - terrorists. Indeed the Times story on this horrible story, which appears right next to the militia story, used some variation of the words terror or terrorist 11 times.

Aside from the fact that these folks in Michigan are "alleged" extremists and were luckily unsuccessful in their murderous deeds how do they differ in any significant way from a terrorist? 

Let's even step back a second and compare the coverage of this investigation to that of Najibullah Zazi, the Afghan, Muslim who plead guilty to wanting to bomb the New York City subway system. A google search of "Najibullah Zazi terrorist" turns up 735,000 results. Crikey, his wikipedia entry uses some variation of terrorist 61 times. So the news media is pretty clear that Mr. Zazi is a terrorist.

Now I suppose one could argue that because these militia members intended to attack law enforcement figures they aren't the same sort of terrorists that would attack innocent civilians, but when it comes to terrorism intent matters more than the actual target. defines terrorism as "the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes."

So trying to kill law enforcement figures to spark an anti-government uprising is terrorism. I wonder if the fact that these folks are white and Christian has anything to do with the fact that we refrain from calling them terrorists. Because that's exactly what they are.

UPDATE: As is his wont, Steve Benen asks a good question: when will Dick Cheney accuse the Obama Administration of failing to protect America by not waterboarding the Michigan Nine and allowing them due process rights.

The Era of Big Government is Back
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at AOL News my latest column on the political and policy implications of health care reform.

In the wake of President Barack Obama's signing of historic health care legislation, the natural inclination of most political pundits has been to speculate about the politics of reform -- namely who won and who lost.

Certainly, in the near-term it's possible that the hangover from reform -- coupled with an under-performing economy and high unemployment -- will bring victory to the GOP in November (though if if recent polling is any indication, the Republicans may want to keep the champagne on ice).

But moments such as these don't fall easily into such simplistic paradigms; because while the Republicans may win the battle, it is surely President Obama and the Democrats who have won the war. 

By finishing the unfinished business of the progressive experiment -- near-universal health care -- creating a new government entitlement and guaranteeing health security for tens of millions of Americans, the Democrats have scored a political victory that will likely resonate for generations.

Read the whole thing here:


COIN is Still War
Posted by Michael Cohen

On Friday in the New York Times we had another depressing reminder that for all the US military's efforts to "protect civilians" in Afghanistan we are still killing too many of them:

American and NATO troops firing from passing convoys and military checkpoints have killed 30 Afghans and wounded 80 others since last summer, but in no instance did the victims prove to be a danger to troops, according to military officials in Kabul.

“We have shot an amazing number of people, but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat,” said Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Though fewer in number than deaths from airstrikes and special forces operations, the pace of such shootings has not declined despite new rules from General McChrystal aimed at reducing the killing of innocents. The persistence of deadly convoy and checkpoint shootings has led to growing resentment among Afghans fearful of Western troops and angry at what they see as impunity with which the troops operate — a friction that has turned villages firmly against the occupation.

I hate to sound like a broken record on this point, but none of this should even be slightly surprising. Indeed, the incessant mantra we've heard about population centric counter-insurgency and making "protecting civilians" the top priority of US efforts in Afghanistan is just incredibly deceptive. 

It's not that we shouldn't try to protect civilians - or even that the American military shouldn't take the issue incredibly seriously. We should and we do. But by placing 100,000 troops in Afghanistan we are actually increasing the likelihood that ordinary Afghans will be killed - no matter how much effort is expended to spare their lives.  Our soldiers are trained to protect themselves and use overwhelming force when they are threatened; the notion that a directive from the commanding general in Afghanistan will change this overnight and turn American soldiers into "armed social workers" is pure fantasy: a fact that is being seen on the ground.

For all of the lovely sentiments about protecting civilians in Afghanistan the simple reality is that we have chosen to place furthering our national interests above protecting the lives of ordinary Afghans; the loss of civilian life while regrettable is a direct result of that decision. I suppose this is defensible - certainly countries that go to war do it all the time. But let's at least be honest about why we're there and the resulting effect on innocent civilians.

March 26, 2010

Whither Maliki?
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna

I have a new piece over at Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel discussing today's announcement of official election results in Baghdad. While Allawi's narrow victory represents a major political realignment, he is far from assured of being selected as the prime minister-designate, and I believe the process itself will largely be driven by attitudes toward al-Maliki:

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's electoral list narrowly edged the incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Maliki's State of Law alliance in the official (but uncertified) results of the March 7 elections announced today. The horse-trading and deal-making which will produce a new government will now accelerate. But to a very large extent, a little-noticed Federal Supreme Court decision yesterday drained the drama from today's announcement. Despite Allawi's winning two more seats than his rival, he may not get the chance to form a government. Allawi's chances of becoming Iraq's Prime minister will hinge largely on the question of how much Maliki's Shiite rivals really hate him...and how loyal his political allies will be if their Shiite co-religionists make his exit a condition to forming a government.

The performance of Allawi and his Iraqiyya list's performance represent a major, even stunning political realignment. But the Iraqi Supreme Court's ruling yesterday means that contrary to general belief, he is not guaranteed the first opportunity to form a government. The ruling hinges on the interpretation of Article 76 of the Iraqi constitution, which mandates that the new president authorize a prime minister-designate representing the largest parliamentary bloc to attempt to form a government. There has been some controversy over what this meant in practice. The Federal Supreme Court interpreted the clause broadly and decided that "largest parliamentary bloc" referred to any parliamentary bloc in existence at the time when the president makes his designation -- not to the lists which contested the election. If the court had ruled narrowly, then the razor-thin difference in seats would have had profound effects. As it stands, Maliki and Allawi now enter this next phase of horse-trading basically even.

You can read the whole thing here.

My Favorite Books
Posted by Michael Cohen

So apparently the new thing in the blogosphere is to list the ten books that most significantly influenced your world view. It sounds like sort of a fun exercise so here's an off the top of my head list, with the caveat that this is far from a collection of great books. I'm not going to pick any classics like Plato or Keynes or Clausewitz - that's too obvious. I'll just stick to those that when I read them, for better or worse, deeply influenced my world view and might be of interest to DA readers. 

1. The Walter Lafeber Category. Back when I was an undergraduate, I had the unique opportunity to take a course with the great diplomatic historian Walter Lafeber. Two of the books that he assigned us were Neil Sheehan's "Bright Shining Lie" and Ronald Steel's "American Century." As an impressionable 20 year old the influence they had on me at the time was seismic - I still think my general skepticism about the use of American military power is a direct result of reading Sheehan's sad tale of John Paul Vann. It's the one book that every single foreign policy-maker should read before they go into government service. It's probably my single favorite piece of non-fiction history. Steel's biography is magisterial; I don't think I've ever read a more fascinating overview of the 20th century than this book.

2. Barbara Tuchman, "The Guns of August." The book that most clearly sparked my love of history and in particular military history. I have no idea if historians believe that it holds up fifty years later, but it's a great read and an important cautionary tale for foreign policy practitioners (a recurrent theme in my selections).

3. The Politics of Hate Category. "Chain Reaction," Thomas Edsall; "The Politics of Rage," Dan Carter. I'm obsessed with late 60s American politics and these two books are a good part of the reason why. Edsall's book offers the most concise explanation of how the GOP used the two issues of race and taxes to promote their political agenda and Carter demonstrates the potency of George Wallace's conservative populist rhetoric, which has been imitated by countless Republican politicians. Like I said before there are better books about this era, but the criteria here is influence.

4. The Campaign History Category. "American Melodrama," and "What It Takes." I love campaign histories and these two are hands down the best. What it Takes is more than 1000 pages, I bought it one friday afternoon at Dupont Circle's Second Story Books and I read it in about a week.  It's the single best book I've ever read that really explains the unique psychological make-up of those who aspire to the nation's highest office. Melodrama is just the best campaign history of the most interesting election in American history.

5. The Hofstatder Category. "American Political Tradition" and "Age of Reform." These are both amazing books, but the first one offers such a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of America's most important political figures, presenting them as a set of complex individuals rather than engaging in hagiography. When I was writing my book it was the single best tool for getting inside the heads of my protagonists.

5. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I read this in high school and it convinced me that I should stick to writing non-fiction. Garcia Marquez is just a beautiful writer and every couple of years I pick this book up just to remind myself of the power of a writer with extraordinary imagination and ambition.

6. Lightning Military History Round. Alistair Horne, "A Savage War of Peace;" Russell Weigley, "The American Way of War," Anthony Beevor, "Stalingrad." I love military history and these are all great, but the latter is such a savage portrayal of the horrors of the Eastern Front that it really did end any romantic notion that I ever had of war after reading it.

7. The Obscure Lincoln Category  "The Radical and the Republican," James Oakes. This is a pretty minor Lincoln book, but it's a wonderful one and a great examination of the pragmatism that defined Lincoln's politics, not to mention a nuanced portrayal of the extraordinary Frederick Douglass. Reading this book - and understanding Lincoln in general - provides really important clues to the political philosophy of our current president.

8. The Shlocky Fiction Category. Everything James Ellroy ever wrote . . . but especially the Cold Six Thousand.

9. The Great Fiction Category. I'm embarrassingly not a huge fan of fiction, but I make an exception for Ernest Hemingway, "Catcher in the Rye" and especially Philip Roth. "American Pastoral" and "Human Stain" are my two favorites, especially the former, which is a grea, veiled history of the mythology of America during the Cold War (maybe that's why I like it!) . . . but the set piece in Human Stain about the Clinton impeachment. Classic!

10. "The History of Zionism," Walter Laquer. What can I say I have a thing for transformational European Jews, especially Ahad Ha'am.

Honorable Mention: "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," William Shirer. "Lend Me Your Ears," William Safire. Anything by Mark Twain. Schlesinger's New Deal history. "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

March 25, 2010

The Senate Discovers the Internets
Posted by Patrick Barry

The U.S. Senate has discovered the internets.  Well, kind of.  What actually happened is that yesterday, at a gathering sponsored by CNAS, the Senate’s Global Internet Freedom Caucus launched.  The caucus -which is chaired by Senators Kaufman and Brownback (Having two, soon-to-be retired Senators as caucus chairs seems a tad shortsighted, no?), and has received broad bi-partisan support from the likes of Senators McCain, Casey, Lieberman, etc - will have three main charges: increasing awareness about global internet freedom; highlighting government attempts at restricting internet access; and promoting techniques to ensure access is as free as possible.

One idea that received a lot of discussion during the event was the notion that the expansion of internet freedom in closed societies would lead to an expansion of political freedom.  An analogy made by some of the participants was that just as Voice of America contributed to the opening of closed societies in Eastern Bloc countries, internet freedom has the power to create political openings in places like Iran and China. 

To me, this kind of thinking illustrates why it’s important to carry modest expectations about what the U.S. can realistically do to alter the behavior of other governments.  It’s certainly the case that during the Cold War, the U.S. could use Voice of America to offer a window into a wider world not otherwise seen by citizens of authoritarian countries.  Few would disagree with the argument that opening this window broadened the strictures of what was deemed acceptable politically acceptable in those countries.  However, any impact had by this opening was hemmed in by the autocratic governments' ability to do things like bribe, intimidate or imprison its citizens to ensure that they would not engage as participants in a broadened political discourse. 

The same goes for internet freedom.  When asked about the internet freedom\political freedom linkage, panelist Rebecca McKinnon had what I found to be a pretty insightful response: It depends on what else is happening in the larger environment.  McKinnon pointed out that there’s a tendency to look at this issue only in terms of access, but in most cases, it’s not just the blocking of websites or services that’s the problem, it’s all the other bad things usually done by authoritarian governments.  When governments can remove web content, surveil users, conduct cyber-attacks, control domain-name registration, etc, expanding access is, in most cases, insufficient for the creation of political liberalization.  As McKinnon put it, this is why the internet is not “freedom juice,” which magically results in democratization.  There are limits to what U.S. legislation or diplomacy can achieve if governments are bent on restricting their citizens’ internet activities. 

Still, I can’t help but feel optimistic that a well-formulated U.S. global internet policy could produce meaningful change for people living under oppressive governments.  The growing push to expand internet and social networking access for Iranian dissidents is one example.  A proposal backed by Google to incorporate censorship into the negotiation of trade agreements is another.  Hopefully the creation of the caucus will translate into political support for such ideas.  

"Responsibility" - The Max Boot Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

In making the assertion that health care legislation will force the US to choose between being a superpower and providing for the needs of its citizens Max Boot poses the following question:

But what happens if the U.S. switches spending from defense to social welfare? Who will protect what used to be known as the "Free World"? Who will police the sea lanes, stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combat terrorism, respond to genocide and other unconscionable human rights violations, and deter rogue states from aggression? Those are all responsibilities currently performed by America. But it will be increasingly hard to be globocop and nanny state at the same time. Something will have to give.

Actually I agree with Boot here. But of course I hope that what "gives" is the huge number of responsibilities and interests that Max Boot seems to think should be larded upon the American people (I'm guessing this is where the great Cohen-Boot Consensus of 2010 flounders). 

I have to be honest, I don't really understand why America must maintain the global "responsibility" of policing global sea lanes or stopping the proliferation of WMD while shirking the responsibility of providing health security to its own citizens.  American "leadership" is important and clearly we have critical global interests, but the notion that these should come at the expense of caring for our own citizens is simply insane to me.

What I am never able to understand about arguments such as these is the extent to which conservatives like Boot see absolutely no connection between our strength at home and our strength as a nation. Its is as if the suffering of more than 40 million Americans who lack insurance - and the millions of others trapped in jobs for fear of losing coverage - simply doesn't rate or is in no way is an impediment to American competitiveness, American entrepreneurship and even American greatness. 

Perhaps as a thought experiment the Council on Foreign Relations should strip Max Boot of his health care coverage and then we can see if he still thinks deterring rogue states is more important to him than say being able to see a doctor or buy prescription drugs. 
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