Thursday, June 28, 2007

Moving on

Next on my list of to read books: Afghanistan: The Bear Trap. Or, everything you ought to know about Pakistan and Afghanistan during the 80's.

Two things I learned in 20 pages:
- The US was reluctant to use Zia and the Mujhadeen against the soviets, because they saw no chance of success.
- The plane crash that killed Zia in 1988, which was almost certainly an assassination, also killed the U.S. ambassador and the chief military attache. Efforts to investigate the crash were hampered by both Pakistani and U.S. authorities, and to date there is no definitive explanation for what happened. Basically no government in the world seriously wanted known who was responsible.

Book Analysis and Notes

I finished reading Lhasa: Streets with Memories by Robert Barnett. My thoughts, such as they are, are here. I loved this book but had trouble writing about it. What appealed to me was the sociology of space, how time and events define the meaning of places, and how those meanings (and places) change over time and get re-written. I have little to add to such a discussion, and just nod my head.

I watched The Road Home last night, reading the subtext of that film I wonder if the experience of occupation/assimilation and confused identity are not typical of western China.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Book Analysis and Notes

Finished reading The Age of Fallibility, by George Soros. Some interesting ideas, and a certain amount of fluff. Expanded thoughts here.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Gordon Smith Files

Senator Gordon Smith voted for cloture on a resolution condemning the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales.

Impact: The vote would have ended debate and allowed the resolution an up or down vote. 60 votes were needed, the Yea's got only 53. Smith along with 6 of his colleagues went against party and supported cloture. Had the resolution gone to the floor, it would have put every Republican in the Senate on record either supporting Gonzales or calling for his resignation, and would most likely have passed.

Guts: 5. Smith puts his vote where his mouth is. He's already gone on record calling for the AG to resign. On the other hand there must have been an expectation the vote would not pass (two prominent Democrats, Obama and Dodd, did not bother to show). Smith would have been more put to the test if there were 59 other Senators voting with him.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Now Reading: George Soros

Next book off the stack from the library is George Soros' The Age of Fallibility. I picked it up because with his wealth and foundations he is in a position to make a substantial impact on the world. No other expectations, except that Foreign Affairs gave it a positive review.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Book Analysis and Notes

I finished reading Bruce Ackerman's Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism. My notes are here. The book argues for abandoning war a response to large scale terrorist attacks, and instead declaring an adjusted State of Emergency (SEM). The SEM would permit large scale violations of civil rights, but only for short periods of time on the order of 6 weeks. Congress would have to reauthorize the SEM, with escalating super majorities required to continue it.

Ackerman is correct to discard war as a paradigm, President Bush has spared no effort in demonstrating it's flaws. But Ackerman then adopts a "domestic police action" as the paradigmatic response. That paradigm acknowledges that we face a threat, but not a threat to our survival as a nation. It permits extraordinary powers of detention, but only for a short time until the immediate threat has passed.

The problem is that such an action is temporary, whether it's weeks or months the SEM ends and everything goes back to normal. How reasonable is it to expect terrorists to abandon a proven technique, especially when they see American politicians saying "no problem." Whatever rules or laws are put in place to prevent terrorism have to be permanent in order to be effective.

Ackerman dodges this by assuming attacks will be infrequent, but I think that's overly optimistic. How long would it take for another hijacking if we began allowing box cutters on airplanes and took locks off the cockpit doors? Fine you say, we'll make those rules permanent but everything else like surveillance will be temporary. But if we can afford to make a rule temporary, then it must not be preventing attacks so we don't need it at all.

Ackerman jumped on a big problem, and I give him credit for the attempt. A lot more useful then gazing at Jack Bauer's navel.

So... About those benchmarks

Here's a story from the Washington Post on cooperation between a Sunni militia and American forces. Official Iraqi federal and civil forces are completely absent from the story (and presumably the area in question).

- It's good to see our military recognizing and co-opting real local power over theoretical federal or state forces.

- It's surprising to see no mention of special forces. Isn't this their bag?

- It's unsurprising to see confusion and reluctance between our forces and the militia. Under the circumstances, neither side has reason to trust the other. The solution is to have minimal involvement- lay down some rules using arms supplies as the carrot and then stay out of the way. You can't provide effective operational support if you can't distinguish friend from foe, so don't try. And don't try to turn them into a scout force to guide our own operations. They want to save their neighborhoods, not watch us blow them up.

- Does anyone care that we're actively undermining some of the benchmarks we just signed into law?
(x) Providing Iraqi commanders with all authorities to execute this plan and to make tactical and operational decisions, in consultation with U.S commanders, without political intervention, to include the authority to pursue all extremists, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.

(xiii) Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.

Friday, June 8, 2007

POW: Newt Gingrich

A new recommended podcast: Newt Gingrich speaking to a CFR crowd back at the end of April. It's probably the most intelligent discussion of foreign affairs I've heard from a credible Presidential candidate.

The major theme was about bashing government bureaucracies for failing to adapt to the faster information flows available. I can only imagine how chaotic federal departments are, I work in the private sector and that is bad enough. Newt brushes on the concept that engagement with the world whether in counter-terrorism, economic development, or even the foreign service requires integrating first and second gen Americans with readily available networks and language skills. It's easier to train a Pakistani to be a foreign service officer then it is to train a foreign service officer to be Pakistani. Sort of like the guy who said the FBI was terrible at combating the mafia until it hired Italians and Irish, and would be terrible at combating terrorism until it hired Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, etc.

Not all was good. Gingrich peddles the war metaphor shamelessly. He manages to acknowledge that the war on terror is less then meaningful, but then he tries to reshape it into a war against Anti Modernity Muslims. Problem: Muslim terrorists aren't anti-modern. They're happy to use cell phones, the internet, and whatever other technologies suit their purpose. What they're against is a Western dominated modernity centered on America. Their problem is with the West, not with modernity per se. But acknowledging that means acknowledging the ways in which the West dominates modernity as experienced by Muslims, and Newt lacks the guts to go down that road.

Also, in answer to Newt's challenge about what religions besides Islam inspire terrorism, the short list is Hinduism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Hinduism in India, Protestantism and Catholicism in Ireland, and Judaism in Israel. The Hindu Tamil Tigers in fact invented the suicide bomb. Newt's real question is what religions inspire terrorism against the West, but if he put it that way it would again acknowledge there was something specific to the West that Muslims don't like.

Despite it's faults, the speech and subsequent questions are engaging. I strongly recommend.

PS: A fuller analysis of religion inspired terrorism can be found in a lecture by Robert Pape given to a UC Berkeley class on terrorism in 2006. He also wrote a book on the subject.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Current Reading

I made a run to the library today. First on the list is Bruce Ackerman's Before the Next Attack. It advocates a formal process for granting emergency powers to the President in time of emergency, specifically mass casualty terrorist attacks. I'd recommend it to people based on the first chapter alone, a clear and effective critique of the 'war on terror'.