Archive for the ‘International Relations’ Category

Tucker Annihilation
February 23, 2012

A couple nights ago, Tucker Carlson told Fox News that “Iran deserves to be annihilated.” Nothing to see here; just some standard yuppie pundit chest-beating. But I found his pseudo-mea culpa absolutely fascinating:

It’s my fault that I got tongue tied and didn’t explain myself well last night. I’m actually on the opposite side on the Iran question from many people I otherwise agree with. I think attacking could be a disaster for the US and am worried that Obama will do it, for fear of seeming weak before an election. Of course the Iranian government is awful and deserves to be crushed. But I’m not persuaded we or Israel could do it in a way that doesn’t cause even greater problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq it seems to me.

See, the problem with declaring war on Iran is that it would be a “disaster” … for the US. It might cause problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq.

You could argue that this position is less monstrous than the one that tongue-tied Tucker seemed to profess on Fox News. After all, he’s saying that we shouldn’t take actions that would lead to the senseless slaughter of thousands of Iranians. But he’s doing so while also making clear that the lives of those thousands of Iranians are not the main issue. National interest, dammit!

If the “main lesson” of Iraq was really that one should refrain from committing inexpedient atrocities, then no one’s really learned anything. Just remember Tucker’s words the next time he castigates the Iranian government for how poorly they treat Iranians.

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Back in the Diaspora
February 6, 2012

Tel Aviv

At around 6 AM this morning my plane touched down at JFK, and I resumed life in the real world. It will take some time before my thoughts are organized enough — and I’ve caught up on sleep enough — to make sense of the ten days I spent Birthrighting through Israel, but I thought I’d jot down some preliminary thoughts and assure you all that I hadn’t gone native.

For the last couple of weeks before I took off for the Holy Land, my mantra was: “Even if it’s terrible, it’s gonna be awesome.” Turns out I was being uncharacteristically prescient. The last ten days have been both sababa (Hebrew for awesome) and very much a balagan (loosely translated: a total clusterfuck). Never before I have felt so exhausted, exhilarated, inspired, dispirited, connected, and alone in such a compressed span of time. You might say it was a rich experience. Certainly an educational one.

Which is not to say that it was educational in the way I believe Birthright’s administration intended it to be. I have no interest in moving to Israel, nor in financially supporting the Israeli state, nor in becoming a mouthpiece for the Likkud Party. I stand by my pre-Birthright conviction that my Jewish heritage gives me no right or claim on the land of Israel, and that I would reject such a claim were it offered to me. My sentiments regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (which are — surprise! — significantly to the left of Birthright’s) remain more or less what they were, though I’ve managed to add just a little bit more nuance.

So my relationship with Israel remains more or less unchanged. But the personal relationships I formed in that week and a half have affected me deeply, and my relationship to Judaism writ large has altered in ways I’m still trying to parse. That’s not to say I’ve found God — far from it. But I may have found a suitable (which is to say, humanistic and godless) entry point back into the Jewish philosophy and theology I abandoned nearly a decade ago.

The tricky part is untangling all these separate threads — the personal, political, and (for lack of a better word) spiritual — and weaving something coherent out of them. Once I can do that, I’ll have a lot — a lot — more to write, either here or elsewhere, about what a Birthright trip can do to your brain. Or mostly my brain, I suppose.

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Globalizing Labor’s Struggle
August 9, 2011

Those of you with so much as a casual interest in labor issues have no doubt heard about the recent unionization of IKEA factory workers in Danville, VA. It was a big victory for organized labor, especially considering the unfavorable conditions in which it occurred — Virginia is a right-to-work state, and you might have noticed that things are not going super great for unions as a whole in the United States.

Fortunately IKEA has considerable interests in its motherland of Sweden, a labor stronghold. Josh Eidelson writes:

While workers were organizing for a union in Danville, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) labor federation, of which IAM is an affiliate, was working to pin responsibility for Virginia anti-union tactics on Ikea headquarters in Europe. Ikea workers and supporters engaged in global solidarity actions, including thousands of phone calls and emails and an informational picket line in Australia. The workers’ struggle in Virginia for the benefits that are assumed in Sweden drew repeated Swedish media coverage, including a segment on the country’s top-rated news show.

Street says that pressure paid off in the months before the union vote, as Ikea corporate concluded that protecting their brand in Europe required getting Jackson Lewis to scale back its anti-union tactics in Virginia.


The Swedish example also strengthened workers’ sense of what was possible in Virginia. In the month before the election, a leader of Sweden’s Ikea manufacturing union flew to Danville and met with workers to describe the wages, benefits and respect they had won. BWI also organized to send the 335 Danville workers messages of support from workers around the world, including hand-written letters and videos.

If American labor is ever going to get back on its feet, it needs more of this. Multinational corporations may be extraordinarily powerful, but they’re also vulnerable to pressure on their international holdings. Americans trying to organize in the shadow of a global behemoth, take note: odds are that company is also trying to preserve its bottom line in some much more heavily unionized country.

Thucydides, 5.89: Athenian Nihilism
June 6, 2011

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I couldn’t let what I found around the close of book five slide. Near the end of that book, Athens makes an expedition against the small island of Melos. But before they invade, they send a few representatives to the islands to negotiate with the Melians. Here’s how, near the beginning of the ensuing dialogue, the Athenians justify the pending invasion:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of a wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

That sounds an awful lot like what Thrasymachus tells Socrates in Plato’s Republic: that justice “is nothing but the advantage of the stronger.”

The Athenians attacked Melos in 416 BCE, Socrates drank the hemlock in 399, and Plato wrote the Republic somewhere around 380. I don’t know if Thrasymachus’ argument was supposed to be representative of popular Athenian opinion; nor do I know how much of Socrates’ positive moral realist argument in the Republic actually came from Socrates, and wasn’t just Plato putting words in the mouth of his mentor and surrogate. But if we take Thucydides’ transcription of events as evidence that Athenians were largely Thrasymachans, and if we take Plato at his word regarding Socrates’ metaethical beliefs, then all of this adds a new shade to popular understandings of the trial of Socrates.

The beliefs that got Socrates killed are generally understood to be negative beliefs. He is said to have questioned the gods, or challenged democratic rule. But maybe his moral realist critique also got him in some trouble. Applying Socratic standards, Athenian behavior during the Peloponnesian War certainly doesn’t look all that stellar. Maybe the shame of the Athenians helped doom Socrates.

But hey, what do I know? I’m no classicist, and this is just uninformed speculation. I’d like to hear from some people who know more about this.

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Fourth Time’s A Charm
June 3, 2011

I see David Brooks, bored with our campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (already!), is trying to gin up support for a shiny new intervention:

That’s why it’s necessary, especially at this moment in history, to focus on the nature of regimes, not only the boundaries between them. To have a peaceful Middle East, it was necessary to get rid of Saddam’s depraved regime in Iraq. It will be necessary to try to get rid of Qaddafi’s depraved regime in Libya. It’s necessary, as everybody but the Obama administration publicly acknowledges, to see Assad toppled. It will be necessary to marginalize Hamas. It was necessary to abandon the engagement strategy that Barack Obama campaigned on and embrace the cautious regime-change strategy that is his current doctrine.”

The absolutely crazy thing about this column is the standard Brooks applies for intervention: “normal” regimes like Saudi Arabia are fine, you see, but Syria is a depraved regime because, “Either as a matter of thuggishness (Syria) or ideology (Hamas), they reject the full humanity of other human beings. They believe it is proper and right to kill innocents.” That’s why he singles out Syria for intervention.

I suppose the implication is that Saudi Arabia embraces the full humanity of other human beings and doesn’t believe it is proper and right to kill innocents. But that’s ludicrous. Has Brooks already forgotten what country dispatched their troops into Bahrain to stomp out that country’s protesters? By what standard is that not depraved? Should we announce our intention to depose King Abdullah as well?

Of course not. For a whole host of reasons, the primary one being this: our “humanitarian interventions” are not successes. They are indiscriminate bloodbaths. And while it’s all well and good for a pampered columnist to talk in the abstract about the need to do something, it is appallingly irresponsible of Brooks to not consider the implications of what he’s saying.

As for the note he ends on — suggesting that peace between Israel and Palestine is impossible until we civilize those barbaric Arab countries — the less said the better. I’ll only point out that his colonialist condescension is even less palatable for implying that Netanyahu and the Likud party have done nothing to hinder the peace process. Especially knowing what we do now.

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Breakdown of the Global Order: Thucydides, 1.50 – 1.88
May 10, 2011

Apologies for the length of my introductory post on Thucydides. This next one is a lot shorter and requires much less setup.


I’m too lazy to rifle through 800 pages for the relevant quote, but I seem to recall that somewhere in his landmark work Diplomacy Henry Kissinger argued that the global order of the Cold War era was more stable than people realized — indeed, more stable than the global order of the early 90s. That’s because a bipolar world is one in which states tend to gravitate towards one of two massive powers. Contrast that with pre-WWI Europe, a multipolar order maintained by a tangled network of alliances. That network is what allowed the chain reaction which turned a regional conflict into a continent-wide slaughter. A Cold War scenario lacks those complications; there are still wars, but they don’t go global.

On a superficial level, Greece circa 435 BCE looks a lot like the world of the Cold War and not very much like pre-WWI Europe. You’ve got two great powers, roughly evenly matched, and the vast majority of the other Greek city states are allied with either one or the other. Two states as strong as Athens and Sparta are inevitably going to compete with one another — as the USSR and the US did — but not on a scale that would sink the rest of the city states into conflict.

Of course, we all know how that turns out. Because as much as Ancient Greece looks like a bipolar order, it’s a lot more tangled and porous than you would expect. Case in point: Potidae.

Potidae is officially an Athenian client state, but they also have deep ties to Corinth. And while Corinth and Athens theoretically have a treaty, they just finished fighting a massive naval battle over the city-state of Corcyra. To make matters worth, Corinth is a member of Sparta’s Peloponnesian League.

By now you should see how the dominoes are stacked. And the next one to fall is Potidae. The Athenians, not wanting the Potidaeans to defect to Corinth’s side, order them “to raze the wall on the Pallene side of the city, to give hostages, to dismiss the Corinthian magistrates, and in future not to receive the persons sent from Corinth annually to succeed them.” When Potidae demurs, Athens sends a military force. But by using the stick instead of the carrot, they only hasten Potidae’s switch over to Team Corinth.

So all of a sudden the Athenians and Corinth (and Corinth’s ally Macedonia) are fighting a war over the whole region surrounding Potidae. And while that’s going on, Corinth goes to Sparta to urge that they get involved as well.


Back in February the foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead argued that Thucydides — long considered the patron saint of the realist school — was in fact anti-realist in very fundamental ways. He wrote:

Realism in political science is often tied to the idea that the behavior of states is determined by the structure of the international system and the balance of forces within it. In a famous analogy, realist theory takes states as “billiard balls” knocked about the geopolitical pool table by impersonal and predictable forces. Another analogy calls them “black boxes”; the analyst of international relations doesn’t need to know what is going on inside the black box in its domestic politics in order to understand what the box is doing.

If we define realism this way, then Thucydides isn’t a realist. In fact, he’s the greatest possible enemy of this kind of theoretical realism. He mocks it, spits in its face, and gleefully dances on its grave.

For Thucydides, the internal politics of a state are crucial to understanding and anticipating the policies of that state. Sparta has a set of interests that are not dictated by the nature of the international system so much as by the structure of Spartan society.

And in fact that’s exactly what we see when Corinthian emissaries demand a formal declaration of war from the Spartan assembly. King Archidamus of the Spartans urges caution, suggesting that his countrymen should prepare for war while delaying it further. If Sparta were a simple tyranny like some of its neighbors, he could just make it so, and we might remember the Peloponnesian War very differently. But he must defer to the assembly — the masses — and they vote for war, “because they feared the growth of the power of the Athenians, seeing most of Hellas already subject to them.”

And just like that we’re in the midst of the Peloponnesian War proper.

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Thucydides, 1.24-1.49
May 9, 2011

Thucydides, whose history provides many of the...

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Hey guys, I’m back. Sorry for the extended radio silence.

For at least the next month or so, I’m going to be dropping the occasional post about passages from Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War, which I’m told is an essential read for anyone who aspires to make a serious study of international relations. If anyone wants to follow along, I’ll be working from The Landmark Thucydides, which was recommended to me by several people and seems to be the most comprehensive edition out there. For those who are unfamiliar with Thucydides aren’t following along, I’ll provide enough context to take each post individually.

I’m starting at book one, chapter 24 (the chapters each run about a paragraph long) because the first 23 chapters are all setup. Called the Archaeology, they sketch out a brief history of Ancient Greece prior to when the real story begins. Here’s what you need to know: in 449, the Greeks finally beat back the Persians, who for decades had been looking to make Ancient Greece part of their vast empire. The two city-states leading the Greek resistance are the martial totalitarian state of Sparta and the proto-democracy Athens. Once the war ends, these two cities are the great powers of Greece, and nearly all of the other states become dependents of one or the other. The Spartans stand at the head of an international institution called the Peloponnesian League, whereas the Athenians reign over something closer to a traditional empire. And whereas the Spartans have the most fearsome infantry force in all of Greece, the Athenians’ exercise military dominance through their massive navy.

By 435, war between Athens and Sparta is inevitable. Thucydides — an Athenian — tells us that Athens is more powerful than Sparta can tolerate, and they are already getting ready for a protracted struggle unlike any the Greek world has ever seen.

Consensus Building for Escalation
April 27, 2011

(en) Libya Location (he) מיקום לוב

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The New York Times gives retired lieutenant general James Dubik a platform to do it.

Unlike the Bosnian Croats in 1995 and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the rebel forces in Libya are too disorganized to take advantage of NATO air support. To give them a fighting chance, NATO must put military advisers and combat air controllers on the ground — not just British, French and Italian, but also a small number of American ones.

These advisers would help bolster the weak rebel army’s organization and capabilities while ground controllers could mark targets, identify the forward movement of rebel forces, and distinguish civilians from fighters more effectively than pilots can from their cockpits. Such measures are essential, but they would require relaxing the Obama administration’s prohibition on the use of American ground forces.

This course of action would not defeat Colonel Qaddafi’s forces overnight, but it would put far more pressure on his regime and potentially protect more civilians in more of the country. If Colonel Qaddafi falls, the United States and NATO will have a responsibility to help shape the postwar order, including providing security to prevent a liberated Libya from sinking into chaos.

But why? Oh, right. Because we’re already in it, but not yet in it to win it. “The charade is over: America has intervened in a civil war with the de facto aim of regime change in Libya,” writes Dubik. “Washington must now accept that decision and face its consequences.”

Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. Dubik could have written this column back when the bombing first started and asked the Times to sit on it for a month. Of course the United States and NATO’s initial military commitment would be barely enough to force a stalemate in Libya. And of course the minute that stalemate became the new status quo our most serious publications would begin running op-eds encouraging the United States to put boots on the ground.

Will we? I hope not, for so many reasons. But I didn’t think we were going to bomb Libya in the first place, and we did. This is the logical next step.

If and when it happens, I wonder what we’ll hear from the folks who actually believed Obama’s promise of a limited engagement. “He lied to us?” Well, maybe. But I suspect he believed, just as they did. The worst lie was the one they told themselves.

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We Don’t Declare War Anymore, We Just Declare Quagmire
April 13, 2011

I’ve written before that our war in Libya contains many of the ingredients for quagmire. At the top of the list: the gap between our objectives and what can actually be accomplished with the resources we’ve committed thus far. The sort of limited engagement we’re attempting may minimize American risk in the short term, but in the long term it can’t secure the rebel victory unofficially sought by the United States. So that leaves us with three options: (A) withdrawal, (B) stalemate, or (C) a gradual escalation of our military commitment. The problem with gradual escalations, of course, is that they can be met with corresponding escalations on the other side. So while (B) and (C) both smell like quagmire to me, at least (B) would be significantly less bloody.

The question is why the White House, if it really believed Gaddafi had to go, would put us in this position instead of making a significant military commitment from the get-go and laying out clear, unambiguous objectives. One reason: that’s the sort of thing that makes it look like you’re at war with someone. And as Scott Horton wrote for Foreign Policy yesterday, the OLC’s whole legal rationale for the Obama administration’s actions is predicated on the notion that this isn’t a real war.

Think about the precedent we’re setting here. Obama’s DoJ, adopting the Bush administration’s legal rationales, has decided that the executive’s power to deploy the American military is virtually unchecked by any domestic power. The only caveat: the strength of that deployment is capped at a level that makes quagmire seem very, very plausible.

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Class and Humanitarian Intervention
April 12, 2011

I’ve been slacking off on the blogging lately, which is why it took me no less than six days for me to shamelessly hype my latest Salon column in this space. Turns out the topic is still relevant, though I get no pleasure from saying so.

The piece lays out the argument that part of the reason we’re embroiled in yet another hazily-defined, ill-considered military conflict is that the rich are very nearly this country’s only meaningful political constituency, and the costs of warfare are, for them, very low.

I struggle to phrase the thesis in a way that doesn’t come off sort of tortured or overparsed because you’ve got to be careful when making arguments like this. This is a structural argument, and people who aren’t intuitively sympathetic to the starting premises of such arguments — in this case, that intervention in Libya was a bad idea — tend to respond oddly to everything that follows. Myself included. We’ve got some sort of neurological block on structural arguments so that they tend to get broken down into much muddier sub-arguments about intent and whose fault everything is.

So for the record: I’m not saying rich people hate poor people, or Libyans, or poor Libyans. Nor am I saying rich people love war, or humanitarian interventions, or whatever. The point is one about shared burden. Actual shared burden, not Paul Ryan’s crypto-Randian notion of what that’s supposed to mean. When you’ve got a group of people whose interests policy makers disproportionately represent, and those people are unaffected by the consequences of a state of perpetual warfare, than policy makers have few incentives to avoid perpetual warfare. And that’s where we are now. And here, again, is the column.

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