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Quote of the Day

Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Now I want you to replace "Bush/Cheney" for "McCarthy" and think War on Terror rather than Red Scare and then think about this quote:

“All of this was part of one of the great illusions of the country and the Administration in 1961, the belief that the McCarthy period had come and gone without the country paying any real price, that the Administration and the nation could continue without challenging or coming to terms with the political and policy aberrations of that period. If there were problems, the Administration would somehow glide around them, letting time rather than political candor or courage do the healing. It was a belief that if there were scars from the period (and both the Democratic Party and the Department of State were deeply scarred), they were by now secret scars, and if there were victims, they were invisible victims. If one looked away and did not talk about them, somehow they would go away. Yet the truth was altogether different: the scars and the victims were real, and the McCarthey period had frozen American policies on China and Asia. The Kennedy Administration would in no way come to terms with the aberrations of those policies; it had not created the, as its advocates pointed out, but it would not undo them either.”
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:21 AM

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There's No Need For Me To Be In Congress

Friday, October 23, 2009
My goodness Alan Grayson is hard core. He sounds like me after too many beers hanging out with political friends. What's scary is that Grayson does it sober.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:38 AM

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Frightening Parallels

I hesitate to compare Vietnam to Afghanistan. We are far too ready to compare wars of the present to wars of the past, and the circumstances of this conflict are in many ways quite different. What inspires to make such a comparison, however, is the eerie sense of deja vu I had recently while reading David Halberstam's "Best and the Brightest." It's a wonderfully written book, but aside from its literary merits it also gives a disturbing account of how pride in one's country and one's intellect can lure the most experienced and brilliant men into catastrophe. In fact, the greater a man's success in life, the more vulnerable he appears to making such disastrous errors. Perhaps this is a banal point, nothing more than the typical identification of hubris. But whatever its originality, it is always best - especially in foreign affairs, where the stakes are so great - to move cautiously, with a profound respect for the limitations of one's own knowledge and power. In Halberstam's book, a well-meaning President with little experience in foreign affairs found himself entangled in a war that he never wanted. Lyndon Johnson feared that withdrawing from Vietnam would destroy the Great Society (because hawks would use it to weaken him), but by temporizing, by escalating in such small moves, he found himself in a great war after all. It is a story of how the military, which knows how to fight great conventional wars, attempted to impose that conception on a war which was in no way conventional, however tediously common guerilla warfare has become in the last generation or so. The generals in Vietnam knew no more about diplomacy or politics than the civilians knew about war, with disastrous consequences for both.

The debates I see now over the decision to escalate or nearly carbon copies of the debates over whether to escalate in Vietnam in 1964-1965. The military wants 40,000 troops, but will accept less if they can get the civilian command to accept a given strategy. Once that strategy is in place, they will call from another 40,000. And another. And another. We have a political discourse which presumes that Republicans are the only ones "strong" enough to handle foreign policy, a Democratic President will be afraid to cut his losses or even reduce the mission to as modest a set of aims as possible. So he will be tempted to accept the strategy put forth by "his" generals while trying to draw the line on the number of troops. If Obama does so, the game is up. It is the strategy that has to be addressed, before tactical or logistical questions.

To be more specific, the strategy we are supposed to accept from the generals is the doctrine of counterinsurgency. If anyone thinks that doctrine sounds familiar, they should. It was originally championed by the Kennedy Administration as a means of combating communist-supported revolutionary movements in the third worlds. Its first great test was in Vietnam. No, there is nothing new here, and little to be optimistic about.

I am no expert on Afghanistan, obviously. But I am a student of history, and I know that western military powers from Alexander the Great through the British and Russians have come to grief in those mountains. I have no desire to see us follow in the footsteps of the Russians as well did so with the French in Vietnam. Let us try to learn, if not from others mistakes, then at least our own.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:33 AM

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Can I Use Someone Else's Money Instead?

Monday, October 19, 2009
I mean, that's what Wall Street does.

Q. When someone comes up to you and says, “I love food, I love people, I want to get into the restaurant business,” why try to talk them out of it?

A. I had somebody approach me who had a very good job with a major company and an MBA from a prestigious university. I looked at him and asked, “Is your career in danger?” He said, “No, but I’ve always loved food. I love to cook. I love to have parties.” I told him to invite 20 friends over, throw a great dinner party, and then take a stack of $100 bills and burn them one by one. It will be fun -- and cheaper than opening a restaurant.

(via Ezra Klein)

I'm working at home today so I can get this stupid proposal finished. I've been working on a post on Afghanistan for about a week. With any luck I'll be able to write it tomorrow. Unless I really can't keep the procrastination gods away, which for some reason is always a lot harder when I'm working at the office than at home.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:34 AM

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Short-Sighted Hegemony

Wednesday, October 07, 2009
The recent shocks to U.S. global hegemony have been rather jarring. The most recent indication that American influence is waning are moves by oil-producing states to shift away from the dollar - signaling the approaching demise of the U.S. as the world's global reserve currency. A declining dollar could have severe medium-term effects on the U.S. economy, with the possibility of higher inflation and the necessity for a much stricter fiscal policy. Thus far we've been able to run large trade and budget deficits pretty much at will because we can just print more money that everyone else has to use. If we can't do that any more, we'll have to make some rather painful adjustments. It'll be interesting to see how our political leaders react to having to actually pay for our large defense establishment (particularly as we have to compete with scarce oil resources with the likes of China) or the health care needs our aging population (cause y'know health insurance companies need their profits!). Yes, "interesting" would definitely be the word. I also suspect that Americans will not take kindly to no longer being "#1."

The decline of American economic and military power raises two important sets of questions. First, is this a bad thing? Well, the answer depends on what replaces U.S. hegemony as the global force for order. If it's a system of collective security with a coalition of democratic states (US, Japan, and Europe) then we don't have much to worry about. If it's Chinese hegemony, then that's an extraordinarily bad thing, since China will do what all hegemons do and attempt to impose their own values and maximize their own interests at the expense of everyone else - especially the most recent hegemon (i.e. the US). The decline of Britain and France were relatively benign, since they developed strong alliances with their successors. I'm afraid we'll be more like Spain, with our rivals eager to pick over our carcass.

Which brings me to question number two, raised eloquently by Chris Bowers: what have we done with our hegemony? My immediate reaction to that inquiry was that the U.S. did what every other preeminent power has has done: the political and economic elite tried to garner as much wealth and power as they could at home while making attempts to consolidate their military hegemony abroad. The results of these actions are also always predictable: the decay of the domestic economy and imperial over-stretch. Heck, the use of the U.S. as the reserve currency is part of what got us into this mess. If we'd adopted something like the Bancor system as a neutral reserve system as Keynes had wanted, we wouldn't have had either the advantages or the disadvantages of controlling the world's money supply, which over the long run would have been a good thing.But in my less cynical moments, I think U.S. leadership, which should be dated not to 1991 (where Chris puts it) but to 1918. From that lens we haven't done too bad: defeating fascism and communism while fitfully promoting democracy and human rights isn't really so bad.

But I agree with Chris that we squandered a golden opportunity over the last two decades. What we should have done was to recognize that the unipolar world wasn't going to last, and that we should lay down our supremacy on our own terms by building strong international economic and political institutions that would secure broad-based economic growth, international stability, and democracy. There were some moves in that direction under the Clinton administration, but regrettably under George Bush and his cronies the U.S. made every mistake a declining hegemon can make. I hope that he have enough influence, and Obama enough wisdom, to put us back on course. Maybe it's not too late.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:43 AM

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