Daniel Larison

This Is What People Mean By Kafkaesque

Via Clive Davis, a tutorial courtesy of The Onion:

Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport

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Limitless Costs Of Perpetual War

If we focused on what is vital for our safety and independence, we could spend a lot less money. But if there is no limit to what we have to do to police and remake the world, there is also no limit to what we can spend. ~Steve Chapman

This is one of the key things to understand about the Long War: its very amorphous, unlimited and endless nature makes for an outstanding justification for ongoing and ever-increasing spending, which then creates more and more interests that have a stake in keeping the flow of funding constant. For one thing, a war of “no exits and no deadlines,” and one that theoretically encompasses the entire planet in one way or another, is a perfect justification for a set of government programs that can never be defunded. If our national security strategy were primarily concerned with national defense, rather than with power projection and hegemony, our objectives would be relatively few, limited and achievable, but that would create some ceiling on spending. The very open-ended and global nature of the Long War means that no “defense” budget is ever really large enough, because no budget no matter how large could be equal to the unlimited nature of the project. This may help explain why the Long War’s most ardent supporters are not embarrassed to claim that Pentagon budget increases are cuts. When measured against the absurd demands their war of “no exits and no deadlines” makes on the nation, mere 9% annual increases in outlays probably barely register.


Separation Of Powers

One of the many things wrong with the financial bailout bill passed last September, George Will argues, is its unconstitutional nature: it vested the executive branch with powers reserved solely to Congress. For much the same reason that the line-item veto was ruled unconstitutional and why modern war resolutions ought to be considered unconstitutional (that will be the day), the legislative branch cannot delegate authority specifically granted to it by the Constitution to another branch. Arguably, separation of powers has been a dead letter in some respects for a very long time. The notion of checks and balances was a clever Federalist trick to make it seem as if their proposed usurpation and concentration of power successfully attempted at Philadelphia was actually a guard against usurpation and concentration of power. The Federalists were nothing if not good salesmen! Patrick Henry memorably and correctly observed the flaw of the “checks and balances” argument in favor of a more powerful central government during the ratification debates:

There will be no checks, no real balances, in this Government. What can avail your specious imaginary balances, your rope-dancing, chain-rattling, ridiculous ideal checks and contrivances.

The idea that members of the federal government would work to counterbalance and limit one another, rather than collaborate to enhance their collective power, sounded very nice, but it was always pretty far-fetched. That said, the impulse to resist concentrating additional power in any branch of the federal government is a welcome and long overdue one.

Congress has delegated its equally vital warmaking powers to the executive branch for decades, so I find it hard to imagine that any court is going to strike down the EESA. Indeed, if anyone were to file a suit contesting the constitutionality of the Act my guess is that the fig leaf of a Congressional vote would be treated as proof that EESA is consistent with separation of powers, just as war resolutions are used to provide some minimal cover for illegal wars. One of the reasons the Framers insisted that the power of the purse be held solely by the legislative was to prevent the executive from arbitrarily disbursing money, and so acquiring power for itself, unaccountably and without consent of the legislature.

As with war powers, Congress has preferred once again to hand over its proper role to the executive. It is not an accident that such a dreadful bill came out of a rushed process in which alarmist cries of doom panicked much of the public and most members of Congress into a stampede to give the executive whatever it wanted. Legislation passed in haste and fear tends to enhance arbitrary power, while patience and deliberation are necessary guards against it. This is why our system was designed to be slow-moving and filled with obstacles to action, which is a system that now seems utterly unsuited to the character of an impatient people.


A Few Words On Ideology

William Brafford has an interesting post on the dangers of hubris (or, as he puts it, undue confidence and ignorance of the limits of one’s knowledge, which are all part of this flaw) and on how to understand ideology. Brafford is right that one of the attractions of ideology is that it seems to offer “a schema for predicting the consequences of events.” I would emphasize that ideology only seems to do this, because one of the key features of any ideology is its horrific powers of oversimplification and its impressively narrow perspective on historical events. That is, ideology will not reliably predict consequences of events, but it will condition the mind to force every event into the mold provided by the ideology. If a person approaches the world with an ideological frame of mind, whatever events dominate the historical memory of his fellow ideologues are perceived as constantly recurring again and again as part of a progressive narrative of successive triumphs, each one more important than the last. The simple framing, the certainty of victory and the quick and easy interchangeability of extremely different groups as different faces of the same enemy are all very useful for purposes of propaganda and the acquisition and exercise of power.

This is one reason why so many ideologues express great confidence that History will judge their endeavors to have been worthwhile and why they always avoid accountability for the consequences of their own policies and actions: their grasp of historical contingency is poor, and their knowledge of history is usually limited to a narrow range of approved opinions about major events. These were the people Popper derided as historicists in The Poverty of Historicism and elsewhere. It is therefore endlessly entertaining that some of the most obnoxious ideological snake-oil peddlers hurl the label historicist at anyone who questions their grand theories. When Popper’s historicists accuse their opponents of historicism, they are attacking respect for contingency and context, skepticism of moralizing, self-congratulatory narratives of national virtue, and hostility to grossly anachronistic celebrations of certain historical figures as precursors of enlightened modernity. Ideology thrives on ignoring contingency and context, and on embracing self-congratulatory narratives and rampant precursorism.

The ideology to which Bacevich refers in The Limits of Power has a certain appeal because it offers a flexible rationale for action, which is to say that it can provide rationalizations for just about any exercise of power, and in the case of national security ideology this is the exercise of executive power. This ideology is able to draw readily on a well-established tradition of justifying presidential power-grabs in emergency situations. It was only a matter of time before the emergency would be made permanent, so that the continual expansion of executive power would become more or less unquestionable and seemingly irreversible.

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A Few Points On The Long War

Support for the Long War requires support for a war of “no exits and no deadlines,” as Prof. Bacevich has described it. Support for a specific military mission in Afghanistan does not necessarily require one to endorse the concept of the Long War or the fundamentally flawed strategy behind it. The debate has been framed in such a way that most people seem to assume that endorsing the concept and strategy of the Long War is an essential part of what it means to support U.S. national security interests and even our current war effort in Afghanistan, which is just about as misguided as it gets.

One can, of course, support the campaign against Al Qaeda without the dangerous and unsustainable Long War framework, but it might require rethinking how to wage that campaign. As Bacevich said in his review of Accidental Guerrilla:

If counterinsurgency is useful chiefly for digging ourselves out of holes we shouldn’t be in, then why not simply avoid the holes? Why play al-Qaeda’s game? Why persist in waging the Long War when that war makes no sense?

When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die—unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.

There is a split in the country that is very much like the difference between supporters of rollback and containment during the Cold War, but unlike in the Cold War the advocates of containment seem to be a small minority. Even though containment was the wiser, superior policy during the Cold War, it has somehow lost its appeal. During the first two decades of the Cold War advocates of rollback considered it insufficiently “robust” (to use a word that ideological fantasists like to throw around a lot) and not nearly aggressive enough, and current partisans of the Long War concept seem intent on not making the “mistake” of opting for containment, which is to say that they are intent on embarking on fool’s errands.

The Long War is, as Bacevich says in The Limits of Power, “both self-defeating and irrational.” If we wish to secure our country and to get our economic and fiscal houses in order, one thing we have to do is start by scrapping the Long War concept and focusing on national security strategy that has limited, achievable objectives.



Andrew Nagorski indulges one of the worst habits of Russia watchers in this new article in Newsweek, framing his entire analysis around the supposed crazy unpredictability of the Russians. I’m not sure what it says about all those “closest observers of Russian foreign policy” that they cannot make sense of fairly straightforward acts of bluster (threatening to put Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad) and accommodation (welcoming the “reset” in relations), but it is just about as reassuring as hearing Secretary Gates brag that he and former Secretary Rice were two Russia experts at the top levels of government who had no clue what was going on in Russia. I could have told them that many years ago. Russian actions are not hard to understand, and they are not unpredictable. In fact, one can predict what Moscow will do with surprising frequency by paying attention to what the Kremlin says it will do in response to provocations or conciliatory gestures. Much of the rest of Russian policy can be understood by recognizing the power structures in the Russian government, paying attention to Russian history and understanding that Moscow sees its relations with its former satellites much as Washington has traditionally regarded Latin America. That is, as an area in which we may meddle at will, but where foreign meddling, no matter how minimal, is viewed with deep suspicion as a threat to our influence.

All the hemming and hawing about Manas assumes that the Russians have some stranglehold over Bishkek and that our lease of the base would have been renewed without Russian involvement. If we can believe the former Kyrgyz ambassador who served under Bakiyev’s rival (hardly a cheerleader for the new regime), this is doubtful. More to the point, everyone who brings up Manas as a piece of evidence in indictments of Russia has failed to notice or mention the SCO Afghanistan conference going on right now at which the Russians, the central Asian states, SCO observer nations in the region, and observers from NATO and the United States, among others, are discussing possible resupply alternatives. Alexander Lukin explains:

The SCO includes Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as full members, and India, Iran, Pakistan and Mongolia as observers. One of the key objectives of the Friday SCO conference is to team up with the West and international organizations to address the Afghanistan problem. Among the participants will be: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Mark Perrin de Brichambaut, secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Patrick Moon; and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. In addition, there will be representatives from the Group of Eight countries, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the European Union and the Organization of The Islamic Conference.

The participation of NATO and its allies at the SCO conference indicates a significant shift in their approach to the Afghanistan problem. There is a good reason for this. NATO understands that it has a better chance of getting what it wants from Russia and other SCO members by cooperating with them rather than by confronting them. The U.S. and NATO wish list includes finding an acceptable format to somehow bring Iran into the dialogue [bold mine-DL]. It also includes securing transit routes for nonmilitary — and ultimately military — supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan through SCO countries and placing NATO troops on the territories of SCO member states.

It’s almost as if making some effort to accommodate and heed Russian concerns might have significant, concrete benefits for U.S. interests! It’s as if needlessly alienating Russia for all these years was actually harmful to our own war effort, but then that might mean that the confrontational, anti-Russian posture of the last decade was deeply misguided and informed by hubris and ideological hang-ups left over from the Cold War. That couldn’t be right, could it? Note that line about bringing Iran into the mix. As I suggest in my forthcoming column on Iran for The Week (now online), involving Iran in Afghanistan policy makes sense for the purposes of our war effort and serves as a good way to begin rebuilding relations with Iran. As Lukin notes, Moscow has already agreed to allow the transport of non-military freight, which is a beginning for cooperation in central Asia.

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Culture And Nature

One of Andrew’s readers chided him for for describing Afghanistan as a place with an “an utterly alien culture, institutions, religion and polity,” and in this follow-up post Andrew qualified his claim. This reminded me of the Ralph Peters column that I mocked for its “thought experiment” that Pashtuns were for all intents and purposes from another planet. Without question, Peters’ “experiment” is far, far worse than Andrew’s overstatement and it is significantly different from it, because Peters’ column was not an attempt to acknowledge profound cultural and religious differences, but on the contrary was a very clear effort to essentialize those differences and claim that they were practically differences according to nature. The purpose of this was to vilify Pashtuns in the Taliban to such an extent that their humanity was in question, which is another way of claiming that anyone who does not happen to embrace our “values” or our power projection into their part of the world cannot really share our nature, because we “know” that our “values” are universal.

Recognizing vast, significant differences between cultures and religions is sane and necessary, and I can understand very well the impulse to push back against the fantasies of universalist theories that hold that these differences are superficial and unimportant, but it is vital that we understand the distinction between what Peters was arguing and what Andrew is arguing. Essentialist arguments betray their basic hostility to history and culture in that they are blind to the possibility of change over time within and across cultures, they cannot fully accept that culture is a human invention, and hold instead that cultural difference must be rooted in essence rather than in will, which in turn denies the importance of human agency in history and endorses one of a variety of determinisms. The equally fantastical universalist notion that traditional tribal societies from a very different religious tradition can and should be molded and remade into a post-modern managerial democracy, because such a regime represents the inevitable, single model of human progress, substitutes an ideologically-defined determinism for other kinds. These two fantasies, the essentialist and the universalist, seem to co-exist in complementary tension with one another in their shared antipathy to real respect for culture and historical contingency. Andrew was indulging neither fantasy, and Peters was to some extent indulging both.


Infected By Optimism

David Brooks seems to put aside all of the reasons for skepticism about grandiose plans for Afghanistan that he correctly describes at the start of this column, and apparently he allows himself to ignore his properly skeptical instincts because so many of the people he met in Afghanistan are so very optimistic. Brooks concludes:

I finish this trip still skeptical but also infected by the optimism of the truly impressive people who are working here. And one other thing:

After the trauma in Iraq, it would have been easy for the U.S. to withdraw into exhaustion and realism. Instead, President Obama is doubling down on the very principles that some dismiss as neocon fantasy: the idea that this nation has the capacity to use military and civilian power to promote democracy, nurture civil society and rebuild failed states.

Foreign policy experts can promote one doctrine or another, but this energetic and ambitious response — amid economic crisis and war weariness — says something profound about America’s DNA.

Infected may be a far more appropriate word than Brooks imagined. As I have said before, optimism is very much like a disease of the mind, and it is contagious. It inhibits lucid thought, it shuts down core reasoning centers and seems to inflict terrible damage on memory. It is optimism that continually causes us to lose our respect for limits and to have unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve, which leads us to set ourselves up for failure and disaster by encouraging us to overreach and believe that we can find a solution to every problem. There are certain realities in Afghanistan to which there are no American or NATO solutions (the drug trade springs to mind, as does the weak central government in Kabul), because they are not really problems, or at the very least they are not our problems. Their “solution” is so far beyond what our limited national security goals are that we are not going to find the solution in any reasonable amount of time at anything like an acceptable or reasonable cost.

If it was a fantasy in Iraq “to use military and civilian power to promote democracy, nurture civil society and rebuild failed states,” it remains a fantasy today. It makes no difference what label one gives to it, and it is certainly not a fantasy that only neoconservatives embrace. If Americans have not learned by now that such efforts are folly, and more important that they would not be worth it even if they turned out to be successful, it may indeed say something about our national character. What I fear is that Obama, who has always been an interventionist with great confidence in this fantasy of what American power can achieve, believes that the “energetic and ambitious response” is what the American public desires and will support for years to come. I worry that he will discover midway through his term that the public that voted to bring the war in Iraq to an end really is sick of frittering away our resources to no apparent purpose and for no real national interest, and they will turn on the entire mission in Afghanistan because it has been defined at once too broadly as a grand nation-building exercise and too narrowly in its preoccupation with forces based in western Pakistan.

Because Obama is setting far too ambitious goals for Afghanistan with too few resources, while largely neglecting (or exacerbating) more significant problems inside Pakistan that are gradually making our position in Afghanistan untenable, he runs the risk of jeopardizing public support for the much more limited and achievable security goals that are in our interest and the interest of Afghanistan’s neighbors. In the end, he will have the support of the fantasists who led us into Iraq and liberal internationalists who are still invested in the idea of nation-building, and he will have to face the growing numbers of people who have grown weary of a Long War that has ceased to make any sense (if it ever made sense in the first place). These people are not “isolationist” (as they will inevitably be labeled by the fantasists), but will have no interest in subsidizing open-ended missions in service to a ‘forward’ policy that seems unsustainable and which also seems far inferior to a containment approach.


They Never Had A Plan (I)

Consider this the first in a series of reflections on the now-concluded Battlestar Galactica. Obviously, numerous spoilers follow for those who have not yet caught up with the end (or even the beginning) of the series, so caveat lector.

Read More…


Another Familiar Pattern

Following up on the previous post, I wanted to say a few things about how the debate over drug policy offers a good example of how our political debates tend to function regardless of the policy in question. The lopsided nature of these debates is most pronounced when it comes to one of the various “wars” the government has declared against abstractions and nouns, but it is not limited to these. If the government declares a “war” on drugs, or poverty, or terrorism, skepticism about or outright opposition to the actual policies employed by the government in the “prosecution” of said “war” is treated as implicit support for the target of the “war.” This is the one part of all of these “wars” that can be deemed successful, namely its propaganda, which frames criticism of “war” policies, no matter how counterproductive, failed, illegal or even immoral, as something akin to collaboration with “the enemy” in the “war.” Likewise, to have doubts or raise red flags about invading Iraq was to be an apologist for despotism at best and pro-Saddam at worst. We see this pattern replicated again and again in debates over the war in Georgia last year or Gaza this year.

This framing works very well for defenders of the policy being criticized, as it forces the critics to operate at a double disadvantage. They are first of all reacting to bad policy, which makes their arguments necessarily negative and more easily dismissed for that reason as mere “naysaying,” and second the critics must qualify the beginning of all their arguments with some emphasis on how much they, too, loathe the official enemy in said “war.” This means the critics are reduced to pragmatic and frequently much more complicated critiques that lack the rhetorical and emotional power of the simplistic, ideological line that the government is pushing, and they are reduced to arguments from circumstance, which tend not to pack the same punch as arguments from definition even when the latter are founded on falsehoods or, more often, on far more destructive half-truths.

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