Sheeeeeeeiiii…. by mattsteinglass
October 31, 2008, 12:35 pm
Filed under: Crime, United States | Tags: ,

Ted Stevens comes home to Anchorage. Where have I seen this script before?

Oh yeah, that was it — fella by the name of Clay Davis, I think.

Now it’s Afghanistan’s turn to be Vietnam by mattsteinglass
October 31, 2008, 11:59 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Vietnam, War

So back round about 1970 in 1966 Bing West embedded for some months with a US Marine CAP platoon working with South Vietnamese militia to defend their village against Viet Cong, and in 1972 he wrote a book called The Village, about how heroic and successful the CAP strategy was. Flash forward to 2005, and The Village is a favorite of new-wave counterinsurgency theorists like John “Eats Soup With Knife” Nagl and David “Surge” Petraeus. They’re the folks who have revolutionized Army strategic thinking over the past few years by forcing people to recognize that conflicts like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan are fundamentally political, not military.

Now, Bing West has written a very strange piece on Small Wars Journal attacking Nir Rosen for embedding with the Taliban in Afghanistan to write his excellent piece in October’s Rolling Stone. (Via Robert Farley at LGM.) West:

Rosen described how he and two Taliban fighters deceived the guards at a government checkpoint. Suppose during World War II an American reporter had sneaked through the lines with two German officers wearing civilian clothes. “When we caught enemy combatants out of uniform in the 1940s,” a veteran wrote in The American Heritage, “we sometimes simply executed them.” The Greatest Generation had a direct way of dealing with moral ambiguity.

“I am a guest of the Taliban.” Rosen wrote. Supposing in 1944 he had written, “I am a guest of the Waffen SS.” It is doubtful if Rolling Stone would have published Rosen’s article during World War II. The norms and values of American society have changed enormously in the past half-century.

Well, suppose, during the Vietnam War, Rosen had written: “I am a guest of the Viet Cong.” Such an article would have been invaluable. Indeed, journalists like Mary McCarthy did travel to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, doing their jobs and contributing to the vibrant market of information which makes democratic societies stronger than totalitarian ones. Wilfrid Burchett traveled with Vietnamese Communist troops while his fellow Australians were fighting them; lucky thing, since in 1967 when the US wanted to put out feelers towards direct negotiations with Hanoi, they had Wilfrid Burchett to pass the message through.

Bizarrely, Bing West, of all people, goes on to attack the Pentagon for taking a political rather than a military approach to winning the war:

Secretary of Defense Gates is a cool, detached official who reacts to events. He does not plot a course into the future. He does not project a determination or a vision about how to succeed in Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Mullen, calls for a strategic review – after six years of fighting! – laments that “we cannot kill our way to victory”, a vacuous absolution that transfers responsibility for failure to others. Why increase from 32,000 to 50,000 US troops, whose basic training is as riflemen, if the application of force – killing – is not the objective? A policeman protects the population by arresting criminals; a soldier protects the population by shooting the enemy soldier.

Spoken like a true disciple of Gen. William Westmoreland, whose “attrition” strategy enthusiastically lost the Vietnam War from 1965 through 1969. West’s name is generally invoked on the side of Gen. Creighton Abrams and his descendants in the sophisticated counterinsurgency, combined military-political school of thought — most notably its current avatar, Gen. Petraeus. Guess that’s the wrong way to invoke him.

Update: should have credited Spencer Ackerman as well:

And this guy is supposed to understand counterinsurgency? Recognizing the basic strategic fact that not all problems have a military solution indicates that Bob Gates and Mike Mullen and David Petraeus means “transfer[ing] responsibility for failure to others.” Could this myopia be any more self-refuting?

Spreading the Wealth by mattsteinglass
October 30, 2008, 9:30 am
Filed under: Economics, United States, Vietnam

There is widespread agreement among US, European and Asian aid agencies in Vietnam that while the country’s economic growth over the past 15 years has lifted huge numbers out of poverty and created unprecedented wealth in educated urban classes, it is also creating an increasing wealth gap and leaving some parts of society behind. The poverty, everyone agrees, is concentrated in rural and mountainous areas, and particularly among ethnic minorities such as the Hmong. Everyone, US aid agencies included, agrees that they should cooperate with the Vietnamese government to focus development efforts on isolated areas and ethnic minorities.

It’s utterly predictable that those left behind by economic growth in Vietnam should be ethnic minorities. The minorities are the groups that lost out to the conquering Viet (also known as Kinh) as they expanded southwards from the Red River delta from the 2nd through the 18th centuries; they have lower literacy rates, fewer commercial skills and connections. Until recently many spoke no Vietnamese. Anyway, like Native Americans, indigenous ethnic minorities are generally poorer than majorities everywhere in the world. (Immigrant minorities are more mixed; those imported for cheap or slave labor are generally poorer, but commercial wealth-seekers like Chinese, Indians, Armenians and Jews are richer.)

But while the US backs aid for disadvantaged ethnic minorities abroad, inside the US, such efforts are a wedge issue. As the Civil Rights movement reshaped American politics in the 1960s, a libertarian-rightist ideology which opposed all government economic aid to groups of any kind became congenial to whites fearful of black demands for compensation for slavery and subsequent segregation and discrimination. The radical individualism of Goldwater Republicanism, with its Ayn Randian antecedents, provided an acceptable non-racial framework for justifying white resistance to black demands for government-led development efforts to extend the country’s economic prosperity to its most discriminated-against indigenous racial minority. The libertarian argument was strengthened by Cold War anti-communism, such that resisting economic and educational development programs for historically disadvantaged minorities was couched as a “defense of liberty.”

This is the context in which to understand this exchange cited by Matthew Yglesias between John Judis and Ross Douthat. Judis says John McCain’s last-ditch effort to tar Obama as a “socialist” intent on “spreading the wealth” is a coded racial appeal. Douthat says if that’s a coded racial appeal, it is hard to imagine anything a conservative could say that couldn’t be interpreted as a coded racial appeal.

Douthat has a point, but it’s a point Republicans are going to have to live with. The basic question here is about economic and social fairness. Libertarian-conservative ideology has assumed that the US is a fair society in which individuals are responsible for their own welfare. The ethnic group best able to see the flaws in this assumption has been African-Americans, for obvious reasons. Democrats and social progressives in general make the understanding that society is not fair a part of their basic ideology. And at this moment in history, Americans are very conscious of how economically unfair American society really is. As in Vietnam, many people and groups in the US are isolated from the engines of economic growth, and they need government action to, well, spread the wealth. To the extent that poor white Americans reject such efforts, it is mainly because they can be pitted politically against other poor groups, chiefly ethnic minorities.

Dissidents by mattsteinglass
October 29, 2008, 1:02 pm
Filed under: United States, Vietnam

The intense infighting that appears to be developing among Republicans over the question of fealty to Sarah Palin reminds me of earlier episodes of factionalism that have had profound long-term political consequences. One thinks, for example, of Deng Xiaoping’s purge during the Cultural Revolution. Had Deng not spent that period in the wilderness, would China’s turn towards capitalism in the late ’70s have unfolded the way it did? What new Dengs are being pushed out by the GOP pro-Palin hardliners, who might perhaps return someday to set a different course for the party?

What fascinates me the most about these kinds of episodes is how ideological convictions turn out to be so contingent on personal affiliations. In Vietnam, a guy named Hoang Minh Chinh was the head of the Marxism-Leninism Institute in the early 1960s, the Party’s chief ideological body. Chinh was forced out in a purge somewhere between 1964 and 1967. The reasons for the purge are variously described as having been involved in a group that argued that Hanoi should lay off the war in the south and seek to consolidate socialism in the North first, or having been associated with some kind of Khrushchevian reform element, or having cast his lot with the wrong side in the developing tension between China and the USSR as North Vietnam’s patron. Chinh wound up going to jail, and the experience of being on the outs seems to have been so infuriating to him that it gradually reversed his ideological polarity. Reform tendencies gained the upper hand in Vietnam in 1986, but Chinh never made it back into polite society; by the early 2000s he was advocating multiparty democracy, testifying against the Vietnamese Communist Party before the US Congress, and trying to found a new political party. He died early this year as the most prominent dissident in Vietnam.

In the US, the process of alienation from the Republican Party’s increasingly rigid apparat has already produced a Democratic Senator — interestingly, one tied to the US’s history in Vietnam, Jim Webb. Webb’s conservative and military credentials have allowed him to partially reimagine class-divide issues as a white working-class concern, which is one potential future direction for the Democratic Party. But the real question is whether someone like Webb, with his Vietnamese-American wife (multiracial family), his unconventional, anti-jingoistic take on the military, and his genuine concern for the economic interests of the working class, could provide a sounder basis for Republican ideology going forward. It seems to me that people like Ross Douthat are closer to Webb’s politics than to Palin’s.

One problem for the GOP might be that while in a one-party system like Vietnam or China the experience of being purged leads to a period of ideological reflection, in a two-party system like the US many of those purged will do what Webb did: defect to the opposition, depriving the Party of an opportunity for rethinking its ideas.

Obama and trade policy in Vietnam by mattsteinglass
October 29, 2008, 10:34 am
Filed under: Economics, President, Trade

Matthew Yglesias and Ryan Avent are right that Obama is unlikely to alter US trade policy significantly. Here in Vietnam, it’s true that middle-aged businessmen tend to support McCain over Obama, but that’s largely because McCain has obvious personal ties to Vietnam and was heavily involved in promoting the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement in 2000, which pretty much kick-started Vietnam’s burst of growth over the past 8 years. No one is actually expecting that Obama will make concrete protectionist moves. The only area of action on trade with Vietnam right now is ongoing discussions under the so-called Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) signed in 2007, which is supposed to provide a framework for further opening trade and investment in various areas. But as a US Vietnam expert with close ties to the Obama campaign told me a few weeks ago, this tends to involve old wine in new shipping containers — normal development of new trade elements like, say, approval for imports of Vietnamese dragonfruit into the US (approved by the Dept. of Agriculture this summer), which can now be trumpeted as a success of the TIFA and as a marker of further warming between the US and Vietnam, which makes diplomats happy.

Anyway, the upshot is that an Obama presidency and more Democrats in Congress are unlikely to make much difference to Vietnamese exports to the US. What will make a huge difference is the recession, which is already hitting Vietnamese apparel and wooden-furniture exports in a big way. If Obama can get the US economy back on track and get US consumers spending again he’ll be a hero in East Asia.

Bill Kristol, World War I historian by mattsteinglass
October 27, 2008, 2:46 pm
Filed under: President, United States

Bill Kristol is now saying McCain can still win the election if he just adopts the strategies that worked so well for the French in World War I:

“My center is giving way. My right is in retreat. Situation excellent. I attack!”

That’s the message supposedly sent by General Ferdinand Foch of France to his commanding general, Joseph Joffre, during the crucial First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. The French and British counterattacks succeeded. The German Army, after advancing for a month, was forced back.

If I recall my Barbara Tuchman, the military strategy of “L’Offensif A L’Outrance” — “Offensive to the utmost!” — embraced by the French general staff in the run-up to WWI was in fact a ludicrous failure based on outmoded technology which subjected the country’s cavalry and infantry to being sliced to bits by entrenched machine guns.

Reality check: America has a pretty decent economy by mattsteinglass
October 6, 2008, 8:25 am
Filed under: Economics

The financial crisis is extremely scary and dangerous, and I’m waiting anxiously for the numbers to start coming out of NY this evening, my time, to see whether a total credit-system heart attack is about to cause the US’s banking system to collapse, as Nouriel Roubini is apparently now predicting. Nevertheless, in thinking about where one should invest one’s money in the long term, it quickly becomes apparent that the US can only fall so far before it becomes a very attractive prospect again. It’s far and away the world’s largest and richest consumer market. It has a transportation and telecom infrastructure which, while not the equal of Germany’s or South Korea’s, is certainly in the range of the world’s most developed societies. Its population is universally literate, and the upper half are as well-educated as those in Northern Europe or East Asia. It has a broad-based economy that’s  competitive in everything from software to high-tech manufacturing to agriculture.

Financial crises can be crippling things, but they tend to last a few years while the sector reorganizes itself and then go away. Mexico recovered from ’94, South Korea recovered from ’97. The key question is whether the country at issue can get a government in place with the technical capacity and political will to make responsible choices and put the economy back on a sound footing. I’m reasonably confident that this will happen in the US. Americans are prone to apocalyptic angst, but the collapse of the real-estate bubble of the early 2000s is not going to turn America into some kind of second-rate economy. Japan has suffered through the worst-case scenario of this crisis for over 15 years, yet it’s still the leading economy in East Asia.

Trust Crisis: what melamine and the banking crisis have in common by mattsteinglass
October 4, 2008, 11:07 pm
Filed under: Economics

Here is one syllogism I never quite got, in the libertarian, laissez-faire, Friedmanite view of the world:

Greed  ——->>>  Trust

Banks won’t lend each other money because they don’t trust counterparties not to be holding huge amounts of opaque, worthless mortgage-backed securities. No one in East Asia will buy milk anymore, and no one will buy any processed foods from China, because they don’t trust that there aren’t toxic industrial chemicals mixed into the dairy products. And market mechanisms are supposed to solve this how? In every country in the world, the profession “Inspector” comes with a government badge. There’s a reason for that.


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