A supposedly horrible thing we may yet do again by mattsteinglass
August 6, 2010, 2:45 pm
Filed under: US, War

Responding to an argument I made over at the Economist’s Democracy in America blog, Kevin Drum says he’s not so optimistic that the Iraq-war disaster has made America unlikely to engage in foreign military adventures for the next few decades.

We left Vietnam in 1975 and were supposedly so scarred that we’d never do anything like that again in any of our lifetimes. Your definition of “like that” might be different from mine, but a mere five years later we dipped our toe into Afghanistan and then, over the next 30 years, intervened militarily in Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan 2.0, and Iraq 2.0. In other words, once every three or four years, which is about as frequently as we did this kind of thing before Vietnam. Some scarring, eh?
Right now it looks like we’ve learned a lesson because, aside from a bit of chest beating from frustrated neocons over Iran, no one’s banging the war drums. But no one was banging the war drums in 1976, either, which is why it looked like maybe we were going to enter a new era back then too. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and suddenly everything changed. So let’s not declare a victory for common sense in foreign policy just yet. I’ll believe things have changed when something actually happens overseas, a president tries to build support for intervention, and Congress and the public—including Joe Klein and me—balk. That will mean things have changed.

I think Kevin is basically right about this, but would clarify a couple of things. First, what I meant wasn’t that the US has been dissuaded from engaging in any kind of foreign military shenanigans for the foreseeable future. I was really thinking of the particular brand of nuttiness encapsulated in the invasion of Iraq: an unprovoked “pre-emptive” attack predicated on the idea that our troops will be welcomed with flowers, democracy will break out all over, and we’ll be able to bring the troops home fairly quickly at a modest cost, leaving behind a pro-American, pro-Israeli government. I think that kind of madness is off the table for quite some time. Somewhat more broadly, I doubt we’ll see any unprovoked American attacks on other countries, regardless of how “threatening” they seem, unless perhaps Cuba tries to buy a nuke from North Korea or something.

But I don’t think it impossible that we might see other kinds of limited military interventions, and I think some of the examples Kevin provides are illustrative of the kinds that may still occur. As he says, the US got out of Vietnam in 1973, and got into Afghanistan by 1980. But we intervened in Afghanistan by supporting local tribal-religious rebels in the hopes of handing the Soviets their own Vietnam. We weren’t trying to establish anything in particular in Afghanistan; we didn’t really care what happened to the country so long as it made things hard for Moscow. And, by its own lights, that strategy worked. In hindsight, Afghanistan would probably be better off today if the Russians had won, but the Afghan quagmire was among the reasons why the Gorbachev faction decided to forego military intervention as a means of quelling anti-communist political turmoil in the near abroad, so a Soviet victory in Afghanistan might have meant no velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989. Anyway, the point is, it’s not at all hard to imagine that the US might use limited force or special forces to back local allies against a foreign adversary in some third country in the near future.

This would be similar to the model of US intervention in Nicaragua and El Salvador, which Kevin also cites. And again, one thing to note about the US military efforts in Nicaragua and El Salvador is that, by their own lights, they worked. Certainly, they were bloody and unconscionable messes that involved American support for terrorism and war crimes, but the aim was to crush left-wing Soviet-backed authoritarian agrarian-socialist movements in favor of right-wing US-backed authoritarian plutocratic pseudo-democratic regimes, and that aim was achieved.

You could get deeper into the reasons why US interventions in Central America, and later in the Balkans, more or less achieved their own aims at an acceptable cost, while the interventions in Vietnam and Iraq (and, probably, Afghanistan) failed, at unacceptable cost. I would concentrate pretty heavily on proximity and zones of influence: Central America is the US’s restive backyard, the Balkans are Europe’s, and these things make a very big difference. But the main point is that I think the US won’t be cooking up excuses to launch pre-emptive attacks on supposed rogue states in the next couple of decades. Whether the US will send in Green Berets to back, oh, Christian rebels in southern Sudan, or whatever, is another question.

Responses to Reihan Salam by mattsteinglass
May 4, 2010, 3:59 pm
Filed under: Education, Liberalism, Libertarianism, US, War

Because Reihan Salam isn’t in my RSS feed, I missed the fact that he’d written responses to two things I wrote last month over at The Economist. I generally like Reihan Salam’s writing. But his first response to me mischaracterized something I’d written. His second response, I think, was kind of slippery, but I think what it comes down to is that I have a different interpretation of the term “free-riding” than he does. I believe it pretty much universally carries a negative connotation, like “freeloading”.

Salam’s first response came in answer to a few sentences I’d written about school choice. I had written that I found it surprising that Will Wilkinson, also a writer I find very interesting, picked school choice as one of the arenas in which he expected Democrats to become more sympathetic to a libertarian cause. I’m not opposed to school choice, or charter schools. But everything I’ve read indicates that there’s not a lot of strong evidence for the success of school choice programs, and that while many individual charter schools have proven successful, there’s no evidence that charter schools are on average any better than the public schools they replace; the latest broad study indicated that most were worse. This doesn’t mean that “school choice and charter schools don’t work”. What it does mean is that to say one supports school choice or charter schools is not at this point an adequate response to concerns about the quality of elementary education in America. The idea that giving parents the power to choose where their kids attend school will automatically result in widespread improvement in educational outcomes hasn’t systematically borne out in the places where it’s been tried. Here’s what I wrote:

What’s curious is that both of these initiatives seem to be several years past the point when they were the most convincing in intellectual terms, on the basis of theories and evidence. School choice was an idea that had a lot of proponents in the 1990s, but with well over a decade of large-scale pilots for various implementations, it doesn’t seem to be showing any results. And you have former top proponents like Diane Ravitch actually turning against charter schools.

Now, admittedly, I probably shouldn’t have glossed “there doesn’t seem to be evidence that school choice, on average, improves educational outcomes” as “(school choice) doesn’t seem to be showing any results”. The latter sounds more negative than I’d intended, though formally the statements are equivalent. But Salam doesn’t claim that there is strong unambiguous evidence for the success of school choice. He says, instead,

Randomized field trials in education are difficult to devise, and the number of large-scale pilots for various implementations is small, particularly when compared to the number and quality of experiments that preceded the welfare reform efforts of the mid-1990s. We do have a handful of natural experiments involving lotteries. These experiments face a number of limitations, including faulty record-keeping, a failure to properly separate treatment and control groups, and much else besides. But of the big randomized lottery experiments, we have seen nontrivial gains for African American students. We actually don’t have much data for non-black students, in large part because of ferocious resistance to further experimentation. Because these experiments have yielded nontrivial gains without an increase in resources, I’m hard-pressed to see why we shouldn’t field more experiments, ideally well-designed RFTs. The idea that this is a settled issue is … interesting.

Who said it was a settled issue? Not me. I, too, see no reason why we shouldn’t field more experiments. What I said was that since school choice hasn’t been getting such great press lately, owing in large measure to the failure, for whatever reasons, to generate strong findings of educational improvement across school systems (as opposed to at individual well-run schools), this seemed to me a surprising candidate for a new liberaltarian alliance at this time. Personally, I’m favorably disposed towards charter schools and cautiously favorable to some kinds of school choice, but I have been since the 1990s, and those ideas seem to me to command less support today than they did then, not more.

Salam’s second response addressed my criticism of his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” I didn’t, and don’t, believe that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia “free-ride” on American military power. In fact, I wrote, I can’t think of a country that the phrase “free-riding on American military power” fits. Mr Salam responds:


Note that I put “free-riding” is scare quotes. That, of course, is a subtlety that’s easy to miss. I was suggesting that free-riding isn’t the perfect term, but it is useful. Given the way Steinglass approaches issues relating to health systems, public finances, etc., I can’t be too surprised by his reaction. But I am disappointed.

Do I believe that European and East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense? No, I don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful concept. Military expenditures are a kind of self-insurance against an anarchic international environment. Choosing the “right” level of self-insurance is a thorny question that doesn’t have a clear answer. This is an environment with more than one imaginable equilibrium. The idea that a state can spend the right amount reflects a planner’s delusion….

The notion that there is free-riding going on doesn’t imply that it’s necessarily a bad thing: this is a core premise advanced by William Wohlforth and others who believe in “the stability of a unipolar world.” “Free-riding” in this vein is a feature, not a bug.

It seems that Salam and I agree, then: neither of us thinks European or East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense. But really, I think this is all a bit of a dodge. Like it or not, the term “free-riding” carries strong negative connotations. The claim that countries are “free-riding” on American military expenditures is descended from cold-war-era conservative arguments that European countries were failing to pull their own weight and were spending too much on domestic social programs rather than on mutual defense against the Warsaw Pact. Now that those countries face no external threat, the concept has outlived its usefulness. Contrary to what Salam says, I don’t think one can have “free-riding” if it’s not clear that the “free-rider” is receiving anything of value. If I choose to go out and spend a million dollars on a cannon emplacement in the center of Dupont Circle, and then claim that Reihan Salam is “free-riding” on my cannon-emplacement spending, I think Reihan Salam would regard my claim as ridiculous, since he believes he derives no benefit from my cannon emplacement.

The case is more complicated in the case of America’s allies, since they clearly do derive benefits from American defense spending. But obviously every country always derives benefits from the military spending of its allies; it seems absurd to use the term “free-riding” to encompass every relationship of military alliance. Or do we mean that every country “free-rides” on the defense spending of allies only if the ally spends more on defense? Do we mean this in nominal, or percentage terms? Is Israel free-riding on American defense spending, even though Israel’s defense spending is proportionally far higher? Or is America then free-riding on Israel’s defense spending?

To me, the phrase “free-riding on American military power” suggests that a country derives clear benefits from American military power, benefits that fit into the country’s own views of its interests (as opposed to “benefits” which America regards the country as receiving, but which that country itself may have no interest in), and that the country in question is clearly failing to make an adequate contribution to its own defense. I wrote in my initial post that I didn’t think that description fit any actual countries in the world at the moment. On reflection, I believe a case could be made for Taiwan and possibly Japan; but a case could also be made against either of those countries. Taiwan spends 3% of its GDP on defense, and while that may not be enough to fend off a Chinese amphibious invasion 10 years from now, the Taiwanese public’s conception of its relationship to China has shifted greatly over the past 20 years; if Taiwanese are increasingly interested in reunification, on whatever terms those entail, then their commitment to spending whatever it takes to fend off a Chinese invasion may be ebbing for political reasons that have nothing to do with “free-riding”. As for Japan…again, what is the military threat to Japan?

Salam wants to cast me as being possessed of an absurd certitude that reductions in American military spending will not lead to increased military competition in a multipolar world. I don’t pretend to such certitude, and I think it’s entirely possible that the future will involve both less overwhelming American military power and more military competition among other states. It’s also possible that less American military power might lead to less military competition among some states.

What I criticized, though, was Salam’s certitude: specifically, his phrase “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power.” He shouldn’t be using the word “fact” there. If he wants to make the case that some states free-ride on American military power, he should argue that case; I’ve a feeling I’ll probably disagree. But I won’t use interjections like “Sigh.”, because, as I said, I consider Reihan Salam a pretty interesting writer.

What would happen if we cut defense spending by 80%? by mattsteinglass
January 12, 2010, 2:12 am
Filed under: War

I’ve never seen anyone do a coherent evidence-based analysis of this question. Here’s one thing that wouldn’t happen: the United States would not be invaded by a foreign power.

So what are we getting for $600 billion a year that we couldn’t get for $100 billion? Somebody give me some evidence.

What is Bolivia doing on top of our lithium? by mattsteinglass
October 2, 2009, 4:00 pm
Filed under: Business, War

Also, with regard to this, it seems to me Matthew Yglesias should consider that maybe the reason for American security hawks’ concern is that while Evo Morales will continue to sell America lithium, American mineral extraction companies will not be favored to win contracts to extract that lithium in Bolivia and will thus not reap as fabulous a share of the rewards.

Right-wing warblogger advocates shooting journalists by mattsteinglass
June 29, 2009, 12:58 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Media, War

Here’s the difference between us: even though the things he writes have led to the deaths of American soldiers and have severely harmed the US’s cause abroad, I would never advocate that the US military kill Ralph Peters.

A paleo-conservative stance on Vietnam by mattsteinglass
June 28, 2009, 1:35 pm
Filed under: Vietnam, War

Daniel Larison is exactly right about the Vietnam War.

What devoted anticommunists could not then and to some extent today still cannot admit is that Vietnam was basically unnecessary and irrelevant to the greater success of the West in the Cold War. They furthermore cannot accept that the millions who died in the war and the millions who perished in its aftermath most likely would not have died had there never been a “crusade” to save South Vietnam. This is a bitter truth, and there are not many people who would want to accept this. Being wrong about this does not change all of the things that Solzhenitsyn got right, but thirty-one years later we might note that we have listened more often than not to people who have said that the West was lacking in willpower, needed to show more “resolve,” had gone horribly awry in withdrawing from Vietnam, and in almost every instance in the last three decades those people have been as wrong as can be.

Socialism spreads beyond the Defense Department by mattsteinglass
May 12, 2009, 8:43 am
Filed under: Transportation, War

Matthew Yglesias notes that US federal spending has leapt to European levels as a result of the stimulus, but that it should drop back to normal US levels in the future. But then he notes:

Some of the money really will just dry up. But there’s some good stuff in that stimulus, especially on education and on high-speed rail, that it’d be a shame to see go “poof.” I doubt we’ll see overall spending plateau at FY 2009 levels, but over the medium term we could see some of the stimulus programs crowd out state spending or federal spending on other, less worthy (the military, farm subsidies, etc.) priorities.

I can almost vaguely imagine cutting farm subsidies at some point, but how exactly is the US supposed to start cutting defense spending? Where does the political consensus to do that come from? I agree wholeheartedly that we should cut defense spending drastically, but not a single American politician seems to have the guts to try it. And given that the DoD is the bastioned redoubt of American socialism — state-supported monopoly firms building staggeringly expensive products that often enough aren’t even desired by their tiny number of “consumers”, and are just built to provide jobs in legislators’ districts — I don’t see how that changes.

And without cutting defense spending, I don’t see how we get the money for upgrading our public infrastructure to compete with Europe, Japan and China. To a first approximation, it seems to me that the reason the US doesn’t have this:


ICE train, Amsterdam. By Erwin van der Meer. Creative Commons license.

ICE train, Amsterdam. By Erwin van der Meer. Creative Commons license.

…is that it has this:


US aircraft carriers, fighters and B2 bomber, Pacific Ocean. By US Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz, Creative Commons license.

US aircraft carriers, fighters and B2 bomber, Pacific Ocean. By US Navy Chief Photographer’s Mate Todd P. Cichonowicz, Creative Commons license.

But almost no one is allowed to ride on the latter stuff, and the justifications that are being offered for having them at this point are extremely unpersuasive.

Conservatives: We Proud On Our Bomb by mattsteinglass
April 13, 2009, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Iran, Korea, War

Why do conservative oppose Obama’s initiative to eliminate nuclear weapons? Anne Applebaum says it’s because biological and chemical weapons are more of a threat to the US. Presumably, then, the treaties banning biological and chemical weapons are also useless? Charles Krauthammer, that desert of inanity, says it’s because restarting arms reduction talks is “a gift to the Russians”. The seething inferiority complex on evidence here requires no explication.

The really desperate threat posed by terrorism is the threat of  a nuclear bomb going off in an American city. That threat is greater than the threat of a major biological or chemical attack, even though those attacks are easier to pull off. The reason is that terrorists are not much attracted to biological and chemical attacks, in large measure because such methods of attack are universally considered cowardly and reprehensible. And that is in large measure because chemical and biological weapons have been outlawed since World War I. Killing people with botulin toxin or anthrax is not more intrinsically evil than killing people with a nuclear blast followed by radiation poisoning; both are similarly horrific and indiscriminate. But for a whole complex of reasons, we abhor the former and accept the latter as simply the most terrible form of warfare. Chemical and biological warfare are unclean, treif, defiled; nuclear warfare is taboo, terrible, awesome and forbidden except to the initiated.

Why is this? It’s partly because of the association of nuclear warfare with the prestige of particle physics and the “nature of the universe”, with all the accompanying religious and scientific connotations. It’s partly because of the accident of history that made NATO nuclear weapons the only realistic counterweight to Soviet conventional military superiority in Europe. And it’s partly the pure semiotics of detonations of massive force as the embodiment of political will and the claim to power; deploying poison and disease just isn’t as effective, especially for acts of spectacular terrorism. But whatever the background, the aim of the project of eliminating and then illegalizing nuclear weapons is to consign them to the same opprobrium as chemical and biological weapons. That’s why Obama’s move to restart that project makes sense. When India set off its nuclear device in 1998, a group of women were famously photographed carrying a banner that read “We Proud On Our Bomb”. No one should be proud of their nuclear bombs; people should be ashamed of their nuclear bombs, and Obama’s initiative is a cost-free step towards bringing that about. And conservatives don’t like it because, at root, they proud on their bomb too.

What replaces Communism as our global enemy? Pirates! by mattsteinglass
April 10, 2009, 11:14 am
Filed under: Crime, Terrorism, War

I remember back in the ’90s when I was writing for children’s cartoon shows (Doug, Arthur), I was bothered by the fact that most action plots still revolved around somebody with an evil plot to take over the world by turning everyone into mindless slaves. That narrative bias reflected a Cold War mindset, and it was already clear from post-Yugoslavia and Somalia that the nature of evil in our time wasn’t going to be people trying to take over the world; it was going to be people trying to tear it apart for fun and profit. But what kinds of bad guys could you use that reflected this new reality? What could be as compelling for kids’ entertainment as the evil-totalitarian-robots narrative?

Duh. Anyway, by the time the trope gets to FOXNews, you know it’s already cliche and thus universally accepted. We’re off to fight the pirates. I consider this an entirely wholesome development. But you can see the ideological difficulty involved in the transition from “fighting global totalitarianism” to “taming global anarchy” in Jennifer Lawinski’s FOXNews piece. Some dumb editor tagged on a lede graf which tries to blame the resurgence of piracy on…international law:

21st century pirates are becoming more brazen in their attacks on commercial and passenger ships, and — thanks to international law — there is little that can be done to stop them.

Lawinski’s piece itself makes it clear that this is nonsense. She does open by noting that while in the 17th century the British Navy could just hang pirates on the waterfront, nowadays they have to be pursued within the confines of international law. But she also points out that international law specifically allows any nation to do so:

Barry Hart Dubner, a law professor at Barry University in Florida who has written extensively on piracy, said that on the high seas, anyone can step up to battle the pirates.

“It gets trickier when you try to get them in territorial waters (within 7.5 miles of the coastline), because theoretically you need permission of the coastal state. But they can use any force they want because they’re considered enemies of mankind,” Dubner said.

It’s true that we can’t just hang them on the waterfront like the British did in the 17th century. Then again, we also can’t use a number of other disciplinary measures available to the British in the 17th century, like punishing traitors by skinning them alive, drawing and quartering them, and stretching their skin out and tacking it to the palace gate.

Dr. Manhattan to conquer Hanoi by mattsteinglass
March 10, 2009, 11:42 am
Filed under: Cartoons, Vietnam, War

It appears Watchmen will be playing at the Hanoi Megastar Cineplex starting March 20.

Apparently the censors are really asleep on the job. Or we’re going to see a very abbreviated version…


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