Ezra Klein went to China for a week or so and found himself unable to comprehend why anyone back in Washington cared whether the Obama administration had offered a job to Joe Sestak to keep him from running in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary. This is one of the things that happens when you go abroad for awhile: the idiotic, trivial, meaningless and confused partisan pseudo-arguments taking place in your country of origin reveal themselves in even greater idiotic, trivial, meaningless and confused partisanship. I left the United States 11 years ago, and basically very little that’s taken place there in the past decade makes any sense to me at all.
Filed under: and Planning, Architecture, Design, Politics, US, Vietnam, World | Tags: Berlin, Germany, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, National Assembly, Norman Foster, Soviet Union, Vietnam, Vietnam National Assembly
Igor Volsky notes that the failure of the health-care reform summit to produce a substantive compromise shows why you don’t want C-SPAN cameras in the room when politicians are trying to do a deal. Transparency, he writes, “is overrated.” (Matthew Yglesias concurs.) This insight is also, interestingly, illustrated in the design of Vietnam’s new National Assembly building, currently under construction opposite the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
The building is designed by the German firm GMP. When I spoke to the firm’s Hanoi office last year, they explained that the central hall, with its glass ground-level lookthrough towards the skylit circular central chamber where the deputies meet in session, had been influenced by Norman Foster’s renovation of the Reichstag in Berlin.
The Foster design was commissioned in 1992 in the aftermath of the reunification of Germany, and the concept was to exemplify the transparency of democratic governance in contrast to Communist opacity. From the dome, spectators can look down into the Bundestag’s chamber and watch the delegates debating. But the GMP architects told me that when they presented similar ideas in Vietnam, they found that while government liked the idea of transparency visually, National Assembly delegates didn’t actually want to have people be able to see from the street while they were in session. So the skylit central core of the new building descends to a closed inner cylinder housing a main assembly hall whose interior isn’t actually visible through the street-level glass facade. Rather a nice metaphor for false transparency.
The funny thing, though, is that the old Soviet-era building they tore down to build the new one was actually extremely informal and physically transparent. Once you got clearance to enter the area, as press or whatever, you entered the main building and stood in side hallways that had only a low waist-level concrete wall and pillars separating you from the main assembly hall where the deputies sat. You were basically in the same space as them, though they’d sometimes draw heavy velvet curtains while proceedings were underway. In a clunky informal concrete Soviet-style way, it was very “transparent”; I remember my news assistant once spotted former Communist Party General Secretary Le Kha Phieu walking out of the chamber and just walked up and chatted with him. I have a feeling nothing of this sort will be likely in the new building, which will have lots of glass but where access for the public and press will likely be better segregated from the deputies and government officials themselves. Similarly, you need all kinds of clearances to attend briefings at US government institutions, whereas in Vietnam pretty much anyone could walk in off the street and attend one of the Foreign Ministry’s useless press conferences.
Formal “transparency”, in other words, often leads to substantive opacity, while informal “closed” systems can often be relatively open and easygoing if you can figure out a way to get in that front door, which often isn’t as hard as you’d think.
Filed under: World | Tags: Business, Christmas, Government, Hội An, Luck, New Year, Small business, Vietnam
Vietnam has commenced its Tet shutdown, which this year is extra-long because Tet is on Sunday. Technically it’s a four-day holiday, but with the actual day falling on a Sunday they figured that wasn’t fair so they gave everybody Monday-Thursday off. And then early last week the government went ahead and responded to mass public whining by giving everybody the Friday off too, so it’s now a 9-day holiday. And it’s actually a bit longer: banks, gold shops and a lot of other stores were already closed on Friday, and it became impossible to get any government officials on the phone by late in the day Thursday.
Part of the reluctance to open up for business or even, in some cases, answer the phone around Tet is the strong current of luck that surrounds the first people you meet in the new year. The first person who crosses your doorstep, the first person who buys something from you, etc. should be someone who’s either rich and successful, generally great, or was born in a lucky year. If it’s somebody bad or unlucky, that augurs poorly for your whole year. So engaging in business is just crazy — who knows who might wander in the door?
Of course, it’s really mainly the state-owned sector that’s closing down for 9+ days. Small businesses, the people who actually do all the work in Vietnam, will be back to work on Friday, and in fact some are reopening Thursday; indeed, some are opening on Monday. There is, after all, money to be made. Clearly as time goes on the Vietnamese tradition of shutting down absolutely everything over Tet will weaken, and someday one expects it’ll look a lot like Christmas in the US. Which will, in one sense, be a shame. On the other hand, one thing you notice pretty strongly when you’re living in a place where everything shuts down for 9 days is that it’s really boring.
Filed under: Afghanistan, World | Tags: Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Hamid Karzai, United States, United States armed forces, US, War in Afghanistan, Warfare and Conflict
Matthew Yglesias on why the views of Leah Farrell, the Australian anti-terrorism expert formerly of the Australian National Police who thinks more US intervention in Afghanistan is playing al-Qaeda’s game, have no constituency:
Meanwhile, Spencer Ackerman says that Leah Farrell, former al-Qaeda specialist for the Australian National Police, has a blog that’s “attracting ever-more attention in U.S. defense circles.” That said, I think we can predict here and now that she’s going to stop attracting attention in U.S. defense circles since she thinks we should withdraw from Afghanistan and that al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. forces are a deliberate ploy “forcing a surge in American troop numbers” and creating a situation in which “Mullah Omar’s legitimacy would be jeopardised were he to publicly disassociate from al-Qa’ida and guarantee he would not again provide it sanctuary.”
She’ll stop attracting attention because, as Spencer writes in that very same post, there’s absolutely no constituency for withdrawal of American forces inside the Obama administration. Instead, the debate among civilians runs from “we should stick with the increase in troop levels that Obama has already executed” to “we should engage in large additional increases in troop levels.” And within the uniformed military it seems that everyone wants large additional increases.
Probably true. But here’s NPR’s story yesterday, after the big Obama-war council meeting:
After the 2 1/2 hour meeting Wednesday, administration officials said the president does not plan to accept any of the options in their current form. The officials said the president is pushing to clarify how and when U.S. troops would hand over responsibility to Afghan security forces — and raising questions about the credibility of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Obama wants to make clear that the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is not open-ended, one source added.
Filed under: Business, Energy, World | Tags: Business, Energy, Environment, Extraction of petroleum, International Energy Agency, Kevin Drum, Oil reserves, Peak oil
This Guardian article saying that whistleblowers at the International Energy Agency are routinely deliberately putting out inflated figures for potential future oil production in order to avoid panicking the world market with the real figures is certainly interesting. And it’d be nice if oil production were hitting a wall, forcing radical increases in the price of fuel and thus pushing a transition to a non-carbon economy even without the need for cap-and-trade or massive carbon taxes. But the whole logic seems weird to me. Kevin Drum says there’s no way to know what to think of it, and while it sounds sort of plausible:
Filed under: Israel, World | Tags: Gaza Strip, Hamas, International Criminal Court, Israel, Middle East, Richard Goldstone, War crime, Warfare and Conflict
I just wrote on Israel and the Goldstone report for DiA. 1st paragraph:
Indeed, we have sinned
THE 550-page report released yesterday by the UN investigating committee on war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas during Israel’s invasion of Gaza in December and January, chaired by Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, ispretty damning. The Israeli and Hamas responses to the report, meanwhile, are pretty feeble. The report recommends that the UN Security Council demand Israel conduct its own investigations into its alleged war crimes, and, if it fails to do so adequately, that allegations of war crimes be remanded to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. If the Security Council does consider requiring Israel to conduct such investigations, America will be faced with deciding whether it can continue to play its traditional role of defending Israel with its veto, this time against specific, credible, and numerous charges of war crimes. Israel can make that decision easier, however, by continuing its current strategy of refusing to accept any responsibility for Palestinian civilian deaths. Easier, that is, for America to vote against its ally…
Filed under: Afghanistan, World | Tags: Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, Anne Applebaum, Barack Obama, Pakistan, Taliban, United States, War in Afghanistan
Equally universal (and bipartisan) are the complaints that the war’s aims are unclear or unrealistic. A British defense official resigned last week on the grounds that he no longer believed the nation would accept the government’s justifications for the war, which have ranged from “fighting terrorists” to controlling heroin exports. Tom Friedman demanded to know “what it will cost, how much time it could take, [and] what U.S. interests make it compelling.” Others grumble that we should be focused on the “real” problems, such as Pakistan, or on an “achievable” solution, whatever that may be.
Which is, when you think about it, all rather strange, since the goals of the war have never been in doubt in any European or North American capital. “Winning” means we leave with a minimally acceptable government in place; “losing” means the Taliban takes over and al-Qaida comes back—and no one has ever pretended success would be easy.
We have a minimally acceptable government in place, and the Taliban isn’t coming back to power. Keeping them from doing so might require a bit of bombing support and some military aid to the government and associated warlords. Is Applebaum saying we can pretty much leave now? Obviously not. Rather, she does not really understand or believe in her own war aims, and has not thought out what they actually imply.
Filed under: Afghanistan, World | Tags: Afghanistan, John Paul Vann, Kabul, United States armed forces, United States Army, US, Viet Cong, Vietnam War
Michael Crowley has been trying to claim lately that the fact that the USSR was defeated by Afghan insurgents is no indication of how well the US and NATO will do there, because the Soviets employed naked brutality and repression while the US is trying to engage in hearts-and-minds, protect-the-population counterinsurgency. Matthew Yglesias notes that the Mujahedin had US support so the Soviets had a tougher row to hoe. But more important: Look, what do we “know” about Soviet behavior in Afghanistan? How reliable is it, and can we avoid our natural tendency to have unrealistically negative assumptions about their behavior, and unrealistically positive assumptions about “our boys”? Here, for instance, Crowley cites a 1984 New York Times article:
Several hundred civilians have reportedly been killed in Afghanistan in a sweep by Soviet troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships through a valley north of the capital….
One Western source said the Soviet forces appeared to have embarked on a renewed effort to crush popular backing for the guerrillas…
The informants said the Soviet troops concentrated their attacks on the village of Istalif, a rebel stronghold 30 miles north of Kabul, the capital. Soviet soldiers were said to have surrounded the village before dawn last Thursday and to have captured and killed some guerrillas and their families. One diplomat said he had been told that Soviet troops bayoneted large numbers of women and children, shot young Afghan males and burned a number of homes before withdrawing at dawn. Tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopter gunships were then said to have bombarded the village….
An Afghan exile here said the marketplace at Istalif had been destroyed. Istalif was the scene of heavy bombings by Soviet forces last November and December when an estimated 500 people were killed.
This is pure hearsay. We have one “Western source” and one “Afghan exile”. The sources are clearly hostile to the Soviets and their government. The casualty estimates seem almost certain to be random numbers exaggerated for effect. The “bayoneted women and children” thing isn’t impossible, but it’s the folkloric atrocity-tale stuff that gets generated in every invasion or occupation. (Remember how after their invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Iraqi troops supposedly grabbed babies out of incubators and killed them? Fantasy and propaganda. In the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, the “Huns” were alleged in the British press to have raped and killed nuns.) If you were to check the North Vietnamese press for accounts of atrocities committed by US troops in Vietnam, you’d have a similar impression of universal rape, pillage and slaughter. The New York Times isn’t a propaganda organ — it’s a solid journalistic outfit, and it reports what it can and identifies its sources. And when it gives you the name of the town, you can be pretty certain that something actually happened at that town. But the fact that we can see the sources is what allows us to judge just how deep and accurate this information is, i.e. pretty shallow and vague.
I’m not saying Soviet troops didn’t behave abominably in Afghanistan. I would guess that in general, Soviet troops were crueler to civilians in Afghanistan than American troops were to civilians in Vietnam. (They were unlikely to face press criticism or disciplinary sanctions for atrocities — not that many American soldiers who committed atrocities suffered much for it — and the Soviet political consciousness lacked much of a distinction between enemy forces and the civilians who sympathized with them.) But that’s a pretty low bar to set. Americans are still not clearly aware of this, but the evidence is pretty inescapable that US troops deliberately killed well over ten thousand civilians at gunpoint in Vietnam, let alone how many died in bombing and random-interdiction shelling–which in many cases simply targeted villages that supported the Viet Cong. How many did the Soviets kill in Afghanistan? And, though Crowley seems to have forgotten this, we did claim we were trying to “protect the population” and “win hearts and minds” in Vietnam. The problem wasn’t what we said we were doing. The problem was what we actually did, not in the sense that we had some secret violent intention that was different from our public intention, but in the sense that getting your troops to restrain themselves, build links with the local population, refuse to respond to fire if it might endanger civilians, and so on, is incredibly hard. We are trying to do a better job of this in Afghanistan; having Gen. McChrystal in charge is sort of like the counterfactual of what might have happened in Vietnam if Col. John Paul Vann had been allowed to run the war his way. But it’s just chauvinism to imagine that America will do better than the USSR did because our soldiers are nice while theirs were mean.
Filed under: Entertainment, World | Tags: Al-Qaeda, Daniel Drezner, Dawn, Islamism, Red Dawn, Society and Culture, Soviet Union, US
For what it’s worth I disagree with Daniel Drezner’s contention (Why is Hollywood messing with my childhood? | Daniel W. Drezner) that the idea of remaking “Red Dawn” with Islamist extremist terrorists as the enemies is particularly stupid because “The one thing actors like Al Qaeda can’t do terribly well is secure and hold territory”. Seems to me the idea of Al-Qaeda attempting to seize and hold territory in the continental US is every bit as reasonable today as the idea of the Soviet Union sending paratroopers to invade Colorado was in 1984.