ashthomas//blog: August 2004


Friday, August 27, 2004

Missing Person Update

In case some of you are wondering what happened to this blog over the last two weeks, never fear--nothing insidious or unfortunate has befallen your erstwhile hero. I am in the United States for a month with my wife, touring and visiting in-laws. The first weekend was spent in Boston (my kind of town), followed by a few days in NYC. At the moment we are having a few weeks relaxation with the ashWife's family near New Orleans. On Labor Day we shoot up to Washington DC, followed by a day and a half in San Francisco, before heading home.

As you can imagine, it has been non-stop, and my blogging and general news-reading has been curtailed, but rest assured, our scathing and witty commentary will return as soon as possible.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Pentagon's New Map

The CSMonitor reviews the new book by Thomas P.M. Barnett, The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century. Barnett attempts to provide a new analytical framework for understanding geopolitics in the 21st century. The reviewer describes the thesis:
As the 21st century opens, Barnett suggests, the world is divided not between good and evil or "clashing civilizations," but between the connected and the disconnected, between globalization's "functioning Core" and the "non-integrating Gap." The good news is that the age of wars between states is over and roughly two-thirds of humankind - despite great disparities in wealth, health, education, and political rights - now live in the connected parts of the globe. The bad news is that only the US can shrink the Gap. Only the US can make globalization truly global.

Barnett explained his concept of the Core and the Gap in an Esquire article last year:

Show me where globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security, and I will show you regions featuring stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder. These parts of the world I call the Functioning Core, or Core. But show me where globalization is thinning or just plain absent, and I will show you regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and--most important--the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists. These parts of the world I call the Non-Integrating Gap, or Gap.

I haven't read Barnett's book yet, but his thesis seems sound. Basically, he argues that the industrialised world needs to engage failed and rogue states more closely, as the more ties a nation has with the rest of the globe, the more stable it becomes:

Show me a part of the world that is secure in its peace and I will show you strong or growing ties between local militaries and the U.S. military. Show me regions where major war is inconceivable and I will show you permanent U.S. military bases and long-term security alliances. Show me the two strongest investment relationships in the global economy and I will show you two postwar military occupations that remade Europe and Japan following World War II.

This country has successfully exported security to globalization's Old Core (Western Europe, Northeast Asia) for half a century and to its emerging New Core (Developing Asia) for a solid quarter century following our mishandling of Vietnam. But our efforts in the Middle East have been inconsistent--in Africa, almost nonexistent. Until we begin the systematic, long-term export of security to the Gap, it will increasingly export its pain to the Core in the form of terrorism and other instabilities.

The idea that globalization ends war and creates stability is not new, but Barnett provides a new structure with which to understand it

Monday, August 09, 2004

Daalder & Steinberg on Rules for War

Ivo Daalder and James Steinberg, both of the Brookings Institution, published an essay last week on the issue of "New Rules on When to Go to War". Their argument is that behind the questions of whether or not to initiate a war against Iraq is a broader question about the changing nature of when a state is justified in using military force. They identify two lines of thinking that are dominant in the United States:
Two positions, equally unsatisfactory, have emerged. One holds that, except in a clear case of self-defence in response to an actual or tangibly imminent attack, the decision to use force requires explicit authorisation by the United Nations Security Council. The other argues that, in an age of large-scale terrorism, waiting for others to strike first is suicidal. The right to self-defence must include the right to act pre-emptively, before a real threat has fully materialised; this includes the right to act unilaterally when international organisations, notably the UN, fail to act.

Their criticism of the first position rests on the now out-dated procedural structures of the United Nations system:

The UN operates on the Westphalian assumption (enshrined in Article 2(4) of the UN charter) that the primary concern is aggression by one state against another, not what happens within states. Yet, in our increasingly interconnected world, the main threats to international security derive more from developments within states than from external behaviour of states. Indeed, the last three wars fought by the US, Britain and others were all in response to such internal developments—the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, the provision of a terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan and the presumed development of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Their criticism of the second position is that unilateral action is usually justified as being a no-nonsense and decisive solution to an immediate problem. However, as Daalder and Steinberg point out, this is a short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating attitude:

George W. Bush has insisted that Washington will not wait for a "permission slip" to act and will define for itself which internal developments constitute a sufficient threat to justify early intervention. Under this principle, however, any state that perceives a possible future threat from another state would be justified in intervening militarily. That is more a recipe for international anarchy than for international order. In practical terms, moreover, this policy may well prove self-defeating, as Iraq has shown. When a country acts without perceived international legitimacy, it will fail to rally the international support that is inevitably required to do the job properly.

While not providing much of a thrid-way proposal themselves (at least in this piece), the authors acknowledge that the solution is somewhere in between the two extremes: there must be a way to act immediately and forcefully when required, but with broad international support that will remove any notions of illegitimacy from the endeavour.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

McCain defends Kerry against GOP ad

Noam Scheiber writes in TNR's &c. blog about Tents, Piss, Etc., in which he refers to a Washington Post article detailing John McCain's unusual relationship with both John F. Kerry and George W. Bush:
When John McCain agreed to campaign for George W. Bush back in June, pundits rushed to reprise that old LBJ line about how it's better to have a guy like McCain inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. But neither LBJ nor the pundits nor, apparently, Karl Rove realized there was a third option McCain might avail himself of: Inside the tent pissing in.

This comes after McCain felt it necessary to speak out against a Republican ad that criticised Kerry's war record. The WaPo tells the story:

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rushed to John F. Kerry's defense Thursday, condemning a new ad claiming the Democratic presidential nominee lied about his military record and betrayed his Vietnam comrades by protesting the war.

McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, called on President Bush to condemn the ad, which was financed in part by a major Republican Party donor in Texas.


It was McCain who again came to Kerry's defense at an opportune time for Democrats. McCain, who challenged Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000, has become a central, if sometimes reluctant, figure in the campaign -- for both sides. Kerry courted him as a potential running mate after McCain defended Kerry's war record on national television. At rallies, Kerry frequently cites his relationship with McCain as evidence of bipartisanship.

Bush has turned to McCain for political cover, too. The day Kerry announced Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as his running mate, Bush released a TV ad in which McCain praised the president's wartime leadership. McCain, who is to deliver a keynote speech at the Republican National Convention this month, has made it clear he is backing Bush and plans to campaign for the Republican ticket with one big condition: He will not criticize Kerry.

UK Prospect on Wallace

Jonathan Keats takes David Foster Wallace and bashes him around the ring for twelve rounds in "The Jester of US Fiction", in the August 2004 issue of the British Prospect magazine. "His reputation is spectacular. His fiction, however, is execrable", Keats begins, before criticising almost every aspect of Wallace's fiction:
One cannot but be dazzled by the range of ways in which Wallace mangles his native tongue. His plots achieve a giddying balance between banality and incoherence; his characters are as black and white as the pages on which their stories are printed. But to eviscerate all standards of fiction so completely demands skill and control. David Foster Wallace is not the Charles Manson of American fiction, but rather its Dr Mengele.

And Wallace is not the only one to be dragged across coals by Keats -- fellow big-novels-of-ideas writers, Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann, come under some extremely harsh criticism. Vollmann's work, which Wallace's most closely resembles, is described as being like "the bubonic plague, an epidemic of verbiage with no apparent function other than to consume ever more ink and paper."

Powers gets slightly better treatment. Powers' masterpiece, The Gold Bug Variations, is criticised for "conjuring a world of ideas in which characters were second-class citizens, and the same can be said of most of his fiction, which encourages comparison to the soulless novels and stories of the cerebral Wallace."

Keats is willing to concede Wallace's talent in other areas, however. Wallace's essays are praised for being exemplars of the form. Keats advice is that Wallace should permanently forsake fiction in favour of essays:

Wallace has refused to accept ... that the essay can be as significant, and sustaining, a literary form as the novel. He doesn't need fiction. In fact, before the world catches on to his literary zero sum game, he needs to let it go.

I love Wallace's fiction -- I am continually dazzled by his erudition and surprised by his experimentation with narrative. That said, if I was forced to choose between keeping one and expelling the other of Wallace-the-novelist and Wallace-the-essayist, the essayist would stay.

On a related note, the editor Gourmet magazine talks with the Boston Globe in "Lobster tale lands writer in hot water" about the experience of hiring Wallace to write an article.

Rozen at AEI Sudan seminar

Laura Rozen attended the American Enterprise Institute's recent panel discussion Sudan: Genocide, Terrorism, and America's National Interest. From the AEI's pre-event announcement:
U.S. policy toward Sudan is at a crossroads. Although the authoritarian regime in Khartoum remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, concern about its continued association with jihadists has been balanced by post-9/11 pledges of cooperation against al Qaeda. But with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis unfolding in Darfur—a government-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign by Arab militias—the United States and the international community are threatening sanctions, while Sudanese hardliners warn that foreign intervention will constitute an attack on Islam.

How does Sudan fit into the global war on terrorism? Does the United States have a strategic, as well as a moral, interest in the crisis in Darfur? What practical steps should the Bush administration take to stop the catastrophe there? What interests, principles, and strategy should guide U.S. policy toward Sudan in a post-9/11 world?

And Rozen's post-event summary:

I give the neocons a lot of flak; so it's only fair I point out that the American Enterprise Institute hosted a really superb event this morning on Darfur, that went so far beyond the coverage and the headlines, it educated people who think they know something about the situation.

AEI's top notch military analyst Tom Donnelly moderated a panel that included John Prendergrast of the International Crisis Group, Ronald Sandee of the Netherlands Ministry of Defense, William Kristol, and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). Wolf is just back from a fact finding trip to Darfur; he showed a highly disturbing homemade video he and Sam Brownback took of their visit to the camps, of interviews with refugees and rape victims, you can see the actual Janjaweed on camels surrounding the camps, and see the utterly desolate burned villages. Most disturbing you can see and hear the roar of helicopters and planes that are being used to fly in the supplies the Janjaweed have used to kill almost 50,000 people and displace a million from their villages, which they then burn.

As Donnelly pointed out, no militia has a fleet of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft; that has all the earmarks of support of the central government in Khartoum.

Kristol pointed out, this is a humanitarian crisis caused by a political problem (the Khartoum government), not by say a natural disaster; therefore the solution must address not only the extraordinary humanitarian suffering, but the underlying political problem, perhaps ultimately by pursuing regime change, but in the interim by severe pressure on the Khartoum government.

Sandee made clear that Khartoum is truly a radical Islamist sponsor of terrorist groups, training camps, and atrocities, that has ties to all the baddies (Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, radical Islamist groups in Pakistan, etc.).

Prendergast said, you don't need lots of US or British troops; the Bush and Clinton administrations have trained African forces to do what's needed right now -- send in peace enforcement troops made up of the African Union, assisted logistically perhaps by the US and Britain.

Wolf is pushing the administration to declare Darfur a genocide. He said that the administration simply saying it would electrify the world. Wolf said, he read Samantha Power's book, and he doesn't want to wait for her to have to write another book next year about why we didn't do anything about this genocide. He said, the lives of the people of Darfur have every bit as much value as the lives of people in Europe and the US. When he meets the victims of these atrocities, he said he thinks of his own five children and nine grandchildren, and how they wouldn't have anywhere to go. Wolf is truly heroic, he is right, and I commend him.

Profile of Paul Fussell

A wonderful profile of Paul Fussell in the Guardian, that has one of the best opening lines I have read in a while: "On November 11 1944, Paul Fussell woke up surrounded by corpses." This could be the beginning of an intriguing short story or novel, but is rather part of the biography of a talented man who has written some of the best work on the personal experience of the soldier in war. Unlike many histories of the First World War, that had until then focussed on the diplomatic errors of politicians and the strategic errors of generals, Fussell examined the literary work of the soldiers to express the individual's experience:
The horrors inflicted by and on ground troops, Fussell believes, are almost never acknowledged. "American readers needed someone to tell them what war was really like," he says, "because by the 1970s the romanticising of the second world war had already begun. And so I tried to cut away parts of it - tell them what a trench smelt like and what dead GIs smelt like and so forth."

For his friend Edmund Keeley, a retired Princeton English professor, Fussell's classic literary study, The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), is without question his most important work. In it, he set out his stall, emphasising tactical errors and blunders, drawing the reader's attention to the hordes of terrified, disgusted deserters. He described the everyday texture of life at the front, from freezing cold, rats, lice and terrible food, to horrific mutilations and murders. But what distinguished the book from other critical accounts of the world wars, or of Vietnam, was its literary emphasis. "I think he was the first to see the connection between those various wars and the way they were described and who was doing the describing," says Keeley. "Style, how you use words, how you use rhetoric, can end up being a kind of symbol of how a whole generation is thinking."

Fussell showed that the British were masters of a euphemistic diction whereby, in wartime, friends became "comrades", danger was "peril", to die was "to perish" and the dead were "the fallen" or "the dust". He suggested that to call the killing fields of the Somme a "battle" was "to suggest that these events parallel Blenheim and Waterloo not only in glory but in structure and meaning". In the work of the soldier-poets and memoirists who were the focus of his research, Fussell discovered a series of ironic contrasts. Poppies and roses, symbols of blood and passion spent, were reminders too of a pre-war pastoral idyll. Sunrises and sunsets, moments of ritualised terror in the trenches as soldiers were required to "stand-to", became, in the poems, ripe with moral and religious suggestion.

Military historian John Keegan, author of The First World War (1998) and a friend of Fussell's, calls The Great War a "simply superb book that will be read long after he's dead." He says its effect was "revolutionary", in that it showed how literature could be a vehicle for expressing the experience of large groups: "How many good books are there about the first world war at the individual level? What Paul did was go to the literary treatments of the war by 20 or 30 participants and turn them into an encapsulation of a collective European experience." Geoff Dyer, whose grandfather fought in the first world war and who cites Fussell as an influence on his book The Missing of the Somme (2001), sees him as a pioneer, "one of the first people to investigate the question of remembrance". Joseph Heller called The Great War "the best book I know of about world war one".

Paul Fussell's latest book, The Boys' Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe, 1944-1945, has just been published.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Rehearsal of terror just a rehearsal

Via Pandagon, World O'Crap has a round-up of the de-bunking of Annie Jacobsen's article about what she perceived as a rehearsal of a terrorist act (previously discussed here). Turns out that the "terrorists" were a group of musicians -- and Jacobsen is paranoid.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

IMDb Profile

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) is one off the sites that I visit the most. It has pride of place on my browser's tool bar, along with Blogger and my web email log-ins. It has been the source of much of the trivia that I spout at various social occasions, and allows me to make interesting comments about films while waiting in line at the cinema. The LA Weekly has a fascinating profile of the site, "Do You IMDB?", that answers many questions, like exactly how they manage to be so comprehensive:
But how does IMDB work? It’s easy to imagine some airplane hangar in a dusty, out-of-the-way desert location, and inside is a sea of desktop computers manned by 20-something Oompa Loompas in T-shirts, jeans and Converse. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. “We’re not something out of Brazil with row upon row of automatons. We’re officially a kind of virtual business located in cyberspace,” [managing editor Keith] Simanton explains.

“It’s a lot of people really spread out across the world. We have a good portion of the editors in the United Kingdom, and most of the editorial business and sales staff are out of Seattle. We have folks in Switzerland and Germany. We’ve got a person in the Midwest who does our soundtracks. It’s an aggregate, essentially.”

They also rely on contributions from its users: I am particularly proud of being responsible for a piece of trivia on the Se7en page (the second item under the spoiler warning, if you want to check), and for being responsible for the removal of an error on the F. Scott Fitzegerald bio page (which formerly claimed that The Great Gatsby was Fitzgerald's first novel, when it was actually his third).

Stressed Israeli Soldiers to get high

Medicinal cannibis is to be used to treat stressed members of the Israeli Defence Forces, according to this Jerusalem Post story:
The IDF will soon begin using cannabis to treat soldiers suffering from combat stress, the military said Wednesday.

An army statement said the military medical corps and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem would begin treating victims of post-traumatic stress - commonly known as shell shock - with THC, the active ingredient in the cannabis plant. It said the treatment would begin on an experimental basis.

"The use of THC as part of the treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder was approved by military and civilian committees relevant to the subject," the statement said.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Christopher Buckley interview

Christopher Buckley chats with Benjamin Healy in The Atlantic about his new book, Florence of Arabia. Buckley, one of the funniest writers out there, is a hoot, especially when mocking the foibles of the self-important. Some choice excerpts:
Buckley: As one of the characters wryly observes, the motto of the State Department ought to be "U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Making Matters Worse."
Healy: You can put that on the stationery.
Buckley: Yeah, right, "Fucking things up since 1922."

Buckley: Some of my favorite moments in Florence of Arabia are those that take off on the titles of real books by British and French authors about the creation of the modern Middle East: We Will Take Lebanon and Syria, and You Can Keep the Jews and the Palestinians, or Let's Put Iraq Here, and Lebanon Over Here.

Kagan on the Kerry Doctrine

Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace identifies a misleading (or ignorant) statement about the United States' historical use of force and entry into war that John Kerry made in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination:
As president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to. That is the standard of our nation.

As Kagan points out, going to war only out of necessity is clearly not the standard of the United States: "The United States has sent forces into combat dozens of times over the past century and a half, and only twice, in World War II and in Afghanistan, has it arguably done so because it "had to"." However, more disturbing than Kerry's rewriting of history is the effect that this may have on the international stage. Only enbarking upon wars that are "necessary", which I assume would limit it to situations where the United States' interests are directly threatened, would create an image of a United States as an aloof, arrogant power without concern for the rest of the world. As Kagan argues, this stand would rule out many of the military activities that the US has committed itself to in the last decade:

If Kerry has revealed himself in an unusual moment of honesty, it's time everyone took an equally honest look at where he would lead the country if elected. Kerry's "doctrine of necessity," if seriously intended, would entail a pacifism and an isolationism more thorough than any attempted by a U.S. government since the 1930s. It would rule out all wars fought for humanitarian ends, all interventions to prevent genocide, to defend democracy or even, as in the case of the Persian Gulf War, to uphold international law against aggression. For those are all wars of choice.

For someone who professes to seek better relations with the rest of the world, Kerry's doctrine of necessity would base American foreign policy on narrow, selfish interests far more than the alleged "unilateralism" of the Bush administration. Some Europeans have been quietly worrying that what they consider Bush's overambitious foreign policy will be followed in the United States by an isolationist backlash. After hearing Kerry's speech, they may worry a bit more.

With superpower status comes certain responsibilities -- being the sole superpower makes those responsibilities all the more important.