Beauty of Gray

Friday, November 07, 2003

Zell Miller, your life is calling…

Sen. Zell Miller seems to be on a roll. First, he blasted all of the democratic presidential nominees’ foreign policy ideas, despite the fact that his charges bore little resemblance to anything they’ve actually proposed. He’s said he will endorse Bush in 2004. Then, he goes on record calling the Democratic party borderline traitors for wanting to use an investigation into Bush’s pre-war use of intelligence for political gain. And he blasted Gen. Clark’s qualifications.

So what gives? One possibility is obviously that he believes what he’s been saying. But given the tenuous connection of his charges with reality, and their rather harshly partisan nature (against what supposedly is his own party), that seems unlikely. He’s basically regurgitating Republican party talking points. While he’s always been a centrist, his recent comments haven’t been centrist—they’ve been downright right-wing. Has Republican mind control technology advanced that far? Has Miller been kidnapped and replaced by an RNC robot? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.

However, one angle that might be worth watching is whether Miller is trying to position himself for his post-Senate career. He’s said he’s not going to be seeking re-election in 2004, which means he’s ready to enter the private sector and cash in, like many ex-politicians. However, with Republicans in control of Congress and the White House, they’ve rather infamously been leaning on lobbying groups to not hire democrats. Which puts Miller in a bit of a bind, if he wants to slide over to one of those very cushy, very lucrative positions. Or, perhaps, he had his eye on some other job in which it would behoove him to curry favor with the governing Republican party.

I don’t know if this is the real explanation, but it will be interesting to see where Miller ends up once he leaves the Senate.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:43 PM

Wednesday, November 05, 2003
On second thought…

In an earlier post, I wrote that there had been a real change in the world at some point along the line, to where it was no longer possible to wage true wars of conquest. Subject peoples now have enough self-identity and awareness that they will rise up and rebel against anyone attempting to conquer them.

After reading some more, specifically about the Provinces of the Roman Empire, I’ve decided my earlier post was, at least on this point, simply wrong. I was fooled by the telescope of history which combines decades worth of events down into a few pages, making conquests look neat and easy and smooth. But even in the ancient world, they weren’t, and it took the Romans decades and, in most cases, putting down multiple serious uprisings in their various provinces before the true Pax Romana took hold.

It seems to me now that the real difference is not in the resistance of the local population, but in the determination and the measures which would-be empires were willing to adopt. The Romans werew willing to fight repeated major wars to solidify their control, and were also willing to re-settle subject tribes, and both de-and re-populate regions when it suited their purposes. Modern communications has increased the effectiveness, solidarity, and the international visibility of resistance movements. But really, it isn’t that much different than it’s ever been.

On a similar note, I’m in the middle of an interesting book about Victorian England, and the author pointed out that the price of Empire was near constant warfare. Although it doesn’t get much attention anymore, not a year went by, almost, from 1860-1890, in which there wasn’t some significant military expedition that the British had to undertake to quell a local uprising somewhere in the Empire. I knew about a few of them, like the Zulu War, but the sheer number of these brush-ups astounded me. Continual warfare was the price of empire for the British.

This is one of the problems with trying to draw lessons from history. It’s easy to get misled by the high-level prospect that most histories provide, and very hard to dig down in and really see and understand what everyday life, with all its attendant noise and daily fluctuations, was truly like. And without that understanding, it’s hard to see the congruities with our own experiences to try and pull relevant lessons from the historical record.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:27 PM

Tuesday, November 04, 2003
Halliburton, Iraq, the CPI, and Daniel Drezner

Daniel Drezner correctly notes, in a post here and a Slate article here, that the recent report released by the Center for Public Integrity did not, despite some hand waving and attempts to gin up damning statistics, prove anything about the level of corruption in the awarding of post war contract in Iraq. (Or the lack of the same.)

Drezner points out that they use means to hide the fact that many of the winners of big reconstruction projects were not big campaign donors, relatively speaking. However, I think his analysis also doesn’t prove as much as he thinks. He looks at the 70 companies that have won reconstruction contracts in Iraq, and looks for a correlation between the size of the contracts they won and the amount they donated. He finds that this correlation is very weak.

However, this doesn’t prove that campaign donations had no influence on contracts, because all the various companies weren’t competing for all the various contracts. Each was competing for some specific subset of the contracts available. For example, among the big donors list, Dell was presumably not competing for contracts to rebuild the Iraqi power grid or get the oil fields up and running. Yet, by Drezner’s analysis, the fact that Dell didn’t win some of these giant contracts (or some other giant contract) is evidence that campaign contributions didn’t affect the awarding of contracts.

To me, both Drezner and the CPI fail by improperly lumping statistics together. Perhaps the information isn’t available, but if you really wanted to examine this issue, what you would need to do is look at the various bidders for each contract, and then see if the winner of a given contract was more likely to be the biggest (or one of the biggest) donors among the competing firms. It’s possible that some of the big contracts were awarded in fields where none of the major companies are big donors. Or, as mentioned above, that some big donors only competed for relatively small contracts.

It would be relatively easy to design a scenario in which each contract was awarded to the largest donor among the various bidding companies, but which would also pass Drezner’s correlation test. Conversely, almost any scenario which involved a few big donors could be spun as indicating corruption using the IPA approach Drezner rightly critiqued.

So, at the end of the day, neither the original report nor the rebuttal really leaves us any the wiser about the role that campaign donations did or didn’t play in the awarding of contracts in postwar Iraq.

Update: After writing this piece, I noticed that Dan has written several other pieces on his blog about this. Upon a quick perusal, it didn't seem like any of his comments really addressed my point, but I'd urge anyone interested to go over and check out his addition items.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:47 PM

Thursday, October 23, 2003
The Rumsfeld memo

I was reading the recently released memo by Donald Rumsfeld, which has gotten mixed but generally positive reviews. But, while I do agree that the leaders at the DoD are looking at some of these angles, one rather dissonant note jumped out at me, and made me wonder if Rumsfeld has learned anything at all. Is this really a change, or this just another example of the same old MO?

Let’s go to the tape. Early in the memo, Rumsfeld writes:

It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror; an alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within DoD or elsewhere — one that seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies on this key problem.

However, just a few paragraphs down, he writes:

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror.

So, he’s saying we have no way to measure the actual progress we are making in battling terrorism. However, despite the fact that we can’t quantify our efforts at all, he does know that the DoD must be revamped to face this threat, because it is ineffective at dealing with it.

Now, it is possible for these two viewpoints to both be simply true—to recognize a problem and, without really knowing how to solve it, know that some existing organization is not suitable for it. But given the fact that Rumsfeld’s biggest hobby horse since becoming Secretary of Defense has been to institute a revolution in military affairs, to reshape the armed forces for the future, my cynical side is suspicious. Is this on the up-an-up, or is it one more example where the desired endstate is known in advance, and then a justification for pursuing that course is trumped up.

It’s how Rumsfeld operated in dealing with the invasion of Iraq. On 9-12 he was already set on invading them, and told his intelligence analysis to go find him justifications. Now, conveniently, yet another of his long-time dreams—a faster, more responsive military arm--magically happens to be a vital part of the war on terrorism.

At the very least, it looks like Rumsfeld is looking for some way to work around the existing military hierarchy, in much the same way that he formed his own intelligence office to work around the existing bureaucracy at the CIA, which had an irritating habit of disagreeing with him. In this case, he may be right, but from this perspective it looks less like a new approach and more like the same old "my way or the highway" frustration with existing institutions.

The rest of the memo, though, I found interesting. And I think the second quote above, about metrics, is a big issue, and a very tough problem. One which I may write more about soon, if I can think of anything worth saying.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:06 PM

Monday, October 06, 2003
Scheduling Note

I will be at conferences for the rest of this week and most of next week as well, so blogging will be light. Even lighter than my usual relaxed pace.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:43 PM

A centrifugal age

When one reads history, one of the most glaring differences, but one so obvious it’s little remarked upon, is the fact that in the modern world, it is tremendously difficult, if not impossible, to build an empire. A history of the ancient world reads as a succession of conquests and empires—the Assyrians, the Medes, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks under Alexander, the Romans, the Islamic caliphates, the Turks, Charlemagne, the Mongols, the Mongols again, and so on. But somewhere things started to gum up, and local loyalties and nationalism made it more and more difficult to conquer territory, and more and more difficult to hold it.

It didn’t happen at the same time in every place. The French might have been the earliest in Europe, under Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. The Swiss followed, with their mountain cantons and pikemen providing the security for a new spirit of independence. Then the Dutch wars of independence, and on down the line. Where old empires had lives measured in centuries, modern ones lasted mere years, as both Napolean and Hitler discovered. By the 19th century, even a devastating military defeat wouldn’t convince the French to cede their claim to Alsace and Lorraine. And the reverse was true of Germany in the early 20th.

The only modern state I can think of that succeeded in building a true land empire was Russia, with its conquests in western and central Asia continuing on through the 19th century, and its effective conquest of much of eastern Europe in the 20th. This rise, and the central role Russia played in the 19th and 20th century, served to obscure somewhat the underlying tide of history, in which the age of empire had already ebbed. For even Russia only maintained their empire through brutal repression.

And yet, after 80 years of repression, murder, famine, and relocation, when they got the chance, the subject peoples rose up and reclaimed their land. The Latvians, Estonians, Chechyans, Ukrainians, et al had already formed their identity, and it couldn’t be altered even under that horrible regime. The nations of the world are past their adolescence, and no longer can be molded to suit the whims of their conquerors.

It’s a lesson that the Israelis have still not learned, with their persistent attempts to colonize the West Bank. China, with far greater resources, far fewer scruples, and none of the direct media scrutiny, is struggling to absorb Tibet. Tamil, Kashmir, East Timor, the Kurds—around the world one sees that the centrifugal forces have gained the upper hand. And now the US is facing the same issues in Iraq.

Robert Kaplan took this idea to its extreme in his book The Ends of the Earth. He posited the withering away of the nation state, at least across much of the Third World, with local identities and trade connections providing the structures of everyday life. It was, in a way, a return to a medieval existence, with large city states straddling the important trade routes forming the nexuses of society.

I don’t subscribe to Kaplan’s view—I think he is over-extrapolating here—but it is undoubtable that the Neocon’s vision of a new empire, a benevolent hegemony taking over and remaking the Middle East for its own good, is swimming against the tide. And doing that gets you nowhere and leaves you exhausted. Which seems like a pretty good description of our Iraq adventure, at least at this point.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 5:41 PM

Thursday, September 25, 2003
Crowds, power, totalitarianism, and death

Here I talked about Paul Berman’s excellent intellectual history of terrorism, and here I discussed what I think are some of the details of historical context that are important to understanding our current fight. In this last piece I wasn’t to go back to a dark area of human psychology which Berman, like most writers, skated over. While not critical to planning a strategy in the war on terror, it is nonetheless important, in my opinion, and also gives me the chance to promote one of my favorite authors, who I think is terribly under-read and underappreciated.

When Berman talked about the transition from various forms of idealistic totalitarianism (be it Nazism, communism, or Islamism) to a murderous cult of death, while he recognized the near commonality of this transition, he didn’t go beyond pointing it out. Rather than ask why this seemed to happen, he simply labeled it as insanity and passed on. And that seems a little too easy and glib, to me. There is clearly some deep connection here between the pursuit of power in totalitarianism and the pursuit of death in its manifestations. No writer has unblinkingly examined this dark corner of the human mind with as much insight and erudition as Elias Canetti, in his monumental work Crowds and Power.

I can’t really even begin to summarize it here, as it is a long book full of telling details and fascinating insights. Canetti pulls in examples from throughout history, anthropology, psychology, and other areas to support his argument. From everywhere, in fact, except from the mid-20th century experience that hangs like a shadow over the book, and in fact is the real question Canetti was trying to understand. And even if you don’t end up agreeing with his opinions, the fascinating examples make the book worth reading.

At the risk of so oversimplifying his argument as to make it seem absurd: Canetti starts with an examination of the nature of the Crowd experience, which he finds satisfies a particular psychological need of humans. Humans gain a release from being immersed in a crowd. It is a felling both of absolute equality and unity, a loss of self, and also of being a part of a powerful organism. So there is an intoxication that comes from being in a crowd. He then spends a large part of the book simply looking at the nature of various crowds, how they come about, how they disperse, what they do. When he started, this was all he wanted to do—explain crowd psychology. Then came the Nazis, and his work led him in a darker direction.

With an understanding of how a demagogue could manipulate crowds, Canetti then looked into the nature of command and of power. He finds the ultimate root of power in the ability to deal out death, both to enemies and even to your own subordinates. Commands have this power lurking in the background, and in hierarchies, each link in the chain is able to pass the command on down, to avoid the sting. It is only at the bottom that the imposition cannot be avoided, which is one root cause of the need for crowds—it provides a release.

Going further, the ability to deal death, when actually invoked, verifies the power and gives and immediate and powerful satisfaction to the leader. He has survived his opponent, and in standing over his corpse gains a brief moment of immortality. But there are always more outsiders, each of whom is a rival and whose life constitutes a challenge. Killing one is not enough, you want to kill many, create crowds of the dead that you have survived. But there always remain others who live, and so are a challenge to your power and your life. Canetti recalls a case of an Indian (I think) tyrant who emptied his capital city, slaughtering many, and then enjoyed staying there in solitude by himself, the last survivor.

Canetti then goes on and identifies the nature of the tyrant, and how he wields power, with the paranoiac, the mental patient. In a detailed case study of Max Schreber (again, I’m working on memory here since my books are in storage), he shows how the symptoms of his mental disease quite closely parallel the habits of mind of the leader.

As I’ve said, I’m afraid in this brief presentation of what seem somewhat fantastic ideas, I may have driven you away from the book rather than attracted you to it. As I said, Canetti amasses a huge corpus of evidence from all areas of human knowledge, and at the end had convinced me, at least, that his arguments had an important element of truth to them. It’s the flip side of the coin to the evolutionary psychology argument. The pursuit of power is both about the pursuit of sex, and through it life and generation, and also about the pursuit of death and destruction. It’s a grim view, but one that’s hard to avoid for anyone who has seen what Hitler did, Stalin, Mao, Hussein, bin Laden.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:21 PM

The NCAA is a joke

So, a ruling has come down, and the NCAA has accepted the appeal of the University of Michigan to overturn their initial sanctions and allow their basketball team to participate in the postseason this year. This is a travesty, a deepening of an already grave miscarriage of justice.

Michigan was proved to be guilty of paying a series of star basketball players, starting with Chris Webber and the Fab Five and continuing on for 4 or 5 years thereafter, upwards of half a million dollars to play for them. This is the worst pay for play scandal in the history of college sports. Furthermore, the booster who was funneling the cash to them was a convicted gambler, a number runner. And although nothing’s been proven, such a connection certainly raises the sort of questions that college hoops and the NCAA don’t want asked. It does make you go “hmmm” when remembering Chris Webber’s bizarre timeout call in the NCAA finals.

Then, after all this started to come to light, Michigan stonewalled and covered it up, denying knowledge of anything, carrying out self-investigations that somehow didn’t manage to find any evidence of wrongdoing. It was only after the feds came in and indicted Ed Martin (the number runner) and subpoenaed Chris Webber, that the truth came out. Then, forced by circumstance, the NCAA finally decided to investigate. And what was their decision? A measly 1 scholarship lost for 4 years, when many basketball programs don’t even use all their scholarships in the first place. And 2 years of no post season, one of which had already been self-inflcited by UM on a team that they knew was unlikely to make it anyway. And now, the NCAA has eliminated that second year, for no discernable reason. Even with it, the penalty was laughably light. And now they’ve removed even that. If this is all they do for the worst money scandal in the history of the sport, then they might as well just save everyone a lot of time, money, and hassle, and just close the doors on their enforcement arm.

Of course, they won’t, and are still busy handing punitive penalties down onto schools like Utah, for much, much, much, much more minor offenses. But this is nothing new. The NCAA has always had two systems of justice, one for the haves and one for the have nots. And UM is too big, has too much exposure, and generates too much revenue for them to ever give them a serious penalty that might eat into the bottom line. And the joke that is the NCAA continues.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:59 PM

By their fears you shall know them

Well, at this point it should be fairly obvious which Democratic candidate the Bush team doesn’t want to face. The past few days have seen a remarkable outpouring of critical pieces on him from the right. For the most part, I think these pieces have missed more than they’ve hit, but after this week, if Clark can get weather this storm and the Democratic debate, he’ll certainly have been through a baptism of fire.

As a moderate liberal hawk with DNC type inclinations, I’m certainly intrigued by Clark, especially since he is a candidate who represents my views on foreign policy almost exactly. And the big issue of the day is foreign policy. However, there are a few areas where questions still remain.

The first and most important is also the simplest—how good of a candidate is Clark? Is he charismatic on television, in debate settings, in interviews, and on the campaign trail? Being able to inspire, to connect, to lead the public is a central part of being an effective president, over and above any policy proposals. And it’s in this intangible area that I feel the existing Democratic candidates are lacking.

Second, there’s the issue of why he was removed from his command in Europe early, after the Kosovo war. Was it simply a matter of stepping on too many superiors’ toes, being too outspoken in opposition to them? Jealousy from others in the Army due to his quick rise and that he wasn’t one of the club? Or was there some deeper issue, which Gen. Shelton hinted in his comments? His actual actions during the Kosovo conflict will also be put under the microscope, and rightly so.

Finally, there’s the issue of temperament. Clark was a golden boy in the Army, a brilliant man who was first in his class, Rhodes scholar, and who rose through the ranks with extreme rapidity. He’s a hard charger with strong opinions who has sometimes been a bit high handed with those who disagreed with him, or at least not handled it in the best way, as witness his disagreements with Shelton. In this, he’s a bit lie Rumsfeld—a bright man who is very aware both of how bright he is and, often, others aren’t. Can he lead effectively, make the compromises necessary, interact with those who aren’t quite as quick as he is, deal with subordinates in a way that inspires loyalty as well as respect? Rumsfeld has struggled with this at Defense, and has alienated large segments of the Armed Forces in the process. Will Clark take after him, or will he be able to reign himself in in order to lead others, rather than simply demanding they follow?

Whatever the answers, his presence has immediately made the race more interesting, and given me a candidate that at least has the potential to excite me. The next threat, after the first surge of attacks from the right subsides, will be to see if Clark can capture the media. Front-runner status can lead to laudatory pieces, or it can lead to a reaction by journalists looking to tear you down. Clinton and Bush both charmed the media, which was a large part of their electoral success. Which will it be for Clark?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 4:50 PM

Friday, September 19, 2003
Administrative and hurricane notes

During my long hiatus, my blog reading habits changed, and so did some URL's of my regular reads. I have now, hopefully taken account of these dual changes and cleaned up my blogroll to the right.

Isabel has now completely moved through my area north of Baltimore, leaving me immediately unharmed and unaffected, secondarilly tremendously affected, and overall a bit confused. The first part is easy--we have our power, we have running water, and the storm itself was little more than a strong and breezy thunderstorm. Gusts were higher than usual but, absent my knowledge that the strom was a hurrican, would not have seemed to me out of the ordinary. THe mian bulk of the storm passed south and west of Baltimore, and not really directly hitting the city with much in the way of winds or rain.

However, leading to my puzzlement, about half of all homes serviced by the local power monopoly, BGE, seem to be without power throughout the region, which doesn't really make sense to me. Storms that seemed every bit as powerful or more so, at least to me, come through here fairly regularly, without knocking out power to anything like this number of people. I understand the problems in Virginia and NC, which bore the brunt of the storm, but why is the power network in the Baltimore area, which only saw the edge, so devastated?

And as a result of this, my move into our new home is likely delayed. Our settlement was supposed to be on the 30th, but was contingent on BGE moving a transformer box, a move schduled for next monday the 22nd. But with the power outages, who knows when they'll have time to get around to our problem. In the meanwhile, I'll be living in a box (our lease expires on the 30th, and good luck finding anyplace else that will take 2 dogs and 2 cats) and trying to reschedule the 376 different things we had set up based on the anticipated date of the 30th. I suppose I should be thankful a tree didn't fall on the house or something, but given all the other delays we've been waiting through in our dump of a short-term apartment, it's hard to be very graceful about this 11th hour one.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:13 PM

Struggles to transition to modernity

In an earlier post I alluded to what I see as two weaknesses to Paul Berman’s rather abstract, intellectual treatment of the modern crisis in Arab culture which has led to the rise of terrorist ideologies there. The first, simpler weakness is his concentration on only the intellectual plane, and corresponding lack of historical context. While he does a good job tracing out the ideological roots of extremist Islamism, this still doesn’t explain why it has flourished so well in the Middle East.

I would posit that, while the ideas are necessary, they are not in themselves sufficient to explain their popularity. While many thinkers simply point to the economic and cultural failures of the Middle East and make and argument based on pride and culture, I don’t find that completely convincing either. I think the key missing element is a recognition that the Middle East is going through the same difficult transition from a traditional, agricultural society to a modern urban, industrial one that most of the world has already undergone. And almost nowhere has this transition been carried out without strife, bloodshed, and revolution. While there are certainly various unique aspects associated with each, it is easy to look at the civil wars of the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia as variations on this theme of conflict between an old rural society and an emerging urban, industrial capitalistic one. Japan struggled through the same issues and ended up with the warped modernity that led to their invasion of China and entrance into WWII.

In most of these cases, the new society tears down the old forms and the old ways. The traditional way of life that had been followed for generations is displaced by a new one. The family is broken up by migration to the city, leaving the urban proletariat rootless. Before a middle class can arise there are huge wealth disparities, further alienating the masses. And in each case, there have been reactions against what is seen as an evil and destructive force tearing down society, in the generations before a new world has been created to take its place.

The difference is that the new technology of the 20th century allows the radicalized and discontented Arabs to strike back not just at the local gentry and capitalists seen as their tormenters, but across the globe at the heart of the movement that has thrown their society into turmoil. I believe that this economic nostalgia is an undercurrent in all the appeals of Qutb and other Islamist scholars for a return to the Caliphate. It is not so much the explicit religious appeals to the past that drive their popularity, but their implicit economic ones.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:49 PM

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