Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

How to Win at Art

In Empires of the Mind on September 30, 2009 at 7:37 pm

I’ve been using his “Android Brain-Animal Brain” idea a lot recently, so I thought I’d link to this genius series of articles on how to “score” art by Ken Arneson.  He postulates that language is the way our android brains, the conscious, reflective part of our brain, communicates, but that our animal brain, that is our evolved animal instincts, uses art to communicate.  Our animal brain uses pattern recognition in art to form associative memories that are the currency of creativity.  Good art forms lots of memories, bad art forms none.  The best art avoids habituation (the recognition of familiarity that allows us to ignore reoccurring patterns as unimportant so we aren’t distracted from keeping a watchful eye out for new stuff that might be important to our survival) and cliche even upon repeat viewings.

Beyond art, that struggle between our animal and android brains seems pretty right on in my everyday life.  Life is the attempt to train our animal brain to shape its powerful tactics into the service of our long term android strategies.


Somewhere Kurzweil is Smiling

In Empires of the Mind on September 29, 2009 at 3:49 pm

The world’s oldest man only eats two meals a day and says: “”I think you should push back from the table when you’re still hungry.”  I was immediately reminded of perhaps the most important futurist in America, Raymond Kurzweil, who engages in caloric restriction (among many, many other things) in an effort to live long enough to live forever by utilizing still undeveloped scientific advances (if push comes to shove he’s going to be cryogenically frozen so he can be revived at a later date).  Meanwhile, I wonder if it’s worth living forever if you can’t live to excess on occasion.  As Julia Child said: “All things in moderation, including moderation.”

Why they call him Attackerman

In General Principles on September 28, 2009 at 4:54 pm

In shades of the derisive “Juice-Box Mafia” tag slapped on Jewish writers critical of Israel in the wake of the invasion of Gaza, Michael Gerson criticizes Ezra Klein for taking the dangers of antisemitism lightly:

One part of Klein’s post is particularly illuminating. He finds it amusing to belittle the threat of a hypothetical someone he calls “jewhater429, the 97th entrant in a comment thread” — just a few months after an Internet-based Jew hater entered the Holocaust Museum with a gun and killed an African-American guard. Some people have the oddest sense of humor.

Spencer Ackerman then rips into Gerson for having the temerity to accuse a Jewish writer of being insufficiently concerned with antisemitism:

I don’t know what lack of self-awareness convinces right-wing evangelicals that they’re the true guardians of the Jews, but that condescending and parochial nonsense is its own form of antisemitism. We Tribesmen do not need some wire-rimmed enabler of one of the most destructive and inept presidents in American history to protect us from the perfidies of the world. It’s us and not him who will pay the price for antisemitism, so if Gerson wants to actually act like a righteous gentile, he can start by not accusing Jews of apathy to their own people’s wellbeing for the sin of not sharing his politics.

Um burn.  I agree with Ackerman and Klein in this issue specifically, and more generally I just wish that those bigotry trump cards were played more carefully.  I get that antisemitism and racism are intolerable, but when the left finds hidden racism behind every idiotic Obama criticism or when the right construes any criticism of Israel as antisemitism then the real specter of bigotry is weakened.  Limbaugh and Drudge engaged in real, ugly race baiting, but because of Jimmy Carter, when that legitimate example of racism is pointed out, it just seems like the left is “playing the race card” again.

Reality Based Conservative Commentary

In General Principles on September 24, 2009 at 1:06 am

As I mentioned before, I don’t know if I’m in any position to be giving Republican’s advice, but Heather MacDonald is a Conservative, and her criticism is trenchant.

We are not moving from pure capitalism to pure socialism, we are moving from an already highly regulated, corporate- and individual-welfare-saturated economy to an even more regulated and redistributed economy.  (And we didn’t get to our welfare-saturated state without popular support for trying to minimize risk, however unwisely.)  The difference is one of degree, not of kind, which is not to say that we couldn’t easily reach a tipping point where differences in degree become paradigm-shifting.  Conservative commentators are right to warn about the consequences of our present course, I just wish they did so with a little less recourse to Manichean, conspiratorial, or absurd rhetoric.

I can see the counter argument to Obama’s policies, I’m just not hearing it from the right.

hat tip: Andrew Sullivan

Drug Danger Visually

In Specific Facts on September 24, 2009 at 12:51 am

I can’t read the article that accompanies this graph, but the graph alone is pretty interesting.  Unfortunately, without the methodology from the article, you can’t see why amphetamines (which I assume includes meth) are rated as less dangerous than cocaine.  A more serious criticism would be that dependence is a lot less important than physical harm.  For example, a huge chunk of the population is dependent on caffeine, but there is so little physical harm that it has a net positive affect on society.  I suppose the counter point would be that without habitual use physical harm is minimized.

The Other Side of Bill Clinton

In Specific Facts on September 23, 2009 at 1:18 am

I haven’t picked up The Clinton Tapes yet, and odds are I won’t ever because 600+ pages is a lot, but this interview with the book’s author (who’s known the Clintons since the early 70’s), Taylor Branch, speaks to a reality more complex than the standard portrait of a greatly talented man whose flaws nearly undid him.  While his reputation for obfuscation makes me wonder if anyone can really find the objective truth about him, many of the details are fascinating.  This one in particular is really upsets the applecart of my perceptions (even if it’s a little tawdry):

It was interesting to read your descriptions of Bill and Hillary. Halfway through the impeachment trial, the doorman at the White House refused to let you in because they were making out in a hallway.
Well, that only happened once. I don’t know if their relationship is romantic, but it’s not cold… there’s warmth there. There’s communion. They would hold hands. How much eroticism is in there, I have no idea. But it was striking.

Fear Profiteering

In Specific Facts on September 23, 2009 at 12:38 am

Time’s feature on Glenn Beck suggests he is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the Obama paranoia cottage-industry (other than Winchester and Smith & Weston).  While one should always be wary of enemies with advice, and I’m no friend to Republicans, hitching your wagon to that star doesn’t seem to be a long term strategy.  What are people going to do when they realize that Obama isn’t the anti-Christ?  Or perhaps I’m being too charitable.  Some of these people might not ever figure that out.  Still, if I was a Republican, I’d be looking at this graph and rethinking the focus on tactics at the expense of strategy.

If you really want to learn more about Beck, Salon has an article about “The 5,000 Year Leap,” Glenn Beck’s required reading, and W. Cleon Skousen, its John Birch Society author.

Water Crisis in Yemen

In Specific Facts on September 22, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I’ve been reading Marc Reisner’s excellent Cadillac Desert, about water development in the American West, so this interview on the CNAS National Security blog about how water shortages in Yemen are raising concerns about the failure of the state struck a chord.

 Rogers: In what ways are you seeing rogue groups in Yemen use this extreme resource scarcity to their advantage?  

Johnsen: Well it’s one of those things I think that’s affecting a lot of – a lot of different groups. So most recently we saw very severe water crisis in Aden just a couple of weeks ago. Ta’izz is an area that’s been particularly hard hit by this. What it is is it’s almost – it’s eroding the legitimacy of the government. So the government is increasingly unable to provide services to many of its citizens. So when the water is not turned on in places like Ta’izz or places like Aden or in the southern governorate of Abyan which has been a hotbed of rising calls for secession recently, then these individuals are turning to neighborhood sheikhs or tribal leaders who are able to purchase water from private companies and then provide the service that the government is just at this point either incapable or unwilling of providing.

In a fundamental way, a government that cannot guarantee basic services ceases to be a state, and has to compete with other possible governments.  This is born out in Afghanistan where the Taliban is seen as less corruptible and more capable of governance than the kleptocrats in Kabul.  Schools, electricity, water, honest police, et al. not only give the populous something to protect from terrorists but demonstrate legitimacy.  Our failure to build up infrastructure in Iraq or Afghanistan after the invasions demonstrated that we weren’t serious in our commitments to the citizens of those countries, and so they looked for alternatives- al-Qaeda proved to be much, much worse, so the Sunni turned against them, but the Taliban is making a better case in Pashtunistan.  Meanwhile, Yemen is lurking as the next al-Qaeda powerhouse franchise.

More on Yemen’s problems from Greg Johnsen here.

Can We Win in Afghanistan?

In Specific Facts on September 4, 2009 at 3:13 pm

President Obama’s campaign focus on Afghanistan as the just war we must win has had results. Not necessarily in Afghanistan, where things seem worse than ever, but in the press, where Afghanistan is the focus of increased scrutiny. Policy proscriptions are mixed. The Economist forcefully argues for staying the course:

The cost to NATO countries is immediately apparent: tens of billions of dollars and the lives of more than 1,200 soldiers. The cost of leaving is harder to measure but is probably larger: the return of the Taliban to power; an Afghan civil war; the utter destabilisation of nuclear-armed Pakistan; the restoration of al-Qaeda’s Afghan haven; the emboldening of every jihadist in the world; and the weakening of the West’s friends.


I.  The Goals

Our investment of blood and treasure would seem worth it to prevent that grim dystopian future, however, it is easy to combat straw men. We do not have to choose between abject failure and our huge present commitment, indeed I haven’t read anyone who is advocating abandoning Afghanistan. Rather, many reasonable people are starting to wonder if a larger military presence is the the best way to achieve our goals and what exactly are the priorities of the mission.

Rory Stewart lays out the contradiction of conflating a specific goal, counter-terrorism, with a grand method, nation building, in an essential essay:

Policymakers perceive Afghanistan through the categories of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, state-building and economic development. These categories are so closely linked that you can put them in almost any sequence or combination. You need to defeat the Taliban to build a state and you need to build a state to defeat the Taliban. There cannot be security without development, or development without security.

The question at some point becomes: do we have an obligation to Afghanistan to create a stable state, or do only have the right and responsibility to ensure our own security? If it is the former, and David Kilcullen argues that we have a moral obligation to Afghanistan on Fareed Zakaria’s last show, then the strategy being pursued now at least is consistent with our goals. However, it seems unlikely that the American public, or the European and Canadian publics, have any interest in building a stable Afghanstan for its own sake. “You broke it, you buy it” held true in Iraq, where we did not have international legitimacy for our war and thousands were dying weekly, but Afghanistan was a war of necessity. As we close in on the length of time that the Soviet Union spent there, perhaps it is time to find a new way forward.

Foreign Affairs‘s cover story this issue as about one important strategy: paying the Taliban to switch sides in the war. The U.S. is already working to prevent Taliban recruitment through prison reform, so a non-standard approach to weakening the insurgency is not without president. Andrew Bacevich made the similar point on Fareed Zakaria’s program, that the Iraqi surge strategy is being copied in Afghanistan, only without the key component of co-opting the hostile populations. It is odd that Obama, who always downplayed John McCain’s support for the surge by pointing to the importance of the Sunni Awakening, would then implement a strategy in Afghanistan that ignored that key element. Afghanistan has a long history of commanders changing sides in order to ensure that they end up with the winners, in fact the fall of the government that led to the Taliban rise to power was only accomplished when an Afgan General, Abdul Dostam, defected to the mujahideen. It is much, much cheaper to pay forces to switch sides (approximately $30 million dollars a month, ~400 million a year, according to Foreign Affairs) than to create the 450,000 strong police force that U.S. Generals advocate (which would cost eight to ten times as much at 2 to 3 billion a year, from Stewart). Plus, it is a strategy that kills two birds with one stone since the warlords are paid to secure their areas against terrorists rather than having to pay an army to attack the warlords.

It should also be examined whether the Taliban poses a credible threat to the country at large, and whether anything like 90,000 troops is necessary to prevent their return to power. Could half that number do the job? Could even far less, primarily consisting of intelligence officers and special forces, prevent Al-Queda from ever setting up a base in Afghanistan?

Rory Stewart lays out the point succinctly:

The presence of Nato special forces, the challenging logistical and political conditions in Afghanistan and lack of technological capacity, are likely to impede al-Qaeda in Afghanistan from posing a significant threat to UK or US national security. Instead development in South Asia should remain the key strategic priority for the UK government in the region.

In a world with limited resources and seemingly unlimited problems, it is unnecessary, and perhaps impossible, to “win” in Afghanistan. It is an extremely poor country, with very little history of central government, that has never been occupied to any foreign country’s gain. We should provide generous amounts of developmental aid to Afghanistan, because we will get a good return on our investment, and never completely leave it to its own devices again, but much beyond that is foolish to the point of immorality.


II.  The Goals, Pt. 2

The article that prompted my post, Rory Stewart’s article for the LRB, has been followed up with him making this comparison about advising Obama administration officials on Afghanistan:

It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says …

Clearly Stewart is not one to mince words, but the hue and cry has obviously reached the ears of senior officials, as Richard Holbrook, Obama’s senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan – the filet of foreign policy assignments – held an event at the Center for American Progress to reassure everyone they knew what they were doing. He brought along deputies responsible for various civil development activities like agriculture to give presentations on strategies for development to demonstrate the breadth of the program. Yet, the quote that will be the highlight of the night is his definition for success in Afghanistan: “I’ll know it when I see it.” It is hard to understand how the senior administration official for the most important administration foreign priority can not explain what exactly they are looking to accomplish.

I think an argument could be made for a relatively brief offensive that pushes the Taliban back on their heels, especially until after the upcoming elections, and we should undoubtedly be doing more development (after all, the GDP of Afghanistan is $12.5 billion, but our annual military expenditures there are $65 billion). However, it seems that the strategy is to increase troop levels to turn the situation around to convince Congress that we should stay long term. So if we succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan, then our prize is we get to stay there?

Unlike Iraq, which for all of its difficulties is a fairly modern country with huge amounts of oil, Afghanistan has nothing, has never had anything and is nicknamed: “The Graveyard of Empires.” Why would we want to be there long term?

If the mission is counter-terrorism then bribery would be cheaper, special forces would be as effective, and either way our counter-insurgency state building is operating where Al-Queda was, not where it is. As Marc Lynch points out, there are “a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world?”

I know that Obama officials know far more about the region than I do, but I’d like to see someone explain to me why we have to be there long term? (Though I do recommend reading intelligent people debate the subject for Abu Muqawama).


III.  The Goals, Pt. 3

I have laid out my strong opinion that the war in Afghanistan is of less strategic importance than the Obama administration investment of resources would indicate.  While I still feel that it is not in the long term strategic interests of the United States to have a significant presence in Afghanistan, and the possibility of failure is very real, I have begun to wonder if most of the claims about Afghanistan are normative rather than positive.  In other words, whether or not we should be in Afghanistan is secondary to what is the best way forward given our commitments and obligations.

For example, I am dubious about the wisdom of sending additional troops to Afghanistan and believe that a strategy that focuses on counterterrorism instead of counterinsurgency would satisfy our appropriately limited goals; a much smaller committment of forces consisting primarily of intelligence and special forces could no doubt keep al-Qaeda from ever reconstituting itself in Afghanistan.  However, President Obama was elected on a promise of an increased focus on Afghanistan, including more troops, so if he did the opposite it would be seen as both dishonest and defeatist.  Reframing the war so that having less troops there, even if there is still violent unrest in Afghanistan, is seen as success instead of failure will take time and careful communication.  While I am skeptical of any justification for additional resources founded on avoiding the appearence of losing, which is the strategic equivalent of a dog chasing its tail, it seems clear that it is better to leave victorious than with your tail between your legs. Thus, giving the new administration the time necessary to fully implement its new strategy is warranted.

That said, I think the communication on the war should focus less on new tactics, as crucial as they may be, and begin to explain exactly what our goals are.  That the administration has not been able to do so already is the source of much concern, but it is also an opportunity; because only tactical changes have been clearly defined as yet, drastically limiting the goals will not seem like settling for defeat.  So what should the goals of the war in Afghanistan be?

The most important goal of the war has already largely been successful, namely the removal of al-Queda from Afghanistan.  However, any acclaim for accomplishing the initial primary goal of the war in Afghanistan was lost, as al-Qaeda was allowed to retrench on the other side of the Pakistani border while NATO continued to fight and die in Afghanistan against the Taliban.  I think a primary strategic objective is to no longer treat the Taliban as the main enemy in Afghanistan, even if that is who we are fighting.  The Taliban are a significant segment of the Afghan citizenry, they ran the entire country for a decade, and still run more effective local governments than Kabul does.  Thus, they are not a military enemy that can be defeated but a hostile population that must be fragmented, placated and won over.

I’m not suggesting that it will be easy to split the Taliban from al-Qaeda.  In fact most reports suggest that their alliance is closer than ever, but it should be vigorously attempted.  Bribery might be very effective to that end, but fundamentally the problem stems from viewing the Taliban as a unified threat, rather than as an alliance of convenience among many disparate regional warlords.  Some of them would certainly be receptive to changing sides on the right terms, and even if that was not the case, attempting to defeat all of the warlords in Pashtunistan militarily is a fool’s errand – they don’t call it the “graveyard of empires” for nothing.  Refocusing the war as primarily about al-Qaeda instead of about the Taliban allows even the possibility of leaving successfully.

Not fighting the Taliban, or even in some cases allying with them is distasteful both because they have been killing innocents and NATO troops and because their political views are frankly disgusting from a Western point of view.  However, we do not have the right or ability to impose our Western point of view on the least developed countries in the world and the attempt will result in bitter failure –homosexuals are still executed in Iraq after all.  Asking for some basic compromises on their punitive sharia laws, like allowing female students, should be a prerequisite for Taliban warlords to start collecting American paychecks, but in the end Afghanistan is still going to look a lot like Afghanistan.  Which is fine, because Afghanistan is not an immediate threat to us.

The initial goal of the war has been sucessfully executed, however, in the course of conducting the war a new perhaps far more pressing threat has emerged.  Afghanistan is strategically unimportant in and of itself (apart of course from the tens of thousands of NATO troops there), but it borders some of the most strategically important areas of the world.  It shares a long border with Pakistan to the South, Iran to the West, and Russian client Central Asian countries to the North, reaches out to China to the East and shares a border with disputed Pakistani-Indian-Chinese Kashmir.  These are countries of crucial importance, Pakistan and Iran especially are the biggest trouble spots that the U.S. hasn’t already invaded.  Preventing Afghanistan from playing regional trouble maker should be the remaining goal of NATO’s mission there.

The most publized problem caused by Afghanistan, for good reason, is the destabilization of Pakistan due to the cross border war with the Taliban and the relocation of al-Qaeda there.  It is unlikely that Pakistan would ever fall to the Taliban, but (correct me if I’m wrong) this is the first time a nuclear power has had to fight on it’s own contiguous soil.  The nuclear peace theory still holds because it is not an invasion, but it is still shocking.  A good argument could be made that our presence there has much to do with Pakistan’s current predicament, but what effect our leaving would have on Pakistan is unknown and could be dire.  Perhaps leaving would envigorate the Taliban and allow them to reverse their current strike in Afghanistan, refuge in Pakistan strategy and successfully fight the war in Pakistan from Afghanistan.  I am skeptical that the Taliban could ever retake all of Afghanistan.  NATO could probably prevent it immediately just from the air with the support of the non-Pashtun population of Afghanistan, but their conquest of all of “Pashtunistan” and holding it would seem probable.  The U.S. should make it a priority to both support Pakistan in its fight against the Taliban, and by attempting to co-opt the Taliban in Afghanistan, take pressure off the border.

The threat of Taliban controlled nukes is generally overblown, but perhaps a greater threat that is drastically underreported is effect of the war in Afghanistan on Indian-Pakistani relations.  Josh Foust points out how the two are related and goes even further by suggesting that Pakistan actually benefits from having the Taliban around:

Pakistan has not lost its fundamental strategic rationale for supporting the original Taliban: a hedge against Iran, “strategic depth” against India, and a training ground for Kashmiri insurgents. In fact, it could be easily argued that a big reason Kashmir has calmed down is that all the crazies were too busy fighting in Miram Shah and Kandahar and Khost and Ghazni to go plant bombs in Srinagar.

It seems incredible that most of the Pakistani military is still massed at the Indian border, even while there is a hostile force taking provinces in the country; but, the India-Pakistan conflict is every bit as intractible as Israel-Palestine, only both sides have nukes.  Any withdrawal from Afghanistan will have to be accomplished in such a way that it does not enflame that conflict.

On the other hand, our continued presence in Afghanistan does present us with one interesting opportunity: to use a common purpose to soften relations with Iran.  After 9/11 Iran was actually crucial in pacifying Western Afghanistan, a role that it has traditionally played and has a continuing interest in.  It is unfortunate that the U.S. has few overlapping interests with a country it needs dramatic concessions from.  Allowing Iran to participate constructively in Afghanistan could allow Tehran to productively excercise its long sought after regional influence, while opening lines of communication between our two governments.

So the two objectives of our continued fight in Afghanistan could be summed up as: prevent it from ever becoming a terrorist safe haven again, while also ensuring that whatever internal conflict it has does not spillover into the surrounding areas.  Strongly communicating the success of the first objective might allow leeway to only partially succeed on the far more complicated second.  If the war was sold on those terms it would be far easier to stomach, instead of conflating impossible short-term tactical goals (stability, democracy, economic growth) with strategic ends.