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Monday, February 28, 2011

Breaking Bad

Since the holilday break in December, I've been watching the first three seasons of "Breaking Bad." Thanks to his naïveté, Walter White, the blue methamphetamine-producing chemistry teacher from Albuquerque played by actor Bryan Cranston, regularly runs afoul of various drug cartels -- including some from across the border.

Thanks to the show's multiple story-lines, the audience knows that White is taking even more life-threatening risks than he knows about. Moreover, his brother-in-law DEA agent also has good reason to exhibit fear.

These drug cartels will stop at nothing to have their way.

In the stack of materials I've meant to blog, I found a December 2009 Atlantic article by Philip Caputo that provides real-life background for the power of the Mexican drug cartels:
Dr. Edgardo Buscaglia, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City and a senior legal and economic adviser to the UN and the World Bank, concluded in a recent report that 17 of Mexico’s 31 states have become virtual narco-republics, where organized crime has infiltrated government, the courts, and the police so extensively that there is almost no way they can be cleaned up. The drug gangs have acquired a “military capacity” that enables them to confront the army on an almost equal footing.

“This in itself does not prove that we are in a situation of a failed state today,” Buscaglia wrote. He seemed to be suggesting that the situation could change tomorrow—and not for the better.
While narco-republics on the southern U.S. border pose a very big problem, Caputo cites experts who believe that Mexico could become a failed state and thus pose an Af-Pak-like security problem::
In the past year, experts like General Barry McCaffrey (the drug czar in the Clinton administration) and political figures have warned that if the cartels are not contained, Mexico could become a failed state and the U.S. could find itself with an Afghanistan or a Pakistan on its southern border. Such forecasts are hyperbole, but the fact is that drug trafficking and its attendant corruption are a malignancy that has spread into Mexico’s lymph system.

** I'm only partway through season 3 -- AMC will run episodes 5 and 6 later this week, which my DVR will record -- as the network prepares to debut season 4 in July.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Small states

Journalist Kirkpatrick Sale recently made an observation that is rarely discussed in IR classes:
...there are 85 countries out of the 195 counted by the United Nations that are under 10,000 square miles—that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller.
I double-checked this claim with the CIA World Factbook and want to note that Sale is exaggerating quite a bit.

By his reckoning, there are only 110 larger countries in the world larger than Vermont.

That claim is just wrong and it is easily disproven.

The CIA uses square kilometers, not square miles, so the first step is a conversion. Let's see -- Vermont is about 25,000 square km.

Macedonia is slightly larger than 25,000 square km and is ranked 149th among states. The 110th largest nation-state is Portugal (92,000 square km), more than three and a half times the size of Macedonia. Vermont's neighboring Maine is the U.S. state that is most similarly sized, though it is just a tiny bit smaller -- by about 400 square km.

Obviously, Portugal is a lot bigger than many smaller European nations:

Vermont is about the size of Belize, while Portugal is bigger than Austria and Jordan and just 1000 km smaller than Hungary.

Neo-Luddite Sale makes an argument he calls "the secession solution," which is a "data-based plan" to limit the size of political units.
I propose that, out of these figures and even more so out of the history of the world, results a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increase in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation.
You can read the rest of the piece to sort through his other claims.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

War frame

According to tricycle, Academy Award winning actor Jeff Bridges "helps fund the End Hunger Network of Los Angeles, dedicated to ending the hunger suffered by 16.7 million American children. On this subject, Bridges said:
“If we discovered that another country was doing this to our children, we would declare war.”
Then again, the U.S. did declare "war on poverty" nearly 50 years ago...

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Crazy World

I've found more evidence supporting my paper on the legitimacy crisis affecting nuclear deterrence strategy. Journalist and MIT Political Science PhD Fred Kaplan quoted William Kaufmann, a special assistant to every Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1981. This is from Kaufmann's obituary in The Washington Post, December 17, 2008:
Reflecting on his career in 1983, Dr. Kaufmann criticized the defense policy world, likening it to a deep pit. "It was easy to get caught up in the whole nuclear business," he told Kaplan. "You could eat and breathe the stuff. . . . Then you move away from it for a while, look at it from a distance and think, 'God that's a crazy world.'"
Kaplan quoted the same words in a piece for Time on September 27, 2010.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Budget Priorities and Foreign Policy

This AP report from February 19 includes a line that adequately summarizes how the Defense Department makes out in the much-publicized new "fiscally conservative" House budget: "The Pentagon would receive a less than 2 percent increase ..."

Tough times, eh?

Foreign aid and other State Department programs, by contrast, could be in for very deep cuts. Hillary Clinton pointed out earlier this week that the House Appropriations Committee had recommended 16% spending cuts for her Department and AID. "Massive" cuts would be in line for humanitarian assistance:
She said the committee's proposed 2011 spending levels for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development will result in a 16 percent reduction from 2010 funding.

"The bill further proposes to cut our humanitarian assistance accounts by 41 percent from 2010 levels," Clinton said.
The Secretary told reporters, "The truth is that cuts of that level will be detrimental to America's national security." She specifically said the U.S. would have to make cuts in programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

About a year ago, Time reported that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was calling for a reordering of American priorities:
To his credit, Gates is mindful that the U.S.'s diplomatic assets pale in comparison to its military power. The Pentagon budget is still $660 billion, compared with State's $51 billion. To audiences, Gates often bemoans the fact that the State Department's foreign-service officers would barely crew one aircraft carrier. "We joke that Gates is the best surrogate for the State Department. He always makes the point that we are underfunded and underresourced," says a Clinton staffer.
Since the end of the cold war, Defense has constituted about half of U.S. discretionary spending.
"Security" discretionary spending is probably closer to 60% of the budget. These numbers are actually a couple of years old, but you get the idea:
These numbers explain why Andrew Bacevich and others think US foreign policy is overly militarized.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Malaria and World Politics

Over the years, I've mentioned malaria on this blog quite a number of times. It is a preventable disease, but also a human security issue (and affront to human dignity). It is responsible for killing almost 900,000 people per year -- and nearly 90% of the victims are children under age 5 (though infection rates have been "halved in nine African countries since 2000"). Scientists say that global warming contributes to the spread of the often-deadly infection.

Despite this prior coverage, I've never before noted the political history of malaria. Time had an excellent report in the June 21, 2010 issue:
The history of malaria is a long one. Originating in West Africa, it spread to half of humankind by the mid–19th century and has killed tens of millions and infected hundreds of millions more, including eight American Presidents. Malaria played a role in stopping Alexander the Great in India. It contributed to the fall of Rome, the relocation of the Vatican and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
In short, historically, great powers have not been immune to this disease.

Alex Perry, the author of the Time story, notes that the U.S. and other affluent countries have contributed billions to fighting malaria over the past half-decade. However, "bad government" commonly leads to failure in particular states.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Matthew Hoh in Louisville

Wednesday, Matthew Hoh was in town speaking to the Louisville Committee on Foreign Relations. A former marine, Hoh attained a measure of fame in September 2009 for becoming the first U.S. official to resign a policy position in response to America's Afghanistan policy. Hoh had been serving as the top civilian official from the State Department in Kabul Province.

LCFR events have long been "off the record," but Hoh didn't really talk about anything that hasn't been reflected in his public remarks and interviews.

Perhaps most importantly, Hoh talked about the publicly available findings of the Afghanistan Study Group, which in August 2010 produced A New Way Forward, Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan (pdf). Hoh served as the group's Director.

Prominent signatories (group members, presumably) include thinkers from across the political spectrum -- from noted peace studies scholar David Cortright, progressive economist James K. Galbraith, and historian/blogger Juan Cole to conservative journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave. A number of realist IR theorists are also on board, including Michael Desch, Bob Jervis, Bob Pape, Barry Posen, and Steve Walt.

As Hoh emphasized in Louisville, the report concludes with a 5 point plan:
1) Emphasize Power-Sharing and Political Reconciliation.
2) Scale Back and Eventually Suspend Combat Operations in the South and Reduce the U.S. Military Footprint
3) Keep the Focus on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security.
4) Promote Economic Development.
5) Engage Global and Regional Stakeholders.
Read the report to learn more about the Group's diagnosis of why America's strategy in Afghanistan is flawed -- and for more detail about these recommendations. I found the entire argument quite similar to my long-time and persistent criticism of the Iraq war. US troops make good targets and are viewed as foreign occupiers by much of the population. The insurgency gains by the US presence -- and none of the on-the-ground fighting has anything to do with the effort to prevent terrorist attacks against western targets since those are planned and executed by a loose network of individuals far from the battlegrounds.

I sat at Hoh's table at lunch and we talked briefly about his experiences in the 18 months since he resigned. My hand was still raised when the meeting adjourned, so I didn't get to ask a final question:

Just how seriously is official Washington taking the Afghan Study Group's recommendations?

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Class warfare?

In the January/February Atlantic, business journalist Chrystia Freeland wrote about the rise of the global "super-elite":
Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.
Thanks to "free trade" and the information revolution, tremendous gains in productivity have mainly served to concentrate wealth -- reflected in skyrocketing executive pay and Wall Street bonuses, for example.

The rest of us have not done as well:
the vast majority of U.S. workers, however devoted and skilled at their jobs, have missed out on the windfalls of this winner-take-most economy—or worse, found their savings, employers, or professions ravaged by the same forces that have enriched the plutocratic elite. The result of these divergent trends is a jaw-dropping surge in U.S. income inequality. According to the economists Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley and Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the United States went to the top 1 percent of the population.
I've blogged before about income inequality in the US, and of course "two Americas" was a major theme of John Edwards in his campaigns for the presidency, but Freeland closes with a warning about open class warfare that few analysts have offered:
The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn’t modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda—that, for instance, middle-class Americans could conclude that the world economy isn’t working for them and decide that protectionism or truly punitive taxation is preferable to incremental measures such as the eventual repeal of the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts....The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world. Let us hope the plutocrats aren’t already too isolated to recognize this.
Maybe it's time to reread Sinclair Lewis.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Hotstove 2011

As baseball season slowly approaches, I've been looking through the 2011 Bill James Handbook. Consider these oddities just from the letter G:

Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzales (Cargo) hit 26 of his 34 homers in Coors Field.

By contrast, new Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been a power monster on the road for several seasons.

Cleveland infielder Mark Grudzielanek was 30 for 110 last year, but had ZERO extra base hits. That means his batting average and slugging percentage both weighed in at .273.

It seems less-and-less likely that either Alex Gordon or Zack Greinke is going to help "fix" the KC Royals franchise. Gordon's major league career has clearly stalled (despite another good season at AAA) and Greinke was traded to Milwaukee. Rany Jazayerli says the trade was OK, but I'm not going to let my imagination run away with me.

Incidentally, back in late 1994 and early 1995, I worked briefly with Rany to write Royals comments for the on-line DTs -- precursor to Baseball Prospectus.

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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Duck calls

Over the past month, at the Duck of Minerva group IR blog, I posted these articles:

February 4: "F for the Professor?" about a recently published study concluding that one-third of college students do not "demonstrate any significant improvement" in learning after four years of college. Faculty are partly at fault for failing to make their classes rigorous -- and for inflating grades.

January 31: "Explosive Pakistan" explores the implications of mass uprising in Pakistan. For instance, could the U.S. "drop in and take their nukes," as Islamabad's government apparently fears?

January 22: "The 'drug war'is over?" Though some Obama administration officials are abandoning that framework for anti-drug efforts, I'm somewhat skeptical that the change will mean much in practice.

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

IR and Poker

I'm teaching neorealist theory in my master's IR seminar tonight and came across this passage from John Mearsheimer's 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics:
...the historical record shows that offense sometimes succeeds and sometimes does not. The trick for a sophisticated power maximizer is to figure out when to raise and when to fold."
Maybe I'll try to collect a number of references to poker (and perhaps other games) by IR theorists.

As readers may recall, for some time, I've been interested in narratives, metaphors and analogies.

Also, I've long argued that IR scholars should get together at an Annual ISA convention and play some Hold 'em.

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