Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Guitar Blogging

Billy Gibbons.

Narratives Matter

In an uncharacteristically obtuse response to Adam Serwer's article on how the GOP seems intent on unlearning hard-won lessons about the importance of countering extremists narratives, Spencer Ackerman writes:
“Narrative” and “Framing” have always struck me as intelligence-insulting bullshit. The use of euphemism is a flashing light on the road to Error. First off, al-Qaeda fucked itself terminally by — as Adam notes — the thousands of Muslims it kills without pity, mercy or explanation. It was probably fucked from the start: it wants to create a Caliphate that stretches from Spain to Indonesia. I can cite about five different Doctor Doom storylines that are more plausible outcomes for world domination. (One of them involves the Negative Zone.)

But anyway. The U.S. approach to al-Qaeda’s “narrative” should be to point and laugh. I’m serious. Ridicule is a powerful tool, particularly when aimed at conspiracy theorists. I believe in taking al-Qaeda’s capabilities and its plans seriously and its lunacy about the way the world works not even remotely seriously. The only significant aspect of that sort of crap is the fact that among some people it has social currency. That needs to be confronted.

I don't think that "narrative" and "framing" are euphemisms, any more than "negative externalities" is a euphemism for "bad consequences of your choices that you don't have to bear the cost of but others do." I suppose one could to take the position that all social science terms are, to some extent, euphemistic, but I don't really see the point in insisting that everyone write these things out in long hand.

The second graf I totally agree with. But here Spencer basically acknowledges that Al Qaeda's narrative needs to be confronted, through mockery or otherwise. So I'm not sure what the original disagreement is. If it's just a recognition that we shouldn't put as much effort in combating Al Qaeda's narrative as we should in just making sure we don't do things that strengthen it, while leaving space for them to screw themselves, then fine, but that still requires a recognition that narratives matter.

Related, some comments on the state of Al Qaeda's narrative from Steve Coll in his recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

UPDATE: Spencer responds:
Matt Duss defends “narrative” as a useful concept and I don’t really know why. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here, but I really do think actions speak louder than framing.

I don't disagree, but I do think that what speaks even louder than actions are actions placed within an effective narrative frame. We all agree that not kidnapping and torturing Muslims while trying to communicate that we are not at war with all Muslims is far better than kidnapping and torturing Muslims while trying to communicate that we are not at war with all Muslims. But even when we've stopped kidnapping and torturing Muslims, it's still important to try to communicate that we are not at war with all Muslims, because extremists are sure as hell still trying to communicate to all Muslims that we are.

Friday, January 15, 2010

'Team B' Revisionism

I think Yglesias did a good job knocking back David Frum's bizarre claim that the Team B hawks were right about the Soviet threat, but the fact that Frum thinks he can get away with such an assertion helps explain why some conservatives have been calling for a Team B revival, this time "to reassess the threat the U.S. faces from Islamic terrorist networks":
"The Team B concept has been successful in previous administrations when fresh eyes were needed to provide the commander in chief with objective information to make informed policy decisions," Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. wrote in a letter to President Obama on Tuesday. "I believe it can work now, too."

By June 1976, the middle rounds of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had exceeded the U.S. in several key weapons categories, leading an alarmed CIA director, George H.W. Bush, to create "Team B," which included a number of future aides in the Reagan administration. Among them, a young arms control officer named Paul Wolfowitz and a former Pentagon official named William Van Cleave.

"We were all known as the so-called hawkish element of that time, but we let the conclusions stand on their own," Van Cleave told Fox News. [...]

"Team B got it right," said Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and a Defense official in the Reagan administration

This is, to use a political science term, just plain nuts. As Fred Kaplan wrote in 2004, "In retrospect, the Team B report (which has since been declassified) turns out to have been wrong on nearly every point." Or, as Larry Korb wrote, Team B was right about only one thing:
The CIA estimate was indeed flawed. In 1989, the agency published an internal review of the threat assessments from 1974 to 1986. The report concluded that the Soviet threat had been "substantially overestimated" every year. In 1978, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the selection of Team B members yielded a flawed composition of political views and biases. Consequently, the Team B analysis was deemed a gross exaggeration and completely inaccurate.

So the CIA had "substantially overestimated" the Soviet threat. The Team B assessment, on the other hand, was simply a work of science fiction. Or, to be more specific, a work of political advocacy, with the authors deriving conclusions of Soviet capabilities from their own apocalyptic beliefs about the Soviet ideology, and then using those deeply flawed conclusions to justify more defense spending and more foreign policy adventurism. Which is precisely what they would like to do again in regard to the threat of Islamic extremism.

I should also highlight this from Yglesias:
Incidentally, the whole [Team B] report is full of amusing accusations that the CIA has erred in its analysis of the Soviets by engaging in “mirror-imaging”—basically assuming that the Soviet state is prudent and risk-averse—by not recognizing the Russians’ inherent and insatiable thirst for conquest.

In December, I attended a screening of the pro-missile defense documentary "33 Minutes" (which warns of the nuclear missile threat of countries like Iran, which has neither nuclear weapons nor missiles capable of delivering them) hosted by the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. During the post-film discussion, I suggested to FDD president Cliff May that the film had failed to demonstrate either that any nuclear weapons state would be inclined to give away to terrorists a weapon in which it had invested considerable resources and borne considerable international opprobrium to develop, or that a state like Iran would use a nuclear weapon itself, given the huge consequences to a regime that has placed the highest premium in self-preservation.

May responded -- I kid you not -- that unlike during the Cold War, where we were dealing with a rational enemy that could be deterred, it's unclear that the Iranians are likewise rational. Furthermore, May said, there was a real danger of "mirror-imaging," of assuming that our Iranian enemies think like we do.

Just in case you wondered how deep the revisionism goes.

Cross-posted from Wonk Room.

Friday Guitar Blogging

Yes, Jimmy Page. Because I've been mainlining Zeppelin lately.

Monday, January 11, 2010

He's With Us On Everything But The Dusty Antique Orientalism

Responding to Matt Yglesias' response to Marty Peretz's latest bout of Tourette's, Jonathan Chait writes:
[M]y basic view is that the Islamic world today is not unlike the Christian world before the enlightenment (a time, of course, when Islam was more tolerant and advanced than Christendom.) It is a culture where notions of liberalism and religious tolerance are largely foreign -- where even the most liberal mass movement that can be found, the Green movement in Iran, has to make its case in religious terms in order to have any chance at legitimacy. I would not blame the mass of Muslims for al Qaeda's terrorism any more than I'd blame the average medieval Christian for the Crusades. Still, an illiberal, non-secular culture like this is far more capable of producing, or even merely accepting, violence against non-believers qua non-believers.

A lot of liberals have an unfortunate tendency to brand as racist any analysis that holds one culture above another. But there's nothing inherently racial in believing that the illiberal culture that dominates the Muslim world is a key source of the problem, just as it wouldn't be racial make a sweeping indictment of pre-Enlightenment European culture.

First, whatever the unfortunate tendencies of "a lot of liberals", context matters. Marty Peretz is, as he has demonstrated time and again, a racist. Statements asserting the inherent superiority of one culture over another and advocating a "harsh view of Islam", while they may only qualify as regrettably inane when expressed by others, have to be seen in that context.

As to the more general point, there's no question that Islamic faith currently encompasses some deeply objectionable trends. It also encompasses a number of trends that are rigorously and admirably working to elevate human freedom. Asserting a single "Islamic" "world" "culture" is a pretty clear sign that one hasn't really bothered to do the work.

Even understanding that Iran's Green movement makes its case in terms of political rights, why should the fact that the Green movement "has to make its case in religious terms in order to have any chance at legitimacy" count against it? Iran is a fairly deeply religious society, and we shouldn't be surprised that any Iranian political movement should deploy religious themes in making its case.

Such things are not unheard of here in the West:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Also, Pac-Man Totally Turned Me Off Eating Ghosts

I'd like to endorse Spencer's criticisms of David Hajdu's argument that Rock Band will result in the extinction of rock bands, but I can't, because based upon my own experience, I know the article to be accurate.

Specifically, I used to play a lot of Kung Fu Master as a kid, and I'm quite sure that this is what caused me to never learn kung fu. Likewise, hours spent at Contra clearly dissuaded me from joining the special forces to fight aliens in Central America.

UPDATE: More evidence for Hajdu's thesis:

Notice how playing the video game utterly drained the enthusiasm from the normally ebullient J Mascis. I can't imagine the herculean effort it must have taken for him to later pull himself together to put out one of the best albums of 2009.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Unlearning What We've Learned Since 9/11

In the hyper-charged atmosphere following the 9/11 attacks, anyone who suggested that U.S. policies or behavior played any -- any -- part in the spread of extremism was denounced for "blaming America" or "excusing terrorism" or some such. The Terrorists hated us for who we are, we were told, and that was that, and any further attempt to understand the conditions that produced terrorism was strictly for hippies and appeasers.

In the intervening years, though, and especially with the implementation of counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, that view has been largely discredited. Not only is it no longer seen as "excusing terrorism" to try and understand what activates and motivates extremists, or to explore whether and what U.S. policies and behavior have played a part in that, it's seen as necessary for U.S. national security.

In the wake of the failed Christmas attack, though, and the discussion over what motivated Umar Farouk Abdulmutalab to become a violent jihadist, a few neoconservatives seem to have been emboldened to exhume some of this "they only hate us for our freedom" nonsense that so many Americans, Iraqis and others died to debunk over the past years. Sounding this tired note last night on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer scoffed at Al Qaeda's grievances, saying, "These are excuses and not actual grievances":
KRAUTHAMMER: When you hear Gibbs talk about Guantanamo as a recruiting tool, this is what we hear over and over again, I mean it's as if he knows no history at all. The list of grievances that Al Qaeda has is endless and replenishing. [...]

The reason the war is on is because Al-Qaeda hates our way of life, our independence, our tolerance, our respect of women and the threat it poses to the fanatical kind of Islam that they are advocating.

Apparently, General David Petraeus is also one of those who Krauthammer thinks "knows no history at all." Here's what Petraus said about Gitmo last May:
PETRAEUS: Gitmo has caused us problems, there’s no question about it. I oversee a region in which the existence of Gitmo has indeed been used by the enemy against us. We have not been without missteps or mistakes in our activities since 9/11. And again, Gitmo is a lingering reminder for the use of some in that regard.

It's really hard to believe that we even still need to have this debate. The point, again, is not whether Charles Krauthammer buys Al Qaeda's grievances, or whether he thinks that they're merely "excuses," it's whether the next guy that Al Qaeda tries to recruit as a suicide bomber buys them. And it's simply no longer a matter of serious debate that a significant number of potential recruits buys Guantanamo as a grievance.

Then here's Hugh Hewitt and Victor Davis Hanson:

Monday, January 04, 2010

Tales Of The Obtuse

The Weekly Standard's John Noonan might want to think about thinking out loud less:
[W]ould Obama have doubled-down in Afghanistan if Petraeus' Iraq pacification hadn't succeeded beyond expectation? Where would our Afghanistan strategy be if General Petraeus hadn't provided a perfect case-study for effective prosecution of a tough counter-insurgency?

Could Iraq have saved Afghanistan?

Yes, wouldn't be ironic if the triage strategy that was employed to contain the catastrophe created by the Iraq invasion was also employed in Afghanistan to contain the catastrophe created by the Iraq invasion?

The more appropriate question, at least for those interested in avoiding situations where massively costly counterinsurgency efforts are required to salvage incompetently managed wars, is: Where would our Afghanistan strategy be if we hadn't diverted U.S. attention, expertise, and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq in the first place? Would we even have to have one? Would we currently be preparing to triple the number of U.S. troops there in the space of a year?