Friday, October 17, 2014

No Arming The Syrian Rebels Wouldn’t Have Fixed Everything

One of the more annoying threads in Washington foreign policy punditry as of late focuses on the idea that if Obama had only intervened in the Syrian Civil War earlier, everything would be okay. Former Iraq hawks like Jeffrey Goldberg and Peter Beinart are great examples of this, but you see it all over the place.

To be sure they are completely wrong. Marc Lynch recently pointed out in a great post on The Monkey Cage blog that the political science research is pretty conclusive that American intervention was highly unlikely to have made much of difference. Let alone replace the monstrous regimes of Assad and ISIS with a pleasant democracy.

And that’s just the beginning. As one expert put it on a War On The Rocks podcast, the whole idea of turning the Free Syrian Army into so guardian of liberal democracy was insane because it is, “neither free, nor Syrian, nor an Army.” Meanwhile the “moderate” rebels we were supposed to support are often Islamic extremists that just aren’t as extreme as ISIS or groups that styled themselves as western democrats but oftentimes cooperate with Islamic extremists. Oh and also the aid that was advocated was always pretty small compared to the mass quantities of money and weapons that have poured into Syria in the last three years from Russia, Iran, and the gulf.

Plus nobody ever talked about giving the Syrian rebels the types of weapons they’d need to really turn the tide of battle, that is sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. And rightly so! You’d have to be insane, or possibly work for the Heritage Foundation, to advocate sending stinger missiles to Islamic extremists who style themselves as democrats to Jeff Goldberg.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice article in The New York Times detailing a secret CIA report that outlined how poorly our attempts to arm various rebels have gone since the end of World War II:
The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.
So yes, arming the Syrian rebels wouldn’t have fixed everything back when, and arming them now probably won’t either. Which isn’t to say Obama “was right” back then or is "wrong" now. Rather it’s to say that the Hawks that dominate foreign policy debates in our country don’t know what they are talking about.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Feminism Post

(Warning, mansplaining ahead.)

I consider myself to be a student of politics and social movements. It's something I enjoy learning, thinking, and writing about and one thread of that I've been following recently is the on going battles inside the feminist movement over what feminism should mean and how it should go about trying to influence the world we live in.

I should probably state up front that while I'm sympathetic with the ideas that feminism espouses and it's goals, indeed I basically agree with them, I certainly don't consider myself a feminist and probably never will. If only because it seems to me that at least some feminists don't really want men to be part of their movement. And that's fine, to each her own (look at what I just did there! See feminists, I'm not totally awful!) This raise the interesting question of why some people want to be part of a social movement that doesn't seem to want them. But it also raises, for me at least, the bigger question of why a movement would decided to exclude 49 or so percent of the world's population up front from being part of the team.

Which brings me to the main point I want to make in this piece: feminism the social movement may be in the service of noble ideals and worthy goals, but it often uses methods that seem counterproductive, or at least may be questionable.

Recently The Guardian published a piece that seemed like a checklist of these sort of choices by Roxane Gay. Simply put Gay doesn't like the fact that the wrong people, that is to say celebrities, are also climbing on board the feminist bandwagon:
But it irks me that we more easily embrace feminism and feminist messages when delivered in the right package – one that generally includes youth, a particular kind of beauty, fame and/or self-deprecating humour. It frustrates me that the very idea of women enjoying the same inalienable rights as men is so unappealing that we require – even demand – that the person asking for these rights must embody the standards we’re supposedly trying to challenge. That we require brand ambassadors and celebrity endorsements to make the world a more equitable place is infuriating.
There's no nice way to say this, so let me just say it and if you'd like to call me a sexist jerk in the comments section feel free to: yes the world is filled with unfairness and awfulness of every kind. And yes the methods, compromises, and work necessary to enact social change can be infuriating. None the less, this is how social change works and this is the path your have chosen to take.

So yeah it's fine to be irked and infuriated and whatever by these sorts of things, but that's just part of the game. It's not clear to me about pointing these things out is going to help anyone. Gay goes on to explain the real problem with feminism, (after quoting none other than Taylor Swift, is she the type of feminist we're looking for? It's also not clear, but anyway):
This is the real problem feminism faces. Too many people are willfully ignorant about what the word means and what the movement aims to achieve. But when a pretty young woman has something to say about feminism, all of a sudden, that broad ignorance disappears or is set aside because, at last, we have a more tolerable voice proclaiming the very messages feminism has been trying to impart for so damn long.
Again, this is something I'd agree with, feminism has consistently been painted by powerful forces in a negative light since basically forever. But at the same time it's remarkable that Gay refuses to even contemplate feminists own agency in terms of why so many people might have negative opinions about it as a social movement. Or why the fact that the public is more open to the moderate and welcoming language that Swift deploys than language about why you, yes you, are "privileged".

Yes it's true that lots of people don't really know anything about feminism or feminist thought, but that's because lots of people don't pay attention to politics at all. Lots of people don't even follow what Congress is up to let alone open a JSTOR account and start pouring through articles about intersectionality. This isn't because they are bad people, rather it's because they are people. They live busy lives, they find academic writing (and people who use that style in blogs and articles) difficult if not impossible to access, and they are too occupied by the problems in their own life to add 50,000 years of men doing horrible things to women to the pile.

I'm not a stranger to these sorts of political problems. Reading about monetary policy and the Federal Reserve has really changed my opinion about economic policy, and in some ways politics in general, quite a bit. It turns out things like interests rates set by some obscure group called the Federal Open Market Committee influences how the economy is doing more than Congress passing some law or the President giving some speech. Which in turn influences things like who gets to be president. So yeah, it irks me that the media treats the Fed and monetary policy as some sort of technocratic topic that no normal person could possibly understand, it's infuriating that President Obama has been so slow at nominating people to be put on the Fed's board of governors, and I wish people weren't so "willfully ignorant" about monetary policy. But at the same time I am willing to allow that liberals and progressives and all us social-justicy-commies have done a terrible job of explaining these topics to people. Indeed liberals and progressives basically ignore them, instead we write lots of articles about celebrities.

Maybe part, just part, of the reason so many of the unwashed masses are "willfully ignorant" about feminist ideas is that feminists, like liberals who care about the economy, haven't been doing a very good job of explaining their ideas. I'm not a huge fan of Freddie deBoer, but he did write an excellent piece about how a lot of what he calls "online social liberalism" might be a bit off putting those of us who haven't been initiated into the higher mysteries of the faith:
If you are a young person who is still malleable and subject to having your mind changed, and you decide to engage with socially liberal politics online, what are you going to learn immediately? Everything that you like is problematic. Every musician you like is misogynist. Every movie you like is secretly racist. Every cherished public figure has some deeply disqualifying characteristics. All of your victories are the product of privilege. Everyone you know and love who does not yet speak with the specialized vocabulary of today’s social justice movement is a bad, bad person. That is no way to build a broader coalition, which we desperately need if we’re going to win.
This is an exaggeration, but is he really that far off? After all Gay tells us about, "...the all-too-often sexist music we listen to and the movies we watch that tell women’s stories horribly (if at all)..."

The interesting question for me is if these forms of communication make any sense in terms of building an effective social movement? It's true that historical and social factors can have profound impacts on our life outcomes, but does it make sense to tell people they are "privileged", even if they find that insulting? Especially when the whole thing can seem like a "personal insult posing as a social critique"? Are you going to convenience them to help you advance your goals or just make them mad? This is not mere cant, from my personal experience if you tell a tenured professor about how they are privileged because they basically have guaranteed employment for life they start ranting about how hard they worked to get here and how the deserve it.

That is they sounds like a CEO at a fundraiser for Mitt Romney.

Does it make sense to tell people who might disagree with you that they need to educate themselves before they can voice an opinion? Maybe, but maybe those people read some books about this stuff in college and still might write a blog post disagreeing with you. Does it really make sense to try and change culture by attacking TV shows and movies as being morally wrong and warping people's minds, like some people of a different political stripe did long ago? Or might a better strategy be to go out and make your own movies via a kickstarter that gives you the ability to tell stories, like a neo-noir set in backwoods Virgina, that Hollywood would never make in the first place?

I of course don't have the answers to these questions. And that's because nobody does. Social movements ultimately make their own choices and determine their own fates. That is to say they have the agency they chose to exercise and the purposes they chose to give to themselves. For all I know these strategies might be working, and leading to a better world. But it is still an interesting thing for me to watch. Personally I think when lefties focus on internal power struggles it doesn't go well, and might even strengthen the hand of their opponents. But then again that's just me.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Some Thoughts About ISIS

Or ISIL or IS or whatever you want to call it. A lot of other smart people out there can talk about this sort of stuff in a far more informed manner than me, but I still have some thoughts so lets go bullet point style:
  • ISIS may seem to be in the military ascendency now, but that's largely because it's opponents on the ground are either unwilling (like Asad's regime in Damascus) or unable (like the Iraqi Government) to confront them. They failed to take Baghdad, and can't overrun Erbil (in no small part due to American air power) and so they've kind of reached their limit.
  • They are basically screwed externally. Yes ISIS is a monster, from selling prepubescent girls into sexual slavery to massacring religious minorities to massacring everyone else they are like something out of a Clive Barker novel. But at the same time step back and look at a map. They are a landlocked wannabe state surrounded by enemies. They are armed to the teeth for now because of looting Syrian and later Iraqi military bases, but they have no means of resupply for the things like tanks, APCs, and artillery that have given them an edge so far. Every vehicle they lose is one they can't replace, especially now that Turkey has bellied up to the bar and is willing to confront this Frankenstein.
  • Al-Qaeda is old news. According to some news reports I've read even the Bin-Laden Boys think ISIS is behaving in an immoral fashion. It shouldn't surprise us, after all Albert Spear was all for the Nazi Party, but when Hitler ordered him to destroy Germany because the Master Race hadn't lived up Hitler's expectations, well Spear balked at that. Hopefully this means Al-Qaeda will just sort of fade away, as ISIS is the new ticket to sign onto. That is if your some sort of lunatic Islamic extremist.
  • The big political point everyone is missing here is that ISIS will never work in the long term. Their political ideology is at it's core fundamentally flawed. Basically they believe in a world of Islamic political ideals as a means of replacing our system of Democracy and individualism and respect for human rights. As Adam Curtis explained it, "It said that those who had become involved with western style politics and power had entered into a state of barbarism or "Jahiliyyah" and that this meant they were no longer Muslims. That, in turn, could be interpreted as meaning that they were impious, or "takfir" - and that meant you could kill them. The danger was that there was no objective way of defining who was impious or not."   
  • And that's the problem right there right? If I can be grandiose this system of politics is doomed. The ideal, that is the pursuit of the perfect and rejection of anything that isn't the perfect, is not something that belongs in politics. And don't take my word for it, read Ardent, read Machiavelli, read Saint Thomas Aquinas, Read Plato. Hell watch Game of Thrones and tell me how Ned's focus on politics driver by a sense of personal honor ended up.
  • In conclusion ISIS can style themselves all fancy right now, but it's not going to last. This isn't our nadir, this is the opposite. They are doomed, and it already appears to be slipping away from them. 
  Anyway, that's what I think.