Meta-Commentary

Anemone Fish

Posted in politics, work by Adrian Arroyo on October 1, 2013

Speaker Boehner sells himself as a kind of anemone fish: only he can survive among the stinging tentacles of his party. Today, he shares the fish’s pigment and its epithet.

(David Foster Wallace circled words in his dictionary. I’m using each of them in a sentence, moving alphabetically from “Ablative Absolute” to “witenagemot.”)

Syria (III)

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on September 1, 2013

Arguing for a punitive strike on the grounds of credibility and norm enforcement may be politically advantageous for the administration, but on the merits the case seems a bit weak.

Credibility is confusing, the more so because it’s used in discussions about foreign policy as if everyone understands what it means. At first blush, credibility is an intuitive concept–if I say I’ll do something and I don’t, then my credibility suffers and people are less likely to believe me the next time I say I’ll do something. Simple.

However, we also recognize different “flavors” of credibility. If I’ve made two commitments–say, to alphabetize my enormous library by author and also to remain faithful to a single person so long as we both shall live–those commitments exist along separate credibility continuums. If I fail to do the former, I’m disorganized. If I fail to do the latter, I’m an adulterer. However, most folks would be uncomfortable with the proposition that people who fail to organize their libraries are more likely to be adulterers because they haven’t demonstrated “credibility” generally. At the same time, there’d be less pushback for the assertion that someone who’s cheated on a succession of partners can’t be trusted to make a lifelong commitment their spouse. “Dating” and “marriage” are associated continuums, while “marriage” and “library maintenance” are not.

As if that weren’t confusing enough, there’s also an “intensity of interest” factor. It’s reasonable to expect the seriousness of our commitments to align with their importance. Accordingly, If I fail to act on a commitment that’s critical to my interests, that damages my credibility a lot more than my failure to act on a relatively unimportant commitment.

All of these threads get jumbled up in discussions about credibility, with serious consequences. When Domino Theory advocates raised alarms about the Cold War balance of credibility between East and West, they helped lay the foundation for a disastrous intervention in Vietnam that cost 60,000 American lives. The logic, roughly speaking, went like this: if we don’t fight communism in Vietnam, it will embolden our enemies while simultaneously undermining the strength of our commitments in Europe. It’s a slippery slope argument that only hangs together if you ignore the “intensity of interest” factor.

In Syria, it’s not clear what credibility means. If the primary concern involves preserving the credibility of President Obama’s “red line” threat from last year, it’s not clear that we should do anything. The statement is a year old and it was made in the waning days of his re-election campaign. If, on the other hand, we think the use of chemical weapons undermines the credibility of the presidency as an institution and our broader regional commitments, then there’s a case for unilateral action. Finally, if the credibility at stake is that of the international norm against chemical weapons use, then we should be looking for a multilateral approach, per Fallows:

Their premise is that the use of chemical weapons is so heinous and unprecedented that, if allowed to go unpunished, it will change world relations in a disastrous way. Minor response: If this is so clearly true, then presumably someone outside the U.S. Executive Branch will agree. Starting with: the U.S. Congress, the U.S. public, NATO, the Brits, the Australians, the Canadians, the European Union, the Arab League. Someone in the civilized world. 

And that’s the crux of the issue–the arguments, means, and ends don’t really line up. The administration hasn’t made a good case for why US credibility is on the line in a consequential way, nor has it pursued a multilateral approach consistent with normative concerns. Instead, it looks like a hodgepodge policy designed in the face of events and around political liabilities.

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Androsterone

Posted in work by Adrian Arroyo on September 1, 2013

Rejected Movie Pitches–Two Nazis and 4,500 Gallons of Distilled Male Urine: the Androsterone Story.

(David Foster Wallace circled words in his dictionary. I’m using each of them in a sentence, moving alphabetically from “Ablative Absolute” to “witenagemot.”)

Syria (II)

Posted in politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on August 31, 2013

Briefly, there are four cases to be made for intervention in Syria:

  1. The “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” case. Because Assad has failed to fulfill the basic duty of a sovereign–to protect his people–he is no longer entitled to the protections of sovereignty, and other powers may intervene to end the barbarism taking place within Syria’s borders.
  2. The “credibility” case. If the United States doesn’t react as promised to the news of chemical weapons use in Syria–which President Obama declared a year ago was a “red line” for him–how can our allies (and enemies) have confidence that we’ll honor other commitments in the region?
  3. The “international norms” case. While Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention there is an international norm against their use that must be upheld. If Syria is allowed to buck that norm, then the norm is weaker going forward and other nations may be tempted to use these weapons in the future.
  4. The “security” case. The combination of a failing state, a stockpile of chemical weapons, and violent non-state actors has security implications for the United States that are dire enough to justify a military intervention aimed at securing those weapons.

Each case defines the conditions of victory and gestures at the means needed to achieve it. Given Syria’s demographic layout, an R2P scenario would involve a significant military commitment, either in the form of safe zones or outright occupation. Similarly, securing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile would require–at least temporarily–the introduction of ground forces.

And, while administration sources have checked all four boxes, the main thrust of their argument for intervention centers on cases two and three: credibility and norm enforcement. President Obama said to Gwen Ifill:

We cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks. So what I’ve said is that we have not yet made a decision, but the international norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be kept in place.

In his Rose Garden statement this afternoon, the President reiterated his stance and sounded a note more in line with concerns about American credibility:

Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare.  If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?  To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms?  To terrorist who would spread biological weapons?  To armies who carry out genocide?

While Stephen Walt, Daniel Larison, and Patrick Appel have poked holes in the logic of the this position, it’s politically advantageous ground for the administration to make a stand on. Cases two and three afford them maximum flexibility in defining means, ends, and rationale.

If Walt is correct and the Obama Administration finds itself backed into a corner by a red line they drew a year ago, they can launch a strike, claim victory, and depart the field. There are rules, we warned Assad not to break them, he did, we punished him, and now everybody knows we say what we mean and mean what we say. Moreover, they’ll be happy to leave the decision up to the legislature, as it gives them a way to de-escalate without appearing weak. However, if they truly believe in credibility and norm enforcement, we should see a sustained attempt to lobby congress in favor of a strike, combined with a search for allies to buttress the case that strikes are about preserving a rules-based international order in addition to defending American credibility.

Anecdotage

Posted in work by Adrian Arroyo on August 31, 2013

Data is a young man’s game. The older we get, the more we rely on our anecdotage.

(David Foster Wallace circled words in his dictionary. I’m using each of them in a sentence, moving alphabetically from “Ablative Absolute” to “witenagemot.”)

Syria (I)

Posted in media, politics, war by Adrian Arroyo on August 31, 2013

Jonathan Chait on Syria:

Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing behind that statement to suggest why his conclusion is justified. If an intervention–which necessarily carries a cost–is preferable to doing nothing at all, there must be some metric beyond a sense of moral righteousness that we can use to measure the benefit that accrues.

And this is where Chait’s argument begins to grate. In scolding his fellow travelers for insufficiently weighing the pros and cons of intervention by bringing up the irrelevant issue of malaria nets, he fails to offer any compelling case for it beyond the idea of imposing a cost on chemical weapons use, relatively “low stakes,” and the chance that killing the killers could reduce the overall level of violence. So we’re left with a case for intervention that could be summed up as, “eh, it might work–but it probably won’t–and it doesn’t cost much.” You don’t have to be a peacenik to want a little bit more rigor in an analysis.

The argument isn’t helped any by Chait’s inclusion of this gem:

The arguments Yglesias poses today against a military strike against Syria eerily echo the arguments conservatives and libertarians make against any kind of domestic government intervention.

The two lines of argument have nothing in common. If I were to take a guess at what irritates Chait about conservative arguments in the domestic sphere it would be that they’re used to cut off a debate about means, ends and costs, not to discipline it. However, underlying that tactic is the reality that the government has the power and legitimacy to enact progressive change at home, and the conservative position is that this power should not be used under any circumstances.

In Syria, that underlying reality doesn’t hold. It’s not clear that the United States has the power–much less the legitimacy–to bring change to Syria. More to the point, Chait has already admitted as much earlier in his column. So if Chait has conceded that his favored policy is unlikely to work, it’s possible–even likely!–that the other side is arguing in good faith rather than aping the domestic tactics of the right.

The decision to intervene in Syria–much like the decision to invade Iraq–is worthy of a sustained and reasoned debate, and the attempt to engage in one is, contra Chait’s thesis, an example of a different approach to the conflicts rather than a false equivalence between them.

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Hangover: Bodies

Posted in culture, media by Adrian Arroyo on February 19, 2013

Hilary Mantel on Royal Bodies

Max Boot on the Evolution of Irregular Warfare

Isaiah Berlin on Machiavelli

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Unintended

Posted in work by Adrian Arroyo on September 6, 2012

(Disclaimer: this post is so “first world problems” that the disclaimer itself seems faintly ridiculous. I’m posting it now because bidding hasn’t closed yet, and I don’t want it to come off as whining about not getting the courses I want.)

The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) uses a bidding system to allocate scarce seats in high-demand courses. Depending on program and year, each student receives an allocation of points. They assign these points as they see fit, and after a given period of time the market “clears” at a price determined by number of seats and the maximum bids entered by students. Assuming the baseline allocations are determined thoughtfully, the system puts scarce resources in the hands of those willing to pay more for them.

However, within the larger ecosystem of HKS the bidding system has some interesting and unintended consequences.

Inside the MPP program graduation requirements differ from concentration to concentration. International and Global Affairs (IGA)–the catchall for security/foreign policy/global governance–requires students to complete 6 of their 9.5 elective credits within the concentration, double that of most other concentrations.

In addition, courses taught by IGA faculty are much in demand beyond the MPP program. MPAs and mid-career students from security and foreign policy backgrounds are drawn to the classes run by big wheels like Graham Allison, former Amb. Nicholas Burns, Joe Nye and former Dep. National Security Adviser Meghan O’Sullivan. This cross-program appeal, in combination with the deeper initial pool of points afforded MPAs and mid-careers, tends to fill those classes and drive up the clearing price.

The net effect of these pressures is a further increase in the opportunity costs incurred by IGA concentrators. As they are priced out of the market for their preferred courses, the lofty requirements of the concentration limit their fallback options. In short, in order to graduate they must take courses within the concentration even if those courses have little relation to their career goals and are of less interest to them than other courses outside the IGA concentration.

As a result, savvy students with an interest in IGA (otherwise known as “scabs” or “Pickering Fellows*”) to select a different concentration to ensure that if they can’t get into their preferred IGA courses they’ll have a wider menu of options to choose from. Given that the IGA fact sheet asserts (p.5) that students will receive “comprehensive and rigorous training” with an eye toward creating a pool of distinguished alumni, the fact that the interaction between the degree requirements and the bidding system ends up chasing students out of the concentration seems perverse. If you apply the sort of systems-level analysis and awareness of collective action problems that the IGA concentration inculcates to the concentration itself, you could be forgiven for arriving at the conclusion that it might be wiser to pitch your tent elsewhere.

There are a couple of ways to address the problem. On the supply side, you could ask the faculty to offer more classes. However, the realities of life in academia dictate otherwise. For tenure-track faculty, the incentives are all wrong. For practitioners, the need to manage a career outside the university puts limits on the amount they can teach. On the demand side, things are a little more promising. The school could implement a two-tiered bidding system for IGA courses, where a certain number of seats are set aside for IGA concentrators. Those seats go to bidding and clear before the general bidding starts, ensuring that IGA students are competing among themselves and not with the HKS community at large.

In all honesty, this isn’t a big problem. It affects a tiny minority of students at Harvard, which is itself a tiny minority of students generally. The world will soldier on whether or not a solution ever arrives. However, if the IGA concentration wants to make good on its goal of training future nuclear negotiators, grand strategists and ambassadors, it might behoove them to ensure those folks don’t get bumped from the relevant courses while they’re in graduate school.

*I say this with love, guys.

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Hangover: Darker

Posted in culture, politics, sports by Adrian Arroyo on August 27, 2012

The Age of Niallism and the Post-Fact World — Matt O’Brien on Niall Ferguson

Fear of a Black President — Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama and Race

Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner –Wright Thompson on the Cost of Competition

Kanye West Is Better At His Job Than I Am — Kiese Laymon on Fear, Feminism, and Falsehoods

His Grief, and Ours — Leon Wieseltier on Paul Ryan

Hangover: Shots

Posted in culture, media by Adrian Arroyo on July 30, 2012

To Keep and Bear Arms–Garry Willis on the 2nd Amendment (NYRB, 1995)

Mayberry RIP–Frank Rich on Declinist Panics

The Dream of Maximum Guns–Ta-Nehisi Coates

When Beauty Fades–NYT on Supermodels

Checking Out–Paris Review on Librarian Smut

Op-Ed Militarism–CFR

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