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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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.

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: 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

Knights

Posted in culture, politics by Adrian Arroyo on July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises references Frank Miller’s books, but where Miller saw an antihero struggling to balance conflicting duties and institutions, Nolan offers us a righteous patrician concerned with little beyond his own moral, mental, and material endowments–a caped crusader in place of a dark knight. From the outset, the plot ignores any ambiguity that adheres to Batman or his actions; Christopher Nolan helpfully sorts the supporting cast into those who “get” Batman, and those who don’t, and a few not-so-subtle cues let the audience know that the former are heroes and the latter either villains or collaborators.

The result is a humorless movie with an authoritarian streak a mile wide, and the way Nolan treats Commissioner Gordon is the clearest illustration of that tendency. Gordon, friendly moustache and everyman face aside, has been involved in a multi-year coverup surrounding the death of Harvey Dent, which resulted in the incarceration of thousands. We are given to know that these miscreants are–of course!–undoubtedly guilty and deserving of their punishment. It’s in light of this consideration that, in one of the early scenes, Gordon folds away his tearful confession in the name of law and order. By the time the plot engages with Gordon’s deception, the battle lines have been drawn and the revelation falls on deaf ears.

Nolan takes a similar approach to Foley, Alfred and Miranda. Foley is cast as a fool and a coward because he takes Gordon at his word about what happened between Dent and Batman, then later refuses to fall in with the man who fed him a diet of lies that endangered his life and family. An otherwise affecting scene between Bruce and Alfred is marred by the fact that Wayne is objecting to a form of emotional vigilanteism whose violent mirror image he embraces wholeheartedlty while wearing the cape and cowl. The message is clear: the methods don’t matter if you’re protecting a city, but they do if you’re protecting a heart. Finally, a discussion between Miranda and Bruce Wayne about the relationship between man and technology is robbed of its meaning when Nolan turns first the device in question and then Miranda herself into dei ex machinis.

What we’re left with is a movie in which the heroes are endowed with secret knowledge that allows them to flout the norms and processes of modern life, in which everyone who disagrees with or restrains them does so out of ignorance, villainy, or a soft heart, and in which the great mass of humanity is reduced to a howling mob whose only feature of note is their willingness to believe the lies told by their leaders, whether they be public servants or revolutionary madmen. As such, The Dark Knight Rises is neither conservative nor liberal; it’s a clash of exalted wills against the backdrop of various mindless or incompetent collectivities. To call it anything but anti-democratic reveals more about the author than the movie.

Narcissism

Posted in culture, media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on July 21, 2012

Steve Almond, on why “Liberals Are Ruining America,

Imagine, if you will, the domino effect that would ensue if liberals and moderates simply tuned out the demagogues. Yes, they would still be able to manipulate their legions into endorsing cruel and self-defeating policies. But their voices would be sealed within the echo chamber of extremism and sealed off from the majority of Americans who honestly just want our common problems solved. They would be marginalized in the same way as activists who rant about racial purity or anarchy.

I can imagine that, but that’s all I can do; it’s a fable, and a dangerous one at that.

Political entertainment and political engagement aren’t opposite ends of the see-saw. Consuming more of the former doesn’t crowd out the latter. Contrary to his entire thesis, the kind of low-level engagement Almond laments tends to result in “real” action later on. People don’t engage in a thoughtful survey of current political trends and then decide to go volunteer for a campaign. They feel passionately about something, then take a small action, then a larger one. That’s why campaigns solicit $5 donations as well as $5,000 ones. It’s why Rush Limbaugh is an influential member of the Republican Party.

There’s a vein of narcissism underlying that argument, and it allows Almond to conclude that real problem with “liberalism” is its relationship to right wing chatter. The cycle of outrage and obsession that afflicts Almond during drivetime becomes “the tragic flaw of the modern liberal,” endowing his entertainment choices with a bizarre world-historical importance that’s both undeserved and unproven. Even if you buy what Almond’s selling, it’s still a suffocating definition of liberalism, one that scants both politics and policy by turning the frivolous choices of one man into a disease that plagues an entire ideology.

The same sort of self-regard animates “the Newsroom,” and it’s just as worthless in the NYT as it is on TV. Boiled down, it’s the blithe assumption that everyone is like you, except that they’ve made different (read: terrible) choices and that if they’d just do what you tell them to do the walls of Jericho would come tumbling down. Apparently, this rather anti-democratic sentiment is the key to saving Democrats, liberalism, and democracy itself.

It’s not Rush, baby, it’s you.

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Intangibles

Posted in culture, media, politics, sports by Adrian Arroyo on June 26, 2012

Sally Quinn wrote a much-panned essay about the “End of Power” in Washington D.C., which John Chait summed up as follows:

Once Washington was a happy place where a girl and her mother could be groped simultaneously in good fun by a white supremacist. Sadly, it has all been ruined by Kim Kardashian and Ezra Klein.

Granted, Sally Quinn is to politics as Murray Chass is to sportswriting, but she’s not alone. When Elliott Suthers says geeks are ruining politics, he’s just recycling Jason Whitlock’s argument about sports from 2011; there’s no shortage of articulate professionals mourning the decline of the intangible in their profession. Quinn’s requiem for the D.C. dinner party is different only in that American politics depends on norms and traditions in a way that the Great American Pastime does not.

The metaphor is seductive. In baseball as in politics, our affiliations are deeply felt though largely the product of location and upbringing. Common to both are the endless public pieties and back room deals, the demand for prediction over analysis, speculation about the farm team, and the retroactive imposition of grand narratives on unrelated events. To many folks, both of them seem rather boring.

But in baseball the lines of accountability are easier to draw and the border between rule and tradition better defined. Players don’t get tossed for talking to the pitcher about his no-hitter while it’s in progress. Tongues will wag, but the game will go on. When Chuck Knoblauch hits Keith Olbermann’s mom with an errant throw, nobody blames Tino Martinez. Not so for the United States Senate, which relies on shared norms in order to function. By embracing the filibuster as a one-size-fits-all tool of obstruction, the Republican Senate Caucus not only wounded those norms, they damaged the institution’s ability to carry out even the most routine functions. And with the same ineffable logic that’s often used to defend Pitcher Wins, these failures were laid on the White House lawn.

The fracturing of these Senatorial understandings isn’t due to a lack of well-attended parties at the Bradlee residence, but in recounting the long twilight of her own importance Quinn manages to brush up against something serious: nobody has any real idea what to replace them with. The result isn’t the end of power, but it may well be the end of governance.

Hangover: Money

Posted in politics by Adrian Arroyo on September 19, 2011

George Soros: Does the Euro Have a Future

Felix Salmon: Nope

David Graeber: On the Invention of Money

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Westen

Posted in media, politics by Adrian Arroyo on August 8, 2011

Drew Westen’s article, “What Happened to Obama” is roiling the commentariat today:

But on most domestic policy matters, it’s important to understand that the president can only be as progressive or conservative as Congress. That’s the story liberals need to keep telling themselves, because until they really have it memorized, every liberal president who gets elected is going to turn out to be a profound disappointment. They should worry less about telling stories and more about winning elections. —Adam Serwer

The issue with Serwer’s account is that “telling stories” and “winning elections” are not unrelated, at least over the long term. Congress is not immune either. Republican intransigence on revenues is itself the product of a story about taxes and growth, a story that’s debatable in the best of times and irrelevant if not dangerous in the current moment. And yet that narrative has captured enough of the Republican Party that the Speaker of the House can make a credible threat to allow the United States to default unless their demands are met.

Serwer is correct to point out that there’s little reason to believe that eloquence would’ve moved Republican legislators, whose electoral foundation is laid among those who prefer resolve to compromise. But that preference is itself a frame, the product of a story about the role of resolve in politics and the returns that accrue as a result. And it’s a story that looks increasingly true each time Republicans are able to pry concessions from Democrats through legislative hostage taking.

As a critique of Obama, Westen’s editorial is a little incoherent. As I’ve said before, narratives are an essential part of politics in a democracy, and while they may not swing a given election or congressman they are part of an ongoing process that defines the boundaries of American politics. Westen’s powerful cri de coeur–with a tinge of “If I Ran The Zoo”-ishness–makes the fundamental error of ascribing this messaging failure to President Obama. Whether he realizes it or not, Westen’s piece is about the weakness of progressive and liberal institutions, which have become arbiters rather than advocates. It’s the bodies that aren’t tied to the election cycle that have the greatest responsibility for the sort of full-throated advocacy that Westen craves, not President Obama.