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Posts For: August 2, 2007

Obama’s Tough Talk

Barack Obama made headlines yesterday with tough talk about terrorism. Andrew Sullivan called his speech a “JFK Strategy,” alluding to the 1960 charge—the infamous “missile gap”—by the Kennedy campaign that Richard Nixon was not sufficiently hawkish. (The “gap” turned out to be complete fiction.) Sullivan, who thought Obama’s speech was “the speech of a potential president,” concluded that Obama “will not be Dukakized.” As it turns out, he won’t need to be—today he did it himself.

Obama told the Associated Press earlier today: “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance.” This statement should immediately disqualify Barack Obama as a serious candidate for President of the United States. It displays, in addition to a frightening naiveté, a complete lack of knowledge of our history and our defense posture. Nuclear deterrence has been for six decades (and is to this day) a key component of the Western alliance’s security doctrine. This includes, importantly, the first-use option (we do not rule out using nuclear weapons even if we are not attacked by nuclear weapons). Obama’s tough talk yesterday was just that, it seems—talk.

This post was written with the help of research assistant Daniel Halper.

Barack Obama made headlines yesterday with tough talk about terrorism. Andrew Sullivan called his speech a “JFK Strategy,” alluding to the 1960 charge—the infamous “missile gap”—by the Kennedy campaign that Richard Nixon was not sufficiently hawkish. (The “gap” turned out to be complete fiction.) Sullivan, who thought Obama’s speech was “the speech of a potential president,” concluded that Obama “will not be Dukakized.” As it turns out, he won’t need to be—today he did it himself.

Obama told the Associated Press earlier today: “I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance.” This statement should immediately disqualify Barack Obama as a serious candidate for President of the United States. It displays, in addition to a frightening naiveté, a complete lack of knowledge of our history and our defense posture. Nuclear deterrence has been for six decades (and is to this day) a key component of the Western alliance’s security doctrine. This includes, importantly, the first-use option (we do not rule out using nuclear weapons even if we are not attacked by nuclear weapons). Obama’s tough talk yesterday was just that, it seems—talk.

This post was written with the help of research assistant Daniel Halper.

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The PLA at 80

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the founding of the world’s largest private army: China’s. The biggest misconception about China’s military is that it belongs to China. Yes, the Chinese state pays for the People’s Liberation Army, but the PLA reports to—and pledges to defend—the Communist Party. On this Army Day, Beijing’s propaganda saluted (as it always does) the army’s 2.3 million members in their capacity as employees and defenders of China’s leading political organization.

This year’s ritualistic expressions of mutual party-army appreciation seem more numerous and passionate than on past anniversaries. President Hu Jintao mentioned the party’s total control over the military at least 15 times in his Army Day speech. Some foreign observers speculate that the excessive declarations are meant to cover up rifts in the military’s leadership or the failure of Hu—who is also the party’s general secretary—to consolidate control over his generals and admirals. (Others say that he is already in charge.)

Here’s a shortcut for those who do not want to devote their lives to studying this impenetrable issue: Beijing operates an abnormal political system and maintains an abnormal relationship with its armed forces. And here’s something else: because the party controls the army (or at least tries to do so), our attempts to establish military-to-military ties are bound to end in failure. It is not just that the Chinese generally believe in secrecy as a powerful military tool (though they do): secrecy lies at the heart of China’s political system, and of its peculiar government-military relationship.

The Bush White House should know this by now. It has done all it can to try to build functional military-to-military relations with China, but has not succeeded. The Chinese continue to ask for assistance—their more recent requests included the arresting gear of aircraft carriers and the training of carrier crews—but they are not willing to reciprocate. We let them tour our navy’s most important base—in Norfolk, VA—in April of this year, but they were not willing to let our Chief of Naval Operations, Mike Mullen, make a visit to a comparable Chinese naval facility. (In response, Mullen, departing from the Bush administration’s renewed emphasis on military ties with China, canceled his planned trip to Beijing.)

On this anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army let’s send the Chinese our birthday greetings—but let’s stop making gifts of our know-how and technology.

Yesterday was the 80th anniversary of the founding of the world’s largest private army: China’s. The biggest misconception about China’s military is that it belongs to China. Yes, the Chinese state pays for the People’s Liberation Army, but the PLA reports to—and pledges to defend—the Communist Party. On this Army Day, Beijing’s propaganda saluted (as it always does) the army’s 2.3 million members in their capacity as employees and defenders of China’s leading political organization.

This year’s ritualistic expressions of mutual party-army appreciation seem more numerous and passionate than on past anniversaries. President Hu Jintao mentioned the party’s total control over the military at least 15 times in his Army Day speech. Some foreign observers speculate that the excessive declarations are meant to cover up rifts in the military’s leadership or the failure of Hu—who is also the party’s general secretary—to consolidate control over his generals and admirals. (Others say that he is already in charge.)

Here’s a shortcut for those who do not want to devote their lives to studying this impenetrable issue: Beijing operates an abnormal political system and maintains an abnormal relationship with its armed forces. And here’s something else: because the party controls the army (or at least tries to do so), our attempts to establish military-to-military ties are bound to end in failure. It is not just that the Chinese generally believe in secrecy as a powerful military tool (though they do): secrecy lies at the heart of China’s political system, and of its peculiar government-military relationship.

The Bush White House should know this by now. It has done all it can to try to build functional military-to-military relations with China, but has not succeeded. The Chinese continue to ask for assistance—their more recent requests included the arresting gear of aircraft carriers and the training of carrier crews—but they are not willing to reciprocate. We let them tour our navy’s most important base—in Norfolk, VA—in April of this year, but they were not willing to let our Chief of Naval Operations, Mike Mullen, make a visit to a comparable Chinese naval facility. (In response, Mullen, departing from the Bush administration’s renewed emphasis on military ties with China, canceled his planned trip to Beijing.)

On this anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army let’s send the Chinese our birthday greetings—but let’s stop making gifts of our know-how and technology.

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Geeks against Jihad

Thomas X. Hammes is a retired Marine colonel and the author of a well-regarded work on modern war: The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century. He is also a fellow participant in an online discussion forum on military affairs called the Warlord Loop. I was so taken with one of his recent postings on how to battle jihadists on the Internet (a major venue for Islamist organizing and proselytizing) that I asked him if he would adapt it for contentions readers. He kindly agreed. Here it is:

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Thomas X. Hammes is a retired Marine colonel and the author of a well-regarded work on modern war: The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century. He is also a fellow participant in an online discussion forum on military affairs called the Warlord Loop. I was so taken with one of his recent postings on how to battle jihadists on the Internet (a major venue for Islamist organizing and proselytizing) that I asked him if he would adapt it for contentions readers. He kindly agreed. Here it is:

For the last few years, individuals and private organizations that are pro-Israeli have been in a daily fight to shut down or deface anti-Israeli web sites. Unofficial and informal, this Internet Hagana has had considerable success. They cannot shut down all hostile sites because they keep popping up, but at least they have not completely ceded the field to the Internet jihadists.

While we have a few Americans who take similar action against mufsidoon (evildoers) web sites, why don’t we encourage Americans/western “geeks” to go after these websites? Exploit them, disrupt them, shut them down, post false information, and create distrust. This will not be a government controlled or directed effort. Essentially, I am suggesting a leaderless effort that allows Americans to use their creativity, technological skills, and the rabid dedication some people will apply to such a project. The mufsidoon are coming after all American citizens; this is a way some Americans can fight back.

Some will object that such actions will simply encourage Islamists to attack American sites. But our sites—government and private—are already subject to tens of thousands of attacks per day.

Obviously, such action won’t solve the overall strategic issues but it will insure the terrorists no longer have a sanctuary on the Internet.

Like all great ideas, this one sounds blindingly obvious: use a network against a network, pit our computer geeks against theirs. But while there are some private groups (such as the SITE Institute) that monitor jihadist activity on the Internet, I haven’t heard of any that actually attack jihadist web sites. Maybe it’s already being done on a small scale, but much more could be done to target the thousands of Islamist web sites. Hackers, take it away . . .

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Alien Investors

The last I heard of Lawrence Summers, he was performing somersaults as president of Harvard, trying to ingratiate himself with the faculty he had offended by, among other things, frankly discussing some ideas–taboo in academia–about the linkages between sex and success.

The somersaults were to no avail. Summers’s tenure as president came to an abrupt end last year and he returned to his post teaching economics as the Charles W. Eliot university professor. This was Harvard’s loss and our gain, for whatever one made of his ridiculous efforts to back away from his own thoughtful if provocative words, he is back in the public eye not as an administrator of an impossible faculty but as an economist with his finger on a number of vital issues.

One such issue is the accumulation of capital reserves and sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) in the developing world. Governments ruling industrializing countries are sitting on huge and growing piles of cash. They need to park this money somewhere. Increasingly, as Summers is not alone in pointing out, they are shopping abroad and “are now accumulating various kinds of stakes in what were once purely private companies.”

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The last I heard of Lawrence Summers, he was performing somersaults as president of Harvard, trying to ingratiate himself with the faculty he had offended by, among other things, frankly discussing some ideas–taboo in academia–about the linkages between sex and success.

The somersaults were to no avail. Summers’s tenure as president came to an abrupt end last year and he returned to his post teaching economics as the Charles W. Eliot university professor. This was Harvard’s loss and our gain, for whatever one made of his ridiculous efforts to back away from his own thoughtful if provocative words, he is back in the public eye not as an administrator of an impossible faculty but as an economist with his finger on a number of vital issues.

One such issue is the accumulation of capital reserves and sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) in the developing world. Governments ruling industrializing countries are sitting on huge and growing piles of cash. They need to park this money somewhere. Increasingly, as Summers is not alone in pointing out, they are shopping abroad and “are now accumulating various kinds of stakes in what were once purely private companies.”

The pace is accelerating, notes Summers:

In the last month we have seen government-controlled Chinese entities take the largest external stake (albeit non-voting) in Blackstone, a big private-equity group that, indirectly through its holdings, is one of the largest employers in the U.S. The government of Qatar is seeking to gain control of J. Sainsbury, one of Britain’s largest supermarket chains. Gazprom, a Russian conglomerate in effect controlled by the Kremlin, has strategic interests in the energy sectors of a number of countries and even a stake in Airbus. Entities controlled by the governments of China and Singapore are offering to take a substantial stake in Barclays, giving it more heft in its effort to pull off the world’s largest banking merger, with ABN Amro.

What exactly is the problem with this? Discussion of this trend, notes Summers, has focused almost entirely on issues of local control, openness in decision-making, and in certain sectors, the national-security implications, as in last year’s scuttled attempt by Dubai to buy a company that manages American ports. Although those issues are all worthy of close scrutiny, Summers sees a deeper problem:

The logic of the capitalist system depends on shareholders causing companies to act so as to maximize the value of their shares. It is far from obvious that this will over time be the only motivation of governments as shareholders. They may want to see their national companies compete effectively, or to extract technology or to achieve influence.

We have seen the degree of concern over News Corp’s attempt to buy the Wall Street Journal. How differently should one feel about a direct investment stake of a foreign government in a media or publishing company?

If these are not yet burning issues, the foreign acquisitions of recent months, and the growing quantity of cash available to governments like China’s, tell us that they will be soon.

Congress, however, shows no sign of paying heed to the implications of foreign governmental investment. Yet what would be the consequences, for example, of a shield-law for journalists, of the kind Congress is once again considering, if some of the reporters making use of such protection to ferret out, say, Pentagon secrets, were the employees of, and under the control of, a rival or hostile power?

Is anyone thinking about such things, and what is to be done? Summers himself does not have an answer, but at least he has made the problem a focus of debate. If that seems inadequate, it also seems wise.

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Daniel Levy

Interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph, Daniel Levy—a former Israeli government staffer and policy analyst—was quoted as saying that Tony Blair, in his new capacity as special envoy to the Middle East, should negotiate with Hamas. Otherwise, Levy bluntly claimed, “he’ll fail.” Levy has now rectified the quote on his blog, claiming he meant something else:

My argument is that the policy of isolating and excluding Hamas cannot work. The important thing is to open meaningful channels of dialogue to Hamas. Whether that is initiated by Blair or others is secondary. In fact, it would be unlikely (and understandably so) for Blair to take the lead role in this respect.

While you’re busy parsing his equivocation, one thing should be said about Daniel Levy: his career as a peacemaker uniquely qualifies him to know what failure is. He served in the Barak government as head of Jerusalem affairs when Barak proposed to divide Jerusalem. He served with Yossi Beilin at the Ministry of Justice, and was part of the Israeli delegation at the Taba talks in 2001, when the most dovish delegation Israel could produce failed to charm its Palestinian counterparts. He’s been an analyst at the International Crisis Group and was a party to the Geneva accords. Given his past accomplishments and his recipe for peacemaking, it would be arrogant to doubt his wisdom. Then again, given what Levy views as success, Blair’s “failure”, in this case, might not be so bad.

Interviewed in the Sunday Telegraph, Daniel Levy—a former Israeli government staffer and policy analyst—was quoted as saying that Tony Blair, in his new capacity as special envoy to the Middle East, should negotiate with Hamas. Otherwise, Levy bluntly claimed, “he’ll fail.” Levy has now rectified the quote on his blog, claiming he meant something else:

My argument is that the policy of isolating and excluding Hamas cannot work. The important thing is to open meaningful channels of dialogue to Hamas. Whether that is initiated by Blair or others is secondary. In fact, it would be unlikely (and understandably so) for Blair to take the lead role in this respect.

While you’re busy parsing his equivocation, one thing should be said about Daniel Levy: his career as a peacemaker uniquely qualifies him to know what failure is. He served in the Barak government as head of Jerusalem affairs when Barak proposed to divide Jerusalem. He served with Yossi Beilin at the Ministry of Justice, and was part of the Israeli delegation at the Taba talks in 2001, when the most dovish delegation Israel could produce failed to charm its Palestinian counterparts. He’s been an analyst at the International Crisis Group and was a party to the Geneva accords. Given his past accomplishments and his recipe for peacemaking, it would be arrogant to doubt his wisdom. Then again, given what Levy views as success, Blair’s “failure”, in this case, might not be so bad.

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Pete Seeger or Philip Johnson?

A commentator on my recent post about Philip Johnson’s Glass House asks: “Can we enjoy the art and ignore the politics?” This contentions reader compares Johnson’s support of Nazism with the political leanings of folksinger Pete Seeger, who, during the early 1940’s, was called “Stalin’s songbird” by critics of his politics (his political views have raised the ire of some recent commentators, too).

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A commentator on my recent post about Philip Johnson’s Glass House asks: “Can we enjoy the art and ignore the politics?” This contentions reader compares Johnson’s support of Nazism with the political leanings of folksinger Pete Seeger, who, during the early 1940’s, was called “Stalin’s songbird” by critics of his politics (his political views have raised the ire of some recent commentators, too).

Unlike Johnson, Pete Seeger explicitly apologized for his political past, repenting, in a 1972 memoir, for “not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader.” Seeger joined the American Communist party circa 1940 and left circa 1950.

Seeger has done work of indisputable social value: entertaining the troops while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, working for 40 years with the Clearwater group to clean the Hudson River. But I would argue that his musical performances, like this 1949 TV version of the Hebrew song “Tzena Tzena” by Seeger and his quartet The Weavers, are his most lasting achievements. But whatever Seeger’s motivations in performing it may have been, his buoyant bluegrass style in “Tzena Tzena” echoes the majesty of band member Ronnie Gilbert’s contralto, one of folk music’s great voices.

Seeger’s own voice, though fragile, possessed an ineffable charm, which may have lessened the bite of his topical songs like “Waist Deep in Big Muddy” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” (Marlene Dietrich, no less, became a frequent performer of “Flowers” both in English and in German.) What music fan, whatever political accounting he might have with Seeger, would want to be without those unexpected performances?

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