Archive for the 'Foreign Affairs' Category

The disaster of Robert Mugabe.

Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

It’s a longstanding, thorny question in international affairs: What do you do with a tyrant who’s an obvious disaster for his (usually his) country? We heard a lot about this, of course, in the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Unfortunately, the mess there — even with the happy isolated result of removing Saddam Hussein from power — has squelched most conversation about what to do with the other worst dictators in the world.

I’ll nominate Robert Mugabe for the #1 spot on that list. Once upon a time, he represented something stirring about his country’s long-time struggle to overcome white-minority rule, but that time is long gone. Now he’s just a criminal and a poisonous sort of megalomaniac, the more poisonous because he is so shrewd at keeping Zimbabwe’s citizens and institutions under his thumb.

His ridiculously counterproductive efforts at a centralized, command-economy approach to abating hyperinflation are only the latest example of the damage he has done to his country.

In the future, the community of nations would do well to contemplate these questions: How can we determine when a country has gone so far off the rails — especially through the action of a dictator — that change from the outside is called for, niceties of sovereignty be damned? And if we come to that conclusion, what’s to be done?

Addendum, Thursday night: Here’s much more detail from the New York Times:

Caps on Prices Only Deepen Zimbabweans’ Misery

[…] One month after Mr. Mugabe decreed just that, commanding merchants nationwide to counter 10,000-percent-a-year hyperinflation by slashing prices in half and more, Zimbabwe’s economy is at a halt.

Bread, sugar and cornmeal, staples of every Zimbabwean’s diet, have vanished, seized by mobs who denuded stores like locusts in wheat fields. Meat is virtually nonexistent, even for members of the middle class who have money to buy it on the black market. Gasoline is nearly unobtainable. Hospital patients are dying for lack of basic medical supplies. Power blackouts and water cutoffs are endemic. […]

“The last seven years, I haven’t panicked at all,” said one Bulawayo clothing manufacturer who, like most people, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation by the government. “Now,” he added, “I’m not so sure. I think there’s a real collapse coming.”

I have spent many hours puzzling over the question of what Americans could do to check the foreign-policy mistakes of American leaders. That continues to be an important question, but it pales in comparison to this: what will be done about Robert Mugabe and his regime of thugs? Niceties or apologies can come later — what will be done now to save the 10-million-plus Zimbabweans who suffer from his disastrous rule?

Murderers, not combatants.

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

I’ve never liked the Bush Administration’s insistence on calling the fight against terrorists the “War on Terror”.  Among other things, it made it easier to transition from figurative to literal war in Iraq, which was . . . ill-advised, to say the least.

Now, thanks to a pointer from this Foreign Policy item, I’ve read Tom Malinowski’s cogent argument in support of criminalizing, rather than martyrizing, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and their ideological brethren.

When Terrorists Become ‘Warriors’

Let’s hope that the next president takes an approach that gives less rhetorical ammunition to extremist murderers.

Thomas Friedman on “The Power of Green”

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman often frustrates me with his breathless pronouncements, but in this long article, published back in April, he offers more than enough cogent points to make up for it.

The Power of Green

The whole piece is well worth reading, but I’ll summarize it briefly. Friedman’s principal goal here is to show how assertive U.S. action toward environmental sustainability will help the United States not just to combat global warming, but to improve the U.S. and global economy, and combat terrorism. Read the rest of this entry »

Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

Brown drops ‘war on terror,’ redefining the fight

What had just been narrowly averted, he said, was not a new jihadist act of war but instead a criminal act. As if to underscore the point, Brown instructed his ministers that the phrase “war on terror” was no longer to be used and, indeed, that officials were no longer even to employ the word “Muslim” in connection with the terrorism crisis.

In remarks to reporters, Brown’s new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, articulated the basic message. “Let us be clear,” she said, “terrorists are criminals, whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religions.”

Amen, sir.

Logical fallacies.

Sunday, July 15th, 2007

For a professional project, I’ve been doing a bit of reading in the vein of behavioral economics, a field that interests me precisely because it undermines standard economic assumptions of perfectly rational actors. The fact is, we’re not rational: every day, if not every hour of the day, we do things that don’t actually serve our best interests. Hey, we’re human — and behavioral economics recognizes that.

Various fallacies deter us from making choices wisely. Among them: status quo bias, the money illusion, the gambler’s fallacy, and the base rate fallacy. (There’s a longer list here.) One of my favorites — or a favorite to spot in others, maybe — is fallacious reasoning arising from a misunderstanding of sunk costs. The writers at Baseball Prospectus have been very good, over the years, at pointing out the silly things that baseball general managers sometimes do to justify piles of money they’ve spent in the past. Typically, this takes the form of giving lots of playing time to an expensive but washed-up veteran, under the (false) rationale of “Hey, if we’re paying this guy so much, we’ve got to play him.” This reasoning is false because, no, you don’t have to play him, and if you’ll win more games playing the cheap rookie or journeyman instead, you should swallow your pride and do that. Since the expensive washed-up guy has a guaranteed contract, you must pay him one way or the other. In other words, his salary is a sunk cost — the money’s already spent. Then, as a separate consideration, you should consider which discretionary allocation of funds now will help you win the most games under current conditions, not under the rosy conditions that prevailed back when you signed the old slugger to a (now seemingly daft) contract.

I’m thinking of this thanks to a couple of stories I bookmarked six months ago. (In the spirit of de-cluttering my life — yes, you’ve heard this from me a few times before — I’ve been cleaning out my backlog of . . . well, pretty much of everything.) Not to pick a fight, but they have to do with the sunk costs as they relate to President Bush’s Iraq strategy:

Bush is a sucker for the sunk-cost fallacy.

The most powerful man in the world makes a cognitive error.

The summary version, which ought to suffice regardless of your position on Bush or the wisdom of his Iraq policy is this: It’s not about what you meant to happen or thought would happen or expected to happen. It’s about what’s happening now.

But Bush makes an easy punching bag these days. As H. I. McDunnough said, paraphrasing something much more famous: “Now, y’all who’re without sin can cast the first stone.” So how does the sunk-costs fallacy apply to myself?

Three words: Dead writing projects. I have so many of these that I can’t even count them. Some of them are no more than ideas, little seeds gone dry from too many years of sitting in a jar waiting to be planted. Some of them are scores or even hundreds of pages long, with outlines, excerpts, partial drafts, and so on. What they have in common: they’re dead, they’ve been dead at least a while, but I haven’t been able to let them go, in either the physical or the psychological sense. I cling to them, hoping that someday they’ll magically return to life. They won’t.

Please don’t feel sorry for me, because part of the reason I’m writing this now is that I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself about these bygone would-have-beens of prose. I have plenty of other ideas, live ones, germinating nicely in the greenhouse, or else ripening in the fields ahead of the harvest. The only way these old, dead, sunk-cost-drenched non-projects can hurt me now is if I hold onto them and let them weigh me down.

Besides, there’s a positive side to having all these stories in my past: there were practice for the fruitful writing I’m doing now, as a baby’s goos and gaas are practice for real speech. In some cases, the practice was painful, because I really believed that the unwriteable novel I was working on in, say, 1992 was something that would some day make my fame. But I’m not the same person I was in 1992, anyway, not entirely, and it’s far better that the 2007 version of myself deal with things as they are now, rather than as they looked to me when I was just embarking on my adult life. Wisdom is sometimes painful to come by, but it always beats ignorance.

No doubt tomorrow — hell, the next 15 minutes — will contain logical fallacies of its own. But misunderstanding sunk costs, at least for the old, dead storries I’m interring in the recycling bin one by one, will not be one of them.

The Company comes clean?

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Just a place holder for possible further discussion later: the CIA is set to release a huge trove of documents — dubbed the “family jewels” — that cast a highly unflattering light on its activities during the 1970s. This should be a boon to scholars who share my specialty of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

An Associated Press story.

Press release with commentary from the (non-governmental) National Security Archive.


Mass linkulation.

Friday, June 15th, 2007

–Could we see a war break out between Venezuela and . . . The Netherlands? Maybe.

–The 50 best business blogs, according the The Times of London. (I’d be offended, but in truth BIZ is just getting off the ground.)

–Dave Winer suggests a death penalty for companies. The idea has merit.

–Forbes has an article on the world’s travel destinations most at risk of environmental destruction.

–As a demonstration of the endlessly recursive nature of the Internet, I offer this link to Treehugger’s list of green links of the week.

–Been meaning to post this one for a week: Scott Allen (nice guy; I met him briefly at SXSWi this year) offers a roundup of stories about LinkedIn. (I’m addicted to LinkedIn myself. If you know me, feel free to invite me into your LinkedIn network; my profile is here.)

–Here’s a neat site dedicated to learning foreign languages.  Tons of tips for how to do it better.

Fear is not the answer.

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

Alex Steffen is the executive editor of Worldchanging. He’s also a compelling speaker to groups large and small, not to mention a great guy with whom to share a beer. I’ve linked to essays of his any number of times here; for now I’d like to point you to this one, which makes several important points in a small space:

Why Sustainability, not Terrorism, Should Be Our Real Security Focus

Amen, brother. The major point that Alex makes here is that we face graver risks, both now and in the future, from environmentally unsustainable practices than we do from terrorism. I would add a point borrowed from Kathy Sierra* in this post:

Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain

If we succumb to a constant state of anxiety over terrorism (or immigration, etc.), we condem ourselves to bad mental and physical health. Instead of assessing our problems with some kind of distance, or at least a can-do attitude, we walk around bristling, worrying about threats and prone to over-react to them. Not coincidentally, we end up pursuing elaborate, misguided efforts to eliminate the threats we perceive, and we spend far too much government money doing it.

Better — but harder — is to focus on the big, sweeping, culture-wide issues that threaten to derail us. It’s better because our short-term efforts can tie into long-term changes in the way we steer our society’s practices. It’s harder because it requires us to let go of our surface worries of the day to embrace “bright green” thinking about the generations to come.

We all know dysfunctional people who are so beholden to their worries, their dark perceptions of the world, that they cannot liberate their minds to address their own abiding problems. Sometimes, they’re so wrapped up in what seems to be wrong at an immediate level that they can’t sit down and enjoy a simple social gathering without being filled with angst. (Some of us are these dysfunctional people, at least some of the time.) These people are to be pitied because, in their worries about what could (but probably won’t) happen, they fail to enjoy today, or to hook up today’s progress with the best possibilities for the rest of their lives.

But now, at least when it comes to the “war on terror”, our whole society seems to be tilted in this direction. Of course the threats by Al Qaeda and others against the U.S. are real, and of course the bullets and IEDs that are killing U.S. troops in Iraq are all too real. But we can choose better responses to these threats — ones not governed by fear — as soon as we decide to.

Let’s start deciding to.


*Please come back to blogging Kathy — we miss you!

Some Tuesday linkage.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

Just things I’m finding interesting . . .

–Two items on China’s policies in Africa.

The Ultimate RSS Toolbox. You’ve been wondering how to use RSS feeds, or how to get more out of them, or which RSS reader is right for you. Wonder no more.

–Marc Andreessen is keeping a blog. He has a great post here about his system of personal productivity.

–Christine Chen at FP relates a sobering story from the NYT about Uighur refugees who are now effectively stateless. Some of these folks have spent years in Guantanamo, apparently for no good reason. This piece of American policy stinks.

–This Worldchanging post, “Working Networks,” examines how social media resources can support sustainability-oriented projects.

–How much do you know about the world’s oil supply? Try this quiz at The Oil Drum.

–Perhaps you’ve read about the devastating problems affecting commercially-raised honeybees across the U.S.  The situation is dire . . . but alternatives abound in the form of wild native bees.

“It’s time to close Guantánamo Bay.”

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

That’s a quote from Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift’s article in the current Esquire, “The American Way of Justice”. In it, the Navy lawyer talks about the reasoning that led him to take legal action against his entire chain of command.

This month Vanity Fair runs an article not by Swift but about him, “Taking on Guantánamo”.

My assertion: the United States can afford to run its entire justice system with due respect for the due process of law. That respect has been lacking at Gitmo, and in the foreign secret prisons we know are being operated under the American aegis. I love my country, and I crave security for myself, my family, and my neighbors, but we do not need to squander our resources and our good name by making a mockery of the rule of law.  We should be more willing to sacrifice a grain of security — and invest our attention in likelier security endeavors elsewhere — than to discard our high principles in this way.