Tag: imperial overextension

For First Time APSA Annual Convention to be Held in Africa

“All the fake news that’s fit to print”
 –Washington, DC
The valets at the Kinchasa Hilton will be happy to take your bags.

The American Political Science Association announced today that it will hold its 2013 annual meeting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After being criticized for its belated cancellation of this year’s convention in New Orleans on account of Hurricane Isaac, the organization’s leadership was looking for a site that would provide fewer potential headaches. APSA President G. Bingham Powell told reporters, “We have been assured that there is 0% chance of a hurricane hitting the Congo on Labor Day, or as they call it here, Mubutu Assassination Day. Curiously they celebrate the same way, by taking a three day weekend. What could go wrong?”

Extreme weather has made it increasingly difficult to plan APSA’s convention. Terrible droughts have rendered the West unsafe due to fires. Global warming has raised the temperature too high for Atlanta. San Francisco is always at risk of an earthquake. Washington, DC, in Powell’s words, “sucks.” That leaves other options only outside the country. “Honestly,” he said, “New Orleans in hurricane season looked like our best bet. Live and learn.”

In 2010, APSA held its annual convention just outside of U.S. lines, in neighboring Toronto. Political scientists tell reporters that this is the capital of Canada. The Toronto conference was a great success as attendees remarked on the great warmth and friendliness of their neighbors north of the border. From here, sources say, it was a natural choice to expand APSA into newer markets. Powell said, “There is no reason to restrict the APSA brand to the United States. We hope to show young Congolese boys and girls that if they work hard and apply themselves, maybe one day they can present at one these conferences, too. Plus we got a great rate at the Kinchasa Hilton.”

However, APSA’s decision has met with criticism in some corners of the organization. A caucus of political scientists called “Perestroika” has circulated a letter condemning the holding of the conference in a poor African country as “neoimperialism.” “APSA, as always, is looking to take advantage of cheap underdeveloped country labor. Hotel employees at the Kinchasa Hilton will struggle to put food on the table for their families while Executive Committee fat cats will sip fruity drinks by the poolside for only $2 instead of the usual $15 at American convention venues. And the Congo denies basic human rights, like gay marriage. That is unacceptable in 21st century Africa.”

APSA officials had no comment but responded with their own press release: “APSA appreciates the values of cultural diversity. We can think of no better place to celebrate those virtues than this enormous country in the heart of Africa in which all tribes and nationalities mingle and live peacefully.”

Political scientists are nevertheless urged to prepare appropriately, stressing that students of Congress might be surprised that a different currency is used in the Congo than in the United States. It is recommended that all political scientists bring raw diamonds to avoid currency exchange fees and facilitate local transactions, such as ransom-paying.


Are You Ready for Some Football…..Analogies?

Recently I offered an “argument” about what conservative males find attractive about Sarah Palin — her attractiveness — and I provided some “evidence” by reference to the parallels between pretty female candidates and women sideline reporters with two XXs (Chromosomes, you creeps! Get your mind out of the gutter!). I made the claim that Bachmann’s support rested more on her craziness than her beauty, but then I found this. I am recalibrating my argument…..

But I want to push the analogy further, and ask — who gives a f*#k about the Iowa Straw Poll? Why, when Michele Bachmann wins, do they drop confetti? Don’t they usually wait to the convention for that? Winning the votes of 4,000 Iowans now gets you what American GIs had to fight the Battle of the Bulge for? Is ticker tape that much cheaper these days, that we can just use it wily-nilly?

I realized that a similar thing is happening on the NFL football field. It used to be that before a game the announcer would simply introduce the visiting team, it would run out, and everyone would boo. Then the announcer would raise his voice and cheer for “YOUR [insert city and mascot].” Everyone would cheer. And then they would play a football game. At the Super Bowl, though, they would bring giant inflatable helmets and place them in front of the tunnel to the locker rooms. They would shoot off fireworks when the teams came out. This added to the pageantry (wc?), the significance (wc?) of the ultimate game, the fight for the championship.

Now everyone has got an inflatable helmet for every regular season game. For all I know they use it in the preseason. It’s exactly like dropping confetti at the Iowa Straw Poll, a game that doesn’t mean a thing (unless you are Tim Pawlenty). Why is everything So Very Important Now so that we are all spent, jaded and unimpressed by the final contest? Seriously, unless someone’s nipple slips out, I just don’t care. (Don’t get any ideas, Romney. That was metaphorical.)

The same thing is going on at kids’ birthday parties. (Stay with me.) When I was a kid, the only place you found a bouncy house was at the State Fair. These were not available on an everyday basis, in your Personal Home. Maybe this is just Southern California, but there is a guy down the street with three kids who has a bouncy house three times a year in his backyard for every birthday. At my house, we put out some folding chairs in the backyard for the parents and turn on the sprinkler. The kids love it, but they are young. I know I am about two years away from a total meltdown when my son begins to demand a temporary rollercoaster be set up to mark the anniversary of his passing through my wife’s cervix. It’s just a birthday (straw pool, regular season game, etc)! I just want to understand this phenomenon.


Memo to Ross Douthat

Douthat comments on Max Boot’s call for the US to, if necessary, turn Georgia into the next Afghanistan (circa 1984).

Now these arguments have a certain surface plausibility, but I would find them much more convincing if Boot were not simultaneously arguing that Russia’s ambitions (and capabilities) run as follows: “Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?” It’s hard for me to believe that Putin’s Russia is both an aggressive, expansive power poised to rebuild the Soviet Empire at tank-point and that the Russians would be more or less helpless to retaliate against us in their own neighborhood if we decided to start a proxy war with them in the Caucuses.

Jack Snyder described this very phenomenon in Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and Imperial Ambition

The “myth of the paper tiger,” as Snyder explains in his National Interest article “Imperial Temptations,” holds that enemies are:

capable of becoming fiercely threatening if appeased, but easily crumpled by a resolute attack. These images are often not only wrong, but self-contradictory. For example, Japanese militarists saw the United States as so strong and insatiably aggressive that Japan would have to conquer a huge, self-sufficient empire to get the resources to defend itself; yet at the same time, the Japanese regime saw the United States as so vulnerable and irresolute that a sharp rap against Pearl Harbor would discourage it from fighting back.

Snyder goes on to discuss the “Bush Administration’s argument for preventive war against Iraq” as an example of this line of reasoning, but it clearly remains a mainstay in foreign-policy arguments of all types.


Analogies of War

Political leaders have long relied on historical analogies to frame, explain, and justify important policy choices. The current administration is no exception when discussing its policy toward Iraq—the most recent instance occurring when Tony Snow described keeping US forces in Iraq “as we have in South Korea.” Indeed, Iraq has been a war full of analogies: Bush’s father analogized Saddam Hussien to Hitler in the first Gulf War, Rumsfeld wanted to rebuild Iraq like Germany after World War II, the insurgents in Iraq created another Vietnam, though the US did not want to leave like Vietnam, with Baghdad well on its way to becoming a new Beirut, and now it looks like the US will remain, as we have in Korea.

Analogies are more than just passing references to history. Analogies are caricatures of key moments seared into the country’s collective memory, commonplaces that evoke a particular emotion, triumph, or failure. The specific details of the historical moment in question are less important than the memory it evokes. At Munich, appeasement failed and subsequent Munichs are avoided by leaders invoking the analogy and standing strong against aggressive dictators.

Leaders use analogies because they offer a powerful tool to legitimize policy options. Analogies frame the discussion by identifying the key issues at stake. Historical commonplaces are known for one key moment. Beirut is a once proud city in the chaos of an intractable civil war. Invoking Beirut brings the discussion to civil war and sectarian strife. German reconstruction successfully created a thriving democracy out of a former enemy, focusing the discussion on democratic success. Analogies explain policy by laying out a simple story of how a process works. Each historical moment has a caption, and that widely recited caption gives a logical progression of how a goal can be achieved. Robust deterrence contained the Soviet Union and brought about its downfall. Analogies justify by drawing on widely shared collective judgments on historical events. The unfamiliar situation of the present can be read through a well-understood template on which society’s collective judgment has already been rendered. Everyone “knows” Vietnam was a failure, so avoiding another Vietnam in Iraq is to avoid national humiliation.

When Snow invoked the Korea analogy, he was attempting to legitimize the Administration’s current policy in the face of substantial criticism. Korea frames the policy as a discussion of long term engagement with a partner country in the face of a mutual threat. Korea explains the policy: just as a robust but isolated US presence deters further aggression from North Korea, allowing South Korea to thrive, so too would a sustained US presence in Iraq help ward of future threats from terrorism in the Middle East. Finally, Korea justifies the policy as a successful, sustainable, and affordable price to pay to realize a key national interest.

The problem, as political scientists who study the use of analogies readily point out, is that analogies are a particularly bad way to make decisions and lead to highly flawed policy choices, usually with disastrous outcomes. Analogies are caricatures of history, not history itself, and as a result, this selective memory leaves out the messy, complicated, and contingent details that produced the relevant outcome. The strained comparison between past and present glosses over significant differences between wars and important historical details that are, in fact, essential factors of success or failure. Iraq is neither Germany nor Vietnam nor Korea, and treating it as such is sure-fire recipe for disaster. Trying to win the last war is no way to win the current one.

Quibbling over the accuracy of a historical comparison—Korea, Vietnam, Germany—misses the larger significance these analogies the contemporary policy debate. As historical commonplaces, analogies are rhetorical tools to define a debate and legitimate its resolution. Despite overwhelming public opinion to the contrary—61% of Americans say the war is not worth fighting and 55% want to reduce US forces in Iraq—the Bush Administration has made a clear decision to maintain a substantial military presence in Iraq for the long haul. Deploying the Korea analogy narrows the debate. Discussion moves away from what kind of progress the troops in Iraq are actually able to make and what future outcomes are even possible to hollow choice of Korea or Vietnam. If the administration can shift the debate to a question of what a sustained US presence in Iraq looks like by using the Korea analogy, it will make the point that such a presence is acceptable to the American public. In doing so, it will gloss over the tremendous gap between Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and the Green Zone in Baghdad, and side-step the fundamental question of what now constitutes success in Iraq and what compromises we must accept to approach it. Korea is not a model for the future of the US in Iraq, it’s a justification for a policy that the Bush Administration would rather obfuscate with history than discuss and defend in the present.


Bomb Iran?

Reading Sunday’s NYT, I was somewhat surprised to read about the intensity of debate within senior Administration circles about how to address Iran’s nuclear program.

The debate has pitted Ms. Rice and her deputies, who appear to be winning so far, against the few remaining hawks inside the administration, especially those in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office who, according to some people familiar with the discussions, are pressing for greater consideration of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities….

But conservatives inside the administration have continued in private to press for a tougher line, making arguments that their allies outside government are voicing publicly. “Regime change or the use of force are the only available options to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability, if they want it,” said John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations.

Only a few weeks ago, one of Mr. Cheney’s top aides, David Wurmser, told conservative research groups and consulting firms in Washington that Mr. Cheney believed that Ms. Rice’s diplomatic strategy was failing, and that by next spring Mr. Bush might have to decide whether to take military action.

Then, take Joe Lieberman’s statements on Face the Nation:

“I think we’ve got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq,” Lieberman told Bob Schieffer. “And to me, that would include a strike into… over the border into Iran, where we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers.”

Is it time to bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran?

a perfect excuse for some audio and video links below the fold!!–McCain singing it here (youtube), but he ripped it from the Capitol Steps, who did ‘Bomb Iraq’ back in the Clinton years (on this album). Here (MP3) they update the parody, the song is about 2/3 of the way into the clip.

Actually, a friend asked me this very question a few weeks ago, and what follows is our email exchange on the subject.

His question:

Dear Peter,

Seriously, as scholars of international security, is the idea of a U.S. invasion of Iran in the cards at all? I mean, yes, Duncan Hunter mentioned a tactical nuclear strike and Clinton-esque air strikes against Iranian targets could well be a possibility but isn’t all this talk of “war” with Iran pure hyperbole?

How, for example, is this implicated in the current row with Russia over missile defense elements in Eastern/Central Europe and therefore the overall U.S.-Russia strategic relationship?

Inquiring minds want to know. :)


(redacted for privacy considerations)

My Response:

Dear (redacted again)

Its an astute question.
My ‘expert’ analysis: (and if its any good, maybe it will morph into a blog post at some point)
and here it does just that!…

Is war with Iran possible? Sure. We don’t like them, they don’t like us, and we each have been escalating–both diplomatically and militarily– the confrontation between us. So, yes, it could happen, and as such responsible deep thinking planners at State, DoD, and CENTCOM should have an up to date contingency plan for just such an occasion.

The appropriate line, I think, comes from a scene in one of my favorite movies, “Hunt for Red October” where the Soviet Ambassador and US National Security Adviser are discussing the growing naval presence in the North Atlantic and the NSA says– “It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity… is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”

Or, to put it another way (and foreshadow the rest of the answer)– never underestimate the role that stupidity and bad luck play in the unfolding of history. Anything can happen.

That said, is a war probable? I don’t think so.

Every major explanatory tool / theory we have in IR / Security, save one, suggests no war. To be clear, this is not a political or policy recommendation against war, but IR theory / Security Studies offering a theoretical prediction on future outcomes. Your base realism / strategic analysis suggests no war. Iran is big and strong (stronger than Iraq pre-invasion), offering a more robust deterrent. The US is weaker–though the US flanks Iran with ongoing military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, those two ongoing wars have stretched the US military about as far as it can go in its current configuration. As any military person around town will tell you, we’re stretched very very thin just to keep up the surge. Troops are on quick rotations, the Army is burning through all its equipment, the carriers are maxed out in deployments– where is the fighting force going to come from? With Iraq, there was never a question of a relatively easy victory (over Saddam’s regime– the post war is a different story). That assurance is no longer there with respect to Iran. Power politics says that it’s not going to happen.

The domestic / liberal explanations similarly suggest no war. When Bush went into Iraq, he had a pliant public, a cheerleader Congress, bureaucratic support within the government, and significant public approval. Today, none of that exists. The public is against the Iraq war, has no appetite for further war, and Bush’s approval ratings are low–historic lows for a president. Congress is now controlled by opposition Democrats, and while, yes, they are not as active as many would like in taking steps to end the current war, you can assuredly bet that any Congressional authorization for a new war is a non-starter. Its one thing to do as Biden claimed in the debate the other night and support troops already in the field, but its another thing to prevent troops from going into a new field. Even the bureaucratic organs of the government seem reluctant to build up for a war. The Intel community, chastened by its failures (and being hung out to dry for those failures) on Iraq would resist, and DoD, really, the career military, particularly senior officers, don’t seem willing to support such adventurism any more. They’ll fight the war in which they are implicated (Iraq) but I don’t see the bureaucracy lining up to support a new war with Iran.

And, the campaign is now on. Who among the R-10 do you see lining up for a full-on war, and how do you see even the most modestly competent D campaign responding? Its one thing to spout campaign rhetoric of I’m the Tough Guy (tough on crime, tough on terrorists, tough on proliferaters)–there are votes to be won there–but its another thing to be the war candidate–there are only votes to be lost there. Contrast the R-10’s tough talk on Iran with the subtle attempts to open some distance between themselves and the President in Iraq.

Plus (to pay homage to my friend’s leanings here), where’s the money in it? The “Special interests” of the ‘war machine’ and oil people have their hands full in Iraq, which has turned out, I would argue, to be less of a payoff (or rather a much more costly investment for a payoff), than anticipated. There’s plenty of oil in Iraq left un-tapped, who can handle Iran’s on top of that? Who even needs it? Even Blackwater probably can’t handle an Iran operation on top of Iraq, they’re very busy as it is.

The only analytical tools in the IR kit that leaves open the possibility of war are the individual / psychological / group-think ones. Its still possible for key actors to misperceive the situation and massively screw things up. More likely, though, is that there remains a core of true believers, blinded by ideology, within the administration that necessarily include the President and VP. These folks, in a group-think situation, could talk themselves into a war with Iran. You do see hints of this– anything that comes out of Cheney’s office (see the lead-in above), Bush at some point saying he wanted to deal with Iran and not leave it for the next president. So, like the Tuesday lunch group, they could decide that a war with Iran is the way to go.

But, again, I consider that highly unlikely. When that happened with Iraq, the decision was a ‘slam dunk’ but the legitimation and justification and bringing the country / bureaucracy along was much easier due to the political alignment at the time and post-9-11 shock of the country that was suddenly in a mood to go after ‘those guys’. Those things aren’t there any more, and even if Bush and Cheney wanted a war, I just don’t see how they could sell it and get the necessary support within the government and within the country to make it work. When you hear that John Ashcroft, of all people, and his senior staff almost resigned en-mass after the president ordered certain domestic spying programs, and you look at the reception Gen. Newbold now gets, its all the sudden plausible to believe that a revolt of the Generals or Senior State / DoD / Intel staff is possible in the event of a proposed War with Iran.

So, no, I don’t see it as likely.


Whither Hegemony?

There were two sets of very interesting comments on my recent post on hegemony. Bill Petti questions whether US hegemony only has another few decades left in its lifespan. At the most basic level, Bill is right. I definitely overstated the case. At the same time, Bill presents far too optimistic a picture of the prospects for medium-term American primacy.

Bill argues that hegemonic decline is driven by one of four processes: “imperial overstretch, economic decline, and either purposeful retrenchment (i.e. Britain) or internal collapse (i.e. the Soviet Union).”

Let’s start with the first process: overextension The US is not, as Bill suggests, in any real danger of “imperial overstretch.” Some may find this view surprising. After all, a lot of people are talking about how the US military is badly overextended by its current commitments (particularly in Iraq) and cannot recruit sufficient new soldiers.

Our present forces are, indeed, overextended. But this isn’t a matter of actual capabilities so much as it is one of political will. American politicians, not to mention the general public, simply don’t have the appetite to make the kind of real economic and physical sacrifices required for shifting the US economy towards a real war footing. Our defense budget may dwarf that of other countries in raw terms, but it remains around 3.6% of GDP. During the Vietnam War, in contrast, US defense expenditures peaked at about 9.8% of GDP. If the US wanted to commit significantly more resources to the military, reinstate the draft, and otherwise move towards full mobilization, it could do so and shoulder a far more extensive overseas commitment than it currently does.

We should, however, be cautious about the logic of imperial “overstretch.” Hegemonic overextension clearly does happen; as Bill notes, it was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. But my own reading of a number of putative cases of hegemonic overextension is different than the conventional argument. Overstretch tends not to be an autonomous cuase of hegemonic decline, but is generally an effect of underlying problems: economic stagnation, the erosion of a hegemonic-order’s legitimacy, or counterbalancing by other states against the hegemon.1

The analytic problem here is that any declining hegemon is going to suffer, almost by definition, from overextension: the very fact of its decline will make a hegemon incapable of maintaining its foreign commitments. Thus, political overextension is often crucial to the end of hegemonies. Hegemons, or empires, tend to get into trouble when they lose the resolve to continue their commitments. The real problems come when hegemonic orders lose their legitimacy among allies and clients. This leads to escalating resistance to the hegemon, rebellions in areas the hegemon dominates, and the emergence of alliances to counter the hegemon’s influence.

The US is far from that point, but there are a number of early warning signs that suggest the general erosion of American legitimacy in the international arena may prove quite dangerous in the future.2

This all matters for John Ikenberry’s claims about the US-led hegemonic order. I think John is right that the US created a more durable order than those of the past few centuries, and that its durability is founded on more than the public goods it provides. The American hegemonic order also includes many “voice opportunities” for weaker states through international institutions. These institutions helped “bind” the US by restricting its ability to enage in unilateral action.

Indeed, these features of the post-1945 order reassured a great many states that the US would use its disproportionate power to become a kind of global predator – doing whatever it wanted to whomever it wanted. Yet the Bush administration has actively undermined key components of that order. If the US continues on this course, all bets are off. Indeed, John basically admits that much in his article for Prospect. 3

But these are, by in large, the less important reasons to think the days of US hegemony are numbers. For one, the world is clearly multipolar in an economic sense. For another, straight-line growth projections suggest declining US relative economic power for some time. Bill is right that there are a lot of unknown variables. China could implode. There are structural features of its economy that suggest it can’t sustain its current growth for that much longer. The EU could fail to get its act together, and its attempts at coordinating its defense policy have failed pretty miserably. 4

Moreover, the US still provides significant public goods, particularly in terms of global security, that create strong disincentives for most potential rivals to challenge US dominance. Yet the underlying dynamics are moving away from the US. And, as the saying goes, nothing lasts forever. The Empire on which the “Sun Never Sets” now consists, in the main, of Gibraltar, Diego Garcia, and part of Ireland.5

In the final analysis, US hegemony may last for ten years, twenty years, or even fifty or seventy years. But don’t expect it to be around much longer than that, barring a US victory in a great war or some other major changes in world politics. And even if the US continues to be the only global military great power for some time, a lot of these trends are likely to make their effects felt on the regional level long before they impact the global distribution of power.

PS: Patrick’s comments are particularly interesting, because they raise issues involved in scenario planning. I’ll try to get to them in a later post.

(This entry has been modified and edited since its initial posting)

1Most examples of hegemonic powers, such as Habsburg Spain, Imperial Rome, Victorian Britain, and Bourbon France, were also empires.
2Steve Brooks and Bill Wohlforth have been working on a paper (link is to a PDF of a draft; they have articles on the subject forthcoming in International Security and Perspectives on Politics) in which they argue that, despite lots of anti-US rhetoric, we haven’t really seen any discernible costs to the US from its unpopular policies; apparent instances of “soft balancing” (attempts to check US power through diplomatic rather than military means) are more rhetoric than substance.
3Given this, I wonder if John’s logic still works. Imagine that in 2008 a multilateralist Democrat wins the White House. That would certainly smooth things over with, for example, Europe. But given the ease with which the Bush administration alternatively shreds and shuns all manner of treaties, I am not sure it will ever be as easy again for the US to credibly commit to institutionalized restraint.
4I went to college during the era of Rising Sun, Japan as Number One, and The Japan That Can Say ‘No’. Believe me, I know better than to rely on straightforward extrapolations of current trends.
5Yeah, yeah. I know. And Scotland and Wales. And the Falklands. And Bermuda – update courtesy of Murray Gregorson, former Georgetown student, future political theorist of repute.


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