Tag: threats

Tweets of the Week #2


Welcome to the second edition of “Tweets of the Week.” It was a busy seven days for news and my twitter feed provided much useful information — in micro-form.

The Scottish independence referendum featured especially prominently in my feed. This was perhaps my favorite tweet about the final result:

Prior to the vote, my feed was filled with some great tweets about the #indyref. Here are a few of the shorter ones that I found especially helpful:


The Scottish referendum, of course, was not the only interesting issue in global politics this week. And, over the long haul, it almost assuredly wasn’t the most important either.

For example, the continuing spread of Ebola might be the biggest near-term threat to international security — depending upon how we define “security.”

No matter how depressed you might be about the prospect of new war in the Middle East, this tweet helps provide context:

But read this too, on ISIS/ISIL:

It also seems appropriate to be worried about Ukraine:

Finally, here’s a blast from the past that might be quite helpful in a class that is discussing renewed war in Iraq:


The Scottish Threat Environment: Insecurity, Fears and Independence

This article is cross posted from the Scottish Global Forum.  In this form it is slightly modified and hyperlinked.

The Nature of Threats to Scotland

In March of 2015, a cry goes out in the town centre, everyone reacts quickly.  Valuables are hidden underground; women and children are stored in hideaways to be kept safe until the danger is over.  The sacred and expensive items in the church are removed and the priests flee – they are often the first targeted.  The town moves to the defenses, but there is little that they can do to counter the oncoming scourge.  The Vikings are off the coast of Scotland, again.  Scrooge_mc_Duck_full_color_by_MacOneill

The scenario described above is obviously an absurd fiction; however, there is little disconnect between this scenario and the context of the current debate surrounding the security of an independent Scotland.  I have followed the debate on Scottish independence with great interest and have done so through the eyes of a ‘new immigrant’ to Scotland, one who studies war and conflict as a profession.  One of the most troubling aspects of this debate is the continued reference to ‘external threat’ to Scotland.  The narrative is framed in a way which suggests that Scotland cannot become independent because it cannot afford to secure its own international environment and borders.  It is almost if the Vikings remain a rational fear in 2013.

Continue reading


Words are Wind?

 In the fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, it seems like every character at some point says: “Words are Wind.”  This means that a promise or threat is being made, but there may not be any credibility.  Without getting sunk into an overly academic debate about the credibility of commitments, signaling and resolve, I just wanted to highlight a promise or two that might be “wind-worthy.”

Specifically, NATO, the US, the Danes, the Canadians, and everyone else keeps telling the Afghans that they will not be abandoned even as everyone is already heading out the door with official transition to take place in 2014.  Why should the Afghans believe the international community?  Are there any other promises that folks are making that have heaps of doubt built in?

So, here is the contest: can you name a promise or threat in international relations (we will omit statements of confidence by owners and general managers in various NFL head coaches aside for now) that has as little credibility as the assurances made to the Afghans?


Which New Year’s Eve would you rather celebrate?

Dan Drezner and Bill have both flagged Randy Schweller’s new piece in National Interest. I’ve just finished reading the piece and I agree with them – it’s really a depressing read. But, it’s the type of piece that we see periodically – it tries to take stock of the state of the global politics and IR scholars’ understanding of it. In many way, it reads a lot like Mearsheimer’s “Why We Will Miss the Cold War” or Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?” It aims high and tries to explain large systemic events by using a lot of broad generalizations to develop the core argument that we live in a world of disorder.

But, it got me to thinking (and since we’re all making lists of one sort or another as we end the first decade of the 21st century), how does this New Year’s Eve (and the transition from this decade to the next) compare to the past ten or so decade transitions. How unsettling is our current era relative to others? Which New Year’s Eve on the brink of a new decade would you rather celebrate?

Here’s how I’d rank mine:

1. 1999 -2000: Post-1989 but pre-9/11. Ah, the days when our biggest threat was that Y2K was going to destroy us all. Cool Millenium concerts.

2. 1989 – 1990: The fall of communism in Eastern Europe – the only real question was how would it end in Moscow. Democratization’s third wave was snowballing….

3. 2009 – 2010: Is unipolarity and American hegemony really a bust? Environmental degradation, resource scarcity, demographic stress all sound scary but many of these threats are distant while terrorism and proliferation do not seem to convey the existential threat we experienced during much of the Cold War.

4. 1959- 1960: End of the Eisenhower era and we had settled into the Cold War; but I still wouldn’t trade tonight for 1959 — kids were practicing duck and cover in school and tens of thousands of Americans were building nuclear bomb shelters in their backyards. (I grew up in North Dakota and we still had the duck and cover drills in the late sixties — remember kids, even a piece of paper can help shelter you from fallout…)

5. 1979 – 1980: Collapse of Détente and a renewal of the Cold War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Nicaraguan revolution, the Iranian revolution, global economic recession, oil price spikes, persistent claims of US in decline — sucked to be us.

6. 1969 – 1970: Escalation of the Vietnam War — 40K+ Americans already dead as well as several hundred thousand Vietnamese; a spiraling of the arms race and social tensions in much of the West.

7. 1949 – 1950: The eruption of the Cold War with a series of crises/war scares from 1946 to 1949 culminated with the Soviet detonation of an atomic weapon in August, 1949 and the Chinese revolution in October. State S/P was drafting NSC-68 = scary.

8. 1929 – 1930: U.S. stock market collapse in October, 1929 fueling the global depression, collapse of the global trading system, etc…

9. 1919-1920: Early post-WWI recovery – refugees, property destruction, grief, a generation of young men perished, feuding among the allies, the promise of Versailles was history… Not a happy time.

10. 1939 – 1940: WWII begins in September, 1939. Enough said

I’d just add one note that I hadn’t fully anticipated before my developing my list, but my ranking goes from unipolarity, to bipolarity, to multipolarity. Hmmm…. Happy New Year’s!


Iran’s Sputnik

Earlier this week, Iran put a satellite into space for the first time. The AP covered it on Wednesday, February 4:

The telecommunications satellite – called Omid, or hope, in Farsi – was launched late Monday after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave the order to proceed, according to a report on state radio. State television showed footage of what it said was the nighttime liftoff of the rocket carrying the satellite at an unidentified location in Iran.

At least unofficially, some experts within the U.S. government seem to be trying to play down the importance of this event — comparing it without context to a Soviet launch more than 50 years ago:

A U.S. counterproliferation official confirmed the launch and suggested the technology was not sophisticated. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence-gathering, the official said it appeared it “isn’t too far removed from Sputnik,” the first Soviet orbiter launched in 1957.

However, as The New York Times reported, not everyone in the government dismisses the significance of this technological achievement:

In Washington, the State Department called the event worrisome. “Iran’s development of a space launch vehicle establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems,” said Robert A. Wood, a department spokesman.

At the White House, Robert Gibbs sounded fairly hawkish too.

My dissertation had a lengthy case study chapter on the U.S. reaction to Sputnik — it was certainly not “ho-hum.” At the time, U.S. security experts believed that a state that could put a satellite into space could probably launch a missile soon. Threat perceptions soared. Sputnik dominated the news for weeks. It was a VERY BIG DEAL.

Interestingly, in its story about the Iranian launch, Voice of America quoted an expert who makes the launch sound defensive:

“They want a nuclear weapon to defend their territory, defend their government. They live in a very tough neighborhood. They are surrounded by nuclear states – Russia, China, Pakistan, India. And, too, Israel and the United States,” The Ploughshares Fund, President Joseph Cirincione explains.

However, Sam Sedaei at the Huffington Post seems to think the media overplayed the alleged threat signaled by Iran’s satellite — and he’s not talking about the right-wing media. Sedaei criticizes the Times and The Guardian!

Despite this concern, I think the coverage was reasonably balanced and I applaud the Obama administration for exhibiting some concern without panic. As we all recall from the Iraq debate, there’s more than one way for public officials and media to address this kind of stuff.


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.



Scholar Larry Diamond resides at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, but he worked for the Bush administration in Iraq just a couple of years ago. He thinks that a war with Iran might be in the cards:

President Bush’s neoconservative advisors and pundit supporters have been beating the drums of war with Iran since 2003, when the president declared Iran to be part of an “axis of evil.” Recall that a senior administration official told The Times that Iran should “take a number” in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. In his recent address to the nation on the troop surge in Iraq, Bush issued more threats to Iran. Now the president has named a Navy admiral to head the U.S. Central Command and dispatched a second aircraft carrier and minesweepers to the Persian Gulf, presumably to prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz in the event of conflict.

These developments and other administration moves could presage an air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Here at the Duck and on my own blog, I’ve been blogging about the drumbeat for war for awhile now.

Skeptics should keep Diamond’s warning in mind, since “recklessness, not prudence, has been the hallmark of this administration’s foreign policy.” Condi Rice’s former colleague wants Congress to hold hearings and prevent war against Iran NOW — unless there’s “an imminent attack or a verified terrorist attack on the United States by Iran.”

Carter administraiton National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski is also very worried, as he testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 1:

If the United States continues to be bogged down in a protracted bloody involvement in Iraq, the final destination on this downhill track is likely to be a head-on conflict with Iran and with much of the world of Islam at large. A plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks; followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure; then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the U.S. blamed on Iran; culminating in a “defensive” U.S. military action against Iran that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

A mythical historical narrative to justify the case for such a protracted and potentially expanding war is already being articulated. Initially justified by false claims about WMD’s in Iraq, the war is now being redefined as the “decisive ideological struggle” of our time, reminiscent of the earlier collisions with Nazism and Stalinism. In that context, Islamist extremism and al Qaeda are presented as the equivalents of the threat posed by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia, and 9/11 as the equivalent of the Pearl Harbor attack which precipitated America’s involvement in World War II.

As Dr. Brzezinski noted, the threat comparison is absurd since Germany and the Soviet Union were powerful states with great resources, while few Muslims follow the “isolated fundamentalist Islamist aberration” that is al Qaeda.

On the bright side, there’s at least some evidence that the Bush administration might be backing off on some of its claims about Iran.


Film class — week 12

Film #12 “Network” (1976). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us,” 51 The New York Review of Books, February 26, 2004.

PIPA (Program on International Policy) and Knowledge Networks Poll, “Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War,” October 2, 2003.

I selected this film for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the power of transnational corporations in global politics. Arthur Jensen, head of a conglomerate that owns the television network highlighted in the film’s title, eventually lectures anchorman-turned-prophet Howard Beale:

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, Reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today.

…You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen, and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM and ITT and A T & T and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

…We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale! It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that perfect world in which there’s no war and famine, oppression or brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

That speaker uses hyperbole, of course, but it is not all that far removed from some of the points made by globalization cheerleaders in the past decade or so.

The second reason I selected the film is that it emphasizes the role of the media in highlighting violence in the world — particularly terrorist violence. Ultimately, the UBS network executives hire a terrorist group to commit and film acts of terror so that the footage can be usedly in a weekly scheduled program. Unsurprisingly, this choice proves to be a ratings bonanza.

Before 9/11, terror experts in the social sciences argued that terrorists did not want to kill large numbers of people — and that their primary goal was to gain attention for their political cause. As Brian Jenkins wrote in 1987, “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” In this film, perhaps as in real life, television and terrorists work synergistically, with insufficient discussion of the societal implications.

The readings selected for this week addressed the media’s role in manipulating information used to promote war. Massing’s much-discussed piece elaborates the failure of the New York Times and Washington Post to investigate Bush administration claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Even when the papers did identify and cover dissent, they tended to place these stories well within their pages, rather than on the front page where hawkish administration claims were typically found.

The PIPA study, however, found that people were far less likely to have been misled about the Iraq war if they relied upon print media rather than television for their news. Unfortunately, 80% of the people they surveyed primary relied upon TV. Viewers of Fox and CBS were particularly likely to think (erroneously) that WMD had been found in Iraq, that Iraq had participated in the 9/11 attacks on the US, and/or that most of the world supported the US attack in March 2003.

The least likely members of the public to suffer the misperceptions? Viewers of PBS and listeners of NPR. While 80% of Fox viewers believed one or more misperceptions about the war (along with 71% of CBS’s audience, 61% ABC, and 55% NBC and CNN), only 23% of the PBS-NPR audience had these beliefs. For readers of print media, the corresponding figure is 47%.

In “Network,” every UBS programming decision is made with an eye toward achieving higher ratings and increasing advertising revenues. The executives find a way to avoid potential roadblocks from their own legal affairs advisors, standards and practices offices and FCC regulators.

As critic Roger Ebert pointed out in a 2000 review, “the movie has been described as ‘outrageous satire’ (Leonard Maltin) and ‘messianic farce’ (Pauline Kael),” but “a quarter-century later, it is like prophecy.”

My students have seen Osama bin Laden’s home movies and viewed the twin towers being hit by commercial aircraft — and then falling. Like the rest of us, they saw these images again and again and again. They have seen the shocking images from Abu Ghraib, heard the rants of Bill O’Reilly, and watched Jerry Springer’s guests scream and fight with one another. What was nearly over-the-top in 1976, a live on-air assassination, seems almost like regular programming now.

After viewing “Network,” I wanted the students to think about why they have repeatedly seen all these images. Who makes those decisions? Why do they make those decisions? Who benefits? What are the social and political costs? Does it make certain threats seem overblown? Does it make all of us vulnerable to manipulative leaders? What is the public interest?

Filed as:


Film class — week 10

Film #10 “Wag the Dog” (1997). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Jane Kellett Cramer, “‘Just Cause’ or Just Politics? U.S. Panama Invasion and Standardizing Qualitative Tests for Diversionary War,” 32 Armed Forces & Society, Spring 2006, pp. 178-201.

The students and I are in the midst of watching a number of comedies about global politics in order to consider various critical perspectives. After all, among other virtues, comedies amplify the ridiculous and help one identify hypocrisy.

The biting satirical film “Wag the Dog” was made in 1997, but it resonated powerfully throughout the political year 1998. In January of that latter year, the Drudge Report broke the Monica Lewinsky story — though President Bill Clinton quite famously and publicly denied the nature of the relationship. In late July, the former White House intern testified to Ken Starr’s Grand Jury under immunity. On August 17, President Bill Clinton went before that same panel to give his side of the story. Clinton gave a speech later that night admitting publicly that he had had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.

On August 20, American cruise missiles struck in Afghanistan and Sudan.

By December, impeachment proceedings against Clinton were well under way in the House of Representatives. The impeachment votes were held on December 19.

From December 16 to 19, the US conducted a major air bombardment campaign against Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) because Saddam Hussein was failing to comply with UN Security Council resolutions concerning weapons inspections.

Clinton critics charged that both these uses of force were diversionary. However, the scholar Ryan Hendrickson has developed four propositions for identifying diversionary wars and concludes that these two 1998 cases failed to meet the tests.

After all, missing from the above chronology are a couple of important facts from August. On the 7th, al Qaeda terrorists bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing over 250 people and wounding thousands. The armed US response came less than two weeks later.

Also that month, Iraq terminated its cooperation with UN weapons inspections. The Republican-controlled Congress later passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which Clinton signed on October 31. In November, under US and British pressure, Hussein allowed weapons inspectors to return, but continued to play cat-and-mouse games with them — perhaps to give Iran the false impression that he had weapons of mass destruction. In any case, Clinton had briefed leaders of Congress about the possibility of armed response three weeks prior to the attacks — and publicly declared that the US needed to strike before Ramadan.

These events did not merely provide Clinton with a good cover story; rather, they suggest that he was using force in response to the international context.

Cramer, in contrast, concludes that George H.W. Bush did undertake a diversionary war against Panama in 1989. As I’ve previously noted, Bush the elder certainly used that odd occasion to declare an end to the “Vietnam syndrome.”

During class, the students and I discussed Hendrickson’s proposition’s (as modified by Cramer) in the context of the current Iraq war. I had asked them each to investigate at least two of the propositions vis-à-vis the current war. Given the lengthy public debate and buildup to war, it is very difficult to argue that Iraq was was a diversionary war. Plus, political scientists seldom find evidence for diversionary wars. It was easy to find evidence for a couple of the propositions — the diplomacy was seemingly cut short, the use of force seemed premature and there was great international criticism of the war.

Finally, we discussed the well-known “rally ’round the flag” effect and wondered if Presidents might be tempted to use force to build support for an otherwise unpopular political agenda — or perhaps as a means to consolidate political power. These may seem like scenarios from 1984, but sometimes it seems as if these are Orwellian times.

Filed as:


Film class — week 2

Film #2: “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949). We watched it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: by the neorealist John J. Mearsheimer, “Power and Fear in Great Power Politics,” in G.O. Mazur, ed., One Hundred Year Commemoration to the Life of Hans Morgenthau (1904-2004) (New York: Semenenko Foundation, 2004), pp. 184-196.

In this brief chapter, Mearsheimer outlines some of the basic tenets of his influential theory of offensive neorealism, which emphasizes the role of fear in motivating tragic state action. Horrible wars and costly arms races occur even though no state necessarily seeks them. This is primarly because of the anarchic nature of international relations.

States know that other states possess offensive forces; yet, they cannot predict their intentions, cannot trust their assurances, and cannot rely upon others (or certainly not a central authority) to restrain these other states. Therefore, they have little choice but to make worst-case assumptions and to pursue more and more power. Such (difference maximizing) strategies are adopted to assure their own relative success (and to avoid loss).

In the film, Gregory Peck plays a hard-ass General in World War II who is put in charge of an air unit that is both critical to the war effort — and failing. The previous leader was a nice guy, even a friend of Peck’s, but he was not getting the necessary “maximum effort” out of his forces. Part of the problem is that the US employs daytime precision bombing, which is more accurate for hitting targets, but far more deadly for air crews.

Peck’s character, General Frank Savage, said this to his men on his first day on the job:

We’ve got to fight and some of us have got to die. I’m not telling you not to be afraid. Fear is normal. But stop worrying about it, and about yourselves. Stop making plans. Forget about going home. Consider yourselves dead. Once you accept that idea, it won’t be so tough.

How’s that for rallying the troops?

You can probably guess a fair amount of the storyline. I won’t reveal the plot details, but will say that the men become more engaged with the fighting when the bombing turns directly to German military targets and away from various missions over France.

The film has some genuine air bombing footage courtesy of the “War Department” and is well-acted by a good cast. If you eat various Kellogg’s cereals, you can even order a free copy of the DVD.

Filed as:


“Be sceptical. Be very, very sceptical.”

Craig Murray was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan, until he was recalled in October 2004. His posting was supposed to run through November 2005, so he was clearly sacked from this position, as they say in the UK. In early 2005, Murray resigned from the Foreign Office.

Before his dismissal, Murray was publicly criticizing the human rights policies of the Uzbek government — and privately condemning the Blair government for emulating the US and outsourcing torture. Murray says his dismissal was politically motivated, while the British government says the diplomatic recall was for “operational reasons.” Critics note that Murray was previously investigated for a variety of misdeeds and was charged with being drunk on the job and misuse of an embassy vehicle.

Why am I providing such detail? Well, Murray has written an explosive blog post about last week’s UK terror bust that has not received much attention in the US — though it is beginning to circulate around the web. The title for this blog post comes from his closing line.

Why is Murray skeptical of the official story? First, Murray has been very critical of the hyperbole used to sell the Iraq war and he points out in comments that a number of other British terror cases have been overblown. The evidence in this case doesn’t look so strong to his eyes:

None of the alleged terrorists had made a bomb. None had bought a plane ticket. Many did not even have passports, which given the efficiency of the UK Passport Agency would mean they couldn’t be a plane bomber for quite some time.

Moreover, Murray says that the only evidence about the airliner plot emerged from the Pakistani part of the investigation — and he’s convinced that it was obtained by torture and is thus potentially worthless. On this point, Murray speaks from first-hand diplomatic experience in Uzbekistan:

many of those arrested had been under surveillance for over a year – like thousands of other British Muslims….Nothing from that surveillance had indicated the need for early arrests.

Then an interrogation in Pakistan revealed the details of this amazing plot to blow up multiple planes – which, rather extraordinarily, had not turned up in a year of surveillance. Of course, the interrogators of the Pakistani dictator have their ways of making people sing like canaries. As I witnessed in Uzbekistan, you can get the most extraordinary information this way. Trouble is it always tends to give the interrogators all they might want, and more, in a desperate effort to stop or avert torture. What it doesn’t give is the truth….

As they were all under surveillance, and certainly would have been on airport watch lists, there could have been little danger in letting them proceed closer to maturity – that is certainly what we would have done with the IRA.

Murray attributes the arrests to domestic political pressures on George W. Bush and Tony Blair and points out that the media have “bought, wholesale, all the rubbish they have been shovelled.”

Have they?

NBC news has been reporting about political pressure in this case for a couple of days:

U.S. and British authorities had a significant disagreement over when to move in on the suspects in the alleged plot to bring down trans-Atlantic airliners bound for the United States.

British officials knowledgeable about the case said British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence, while American officials pressured them to arrest the suspects sooner.

Suspected ringleader Rashid Rauf was arrested in Pakistan “over the objections of the British” and the story says US officials had threatened to “render” him.

An unnamed “senior British official” told NBC that an attack “was not imminent.” In initial reports, “one American official” used the same phrase when talking to The New York Times.

Hopefully, in the coming months, we’ll learn whether this was a successful case of anti-terror law enforcement — or yet another example of threat inflation designed to serve political purposes.

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The lies that lead to war

Iraq is merely the latest example of the US going to war under apparently false pretenses. In the debate leading up to the war against Iraq, the “mushroom cloud” fears were almost completely unfounded.

Ironically, of course, intelligence to challenge the claim was publicly available before the war. Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel prize winning Director of the IAEA, reported on March 7, 2003:

After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq.

The IAEA conducted 281 inspections at 141 sites, examined the forged Niger documents, looked into the question of uranium importation and enrichment, looked at the importation of aluminum tubes and high-strength magnets, and interviewed key scientists and public officials.

Did the administration distort the evidence? Or, were the intelligence agencies completely and horribly wrong? A third possibility also exists: did some intelligence sources knowingly distort the evidence?

Don’t dismiss the third alternative out of hand.

The work of an historian for the National Security Agency (NSA) has recently been disclosed by a non-governmental historian, revealing that NSA officers may have intentionally cooked the intelligence about a North Vietnamese attack on a US warship that never happened. This transgression was deliberate, but it was apparently designed to cover up honest mistakes of tradecraft. There had been an attack against US assets on August 2 and someone completely misinterpreted followup communiques about the first attack. The New York Times, October 31, 2005:

The N.S.A. historian, Robert J. Hanyok, found a pattern of translation mistakes that went uncorrected, altered intercept times and selective citation of intelligence that persuaded him that midlevel agency officers had deliberately skewed the evidence.

Mr. Hanyok concluded that they had done it not out of any political motive but to cover up earlier errors, and that top N.S.A. and defense officials and Johnson neither knew about nor condoned the deception.

The claim that the attack did not happen is now new. For some time, historians have been pointing out that the alleged second North Vietnamese attack on US destroyers, ostensibly on August 4, 1964, never happened. In 1988, for example, Admiral James Stockdale revealed in The Washington Post that he was a personal observer to the supposed incident — and that it did not happen.

The new claim is that intelligence operatives intentionally relayed false information about an alleged threat (a second attack).

In reaction to the phantom attack, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Lyndon B. Johnson adminstration used that to prosecute all-out war against North Vietnam. By 1969, the US had over half a million troops “in country.”

As John Prados and others have previously discussed, the US conducted a covert operation on August 2, 1964, which provoked the initial North Vietnamese attack that day. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, however, later misleadingly told Congress that the covert operations were conducted by South Vietnamese forces. The US conducted additional covert raids on August 3-4, but the North did not respond with another attack on the US destroyer deployed near the Gulf.

The White House knew by August 5, 1964, that the evidence for the second attack was uncertain, at best. However, it appears that the initial US response was made in relatively good faith — the Secretary of Defense and President thought the North Vietnamese had made a second attack.

Want another case? Consider the Persian Gulf War, though it is harder to assess the threat analysis because the Pentagon data has not yet been declassified. Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2002:

When George H. W. Bush ordered American forces to the Persian Gulf – to reverse Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait – part of the administration case was that an Iraqi juggernaut was also threatening to roll into Saudi Arabia.

Citing top-secret satellite images, Pentagon officials estimated in mid–September that up to 250,000 Iraqi troops and 1,500 tanks stood on the border, threatening the key US oil supplier.

But when the St. Petersburg Times in Florida acquired two commercial Soviet satellite images of the same area, taken at the same time, no Iraqi troops were visible near the Saudi border – just empty desert.

“It was a pretty serious fib,” says Jean Heller, the Times journalist who broke the story….

Shortly before US strikes began in the Gulf War, for example, the St. Petersburg Times asked two experts to examine the satellite images of the Kuwait and Saudi Arabia border area taken in mid-September 1990, a month and a half after the Iraqi invasion. The experts, including a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who specialized in desert warfare, pointed out the US build-up – jet fighters standing wing-tip to wing-tip at Saudi bases – but were surprised to see almost no sign of the Iraqis.

“That [Iraqi buildup] was the whole justification for Bush sending troops in there, and it just didn’t exist,” Ms. Heller says. Three times Heller contacted the office of Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (now vice president) for evidence refuting the Times photos or analysis – offering to hold the story if proven wrong.

The official response: “Trust us.” To this day, the Pentagon’s photographs of the Iraqi troop buildup remain classified.

A House Armed Services Committee report also later concluded that Iraq had only 183,000 troops in 1990, less than half the number the Pentagon claimed it was facing at the time.

As some sources in the CSM story point out, the same people who lied (and/or were wrong) in 1990 were many of the same people talking about Iraq’s threat in 2002. For example, the first Bush’s Secretary of Defense in 1990-1991 was Dick Cheney.

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