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The U.S. is Not Going to Disengage from the Mideast

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Dave Schuler of the Glittering Eye is involved in a formal debate at Outside the Beltway with Dr. Bernard Finel over the role of the United States in the Mideast. Dr. Finel is arguing for a grand bug-out, or at least a serious reduction in “footprint” and “fingerprint”, and Dave is going to argue the negative.

Here is the introduction by Dave:

Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Intro)

One of my common patterns of thought is to frame any given proposition as a debate proposal, I did so in this specific context, and said as much in the comments to the post. Dr Finel was kind of enough to respond to my comment with enthusiasm, welcoming a debate with me on the subject.

Over the next week or so we’ll be debating the following proposition:

Resolved: that the United States should disengage from the Middle East

Dr. Finel will make the affirmative case; I will provide the negative.

Dr. Finel’s affirmative case will be posted in the next day or so; it will be followed by my cross-examination; I’ll state my negative case; Dr. Finel will cross-examine me; and so on.

Debating is a form seen only occasionally in the blogosphere and I think this is an exciting project. The longer format, extending over multiple posts, will enable us to explore the subject in more detail than is usually found in the hit-and-run blog post. It’s an important topic and, regardless of the immediate situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is worthy of substantial reflection, rarely seen as a consequence of the poverty of our public discourse which is mainly limited to headlines, op-eds, and sound bites and is often enmeshed in partisan squabbling.

Dr. Finel, who is a senior fellow at the American Security Project, has opened with the following post:

Pulling Out: Debating Middle East Disengagement (Affirmative)

….The second issue is oil. The U.S. presence in the Middle East does serve to reduce some of the risks associated with the Western world’s reliances on Middle Eastern oil. It does not lower the cost necessarily, but it may reduce some potential for volatility in supply. But the cost of this risk mitigation is tremendous. We pay for lowering the supply risk with increased risk of terrorist attacks, greater hostility from the Arab population, and the costs of men and materiel associated with military commitments. Are there other ways to reduce those risks? Of course there are. They include investments in alternative energy, oil exporation at home, better fuel efficiency from cars. Certainly those are costly measures in the short-run, but so is deep involvement in a volatile region. In the long-run, the calculus is easy. Energy independence is a strategic imperative.

This excerpt shortchanges the breadth of Finel’s argument, which you should read in full here.

First, I’d like to commend both gentlemen for making use of the formal debate method. Construction of a reasoned argument in a civil debate is the blogosphere at it’s best. I intend to follow this debate as it evolves.

I know Dave to be a deeply thoughtful, well informed and even tempered commentator. I do not know Dr. Finel, though his c.v. seems impressive to me and he probably has a number of interesting things to say on terrorism policy. As a strategist however, he is not winning me over, though in terms of tactics, he accurately identifies many points of irritation that traditional U.S. policy has for the Arab World. The answer for that irritant is not amputation.

The thesis that regions of the world will move to a better state of polity with an absence of American presence or influence is not “counterintuitive” as Finel suggests – it’s a position lacking in real world evidence. The world’s absolute worst regimes have the least interaction with the United States or with globalization and movements like Islamism have intrinsic drivers, not simple Act-React mechanisms.

Alternate energy sources are a long term – a very long term – solution. In terms of technological application with immediate policy effect, it is the equivalent of Edward Teller’s vision of SDI in 1987. By all means, invest in alternative energy but even throwing $ 100 billion at the problem in fiscal year 2009 is not going to disconnect the United States, much less the West, from oil in 2010 or even 2020. Any reduction in our own oil consumption by the use of alternate energy sources in coming decades will more than be made up by rising Asian demand and the Gulf will increase, rather than decrease, in importance as a geopolitical “choke point”.

More on 2025

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

A follow up with some good commentary on Global Trends 2025.

Dave Schuler writing at Outside the Beltway:

…This idea goes gack to Thomas Carlyle. It’s the “Great Man” theory of history and I think it’s a load of bull. While individual historical figures, e. g. Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Mao, may bring color and texture to the fabric of history that fabric is formed by economics, demographics, and social structures. Gaius Julius Caesar might have elected never to cross the Rubicon into the precincts of Rome, fomenting the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. Rome would still have been expansionist and there would still have been an empire. Rome’s location, population, and way of life demanded it. We’d just have used some other word for monarch than Kaiser or tsar.

France was loaded for bear after the French Revolution. Even without Napoleon’s military genius it still would have spread the Revolution all over Europe. It might not have invaded Russia but it most certainly would have invaded Italy.

And so on. The ghastly thing about that pronouncement in this document is that it has nothing whatever to do with the meat of the document at all. Nowhere do the authors demonstrate how the choices of individual leaders will influence the world of 2025. If they’re saying that the world of 2025 is completely unpredictable because it will be so completely formed by the decisions of unpredictable leaders in that world they could have stopped this 120 page report at page 25.

There is a repeated confusion of absolute growth with relative growth. While emphasizing the significance of the latter they don’t seem to appreciate that it’s absolute power, strength, and wealth that’s important not relative power, strength, and wealth. China is powerful because of its enormous size not just because of its relative growth, however dramatic that might be. The U. S.’s continued absolute power, strength, and wealth despite the relative change in power, strength, and wealth insures U. S. pre-eminence for the foreseeable future, even with our present economic downturn. Were it otherwise Luxembourg would be the most important country in the world.

Read the rest here

There’s a synergy between great men and their times. Without Adolf Hitler, WWII is a localized, limited, war over the degree to which France and Britain  were going to accept Germany politically dominating the smaller states of Eastern Europe (Germany’s economic domination was inevitable). Without Germany’s defeat in WWI, Versailles and the Depression there would have been no Hitler as Fuhrer of a Nazi regime.

Dave is right that the document is very weak and in need of systems thinkers from the hard and soft sciences and experts on cultural touchstones. Except for a distinct minority, most professional historians shy away from that kind of extrapolation and speculation due to their methodology regarding evidence, or at least they limit the scope of such activities. Historians and futurists are not the same thing, though the two should engage with one another.

Historians as a group tend to excel at going deep on particular subjects with only secondary concern how that subject relates to everything else.  I’ve never been content to accept that, seeing historical knowledge as a platform or scaffold upon which to build new ideas. When I began my first master’s degree, I proposed doing a comparison of the development of the American Populist movement with the Russian Narodniki and People’s Will of the same period. The professor smiled wryly and said that topic was interesting but of a suitable size to be better left for a magnum opus to close out my career.

Analysis is enriched by consilience.

Russia Policy: Trying to Make A Virtue Out of Having Ceded the Initiative

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

I had actually intended to post briefly on the implications of the Russo-Georgian War for State vs. State warfare and 4GW but today’s reactions by the Bush administration and Senators McCain and Obama are a more important concern. The United States has no strategic policy in regard to Russia – and if the statements of the candidates for president are to be believed – we won’t have one in the next four years either.

President Bush, speaking today:

….As I have made clear, Russia’s ongoing action raise serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. In recent years, Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic, and security structures of the 21st century. The United States has supported those efforts. Now Russia is putting its aspirations at risk by taking actions in Georgia that are inconsistent with the principles of those institutions. To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe, and other nations, and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis.

The President is alluding to Russia’s G-8 membership, the WTO, the OECD and similarly prestigious diplomatic entities. The strong emphasis Bush placed upon the need for Russian adherence to the cease-fire agreement and extending humanitarian aid was very well placed from the perspective of a moral level of conflict. The cancellation of  American participation in a scheduled Russian-NATO meeting was also appropriate ( no allies signed on to that very minor reprimand). Though we need to be honest here, the dispatch of U.S. military personnel to deliver humanitarian aid is meant as a “tripwire” against a resumption of a full-bore Russian onslaught into Georgia, not just to hand out MRE’s and bottled water to displaced villagers. It’s a very serious move ( and unaccompanied as far as I am aware by German, French or other NATO troops – if I am wrong, please correct me).

Let’s be perfectly clear: the Russian Army’s invasion of Georgia was carried out in trademark Russian fashion, brutally with obvious disregard for civilian casualties and reports of casual murders and looting by Russian soldiers. The only noteworthy exception to their usual, thuggish, performance here has been the swift accomplishment of all military objectives and total rout of the enemy army. Not since special KGB commandos seized the Tajbeg Palace in Kabul and assassinated a Prime Minister in 1979 has a Russian military operation been carried out so flawlessly. 

As a result, many people in European capitals, the State Department, the IC and the Pentagon have egg on their faces right now.  A lot of serious VIPs have been embarrassed by a client ( Saakashvili and company) who performed so poorly in this debacle – at every level that matters – that much of their previous professional advice and opinions regarding said client in retrospect look like hopelessly incompetent bullshit. These VIP’s are faced with two choices: circle the wagons around their naked emperor and try to find some kind of bow to put on this disaster or candidly admit that they horribly misjudged the entire situation to their superiors and reassess the policy in regards to Georgia from scratch.

Guess which route we are going today ?

Now to be fair, many of the actions taken by the President are sound and wise ones. Russia needs to feel significant pushback here and Bush is doing that very firmly and responsibly – and without much help from our allies other than President Sarkozy. The problem is that these are ad hoc reactions – flailing about frantically because in truth the United States has had no strategic policy toward Russia or any objective that gets much further than pleasing insider interests who are squealing loudest to the administration or the Congress. Not decommissioning Russian nukes fast enough ? Look no further than American uranium company lobbies. In regards to Kosovo or Georgia, that would be the EU. What? Isn’t Saakashvili America’s “special project” ( to quote Russia’s Foreign Minister – some Putin toady, name unimportant, he warms a chair). Well, not really. My friend Dave Schuler has an outstanding post on Europe’s stake in Georgia. It’s a lot larger than is ours:

….Germany’s ties with Georgia are, if anything, closer. Georgia is Germany’s fifth largest trading partner. I presume that much of this trade is a consequence of Georgia’s two pipelines. Energy independence is as much a political hot topic in Germany as it is here but the term means mostly not being so terribly dependent on Russia. The path to greater energy independence for Germany lies through Georgia.

….In 2007 FDI in Georgia exceeded the $1 billion mark. A substantial proportion of that was EU countries.

[ Ed. Note: The above quote is in error – Georgia is not Germany’s fifth largest trading partner – thank you to b and Annie for the correction] 

Would any reader care to hazard a guess as to the number of German troops expected to be standing next to American soldiers in Georgia delivering humanitarian aid ? This is not to knock the Germans per se as to point out that the United States carrying all of the water for Europe and absorbing all of the friction in return for nothing doesn’t make a whole lot of strategic sense.  Europe is safe,  wealthy and grown-up and not shy about pressing their collective economic interests but slow to accept all of the responsibilities they ask of the United States and our own State Department is a reflexive enabler of the extended European adolescence. Leadership in an alliance does not always mean being the other guy’s doormat.

Deciding what our long-term interests are in the region and what our relationship with Russia should be is something seventeen years overdue and presidential candidates who have no clue, left to their own devices, of what to do or, who take foreign policy advice from a paid agent of a foreign government, worry the hell out of me.


Fabius Maximus had some recommended posts on Russia-Georgia worth sharing that I’d like to add here along with a few others I caught this morning:

Stratfor   War Nerd   Helena Cobban  Joshua Foust   Glittering Eye   Coming Anarchy   Robert Kaplan (Hat tip CA)

Whirledview   SWJ Blog    Global Guerillas   Selil Blog   Andrew Sullivan

The Cognition of a Society of Visual Imagery

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

My friend Dave Schuler had a very thoughtful post at The Glittering Eye , one that contemplates a quiet paradigmatic shift that may be taking place within society today. It’s one of those posts that merits being read in its entirety because excerpting it, as I will do here nonetheless for the benefit of the slothful, shortchanges the argument:

The Visual Imagery Society

“Until about five thousand years ago, the primary method of communication among our species, the method by which we did what Alfred Korzybski characterized as “time binding”-storing and transmitting information, was speech. When you wanted to know something, you asked someone. When you wanted to give information to other people, you spoke to them. Around five thousand years ago we developed an additional method of storing and transmitting information: writing.

….However, writing also had some disadvantages over the spoken word. It was expensive both in materials and in the investment in education and, although practically everybody learns to speak, not everybody could or did learn to read and write….Speech, obviously, has never vanished but it was supplanted by writing as the primary means of communication in any number of fields including mathematics, philosophy, and, at least to some degree, business. History, by definition, is written.

Almost 150 years ago we began to develop the technology to transmit and store first writing then speech. And a little more than 100 years ago we began to store and then transmit visual imagery…..I wonder if there are signs that visual imagery is supplanting the written word, at least in certain areas, the written word just as the written word supplanted the spoken word in some fields….The transition from an oral society to a literate one had implications that extended far beyond just the means of communication or the costs of transportation for an unexpected reason: literacy reorders consciousness.

….Will a transition to a visual imagery society result in an analogous reordering of consciousness to that of the transition from oral to literate? I think there’s reason to believe that there is, it’s happening now, and the visual imagery society resembles the oral society more than the literate society that it supplants.

….I’ll conclude this speculation with questions rather than answers.

  • Is visual imagery overtaking the written word as the dominant form of communication, especially for communicating new knowledge?
  • If so, what are the cognitive implications of the change?
  • What are the social and political implications of the change in cognitive behavior? “

While I made a number of comments at The Glittering Eye, Dave was particularly interested in the cognitive aspects and I infer from his post that he views the trend toward – hmmm – ” Visualcy” with alarm and I would like to address that aspect here.

Increasing proliferation of visual content in the media as a percentage of net data transmission carries real risks because the visual medium is exceedingly powerful in a neurolearning sense and affect a diverse span of cognitive activity . Where simplification and sophistry took a great deal of time to diffuse through the population by word of mouth or in text, visuals in broadcast or digital format are virtually instantaneous and tend to be accepted in a cognitively passive state by the audience, in the sense of bypassing rigorous and critical analysis. Dave is correct here when he points out the dangers of the modality and liability toward abuse, distortion or manipulation.

On the other hand, visualization media need not be passive. It can easily be both active and  interactive as well as an efficient method of transmission of valid data and the interactivity can be intentionally structured to require and enhance critical thinking. Unfortunately, that effort to create cognitive tools lags behind the power and range of our aesthetic tools to create the images themselves. What Dave is asking for is an effort in futurism but I’m not certain the present moment is a valid baseline given the speed with which new technologies are emerging and evolving.

To answer Dave’s first question, I think visual imagery is overtaking the written word, given that Americans reportedly watch about 8 hours of TV a day on average and newspapers are dying off for lack of new readers –  though I think it is unlikely in the case of academic or scientific definitions of ” new knowledge”, where peer-review journals still rule. I also will grant Dave that a visually-oriented society, at the intellectual level of current television programming, trending toward celebreality shows and infotainment “news” is one sliding toward an anarchic mob – and not a very bright mob at that – one easily swayed by charismatic demagogues and charlatans but more likely, simply uninterested in their own governance. A dystopian Brave New World of sheep-like proles of limited attention who can articulate their interests, much less press them, only with the greatest difficulty.  It’s not a vision that I find appealing.

However, I think that a visual imagery society can probably develop along the same continuum of conceptual complexity that characterized previous eras of oral tradition and the written word. Not all ancient Greeks sat with rapt attention through recitations Homer and the Romans scrawled scatalogical graffitti that would make a Marine sergeant blush more frequently than they wrote like Ovid or spoke like Cicero. Except for scholars of the mundane, we’re much more cognizant of the great cultural achievments of past civilizations than we are of their versions of bathroom humor, comic books and trashy romance novels.

Bright people will always be attracted to complexity, abstraction and depth regardless of the medium and are better placed to weigh the relative value of their choices; the less intelligent will gravitate to simpler fare and will be oblivious to what they are missing. The rub is the demographic segment of the population who have the intellectual potential, which goes wasted for lack of stimulation and engagement in serious thought. If we took greater effort as a nation to invest in and repair a declining system of public education we would have far less to fear in a future society that was more reliant upon visual imagery.

Monday, March 5th, 2007


Fabulous post by Dave Schuler at The Glittering Eye, ” Who were the Etruscans?“. Dave delves into the history, linguistics and art of mighty Rome’s Northern predecessor:

“The Etruscan language

What we know of the Etruscan language comes from inscriptions and “bilinguals”” like the gold inscription at right. A number of Roman writers testified that the Etruscans had a substantial literature but no extensive texts in the language have been found to date. The Etruscan language was written, like Latin and Greek, in an alphabet derived from the Phoenician. Deciphering the texts has not been so much a problem of determining what the letters were as of what the words meant.

I have read claims of relationships between Etruscan and Hungarian, Ukrainian, Dravidian languages and several others, apparently for reasons as much political as linguistic.

The prevailing wisdom on the Etruscan language has been that Etruscan is not an Indo-European language and, indeed, until quite recently Etruscan was believed to be a “linguistic isolate”—a language with no known affinities. More recent scholarship has suggested otherwise. In 1998 the German scholar Helmut Rix published a paper that demonstrated relationships between Etruscan and a number of other languages including Rhaetic, another extinct language of northern Italy, Eteocypriot, a language of Iron Age Cyprus, and Lemnian, a language spoken on the island of Lemnos, interesting in light of the quote from Thucydides cited above”

A must read post for lovers of ancient history and cultures.

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