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The Anti-Strategy Board Cometh

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

President Barack Obama has established by an executive order an Atrocity Prevention Board.  After the 120 day study and planning period (which will determine the writ of the APB), the board will be chaired by Samantha Power, a senior White House foreign policy adviser, NSC staffer and an aggressive advocate of R2P .

This is not likely to end well.

Presidential boards, commissions, study groups and other executive branch bodies are political agendas that power has made into bureaucratic flesh. Some, like the Warren Commission or the Iraq Study Group were transient for an instrumental purpose; others, like the Defense Policy Board put down roots and become real institutions. Some are killed for partisan reasons by new administrations (as Rumsfeld did to DACOWITS by letting it’s charter expire and then remolding it) or from congressional pique (this terminated the Public Diplomacy Commission) while some linger on for decades in zombie status, politically irrelevant but still animate, due to the inertia of bureaucracy.

What is interesting about these various bodies is that without the statutory powers granted to agencies created by legislation, they are merely empty shells unless filled with influential figures with clout or blessed by the patronage of high officials. If this is the case, even very obscure bodies can be platforms for impressive political action. Creepy and cloying old Joe Kennedy parlayed a minor post on a maritime commission and his vast fortune to become successively FDR’s SEC Chairman and the Ambassador to the Court of St. James, where he dispensed bad geopolitical advice and pushed the future careers of his sons, netting a president and two senators. The role of the Defense Policy Board in the run-up to the Iraq War is well known and I am told that one can even launch a constellation of careers and a powerhouse think tank from something as mundane and thankless as writing a COIN manual 😉

It is safe to say that the new Atrocity Prevention Board is not going to be window decoration.

Many people who are seeing what I am seeing in this move are now uneasily prefacing their critical comments with “Well, who can be against stopping atrocities, right?”. Let me say with complete candor: I can. The Atrocity Prevention Board is a great sounding  bad idea that represents an impossible task in terms of Ways, unaffordable in terms of Means and unacheivable in relation to Ends. Worse, by holding the national security community hostage to the serendipity of governmental cruelty on a global scale, the intelligent pursuit of national interests are effectively foreclosed  and the initiative ceded to random, unconnected,  events. This worst kind of institutionalized crisis management time horizon also comes weighted with implicit theoretical assumptions about the end of national sovereignty that would, I expect, surprise most Americans and which we will soon regret embracing.

Given the ambitions and missionary zeal of some R2P advocates and their ADHD approach to military intervention, it is unsurprising that this new entity was not titled “The Genocide Prevention Board”. Genocide, which the United States has definitive treaty obligations to recognize and seek to curtail, is too narrowly defined and too rare an event for such a purpose. “Atrocities” can be almost any scale of lethal violence and could possibly include “non-lethal” violence as well. This is a bureaucratic brief for global micromanagement by the United States that makes the Bush Doctrine appear isolationist and parsimonious in comparison.

A while back, while commenting on R2P, I wrote:

…As Containment required an NSC-68 to put policy flesh on the bones of doctrine, R2P will require the imposition of policy mechanisms that will change the political community of the United States, moving it away from democratic accountability to the electorate toward “legal”, administrative, accountability under international law; a process of harmonizing US policies to an amorphous, transnational, elite consensus, manifested in supranational and international bodies. Or decided privately and quietly, ratifying decisions later as a mere formality in a rubber-stamping process that is opaque to everyone outside of the ruling group.

The president is entitled to arrange the deck chairs as he sees fit, and in truth, this anti-strategic agenda can be executed just as easily through the NSC or offices in the West Wing, but the creation of a formal board is the first step to institutionalizing and “operationalizing a R2P foreign policy” under the cover of emotionalist stagecraft and networking machinations. A doctrine of which the American electorate is generally unaware and the Congress would not support legislatively (if there was a hope in Hell of passage, the administration would have submitted a wish-list bill).

This will not be a matter of just going abroad looking for monsters to slay but of a policy machine that can spew out straw monsters at need even when they don’t exist.


What others are saying about the APB:

Foreign Policy (Walt) –Is the ‘Atrocity Prevention Board‘ a good idea?

Duck of Minerva (Western) –Institutionalizing Atrocity Prevention 

Valentine’s Day duet

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — mostly for the non-gamer reader ]
Grognards and hard-core gamers won’t need this post, but it may be of interest to people like myself who don’t fall into those categories… For those not “watching” the world of games, then, here’s one recent game-promo video, followed by one student exercise in video-making which is not about an actual game mod..

For full impact, view both “full screen”.

This, which illustrates the action in a game you can buy starting this month:

And this, which is essentially a student thought-experiment:

The Forum and The Tower, a review

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

[by J. Scott Shipman]


The Forum and The Tower by Mary Ann Glendon

“The relationship between politics and the academy has been marked by mutual fascination and wariness since the time of Plato.”

The first sentence on the flap of the dust jacket of this very good and informative small book. Professor Glendon, who is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law school, set out to write a book for her students that would answer ageless questions such as:

“Is politics such a dirty business, or are conditions so unfavorable, that couldn’t make a difference? What kinds of compromises can one make for the sake of getting and keeping a position from which one might be able to have influence on the course of events? What kinds of compromises can one make for the sake of achieving a higher political goal? When does prudent accommodation become pandering? When should one speak truth to power no matter what the risk, and when is it acceptable, as Burke put it, to speak the truth with measure that one may speak it longer? When does one reach the point at which one concludes, as Plato finally did, that circumstances are so unfavorable that only the reasonable course of action is to “keep quiet and offer up prayers for one’s own welfare and for that of one’s country”?”

Professor Glendon answers these questions and more through brief examinations of the lives and works of some of history’s most important figures:



Justinian, Tribonian, and Irnerius


Thomas Hobbs and Edward Coke

John Locke

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Edmund Burke


Max Weber

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik

All in all, I believe Professor Glendon has provided a uniquely valuable book to help her students and other readers to answers those questions. In short but focused chapters of about 20 pages each, she provides mini-biographies of the subjects above and how they answered the some of the questions both in their lives and in their philosophy. Some of her subjects were thinkers lacking the abilities for the public square, Plato, for instance, but were enormously influential just the same. Rare were those like Cicero and Burke who were equally comfortable in the political arena or the academy.

My favorite chapters were on Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, and Burke—mostly because I’ve read a respectable amount of their work. That said, I have not read Plato’s The Laws—and Professor Glendon suggests it is much better than The Republic—which I have read and did not much enjoy. Not surprisingly, The Laws will be on my list for this winter.

The inclusion of Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Malik was something of a surprise, but Professor Glendon is weaving a sub-story through each chapter and illustrating how Roosevelt and Malik’s work on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was something of culmination and extension of over 2,000 years of thinking and political action—not in the context of human progress towards a utopia of sorts, which she wisely rejects,  but rather a reflection the common threads of political thought throughout history.

While this is not criticism, I would have liked to have seen a chapter on John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and a chapter on Karl Marx, whom she frequently mentions.

This is a book that is approachable and readable, and in our tumultuous domestic and global political climate, important.

She closes with this illuminating sentence:

“If one message emerges from the stories collected here, it is that just because one does not see the results of one’s best efforts in one’s own lifetime does not mean those efforts were in vain.”

Professor Glendon is to be commended for a job “well done!”

The book comes with my highest recommendation and may be the best book I’ve read this calendar year. Add this book to your must read list.

Referenced works you may find of interest (some of these works are out of print and expensive—for simplicity I’ve used Amazon links): 

The Laws of Plato, translated by Thomas Pangle

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, by Anthony Everitt

Cicero, A Portrait, by Elizabeth Rawson (Glendon praised this book.)

A Panorama of the World’s Legal Systems, John Henry Wigmore

The Life of Nicolo Machiavelli, Roberto Ridolfi

The Prince, translated by Harvy Mansfield

Machiavelli, by Quentin Skinner

The Lion and the Throne, Catherine Drinker Bowen

The Spirit of Modern Republicanism, by Thomas Pangle

Statesmanship and Party Government, by Harvy Mansfield

The Great Melody, A Thematic biography of Edmund Burke, by Conor Cruise O’Brien (I read this wonderful book in 1992 when it was released: highly recommended.)

R2P is the New COIN: Slaughter’s Premises

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Part I. 

As I mentioned in my last post, I will be analyzing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ideas about “Responsibility to Protect“doctrine, based on her Stanford Journal of International Law article, “Sovereignty and Power in a Networked World Order” in a series of posts order to better understand and critique the assumptions on which R2P rests. Before I begin, some caveats:

Reading these posts is no substitute for reading the article yourself and drawing your own conclusions. A truly remarkable paper of some 44 pages of academic prose, a blog review of Dr. Slaughter’s thesis, even in a series, will only be able to focus on her operative premises and not delve into every shade or nuance. Limitation of the medium, but readers are free to disagree or agree in the comments.

Dr. Slaughter is an IR theorist and international lawyer of eminent stature and her style of argumentation reflects both the strengths and the weaknesses of those fields.

On the empirical issue of general, trends in international affairs and conflict, I do not take issue with Dr. Slaughter’s assumptions about the rise of networked non-state actors, greater degrees of uncertainty, complexity and multipolarity among and within states and the systemic erosion of state legitimacy. Indeed, in a broad and fundamental sense, I share them as I think do most people studying irregular conflict, counterinsurgency, 4GW and hybrid wars. I take exception though to the truly radical legal and policy conclusions Slaughter draws from these trends, as well as her normative delight in their trajectory. It as if we both agree that the Westphalian house is on fire, but she is reaching for a jerrycan of gasoline in order to speed the process along.

Finally, in this series I intend to tackle her argument from a thematic perspective, addressing how Slaughter views core philosophical questions of authority, international law, sovereignty, legitimacy and power in inventing a “responsibility to protect” doctrine and what the logical extrapolation of her ideas entails. Slaughter structured her article differently, with these concepts interwoven as she made her case in five sections, with sovereignty being a dominant concept.

The first post will concentrate on Slaughter’s premises regarding the problem facing the international community and her proposed solution:

An excerpt from Dr. Slaughter summarizing her thesis in her introduction:

….Westphalian sovereignty faces two fundamental challenges in contemporary international relations….First, the ineffectiveness challenge….A State’s ability to control its own territory without external interference is no longer sufficient to allow it to govern its people effectively – to provide security, economic stability and a measure of prosperity, clean air and water, and even minimum health standards.

Second, is the interference challenge. The letter of Article 2(7) remain; the spirit is violated repeatedly and increasingly routinely. All of human rights law deliberately infringes on the domestic jurisdiction of every state, denying governments the freedom to torture, murder, “disappear”, or systematically discriminate against their own citizens. Moreover, throughout the the 1990’s the Security Council repeatedly found that the conditions prevailing within a state, from starvation in Somalia to political intimidation and massacre in East Timor, constituted a threat to international peace and security sufficient to require collective armed intervention, and should have made such a determination regarding the genocide in Rwanda. States can no longer assume that if they refrain from interfering in the affairs of other states they will remain free from interference themselves.

….In short, states can no longer govern effectively by being left alone. The converse proposition is equally true, although perhaps more startling: States can only govern effectively by actively cooperating with other states and by collectively reserving their power to intervene in other states’ affairs. The world has indeed turned upside down: small wonder that the concept of sovereignty needs to be redefined!

Startling, is a good description.

Slaughter’s first “fundamental challenge” pivots on an odd usage of the word “effective”. “Effective governance” here is defined by Slaughter as something other than a state’s actual physical control over the territory and population over which it asserts sovereignty. Explicitly, “effective governance” is then defined as the provision of modern public goods, presumably without resort to autarkic policies, as interdependence is one of her themes. 

To be fair to , there’s some merit to Slaughter’s consideration of the provision of public goods. States that face non-state actor challengers like Hezbollah who do fill social needs are thwarting their state opponents at the moral as well as the material level of conflict, winning over their loyalty and eroding the legitimacy of the state. So, if Dr. Slaughter was writing a manual on, say, psychological warfare or insurgency, she would have me on board here.

But, unfortunately, she isn’t. Slaughter is writing an article, ostensibly on international law, and a vague laundry list of economic items, a transient de facto state of public policy, strikes me as a poor foundation for a universal principle of law. By Slaughter’s standard, Mexico which provides public services, is democratically governed and economically  interdependent despite being strangled by a narco-insurgency of atavistic brutality, is “effectively governed”. Lebanon, whose government in is under the hegemony of Hezbollah is “effectively governed”. There’s a subsumed “correct” political economy embedded in the argument here by Slaughter; if a first world state decides to reject carbon footprint taxes, nationalized health care or privatizes it’s mail delivery, is it “ineffectively governed”?

At least the first challenge is relatively straightforward. Slaughter’s second “fundamental challenge” is an exercise in logical acrobatics.

Slaughter is correct that the spirit and at times the letter of international law (actual, real world, international law that has a chance of being followed, not R2P theory) is stretched to justify military intervention. She is also right that Rwanda’s genocide by the then radical Hutu regime constituted a threat to international peace and cried out for intervention, and the failure to do so resulted in not just genocide of the Tutsi people but ultimately an African WWI in the Congo basin. These two factually accurate examples are diametrically opposed to one another, yet somehow, they combine to arrive at the solution of institutionalizing military intervention in international law as a rule and not an exception. They are juxtaposed with the cases of Somalia, where no state, legitimate or otherwise, existed and East Timor, which was a case of de jure military aggression and annexation by Indonesia. The only thread tying all of these disparate examples together is a large pile of dead bodies.

Charnel house examples make for bad law, unless you have to govern a society of cannibals.

Finally, while boldly rejecting international law’s long established definition of sovereignty, Slaughter offers two easily falsifiable assertions, that states can no longer govern effectively by governing alone and that the ever present danger of arbitrary meddling by foreigners is a prerequisite for good governance. If so, Switzerland would be a Hobbesian hellhole today and Central America and the Caribbean islands would resemble tropical Singapores . The omnipresent threat of foreign meddling on religious grounds is what states ran away from screaming after the Thirty Year’s War, which may have killed up to a third of all the people in the Germanies.

Anne-Marie Slaughter proposes to restore that state of affairs on more secular grounds.

Next post – Slaughter on Authority and International Law.

ADDENDUM – Related posts:

Inkspots –R2P is NOT the new COIN, but Ulfelder is just as wrong as Safranski about why*

Fear, Honor and Interest –Geopolitics, Networks, and Complex Friction

Of Quantity and Quality I: weighing man against book

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]


It may be that the hardest thing for a human to wrestle with is the correlation of quality with quantity.


I’m writing this post by way of a response to the comments of J Scott Shipman and Fred Zimmerman on my earlier post, Burning scriptures and human lives — but as I said in a comment of my own there, not in a point by point fashion, more in the manner of a meditation. Our conversation grew out of a discussion of the killing of humans and the burning of Qur’ans, and perhaps I should say at the outset that in my view, the burning of sacred books is in general a pretty offensive business, the taking of human lives in general even more so.


If, however, we wish to know our enemies, as Sun Tzu advises, let alone to love them, as Christ suggests, we might reflect that what is happening these days in Afghanistan in many ways resembles what was happening in Europe a few short centuries back:

A little later, after the definition of the dogma of transubstantiation by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, a new libel surfaced, known as host desecration. According to this calumny, the Jews obtained a consecrated host from the mass, with the assistance of a Christian who retained it from the administration of communion, took it to their synagogue or homes and subjected it to every indignity, including trampling on it and sticking pins into it. … The accusation was made for the first time at Belitz, near Berlin; all the Jews of the town were burned. One hundred instances of the charge have been recorded, in many cases leading to massacres.

William Nichols, Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, pp 239-40

William Gibson is frequently quoted as saying, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” – and by the same token, the past is still with us, and no more evenly distributed.

For myself, I don’t see how I can condone or judge those whose values are as radically different from my own as those Christians, these Afghans – or the “religious but unstable” woman in Spartanburg County, Tennessee, who chained up and burned her nephew’s dog because it had chewed her Bible and was clearly a “devil dog”. Thankfully, it is neither mine to condemn nor to forgive.


I value human life way more than I value any physical book – and I revere those insights, not infrequently found in scriptures, which encourage love, wonder, compassion, insight, wisdom, peace, generosity, gratitude and praise…

I revere them enough that I can understand Sir Thomas More preferring to surrender his own life rather than to go against that which his own traditions, scriptures, and sacraments had taught him to venerate. Likewise, I can find no fault in the Zen of the monk who famously burned a wooden statue of the Buddha when the firewood ran out… a tale that is worth repeating:

In a famous zen story, a travelling monk was resting in a monastery during a cold night. He took down a wooden Buddha statue and used it as fire wood.When the resident monks saw what he did, they became very angry and demanded to know why he did that.

He replied “I am looking for sarrira (holy relics).

The monks then laugh and exclaimed: “How can one find sarrira in a wooden statue?”

In reply, the travelling monk then said “Well then, can you pass me that other wooden statues also?


I once climbed the many stairs and stood on the small platform atop the head of the great 6th century Buddha of Bamiyan, which just ten years ago was demolished by the Taliban, and I remember that day with great affection.

Historically speaking it is a tragedy for the world and the Afghan people that the Buddhas were destroyed.

What Buddha taught, remains, however. What the Beatitudes taught, remains., despite what dogs may chew. What the Qur’an teaches remains, beyond the pastor’s fire. What the host at the Eucharist embodies, remains…

It is in the sense of what I have written above that I wrote, “The value of one human life is the value of the world. The Qur’an is indestructible. It is deeply inadvisable to threaten, attempt or facilitate the destruction of man, world, or book…”


Mind you, I am not suggesting that others should share my view – my own life experiences just don’t encourage me to use scriptures or credal statements against others until I have first “removed the beam from my own eye”. In the meanwhile, I take my inspiration where I can find it.


And find it I do in this comment on my previous post, from Jimpa:

Books are paper and ink and can be republished. A human life is a miracle of creation (regardless of whose theory is used to explain it.) There is only one of each of us there are no copies of anyone, even cloning can not create a replacement.

To me, this gets to the spirit and clarity of the matter.


But there’s also its soul, its blues if you like, its duende – and I find that quality – another voice in the music of inspiration, perhaps, in this impassioned post by Abu Muqawama, aka Andrew Exum:

The crime was horrific, and the mob outside the jail was angry. They had gathered before and demanded the death of the man inside, but a conservative cleric, who ran a religious school for boys, had appeared and told them all to go home and repent before God. Because the men in the mob were all religious and obeyed this particular cleric, they went home as he had ordered. When the crowd returned a few days later, though, while that cleric was away preaching elsewhere, they fought their way past the guards and found the man for whom they were looking. The man was from a minority group in the area, and though he was actually innocent of the crime of which he had been accused, that did not stop the violent mob from beating him horribly, tying a rope around his neck and throwing him off a bridge while hundreds cheered.

The year was 1906, and the place was my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The name of the man killed was Ed Johnsen, a black man who had been accused of the brutal rape of a white woman, Nevada Taylor. (The conservative cleric? Well, that madrasa he founded has produced several U.S. senators, governors, businessmen and one dyspeptic defense policy blogger.) …

The reason I mention the story, though, is because it popped into my head when I read my friends Dion and Maria’s account of what had happened in Mazar-e Sharif a few days ago when several innocent United Nations workers were brutally murdered because some fundamentalist crank in Florida thought it would be a hot idea to videotape himself burning a Quran. It was not that long ago, we should remind ourselves going into a discussion of what happened in northern Afghanistan and why, when the ugly kinds of mob scenes we saw in Mazar might have also happened in the United States. (The last lynching of an innocent black man of which I am aware took place in the American South in 1981.)

I see those two posts as working together like head and heart — the “soul” and richness of feeling in Abu Muqawama’s post adds depth to the “spirit” and clarity of thought in Jimpa’s. To have a high standard of measurement is fine — to forget one’s own human frailty, not wise at all.

[ to be continued in Of Quantity and Quality II: weighing man against world ]

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