Thursday, August 31, 2006

How do we see Africa?

For years, it has been lamented that the US foreign policy establishment routinely ignored Africa. Despite repeated calls over the past several decades for some sort of aid, assistance, or attention to the famine, disease, poverty, and conflict that plagues the continent, the US government has placed Africa well down the list of priorities.

All this might be about to change. A small item deep in today's Washington Post caught my eye:
U.S. considers new military command for Africa

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon, mindful of potential threats to U.S. security emerging from Africa, is considering creating a new military command responsible for the continent, defense officials said on Wednesday.

This is a big deal.

Currently, the Pentagon sees the world through the eyes of its Unified Commands. The world is divided into five major regions, and each region has a 4-star in charge of all US military operations in the region across all services. For example, Gen. John Abizaid, of CENTCOM now commands the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. These unified commanders are incredibly powerful, as both bureaucratic actors and as representatives of the US government in their respective regions. In some places, the unified commander is more powerful than the US ambassador. (Dana Priest has the best discussion of this in her fantastic book, The Mission).

Right now, responsibility for Africa is split among the European, Central, and Pacific commands, and as a result (predictably), it is a priority for none. By giving Africa its own command, you suddenly have a very powerful military bureaucracy clammoring for attention to address issues in Africa.
"Many of the militaries in Africa desire to have interaction with the U.S. so that we can help to improve their capabilities, to defend their borders, to prevent the transit of terrorists, to be able to realize their economic potential," Carpenter added.

"The intent of (creating an Africa Command) is not to put troops in Africa. It would be to streamline the focus and give appropriate undivided attention to the continent," a Pentagon official said.

Indeed, this is what the regional commands do-- they work with regional militaries, plan for contingencies, and pay attention to what is going on.

By creating such a high-profile position for Africa, the bureaucracy of the Pentagon and the US Government as a whole, will see Africa in a whole new light.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Globalization and You

Its the first day of class, such an exciting time-- and a chance to (hopefully) welcome some new readers to the blog from each of my classes this semester. You stalwart alums who continue to check in can let them know what sort of fun they are in for this semester.....

And what are we greeted with? A prime example of the power of globalization to shape international markets--even the vaunted US economy and Federal Reserve Board.

Today, the NYT reports on the Fed's retreat/conference out in Wyoming (casual, because Fed Chair Ben Bernanke doesn't wear a tie).

Econ 101 in a nutshell: the Fed sets interest rates in an attempt to manage inflation and domestic economic growth. Low rates mean money (loans, capital, financing) is cheap and available, so the economy grows but then inflation appears. Higher rates make money expensive and inflation slows, but so does growth. The goal is to moderate the boom / bust cycle of the market.

Anyway.... as the Times reports:
As the Federal Reserve fiercely debates how to reduce inflation within the United States, economists are warning that trends outside the country may soon make the Fed’s job much harder.

In recent years, global integration has made things easier for the Fed in two ways. An explosion in low-cost exports from China and other countries helped keep prices of many products low even as Americans spent heavily and loaded up on debt.

At the same time, China and other relatively poor nations reversed the normal patterns of global investment by becoming net lenders to the United States and Europe. Analysts estimate that this “uphill’’ flow of money from poor nations to rich ones may have reduced long-term interest rates in the United States by 1.5 percentage points in recent years — a big difference when home mortgage rates are about 6 percent.
In other words, vast / huge / gianormous capital flows from China have been keeping my and your and your parents and everyone else's mortgage payments low. This is good because it frees up money for other things in the economy.

Normally, the Fed is in control of all this, by setting short term interest rates and printing more money as needed, guiding interest rates. Not so much any more:

But as Fed officials held their annual retreat this weekend here in the Grand Tetons, a growing number of economists warned that those benign international trends could abate or even reverse.

For one thing, they said, China’s explosive rise as a low-cost manufacturer does not mean that prices will fall year after year. Indeed, China’s voracious appetite for oil and raw materials has aggravated inflation by driving up global prices for oil and many commodities.

Beyond that, new research presented this weekend suggested that the United States could not count on a continuation of cheap money from poor countries. Those flows could stop as soon as countries find ways to spend their excess savings at home.

“Medium- and long-term interest rates are set outside of the country,’’ said Kenneth S. Rogoff, a professor of economics at Harvard University and a former director of research at the International Monetary Fund. “It’s very important to think about what to do if the winds of globalization change.’’
Like, maybe:
“What happens if foreign investors decide they don’t want to accumulate American assets any more?” asked Martin S. Feldstein, economics professor at Harvard and president of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Just to take an example:
One example is Chile, the most prosperous country in Latin America. Thanks to soaring copper prices in recent years, Chile has paid off its government debt and is running a budget surplus equal to about 7 percent of its gross domestic product. Chilean leaders are putting the surplus into a long-term stability fund, part of which is invested in foreign securities, that will be used to maintain full government operations if copper prices plummet.

Mr. Rajan said many countries might not have a way to channel their excess savings because their banking systems were too underdeveloped. If so, the savings rates of those countries may decline as people become more accustomed to rising incomes and as banks find ways to rechannel savings into consumer and business loans.

Even though capital is flowing uphill to rich countries like the United States right now, Mr. Rajan said, “it doesn’t mean these flows are optimal, safe or permanent.”
In otherwords, international capital markets, not the Federal Reserve, are starting to set US interest rates. This hits you and me right in the pocketbook-- mortgage, car loans, student loans, credit card rates. All could be heading higher, and unlike in days gone by, there might be nothing the Fed, or any other US actors, can do about it.

Globalization, baby, Globalization.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Going on Vacation for a week, classes start in 2 weeks.
So, more later, but here's some interesting reading to keep you occupied while I'm gone:

Drezner opines on what the Bush Admin will do next w/r/t Iran. Check out the comment that quotes Gerson. Then read the whole Sy Hersh article he's quoting.

The NYT reports: The nation is still at risk from the same “failure of imagination” cited by the 9/11 commission as having contributed to the success of the 2001 attack, several argued.

Hezbollah is good at what they d
o: "They are the best guerrilla force in the world," said a Lebanese specialist who has sifted through intelligence on Hezbollah for more than two decades and strongly opposes the militant Shiite Muslim movement.

The Christian Science Monitor has a multi-day story about Jill Carroll's ordeal as a hostage in Iraq.

See what Mark Lynch is saying about US information operations in Iraq: "Is there any way to read this other than that some significant portion of the Iraqi media which emerged after Saddam's fall was in fact a fully funded and operational Psychological Operations campaign? If that's the case, then this would seem to quite a revelation."

Happy reading, I'm on vacation!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Truthiness of my Wikiality

(crossposted at the Duck, but very relevant for here too) Students in my Intro to IR Research and World Politics classes have, on occasion, heard me rant about Wikipedia and how it is not an appropriate research source for writing papers. While useful for background information and links to other useful sites, the fundamental nature of a Wiki undercuts its reliability as a source for scholarship. Students in that class will also be familiar with the three broad approaches to knowledge that I use as frames for methods of research: "scientific" style positivism, interpretivism, and relational "constructionism"

No less an authority than Stephen Colbert demonstrates the epistemological issues raised by Wikipedia.

Which brings us to tonight's word: Wikiality

In his usual brilliant and brilliantly funny way, Colbert demonstrates the inherent truthiness of Wikipedia, and raises a much larger and very important epistemoligical point. Must the sum total of human knowledge correspond to some sort of objective reality that defines the standard for truth, or is it in fact, such that "truth" is no more than what is agreed to be truth? Is Truth a fact or a discourse? And, is this discourse a democratic one, as Colbert implies (truth is what a majority of us believe it is) or is it a much more power laden one?

The Colbert / Wikipedia affair offers some rather unique insight into this.

This issues here are very near and dear to the scholarship and careers of several Duck members, as well as a whole host of IR scholars. One of the fundamental challenges that constructivism makes to old-line IR theory is the epistemoligical and ontological challenge of an independent, objective material reality that shapes and conditions behavior.

Why does this matter? One need look no further than a recent debate on the impact of the conflict in Lebanon between Hizbullah and Israel on the Democratic Peace Theory. See Dan and my comments in the debate for an illustration. You'll note that the whole thing gets bogged down in the definition of a democracy to save the theory-- is Lebanon actually a democracy? Not discussed is the truthiness of a democracy itself, as Ido Oren articulated in his critique of the whole issue.

Frank Ahrens, discussing this in the Washington Post writes:
Naturally, enough people obeyed Colbert to crash Wikipedia's servers.

That's sort of interesting, if not surprising -- the crossover audience between "Colbert Report" and Wikipedia is probably pretty substantial. What happened after the servers came back up is what's notable.

Wikipedia's truth-squadders swung into action. They locked down 20 entries on elephants to all but longtime users. They did the same to Colbert's entry, and they barred the screen name StephenColbert from making further changes. The last move is more symbolic than practical; there's no way of knowing whether StephenColbert is the Stephen Colbert -- the real one or the character -- from the show.

Then Wikipedia took the smart step of posting the pre-Colbert entries alongside the many, many post-Colbert ones to show exactly what was changed and when it was changed by subsequent editors.

The whole process has a mind-boggling, recursive-loop feel to it, as one Wiki-editor edits an entry and seconds later, another re-edits it. At one point, a post-Colbert entry took on a "yes, you did/no, you didn't" tone. Gaah!

But if Wikipedia is going to exist as an open-source resource and is going to resist single-peer review for its entries, then it needs to be transparent, as it has been in l'affaire Colbert. If Wikipedia's DNA prevents it from hosting a single standard for truth -- or truthiness -- then its sources of information need to be evident and their tracks easily seen so readers can have as many facts as possible to determine their accuracy. Not, of course, that anyone would or should use Wikipedia -- or really, anything else besides this column [perhaps we should add the Duck as well?]-- as a single and authoritative source on any topic.

The interesting here is the "Wikipedia truth-squadders" saving the entire enterprise from certain failure. They have even constructed their own Wikipedia page to discuss the entire affair. It reveals the importance of power and discipline in enforcing a discourse of truth, and reveals the danger of certain types of political discourse. If the Habermasian "we all agree on truth" represents the liberal if happy-fun side of constructivism, the "truth-squadders" reveals the Foucaultian "governmentality" realist side of constructivism.

Either way, thought, the discourse of "truth" is under serious assault in the political arena for political gain (this leading to the problem with Liberalism). Those of us in the social science / philosophy of knowledge crowd should certainly have something relevant to say about this.

In lieu of some sweeping conclusion: discuss.

(this post would have been so much easier to write if I actually knew how to spell epistemoligical)

Filed as:

Counterinsurgency Reading

Some good stuff to read on Counterinsurgency.

First, I posted a review of Generals Pace and Abizaid's comments that Iraq was close to Civil War over at the Duck of Minerva. Analyzing these comments in light of a classic counterinsurgency book I'm reading suggests we're in serious trouble.

Second, Dan Drezner has a comment on the Army's new Counterinsurgency Field Manual. According to the review he cites, the Army's new text has a few serious problems.

You can read a draft of the Army's new FM here.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Down Goes Fidel

Fidel Castro handed over power to his younger brother Raul. 79-year old Castro is going to be hospitalized for surgery, and supposedly handed power to his brother (who is no spring chicken either, at 75) for the duration of his recovery.

Now, this strikes me as quite odd, and potentially the start of some real changes in Cuba. Fidel has held power since, oh, say 1959, and hasn't given it up for anything. Not the missile cisis, nothing. Not even falling flat on his face (video of this on youtube if you haven't seen it) brough a moments doubt about his hold on power.

But now, seemingly out of the blue, a letter is read where Castro is going to the hospital, his brother takes power, and..... and what?
It sort of reminds you of those old Soviet Leaders who got sick, went to their dacha to recover, and were never heard from again.

Its all overshadowed by the Middle East, but if it really is the end of Fidel and it really marks regime change in Cuba the Old Fashion Way, then it really signals a huge change for US Foreign Policy in Latin America.
(oh, and not to mention a huge change in US presidental electoral politics in Florida-- if there are no more sanctions, who will the Cuban Community in Miami-Dade vote for??)

Keep watching this one....

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