Sunday, April 8, 2007

Good Future, Bad Future (Part 1 of Infinity)

"Among cultural intellectuals, pessimism is the style," he says with a tinge of scorn. "You're not a paid-up member unless you're gloomy." But when it comes to climate change, he finds (quoting the Italian revolutionary Gramsci) that scientists can combine "pessimism of the intellect" with "optimism of the will". "Science is an intrinsically optimistic project. You can't be curious and depressed. Curiosity is itself a sure stake in life. And science is often quite conscious of intellectual pleasure, in a way that the humanities are not."

- Ian McEwan, interview in The Independent

While The Independent was wasting my time with a long and rambling interview, the Economist was publishing its quarterly Technology Review (subscription required).

It's worth a read, if you have the March 10th copy of the magazine sitting around, and twenty minutes to kill. Two short notes. The article "Plan B for global warming" focuses on possible technological solutions to climate change that involve purposefully cooling the earth. While in the abstract, this doesn't sound bad, and then, on second thought, still in the abstract, it sounds like a disaster, it's important to consider the merits of the various proposed technologies:

For example, Dr. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist would like to spread tiny particles in the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays, not unlike the fine sulphate particles ejected by large volcanic eruptions like that of Mount Pinatubo, in 1991.

John Latham, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado suggests blasting tiny droplets of seawater into the air to stimulate the formation of highly reflective, low-lying marine clouds. Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh one ups Dr. Latham, having already designed an unmanned vessel to do just that. As the Economist notes, blue skies would be less frequent, but the sunsets would be prettier.

Finally, Dr. Roger Angel, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, has suggested assembling a cloud of millions of small, reflecting spacecraft less than a meter across at the inner Lagrange point, where the spacecraft would block out 1.8% of the sun's rays.

It sounds like a good idea, but maybe we should first consult with Montgomery Burns?In other news about villains with unfair reputations, apparently in 1972 Richard Nixon insisted that if American ingenuity could transport three men 200,000 miles to the moon, it could also find a better way to transport 200,000 men three miles to work.

Amen, Mr. Nixon.

Apparently, only the University of West Virginia took up the challenge. The Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit system is, in fact, the city of the future. Here it comes. And, according to the Economist, it is coming again... Thank you Mr. Nixon, and thank you, Epcot Center.

Road trip to Morgantown, anybody?

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Good Magazine

I finally got a chance to leaf through my copy of Good Magazine, which I had picked up for the train ride down to NYC, and never got around to reading. According to the magazine's footer,
GOOD is for people whoe give a damn. It's an entertaining magazine about things that matter
It's a stylishly-laid out magazine, with a fairly strong design-influence, that brings to light lots of cool initiatives going on around the world - from innovative, locally focused solutions to public health issues in sub-Saharan Africa, to high-concept culture-jamming efforts in the New York art-circuit. The features feel lightweight and rambly, and the whole design-chic aesthetic, well, I guess you can make of that what you will. But the magazine is worth a look.

The coolest idea in the March/Aprill issue? The PlayPump, powering the pumping and storage of safe drinking water in South Africa through a merry-go-round where children can play:

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Reactions to Fiasco

After reading Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks’ account of the decision to go to war in Iraq, and the planning for and execution of that war and subsequent occupation, I’m still left with the same questions, How the hell did America get into this mess, and how can it be fixed so that America can get out?

Ricks is a journalist for the Washington Post, and a longtime correspondent on military affairs. Throughout Fiasco, Ricks is able to put the buildup to the war and the current war effort in multiple, enlightening contexts; as a historical legacy of the first Gulf War and its perceived successes and failures; as a consequence of huge political and strategic bet that could only be made in the post-9/11 political atmosphere; as a legacy of deep-rooted personal and political convictions of key leaders in the Bush Administration; as a result of decades-long failures in the organizational management of key American institutions, including the military, the intelligence community, and the State and Defense departments; and, perhaps most tellingly, as a failure in the culture of leadership at the highest levels in the civilian State and Defense administrations and in the military.

Aside from the quality of reporting and analysis in Fiasco, which is excellent, Ricks has unique access to and experience with people in the military, from senior commanders to officers and even privates in the field. Ricks is then able to paint a picture of this war effort, from the high-level politicking and planning that was going on at the Joint Chiefs of Staff and at the secretary level at State and Defense, to the day to day challenges faced, and quite literally, battles waged by troops moving door to door, block to block through the cities and provinces of Iraq.

My intention here is not to critique Ricks’ book or to really tackle the war itself. Frankly, it’s beyond me, and all I know is that it was a mistake to start this war in the first place, and that, while it would be nice to bring the boys home (so to speak), I think it would be a massive strategic mistake, and an abdication of America’s responsibility to the people of Iraq, to pull out fully. That said, all I plan to do is to summarize relevant parts of Fiasco to the best of my ability and then lay out some thoughts and questions about the book, which I may try to tackle independently, later.

Part I: Containment
The thrust of Ricks’ argument about the pre-war can be characterized as follows: significant strategic mistakes were made at the end of the first Gulf War, including promising to support and then failing to support Shiite and Kurdish uprisings and unnecessarily pulling coalition forces out of Iraq without causing Baghdad to fall (this is a contended point, and one I won’t actually ascribe to Ricks). Nevertheless, the policy of containment, as executed by General Zinni appears to have worked – while Saddam gave the perception of strength, aggression, and the desire for WMD capabilities, his military and political strength were, in fact, incredibly weak. Certain neo-cons, primarily Wolfowitz, contended this, and driven by personal ghosts from the Holocaust and the failure to support Iraqi minorities in the first Gulf War, created an unimpeachable rhetorical stance drawing direct parallels between a containment policy for Saddam and an appeasement policy for Hitler.

After 9/11, a political opportunity presented itself to invade Iraq. Certain members of Bush’s administration believed that Iraq could be easily overthrown and managed, and that any such show of force in the Middle East would fundamentally change a stagnant political dynamic in that region. Furthermore, Western intelligence, uncertain by nature, could be consistently interpreted to overstate the threat posted by Iraq. Essentially, in a political climate of war and fear, when practically everybody already believed that Iraq had or was trying to get WMD, it was simple to sell that story.

Finally, even though America was already engaged in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration, apparently led by Rumsfeld and Cheney, felt that it was an opportune time to invade Iraq. Over the objections of many senior military officials, the administration sold a war plan that promised a relatively painless and immediate resolution to any conflict, requiring a minimum of military and financial resources.

Such is the story that leads up to the brink of war, and what stands out to me:
1. History is biography. I’m amazed at the role that personal biography played in the framing of this war. Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, whose family survived the Holocaust, were intellectuals who felt they were fulfilling the promise of “Never Again,” a promise that had been failed in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc. Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz felt that they had been let down, and they, in turn, let down the Iraqi people, by being pulled back during the First Gulf War. Quit stunning the level to which Ricks portrays these factors directly influencing the rhetoric and decision making of senior officials leading in to this war effort;
2. Forget the professionals. It is shocking how easily the recommendations of senior military officials, like General Eric Shinseki, General Jack Keane, and retired General Anthony Zinni were disregarded in both the selling of, and more gallingly, the planning of the war. Consequences of this range from the failure to “finish the job” in Afghanistan before opening a front with Iraq to the apparent decision of Rumsfeld to not only disregard the Army’s preferences to invade with overwhelming force in order to, essentially, try out his theory of a lighter, more agile armed forces.
3. The failure of politics. Ricks doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing Congress inaction in questioning the war, or failure to call the timing or the planning into question, but as a body, and as a necessary piece of government, they are conspicuous in their absence. The troubling question is if the problem runs deeper than some 535 people in a climate of war, specifically, if the two-party political dynamics of this Republican party and this Democratic party make it impossible for independent-minded members of Congress to stand up and be heard.
4. The failure of intelligence. It’s hard to blame the intelligence community for failing to get their perspective on WMD and the threat of Iraq right. There are enormous systematic failures in the intelligence community, that is clear. It seems that these failures may be bandaged by extra resourcing and a change in approach, but it is not clear that until America, and specifically, Americans, start engaging more evenly with the rest of the world, that we will be able to gather the sort of specific, culturally-sensitive intelligence that will allow us to judge “enemies” that we simply do not care to understand.

Part II: Into Iraq
Summarizing again, the war to capture Baghdad was simple. Shock and awe and American military strength prevailed easily, moving from allied bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf, and winning the military battle and capturing Baghdad in a matter of weeks. There was never much question that this would be the case.

The promise of flowers and sweets, however, failed to materialize. Not that there wasn’t an opportunity to win the Iraqi population, but it was missed, and it was a big strategic miss. Neither the senior military leadership, primarily General Tommy Franks, nor the civilian leadership in the Bush Administration, understood that the true strategic mission was not the overthrow of the state of Iraq, but the winning of the nation of Iraq, and particularly, capturing the hearts and minds of both the Shia majority and the Sunni minority. As such, the tactical posture of American forces, from their troop placement in enormous forward bases, to their approach to day-to-day interaction with Iraqis, helped foment the beginnings of insurgency. On the ground, certain commanders, such as Patreus, Mattis, and Spain are highlighted as trying to do the right things to thwart the nascent insurgency, and then combat the active one. Other commanders, including Sanchez and Odierno fail to take the right approach entirely.

More troubling, however, are the ramifications of conflating Iraq and Al-Qaeda in the build up to war – specifically, the psychology among the young men and women of the army that average, every-day Iraqis represented “the enemy,” as opposed to ”the prize.” As the insurgency grew, and the day-to-day lives of servicemen in Iraq became more perilous, this perception only grew stronger, to the detriment of the war effort.

Even still, through the first year of combat, Iraq was still perceived by many military experts to be winnable. Individual battles had been won and lost, and different regions of Iraq were in better or worse shape. Still, resolve by the American electorate, the support of what countries comprised the coalition, the involvement of the UN, the Red Cross, and other independent agencies, made the effort seem plausible. Each death, each kidnapping, each bombing eroded this perception, and eventually, both allies chose to leave, and support flagged, particularly as the insurgency began to focus their tactical efforts on destabilizing the coalition.

And so we found ourselves in a mess:
1. Lessons never learned. Making an analogy to Vietnam, during this time period, was taboo. But what is most striking is not that Iraq was or is becoming another Vietnam, but rather, that the lessons learned in Vietnam were apparently forgotten prior to Iraq. More specifically, it appears that the Army invested so heavily in its military and political apparatus in avoiding another Vietnam, that it was ill-trained in how to operate when confronted with another Vietnam-like situation, where the population needed to be won over, not through force, but through soft means, where the tactical fighting was guerilla warfare, and where it was impossible to tell the good Iraqis from the bad Iraqis.
2. No news is good news. When I try to figure out what exactly constitutes systematic failure among the organizations responsible for the planning and execution of this war, the only thing that truly stands out to me is the insistence of senior officials, elected, bureaucratic, and military on averring from bad news. Bad news did not represent reality, did not signal a situation that needed to be managed, was the symptom and not the disease. Bad news was false, inaccurate, biased, for losers.
3. The failure of planning. At many levels, from the Defense department, though the Joint Chiefs and CentComm, down to lower levels of active forces in Iraq, it is clear that many leaders failed to plan. They failed to plan for worst-case scenarios, they failed to resource middle case scenarios, and they predicated their operations on best-case scenarios. This isn’t even Management 101, how did this happen?
4. The failure of leadership. Unfortunately, and the most troubling thing to come out of Fiasco for me, much of the failure of planning and the failure to account for bad news came down to the political and military leadership. The political leadership had no use and no interest in adequately understanding, planning for, and confronting the true issues in Iraq, and the military leadership lacked the fortitude and the culture to confront the political leadership. Why the military failed is understandable, but a failure nonetheless. Why the civilian leadership failed is less clear, and until some historian can really lay that one to bed, the conspiratorial whispers and concerns about the bad faith and incompetence of this Administration won’t be laid low.

Part III: The Long Term
It becomes clear that Iraq will not be an operation won or lost on a timescale of months. The CPA is established, fucks some major things up, like disbanding the Army and disbarring all ex-Baathists, high-level bad guys and low-level nobodies alike, failing to ensure security, failing to coordinate well with either the military or the US-based administration.

New troop rotations start coming in, to relieve the initial combatants, but create major discontinuities in operation, at every level, from commanders to combat patrols. Key army tasks are either not ordered or failed, like securing the borders and training indigenous army and police forces.

The insurgency grows, becomes more violent, targets American forces, but also becomes internecine. Baghdad erupts. Sadr City erupts. Falluja erupts. Anbar Province erupts. Karbala, Najaf, Samarra, Mosul. The Army and Marines contain and then quell the fighting, but the insurgency simply shifts, or takes a break.

Bush, inexplicably, is re-elected.

The war continues. Oil revenues fail to pay for reconstruction. Reconstruction itself often fails. The security condition deteriorates. Iraqis turn on Americans. The Armed forces begin to be stressed out. The war continues.

Ricks then summarizes four potential long-term outcomes.

His best case, an analogy to US intervention in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. A prolonged engagement, ten-plus years, where the armed forces learns to fight an effective counterinsurgency campaign; a state left stable, but short of our idealized hope, hopefully not a security concern.

His middle case, an analogy to France’s occupation in Algeria or Israel’s occupation in Israel. Again, a prolonged campaign, effectively culminating in a strategic loss, where a relatively stable, but hostile state is left behind in the wake of an eventual pullout.

His worse case, a civil war, partition, or a regional war drawing in Iran, Syria, Turkey, perhaps Saudi Arabia, and causing a fundamental divide and shooting war between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. An unstable region in bloodbath, with no control over the movements of non-state terrorist actors, and free and fluid movement of weapons. An unstable and uncontrollable impact on world oil supplies.

His nightmare scenario, a power vacuum into which emerges an Islamist leadership, creating a new Muslim caliphate, a united and fanatically religious super-state with significant population, almost total control over world oil supplies, strategic, global importance, power and military might, and a religious orientation dead set against Western liberalism.

Everybody’s questions:
1. Should we stay or should we go? I have no idea. Fiasco does a wonderful job telling us about the mess we’re in, but less of a job pointing the way out. The strategic and political considerations or complex, I don’t even begin to understand them. To borrow a bad metaphor, I feel like America is pot-committed, at this point, both strategically and morally, and that to leave would be in error.
2. What becomes of all this? Again, I have no idea. Recently, I’m interested in exploring further, as Ricks touches on briefly in his afterword, cases in history where countries were unable to achieve their goals in conflict abroad. Take Vietnam, or Algeria. Generally, these are characterized as tactical wins, but strategic losses – meaning a narrowly defined political victory was achieved, but the greater goals of the victorious nation failed or were diminished. But is this true, in history’s long view? What of Algeria, and France? And what of Vietnam and the US?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Thumbs Up For Kiva

PK totally scooped me on this already, but gives the heads-up thumbs-up to - a website that helps connect individual donors with people in need of micro-loans in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. Read Slate's article on "What's the Best Way to Loan a Poor Entrepreneur $20?" is an incredible site and possibly THE BEST web-idea of the 21st century. Congratulations to Matt and Jessica on another winning endorsement.

What's Wrong With the Left? Part 1 of Infinity

Is this the solution?

Joshua Glenn at has an article, with the pithy hook "What Democrats Can Learn From Grand Theft Auto." The article, which makes reference to a book called Dream by NYU professor Stephen Duncombe, levels a few criticisms of today's progressive and Democratic left:
1. The left is tedious; the Democratic leadership believes that it can win the electorate with the drab weaponry of policies and ideas;
2. The leadership of the left is separate from and out of touch with the people who constitute the left; "they organize, we come; they talk, we listen;"
3. The left is not fun; the left lacks imagination; the left is not cool;
Glenn sums up this critique of the left early in the article, when he attends an anti-nuclear rally in 1982, '"This rally is lame—and that's why it's not going to change a thing." I was 14, and I was absolutely correct.'

This critique, and a potential solution, is extended through a review of Dream (a book which I have not read), where Duncombe claims that

[t]oday's progressives fail to tap into America's collective unconscious through spectacle, which Duncombe defines as "a way of making an argument … through story and myth, fears and desire, imagination and fantasy." Republican Party leaders don't hesitate to derive inspiration from Madison Avenue and Hollywood. George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" photo-op may have backfired, but it demonstrated an impressive commitment to spectacle. In this way, Republicans are actually far more populist than the New Democrats.

If progressives ever want to set the national agenda, Duncombe insists, they must embrace what he calls dreampolitik, a politics that "embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which give these fantasies form." With the exception of street activists at the far fringes—he praises Billionaires for Bush, Critical Mass, and Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping—progressives remain convinced that "their sense of superior seriousness will win debates, convince the public, and lead them back into the halls of power."
Glenn further quotes Duncombe to argue that this lack of myth-making, of imagination did not exist in other epochs in the history of America's left, citing the story of Rosa Parks, the chicanery of Abbie Hoffman, and, more recently, the commercial success of Michael Moore and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. In each case, the stories and the characters of the left are able to act as symbols for the movement itself, capturing people's hearts and imaginations, immediately creating a sense of inclusion and catalyzing movements.

Duncombe finally argues that the left may have something to gain by studying phenomena like Grand Theft Auto (or presumably, any other popular product, act, or show that has a high cool factor with the 18-35 demographic).

I summarize this at length neither to dismiss it, nor to selectively critique it. I think it is a fairly interesting premise. There are, however, a few deep, underlying questions that should trouble progressives, that these questions fail to address. I will only try to frame my questions, and return to explore them in further detail in later posts (parts 2 to infinity...)

1. Myths, stories, the sorts of cultural phenomena that Duncombe and Glenn argue for all need to resonate at the level of heart and soul. For myths to work, the people who are the audience of the myth need to be able to see themselves in that myth, need to have a deep-seated empathy with the story that is being told, the appeal that is being made. Through all of the impactful movements of the left in the 20th century, from New Deal-era progressives, to the Beat and Hippie counter-culture movements, to the Civil Rights era, to the women's movements in the 80s, there has always been a significant, primary audience who could self-identify with the myths created from each of those political eras. Furthermore, the myths in each of these cases spoke directly to immediate and consequential threats to each audience. The poor, honest, unlucky worker struggling through the Depression; the historically disenfranchised black person; the draft-eligible young person. Does such an audience exist for today's progressive left? Is that audience sufficiently large to support a political party in a two-party system?

2. Let's say we believe that "political cool" can simply be created, marketed, and sold, in the same way that "cool" can be created, marketed, and sold in a video game, or consumer product, or fashion accessory. Let me make a completely fallible assertion, that cool has some intrinsic properties, related to popularity and sexiness, to validating personal identity in the eyes of others, and to, frankly, feeling that you are somehow better than most other people (because, let's face it, if everyone thought everybody else was cool, then cool wouldn't be worth very much). Let me also distinguish between the hip-cool of, let's say, New York, which really strives to set apart a tiny minority of "cool people," on whatever basis, from the popular-cool, which is accessible to a broad enough amount of people to enough people to allow it to sell ideas, clothes, video games, or whatever. Given this complex, but I think valid and essential, premise, do we believe that whatever makes a thing cool today is compatible with the politics and beliefs of the left? Can a politics that cares about poverty, injustice, peace, and equality also be cool? Or is cool, these days, the province of the rich, the leisurely, the beautiful, the powerful, the violent?

3. Let's say we reject, or simply set aside, the questions above, and we believe that (1) there is a sufficiently large audience of people in America who would be receptive to the beliefs, myths, and politics of the left, and that (2) an appeal to this audience can be made through myths, through stories, through a sense of fun, that would engage and energize that audience in their politics. If so, then what are they myths and stories that can capture that audience? Are they stories based on poverty, injustice, or political and cultural disenfranchisement, which have long been the foundation of the left? Are they represented by the irreverence and irony of the Daily Show or Billionaires for Bush? Can they be sustained from an opposition to a specific war? Do they need to be formed on new grounds, say from a growing disenfranchisement from and distrust of globalization (like Michael Douglas in Falling Down)? Or, alternately by an alignment of those interests that tie America to the world at-large (say, a movie like Babel)?

Visualizing Development with

A significant challenge for policy makers and academics interested in economics and public policy is to adequately quantify the impact of a given policy over time, isolating, to the extent possible, the relationship of policy to specific indicative variables, and to effectively communicate the conclusions and results of any analysis.

Often, the core challenge is a paucity of relevant data, an inability for social scientists to establish the sort of controlled experiments that may allow for true tests to be conducted on a policy or economic hypothesis. In other instances, much of the data has been collected and is made available, by a variety of governmental, inter-governmental, and NGO agencies. When the data is available, the difficulty often lies in reconciling disparate data sets, providing a coherent analysis, and presenting the analysis in such a way that a lay audience might make sense of it.

RM sent me a link to the following video, in which Swedish professor Hans Rosling presents some work of a very interesting initiative called to make much of the available data about social and economic policy indicators available to students, policy makers, and similar audiences, and to provide an interface to the data and analyses that make the findings more relevant and less arcane. The 20 minute video is entertaining, and worth a look:

I will try to dig further into, and report back with another post.