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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia. Photo by Mirko Thiessen.

Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia. Photo by Mirko Thiessen.

The best links of the week:

Deficit Idealists vs. Deficit Realists (Plain Blog).

A Blood-Stained Rifle, and Questions of the Taliban (At War).

The Limits of Obama’s Anti-Piracy Policy (Information Dissemination).

The Executive Power Grab in the Decision Not to Defend DOMA (Volokh Conspiracy).


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The Wisdom of Potential Presidential Nominees

By Taylor Marvin

Rick Santorum isn’t happy about the Obama administration’s decision to stop DOJ legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act:

“This is yet another example of our president’s effort to erode the very traditions that have made our country the greatest nation on earth.”

Yes, stopping gay people from getting married is exactly what has made our country successful. This type of empty rhetoric is so patronizing that it should be offensive to even opponents of gay rights, as well as everyone else.

Cutting the Military Budget, Continued

By Taylor Marvin

US Navy F/A-18C, one of the aircraft scheduled to be replaced by the F-35. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Tyler Caswell.

US Navy F/A-18C, one of the aircraft scheduled to be replaced by the F-35. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Tyler Caswell.

The New York Times has a recent editorial criticizing Defense Secretary Gates’ recent military budget:

“Some of that same managerial sense is evident in the Pentagon’s latest $553 billion request ($118 billion more is requested for Iraq and Afghanistan). But Mr. Gates did not go far enough. The $78 billion in spending cuts he announced last month were not really cuts, but merely reductions in projected hefty increases.”

At Information Dissemination Bryan McGrath disagrees with the Times’ main points, specifically calls to cut back planned orders for F-35 As and Cs (unprofessionally, McGrath doesn’t link back to the Times piece):

“Cutting back on the F-35 MIGHT make sense, if what they were suggesting was elimination of the STOVL version–but they’re not saying that. Complaining about doubling costs per plane seems odd when an across the board cut would undoubtedly raise unit costs.  I imagine what they are REALLY opposed to is the total price, and defense officials are working hard to get them under control.  But with the F-22 already chopped, we’ve cast our lot with the F-35 and we need to press forward.”

This is a good point. The F-35 is a troubled program. But cost increases should be expected on any type of development program, especially one as ambitious as the F-35. Budget overruns are an inescapable part of building fighter jets, and it’s hard to imagine 5 separate development efforts to replace the Air Force A-10s, F-16s and F-15 Strike Eagles, Navy F/A-18s and Marine AV-8 Harrier IIs the F-35 is designed to replace being less expensive. There’s a lot about the F-35 that fundamentally doesn’t make sense. By attempting to design an aircraft that works well in the air superiority, strike, and close air support roles the military is probably ensuring that it gets one that does nothing really well, and at greater operational cost than individual mission dedicated aircraft. But the United States has already invested so much in the F-35 that at this point there’s no turning back- if America wants to have a modern multirole aircraft by the 2040s the F-35 has to succeed, because there are literally no other manned fighters in development. Wide proliferation of advanced anti-air missile technology means that some degree of stealthiness is required for future strike missions to be survivable in an increasing number of theaters. By 2030s the F-16 and F/A-18 family will be approaching 60 years old, and their lack of stealth will likely severely limit their future utility. Good arguments can be made that the prospect of a future major war are so unlikely that an advanced fighter isn’t really necessary, but proponents of reduced American military spending need to accept that significant cuts to the F-35 program would have a disproportionately large impact on the size of the future US combat aircraft fleet. This doesn’t mean that the F-35 program should be held sacred, but it’s important to recognize that savings from reducing the number of F-35s built would be significantly offset by increases in unit cost. Investing so heavily in such an ambitious program probably wasn’t wise to begin with, but at this point America has to accept the high cost of the F-35 program.

McGrath’s also critical of the Times stance on redistributing the funding balance between services, which proposes cutting the Navy and Air Force budgets in favor of the Army and Marine Corp. Ending the rough equality in service funding is a good idea. However, allocating more funds to land forces is a poor argument. The security challenges facing the US and its allies in the foreseeable future- containing rouge states like North Korea, constraining regional rivals like Iran, and deterring Russia and China- are all primarily maritime challenges. As major states become increasingly unwilling to fight prohibitively costly land wars, military influence in the modern world is increasing based on inherently less destructive sea and air power. After the long debacle of Iran and Afghanistan, the US is wisely unlikely to enter another ground war in the next two decades, reducing the justification for preserving high Army funding. Drastically cutting land force spending has the added benefit of deterring American policymakers from stumbling into long wars- the widespread myth of complete American supremacy in ground warfare undoubtably contributed to the Bush administration’s refusal to consider the possibility that the war in Iraq would quickly turn into a protracted counterinsurgency. This doesn’t mean that the Navy and Air Force should be immune from cuts. The idea that the United States somehow needs 9 more aircraft carriers than its closer naval competitors is ridiculous, as is the disconnect between the Air Force’s size and likely future requirements. However, it is certain that land forces are much less relevant to the security of the United States than air and sea power. The United States need to dramatically cut its military spending, which has grown completely beyond any reasonable justification. But for drastic cuts to be politically acceptable they need to carefully consider the actual security challenges likely to face the US in the future, and the varying practical utility of different programs and services. By paying only lip service to the actual intricacies of these issues the Times editorial moves us farther away from the goal.

Our Coming Computer Overlords

By Taylor Marvin

Genius computer Watson won Jeopardy. The competition lasted 3 episodes, from February 14 through 16. News references of the phrase “Skynet” spiked during that period:

Source: Google trends.

Source: Google trends.

Either the media needs to find a new phrase for artificial intelligence, or people know what’s coming.

Balanced Budgets and the Debt

By Taylor Marvin

Scott Adams has been doing an interesting series of posts on tackling the deficit. While critical of optimistic conservative proposals to cut entire federal departments, he’s fairly militant on the subject of balanced budgets:

“If you can describe your political position with one word, you’re part of the problem. Political groups confuse philosophies with plans.  When you identify with a group, you become a philosopher. I suppose everyone assumes the plan is someone else’s job.

I’d like to see a Constitutional Amendment that makes anyone in federal office ineligible for another elected term if the budget isn’t balanced during the current term.”

Matt Yglesias is critical of this kind of thinking:

“The answer is that, no, you actually don’t need to get to a balanced budget in order to tackle the debt. The country’s debt is becoming less burdensome, which is to say any time GDP is growing faster than the debt. If debt growth is zero (balanced budget) or negative (surplus) that usually means fairly rapid debt-shrinkage. But given positive economic growth, modest budget deficits are completely consistent with reductions in the debt burden.”

This is an interesting debate. Adams’ idea is more realistic than most balanced budget amendment proposals because, unlike Tea Party Republicans’ most common amendment proposal, it includes an enforcement mechanism. Aside from the inherent recession magnifying problems with a balanced budget amendment Yglesias’ point is a good reason why balanced budgets are necessary at all. Looking at the debt in absolute terms isn’t that informative- it’s the debt as percent of GDP that’s important. At $14 trillion the US’s current debt is about $3 trillion dollars more than Japan’s. But Japan’s public debt is nearly 200% of GDP, compared to about 96% in the US. Both countries face serious debt challenges, but by only looking at the absolute debt amount doesn’t give a good picture of each country’s fiscal situation.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam.

William Blake, Elohim Creating Adam.

What a week:

25 Bahman and the Green Revival (Frontline).

A look at the youth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (NPR).

Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology (The New Yorker).

How exceptional is America, really? (Democracy in America).

More on The Great Stagnation (Interfluidity).

The Weapon Supplies of Afghan Insurgents

By Taylor Marvin

Unexploded ordinance waiting to be destroyed in Afghanistan. Photo by Catie Hague.

Unexploded ordinance waiting to be destroyed in Afghanistan. Photo by Catie Hague.

I’m currently reading Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderlands by David Isby. The book makes a perceptive point about the armaments of the Taliban:

“The availability of funding and access to world weapons markets makes the absence of certain types of weapons among the insurgent forces significant. The insurgents have used no anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and few surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), even though these weapons were both used in the later stages of the 1978-92 conflict. This suggests that there has been a decision by someone to limit insurgent access to these weapons.”

The security establishment in Pakistan? It’s hard to think of anyone else with the influence to exercise this kind of authority over the Afghan insurgent movement. It’s easy to guess at the Pakistani intelligence officers’ motives: they want an insurgency powerful enough to ensure the emergence of an Afghan state with a foreign policy subservient to Pakistan, but militarily weak enough so that militant Islamists can’t seriously challenge Pakistani forces in Pakistan.

People Who Shouldn’t Talk About Egypt Talking About Egpyt

By Taylor Marvin

At Slate’s XX blog, Rachael Larimore wonders if the awful rape of CBS correspondent Lara Logan suggests that post-Mubarak Egypt will be more violent for women. This is one of the most insipid and borderline offensive pieces I’ve read in a while. Ms. Larimore obviously did no research at all, and it shows:

“I wish I could say I was surprised by the news. But amid the cacophony of revolution, however, quieter voices expressed concern about what life would be like for women after the revolution, drawing comparisons to the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the ouster of the Shah led to reduced freedoms for women.”

Like Ms. Larimore, I too wish I could say I was surprised by the news that one woman has been raped in a foreign country. I also have been recently surprised to discover that Iran is actually not the same country as Egypt, and that the largely secular Egyptian protest movement has little in common with the Iranian revolution. Never mind. If a popular revolution in a Muslim country 30 years ago led to reduced freedoms for women, one in a completely different cultural and political environment 1,200 miles away must end the same way.

“There’s debate over whether the Muslim Brotherhood is secular or Islamist, and how will women will fare if Sharia were to be imposed in Egypt.”

Make a list of the countries where a strict interpretation of sharia law is enforced: Afghanistan under the Taliban, rural Pakistan, parts of rural Saharan Africa, Iran, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Strict interpretations of sharia law, the kind Americans typically associate with Islam, are rare in the Muslim world.

Conservatives like to stress how similar the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is to Hamas, which originated as an offshoot of the Brotherhood. The two have ideologically diverged considerably since Hamas’ founding in 1987. The Muslim Brotherhood has grown more moderate in the past two decades, and seems to have pragmatically accepted the status of Israel while Hamas has remained more militant. However, it’s worth noting that Hamas has not imposed strict sharia law in the West Bank, despite having over 3 years to do so. This is a strong indication that the more moderate Brotherhood has no interest in forcibly imposing strict sharia law on Egypt. It’s also worth noting that the Brotherhood doesn’t seem to enjoy the public popularity necessary to dominate Egyptian society. In the Egyptian election of 2005 the Brotherhood managed to win 20% of the legislature, a figure that will likely fall with the emergence of other opposition parties in Egyptian politics. If the Brotherhood was interested in imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law on Egyptian society, they would be unsuccessful.

“Is Logan’s attack an anomaly, or is it to be expected from men raised in a culture that treats women as lesser citizens?”

Is there any data that shows a high level of rape in Egypt? Suggesting that Egypt’s incidence of rape is unusually high is a very broad claim to make without reporting any supporting evidence. This is extremely sloppy journalism.

The post’s subtitle asks “who, exactly, celebrates by raping a woman?” Ms. Larimore insinuates that Muslims do. Let’s not forget what this article actually is: Ms. Larimore takes the rape of one woman, and uses it as a springboard to suggest that the entire Egyptian protest movement is a step backwards for women’s right, and that Egyptian men are inherently violent. By not offering any data to support her insinuations Ms. Larimore is either admitting that reality doesn’t support her assumptions, or saying that she doesn’t owe her readers well researched journalism. Claims require evidence. Ms. Larimore doesn’t seem to understand this. There’s a term for making this type of gross negative generalizations about a foreign culture. I’ll let you figure out what it is.

Thanks to Sarah Alaoui for posting the original XX post.

Endgame in Iran

By Taylor Marvin

Logo of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, more commonly known as the Revolutionary Guard.

Logo of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, more commonly known as the Revolutionary Guard.

In the aftermath of Tunisia and Egypt’s successful protest movements, demonstrators in Iran have taken to the streets in the largest antigovernment rallies in at least a year. Unfortunately, the structure of the Iranian regime makes protests there much less likely to succeed than in the Arab world.

Both Egypt’s and Tunisia’s revolutions ended when public protest against the executive led to quiet military coups– both countries are currently under the control of interim military governments. In countries with weak opposition movements, a lack of civil institutions and developed militaries, like Tunisia and Egypt, this is probably the only likely mechanism for successful antigovernment revolutions. It’s true that military governments are not ideal, and it is interesting to see American liberal commenters celebrating what is essentially a military coup, even if it’s probably benign. Encouragingly, there’s good reason to suspect that the interim military government will uphold its pledge to hold elections in the next year. Recent research has demonstrated that in the last 20 years, in contrast to most of the 20th century, military coups have usually led to eventual democratic elections, validating the idea that the military can be a stabilizing force during an autocratic country’s transition to some form of democratic government.

Source: Goemans and Marinov, 2008.

Source: Goemans and Marinov, 2008.

However, it’s worth remembering the distinction in Egypt between the regime and the executive. Mubarak was the figurehead of the regime, which is composed of durable military institutions that have governed the country since the 1952 coup that overthrow the monarchy. Mubarak’s departure doesn’t mean the regime’s gone- through the military it’s still controlling the country.

Both the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions unseated their presidents through the action of the military. However, we can’t expect this same mechanism to work in Iran. The Iranian military, especially the Revolutionary Guard that exercises control over most aspects of Iranian public life, is ideologically allied with the executive in a way that the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries were not. The Egyptian military consented to unseat Mubarak because the Presidency was just the most visible aspect of the regime, and by extension state, that the military still controlled. For Egyptian military leaders the coup that removed Mubarak did not fundamentally threaten their position as the power behind the government, and Egyptian government will continue to change at the military’s pleasure. The dynamic in Iran is much different. Iran is not ruled by a regime composed of institutions but rather of ideology and individuals. A popular uprising demanding the ouster of President Ahmadinejad is not tolerated because the Iranian religious authority has personally linked itself to him by violently defending the illusion of the legitimacy of his election in 2009. This hardline stance was a commitment that can’t easily be backed down from. Protest against the office of the President is protest against the Supreme Leader, and by extension the military itself, making the kind of informal alliance between protesters and the military that characterized Egypt’s revolution unlikely in Iran. The internal Iranian military authority, the Revolutionary Guard and its Basij paramilitary offshoot, can’t be separated from the executive and won’t be persuaded to arbitrate even a semblance democratic change. It’s also worth noting that Iranian protesters are overwhelmingly urban youth, and aren’t representative of the entire population. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where the governing regimes were despised by a large portion of the population, a significant number, perhaps a plurality, of Iranians remain loyal to the government and the ideals of the revolution. Pro-government demonstrators only emerged in Egypt after the regime began paying them- this isn’t the case in Iran, where the Basij are motivated and well organized.

Military coups in response to public pressure against the executive have been the endgame in both the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and both these protest movements succeeded because the military was aware of the distinction between the regime and the presidency, and was willing to sacrifice the latter to preserve their privileged social position. This distinction between the executive and the state does not exist in a meaningful way in Iran. If the mechanism of military cooperation and an eventual coup is not available there democratic protest is much less likely to succeed in Iran than in the Arab world.

The Challenge of Eliminating Land-Based ICBMs

By Taylor Marvin

Soviet R-36 nuclear missile launch. The R-36 could carry over 10 nuclear warheads, giving each missile the potential to kill millions of people.

Soviet R-36 nuclear missile launch. The R-36 could carry over 10 nuclear warheads, giving each missile the potential to kill millions of people.

At Slate Fred Kaplan critiques President Obama’s new defense budget, specifically the funding of new nuclear missiles:

“Is anybody thinking about the idea of phasing out the ICBMs? These are the weapons that, over the decades, have spurred first-strike temptations to begin with. They are at once the most accurate and the most vulnerable nuclear weapons. That is, they are capable of destroying, and being destroyed by, the other side’s ICBMs. In other words, their very existence creates temptations of pre-emptive strike in the event of a crisis. They are the weapons, in fact, that generated the nuclear arms race of the 1960s to 1980s. Now that the Cold War is kaput and the notion of first-strike scenarios more improbable than ever, let’s get rid of them—rather than plan to build more of them—while the climate is clear.”

This is a good idea. Land-based ICBMs are extremely destabilizing- unlike ballistic missiles launched from submarines they are accurate enough to target an enemy’s arsenal, making then the only weapon system with the potential to destroy a good portion of an opponent’s nuclear force on the ground. Submarine launched weapons (SLBMs), on the other hand, are extremely stabilizing. They can’t be targeted by an enemy, and their invulnerability make a successful first strike impossible. Money spent on ICBMs is wasted, because spending on land-based missiles doesn’t provide any more marginal deterrence over naval nuclear forces. Eliminating both American and Russian land-based ICBMs would be a very good way to cut the world’s nuclear arsenal, reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war, and save money in both countries. However, there are reasons to think this won’t happen anytime soon:

  1. The Obama administration’s difficulty passing the recent New START treaty in the Senate demonstrate that a vocal portion of the Republican party does not approve of cutting the US’s nuclear arsenal at all, despite nearly the entire US military and diplomatic establishment’s support for the treaty. While a good portion of this opposition was politically motivated, it’s worth remembering that the New START treaty was fairly limited and broadly uncontroversial- eliminating an entire leg of the US’s nuclear triad will be very unpopular in parts of the American political establishment. Given the structure of the Senate, even limited opposition to eliminating US ICBMs could be fatal.
  2. Submarine-launched missiles are fielded by the US Navy, while ICBMs are operated by the Air Force. Something tells me that the Air Force won’t be happy to give up such a politically important and well funded asset. Services value the importance nuclear forces give them; in the late 1940s the US Navy went to great lengths to acquire carrier launched bombers and end the Air Force monopoly on nuclear weapons. Even in the post-Cold War era the Air Force will exert significant political pressure to retain the ICBM mission.
  3. The United States will not unilaterally eliminate a significant portion of its nuclear arsenal- cuts to US land-based ICBMs must be matched by comparable reductions in the Russian arsenal for this measure to be politically acceptable. However, there are reasons to suspect that the Russians won’t agree to such a drastic restructuring of their nuclear arsenal. Russia nuclear forces are much more biased towards land-based missiles than the US’s. Russia currently fields roughly 1,500 land-based warheads on 500 individual missiles. America’s number of land-based missile roughly corresponds with Russia’s, but the US’s only fielded ICBM, the LGM-30, only carries one warhead, so the number of US land-based warheads is limited by the number of individual missiles. The maximum current American SLBM arsenal is 1,700 warheads on 280 missiles, fielded on 14 class submarines. Russian SLBM forces are much more limited– the Russians currently field only 625 warheads on 175 missiles. Additionally, sub-launched ballistic missiles are more expensive than their land-based counterparts. The unit cost American LGM-30 Minuteman missiles, currently the only ICBM in the US arsenal, is $7 million, while the cost of the US Navy’s current SLBM, the UGM-133 Trident II, is $30.9 million. Russian missiles show a similar price difference. Eliminating the ICBM portion of the Russian nuclear triad while still maintaining nuclear parity with the US would require the construction of a significant number of new missile submarines, as well as procuring expensive additional SLBMs. This is a significant cost- the unit price of Russia’s new Borei class ballistic missile submarine is about $890 million, while the equivalent US Ohio class cost $2 billion. Given modern Russia’s chronic difficulty financing new military acquisitions it is unlikely that the Russians would agree to such a drastic and expensive restructuring of their nuclear forces. This inevitable Russian unwillingness bear the cost of nuclear force restructuring rather than simple reduction means the US will not eliminate its ICBM arsenal anytime in the foreseeable future.