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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

What I read this week:

Micah Zenko argues that divining the motivations of the Boston bombers is futile.

Contrary to others, M. Taylor Fravel says China isn’t abandoning its no first use policy.

Some Tunisians fondly remember the days of dictatorship.

Paraguay’s rightward turn. Colin M. Snider has more thoughts on the election.

American stereotypes of Muslims. Relatedly, “do Saudis really hate the US?”

Sarah Kendzior: “Despite the Tsarnaevs’ American upbringing, the media has presented their lives through a Chechen lens. Political strife in the North Caucasus… has become the default rationale for a domestic crime.”

Fars News tries to have it both ways: the US supports Salafis in Syria, but was attacked by Salafis in Boston.

Civil society under threat in Iran.

Earlier this week I rounded up links for Political Violence @ a Glance.

Yann Tiersen – The Fall.


Oblivion and More on (Im)Plausible Alien Invasions

By Taylor Marvin

[Oblivion spoilers are marked below]

Last weekend I saw Oblivion, a new entry into the venerable Hollywood alien invasion genre. With stunning visuals and occasionally impressive acting, I found the film enjoyable, and despite its plot holes entertaining.

I’ve previously discussed how difficult it is to invent a plausible motive for an alien invasion of Earth. Unfortunately, Oblivion’s script isn’t particularly inventive in this department — the film’s writer is mostly content to recycle old tropes under a gleaming facade of modern CGI and gorgeous cinematography (seriously, Oblivion is beautiful). But since alien invasion stories in general are such an interesting topic of discussion, reflecting on the Oblivion’s plausibility is a fun exercise.

Of course, discussing alien invasions stories is inherently a discussion of aliens themselves, and speculating on any aspect of aliens’ behavior — especially the plausibility of their Hollywood invasions — is inherently dangerous. But as I wrote in a recent discussion of Cowboys and Aliens, aliens broadly similar to us — in economics if not physiology — would face enough universal limitations that informed speculation is possible:

“The only thing we can assume about alien civilizations is that, well, they’re alien. It’s very difficult to make any assumptions about how an alien civilization would be organized, what they would value, and how they would behave. But we are able to identify universal constraints, and extrapolate which of these constraints aliens’ incentives are bound by. No matter how alien, there are certain limitations that we can assume all technological civilizations are bound by…. The galactic scarcity of certain chemical elements is also universal, as is some degree of natural selection within and between species.”

Unfortunately, Oblivion mostly disregards these questions of plausibility. Of course, this doesn’t make it a bad movie per se, or even bad science fiction; the protestations of science fiction fans who use “hard” as a synonym for “good” aside, plausibility is overrated. But it does suggest interesting questions.

First, Oblivion’s opening minutes establish that humanity successfully defeated the invading aliens with nuclear weapons. This is a welcome departure from the frequent nukes-didn’t-work trope, but it is difficult to think of a plausible way that nuclear weapons would be particularly helpful in a contemporary conflict with aliens. While nuclear weapons are often discussed as plausible weapons in space combat (though in the vacuum of space a nuclear device has a much smaller destructive radius than in an atmosphere), in Oblivion’s scenario humans are confined to Earth, and are shown to have used nuclear weapons against alien surface targets. This implies that the aliens landed ground forces, forces vital enough to their war effort that their destruction ensured their defeat.

But why would the aliens land ground forces anyway? It is frequently noted in contemporary strategic studies that airpower cannot take or hold ground, but this limitation would not necessarily apply to the aliens. A civilization capable of routine interstellar flight is also presumably capable of arbitrarily detecting and destroying even hardened ground targets. This means that if humans are unable to threaten alien standoff weapons platforms or otherwise interfere with their bombardment and the aliens have sufficient spacecraft to cover all surface war zones, ground forces are unnecessary.

Anyway, the aliens aren’t seeking to hold ground at all; they are simply trying to kill enough humans to prevent humanity from interfering with the aliens’ plan to steal the Earth’s resources. This genocide can certainly be accomplished from space.


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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Claude Monet, "Déjeuner sur l'herbe". 1866. Via Wikimedia.

Claude Monet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe”. 1866. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The Iran Project’s new paper is certainly worth a read.

 Mike Albertus and Oliver Kaplan on the need for international backing for land reform in Colombia.

What’s Maduro’s slim victory say about the future of Chavismo? Make sure to check out Kevin Lees’ coverage of the election at his blog.

Roger Peng discusses the lessons from the now infamous R&R error.

Will Ahmadinejad’s top aid run in the upcoming Iranian election?

Is China walking back from its no-first-use pledge? If so, likely due to emerging second strike capabilities and emergence of non-nuclear rivalries.

Walter Pincus takes a nuanced position on Kim Jon-un’s belligerence. “What better way to solidify power, as the youngest world head of state, than to go further than his father and grandfather in challenging — at least verbally — the United States?”

On barriers to living in space: “Our drive to live in space has to serve human needs, not human fantasies.” Perhaps depressingly, I agree.

Finally, I haven’t linked to any coverage of the developing Boston bombing story as the implications of the attackers’ identities is still uncertain; that said, SWJ has a roundup of their recent writings on Chechnya.

Also, maker sure to check out Bombino’s awesome new album.

More on Islamophobia

By Taylor Marvin

Writing for the right-wing Gladstone Institute, former Pentagon official Harold Rhode explains that the martially-inspired names of some Muslim children is proof that Islam is uniquely violent. At the Daily Beast Ali Gharib does the good work of poking holes in Rhode’s ramblings, noting that many English names — including “Harold” — have similarly warlike origins.

It’s questionable whether this is even worth engaging. Despite his education and experience in the Muslim world, Rhode is doing nothing more than lazily cherry-picking anecdotes for a racist smear against Muslims. Like most instances of Islamophobia, this argument neglects to engage reality at all. If Islam is inherently warlike and expansionist, why has the Muslim world spent much of the last few centuries under European domination and colonization? If as Rhode suggests Muslims desire to to conquer the entire world and force it to submit to Islamic rule, why is this greater evidence of “endemic violence” in Muslims than Europeans, who actually did conquer most of the world? If by the 17th century Christian leaders decided “that if they did not to put an end to the violence, they could destroy their civilization,” why did they nearly do just that in the 20th century’s bloodiest wars?

Of course there’s no logic here — if Rhode wants to make Islam into an barbarically violent beast, he can twist his interpretation to make it just that. But his piece goes on towards more entertaining ludicrousness. Highlighting the flag of Saudi Arabia, Rhode points to its illustrated sword: “The message is clear: Islam is aggressive, Islam conquers by the sword,” he writes. Now, the government of Saudi Arabia is a repugnant dictatorship. But martial images aren’t restricted to Islam — in fact, they unsurprisingly adorn relatively few national flags of the Muslim world, just like everywhere else. The flag of Mozambique is adorned by an AK-47, certainly a more practical instrument of violence. Bolivia’s coat of arms features muskets or cannons — is the “clear message” that Bolivia conquers by the muzzle-loading cannon?

The llama symbolizes Bolivians' endemic hatred of grass and shrubbery.

The llama symbolizes Bolivians’ endemic hatred of grass and shrubbery.

The simple truth is that admiration for martial imagery is a common human behavior, and is of course not unique to Islam. There’s nothing to see here, besides Rhode’s own biases.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Turkish tiles, via Wikimedia.

Turkish tiles, via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Gary Owen has sobering, measured thoughts on the recent deaths of a young Foreign Service Officer and several others in Afghanistan.

The Chronicle of Higher Education profiles Erica Chenoweth and her work on terrorism and democracy.

When the CIA stopped torturing, and started killing.

Venezuela’s election heats up — unsurprisingly, Chávez’s legacy looms large.

An interesting take on the diplomatic implications of ballistic missile defense.

Mutual distrust between the US and China hampers Secretary Kerry’s first trip to the region.

In Brazil, the struggle to come to terms with the legacy of torture.

FEMEN and the suppression of native voices.

Robert Farley writes on the lessons of the Falklands War.

A study of Westerosi feudalism (ASoIaF/Game of Thrones spoilers).

Miles Davis – Some Day My Prince Will Come.

Towards a Crowded Heavens?

By Taylor Marvin

I have a new piece up at e-International Relations briefly summarizing the resurgence of interest in civil space programs, especially those outside of the traditional space powers. As more nations technological capabilities increase with economic growth, we can expect the ranks of spacefaring nations to increase. However, because civilian space programs are primarily motivated by national prestige concerns, which are less connected to national security than during the height of the Cold War, investment in space is unlikely to return to its Space Race-era heights barring a return to a hostile, bipolar global order. The kicker:

“How realistic these rising powers’ space ambitions are remains open to debate, because their national space programs are limited by both practical and political constraints. It is also worth remembering how many space exploration goals are never met. The greatest bar to optimistic hopes for exploration are not what a nation can do but instead what it chooses to do, and this choice is inherently political.”

The word limit for the piece was short enough that I wasn’t able to explore the issue in great detail, but check it out if you are interested. This is a conceptional similar argument to my last piece for the site, which argued that the US and China are unlikely to engage in a civilian space race in the foreseeable future.

Bureaucratic Barriers to Successful Interventions

9780393342246_CanInterventionWork_PB.inddBy Taylor Marvin

I recently finished Can Intervention Worka slim volume of twin essays authored by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus examining how humanitarian-motivated military interventions can succeed. Stewart’s essay, which opens the book, suggests an interesting comparison between the practitioners of modern intervention and British colonial administrators. One of the key failures of the current effort in Afghanistan is a lack of local knowledge among military and especially civilian practitioners. Because of security concerns, conflicting priorities, and the generalist focus of most modern government agencies and NGOs few practitioners spend extended periods in the Afghanistan, are able to create durable connections with ordinary Afghans, or learn local languages.

Stewart contrasts this disconnect separating international practitioners and ordinary Afghan society with British imperialists. While few modern officials or NGO workers would appreciate the comparison, in contrast to today the colonial officials of the British empire prized the local knowledge of specialists and created institutional structures that encouraged and fostered these skills.

British colonial officials were often cruel, erratic, and racist, as well as representatives of a colonial system fundamentally designed for exploitation, not development. However, Stewart argues, in contrast to their modern counterparts, British colonial officials stationed in Asia served abroad for decades, acquiring — and, crucially, were promoted on the basis of — language and cultural skills. Unlike today “this cadre of specialists in Parliament, the military, and the media,” Stewart writes, “provided a well-informed challenge to exaggerated ambitions or fears about Afghanistan.”

There are reasons to question this reasoning.* For all their local knowledge British colonialists suffered major defeats which were often sparked by their tone-deaf indifference to local grievances; the 1857 Indian Rebellion is one example of many. Indeed, despite the “well-informed” regional knowledge of 19th century British colonialists the First Anglo-Afghan War was certainly a Western defeat in Afghanistan more severe than today’s war. This suggests that while regional specialization is important, it is no panacea for the arrogance inherent to colonialism and often foreign invasion.

But it is true that today’s practitioners in Afghanistan — and the entire international effort they embody — appear to often lack the specialized local knowledge crucial to successful state-building. As Stewart and others have noted, this is a serious weakness of the current effort in Afghanistan. For military servicemembers, the demands of rotating deployments makes it difficult for veterans to pass on regionally-specific experience and lessons learned. For civilians, this disconnect is arguably even worse: security concerns restrict most foreign aid workers and administrators to guarded compounds, and few possess relevant cultural and language skills. The senior officials responsible for setting policy, both in and outside of NATO governments, spend little time on the ground in Afghanistan, and have even less local experience.

Of course, Stewart is carefully to differentiate between the local specialization and general outlook of colonial officials. Western governments, Stewart writes, “should not be trying to replicate a nineteenth-century ethos”; obviously, Western and Afghan societies would not support them if they did. But it is obvious that the modern practitioners’ generalist outlook is problematic. Too few speak Afghan languages, and too few are able to meaningfully interact with ordinary Afghans. This generalism is the result of many limitations: the buzzword-heavy culture of modern management consulting that stresses universal principals over regional specifics, the casualty-adversion that isolates practitioners into guarded compounds, the short overseas tours that disincentivizes learning specialized local knowledge. But whatever its cause, a generalist outlook disconnected from local realities is not conductive to successful, realistic policy — as Stewart’s anecdote of attending a government conference on Afghanistan, held in Estonia and attended by only three Afghans, all US born, amply illustrates.

Stewart expands his critique into a general call for smarter interventions; in this telling, decisions to intervene should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments on why we cannot intervene in a particular place, or why we should not intervene too deeply.” This is certainly a valid critique of liberal interventionist thinking, though I would caution that the general hurdles to successful interventions are as vital as specific knowledge.

But the importance of local knowledge is potentially a general deficiency that makes nearly all full-scale, boots-on-the-ground interventions unfeasible. Successful full-scale interventions, especially those with state-building components, require practitioners with local knowledge. While neoconservatives and to an extent liberal interventionists once downplayed the importance of this specialization, in the post-Iraq environment this assertion isn’t controversial. However, this language and cultural knowledge gap is a human capital problem that poses a real obstacle to advocates of humanitarian military interventions, despite their motivation.

All modern interventions are nominally short-term, despite the tendency of mission creep and unplanned setbacks to expand their mandate. This makes it difficult for institutions to incentivize building the local skills that Stewart stresses. Unlike the colonial administrators Stewart cites — who could expect their postings to last for decades, making acquiring local languages and cultural knowledge a valuable long-term investment through their career — today’s practitioners know that the US presence in Afghanistan will dramatically shrink in the next few years. Even excluding the modern security-driven isolation that makes in-country cultural interactions difficult and institutional cultures that fail to reward specialization, modern practitioners have significantly less incentive to invest the time and effort required to acquire deep cultural knowledge they can expect to soon be dramatically less relevant. Just as Americans who became experts in Vietnamese culture saw less applications for their skills after 1975, those who invested considerable energy in learning Dari or Pashto — while admirable — may see this specialization as less valuable to their career than generalist skills with less of an expiration date.

US Army Photo by Spc. Alex Kirk Amen, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, via Flickr.

US Army Photo by Spc. Alex Kirk Amen, 115th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, via Flickr.

While this is an arguable point, I believe this is a major structural flaw in liberal interventionism. As long as foreign interventions are benchmarked around politically-acceptable short timeframes, civilian and military practitioners will have less career incentives to acquire specific cultural skills with little direct applications decades on. As Stewart argues, government agencies and NGOs could certainly place more emphasis on rewarding those who acquire these skills. Additionally, this isn’t to say that acquiring cultural skills doesn’t provide indirect career benefits — acquiring them certainly demonstrates commitment and general aptitude. But as long as practitioners cannot, unlike colonial administrators, see a stable long-term market that directly applies their skills, they have less incentives to acquire them.

If the success of intervention is dependent on the availability of a large cadre of practitioners with deep local knowledge, this bureaucratic incentive problem is a major barrier to pro-intervention arguments. Prospective interventions can draw from existing regional specialists in academia or NGOs — though, as the Iraq War demonstrates, these specialists are often ignored when they bear unwelcome counsel, and distinguishing disinterested experts from those with agendas is difficult. But successfully implementing counter-insurgency and state-building programs require large numbers of regional specialists also knowledgable about whatever technical field they will be working in, whether military of economic or political. These very specialized human resources take time to grow, and cannot be counted on to emerge in sufficient quantity.

This is particularly troubling because countries have repeatedly failed to incentivize regional expertise even in regions known to be potential trouble spots. For example, during the period leading up to the Falklands War British officials could have reasonably expected that, while they never expected an actual war with Argentina over the islands, building and maintaining institutional Latin America expertise was a prudent strategy. But as reported in Max Hasting and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklandsthe British were unprepared for the diplomatic requirements of successfully averting conflict. Despite their two possessions in the region — the Falklands and, until 1981, British Honduras — Latin America was not a priority for the British Foreign Office. Specialists tasked with the regionlacked resources, and in the early post-war era was primarily focused on commercial, not political, relations. British intelligence on Argentina was minimal, and during the conflict few British servicemembers landed on the islands spoke Spanish. The point is that maintaining institution’s regional expertise resources is difficult, even in regions known to present potential future problems. Because humanitarian crises cannot always be expected to occur in regions with a deep bench of specialists available, this problem is even more apparent for humanitarian-minded interventions.

No matter how many existing regional specialists there are to draw on, successful full-scale interventions will always require dramatically increasing relevant human capital. Not only is this time-consuming — and, as the Iraq War again shows, mistakes made in the opening states of an intervention can have dramatic long-run effects — but incentivizing these specific, limited-application skills is a difficult bureaucratic problem. While many critics of foreign interventions point to a lack of local expertise as a key flaw of these efforts, few question whether bureaucracies can offer sufficient incentives for practitioners to acquire them. The short-timeframes inherent to full-scale interventions suggest that this human capital problem is so challenging that it should be considered a integral hurdle to successful full-scale, state-building intervention.


*More specifically Stewart’s status as a regional expert himself, which he largely casts himself as in the text, has been questioned.

Update: Edited for clarity.

Weighing a Dedicated Ballistic Missile Defense Class, Con’t.

By Taylor Marvin

Last October I considered the Romney campaign’s proposal for a new naval ship class dedicated to ballistic missile defense. At the time, Romney advisor John Lehman had suggested that a new class based on the existing LDP 17 hull dedicated entirely to the ballistic missile defense (BMD) role would be a valuable addition to the US Navy, which is increasingly taked with the role. The larger LDP hull would allow a new class of ship the power to mount new radar and physical room to carry significantly more anti-ballistic missiles, an argued weakness of existing BMD ships:

“This is an interesting proposal. Offshore ballistic missile defense is a growing mission for the Navy, and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) like China’s formidable DF-21D system are a major threat to surface ships. A dedicated anti-ballistic missile (ABM) ship capable of targeting and destroying ballistic missiles would certainly increase the survivability of carrier strike groups, as well as serve in the region BMD role.”

Writing at Defense News, Christopher P. Cavas recently reported on an Huntington Ingalls Industries concept for the a dedicated BMD ship, featuring a significantly expanded number of vertical launch systems.

Ultimately I concluded that proposals for a dedicated BMD ship are infeasible on cost and specialization grounds — “though important, the actual need for BMD is rare. Building a entire ship class dedicated to a rarely needed mission is problematic.” However, despite my concerns (an the extremely uncertain future of any new class proposals in the current budgetary environment) the proposal is interesting, and merits further discussion.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Arnold Böcklin, "Attack by Pirates". Via Wikimedia.

Arnold Böcklin, “Attack by Pirates”. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Is the Korea crisis a symptom of a turnover trap?

I don’t see this specific outline of a potential conflict on the Korea Peninsula as particularly plausible, but it’s thought-provoking nevertheless.

UC San Diego’s Stephan Haggard on why Kim Jong-un is not crazy.

US Food Aid rules: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention (via Kevin Drum).

Popularism vs. the lame duck: Ahmadinejad continues his struggle. The availability of populist politics to the presidency, and not the Supreme Leadership, strikes me as a structural fault line in the IRI regime.

Small modular reactors and US military bases.

The advocates of the Iraq War continue to misunderstand the lessons of their failure.

Are the nordic countries a viable model for the US?

Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists.

Fair trade is a form of protectionism, and it should not be allowed to hide behind the mask of morality.”

Finally, very sad news from author Iain Banks. I finished Excession this week.

The Joy Formidable – This Ladder Is Ours.


By Taylor Marvin

Political Violence @ a Glancethe blog I am lucky enough to work on, has been voted the ‘Most Promising New Blog’ of the 2013 Outstanding Achievements in International Studies Blogging awards, run by Duck of Minerva’s Dan Nexon. Cool! If you’re interested do check out all of the other finalists, which are all excellent blogs I enjoy.

Of the nominees in the best individual post category, I especially enjoyed Robert Farley, John M. Hobson, and Phil Arena’s work. Check them out.