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Fashion and Cultural Telephone

By Taylor Marvin


On the occasion of the release of the new film Catching Fire, I recently revisited the first movie in The Hunger Games trilogy. While I’m not an enormous fan of the book series the films are based on, I was highly impressed by some aspects of the story. As I wrote last year, the concept of the tessera, which makes teenagers from lower-class families more likely to be selected to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games, is an impressively sophisticated instrument of political control that aligns the interests of the Districts’ middle class with that of the Capitol regime while preserving the Games system’s illusion of class impartiality.

On my second viewing of The Hunger Games, I was again impressed by the film’s costume designers. The series takes place at some point in the distant future, after the population of North America (and implicitly, the world) has been dramatically reduced by unspecified calamities. Given this future setting, the films’ costume designers are tasked with coming up with clothes for the residents of Panem’s rich capital city that are obviously from another, future culture, but still plausible. This is no easy task — in particular, the Star Trek franchise has always struggled to dream up civilian clothing that is far enough outside the bounds of modern fashion taste to fit the 24th century setting while not looking ridiculous. Additionally, as a decadent and politically isolated society in terminal decline, the clothing worn in the Capitol is supposed to look ostentatious. Conveying this excess while avoiding costumes that look too artificial is a difficult line to walk — “silly”, but not too silly.

As I said, I think The Hunger Games’ costume designers did a decent job. In particular, the exaggerated aesthetic of the Capitol is not particularly implausible for a small and isolated civilization living in the ruins of a once much greater forerunner. It is frequently noted that emigrants or exiles often embody their culture’s customs more vigorously than its other members, perhaps as a way of compensating for their distance from it. Assuming that the catastrophe that reduced the population of The Hunger Games’ world occurred sometime in the (from our perspective) near future, it’s not unreasonable that Panem culture would seek to imitate the fashions and customs of our richer, more populous civilization, particularly if Panem’s small population inhibits cultural innovation. Without knowing if this was an intentional choice on the costume designers’ part, it makes sense that the Capitol’s fashion would be an exaggerated replication of ours, particularly given the distorting effects of however-many generations of cultural telephone.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Sultan Selim III holding an audience in front of the Gate of Felicity. Via Wikimedia.

Sultan Selim III holding an audience in front of the Gate of Felicity. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

At Suffragio Kevin Lees has an ongoing series of reporting and interviews on the upcoming Honduran elections.

Joshua Kurlantzick asks why per capita-poorer Vietnam was better prepared for Typhoon Haiyan than the Philippines. On the same topic, Cullen Hendrix looks at the literature on natural disasters and social unrest.

Col. Scott Gerber critiques the concept of “easy” wars, and in particular the AirSea Battle concept that posits a conflict with China restricted to the sea and air, which coincidently reflects the US Navy and US Air Force’s acquisition priorities.

Paul Pillar asks how the US can stimulate political change in Iran, and makes the obvious (but not to everyone) conclusion that “it is fantasy to believe instead that endless pressure will eventually cause pressured Iranians to rise up in revolt.”

Why would anyone want to lower the working age for children in Bolivia? (via Long Reads.)

Why “genocide” had to come first, and why “mass atrocities” should come next: Danny Hirschel-Burns on why it is time to retire the loaded term as a catch-all for, well, mass atrocities.

Further linkage on political violence topics here.

inc. – Black Wings.

Bureaucratic Barriers and Local Knowledge

510px-CIA.svgBy Taylor Marvin

Writing in The American Conservative, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi strongly criticizes the “cultural ignorance” hampering US foreign policy and security agencies. Rotating assignments and an obsession with leakers and “insider threats” that discourages hiring first or second-generation Americans with foreign language and cultural skills have left American foreign policy, Giraldi writes, bereft of local knowledge and an understanding of alien societies. While American-born practitioners with deep local knowledge do exist “they are largely absent from government,” and counterproductively “organizations like the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency have a deep institutional prejudice against their employees ‘going native,’ rotating officers every two or three years to avoid someone’s becoming too identified with local interests and cultures.”

Giraldi’s argument is reminiscent of Rory Stewart’s essay “The Plane to Kabul” in the book Can Intervention Work?, co-written with Gerald Knaus. In the essay Steward, like Giraldi, argues that Western governments are unable to effectively carry out state-building and counterinsurgency missions because they lack the number of dedicated specialists necessary to truly understand the cultures these missions operate within. Steward even draws the same comparison to British Imperial administration as Giraldi; as both note, British colonial administrators were, in Giraldi’s words “expected to go out to foreign posts for extended periods, to learn the local language, and to acquire an understanding of the indigenous culture.” Today, this is not the case. As Steward extensively argues, few administrators involved in the multinational mission in Afghanistan can match the local knowledge British colonial officials once commanded. Casualty aversion restricts aid workers, diplomats, and administrators’ ability to travel through Afghanistan and meaningfully interact with locals, and few practitioners are fluent in Afghanistan’s languages. Unlike the British colonial administrators who would spend their entire career in the colonies, today’s practitioners in Afghanistan typically spend little time in the country and rotate out frequently, creating a “lack of continuity” that, quoting Stewart, makes political work difficult “because it stopped the development of trusting relationships with Afghan leaders.”

Both Giraldi and Stewart stress that many US governmental agencies and Western NGOs minimize the career value of acquiring regionally-specific knowledge and languages. The consulting culture embraced by both American governmental agencies and development NGOs, Stewart argues, emphasizes universal principles like conflict resolution, developmental economics, or public administration rather than specific knowledge grounded in local realities. Similarly, Giraldi notes that the CIA officers often do not possess advanced language and cultural skills due to the likelihood that they will soon be tasked with work on another region. “Senior Agency officers, who are disproportionately minimally language capable, generally excuse themselves by arguing ‘an op is an op is an op,’ meaning that spying is not culture specific.” But while this institutional generalist focus might be counterproductive, it is also somewhat understandable: individual practitioners and the organizations they work for have an incentive to stress universal skills that remain in demand when attention moves on from one crisis region to another.

9780393342246_CanInterventionWork_PB.inddIn a reaction to Stewart’s essay, I challenged the idea that the lack of local knowledge Stewart rightly sees as hampering the effort in Afghanistan can be remedied by future “smart” interventions benchmarked around preexisting country-specific knowledge. The British colonial administrators both Stewart and Giraldi approvingly cite could commit themselves to acquiring a career’s worth of local knowledge because they had good reason to believe that the British Empire, and perhaps more importantly the job they’d spent decades training for, would exist by the end of their career. This logic is no longer the case. Indeed, the modern strain of liberal intervention is explicitly benchmarked around the idea that crisis areas can be stabilized by the application of military force and subsequent state-building efforts, again explicitly establishing that, if successful, intervention does not create permanent employment for specialists. Of course, this does not mean that there will not always be a need for dedicated regional specialists — but successfully prosecuting limited-term military interventions obviously requires a temporarily larger cadre of these specialists. There’s simply no way to avoid this surge problem in anything but the most-limited military interventions. While Arabic is a major global language and the Middle East will remain a focus for American foreign policy, there is already a perception among career-minded students that learning Arabic is no longer as useful as it was a decade ago.

Given the time horizon inherent in liberal interventionism, military officers, State Department staffers, and NGO workers have less incentive to heavily invest themselves in acquiring the local skills that will be in less demand in the future. While acquiring these skills will not hurt young practitioners’ future prospects per se, they do carry heavy opportunity costs. Unless an individual practitioner or organization is very dedicated to a specific region, and can count on being promoted on that dedication, it is better to invest in more universal skills without a built-in shelf life — those that justify the believe that ‘an op is an op is an op.’

The problem is that there is no obvious means of addressing the institutional cultural ignorance that both Giraldi and Stewart detail. Of course, Giraldi’s smaller-scale focus on the lack of local skills within American intelligence agencies and the Foreign Service can be in part remedied by focusing less on insider threats and overcoming the so-called institutional prejudice against “going native”. But as long as the American government is tasked with operating in nearly all world regions, it will have trouble finding enough specialists to support ramping up intelligence, military, or even development activity in any given one. Even if practitioners within intelligence agencies or — no less importantly — the wider foreign policy industry are not rotated from specialization to specialization, in-demand regions will shift. Again, it isn’t unreasonable to suspect that the US foreign policy establishment will require less Arabic speakers in the future than in the 2000s, and people make decisions about which skills to acquire based on these expectations.

The problem isn’t only that bureaucratic disincentives make it difficult for organizations to acquire the locally-knowledgable practitioners necessary for state-building or counterinsurgency to work. Stewart stresses that decisions in favor of military interventions should be based on “detailed, country-specific arguments” that do or do not suggest that a successful intervention is possible. But while military interventions may be wars of choice, their locations are not. The United States did not choose to strike Afghanistan in 2001; it was forced to take action by an unprovoked and largely unpredictable attack. While it was not forced to embark on a state-building mission or even to invade Afghanistan, again it is not clear that this was a really a choice at all — as many have noted, the United States cannot realistically smash foreign government and then entirely absolve itself of the unpleasant consequences. While other examples of military interventions may be less dramatic and less costly, the same logic applies. France may have lobbied for military action in Libya and later Mali, but it did not “choose” the events that prompted calls to intervene. This inherent uncertainty about where calls for military interventions will occur makes it difficult to preserve the deep institutional bench of country specialists required to wisely implement policy — and “smart” strategies that rely on their availability problematic. Even when potential crises are suspected, this knowledge is often not enough to prompt bureaucracies to foster the relevant language and cultural skills: as I previously relayed, while the UK knew through the 1970s that Argentina aspired to take the Falkland Islands (though they did not deem it likely), during the war British forces included very few Spanish speakers.

Of course the decision to militarily intervene should be based on specific local knowledge, and an honest assessment about whether military and civil organizations can acquire skilled practitioners quickly enough and in sufficient quantities to be effective. But given the bureaucratic barriers to maintaining a deep bench of specialized practitioners, many potential intervention efforts will not be able to leverage the human capital effectively prosecuting them requires.

Update: Edited for clarity. 

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Mughal miniature, 1570. Via Wikimedia.

Mughal miniature, 1570. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Owen Barder and Vijaya Ramachandran ask for more effective aid for the Philippines in the aftermath of the devastating typhoon than the aid for post-earthquake Haiti, suggesting measures to increase the transparency and accountability of aid spending (via Stephen P. Groff).

Micah Zenko decries the Pentagon’s budgetary lobbying.

Reuters has a long investigative piece detailing Ayatollah Khamenei’s economic holdings. In Foreign Affairs Akbar Ganji suggests that the Revolutionary Guard Corp will not attempt to upset a potential warming of Iranian relations with the West.

As always, earlier this week I collected more news and analysis on political violence at Political Violence @ a Glance.

Kaki King – Cargo Cult.

Sometimes, Intentions Don’t Matter

By Taylor Marvin

To what degree does the Obama administration seek to end  the war in Syria? Obviously, on some level it wants the killing to stop — the administration is not staffed by monsters, after all — but it is similarly clear that very few policymakers within the US government are willing to commit the military resources needed to actually end the war. Even when the administration’s stated prohibition on chemical weapons use appeared to bind it to a limited intervention, the military options actually under consideration were so limited that no one even pretended that they would have any real chance of damaging the Assad regime enough to halt the killing.

The Obama administration has, of course, contributed limited rhetorical, financial, training, and diplomatic support to the opposition over the now nearly-three year civil war. Some have argued that this support is part of a wider administration policy designed to lure Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and al Qaeda, associated with some of the more extremist factions of the anti-Assad insurgency, into a costly struggle that saps both sides’ strengths. This plan, so the argument goes, explains the Obama administrations middling actions over the course of the war. From the start of the conflict Obama has publicly supported the Syrian opposition but refused to provide them with the heavy weaponry or direct US military support that would allow anti-Assad forces to definitively win the war, ensuring that the conflict dragged on long enough to prompt the direct involvement of both Iranian-affiliated and Islamist groups. When Obama’s own rhetorical “red line” apparently bound him to directly striking Assad after the regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons usage, the administration instead pursued a diplomatic agreement with the regime and its Russian allies that again avoided direct intervention, a win-win-win for Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Assad that gave the regime further “time to kill more people with conventional weapons,” according to one opposition activist. The Obama administration’s limited support for the opposition, again so the argument goes, is encouraging a long fight between two US enemies at the costs of over a hundred thousand Syrian lives.

The first problem with this explanation for the administration’s Syria policy is that it is not guaranteed to actually weaken Islamists fighters and Iran. Al Qaeda and wider Islamist militancy are a decentralized movement — there’s no reason to think that encouraging al Qaeda-affiliated groups to fight in Syria will weaken them in, say, the Sahel or Pakistan. While there is some validity to the argument that the conflict in Syria is soaking up funds from Islamist donors that would otherwise go to violent groups targeting the US and its allies, there is again no reason to think that this funding is fixed at a constant level and that Syrian rebels’ financial gains come at the cost of other Islamist militants. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that combat necessarily weakens armed groups. One of the reasons that Syria’s Islamist rebels have outcompeted their secular or moderate peers — in addition to their established fundraising networks and the natural tendency for extremist groups to attract the most popular support in an increasingly-violent and sectarian conflict — is their ability to leverage the combat experience similar groups gained in the Iraq war. Militant organizations in combat can gain experience and attract recruits, publicity, and funding that those not fighting do not. It is not unreasonable to expect that no matter who “wins” the war in Syria (whether victory for either side is still a possible outcome is another question) the conflict will produce a cadre of experienced, radicalized fighters who will appear in subsequent Middle Eastern conflicts.

This same logic applies to the Assad regime’s Iranian backers. Even before the recent warming in US-Iranian relations, hopes of drawing the Islamic Republic into a costly proxy war in Syria was an uncertain policy, because involvement such a conflict would politically empower the typically hardline actors responsible for implementing the Iranian involvement in the war. Additionally, while Iran’s support for the Assad regime has made it unpopular in much of the Arab world and reportedly drawn Saudi backing for Iranian Salafist insurgents, the ultimate cost of its involvement in Syria is small compared to its rivalry with the Gulf States and the international sanctions it currently endures. While Iran is directly involved in the Syrian war, this involvement’s marginal gains for the United States are not necessarily worth the admittedly-unclear marginal political empowerment it implies for Iranian hardliners.

Secondly, it is important to remember that to an external observer an Obama administration seeking to deliberately prolong the Syrian civil war is indistinguishable from an administration horrified at the Assad regime’s brutality and desperate to see the dictator deposed, but deeply wary of the fractured and radicalized opposition, fearful of a post-Assad power vacuum, and aware of just how unpopular direct US military involvement in Syria would be. While a long war in Syria may not necessarily weaken Iran and militant Islam, it is also true that at this point the Obama administration has no real interest in Assad’s fall beyond its apparently-genuine disgust with the humanitarian cost of the war. The open-ended nature of the Syrian war is bad for everyone — it encourages radicalization among its participants, is establishing networks that will endure beyond the end of the conflict, and increases the likelihood that Syria will no longer be a viable state at the war’s closure. But the consequences of the Assad regime’s fall are terrible as well, and are growing worse as the conflict drags on; the United States is understandably reluctant to play a role in a rebel victory that would more likely than not culminate in mass atrocities against the regime’s Alawite power base.

Given these conflicting goals, whether or not a grand plan to bleed al Qaeda and Iran in Syria is necessary to explain the administration’s Syria policy is irrelevant. As Daniel Drezner, who has previously argued in favor of this realpolitik theory, noted last month citing reporting by the New York Times, many of Obama’s advisors have articulated “a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing.” But even if Obama finds this argument convincing, what further action would it lead him to do? The President is obviously extremely reluctant to directly intervene in Syria. After the regime’s chemical weapons use and as more extreme rebel groups gained influence and territory at the expense of moderates, the Obama administration diplomatically avoided the strikes many believed that it had bound itself to in a diplomatic accord that arguably strengthens the regime — a policy that can be read as the actions of either administration types.

The two casual logics of a reluctant or realpolitikal administration “complement rather than contradict each other”, Drezner writes. Does this extend the war? Yes. But it extends it no more than any other low commitment action the US would be realistically willing to consider.

The US has very little influence over the Syrian war. Obama clearly feels morally bound to condemn the Assad regime and at least nominally support the more moderate opposition factions. But policies aimed at ending the war but hampered by the United States’ unwillingness to commit itself are not very different from policies designed to lengthen the war.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Fieravino Francesco Il Maltese, 'Allegory of Music', 1670s. Via People of Color in European Art History.

Fieravino Francesco Il Maltese, ‘Allegory of Music’, 1670s. Via People of Color in European Art History.

Apologies for the light week, again. Now, what I read this week:

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian has an interesting post drawing lessons from Brazil and Argentina’s now forgotten nuclear arms race, and the transition “from nuclear competition to nuclear partnership.” Unfortunately, I’m not sure how many of these lessons apply to current nuclear questions, as both countries transition to democratic governance and the improving Southern Cone security situation are decidedly not applicable to today’s Middle East.

Rolling Stone has a long investigative piece on possible war crimes by US special operations forces in Afghanistan.

How much does the occupation cost the Israeli economy?

“Spreading the theater” in the western Pacific, and a reminder that East Asia is not Cold War Europe:

“East Asia’s problem is that there is no structure like NATO or the European Union providing coherence and guidance. Given the region’s sheer size and diversity – it has eight times as many people as Europe and at least four major language families compared to Europe’s one (Indo-European) – it’s unlikely there ever will be.”

In other naval news, a former naval aviator blasts the F-35C and boost the F/A-18E/F and future UCAVs.

How sustainable are Russia’s renewed defense spending ambitions?

Danny Hirschel-Burns on whether humans are violent by nature; Rachel Strohm has more, drawing lessons from work on the Rwandan genocide.

Do different languages confer different personalities? A new look at an old theory.

More linkage at Political Violence @ a Glanceincluding a visually-stunning Dutch colonial-era political cartoon in support of colonialism.

Zaho & Idir — Tout Ce Temps.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Grigory Gagarin , 'Djighit a Sardar-Abbat', 1847. Via Wikimedia.

Grigory Gagarin , ‘Djighit a Sardar-Abbat’, 1847. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Published two years ago and a bit dated, the CFR’s report on “Global Brazil and US-Brazil Relations”.

The future of AirSea Battle: areas that need work and next steps. Relatedly, last month Robert E. Kelly argued that the AirSea Battle concept is an overreaction that is needlessly provocative and misunderstand’s China’s worries that it “will be besieged by a US-pushed local bloc, and no one believes for a moment that the pivot is anything but squarely directed at China.”

Sexual abuse at home: Iran’s hidden shame (via Reza Asadi).

Alex Massie critiques Russell Brand’s “call for a cause”, any cause:

“The early twentieth century was a time of Robber Barons too, mind you, and a period in which even some normally-sensible people fretted that bourgeois decency was leaving the peoples of Europe fat and complacent and decadent. A cleansing war might not, all things be considered, be the worst that could happen. Well, they got their war.”

From earlier in the week, linkage on political violence at PVG.

London Grammar – Interlude.