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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Hungarian stamp with a jinni from the One Thousand and One Nights, 1965. Via Wikimedia.

Hungarian stamp with a jinni from the One Thousand and One Nights, 1965. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Endorsing the so-called Asia Pivot, Peter Beinart argues that American foreign policy must discriminate between core interests and conflicts the US should avoid investing itself in.

Four decades after its democratic revolution, reflecting on a Portugal, and by extension, southern Europe, that to many feels less sovereign than before.

The risks of the long lag time required to host mega sport events — years after it was chosen to host the 2014 World Cup, today’s Brazil is a different place.

The choice to translate Frozen — Disney’s most translated film — into Modern Standard Arabic, rather than more accessible dialects (via Marc Lynch).

Why dismissing all criticism of Turkey’s prime minister as “anti-Erdoganism” is effective, and is Turkey regressing towards the mean of failed democracy?

Why have CIA drone strikes in Pakistan been on hold for the last half year?

The structural roots of Nigeria’s violent instability.

Iran and Nuclear Domino Fears

By Taylor Marvin

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Screencap of video by the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, via the Times of Israel and Nima Shirazi.

Writing in the Spectator, Matthew Kroenig again argues in favor of a US attack targeting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.* The ongoing negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group and November intirm agreement are likely to fail, Kroenig writes, meaning that the US must be ready to choose “between bad options,” and weigh the risks of war against the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The most obvious flaw in Kroenig’s argument is his hand-waving away of the difficulties and long-term consequences of a US strike on Iran. While an American strike would do far more damage to Iranian nuclear infrastructure than an Israeli one — Kroenig specifically cites the destructive power of the US 15 ton Massive Ordinance Penetrator bunker buster, which is carried by strategic bomber aircraft Israel does not operate; not if a retired US Air Force officer and other hawks don’t have their way, that is — it isn’t a simple task. “A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons,” Kroenig writes, but this is a blithely dismissive justification for actions that would create a virulently and justifiably anti-American Iranian citizenry, war with Iranian proxies, and an open-ended commitment to periodically bombing the country, as well as instantly validating the worldview of Iranian hardliners. These aren’t “serious risks”; they’re guaranteed disastrous consequences that would do enormous lasting damage to America’s global standing and the world economy.

Proponents of striking Iran have offered numerous reasons why an Iranian nuclear capability or assembled weapon would be more dangerous than violently delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Kroenig justifies the consequences of his preferred policy by citing the fears that a reliable weapon and delivery system would give Iran greater freedom to support international terrorism and its proxies, and while admittedly the Iranian leadership is not suicidal, a nuclear-armed Iran could still stumble into a disastrous nuclear war. Another fear is that an Iranian bomb would lead to nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East, either through Iran exporting nuclear weapons or promoting its rivals to themselves arm:

Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Fears of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race were also recently trumpeted by an Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cartoon (via Nima Shirazi), which in addition to notably not depicting India, Pakistan, Russia, and — ahem — Israel’s nuclear status, somewhat implausibly shows the barely-functional states of Afghanistan and Libya attaining nuclear weapons as well.

Leaving aside questions of whether Iran actually intends to assemble a nuclear device, not everyone buys this theory. In particular Daniel Larison cities a 2010 Foreign Affairs piece by Johan Bergenas which points out numerous flaws in the nuclear domino argument. Additionally, John Mueller’s Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda and Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities both show that states have often elected not to acquire nuclear weapons when they ostensibly have strong incentives to do so, or otherwise constrain their nuclear capabilities. (Pakistan, one of Reiss’ case studies, tested a nuclear weapon after the book’s 1995 publication, as has North Korea.) Nuclear weapons are expensive, distasteful, and carry diplomatic costs. In contrast to more than a half century of grim predictions that widespread nuclear proliferation is imminent, the states that have acquired nuclear weapons have tended to be either existing or aspirant world powers, those facing extraordinary security situations, and the extremely isolated. (Of course, these categories bleed into each other; for example South Africa’s nuclear ambition was motivated both by its apartheid-era isolation and the perceived security risk of Soviet influence in southern Africa.) Others have the capability to quickly build nuclear weapons but have not actually assembled them, or abandoned nuclear programs.

All of this isn’t to say that the nuclear domino theory is worth dismissing out of hand. Israel and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may have not lead to nuclear proliferation across the wider region, but Iran is a fundamentally different case. For all of the vitriol directed at Israel, large regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have been tacitly aligned with Israel for most of the life of the Israeli nuclear deterrent. All of these countries are also long-time US allies — a NATO member, in Turkey’s case, and the US has gone to war to defend Saudi Arabia — making them inclined to not see Israel’s nuclear weapons as an unconstrained threat. None of this is true of Iran, so there’s little the Israeli precedent can tell us about the likelihood of an Iranian weapon spurring Saudi or Egyptian nuclear ambitions. Examples of rivals’ mutual decisions not to initiate nuclear arms races, like Argentina and Brazil, aren’t comparable to the far more acrimonious Saudi Arabia-Iran relationship.

But previous examples of the proliferation-domino dog not barking like Japan and South Korea “were allies or clients of the United States, and therefore enjoyed an additional layer of protection – both conventional and, in certain cases, nuclear,” Shashank Joshi wrote in late 2012. “Yet this is also true of Iran’s rivals today, even if the future alignment of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is in greater doubt than before the Arab Spring.” Joshi also reminds that Saudi-Pakistani nuclear cooperation could take the form of weapons-sharing or a Pakistani nuclear security guarantee, rather than assisting Saudi nuclear development or outright giving the Kingdom the bomb: nuclear proliferation is not a simple nuclear-arms-or-not dichotomy.

It is worth remembering that this isn’t a discussion about Iran at all. If Iran elects to actually construct a nuclear weapon, whether Saudi Arabia or Egypt choose to do the same is a question about these states’ natures, not Iran’s. Moreover, this discussion makes little sense on its face. Given the known extremely negative consequences of a US strike on Iran, why is war the go-to option for forestalling a Saudi nuclear weapon? Are these second-order effects really sufficient rational for illegal, globally unpopular strikes? Is it really easier to attack Iran than to convince or coerce Saudi Arabia from acquiring nuclear arms?

So the question of a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race shouldn’t be immediately thrown out, even if Saudi Arabia and Egypt are unlikely to match Iranian nuclear weapons capability with their own. But if someone uses the nuclear domino theory to argue for striking Iran, rather than a more measured discussion of the international community’s leverage over the third and fourth dominos — because remember, Iran is not the first — then they’re trying to sell you something.

*Kroenig is the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, which I have not read.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Isaak Brodsky, "Lenin in Smolniy in 1917," 1930. Via Wikimedia.

Isaak Brodsky, “Lenin in Smolniy in 1917,” 1930. Via Wikimedia.

Apologies for the recent lack of posting. What I read this week:

If Swiss bank Credit Suisse knowingly assisted in tax evasion, why is it even allowed to do business in the US at all?

After legalizing the cultivation and sale of marijuana Uruguay announces that it will sell the drug virtually tax-free to avoid being undercut by illegal traffickers.

On the subject of contraband trafficking, fossil poaching and the black market in dinosaur bones.

The varying success of Europe’s political fringe: France’s Marine Le Pen benefits from the unpopularity of beleaguered François Hollande, and a look at Europe’s Euroskeptic parties.

The Middle East’s water crisis. Check out the stunning orbital image in the linked piece, as well.

The troubles of Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, an early leader of southwest Mexico’s communal self-defense groups.

From yesterday, more linkage at Political Violence at a Glance.

Update: Title altered because I somehow got my “Weekly Links” and “Friday’s Reading List” wires crossed.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Lucas van Leyden, "Healing the Blind Man of Jericho," 1531. Via Wikimedia.

Lucas van Leyden, “Healing the Blind Man of Jericho,” 1531. Via Wikimedia.

Writing and analysis I found interesting this week:

Via Sarah Kendzior, how structural funding and employment shortfalls create a dearth of American experts on Russia and Central Asia.

France maintains its we-sell-arms-to-anyone reputation, pushing ahead with the sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships Russia (via Robert Farley). When they enter service these modern ships will be a dramatic boost to Russian expeditionary capability.

Timothy Burke thinks about sovereignty.

Minh-Ha T. Pham takes a provocative look at cultural appropriation in the world of high fashion:

This is the problem with cultural-appropriation critiques. They depend on reductive binaries—“high culture” and “low culture,” and oftentimes, “first world” and “third world”—that preserve the hierarchical relations between the fashion industry and the cultures being appropriated…

Rather than obsess over whether certain practices and forms of cultural appropriation are “good” or “bad,” “racist” or “post-racial,” respectful or not, inappropriate discourse asks what is not appropriate-able, what cannot be integrated into and continue to maintain the existing power structure of the high fashion system, and why. In doing so, we truly challenge the idea of the absolute power and authority of the West to control how the world sees, knows, and talks about fashion.

The “100 years” of narco culture in Sinaloa (via Victor Asal and Brian J. Phillips).

Oliver Kaplan examines the role of folk beliefs in Colombian conflict.

On New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s firing: “The New York Times appears to have wanted a woman at the top, without actually letting her be in charge.” (Via Heidi N. Moore.)

Finally, more links at Political Violence at a Glance.

Assimilating into Narnian Whiteness, or Else

C.S. Lewis (Pte) Limited.

C.S. Lewis (Pte) Limited.

By Taylor Marvin

[Spoilers for The Chronicles of Narnia throughout]

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are classics of children’s literature, but more than a half century after their publication are frequently criticized. Critics have disparaged the value Lewis places on childhood innocence, and the series’ simplistic morality. Others have noted The Chronicles of Narnia’s ugly racial undertones, an othering of characters of color through a rejection of non-European cultures and an emphasis on their alienness. This criticism is, unfortunately, correct.

Narnia and neighboring Archenland* is a land that reads as European. Its human inhabitants are white, dress in European gowns and tunics, and fight with straight swords and triangular shields. Narnia is opposed by Calormen, a desert empire to the south. Just as Narnia reflect England’s past, the Calormen are reminiscent of Arab, Persian, or Turkish cultures: Calormenes are desert people, maintain a vast expansionist empire, build cities with domes and slim spires, grow oranges and lemons, and arm themselves with curved scimitars and round shields. Calormenes are also described as darker skinned than white Narnians, and unlike their northern neighbors who honor Aslan, a great lion who is the series’ stand-in for Jesus, Calormenes worship the cruel god Tash. A Calmormene unit of currency is the crescent, an apparent allusion to the star and crescent’s importance as an Islamic symbol.

Lewis is a Westerner writing for a Western audience, and Calormen and its inhabitants clearly read as the Chronicles’ other. This isn’t only due to the fact that Arab-influenced Calormen is more distant from Lewis and his readers’ cultural experience than Narnia. Calormen is also one of the series’ main antagonists, is ruled by a oppressive emperor while Narnia is governed by a fantasy-trope “good king” (ignoring classic fantasy’s tendency to wave away the inherent violent coercion of absolute monarchy, especially when the king is white), and is frequently described as “cruel.”

There’s nothing wrong with fantasy authors mining cultures for inspiration, and modern English-language fantasy would be enriched by authors widening their imaginative scope beyond the no-firearms trope fantasy of late medieval Western Europe. (Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of al-Rassan is an entertaining example of a white fantasy author respectfully drawing on Moorish culture.) It’s not even wrong for authors to write racial prejudice into their characters — if Calormen is a rival of Narnia, it would be natural for the Narnian and our-world characters Lewis tells his story through to see Calormenes as duplicitous and cruel. But Lewis doesn’t just write these views; he echoes and, worse, endorses them. “That is better. I feel like a true man again,” says a Narnian king after discarding a Calormene disguise of scimitar, turban, and dark-stained skin. Again, it is understandable for King Tirian to see his Calormene enemies as “not real men.” But Lewis gives the reader no reason to question Tirian’s prejudice.

Beyond the occasional racism of the Narnian characters, Lewis also others the Calormene enemy by leveraging the narratives that Western culture uses to depict Muslim cultures as alien.** Calormene men are written as untrustworthy, prone to flattery, and violent, while women are depicted as decadent and frivolous. This depiction cannot be divorced from the early modern view of Arab or Turkish societies as simultaneously dangerously violent and decadently seductive. Lewis’ depiction of the women’s quarters of Calormene palaces seems to certainly draw from European painting’s ‘harem’ genre, minus the sexuality.


Illustration from “The Horse and His Boy,” by Pauline Baynes.

Another way the Calormenes are rendered as the alien is through their speech. While Lewis’ Narnians speak slightly more formally than his contemporary characters, their speech is still readily comprehensible to modern audiences. In contrast, Calormenes’ speech is full of English archaisms and formalities. “I desire and propose, O my father, that you immediately call out your invincible armies and invade the thrice-accursed land of Narnia,” says one Calormen lord. While this — to modern English-speaking ears — archaic mode of speech is more apparent in court speech than Calormen women characters, readers are clearly intended to read Calormenes’ speech as formal, hierarchical, and decadent, all traits associated with the imagined Orient in Western culture. Strengthening this linguistic allusion is Calormenes’ habit of following the name of their king, the Tisroc, with the phrase “may he live forever,” an apparent nod to Islam’s “peace be upon him” honorific of the Prophet Muhammad.

Othering through speech patterns is not restricted to Lewis in the fantasy canon. Sean T. Collins has noted that in A Song of Ice and Fire the dialogue of George R.R. Martin’s Westerosi — broadly, medieval England — characters is generally written in the same style as modern English, while “foreign” characters from the series’ southern Europe and Middle Eastern analogs are not. “They speak with accents, they speak with strange pronoun usage, they speak with alien idioms, they speak in vaguely sinister or portentous or blandishing tones,” Collins writes. ” You hear them and you think ‘Okay, this person is not like us,’ ‘us’ being real-world readers and fictional-world Westerosi, the inheritors of the shared cultural relevance of medieval Europe.” Lewis’ use of speech to distance readers from antagonists is textbook, especially because there’s no logical reason that Calormene speech should so differ from Narnian. While the two nations are separated by a large desert, there is evidence of Calormene-Narnian cross-cultural exchange, both are hereditary monarchies, and both speak that same language.

Now, Lewis’ Calormenes are not uniformly negatively depicted. In The Horse and His Boy, which provides the most complete picture of Calormen culture, Calormenes are shown as great palace architects and master storytellers. While it’s possible to argue that these are coded as “Eastern” skills in Western culture, as a storyteller himself Lewis certainly respects the art of crafting a narrative.

Illustration from "The Horse and His Boy," by Pauline Baynes.

Illustration from “The Horse and His Boy,” by Pauline Baynes.

Several individual Calormene characters are also positively depicted. Again in The Horse and His Boy, a Calormene boy discovers he is actually Narnian, and makes a bid to escape to the north. He is joined on his journey by a Calormene girl, Aravis, fleeing an arranged marriage, because no one is forced to marry against their will in Narnia — of course, arranged marriages were a hallmark of medieval European society, but Lewis is happy to abandon the distasteful aspects of Narnia’s historical inspiration. (This is also true of later British history; in The Magician’s Nephew Aslan warns two Victorian schoolchildren that soon “great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants” who do not care for mercy and justice, at roughly the same time the British government was administering concentration camps in the Boer War.) Aravis is a leading character of the book, but readers can’t help but notice that her positive depiction stems from her desire to shed her Calormene identity and adopt a Narnian, whiter one. Lewis’ defenders are right to note that Narnia features people of color and, through Aravis, an eventual mixed-race marriage. But it is important to see this marriage for what it is: an assimilation into Narnian whiteness. It is difficult to imagine Lewis endorsing a Narnian woman marrying a Calormene man and assimilating into Caloremene culture.

Similarly, Emeth, the Calormene officer whose loyalty to the demon-god Tash is rewarded by Aslan in The Last Battleagain earns Lewis’ sympathy by implicitly abandoning his Calormene culture. Since Aslan is good and Tash evil, good-hearted service to Tash is necessarily service to Aslan instead. The lesson here is clear. Individual Calormenes can be good, but only through implicitly (Emeth) or explicitly (Aravis) becoming Narnian. In Juan Arteaga and John Champion’s words, “the best case that can be made for Narnia is that Middle Eastern people aren’t inherently evil, they just need to be converted to Christianity.”

But despite these positive depictions of individual Calormenes, the close of the Chronicles of Narnia makes clear Lewis’ biases clear. In The Last Battle, after Calormen conquers Narnia, Aslan, and by extension God, ends the world. The moral consequences of this act of spite are somewhat lessoned by the series’ explicit depiction of the heaven that awaits the good, but the world’s end still presumably sends millions to hell or oblivion. Indeed, Lewis’ favored conclusion is so striking because it arguably should have already occurred in our world, and none of us should exist. If we accept Narnia as God’s favored land and the Calormenes as Arabs, then logically our world should have been ended in 637, with the fall of Byzantine Jerusalem.

*In this essay I refer to both nations, which share a culture, as “Narnian.”

**Much of my thinking on this theme is informed by David Najar’s UC San Diego class.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, "The tomb of Publio Vibio Mariano," 1756. Via Wikimedia.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “The tomb of Publio Vibio Mariano,” 1756. Via Wikimedia.

Writing and analysis I found interesting this week:

Does the United States’ overwhelming military dominance encourage it to neglect the peace-building resources of its diplomatic corps?

The American Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to suspend the importation of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe — where limited hunting is legal — spurs controversy. Hunting brings money into local economies and can fund anti-poaching efforts by governments, but others assert that encouraging the killing the threatened and emotional creatures is simply wrong.

Despite a comfortable lead in South African elections — the first to feature voters with no memory of the pre-1994 white rule — is the dominant African National Congress headed towards one day falling from power?

Brazil’s struggle to extend universal healthcare to a diverse, unequal, geographically-enormous country of 200 million people, and what its uneven efforts can teach the US.

Via Jay Ulfelder, Venezuelan security forces find their less-than-lethal arsenal growing less effective over time, as demonstrators learn to counter weapons like tear gas.

Daniel Solomon charts the similarities and differences between the 2012 Stop Kony — focused on influencing the US to devote greater attention to the hunt for the insurgent group the Lord’s Resistance Army — and today’s #BringBackOurGirls — created by Nigerians to draw attention to the recent Boko Haram mass kidnapping –activist campaigns.

Last week CJ Chivers and Noah Sneider spoke with eastern Ukraine’s armed separatists — divide the country along the Dnieper River, says one.

Finally, at Political Violence at a Glance, more links.

Fast Jets Are Formidable, But Aren’t Magic

By Taylor Marvin

South African Air Force Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Photo by Wikimedia user  NJR ZA.

South African Air Force Saab JAS-39 Gripen. Photo by Wikimedia user NJR ZA.

In a March piece at War Is Boringjournalist Peter Dörrie examined a number of African states’ ballooning defense acquisitions. In an apparent puzzle given these countries’ impoverished populations and past difficulties maintaining advanced military equipment, these purchases include big-ticket items like advanced fighter aircraft.

While this trend appears to be partially driven by both increased government revenues and recent stability that allow African states the resources to purchase expensive weapons as well as a desire to increase their regional power projection abilities, I recently speculated that these aircraft purchases are also driven by a desire for status and prestige. Militaries’ operational effectiveness is dependent on institutional resources that are often difficult to build. The ability to destroy enemy forces and seize objectives rests on factors like frequent and realistic training, motivated soldiers, sound doctrine, and an educated, independent officer corps as well as equipment like aircraft. But many of these traits take decades to construct, and cannot be simply paid for. Unlike actually building effective, well-trained, and capable military forces, high-profile purchases of impressive fighter aircraft present an attractive shortcut to governments seeking to quickly bolster military status.

Modern multirole fighter aircraft can be awesomely effective weapons, but it is worth remembering that this effectiveness is not guaranteed. Under the right circumstances, they can indeed be a powerful military asset. Fighters armed with air-to-ground weapons can be used for decapitation strikes deep in enemy territory, and interdiction strikes behind the enemy’s front line can substantially complicate enemy logistics and movement. If enemy forces are unable to field their own strike aircraft, it is difficult to overstate how psychologically comforting it is for friendly troops to see the open sky as an ally rather than a danger. (Historian Stephen Ambrose emphasizes this point in the context of the Western Front of World War II in Europe.)

But all these capabilities require fighter aircraft to be used effectively, an effectiveness that has steep barriers to entry. As Darren Olivier writes in a review of Angolan fighter acquisition, airpower is based on equipment, people, and processes, and “shortcuts have not traditionally worked.” Fighter aircraft may be among the most highly visible and prestigious faces of airpower, but if they are treated as a shortcut, short is how they will come up in combat.

First, many of the aspirant regional powers acquiring modern fighter aircraft are only purchasing limited quantities. For example, in Africa on paper South Africa fields 26 Swedish-manufactured Gripen aircraft. Angola has stated that it expects to purchase 12 Russian Sukhoi Su-30K fighters; the Su-30 family is one of the highest performance fighter aircraft in the world, with long range, extreme maneuverability, and aerodynamic performance considered better than any US fighter but the F-22. Algeria has 28 Su-30MKs, with more on order. In South America, Brazil plans to buy 36 Gripens, and neighboring Venezuela currently fields two dozen Su-30MKs and a number of American-built F-16s that as of 2005 were difficult to maintain due to a shortage of spare parts. The Royal Malaysian Air Force flies 18 Su-30MKs, in addition to a smaller number of American F/A-18s. These numbers are not surprising, given the extreme cost of not only acquiring but also maintaining advanced aircraft. Notably, smaller NATO members such as Denmark and Portugal have roughly comparable numbers of advanced fighter aircraft.

But these numbers also raise many operational issues, even for regional powers able to devote their entire fleets to a single-theater conflict. Assuming a fifty percent readiness rate — which I would guess is fairly optimistic — in the event of a conflict Venezuela’s 24 Su-30MKs are, in practice, a dozen aircraft. These fighters can’t be everywhere at once, and this isn’t even accounting for combat losses. The suppression of enemy air defenses mission, or neutralizing air defense systems like surface-to-air missile installations, is notoriously difficult and dangerous for even advanced air branches. Given the proliferation of anti-air weapons, will ill-trained air forces flying advanced jets be able to operate in environments where air defense put them at risk?

Similarly, how effective are these aircraft’s pilots? As Dörrie notes in his piece, South Africa’s Gripens rarely fly due to prohibitive operational costs, meaning that their pilots aren’t getting the flight time to stay sharp, and certainly not the realistic, challenging training necessary for combat effectiveness. If aircraft rarely fly, are maintenance crews getting the practical experience necessary to solve problems and get aircraft flying in wartime? And without practical exercises, how can military doctrine best incorporate advanced aircraft’s real-world capabilities? States unable to bear the costs of routinely flying their prestige fighter aircraft in peacetime will pay a serious price for this lack of experience in combat. While these costs aren’t included in the sticker price of fighter acquisition, for all practical purposes they are a major addition to the barrier to entry blocking states’ access to effective air operations.

Finally, all this assumes that military and civilian leaderships are even willing to risk expensive combat jets. If the acquisition of these prestigious assets is motivated by statues-seeking, this may not be the case. Not only are these aircraft extremely expensive; downing one would be an enormous propaganda coup in wartime. If leaders can realistically assess the risks of flying precious fast jets, they may decide to not use them at all. If this is the case, then the real military value of high-profile fast jet acquisition by aspirant regional powers is close to zero.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Jean-Léon Gérôme, "View of Medinet El-Fayoum," 1870. Via the National Gallery of Art.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “View of Medinet El-Fayoum,” 1870. Via the National Gallery of Art.

On Monday Daniel Larison thoughtfully responded to my recent piece on Ukraine, Syria, and the credibility argument.

In 1971, weaponized smallpox was accidentally released in the USSR. Only quick action by authorities prevented what could have been a catastrophe.

Via Andrew Lebovich, Morocco’s language debate over colloquial and Modern Standard Arabic. Teaching in colloquial language could improve early education, but others fear it would isolate the country from the wider Arab world.

Another take, this time from Matt Fay, on the question of whether retaining the nuclear weapons it inherited from the USSR would have helped Ukraine.

Also on Ukraine, Christian Caryl reminds Nicholas Kristof that the world has changed (if it ever was a simple as Kristof assumes): Just because people learn English, listen to American music, and wear jeans they don’t necessarily support American foreign policy goals.

Scott McConnell discusses Secretary of State John Kerry’s “apartheid” comment regarding Israel: “What Kerry said may be a gaffe, but it is one that most people know to be true. And look around: more and more are ready to take the flak and abuse hurled at those who speak the truth out loud.”

But aside from the wasted lives and human wreckage left by the Israel-Palestine impasse, Roger Cohen has a point. “Permanent occupation is what several ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition government advocate,” he recently wrote in the New York Times. “Backed by the evidence, they are certain it can be managed. They are right.” (Via Allison Beth Hodgkins.)

Steven Cook and Michael Brooks argue that President Obama’s Middle East policy is as good as could reasonably be expected in unpredictable times. The opening of relations with Tehran is firmly in the “too soon to tell” category, and it’s possible future observers will condemn the world’s failure to act in Syria. But I tend to agree that it is difficult to see what an otherwise measured Obama administration should have done differently, except in hindsight.

A new House bill threatens the editorial independence of Voice of America. “You can’t mix media and government PR, or propaganda, or whatever you call it,” comments Negar Mortazavi.

Relatedly, a question: is the recent all-Venezuela-all-the-time Voz de América leader a reflection of a story that flatters US foreign policy, or simply because the ongoing protests are genuinely the biggest story in the Spanish-speaking world?

The changing face of São Paulo’s “Crackland,” the distinct culture of the drug-centered neighborhood, and Latin American governments’ efforts to combat domestic drug consumption.

Why the course of transgendered people’s rights in South-ish Asia is not identical to the Western (intolerant) model.

From Thursday, more linkage at Political Violence at a Glance.