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Quote of the post NH day….

Sullivan, on the Clinton machine, in no uncertain terms:

Now they have to either kill or coopt the hope that Obama has unleashed. Just as Bush coopted McCain’s New Hampshire message in 2000, so Clinton is coopting Obama’s message in 2007. She didn’t find her own voice; she took Obama’s, removed the eloquence and added a spice of identity politics.

She is the Bush of the Democrats. Which is why Obama must defeat her.


Decimating, Mocking and Skewering

Haven’t read Belgravia in a while, but dug in on a flight this morning.  Aside from all but endorsing Obama on foreign policy grounds, he is really quite good and calling out bullshit.

He decimates Bush’s “demagogic tactics” of listing specific attacks supposedly stopped through torture.

He gives folly to the hypocrisy of presidentialists who at once call for literal interpretations of the constitution while arguing for greater executive power in war, ignoring Madison, who said:

In no part of the Constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. … War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement”.

And, citing Anthoy Lewis:

There is a profound oddity in the position of the presidentialists like Yoo, Cheney and Addington. Legal conservatives like to say that the Constitution should be read according to its original intent. But if there is anything clear about the intentions of the framers, it is that they did not intend to create an executive with more prerogative power than George III had. Not even in time of war.

But, it’s his skewering of this ridiculous excerpt of Gerson’s, that really go me chuckling on my early morning flight:

The most complicated question is why, as a rather serious-minded conservative, I am often found in bohemian coffeehouses, comfortable among the revolutionaries. Maybe it is because politics doesn’t always predict lifestyle. Maybe because there is a bohemian impulse inside every writer, searching for a little quiet rebellion. Maybe I just like good soy lattes. Whatever the reason, and whatever the T-shirts say, I’ll be back.

As he apply puts, you “can’t help being staggered by the tawdry mediocrity of it all.”  Indeed.


Democracy Promotion as Foreign Policy

In light of recent developments in Pakistan, this might be a good time to post an exchange I had with Jeff Weintraub a few months ago on the subject of democracy promotion as a foreign policy meta-narrative. The first is his response to this blog post of mine. He is in Italics.

Dear Taylor,

SO LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT…: The moment the democratically elected government [of the PA] is undemocratically reconfigured is the right time for aid to be re-instated? hmmm, now what lesson does this send to those for whom this aid is rightly intended? [….]Tangentially, can we please put the absolutist democracy promotion rhetoric to rest.

Well, at least you recognize that this is “tangential.” In this specific case, the aid was neither suspended nor restored in the name of “democracy promotion,” but on the basis of other issues (as Patrick Porter correctly pointed out in his comment). No one claimed otherwise. So what’s the problem? These are simply two disconnected points. However, if these points are supposed to be connected (as you seem to be suggesting in the overall discussion), then this strikes me as a bit of a non-sequitur.

Your real point seems to be a call to reject “absolutist democracy promotion rhetoric”. That sounds OK to me, depending on what “absolutist” means in this context. But what is it actually supposed to mean? You do on to say, for example …

Rather, I am making a judgment on those who claim that in certain cases the promotion of democracy is an absolute, and in other cases it is well, a little more flexible.

This sounds mostly like a suggestion that some people are sometimes hypocritical (or confused), which is a fair polemical point. But on the face of it, the substantive argument being put forward here is a little confusing. If people treat support for democracy as “flexible” in some circumstances, then it’s not being treated as “an absolute”. So, again, what’s the point?

Your point seems to be this:

Democracy can have good and bad implications, depending wholly on how free people choose to act. Foreign policy must therefore be based on more than simply its “promotion”. It is not a particularly useful meta-narrative.

The first two sentences here strike me as quite right, as far as they go. (As liberalhawk pointed out in his comment, the position laid out in these two sentences is precisely the rationale underlying US policy toward Hamas, Fatah, and the PA–whether or not you happen to think the specific details of that policy are sensible or not.)

It is not a particularly useful meta-narrative.

But that final sentence is either unclear or a non-sequitur. How does that follow from what came before?

What if one argues that <a> supporting and promoting democracy (and democratic political forces) should be treated as an important general goal of foreign policy, which should not easily be abandoned for considerations of short-term expediency or alleged realpolitik, but at the same time <b> it should not be treated as the only important goal of foreign policy, and <c> we should also recognize that democratic regimes will only work in some circumstances and with certain conditions, so it is neither a universal panacea nor something that can simply be parachuted into any society at any time.

That strikes me as a realistic (as distinct from “realist”) approach … and I suspect that it’s one you might actually have some sympathy for, too. Bit if so, then the proper conclusion (it seems to me) is that the defense and promotion of democracy is a “useful meta-narrative” to help guide politics, diplomacy, and foreign policy–as long as it is not understood in an exclusive, unrealistic, or utopian manner.

To put it another way, picking up on David Adesnik’s useful comment, any effective long-term political perspective has to combine commitment to certain core principles with flexibility in practice and the recognition that we always confront multiple, often competing, goals and concerns. (I guess this is mostly just a restatement of Weber, which is OK with me.) Responding to this dilemma by simply abandoning the core principles–i.e., throwing out the baby with the bathwater–is actually a pretty “absolutist” solution itself, even if it masquerades as pragmatism (or “realism”).

Yours for democracy (all things considered),
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Also, by the way, describing the situation in the PA as “the moment the democratically elected government is undemocratically reconfigured” is a little odd, and somewhat misleading. It suggests that there has just been a Fatah/Abbas coup against Hamas, but matters are a little more complicated than that.

Dear Jeff,

Many thanks for taking the time to write. I hope that my reply shows a slightly greater deference to the subject matter than my admittedly flippant blog post.

I think as you say, that it is best we treat these as two separate issues: The issue of recent US policy regarding the PLO, and the larger utility of democracy as a meta-narrative. First though, let me just say that I agree generally with much of what you propose. I think we would probably agree on the desired end goals of American foreign policy. I am simply uncertain whether democracy promotion is a useful meta-theme in order to achieve these ends. While absolutist might have been a bit harsh, there is certainly a degree of ideological doctrine that drives many to promote the spread of democracy at the cost other policy objectives. Objectives that I would consider more important than, and in many cases prerequisites for, successful democratic development. It is this that concerns me.

First, the purpose of pointing out the discrepancy between the rhetoric of middle eastern democracy promotion and policy decisions regarding the democratically elected government of the PLO, was more to make the point that both you affirm, which is that democracy promotion is messy, and there are many interests that seem to override its promotion. In this case, the perceived threat to the security of an ally.

You are right that whether this policy is actually in the best interest of the US is debatable. Many have argued that Hamas was actually willing to conceded more at the time of the election than at any other time in recent memory (the last constitution, now abandoned, seems to suggest this). This, one would think, would be precisely the time that one would want to engage with them, rather then promoting policies that re-radicalizes them. But, I do not know enough about this to say much more. I will leave that to others to take on.

Regarding this fitting within the rhetoric of the Bush Administration, made by you and Libhawk. I respectfully disagree. I think that there is no doubt that neoconservatives put significantly more weight on the utility of democracy than simply ‘it may or may not be useful’. This seems to me to undercut the principle argument of neoconservatism, for better or worse. Indeed, the very underlying principle of current middle eastern policy is that democracy may be destabilizing, but in the long run, it is better for US interests. From this, however, their follows two perhaps. more interesting points on the nature of US foreign policy.

First, if democracy promotion in the short run is very bad for people living through the transition, which research suggests it is, but is good for long term US interests, then clearly US foreign policy puts the later ahead of the former. Fine, this should be acknowledged. Second, does the manner in which democracy is promoted matter to the long term impact on US interests? Here, I would argue yes. A democracy is
obviously not a static state, but rather a representation of its free people. If these people become free through a very violent externally imposed invasion, surely this will effect the end democratic state. If this is even close to correct, then the means of democracy promotion are just as important to US interests as the end democratic state they seek to establish. More thought to the means would also of course enhance the likelihood of bucking the first of these trends, the short term human security of those in the state we are engaging.

On the question of absolutism, you are of course correct that that was hyperbole. However, it is equally disingenuous to claim relativism in the rhetorical use of ‘democracy promotion’ as meta-theme for current US foreign policy. Since the cold war, different people have taken different lines on the degree to which this should be THE guiding principle of US foreign policy. While none may be completely absolutists, I would suggests that some, including current neoconservatives, are ideologically doctrinaire.

In the historical debate on the relative weight that should be placed on the promotion of democracy, or even of the democratic peace theory, neoconservatives certainly fall closer to absolutism than many other foreign policy ideologies. It is this, that I worry has a negative effect on the very things democracy is ideally indented to enable – Higher living standards, human rights, basic needs. Alternatively of course, liberal internationalists are on a different axis of this spectrum, believing that institutions should be promoted which first result in the betterment of the people who live under their mandates, and second, that allow for free and open societies to evolve peacefully. The point is, there is a spectrum, and depending where one puts democracy promotion, there are real policy consequences. i.e.) It was the hope of democracy promotion that put many over the edge in supporting the Iraq war.

Regarding your sensible proposition that: “any effective long-term political perspective has to combine commitment to certain core principles with flexibility in practice and the recognition that we always confront multiple, often competing, goals and concerns” I would simply say: Unless, of course, said core principle does more damage than good.

My main point here is not whether democracy is good or bad, but rather whether it is useful, not just as a theme, but as a meta theme of American foreign policy. For me, to be a useful meta-narrative, or core principle, many other principles of a desired foreign policy would fall under it without compromising the cohesiveness of the meta-narrative, or meta-policy. David points out that there always inconstancies in any ‘core principle’. But just how many inconsistencies are we willing to accept, and at what point do these inconsistencies threaten the very benefits the core principle is supposed to enable, ie, human rights, ect. I guess we all draw our own line here. I personally am simply not convinced that democracy promotion, in the Wilsonian, or Bush second inaugural sense, accomplishes this is a coherent way. The inconsistencies are too vast and the cost to the human costs too large.

For me, the costs to human security, of forceful democracy promotion, often will outweigh the long term benefits of a society which achieved its democracy through violent means. I simply believe that there are other, more beneficial uses for US force and influence, if the objective is the betterment of the human condition. What is more important than democracy promotion? To me, Human Security, which I believe a far more useful overarching goal of an interventionist foreign policy. Of course, a state, democratic or otherwise, may be the cause of insecurity. But this is why we have principles such as r2p and institutions such as the ICC. These are objective to the form of governance, only caring about the treatment of the citizens by the state in question.

I would also ask, whether a democratically elected society achieved through great bloodshed and misery, is better than a non-democratically elected society living in relative peace? This speaks to the problems of conflating democracy promotion with the promotion of basic human rights. The two are undoubtedly often in opposition. Particularly in the transition phase. To me it is simply insufficient to claim long run befits from short term misery in the promotion of democracy. Short term costs cannot be seen as extraneous, or worse, as necessary to the birth of a democratic state. Particularly one being transitioned by outside force. This to me, shows a blind faith in the utility of our actions which is profoundly disrespectful to societies in which we are engaging, or invading, as the case may be.

Finally, on the selective use of a core principle, at what point does the false rhetoric surrounding democracy begin to negatively effect the very things democracy is supposed to enable? This can be far less tangible that polices that directly harm people, and involve the effects of a degraded US position in the world, the impact on the actions of other states and groups, and so on. Democracy promotion as a guiding principle, arguably also limits the positive impact the US can have in countries such as Iran, which are far more open to the human rights discourse, than that of US imposed democratic transition – i.e., regime change.

Kind regards,


Hi Taylor,

Thanks for your serious and extensive response to my message. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that we partly agree and partly disagree on the issues you raise. (These include some important questions you raise that I had thought of raising myself, regarding the complicated relationships between “human rights” and “democracy” as possible foreign-policy themes. In the broadest sense, I think we agree that these are partly distinct and partly connected, and I would also agree that there can sometimes be tensions between them, but I think you overdo those tensions and draw some conclusions that I find unwarranted. I also think that your discussion slides too easily from the question of <a> whether supporting and encouraging democracy should be an important goal to the quite different question of <b> whether invading countries with US troops and overthrowing there regimes is generally a good technique for establishing successful democratic regimes. Etc.)

But I’m afraid I will have to put off spelling out the details, since I’m tied up with other things right now. Perhaps soon…. In the meantime, I did want to acknowledge receiving your message and thank you for taking the time & trouble to respond to mine. Enjoy yourself in Rome.

Jeff Weintraub

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Review of Intent for Nation

Dave and I wrote the review below of Michael Byers’ new book on Canadian foreign policy, Intent for a Nation for Embassy Magazine.

Intent for Nation

Michael Byers describes his book, Intent for a Nation: A Relentlessly Optimistic Manifesto for Canada’s Role in the World, as a challenge to George Grant’s generation-defining thesis, Lament for a Nation. Canada, Mr. Byers argues, may not be on an inalterable path towards full integration with the United States.

But contrary to its title, Intent for a Nation does not reject its namesakes’ thesis–it embraces it whole-heartedly. Mr. Grant’s Lament paints Canada as a country already lost to the forces of Americanization. Mr. Byers, a professor of politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, sees Canada teetering on the abyss. Indeed, our position is so precarious, Mr. Byers himself twice believed the country was doomed: once after the “free-trade election” and again after Jean Chrétien signed NAFTA. It is only due to a handfulof increasingly rare policy decisions that Canada has managed–albeit just–to remain a sovereign state.

Intent for a Nation is a firmly nationalist treatise–a book that sees Canada under imminent threat from Americanization–and this perspective is the source of its strengths and weaknesses. As a nationalistic critique, it is often powerful, providing important counterbalance to many foreign policy assumptions. At the same time, its anti-American lens is limiting. Mr. Byers, like Mr. Grant or Mel Hurtig, over-inflates America’s role, holding it responsible for far too many of Canada’s challenges.

This book is as much about the U.S. and Americanization as it is about Canadian foreign policy. Canada’s choice is black or white: assimilation or isolation, a choice Mr. Byers echoes with chapter titles like “Do We Really Need a Continental Economy?” The fact that reversing NAFTA would be at best difficult, and at worst disastrous, is a window into the book’s central challenge: its inability to move beyond critique. For a self-titled “manifesto,” Intent for a Nation focuses almost exclusively on what Canada shouldn’t do, and says little about what it should.

It is refreshing to read a strong nationalist critique of Canadian foreign policy, particularly one that adeptly engages on military issues. The argument that the goals and purposes of Canada’s military are increasingly shaped by its integration with U.S. forces is the book’s most convincing discussion. A Canadian military fully integrated into its U.S. counterpart does indeed run the risk of preparing for, and executing, U.S.-style military operations. Do we want to spend (literally) billions to emulate the U.S. model? More importantly, if we shape our tools after America’s hammers, should we be surprised if we increasingly see global problems as corresponding nails?

In a similar vein, Mr. Byers’ discussion of the Canadian Arctic stands in admirable contrast to much of the military-centric discourse on “securing” the north. And his treatment of the war on terror, racial profiling, and missile defense are all notably level-headed. Clearly, Mr. Byers has an important voice to add to these debates. Indeed, the problem in each of these cases isn’t what he says, it’s what he leaves out.

For a manifesto, the book provides few policy options. Both the chapters on climate change and terrorism never take the reader beyond past mistakes. There are hints of possibilities (such as increased individual responsibility for emission control, and greater use of legal mechanisms in the war on terror), but at markedly few points does Mr. Byers provide directions for action. Indeed, his regular calls for national leadership, with little indication of a policy platform, become frustrating.

Take, for example, the treatment of the Responsibility to Protect. The author rightly argues that former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy showed prescient leadership by convening the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. However, he is then highly critical of Paul Martin’s attempt to institutionalize the concept through the UN General Assembly. 

The principle of R2P is that the international community should have a mechanism to intervene when sovereign governments are unwilling or unable to protect their citizens. Faced with the problem of how this principle should be actualized, Martin argued that the Security Council’s threshold for the authorization of Chapter VII intervention should be expanded to include a wider range of harms. Byers suggests a more appropriate course would have been to “embark on a long and difficult campaign to shift international opinion towards a right to unauthorized humanitarian intervention.”

This is a strikingly ambiguous, and controversial, statement regarding one of the central foreign policy challenges of our time–the use of force in the name of humanitarianism. We are provided with no indication of what a different legal framework might look like, nor do we receive guidance as to how this would mitigate the central concern of R2P’s critics–its abuse by powerful countries over weak ones.   Indeed, this policy challenge was so difficult, that the ICISS commission itself deferred answering it and it is the underlying reason why Martin chose to work within the UN framework rather than against it.  Again, Mr. Byers’ reliance on “bold leadership,” without an indication for what leaders are to do, simply inadequately addresses the policy challenges underlying his critiques.

In addition to failing to flesh out his policy prescriptions, many of the recommendations made are in conflict with one another.

For example, Mr. Byers speaks urgently, but vaguely, of the need for a green economy. But in a later chapter, he laments the decline of east-west transcontinental tractor-trailer traffic at the expense of increased north-south trade between the U.S. and Canada. And yet comparatively, this east-west traffic is grossly inefficient. Trade between Seattle and Vancouver is much more efficient–and thus green–than that between Vancouver and Toronto. Mr. Byers never attempts to prioritize or contextualize his environmental and nationalist policy

Another example emerges from his treatment of Afghanistan and Darfur. “Where would we gain the most?” Mr. Byers asks. “Continuing with a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur.” The choice appears clear: project our humanitarian interests by redeploying our military from Afghanistan to Darfur. While our role in Afghanistan should be debated, there are real humanitarian costs to leaving. Not accounting for these costs, in an argument on the moral imperative of inserting military forces–against the desire of its government–into another Muslim country rife with sectarian conflict and radical jihadism, is highly problematic.

Similarly, calling Afghanistan a “US led war in Asia” and Darfur a peacekeeping mission trivializes the former and romanticizes the latter. This month rebels killed 10 African Union peacekeepers and a further 50 are missing. Darfur could be every bit as complicated and dangerous as Afghanistan. Both are examples of complex emergencies in which new, and in large part Canadian-led concepts such as 3D and human
security, are being applied.

One senses that Byers disdain for Afghanistan springs not from the nature or intent of the mission, but simply that it was American instigated and led. When discussing Afghanistan this bias is merely distracting, but in other cases, the distortions border on the absurd. For example, Byers rightly criticizes successive Canadian governments for failing to give .7% of GDP in overs
eas development assistance (ODA). However, when assessing why Canada has failed to do so, his culprit is all too predictable. The United States – who contributes a mere .1% of GDP – fear their international reputation will suffer if Canada fulfills its ODA commitment and thus exerts subtle pressure which keeps our contributions down. Putting aside that no examples of how this nefarious influence is exerted, are we really suppose to believe the United States cares how much Canada donates in ODA?

What makes this bias all the more frustrating is that without it, the book would be more compelling. Mr. Byers considers Canada a powerful country, capable of international greatness. In interviews he argues that our insecurities often impede our success. It is a sentiment we agree with, and to which history can attest. But in Intent for a Nation, this insight is crowded out by the United States, which is too often blamed for our shortcomings.

If Canada is a powerful country, how should it exert its influence? The final chapter on global citizenship is clearly intended to provide a framework for action. But the conclusion fails to link the concept of global citizenship proposed to the challenges and themes outlined in the previous nine chapters. Moreover, Mr. Byers’ definition of global citizenship ultimately does not differ from those he critiques, as well as others he doesn’t mention, making it difficult to tease out his unique contribution to the debate over this term.

And when Mr. Byers suggests that being a global citizen at the national level would entail acting independently from U.S. and our economic interests, the focus on America again hinders his analysis. Mr. Byers conflates our capacity to act independently with our choice to do so. Are there troubling aspects to the Canada-U.S. relationship? Absolutely. But Mr. Byers seems less interested in fixing them than in building a firewall. Is disengagement and isolationism really the logical conclusion of global citizenship? Surely being sovereign, and a global citizen, entails more than not being American?

This book is clearly meant to serve as an agent provocateur, and to spark discussion. In that spirit it is an important contribution to the national debate. Mr. Byers is right to argue that Canada can be more and that message deserves an audience, both in Ottawa and across the country. That said, the book contains vague and conflicting advice and over-emphasizes America’s role. This is largely because Intent for a Nation embraces rather than challenges the flawed analysis of its namesake. Almost four decades after the release of Mr. Grant’s Lament, Canada has retained its independence, and according to some polls, is increasingly distinct from America. Shouldn’t the debate over Canadian
foreign policy move beyond the constraints of this thesis?


Welcome to the Neighborhood

Dave and I had the following oped in the Tyee today on the NYT decision to take down their paywall.

Newspapers Online: Welcome to the Neighborhood
By Taylor Owen and David Eaves

The New York Times made waves in the media world recently by dismantling its subscription paywall. As a result, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now read the entire paper online for free.

The failed paywall experiment of the New York Times is emblematic of the newspaper industry’s two-decade-old struggle to survive online. So long as the Internet is perceived as nothing more than a new tool for distributing the news to a passive audience — readers, citizen and the community more generally, will continue to tune out. For newspapers to survive, a more nuanced understanding of the online world is needed.

The key is grasping that the relationship between communities and their news has fundamentally changed.

Prior to the Internet, people determined what was important by reading what newspaper editors thought was important. Today, people have a host of ways to determine what is important and to connect quickly with stories on those issues. Newspapers can shift their content, and advertising, online, but as long as they believe they are the arbiters of a community’s agenda, they will continue to struggle.

Online, people engage with news in two new ways, both of which deviate significantly from the traditional newspaper model.

First, algorithm-based aggregators, such as Google News and, and human-run websites, such as National Newswatch and the Huffington Post, provide powerful alternatives to the traditional newspaper editor.

Aggregators, both human and algorithm-based, don’t care about content’s origins, only its relevance to readers. They ferret out the best content from across the web and deposit it on your computer screen. This begs the question: if you could read the best articles drawn from a pool of 100 authors (the approximate number of journalists at a daily newspaper) vs. a pool of 1.5 million posts (the amount of new content created online each day), which would you choose?

But it is the second reason that should most concern newspapers. Younger readers don’t just use aggregators. They increasingly read articles found through links from blogs. Rather than roaming within a newspaper’s walled gardens, younger readers build their own media communities where a trusted network of bloggers guide them to interesting content. Online, bloggers are the new editors.

Take, for example, the relationship many Canadians have with the prominent blogger Andrew Potter. While most people have never met him in person, his readers know his perspectives and biases, and this personal connection creates a loyal following.

Antithetically, people are also drawn back because they are interested in the places Potter links to, virtually all of which direct readers away from the site he blogs for,

To most newspapers, the idea of directing traffic away from their news site remains an anathema. Newspaper websites contain virtually no external links. Ironically, this follows the design parameters of a Las Vegas casino — the goal is to get you in, and not let you leave. Does anyone really believe that all the news and perspectives relevant and important to a community can reside on a single website?

In this manner, newspapers are fighting the very thing that makes the Internet community compelling: its interconnectedness. Like Potter’s blog, the Internet’s best sites are attractive, not simply because their content is good, but rather because they link to content around the web. And if that content is compelling, readers keep coming back for more guidance.

People enjoy a sense of community, and democracy is strengthened when citizens are informed. The problem is, the New York Times, and virtually every traditional newspaper, fails to understand that a model has emerged that is far better at both delivering information and fostering community than the traditional news industries.

Traditional media supporters will assert that these online communities are fragmented, in disagreement, full of scallywags, immature ranters, educated snobs and partisan hacks. And they’d be right. It’s messy and it’s imperfect. But then, so is the democratic community in which we live. The difference is, in an online community, everyone is telling us and directing us to issues and news items they believe are important.

The New York Times learned this lesson the hard way. After spending two years trying to wall its exclusive content off from the web, it discovered that rather than becoming more exclusive, it was becoming less relevant. Unable to link to its content, aggregators, bloggers and the online community more generally, simply stopped talking about them. Newspapers should heed this lesson. If newspapers want to transition into the online age — they’ll have to join this community, rather than seek to control it.



…for the lack of posting. It has been due, in part, to the twin challenges of being on the road for the better part of the past two months, and having a sustained and agonizing computer melt down. On the latter, a few notes.

First, computer repair people are a lot like car salesmen. I took my computer to three different places over the course of a month. The first two didn’t identify what the last said was the obvious problem, but who then couldn’t fix it, after a week and 400 bucks (and yes, Canadian bucks are now real bucks, but that’s another post). Frustrating to no ends.

Second, just backing up your files, which I am relatively good at doing, is insufficient for actually allowing work flow to continue post computer breakdown. The number of settings on my computer, such as all of my blogging cookies, means just shifting files is only part of the battle.

Third, gmail is the only webmail ap that actually works to ANY degree like a client side program, on which I have become crack-like dependent. Having to use three different web based aps to run my three separate main accounts, was torture. The other two were so bad, that I started forwarding all messages through gmail. This experience, and now sort of having Thunderbird back, showed me unequivocally that email management is the central peg in my disheveled productivity.

Fourth, and related to the second and third, I just heard about a Sun system, where you can put a keycard into any networked Sun computer, and ALL of your desktop settings and files appear (h/t JV). Any programs that you have on your system, that aren’t on the unit you are using, get emulated by server-side programs, while client side ones are downloading to your terminal in the background. Once on the couputer, it seemlessy switches to the client side version.

This to me is the future of computers. Seemless integreation between server and client, combined with terminals that recognize who you are, and automatic server side backups. I am probably bastardizing the description of this process, but come on Jobs/Gates – which of you are going to get to this first!


second life?

Few scenes better sum up the wondrous complexity of the evolving online world that the following paragraph from a Globe and Mail article on legality and justice in virtual online worlds:

Last year, Second Life claimed its first living, breathing millionaire, Ansche Chung, who had made $1 million US entirely by developing virtual real-estate and other investments, over the course of two years, from an initial investment of $10.  Her in-game press conference was interrupted by a swarm of flying penises.

This is the new reality, and Second Life, Warcraft, etc, are just the tip of the iceberg. 

One thing is becoming increasingly clear though, “second life” is a misnomer.  The internet is not an alternative to life, it is life.  It is us, in all our complexity, madness and brilliance, out in the open for all to see, critique and engage.  No doubt that we are going to have to adapt, in some cases dramatically, our social and legal norms, built to moderate relatively innocuous forms interpersonal interaction.

But hey, I’m not sure the Craig press conference would have been that much more bizarre had it too, been interrupted by swarms of flying penises…


Defending Ignatieff’s ‘mea culpa’

Whatever else we can say about Michael Ignatieff, he piques emotions, spurs debates and creates headlines with a fervor that is unrivaled in Canada.

True to form, his essay in last week’s NYT magazine has received the column inches usually reserved for the Health Act and the Stanley Cup. So just what did he say that caused such a stir?

I will get to what I think about his essay in a moment, but first, what of the commentary? Having gone through the two dozen or so pieces on his essay, I must say, there actually aren’t that many serious criticisms. Most fall into the category of hit job critiques. People who have never, and likely will never think very highly of the man. These should not discount what are some real concerns though.  There are two in particular.

The first is a line of critique that has been around for a while, and has been best outlined by Potter, Wells, and Ygelsias:

First, Andrew Potter:

Now he is claiming that, had he been a politician at the time, his decision might have been different. Why? Because as an intellectual, you are accountable only to yourself, while a politician is accountable to citizens, soldiers, allies, international institutions, and so on. So, the decision would have been different, because his constituency would have been different.I am not buying this.

To begin with, it is dangerous for an academic to claim that he is accountable only to himself. Given the subject matter, if he is right, this would be a good argument for shutting the universities down. Does anyone imagine that an engineer is accountable only to himself, a surgeon only to herself? The entire rationale for professional self-regulation (and its academic equivalent, the peer-review process) is precisely to ensure that standards are maintained and the public good is served.

Paul Wells continues, with a little more vigor:

It’s nutty-nutbar to perceive some culture of practical politics whose dictates would have led a Minister Ignatieff to conclude something different in 2003 from what Professor Ignatieff decided. In 2003, most practical politicians also thought the war was swell. It’s hard to know where to stop counting them: Bill Clinton for sure, Hillary Clinton probably, Brian Mulroney, and never even mind Stephen Harper — the pro-war camp also included rank-and-file Liberal MPs like Albina Guarnieri and David Pratt, Harperphobic Tories like Joe Clark, and those advisers around Paul Martin who voiced an opinion at the time. Along with quite literally every prominent English-language newspaper editorial board in Canada except the Toronto Star’s.

And Ygelsias brings it home:

But then someone pointed out to me that the whole thing is founded on the absurd premise that his errors in judgment have something to do with the mindset of academia versus the mindset of practical politics.

This is, when you think about it, totally wrong. Academics in the field of Middle East studies were overwhelmingly opposed to the war. Similarly, international relations scholars opposed the war by a very large margin. The war’s foci of intellectual support were in the institutions of the conservative movement, and in the DC think tanks and the punditocracy where the war had a lot of non-conservative support. People with relevant academic expertise — notably people who weren’t really on the left politically — were massively opposed to the war. To imply the reverse is to substantially obscure one of the main lessons of the war, namely that we should pay more attention to what regional experts think and give substantially less credence to the idea that think tankers are really “independent” of political machinations.

So what of this critique? A couple of comments.

First, let’s be clear about what Ignatieff has said about this. During the election campaign he said that had he been a Canadian politician at the time, the views of the Canadian electorate would have influenced his decision of whether to send Canadian troops into Iraq. This seems correct to me, and is something quite different to the argument that he would not have advocated US invasion, being in the US, and participating in the US policy debate.

In the latest piece, he does go a step further, and perhaps gets in some trouble, but this is not necessarily in relation to the specific Canadian position. Here he is more concerned with pointing out that there is a lot of academic and journalistic nonsense to which no accountability is held. Academics say a whole lot of stupid things that they are rarely held accountable for. He recognizes this, and is pointing it out. Academics can deal in the theoretical and play with ideas in a way that politicians simply can’t. Because they are held accountable to everything they say and do. This, at least in some fashion, changes the calculus of decision making.

Here though, he seems to underplay the extent to which certain academics, and they are admittedly rare, do influence policy. More importantly, in the case of the US position on Iraq, he was one of them. Therefore, I would say his position is correct with respect to the Canadian politics example, but does not hold in the American case.

In the end I think it is fair to say that his position as to whether to send Canadian troops into Iraq would have been based on a slightly different set of variables than his decision to advocate for US intervention. But, as Wells points out, let’s not pretend that Chrétien’s position was either obvious, or without risk. There was a lot of debate in this country, as in others, about if, and how Iraq should be dealt with. Had there been a UN Security Council resolution, for example, then Chrétien would almost certainly have supported it. The debate was and remains nuanced, as I think Ignatieff struggles with in his public pronouncements. People want red meat, and he wants to remain introspective.

The second line of critique is summed up by Siddiqui:

Ignatieff invokes Bismarck’s observation that political judgment is “the ability to hear, before anyone else, the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history,” and adds: “Few of us hear the horses coming.”

But millions around the world, including Canadians, did on Iraq. Jean Chrétien did. Stephen Harper and Ignatieff didn’t.

Yes, but this retrospectively makes the debate seem black and white when it simply wasn’t. People opposed and supported the war for a wide range of reasons. Siddiqui would not have supported it, for example, even had the Security Council been on board. All sides have to be honest about their positions in the lead-up. As Well’s has noted, pretty much everyone thought Chretien would support it. He wisely decided not to, but this was neither overwhelmingly obvious, nor without risks.

What’s more, not everyone who was against it was so for the same reasons. The French had been doing wide business with Saddam and had a serious grudge to pick with Bush. Much of the left is against the principle of humanitarian interventions writ large. Many American conservatives want an isolationist and protectionist US foreign policy. These varied positions are often in conflict with one another, and the attribution of virtue, particularly, humanitarianism, to all who opposed the war, misses much of the context of the debate, and blurs the policy challenges that are sure to arise a futur
e interventions are considered.

As Potter says: “There were plenty of good arguments, both morally and under international law, for the invasion. There were good arguments against it as well, but reasonable people could and did disagree.”

So what to make of the article? For what it’s worth, a few comments:

1. While saying that the Iraq war has condemned his judgment is certainly a mea culpa of sorts, this article is not really a reneging of his past positions, or how he came to them. Rather, it is more of a stream of consciousness accounting of his evolution from US public intellectual to Canadian politician. While I am not as pessimistic as Potter as to feasibility of this transition, there is no doubt that the two are very different.

2. I generally agree with his distinctions between academic and political judgment. Again though, he gets into the problem of being not just a typical academic during the Iraq lead-up. He aspired to, and attained, policy impact.

3. “I’ve learned that acquiring good judgment in politics starts with knowing when to admit your mistakes.” Refreshing. Wish more politicians would say this while wrestling publicly with their mistakes.

4. Way too many historical references. While I like to think that our leaders are well read, citing a dozen ‘great men’ in a 2500 word essay is a bit much. And there is no way to make the words “former denizen of Harvard” unpretentious.

5. “Having taught political science myself, I have to say the discipline promises more than it can deliver” = understatement of the year.

6. I don’t agree with this para:

The decision facing the United States over Iraq is paradigmatic of political judgment at its most difficult. Staying and leaving each have huge costs. One thing is clear: The costs of staying will be borne by Americans, while the cost of leaving will be mostly borne by Iraqis. That in itself suggests how American leaders are likely to decide the question.

A few problems here. First, it doesn’t account for the fact that US presence is the catalyst for a good percentage of the violence. Second, at present, more Iraqi’s are being killed than Americans. Third, the humanitarian costs of leaving versus staying, depending on how both are done, are a matter of serious debate.

7. I really enjoyed his reflections on public life. I have witnessed these costs in a range of capacities over the past few years, and he hits the nail on the head with a few, one in particular:

In public life, language is a weapon of war and is deployed in conditions of radical distrust. All that matters is what you said, not what you meant. The political realm is a world of lunatic literalism. The slightest crack in your armor — between what you meant and what you said — can be pried open and the knife driven home.

In some ways this is obvious, and Ignatieff got himself in some real political trouble during the leadership race for thinking out loud a bit more than he probably should have, but it’s certainly true that in an area where what people mean should be what we care most about, as these people will be running the country, we insist on hyper-critiques of every word uttered. “Lunatic Literalism,” great line.

8. I liked the idea of fixed principles versus fixed ideas in politics. The former are the values with which one governs, the latter “of a dogmatic kind are usually the enemy of good judgment.”

9. “In private life, we pay the price of our own mistakes. In public life, a politician’s mistakes are first paid by others.” Again, this is true, but he was a public figure before he entered politics.

10. I don’t fully agree with this para:

“My convictions had all the authority of personal experience, but for that very reason, I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together by terror?”

I’m not sure that this is the right question. More important was whether the mechanisms used to intervene and nation-build, (or not, as the case may be), would create a situation on which radical elements of these communities could capitalize.

On balance, this essay is an honest public accounting from a public figure working his way through the biggest policy challenge of our time. But it is also filled with interesting reflections on politics that are rare from someone still active in public life.

And in the end, I would echo the conclusion of the Montreal Gazette:

“Ignatieff’s self-criticism deserves to be remembered much longer than his volte-face on Iraq, because it is the sort of intelligent candour that is so painfully rare in public life. It’s a refreshing and thought-provoking glimpse at how an intelligent person copes with the challenges of policy decision-making.”

There are, and were before Iraq, no easy answers for what to do in the Middle East. Anyone who pretended or pretends otherwise, as many did and do on either side, are disingenuous, and frankly don’t deserve to be leading us through this challenge. We need more people who struggle with problems in public and that absolve themselves of the cocksure that has become the partisan norm. For this, Ignatieff’s honesty should be valued. Does this make him a great leader? Frankly, I don’t know yet. He is certainly daring, as he nudges us to conclude in his final paragraph. I do know that I am glad he is part of the political debate, as there is no doubt he does politics differently. Here’s hoping he keeps thinking, and struggling – in public.


A Belated Happy Birthday Blogs

I forgot to post this here when it was published last week, but David Eaves and I had the following op-ed in the Toronto Star:

Blogosphere at age 10 is improving journalism

Although hard to believe, this month marks the 10th anniversary of blogging, a method for regularly publishing content online.

And what a milestone it is. A recent census of “the blogosphere” counted more than 70 million blogs covering an unimaginable array of topics.

Moreover, every day an astounding 120,000 new blogs are created and 1.5 million new posts are published (about 17 posts per second). Never before have so many contributed so much to our media landscape.

Despite this exponential growth, blogging continues to be misunderstood by both technophiles and technophobes. For the past decade the former have maintained that blogs will replace traditional journalism, ushering in an era of citizen-run media. Conversely, the latter have argued that a wave of amateurs threatens the quality and integrity of journalism – and possibly even democracy.

Both are wrong.

Blogging is not a substitute for journalism. If anything, this past decade shows that blogging and journalism are symbiotic – to the benefit of everyone.

To its many ardent advocates, blogging is displacing traditional journalism. But journalism – unlike blogging – is a practice with a particular set of norms and structures that guide the creation of content. Blogging, despite its unique properties (virtually anyone can reach a potentially enormous audience at little cost), has few, if any norms.

Consider another, more established medium. Books enable various practices, such as fiction, poetry, science and sometimes journalism, to be disseminated. Do books pose a threat to journalism? Of course not. They do the opposite. Journalistic books, like blogs, increase interest in the subjects they tackle and so promote further media consumption.

The same market forces that apply to books and newspapers apply to blogs.

Readers will judge and elect to read based on the same standard: Does it inform, is it well researched and does it add value?

Because blogs are cheaper to maintain they will always be numerous, but this makes them neither unique nor more likely to be read regularly.

Ultimately blogs, like books, don’t replace journalism; they simply provide another medium for its dissemination and consumption.

If technophiles mistakenly claim that blogging competes with – and will ultimately replace – traditional journalism, then technophobes’ fear of being swept away by a tsunami of irrelevant and amateurish blogs is equally misplaced.

Traditionalists’ concern with blogging is rooted in the fact that the average blog is of questionable quality. Ask anyone who has looked, and cringed, at a friend’s blog.

But this conclusion is based on a flawed understanding of how people use the Internet. The Internet’s most powerful property is its capacity to connect users quickly to exactly what they are looking for, including high-quality writing on any subject.

This accounts for the tremendous amount of traffic high-quality blogs receive and explains why these bloggers are print journalists’ true competition. As technology expert Paul Graham argues: “Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality miss the point. No one reads the average blog.”

Once this capability of the Internet is taken into account, the significance of blogging shifts. Imagine that only 5 per cent – or 75,000 – of daily posts are journalistic in content, and that only 1 per cent of these are of high quality. That still leaves 750 high-quality posts published every day.

Even by this conservative assessment, the blogo- sphere still yields a quantity of content that can challenge the world’s best newspapers.

In addition, as a wider range of writers and citizens try blogging, the diversity and quantity of high-quality blogs will continue to increase. Currently, the number of blogs doubles every 300 days. Consequently, the situation is going to get much worse, or depending on your perspective, much better.

As bloggers continue to gain tangible influence in public debates, our understanding of this phenomenon will mature.

And this past decade should serve as a good guide. Contrary to the predictions of both champions and skeptics, blogging has neither displaced nor debased the practice of journalism. If anything, it has made journalism more accurate, democratic and widely read.

Let’s hope blogging’s next decade will be as positive and transformative as the first.


Samatha Powers and the WoT

On a train from Rome to Venice, I just tucked into Samantha Power’s review essay on the future of War on Terror in this Sunday’s Times.  Again, she shows why she a leading driver of an emerging liberal foreign policy position that deviates at once from the utopian militarism of neoconservationism, the isolationism of realism, and the dangerous reliance on Bush-bashing that dominates much of the left.  Dare I say, she is working and thinking towards an emerging progressive foreign policy agenda.

The piece begins with a framing that is not always recognized.  In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Bush defined the War on Terror in srikingly broad terms.  He did not confine the war to defeating Al Qaeda, but that it would begin with Al Qaeda, and “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

The greater paradigmatic change, and the object of Power’s ire, however, was not in this definition of the enemy, but rather in a redefinition of the mechanisms that should be used to defeat it.  This redefinition, ostensibly designed to adapt to a new security environment, had four parts: the criminal justice approach to counterterrorism was being replaced by a military one; States were either with the US or against them; international institutions were seen as constraining factors that needed to be circumvented; and that the executive, in such a time of emergency, should be given the balance of power over the congressional and legislative branches of government.

So how has this worked out?  By Power’s assessment, rather poorly.  Using Rumsfeld’s metric for sucess (“Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”), her conclusion is damning:

Leaked intelligence reports have shown that the answer is negative. The administration’s tactical and strategic blunders have crippled American military readiness; exposed vulnerabilities in training, equipment and force structure; and accelerated terrorist recruitment. In short, although the United States has not been directly hit since 9/11, we are less safe as a result of the Bush administration’s rhetoric, conduct and strategy.

But in her words, “criticizing the calamities of the last six years of American foreign policy has become all too easy. And it does not itself improve our approach to combating terrorist threats that do in fact loom large — larger, in fact, because of Bush’s mistakes.”

I couldn’t agree more, and therefore welcome what lies at the core of this piece – a broad stroke review of three texts that each in their own way help us begin to define this new toolbox:

We must urgently set about reversing the harm done to the nation’s standing and security by simultaneously reasserting the moral difference between the United States and Islamic terrorists and by developing a 21st-century toolbox to minimize actual terrorist threats. Several new books take up this
challenge, each addressing a different piece of the national security predicament. Together, they allow one to begin to define a new approach to counterterrorism.

The first book is the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, notably heavily influenced by David Patraeus.  The manual is a response to the near complete lack of counterinsurgency capability in the US military following 9/11.  What the manual suggests, is nothing short of revolutionary, and if implemented, I have no doubt would dramatically change the prospects for sucess certainly in Afghanistan, and possibly in Iraq.  Powers aptly describes just why this manual is so dramatic:

The fundamental premise of the manual is that the key to successful counterinsurgency is protecting civilians. The manual notes: “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral
damage leads to the recruitment of 50 more insurgents.” It suggests that force size be calculated in relation not to the enemy, but to inhabitants (a minimum of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 residents). It emphasizes the necessity of coordination with beefed-up civilian agencies, which are needed to take on reconstruction and development tasks.

The most counterintuitive, as well as the most politically difficult, premise of the manual is that the American military must assume greater risk in order to gather much-needed intelligence and, in the end, achieve greater safety. The emphasis of the 1990s on force protection is overturned by the assertion of several breathtaking paradoxes: “Sometimes, the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.” “Sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” “Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction.”

Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (and a close colleague of mine), has contributed an introduction that should be required reading for anybody who wants to understand the huge demands effective counterinsurgency will place on the military and the voting public. “Those who fail to see the manual as radical probably don’t understand it,” she writes, “or at least what it’s up against.”…

Military actions that cause civilian deaths, she argues, are not simply morally questionable; they are self-defeating.

The second book reviewed is Ian Shapiro’s ‘Containment: Rebuilding a Strategy Against Global Terror’, which urges for for a return to legitimacy as a central tenant of US foreign policy.  Where as Patreaus sees local legitimacy as critical to mission success in counterinsurgency warfare, Shapiro sees international legitimacy as a required tool of the War on Terror.  Both argue that sucess is nearly impossible without it.

While Powers is sympathetic to his position on the diffuse, as opposed to unified nature of the threat, (which he sees as a good thing), she is quick to highlight the gulf between the ability to actualize a new containment doctrine, and the aggressive position of the Bush Administration:

For containment to work, Washington needs to be able to deliver credible threats. The irony of Bush’s flawed approach is that it has exposed the limits of American enforcement tools, stretching military and financial resources beyond recognition. This has a doubly negative effect: it emboldens those who need to be contained, and it deters those we once might have counted on for help in doing the containing.

She also seems concerned that he is far too quick to dismiss, or at least minimise the threat of nuclear proliferation: “In fact, after six years of dishonesty and alarmism, it seems especially important — if challenging — to retain a capacity for grave, calibrated concern about the proliferation of nuclear aspirant states and their proud ties to terrorist networks.”

If the new counterinsurgency doctrine strikes at the core of the identity, tactics and purpose of the US military, the third book reviewed, Talal Asad’s ‘On Suicide Bombing’ challenges the core belief that there is a difference between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ cleanly delineated in Bush’s post-9/11 world view. 

Here Powers seems sympathetic to the call for greater cultural awareness, but falls short of endorsing Asad’s moral equivalency.  While she notes that “if you continue to believe (as I do) that there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective, you will indeed find “On Suicide Bombing” disturbing, if not always in the way he in
tends.”  Here, however, I don’t think that recognizing the moral distinction oneself, and seeing that others do not, are mutually exclusive.  The very fact that people who’s families are killed by cluster bombs see no difference between them and suicide attacks, is highly relevant to the discussion of our counterterrorism tactics, whether we agree with it or not.

Finally, Powers looks to the US disaster preparedness status post 9/11 through a review of Stephen Flynn’s ‘The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation’.  Here, she has little critique and seems as horrified as Flynn that so little has been done on this front:

By defining American security objectives in military terms, the Bush administration has failed to set achievable goals that could vastly decrease the human and financial damage from a large-scale attack at
home. While the United States military has done its best to adjust to the inadequacies recent conflicts have exposed, almost no meaningful midcourse corrections have been made on the homefront…not in educating the public, training emergency responders, fortifying “soft targets,” securing hazardous materials or strengthening critical infrastructure.

In Powers’ somewhat schizophrenic assessment of these three works lies an encapsulation of the challenge facing liberals.  She endorses the radical new counterinsurgency doctrine, but worries that it is simply too difficult to implement on the fly as it requires a complete institutional overhaul (it is one thing for Patreas to tell his commanders to take far greater risks, it is quite another for them and their soldiers to do so given the decentralized command structure.)  She is sympathetic to Shapiro’s breakdown of the terrorist threat, but seems to worry that a containment strategy marks a return to an isolationism she is loath to endorse.  While she sees the relevance, and indeed necessity, of better cultural understanding, she is concerned with the end result of cultural relativism.  In short, she lies in the middle on most of these debates.  Her position is nuanced.

In these reviews, she is clearly articulating, if not explicitly, a moderate, and I would argue, progressive stance on US foreign policy.

Where she is undoubtedly correct, is that liberals and progressives cannot sit on the sidelines of these debates.  Out of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism record, a relatively large bulls-eye, MUST come a new strategy – both for Iraq and for the war on terror.  I for one, think she is right.