Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Taking the War Cap Seriously

A while back, I posted how we ought to think about American wars as like the salary caps in the NFL and NBA: that at some point, there is a limit of how much you can be doing (paying in the metaphor) at one time.  The basic idea is that the US can only fight so many wars at a time.  Remember when people thought Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were stupid for opening up multi-front wars?

It is not so much that fighting in multiple theaters opens up the US to attack from multiple directions but that the US does not have infinite numbers of soldiers, sailors, pilots, ships, planes and, yes, dollars, not to mention officials to run many wars at once.  Right now, the US is fighting wars of varying sizes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan (the drone war is still a thing, right?), and some others that I am probably forgetting.  None of these are at the levels of the simultaneous campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq that quite nearly broke the US Army.  The costs of that particular situation, two wars at once, are still being felt today in terms of readiness (how many planes and ships are crashing these days?) and will be felt for the next seventy years in terms of costs for taking care of those served and were wounded.  The question is not whether the US spent a trillion dollars but how many trillions thus far and how many left to spend. 

Yet the Trump administration seems to be moving towards not just one more war but two.  The new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has issued a list of demands for Iran that kind of resemble the ultimatum given to Serbia before World War I--a list designed to be rejected (h/t to Ben Dennison).  We knew Pompeo to be a hawk on Iran, we knew Bolton to be one as well.  Given that the Iran deal is better than what we could possibly expect for a NK deal, their idea of "fixing the deal" seems incredibly insincere and actually a step towards war,  And, yes, this war would be harder than Iraq--a much bigger population, much greater spaces for the US military to cover, more support for the government the more the US tries to impose itself, and on and on.  Low hanging fruit this is not.  Yet, if the US had to have a new war, I would prefer a war with Iran than one with North Korea.

Yes, the diplomacy pre-summit is turning into a shitshow.  All of the traits of the Trump administration are in full display: a lack of seriousness and preparation, Trump being baited by tweets and by meetings that are as substantial as tweets, the influence of warmongers (NK is not the only ones who feel repugnance towards Bolton), and on and on.  Robert Kelly explained this all very well in a series of tweets and then another one--Moon, South Korea's President has been desperately seeking a way of out of war, which led to this moment of hope and then wildly inflated expectations over de-nuking, and now Trump feeling betrayed.  Which means war is back to being in play in a big way.

The US military is not ready for either an Iran war or a North Korea war.  Either one would disrupt the global economy with oil skyrocketing in price if there is another war involving the Persian Gulf and the destruction of one of the 11 or so biggest economies in the world and maybe the third if Japan gets hit hard if the latter war happens.  The American people are not ready either as either would produce more casualties than they have grown to expect.  A war with North Korea would kill more Americans in the first days than all of the troops lost in combat since Vietnam.  Oh, and the civilian casualties will be unlike anything the US has experienced since .... I have no idea.

Either of these words would explode the deficit even further than the misbegotten tax cut, and each one would wreak such damage as to make us forget that the US is already involved in a half dozen wars (or more).  So, not only are we already above the war cap, this government is contemplating adding one or two super-expensive yet unproductive stars to our team of wars (I am thinking of the Washington football team's free agents, but I will take nominations for other disasters).

All of this is awful and going to get even more so.  Good thing the GOP is getting what it wanted (more bad SCOTUS decisions) when it sold its soul and sold out the country.  All I know is that I wish we could fire the general manager, the coach, and the entire staff of this team.  Alas, it ain't gonna happen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Thar She Goes!

This weekend, we headed to Ithaca one last time--to see College Spew become Graduate Spew, and now I am verklempt.   The four years flew by, and I have the same feeling today that I did when I dropped her off at the start of international student orientation (yeah, they treated her like a Canadian might be unfamiliar with American ways): pride but also much sadness as she is fully launched.  I doubt that she will spend much time back in Ottawa again, as most of our holiday get togethers will be elsewhere.  We had so much time together until four years ago, some occasionally since, and now?  Not so much.

She was always diligent, creative, sharp, funny, and opinionated.  Turns out she is gutsy too as she heads west, in search of a job.  When I headed west after college, I had four year
s of guaranteed funding ($12k per year, woot!) and I thought I knew what I was getting into.  She has no such guarantees, although she has many connections now thanks to her internships, her school's connections, a celebrity mensch mentor, and a few of my friends who ende
d up in the industry.  So, she is jumping in, and I have little doubt that she will succeed.  The only question is whether she can put up with the traffic and super-obnoxious drivers. 

We did have an excellent weekend, where we spent time with her, her friends (she has an amazing group of buddies, several of which she met at the aforementioned international student orientation), and the parents of her friends.  The event was rained on, but we managed.  Maybe it is good luck like the rain that hit our wedding in San Diego a few decades ago. 

All I know is that she is going to do great, that she will make a difference, and I am going to miss her terribly.  On the bright side, I got to hear my favorite song:

How did it get so dusty in my home office?

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Wagering on Trump Administration

I used to get the betting lines every 3 months or so from an online sports betting firm since I posted about such bets.  Not lately, so I guess I have to do the work myself.  Given that sports betting will soon be legal in the US besides in Nevada (thanks, SCOTUS), it might be time to figure out how to bet.

I have no idea what the over/under line will be of Trump adminitration officials who get jail time are, but since we are already at five having pled guilty, I have to guess that the over/underline has to be north of ten.  If one considers who is likely to get some Mueller attention or otherwise be prosecuted, the list probably includes:
  • Jared Kushner
  • Ivanka
  • Don Junior
  • Eric
  • Scott Pruitt
  • Ryan Zinke
  • Jeff Sessions (that might be the second most delightful possibility--a three way tie between him, Kushner and Ivanka)
  • Trump himself
  • all their minions that we will only know once they are indicted

So, yeah, easy to bet the over if it is set at 10, I'd still bet the over if set at 15.  20?  Hmmm.

On the bright side, Trump will be able to claim that he had the most corrupt administration in US history, and that's something.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Korean Epiphanies

Fun times in Korea, eh?  I was really struck during my two weeks there of a split in opinions--most of the folks I met were "cautiously optimistic" about the situation, that the Trump-Kim summit might lead to a significant improvement in regional tensions, while other folks were in the "ruthlessly pessimistic" camp.  And I was a member of the latter.  Why?  Because TeamRP just could not see anyway for North Korea to "denuke" in any meaningful way when the US had, ooops, done some regime change on Libya.

So, I get back to North America and notice that Bolton has been talking about the "Libya Option" seriously, which did ultimately send the desired signal (if Bolton does not want peace) to the North Koreans.  So, the North Koreans have said that they had no intention of trading their nukes for economic assistance.  That, along with the earlier announcement that that they were skipping a meeting since the US and ROK were not cancelling a key military exercise, reminded us that North Koreans have always been the most obnoxious trolls in International Relations (sorry, John and Stephen). 

So, folks are having an epiphany--negotiating with North Korea is hard, and they aren't giving up their nukes.  I had a bit of a different Korean epiphany thanks to some sharp outsiders (Canadians and Americans who took me out for drinks and bbq:
American troops have long been based in South Korea to do two things: deter the North Koreans and reassure the South Koreans.  Standard tripwire type stuff.  Now, things have flipped as smart South Koreans want the Americans to stay to deter an American attack on North Korea.  Yeah, that seems backwards, but the idea is that Trump would not attack North Korea with so many Americans in harm's way (is that wishful thinking rearing its ugly head again?).  That Trump would have a freer hand if the Americans were no longer down range of North Korean artillery....  
  Before I left for South Korea, I thought that the likely outcomes from a KJU-Trump summit would be in decreasing likelihood:
  1. A modest agreement, such as NK agrees not to test any more nukes (its test area is broken and other new nuclear powers tested six nukes, so a convenient time to give away this chip) and US promises to de-escalate a smidge.  Trump would come home, declaring he solved the Korean problem, and the pundits/press would buy it, but not much would have really changed.  Woot!
  2. NK agrees to give up its ICBM capability, Trump agrees to reduce or even eliminate US forces in South Korea, so NK gets not only recognition of being a nuclear power but decoupling of South Korea and Japan from US.  
  3. Trump and KJU yell at each other as each is upset that they don't have a common understanding of "denuclearization."  So, the road to war is a bit clearer, and John Bolton does a happy dance.
  1. No meeting as NK does not want to signal that it gave in to "massive pressure" from US.
  2. No meeting as Trump realizes he can't get the Nobel Prize. 
  3. A meeting with much reduced expectations--perhaps freezes of NK's weapons in exchange for US promising not to regime change (which is believed by none).
  4. War.
  5.  A meeting, then war.
So, yeah, not great.  Are things clearer now than two weeks ago?  Not sure.  I do think Team Relentless Pessimism is feeling pretty good about feeling pretty bad. Woot?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Random Research Observations and that Whole Japan-Korea Thing

One of the enduring challenges for the United States and other countries seeking to build more institutions and stability in East Asia (pre-Trump, of course) is that South Korea and Japan don't get along.  Sure, we see news stories all time, like the South Koreans erecting Comfort Women statues near Japanese consulates and all that, but I could not help but note it being a recurring tangent in a number of interviews I had in South Korea over the past two weeks.

I was meeting with politicians, retired military officers (who all seem to be professors after retirement), experts and others for the big project, so I was not focused on asking about ROK-Japan relations, just like I didn't ask in Japan last year about the relationship.  But stuff comes up:
"The governing party wants to diversify its alliance relations so that it is not quite so dependent on the US, so they are seeking to improve relations with Russia, India, Indonesia ....."  Notice who is omitted.
"We are working to develop responses to threats, such as North Korea, China, Japan ...."
This was a pretty striking contrast as South Korea rarely came up in Japan.  It kind of reminds me of Texas Tech being ignored by Texas A&M, which was more focused on the rivalry with U of Texas (insert South Korea, Japan and China respectively).

I didn't go to a war museum in Japan unless one counts the Yasukuni Shrine, so it is hard to compare with the War Memorial in Seoul.  So, nope, I didn't see the Japanese version of this:

These two displays, very much in the central hall of the War Memorial, are of the Dokdo Islands (Korea's name) or Takeshima (Japan's name).  This site covers the issue fairly well.

Anyhow, the point du jour is that I got to see up close glimpses of Korean attitudes about Japan, and, well, they are not much of a foundation for any kind of deeper security relationship.  The stuff we hear about seems to be pretty real.  Which means my pessimism for East Asian security is multidimensional.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Reflections on L’Affaire Lebow

Something completely new here at the Semi-Spew: a guest post.  Dr. Nora Bensahel puts the Lebow Elevator controversy into perspective.  She is a Distinguished Scholar inResidence,School of International Service, American University, and Contributing Editor, War on theRocks.

When I first heard about The Elevator Incident, I started thinking, like most of my female colleagues, about what I would have done in that situation.  Lots of ink has now been spilled about whether Simona Sharoni did the right thing in filing a formal complaint against Richard Ned Lebow about the sexist comment he made in an elevator at the 2018 ISA Convention.  But then I realized that this debate, while important, has overlooked a deeper question that also needs to be asked: to what extent does the profession as a whole bear responsibility for this and other similar incidents?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, because I was one of Lebow’s students many years ago and was utterly appalled by his unprofessional behavior.  This is not a #metoo story; I’ve already written one of those.  To be crystal clear, I do not recall Lebow saying anything in class that could be interpreted as gender discrimination or sexual harassment.  But it is a story about the larger themes of the #metoo movement.  It’s about a professor who took advantage of the students in my class and failed to meet one of the most basic obligations of the profession, and yet remains among the most highly regarded scholars in the profession.  And that means it is a story about the profession itself, about the questions we should be asking ourselves – including whether the fact that he has never been held accountable for his behavior helped create the sense of entitlement that led him to dismiss Sharoni’s complaint as “frivolous.”

In the spring of 1992, I was a junior at Cornell University, and as an eager IR-nerd-in-training, I enrolled in Lebow’s course on the transformation of the international system since 1989.  My enthusiasm for the course quickly dissipated, however, as my classmates and I witnessed the astonishingly unprofessional behavior of our professor.  The class featured many guest lecturers, but Lebow failed to attend some of those class sessions.  He arrived to lecture one day clad in a sweaty running t-shirt and shorts, and spent the class doing cool-down stretches while he lectured.  Even as a student, I could overlook those things as among the (gross) eccentricities common to university professors.  But with three weeks left in the semester, Lebow crossed the line into absolutely unacceptable territory: he abruptly announced that he was done teaching the class, and that we should not bother showing up again until the final exam.

My classmates and I were utterly outraged, and I remember calculating how many of my parents’ hard-earned tuition dollars had just been wasted.  Our fantastic TA, Marc Lynch (now one of the foremost scholars of Middle Eastern politics) pulled together a final lecture to at least try to tie up the mess that Lebow left behind.  The Cornell Daily Sun published a blistering editorial denouncing Lebow and calling for some sort of clear punishment, and I was stunned that the university did not respond (at least in any public way).  I then learned that it was Lebow’s last semester at Cornell, and that he was about to move to the University of Pittsburgh.  In my naivete, I was sure that this abuse of his power over his students would lead Pitt to pull his job offer. 

But of course that did not happen.  Lebow went on to teach at Pitt.  And at Ohio State.  And at Dartmouth.  And at LSE.  And now at King’s College London.  Even more universities considered hiring him, which means that they all implicitly condoned his behavior.  He has continued to be rewarded throughout his career, winning some of the most prestigious awards in the field, and was even named a Fellow of the British Academy.  I’ve watched these developments from afar over the years, angered anew with each public recognition.  But it wasn’t until The Elevator Incident, occurring within the context of the #metoo movement, that I started thinking about the story I told above as one of power and privilege, and about the role of the profession in fostering a culture of entitlement and impunity.  I realize that it is one anecdote that happened a long time ago – but I suspect that it may not be the only such story in his lengthy career.

Nothing that I’ve written is explicitly about age or gender or race.  But it is absolutely about power and entitlement, which cannot help but be related to those things.  Replay the story I told above, but replace Lebow with an untenured junior colleague.  Or a woman.  Or a minority.  Or a minority woman.  Or a junior minority woman.  Does anyone believe that the story would have the same ending, without any sort of censure or professional consequences?  I hope not, because that shouldn’t be the end to the story.  The problem isn’t that a junior or female or minority professor would face consequences.  The problem is that this senior white male professor didn’t face any.  How many other Lebows are out there, colleagues who have benefited from the same culture of privilege and yet are not making news headlines – who would have had the good sense to apologize, even in the most insincere way possible, just to make the story go away?

Maybe that’s why this story, in the end, may be a #metoo story after all.  Maybe what happened in that elevator, and the sense of entitlement that Lebow displayed, isn’t solely about one man being a jerk.  Maybe it’s the type of behavior that partly results from spending your entire career having your behavior being excused or overlooked by your peers, without ever being held accountable even when you abuse your power by failing to meet some of the most basic requirements of the profession.  And maybe that’s why the broader debate about l’affaire Lebow needs to extend beyond the (legitimate) questions about sexual harassment and grievance procedures, and to also debate the extent to which the profession itself bears responsibility for the bad behavior of members who operate in the culture of privilege and entitlement that it has created.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Measuring Time in the Trump Era

Time always seems relative but especially now.  We often see people complain on Tuesday whether the week is over yet.  This is doubly true for comparing the tenures of the various ex-Trump officials. 
People have been using Scaramucci or Scaramooch to measure something in between a week and a fortnite (although wikipedia has him as lasting six days), but that is not the only unit of time we have:

  • Flynn lasted twenty-four days or 2.4 Scaramooches
  • A Preibus, also known as a Spicer, is six months (Preibus was 6 months, 11 days and Spicer was 182).
  • A Gorka, or Do-Nothing Nazi, is 217 days or almost 22 Scaramooches.
  • An Over-Rated Adult is 400 days (Tillerson was 405, McMaster 412) or 40 Scaramooches or about 17 Flynns.
The conversions are pretty awkward, so this is definitely not a metric system.   Indeed, it is more like the conversions for currencies in Harry Potter.

All this speaks to how short the terms are in Trumpworld.  These are not the best people--far from it.  And Trump seems to like chaos and turmoil.  So, when folks ponder John Bolton, it is not so much whether he has done damage yet, but how much damage he will do while he lasts, whether he is in office for a couple of Flynns or lasts as long as an Over-rated Adult.

Oh, and yes, a Trump is, alas, four years, even though it feels like forever especially if you think of it as being  146 Scaramooches or more than 60 Flynns.  The bright side is that 1 Trump is also 1/6000 of an Old Republic. A blink of an eye, really.