Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Hal Brands on a 'Lesson' of the Cold War

Hal Brands

Hal Brands, a senior fellow for the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), has published an article on "American Grand Strategy: Lessons from the Cold War" (E-Notes, August 2015). Brands finds eight lessons, but his second lesson interests me:
Lesson 2: American engagement is the bedrock of international stability

A second key debating point regarding U.S. grand strategy today involves the question of what this defense spending and global engagement actually buy in terms of securing the international order. Does U.S. engagement foster stability and peace, as American officials have long claimed? Or does it primarily invite blowback and other undesirable behavior, as critics allege? The history of the Cold War lends some support to both arguments, but the balance lies overwhelmingly with the former perspective.
Perhaps the lesson from the history of the Cold War applies solely to the Cold War's history. Here's the support for stability:
U.S. global engagement during the Cold War was a response to the fact that the absence of such engagement had helped cause the catastrophic instability of the interwar era. And during the Cold War, it was precisely the U.S. decision to embrace the responsibility of organizing and protecting the non-communist world that allowed key regions like Europe and East Asia - particularly the former - to break free of their tragic pasts and achieve remarkable levels of stability. U.S. policy helped deter Soviet aggression and dissuade other disruptive behavior; it helped mute historical frictions between countries like Germany and Japan, on the one hand, and their former enemies, on the other; it helped foster the climate of security in which unprecedented economic growth and multilateral cooperation could occur. U.S. policy was not the only factor in these achievements, but it was the common thread that connected them.
This is a fact about the past. American engagement in the world during the Cold War is properly seen to have been a force for international stability. But does this fact about the past permit us to apply the same reasoning today? Brands himself asks this question:
What relevance does this history have for grand strategic debates in a period that seems so different from the Cold War? The relevance is simply to remind us that stability - and all of the blessings that stability makes possible - is not an organic condition of the international environment. Rather, it must be provided by powerful actors who are willing to confront those forces - national rivalry, aggression by the strong against the weak - that have, historically, so often pushed international relations toward instability and conflict. At a time when many of those forces again seem to be rearing their heads from East Asia to Eastern Europe - and when there is still no compelling candidate to replace Washington as primary provider of international stability - this lesson is especially important to bear in mind.
Brands's answer seems to be that since nobody else can provide stability, only the US can. That is not a very compelling argument. In a sense, the Cold War itself provided stability, a framework that pushed the two sides to find mutual benefit in agreements. Our opponents at that time were not suicidal. Today, however, we face enemies who are not rational in the sense that the Soviet Union was. The Islamic jihadists say that they love death, which makes them irrational from a secular perspective. American intervention against jihadists in Afghanistan and Iraq have not stabilized the forces of order but have strengthened those of disorder. Maybe the rule of tyrants like Saddam Hussein kept order in their world comparable to how the rule of Communist dictators like Stalin kept order in theirs. Perhaps the order sought would have to have been kept by a certain distance of disengagement.

But it's too late for that now, so we face the dilemma of engaging and bringing more chaos or of disengaging and leaving more chaos. So . . . which is the lesser chaos?

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Helfont on Islam vs. Islamism

Samuel Helfont

Samuel Helfont has recently published an article for the think tank FPRI (Foreign Policy Research Institute) on "Islam and Islamism: A Primer for Teachers and Students" (FootNotes, Vol. 20, No. 9, August 2015).

He distinguishes between Islam as practiced in various parts of the world versus Islam as enjoined by the Quran and other early Muslim texts, and he notes the multiplicity of interpretations, which is all well and good, as always.

But when he comes to the distinction between Islam and Islamism, he recognizes a problem:
Islamists often refer to themselves simply as Muslims and they claim that those who oppose their ideas also necessarily oppose Islam. They root their ideas in a particular reading of history. If Muhammad combined political and religious authority, then how could Muslims disavow the role of politics in Islam? This is a powerful argument.
Indeed, it is powerful. We must also add that since Muhammad combined military and religious authority, then Muslims can also hardly disavow the role of the military in Islam, especially since war is politics by another name, at least if one means foreign policy. This is also a strong argument. But Helfont again takes refuge in multiple interpretations:
Yet, the Islamist reading of the past has been selective. No consensus has ever existed on what Islam is, let alone on its relationship to politics . . . . Islamism had its genesis in modern debates about political identity. And despite the fact that Islamists have used classical Islamic texts to make arguments, their ideas sometimes had no precedent in Islamic history.
But he acknowledges still another problem:
This does not imply that Islamists are wrong or that their logic is invalid. If it is difficult to know what Islam is, it is also hard to determine what it is not . . . . Islamist claims about Islam are just as legitimate as any other.
Yet, he again takes refuge in Islamism's lack of consensus:
Nevertheless, it should be recognized that, despite Islamist assertions, no consensus among those who identify as Muslims exists with regard to the relationship between Islam and politics. Nor is it possible to read the classical Islamic texts and come away with an unambiguous understanding of Islamic politics.
Nevertheless, Helfont sees Islamism as a large problem:
As such, Islamists remain a subset of the larger Islamic community. How large a subset is not easy to determine. Partly, this is due to the difficulty in demarcating the lines between Islam and Islamism. Islamists claim that they are simply Muslims who recognize the essential role of politics in their religion . . . . Islamists appear to be either a minority, or a slight majority in most Arab countries.
That's a lot of Islamists. We have reason to be concerned as states in the Middle East collapse and Islamists are drawn into the power vacuum and take advantage of the chaos to send jihadists hidden among the refugees headed for Europe.

Bad times ahead . . .

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Monday, August 31, 2015

Big Ho Telegraphs an Atrocity!

Kevin Kim, writing in his blog last Friday, August 28, cited the Telegraph to give an example of some "execrable writing." Literally, that means something like "expelled from the sacred," so I suppose we're dealing with depraved, postlapsarian language.

Anyway, he introduced the bad example with the lament that "[j]ournalists really need . . . to write better," adding that he cringed at this sentence "from an article about a Chinese cameraman's collision with fleet-footed Usain Bolt," who was celebrating his narrow victory:
But his momentary triumphalism, a Jamaican flag draped across his shoulders, was shattered when he failed to outrun a Chinese cameraman riding a Segway, the ubiquitous two wheeled self-propelled scooter, which then crashed into him.
After posting that piece of scat quoted from the newspaper, Kevin challenged his readers:
Go ahead: write an improved version of the sentence in the comments.
I considered taking him up on that challenge, but soon realized that the challenge was too easy, so I explained:
That sentence is so bad that even making it worse would be an improvement.
I thought that was rather clever of me, but some wit now needs to follow up with the old saw, "That'd be funny if it weren't so true." To which I'd retort, "Nah . . . but it'd be true if it weren't so funny!"

Not that I know what that means. Can humor undermine truth?

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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Egyptian Writer Calls for Enlightenment in the World of Islam

Yasmin Al-Khatib
Memri Special Dispatch No. 6144

Memri, in Special Dispatch No. 6144 (August 28, 2015), quotes the Egyptian writer and artist Yasmin Al-Khatib, who states that "Muslim History Is Rife With ISIS-Style Executions," and she argues that "Adopting Enlightenment Is The Only Weapon Against Such Brutality":
I do not understand why, after every perverted [act of] execution carried out by ISIS, most Muslims insist that these actions have nothing to do with Islam. After all, Muslim history is rife with terrifying forms of execution, similar or even identical to those used by ISIS . . . . I am talking of execution [methods] used in the early Islamic period, [a period] which most of our clerics regard as the essential [source] for Islamic legislation . . . . Some may think that the purpose of this article is to blacken the image of Islam. So, in order to elaborate and clarify, let me note that, in the past, Christianity also practiced [horrific] execution[s] . . . . But eventually the enlightenment triumphed and the Church became moderate and tolerant, as it is today. Enlightenment is our only weapon to defeat ISIS, because our real war is not against [this organization] but against extremist thinking, and if we do not confront it and beat it, a thousand [other] ISIS [organizations] will emerge.
Al-Khatib is correct that Christianity has also used violence, but I think that Islam will have more difficulty with its own Enlightenment since Islam lacks any scriptural teaching for a separation between religion and state. Islamic law is the law for society, and that law is to be enforced by the state, according to Islamic teaching.

Nevertheless, we can hope that more people in the Muslim world will come to think like Al-Khatib . . .

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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Still more on Uncle Harlin - and his Life among the Birds

National Audubon Society

In the Sacramento Audubon Society's newsletter, The Observer (Volume 67, No. 6, July/August 2015), there's a lovely obituary on Uncle Harlin titled "In Memorium: Harlin Jackson Perryman," (pdf) and I learned some details about him that I didn't know, along with a refresher on several that I did know:
Harlin was born in Zion, Arkansas August 13, 1927. He got his father's signature to enter the Navy the day after he graduated from Salem High School. The GI Bill meant he would be able to [study later and even] get his PhD. However, he got homesick [in graduate school at Penn State] and returned to the University of Arkansas to attend law school. He was elected to the State Assembly during the troubled mid-1950s.
Uncle Harlin's father was the very man who - along with Harlin's mother - raised me and my four brothers. His name was Henry Jefferson Perryman, and he was our grandpa. Identifying Uncle Harlin as "homesick" is a polite term for "mistreated" (by his Penn State adviser, who thought all Southerners were ignorant rednecks, and Harlin had an Ozark accent, which he retained his entire life). The "troubled mid-1950s" refers to Arkansas's reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. Harlin was against the segregationist Governor Faubus and on the side of integration.
He graduated law school and traveled the United States to find a place to live. He finally settled on California. Alaska was a very close second.
He told his mother - my grandma, who told me - that he couldn't get used to the "midnight sun" in Alaska, which was one reason he moved south to California.
In California he met and married Betty Baldwin. She had children and the whole lot became a family. He bumped along through life and did the normal things of retiring, becoming a "Grandpa," and moving to Sacramento.
That little bit covers a lot of territory. He worked as a lawyer, became a wine expert, played a lot of chess, and rose to the position of Treasurer in California's Democratic Party, among other things. He was considered for nomination to the Supreme Court of California way back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, but Governor Jerry Brown didn't like him and refused to support him.
[In] February 1997[,] . . . his step-daughter Melody Baldwin took him on a Sacramento Audubon trip. He fell in love with the birds and the whole process of watching and identifying birds. He met Tim Fitzer and an 11 year old boy named Dan Williams. They encouraged him to come on other trips. Over the next 28 years he would brag that he had gone on more trips than anyone else in one particular year . . .
What follows in the obituary are the events of Harlin's life among the birds, which is about the time I lost contact with him, but the length of that lost contact was 18 years, not the typo 28 (check the math: 1997-2015). For the details of his Audubon life, click on over to the newsletter (pdf) and read more.

I hope more folks who knew Harlin will leave comments there . . .

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Friday, August 28, 2015

Another comment about Uncle Harlin . . .

Sacramento Audubon Society
Uncle Harlin Third from Right

Dan Kopp, a real estate agent in Sacramento, California, left a comment on my blog of Uncle Harlin's obituary:
Harlin was a fixture on Sacramento Audubon field trips; in fact, if you look at the Sacramento Audubon Facebook page you will see Harlin in the top banner photo.
Thanks for that tip - I've 'borrowed' the photo. If you look, you'll find Harlin third from the right, a partially hidden, stooped but still tall old man.
Several of us had, and will retain, many Harlin-isms. He was a tad cantankerous, but so am I, had a habit of elbowing folks away from spotting scopes so he could get a look (he often became miffed if someone took more than three seconds to look) and let you know exactly what he thought about anything!
Not a politically correct fellow in some of those opinions, I'd bet:
He forever changed my vocabulary regarding what we all used to call telephone polls: "they're utility poles!" he would half-way shout in frustration.
I think I also underwent that learning experience with him once. Let's see what else he did:
Every field trip to Bodega Bay he would insist on getting clam chowder . . . [around] noon, even though the trip write-up said to bring lunch and liquids, so as to keep the down time to a minimum . . . he still made whoever brought him break away from the group to take him to The Tides restaurant for his clam chowder.
Well, he probably earned that chowder, living as long as he did and prowling around for birds despite his age.
I believe I last saw Harlin in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco earlier this year, while there for a rare bird, a Rustic Bunting. The man did get around despite his age and decreasing mobility; as you know, he birded right to the last day.
Yes, that's what my brother Shan told me. Anything else?
I could probably go on but there others in Sacramento Audubon who spent a lot more time with him; hopefully they will add some more stories.
Add more, everybody! This could turn out to be a very informed obituary after all, so if you have any stories to add, then add them there.

And thanks to Dan Kopp for more about Harlin!

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

All Good Things Must End . . .

I had dinner Monday evening with the former director of the department in which I work, and since she was glad to be free of that department's duties, I presented her with this enveloped bottle:

On the image, if you click on it, I think you'll be able to see the word "Freedom" printed in my own inimitable penmanship - not that anyone would want to imitate it - along with a few other words, i.e., "For all your help," for she did help me adjust to the department after several stints in English departments. But so as not to bore you with biography, I'll turn now to the visible bottle in all its free glory:

Yes, you are looking at the Faustino I from the Rioja wine region of Spain, and the vintage is 2001, apparently a very good year. We therefore decided to drink it over our meal as, ironically, we talked about the department and where it is headed.

I gather that freeing oneself from the department doesn't come easy . . .

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Satan Seen Somewhere Suspicious, Says Someone

Old Scratch
Chesley Plumbing Supply

Concerning the Satan image above, someone at Glasstire on Instagram announces: "Seen at Chesley Plumbing Supply in Houston." A commentator named Brittanie Shey says she's "Pretty sure Poison Girl has this velvet too." Eh, what's that? A velvet artwork that doesn't feature Elvis Presley? Blasphemy! Although . . . Elvis himself was last sighted in a bathroom, wasn't he. And given Presley's years of hard living, this image might possibly be a Dorian Grey sort of mirror into Presley's oppressed soul.

Anyway, if it is Old Scratch, he apparently isn't bottomless, unlike that 'beer' he offered to the naif in my novella . . .

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lose Your Self in the Loss of a Moral Universe . . .


Nina Strohminger and Shaun Nichols, reporting on "Your Brain, Your Disease, Your Self" (NYT, August 21, 2015), ask an increasingly relevant question for ageing populations:
When does the deterioration of your brain rob you of your identity?
Their answer? Not memory:
[But - one might protest - m]emory . . . is central to identity. And indeed, many philosophers and psychologists have supposed as much. This idea is intuitive enough, for what captures our personal trajectory through life better than the vault of our recollections?
Still, not memory, for as Strohminger and Nichols reveal:
We found [in our study] that disruptions to the moral faculty created a powerful sense that . . . [a] patient's identity had been compromised. Virtually no other mental impairment led people to stop seeming like themselves . . . . [N]either degree nor type of memory impairment impacted perceived identity. All that mattered was whether their moral capacities remained intact . . . . What makes us recognizable to others resides almost entirely within a relatively narrow band of cognitive functioning . . . . [and] only when our grip on the moral universe loosens . . . [does] our identity slip . . . away with it.
I wonder . . . would a 'newfound' moral skeptic's radical rejection of any 'true' morality have a similar effect on identity?

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Fortieth Class Reunion: Salem High School Class of 1975

My wife took lots of photos from my class reunion, but has had difficulty with her smartphone last I checked, so my friend Jay Nemec has come to my rescue. Here he is introducing me for my rendition of my perfect country song, which I've titled "Day Breakin'":

My wife got it on video, but I don't even know how to upload that, so none of you need suffer through my performance. Even my favorite teacher, Mr. Scott, admitted that I'd given him yet another reason to hate country music:

That's him on the left with his wife. He consoled me with the fact that he'd liked my poem "So . . ." My wife has that on her smartphone, too, but . . . well, you know the song and dance by now. Anyway, here are my beautiful wife and I posing for the camera:

I'm now part of the crowd:

Finally, an unposed scene, one of former students and former teachers milling about:

I could explain who each of these people is, but that wouldn't be particularly edifying anyway, so I'll close for now.