Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Tyranny of Numbers and Simplistic Politics

It is far easier for politicians to point at numbers and scream rather than ask and answer substantive questions about the state of a mission, how to achieve one's goals, how to pursue the national interest.

For example, Stephen Harper drove me slightly crazy by not considering cutting some of the numbers of troops in the Canadian Armed Forces because the mythic number  of 60000 (if I remember) stood for standing strong on Canadian defence and 59000, for instance, meant he was weak on defence.  With personnel being 50% (roughly) of the defence budget, you would think that it would have gotten consideration when thinking about economizing on defence.  But no.  And last spring the Liberals ruled out personnel cuts before the Defence Review, which seems silly given that a defence review might establish a need for spending to go elsewhere (cyber/space being the usual nominees).  But again, cutting numbers of troops = weak on defence.  Why?  Because Canadian political dynamics--yelling at question period--does not lead to any kind of discussion of substance.

Why am I talking about this now?  Because I am anticipating a new numbers thing: that when the battle for Mosul is over, the question will turn to what is Canada doing in the counter-ISIS war?  Given that the Special Operations folks will be done with their main mission, it might make sense to bring them home.  But the government may fear that ending that part of the mission will give the Conservatives something to yell about: "hey, Trudeau is weak on defence because we will have fewer SOF in Iraq!!"  And the sad thing is that the Liberals would be right.  Because  that is exactly what the Conservatives will do.  Instead of asking: what are the next steps?  How do we help (Canada can't do anything alone) to defeat the ISIS menace?  What would helping in Syria look like?  What are the risks?  Where else should we go?  Is the SOF overtaxed?  Maybe they should be given some space and time to re-charge since Special means small, which then also means being exhausted?

But Canada won't have that discussion because  it is easier to focus on numbers even if they don't really mean much.  Because anything else would require work (knowing stuff, asking hard questions) and would require respect for the Canadian public, who might just comprehend something more than: tis, tisn't

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Next? Thinking About The Implications of Will's Way Out

It has been about 24 hours since we learned that Will Moore killed himself (it feels strange and awful to type that out), and there are lots of reactions.  Mostly, people are offering and receiving support, and they are sharing their memories of Will.  But there are already people wondering about what this means for the profession--defined as conflict studies, as political science or as academia--especially as it is the second suicide in the past month of prominent scholars in this area of research.

Is it too soon?  Of course it is.  But this is what we as academics do--overthink stuff as much as we can.  I just had a conversation with someone about this, and it raised some concerns.

First, and, foremost, suicide can be contagious.  That when one person chooses to "punch out," it affects others via inspiration, imitation, or depression or whatever. The thing to think about right now is to offer help to those who need it, with, of course, the problem being that we do not know who needs it.

Second, efforts to try to tie this to Will's work--that he focused mostly on repression and dissent--are probably missing the point.  While Phil Schrodt points out that collecting data on this stuff can be awful, it is pretty clear from Will's note that this was a lifetime dynamic and not driven by what he studied.  It is tempting to say that conflict studies is more likely to have depressed, suicidal scholars, but all we have now are a data point (updated: previous version suggested other suicide was conflict scholar but that was wrong).  My guess is that conflict scholars, political scientists, and academics all do not have suicide rates higher than the national average.  It might depend on what one does, if one does field work, where one does field work, what conditions.  I'd think a conflict studies background might be more relevant under some conditions rather than others. Again, I am not an expert, but I am guessing that confirmation bias is playing a role here.  We notice the suicides in our field but not in others, and we certainly don't notice the people who don't kill themselves. Still, we need to look around and make sure that folks in this field have access to resources.

The profession is hard on people--the stress of getting through a graduate program, the stress of getting a job, the pressure to publish to get tenure, the lifelong repetition of rejection from journals, presses, grant-giving agencies, etc.  But Will has been very successful in the profession--tenured with a new job with colleagues that were very eager to have him there, lots of publications and citations, and all the rest.  It can be isolating, but Will's way of working, with multiple teams of co-authors and by creating all kinds of workshops, was far less isolating than the experiences of many.   So, sure, the profession can be hard, especially on those who are young, who are in isolated jobs (imagine the city or suburban dweller whose first job is at a school in the middle of nowhere in a department of three or four people who have no overlapping research interests).  We should probably find ways to improve people's sense of connection and not just worry about the folks in the higher publish or perish places.

Third, there will be those that will say that Will explained well his decision, and it was for him to make.  I get that to a degree, but it was a damned inconsiderate thing to do when he did it.  In the middle of the semester so his classes are affected, and, more importantly, his students have been impacted.  The idea that it was ok to kill himself now that his kids are adults, well, that just pisses me off since I have an adult child.  And, yes, now I have a project that may be difficult to complete since we lost the guy who was carrying much of the methods load.  But that last thing does not matter so much to me.  Anyhow, while everyone is quite sad about Will, there is probably some anger there as well, and that, too, is natural.

Of course, the primary emotion is going to be guilt--that we should have known, should have done something, should have reached out.  Again, for Will, this does not really apply, as he had an incredibly deep and wide network of friends who cared about him.  That he didn't feel that connectedness is a tragedy, but he was connected.  Sure, it is easier to observe in the aftermath, but Will was appreciated and loved while he was alive.  The notes I have seen online, the times I witnessed him being surrounded by herds of people, all provide some evidence that Will knew but could not feel the love that surrounded him.

So, we can and should think about the meaning of Will's life and of his death, but I am cautious about overreacting.  We definitely need to provide more support for each other, that there is need for more academic kindness, and we can do better in a variety of ways. But there are limits on what we can do, and our discipline and our profession are not so special.  Plus lots of the stressors are way out of our control.

What to do about all of this?  Damned if I know.  I will just let my friends, my students, and my family know that they just need to tell me how I can help them, and I will try.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Grieving the Departure of Will Moore

Will Moore decided to punch out, as he put it.  He left behind devastated friends, co-authors and students as well as family. I have been trying to put into words how I feel today.

Will was upstaged by his suit
I have known Will since I was a visiting assistant professor long ago.  He and I were part of several workshops aimed at producing an edited volume--the finest one of my career.  His feedback on my work then and his intense desire to produce excellent work were both very helpful as I was just getting going.  Since then, we would chat at most conferences, and recently we started a project together with Johanna Birnir as we desperately needed his methods muscles.  Over the years, I found Will to be quite funny, although he bombed when he tried to be funny at the recent ISA Online Media Caucus reception (Will preferred folks to be honest, so ...).

Fake GOP Pollster at Burning Man
My favorite Will story is when he went to Burning Man, where he fit in politically, one year dressed up as a GOP pollster.  He had guts when it came to stunts like that as he was curious about the reactions, and he got many reactions. (Thanks to Sara Mitchell for the pic).

Will was fierce in his pursuit of understanding.  His focus was mostly on the denial of human rights, a topic that could be stressful to study.  His passion for justice carried over into how he acted within the profession.  Will was very protective as he mentored several generations of students.  He would call out injustices in the profession, even if his friends were guilty of only the most mild of offenses.  I felt his sting during the network mess of a couple of years ago, where Will pointed out that it was easy for me to say given my privilege.  I was not too comfortable with that, but I respected Will's honesty and dedication to improving the profession.  Along with Christian Davenport, Will created a variety of efforts, including the conflict consortium to give students a chance to get feedback. He recently asked me to participate in one of these sessions, but I could not since I would be on the road at the time.

Will was quite flawed, of course.  His own suicide note reflects on the reality that his criticism could be withering.  He was not someone that you would want to be writing tenure letters for you as he might love your work but say enough critical stuff that it would not help your case, and he was aware of that. He was not always an easy colleague to get along with, as he expected everyone to share the intensity of his passion and he was usually pretty convinced about the rightness of his cause even when perhaps things were not so clear.  He had admitted a few years ago that he was on the autism spectrum, but only his suicide note reveals what that really meant in terms of disconnection.  I could only see part of that--that he lacked filters that most of us have.  And he paid a price for that, no doubt.  I just didn't realize how much of a price.

I guess this is not that atypical in that most (all?) were surprised.  Friends had interacted with Will the past few weeks and did not detect anything different (although some noticed changes over the past few years).  He was clearly working on projects that indicated that he would be around longer than he was.  It is not clear why it happened now as his note only indicates that his kids are now old enough for him to contemplate

He was very Will in how he went about, not just setting up a blog post to be published after he killed himself but also setting up an email to go out to his co-authors describing very briefly and very bluntly what he was doing and that we could either keep his name or drop it from the publications that will eventually come out of our co-authorship with him.  Of course, he will remain on our article, if it ever sees the light of day.

I have known depressed people, but he is the first friend of mine to commit suicide.  I am sure other folks are feeling this far more intensely than I am, as I didn't see him often--just a couple of times a year.  His students, current and former, must be in significant pain just as those he had longer co-authoring relationships as well as those with whom he went to grad school. I have been rambling here, as I find writing to be therapeutic.  All I do know is that his friends and students should lean on each other.  I am easily reached for those who want to chat.

Perhaps we can learn from this and other similar stories of how difficult depression can be.  For a series of tweets that explain it well, start with the one below and go from there. 

And feel free to share your memories of Will in the comment section.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Another Bad Day in US Civil-Military Relations

Sure, it is early but why not go ahead and label today another bad day in US civil-military relations.  The two stories animating this regard former General John Kelly saying dumb things and a trial balloon about the US potentially shooting down NK missiles being tested.

First, some folks are surprised that Kelly doth suck:

In addition to saying dumb stuff about pot, he was also saying dumb stuff about TSA: that while folks binge Madmen, TSA is making sure that folks don't carry guns onto planes.  Was this an intended shot at Sebastian Gorka, the Nazi in the White House, or was it just a coincidence?  Hmmm. 

Anyhow, this led to a conversation on twittter were those who study comparative politics noted that ex-generals often suck at governing in democracies, with heaps of evidence from Africa, Latin America, Asia.... you get the idea. 

We didn't really know much about Kelly before he took the post except he was a general, and people kind of assumed that if you rise that high, maybe you are not incompetent and maybe you are not one of the anarchists who want to burn things down like the rest of Trump's appointees.  And so Kelly becomes perhaps the poster boy for the tyranny of low expectations.  That the media didn't do much work to try to figure out what Kelly stood for, that the Senate did not push him that hard because the rest of the appointees appeared to be so much worse.  So, we now have a Secretary of Homeland Security who may join Sessions (the worst of them all) in reversing the trend on medical marijuana, who certainly has supported the immigration bans developed by Trump, and enabled ICE and other law enforcement in the US to exceed their instructions.  In sum, Kelly is awful.  And this is what you get when you appoint recently retired generals.

The second story scares me more.  That the US is contemplating shooting down North Korean missiles when they are being tested.  This is something that previous administrations have rejected for being too risky, but is being considered again.  Why? Probably because there are few civilians anywhere in the interagency to scream: hey, military dudes, the military options all suck, so cool it!  Trying to shoot down a missile could cause North Korea to escalate, as the article mentions. It could fail and thus undermine whatever deterrence American anti-missile systems have around the world.  Yes, this is an idea being floated, so what?  Is it going to happen?  The problem is that we have no faith right now that either Mattis will caution against such a risky effort or that Trump would not seize on this to prove his manhood.  Again, it comes down to two things here: Trump is an Uncertainty Engine and there are no civilians with wider perspectives involved.  Mattis is proving that he is still far more general than civilian, despite being the acclaimed warrior monk, and Tillerson is nowhere to be seen.  Oh yeah, and Pence is reminding the South Koreans that US alliances now are protection rackets.

Where are those folks who used to worry about civil-military tensions under Obama?  And I am afraid that we have not seen anything yet.  Still haven't hit 100 days and I have lost track of the civ-mil problems of the Trump administration. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Adults Meme Should Die, Killed by Fire ... Or Dumb Tweets

Lots of stuff written about how the adults are now in charge of US foreign policy.  I scoffed and I scoff again.  Why?  First, because Trump is still at the top, and he remains a lazy, ignorant, and awful human being.  Expect him to listen to reason?  Only when the last person to talk to him is reasonable and even then?  Not so sure.  That Trump congratulated Erdogan on his seizure of power today is appalling and shows that even if his NSC process has been fixed, the output is still rotten to the core.

Second, how about our reasonable VP?  I had argued that Pence would better than Trump because at least he would not want to start any wars willy nilly.  Well, after his visit to South Korea and subsequent tweets, I recant.

How can you try to reassure a country that you are 100% behind them and then in the next viritual breath whine about a trade relationship that has actually worked out just fine for the two countries?  I don't care that Pence is doing Trump's bidding--he could have done this in a way that is not so thoroughly insulting.  So, strike Pence from the cast of the adults.

Third, so the American "armada" that was supposed to head to the Sea of Japan didn't?  Fine bluff, huh?  Well, it would be ok if it were not part of a larger pattern of making threats have nothing behind them.  No, I don't want this administration to follow through its threats, I just don't want it to make threats that are blatantly empty.  We are soon going to get tests of all the scholarly work out there on credibility and resolve, and it is unlikely to be pretty.  China referring to the US as a paper tiger is NOT GOOD.  It may lead China to over-step and then Trump might overreact.

So, please, if you see anyone, hear anyone, read anyone saying that the adults are in charge and we should not be worried, either yell at them or walk away, but DO NOT BELIEVE THEM.  We have no real evidence that this administration is mature in anyway.  It might have some reasonable people running about, but the messages that are being sent are dangerous ones, that the welcoming of autocracy is awful, the insulting of allies is so unnecessary and so damaging (our friends have domestic politics and pride, really), and that the reckless use of threats is going to get people killed.

Yes, it could be worse--the US could have started new wars rather than just escalating in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia.  But it has been less than a hundred days, and the inferences we can draw about the causes of US foreign policy and its likely direction are downright scary.  Adults? My ass.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

When Perception is Reality

This figure being circulated by twitter should not surprise:
Who Germans consider trustworthy:

Note the impact of elections: way up when Obama is elected, way down when Trump is elected and a bit shaky when Snowden revealed that the US spied on Merkel.  Looks like the Germans have pretty clear grasp of things.  Is Trump reliable?  No, he's an uncertainty engine.  He views Germany not as a friend but as a competitor and as a currency manipulator (despite not really having its own currency).  Will Trump stand by Europe if Russia were to engage in aggression (well, more aggression)?  Maybe, but maybe not.  And since Trump also lies about everything, why should there be any trust?

I am sure Germany is not alone in this.  Where are the Republicans who complained that Obama hurt the US reputation in the world (which was precisely backwards given how opinion of the US bounced back after GWB's Iraq fiasco)?  The right picture for that is:

Friday, April 14, 2017

Is Our President Learning?

Outstanding! Trump is changing his mind, so everything is going to be ok, right? Um, maybe?  Watching Trump's reversals on NATO, China, Export-Import Bank and other stuff is a real test of my confirmation bias and of others' wishful thinking.

It could be the case that Trump, as lazy as he is, needs ten minute lectures from foreign leaders (thanks, Xi!?) to figure out that stuff is really complicated.  Health care is complicated, dealing with North Korea is complicated, tax reform is complicated, NATO has someone become un-obsolete.*
* Honest question: once something is obsolete, can it become not obsolete?  Seems to stretch the concept of obsolete to the breaking point, but maybe I am wrong.
“Obviously, most presidents aren’t nuclear scientists,” she said. “What is important is that the White House provide a disciplined process for the experts to present their views, which are often differing. The president’s role as the chief executive and decision maker is to listen to, question and probe the expert recommendations, then apply informed judgment to the decision.” (from NYT link above, thanks Peter Baker)

Is this what is happening?  Does this describe how McMaster's process is working?  That Trump is probing the experts?  Or it could be that Trump just listens to ever talked to him most recently.  Perhaps Trump is so unfixed in most of his ideas (his racism is far more grounded/foundational than his beliefs about particular places, just as his notion of fairness--exploitation--is pretty firm) about policies that he listens to the most recent person. 

The question is: how do we test these competing theories of Trumpian policy reversal?  As others have hinted, my guess is that when he runs into something tough, a policy failure, that has been advocated by the moderates,** he will turn on them and find an alternative voice.
** We are so desperate for reasonable people that folks who would otherwise be seen as hard right or hawkish or whatever are viewed as moderates because they are not Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, or Stephanie Mercer (ok, her name is Rebecah, but I had to play with the #notallSteves theme).
 For me, I am pretty convinced that Trump is not learning but reacting.  Nothing I have seen thus far convinces me that he develops improved understandings that lead to new ideas, more thoughtful consideration and all the rest.  And I worry greatly that he is easily played by advisers and by foreign leaders.  Maybe Putin will want to meet with him soon to un-do Xi's persuasion. 

Oh, and I worry about process still.  For instance, the big-ass bomb (I prefer that nomenclature to MOAB) seems to indicate that Trump has delegated a heap of authority to those in the military, "my military" he calls it.  This may be an excellent way to avoid the usual civilian-military tensions that are inherent in democratic control over the armed forces.... by ceding control of the armed forces to the military.  Not a fan, am I. But that is a topic for another blog post.

So, the key is to watch Trump and figure out if any of these lessons stick for more than just a little while.  Otherwise, they are like the typical magical spell which have short lifespans and then, poof, NATO is obsolete again.  Again, my confirmation bias is probably showing, but I am still ruthlessly pessimistic about Trump as President, and the tweets about North Korea are confirming that my confirmation bias may not be a bad way to go.  I actually do hope I am wrong.