weekly roundup and best writing, 10/27-11/3

Another busy week in foreign affairs, opening with further Snowden “revelations” (check out Farrell/Finnemore at Foreign Affairs on hypocrisy as a strategic asset) and a rather unexpected abandonment of the NSA by both White House and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence personnel. A possible domestic terrorism case at LAX targeting the TSA capped off a horrid week for the U.S. government inside and outside national security policy, what with the continued travails of HHS and healthcare.gov.

Yet not everything went wrong. No setbacks afflicted the launch of future-warfare-porn-star USS Zumwalt, and Lockheed Martin’s announcement of the SR-72 distracted the hordes with wistful promises of Mach 6 movement. Granted, announcing a future weapons platform should not prove difficult. But given the F-35’s history, one must inevitably set expectations to stunning depths.

And some varied writing presented itself, as always.

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The weekly scurry: worthwhile writing from aug 4-11

A wild week; here’s my mix of topical reporting and position pieces I found exceptional:

Sorry, AirSea Battle is No Strategy: [National Interest], TX Hammes // In direct response to Elbridge Colby writing in the same venue a week earlier, Hammes hammers (irresistible) the suggestions of AirSea Battle (ASB), either an enabling concept or a strategy depending on whose side you take. Hammes rolls out his own strategic plan entitled “Offshore Control,” a hyper-technological blockade designed principally to minimize what Hammes feels are overly escalatory dimensions of ASB. If you haven’t the slightest goddamned idea what ASB is about, why it matters, or the rancor it’s engendered, I recommend… Continue reading

problems of degree: a review of azar nafisi’s “reading lolita in tehran”

“There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners,” writes Azar Nafisi, comparing the plight of ordinary Iranians (and women in particular) to the arbitrary execution of a man in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Many incredible explorations of totalitarian states exist—1984, The Trial, Darkness at Noon—and Nafisi would have us believe her Reading Lolita in Tehran belongs on the list. It doesn’t.

Nafisi, a former Iranian professor of literature, left her post following Continue reading

causes of the “islamic” revolution

The Islamic Revolution of 1978-9 caught nearly everyone—expert and non—by surprise, yet in retrospect the signs appear obvious. Why? It seems to me the “magical Khomeini” view runs rampant today,

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini smiling.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini smiling.

but the idea that a singular force of history seduced ordinary Iranians into revolution is wrong. In fact, I think the Iranian Revolution probably would have happened in the absence of a titanic leader figure, and exploring why will shed some light on how contemporary personality-based electoral analyses aren’t particularly apposite in Iran. Bluntly: no one really cared who Khatami or Mousavi were before their presidential runs, political figures are generated quite messily, and they’re often pulled by the electorate rather vice versa.

In many ways, the revolution was unlikely, and statements to that effect from the mid-to-late 70s should not be discounted if we earnestly desire to learn anything from their oversights. Dozens of authors have offered disparate accounts of the revolution, each placing emphasis on certain factors. In the interest of analytical clarity, these long and overlapping lists of factors should be divided into structural and proximate causes; that is, the long-term prevailing conditions that made amenable the population to revolution combined with specific triggers or tactical mistakes made by the Shah.

Fakhreddin Azimi, in examining the history of democratic agitation in Iran, Continue reading

a brief old note on savushun

Set in the tumultuous, disorienting years of 1942 and 1943, Savushun weaves together disparate threads of Iranian consciousness during the World War II occupation of Iran by Great Britain and the USSR. Equal parts political novel, classical tragedy, and clarion call of an emergent feminist movement, Daneshvar’s magnum opus aptly captures the zeitgeist in a manner lending itself to lasting relevance.


Holy shit! You guessed right! It’s Simin Daneshvar!

Savushun was published in 1969—nearly a quarter-century after its fictional events—but would have been immediately relatable to Iranians coping with the increasingly autocratic tendencies of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Its plot swirls around the essential question of whether and/or how to react to foreign occupation, or, in the Shah’s case, foreign occupation with an Iranian face. Four main axes of response are offered by Daneshvar, each given voice through an individual character. Continue reading

More than torture: Zenko on CIA’s shift to targeted killing from detention

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a fascinating excerpt from correspondent Mark Mazzetti’s forthcoming tome, The Way of the Knife. The article splashed riotously, since it essentially confirmed what most observers had believed about the shift from capturing to killing terrorists. The piece is notable for at least two reasons: 1) it explicitly connects the policy shift to a scathing May 2004 report from CIA’s inspector general  (internal watchdog) John Helgerson on the agency’s detention and interrogation programs; 2) it recounts a tacit agreement between the CIA and ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence service] that allowed drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas in exchange for Pakistan’s ability to have CIA take out targets on its behalf. In other words, CIA would target leaders that posed a threat to Pakistan, rather than the US, in exchange for the CIA being able to carry out unilateral strikes on its own targets in Pakistani territory.

So: fair enough, incredible reporting, confirmed what interested observers consider an accepted open secret. Yet it seems some have drawn bizzare inferences from the article, which bodes ill for our clarifying and codifying of targeted killing policy going forward. Continue reading

Gorka the gurkha

Apologies for the untimeliness; this article ensconced itself in the bowels of a rarely checked folder. Anyway, I thought I’d amend and post it, since press-campaign relations aren’t likely to get any less inane or ornery in the foreseeable future. A few weeks back, Mitt Romney’s traveling press secretary Rick Gorka told heckling reporters to “kiss [his] ass” and “show some respect” as the campaign cadre disembarked from Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Background here is, as ever, important: the reporters were ticked off because Romney had taken only three questions over the duration of his entire trip; Gorka and co. were probably fending off aneurysms from Romney’s inability to stay on message and refrain from hand-crafting dumb soundbites. Reactions to the episode split rather predictably, with liberal commentators decrying the harshness of Gorka’s language or, like Jon Stewart, noting the irony of Gorka’s swearing as he delivered an exhortation for the press to shut up at a holy site. And Romney supporters have dutifully lined up behind Gorka, the newly christened one-week Fox News hero of the week (since transferred to ex-Navy Seal Birther-cum-Swift-Boater Larry Bailey.) And they’re right for the wrong reasons. We have no need of such specious sewage-spewing in American politics, especially in the context of foreign affairs.

Both factions should be chided for naivete Continue reading

Going postal, gray matter style: breaking bad, s5e6

Boy, that escalated quickly.

The Trio and Todd disassemble and dissolve the motorbike in acid in another spectacular opening scene set to somber, contemplative ambient music and devoid of facial expressions. A tactful metaphor, as Matt Yglesias noted, for “ the more gruesome process of dismantling a life.“ Walt initially seems hardest hit, but we find out that his reaction to Lydia last episode accurately reflected his convictions. “Do you have children?” Lydia pleads. “That has nothing to do with this,” he replies.

Walter and Mike look on as Todd cleans up his handiwork.

Walter and Mike look on as Todd cleans up his handiwork.

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Dead freight foibles: breaking bad s5e5

I find myself prompted prompted by Matt Yglesias’s moonlighting as a TV critic to post some thoughts on Breaking Bad, partially in hopes of pushback or counter-speculation from Walt-infatuated friends. I typically meet moving pictures with something like an emotional coma, so S5E5 deserves a few words since it goaded me into letting loose a string of expletives and filling my apartment with debates over the episode’s implications—doubly impressive since I live alone.

Jaw drop.

The cookers and Todd look on in slack-dicked horror.

Director George Mastras opens with a signature Breaking Bad scene: the seemingly innocuous, but symbolic silent shot, Continue reading