Counterinsurgency

COUNTERINSURGENCY....Over at the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman referees an argument between Jason Brownlee and Andrew Exum about whether the Army's new focus on counterinsurgency is inherently imperialistic. Long story short, Brownlee says it is, Exum says COIN is just a tool and it's only imperialistic if Congress and the president use it for imperialistic ends, and Ackerman agrees with Exum. It's worth a quick read if you're interested in this kind of thing.

But as long as we're on the subject, I'll bring up a different concern, one that I'm just going to throw on the table since I don't really have the chops to write anything definitive about it. It's this: even now, after years of hearing from experts about how hard counterinsurgency is, do we really understand how hard it is? Imperialistic or not, my fear is that the success of the surge in Iraq, which was in large part coincidental, and the growing influence of David Petraeus and his proteges, has convinced policymakers that counterinsurgency is rapidly becoming a standard part of our military kit bag, one that we can count on in the future.

But I doubt that. It's still the case that in the entire history of the world since WWII, big power counterinsurgency has virtually no success stories. Malaysia is the famous exception, but the circumstances there were unusual, it took a very long time anyway, and it's almost certainly not repeatable. Likewise, although Petraeus's success in Iraq is unquestionably due partly to his adoption of superior tactics during the surge, that was only one of the Five S's that allowed his counterinsurgency doctrine to work. Without taking anything away from him, this just isn't an indication that COIN is any easier to pull off than it ever has been. It certainly doesn't seem to be making much headway in Afghanistan.

So that's that. Maybe some milbloggers want to weigh in on this. Are we becoming a little too excited about the future possibilities of counterinsurgency? Even if we take it seriously and get a lot better at it than we are now, is it ever something that's likely to be successful more than very, very occasionally? Comments?

On the heels of President-elect Barack Obama's announcement of his national security team, a new report wastes no time in outlining one of the more serious and immediate challenges facing the new administration: how to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan panel of experts led by former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, the outlook is not good. The panel's final report, due out tomorrow, shows proliferation to be on the rise and concludes that "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

The last administration famously began its ill-fated foreign adventure in Iraq out of fear that "a smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." But the Commission sees biological rather than nuclear weapons as a more pressing concern, describing the United States as "very exposed" to biological attack. The US has taken the lead in securing fissile materials used in nuclear weapons (although serious problems remain), but comparatively little effort has been spent in preventing biological attacks. The nuclear age began with the use of nuclear weapons, which gave urgency to fighting their spread. "The life sciences community," says the Commission, "has never experienced a comparable iconic event. As a result, security awareness has grown slowly, lagging behind the emergence of biological risks and threats." One possible exception, of course, was the 2001 anthrax attacks. But the vulnerabilities in the system has been "only partly addressed" and the Commission notes that "if only 15 grams of dry anthrax spores delivered by mail could produce such an enormous effect [an estimated $6 billion in damages, not to mention lives lost], the consequences of a large-scale aerosol release would be almost unimaginable."

Eric Holder

ERIC HOLDER...Richard Cohen is unhappy with Eric Holder's role in the Marc Rich pardon, and Ezra Klein agrees with him:

This stuff was no great secret. The Obama camp weighed these qualms and dismissed them. Which suggests that Holder's tendency to be a company man was not considered a negative. I'm not one who thinks the attorney general should be some sort of lone renegade within the administration, but he should feel empowered to aggressively push back against abuses of presidential power. Holder's history offers little evidence of that sort of temperament.

I don't have any special brief for Holder one way or the other, but I guess I'd look at this differently. Holder's role in the Rich pardon is obviously disturbing, as he himself has admitted, and there's no doubt it will get raised in his confirmation hearings. But the real question is whether this was an isolated mistake or evidence of a pattern, and so far I've seen no evidence to suggest the latter. If you think his error in the Rich case was so egregious that it ought to disqualify him forever from government service, I guess that's defensible, but it's hard for me to read things that way. If we barred from high office every person who failed even once to stand up to his boss, we'd have a pretty small pool of candidates to choose from.

In fact, not to get too contrarian here, but if Holder learned a lesson from the Rich pardon — and his own response to it suggests he did — it might push him in the direction of being more independent than he otherwise might be. It could end up being a blessing in disguise.

Mumbai Update

MUMBAI UPDATE....India ups the ante in its relationship with Pakistan:

With tensions high between Islamabad and New Delhi after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Indian foreign minister said Tuesday his country had demanded that Pakistan arrest and hand over about 20 people wanted under Indian law as fugitives.

....The demand was made when India summoned Pakistan's ambassador on Monday evening and told him that Pakistanis were responsible for the terrorist attacks here last week and must be punished.

This isn't surprising, I guess, since (so far) the evidence suggests that Pakistani terrorists were indeed behind the Mumbai attacks. Offhand, though, I'd say it's unlikely that Pakistan agrees to India's demands, which means tensions over Kashmir will continue to mount. However, considering that both nations are now nuclear powers and that the United States has obvious interests in terrorism in the region, perhaps that means they might both be a little more amenable to some outside diplomacy? Time reports on Hillary Clinton's transition into the State Department:

A key player to watch in the transition is Richard Holbrooke, one of Clinton's closest foreign policy advisers during the primaries and a potential top player in Obama's diplomacy now that Clinton is headed for State. Holbrooke is a career diplomat, known for being smart and effective but also hard to control and outspoken, qualities that haven't always endeared him to certain peers in the party....Holbrooke has been talked about for top troubleshooting jobs like special envoy to the Middle East or South Asia.

This is just a flyer, but it's hard not to wonder if Holbrooke might be able to do some good here. Stay tuned.

Obama Takes Initial Open Government Step

creative_commons_logo.jpg Who here is interested in the copyright standards of the Obama transition's web-based information, documents, and videos? Everybody, right? Excellent.

Open government advocates are cheering the fact that the Obama transition team has changed the copyright restriction on Change.gov to a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License, which allows users to grab content off Change.gov, copy it, remix it, and distribute it without limitation. All users have to do is attribute the content to Change.gov. It is the freest possible version of a copyright and a step in the right direction.

But there's more to be done, of course. The open government community is pushing for a couple more concessions from the Obama people, the primary one being that content needs to be practically accessible in addition to legally accessible. That is to say, it matters little if content on Change.gov can be remixed and modified and disseminated, if the coding of the content doesn't allow it to be copied in the first place. Here's an explanation from open-government.us, where you can find more ideas for a truly open transition:

The Great Recession

Who will we be after the economic meltdown? This is something I've been pondering a lot lately.

Maybe I'm overreacting, but if we don't all become our parents and grandparents—the ones who survived the Great Depression and used every tea bag thrice—the Visigoths are on the horizon.

Personally, I'm planning a major downsizing, even though I've been living far from large since having two kids. My parents were sharecroppers born in the 1920s Deep South, so I grew up wearing patched hand-me-downs, saving aluminum foil, and scraping the last dregs from every pot to have for lunch the next day. The amount of food my kids waste has always horrified me (all those bananas and PB&J's they were dying for, then took one bite of); since my oldest's birth, my diet has consisted mostly of scarfing down their leavings. Once upon a time, I knew this was laughable. Now I'm telling the whole world: For dinner last night, I had partially eaten raviolis and pre-gnawed garlic bread scraped from both their plates, plus their leftover apple juice (son) and milk (daughter). Pre-Bush, it was just a habit my schmancy friends chuckled at indulgently. Post-Bush, it's a civic duty, a matter of house and home.

So, I'm waiting, hoping, to find that we all become like my tight-fisted Great Aunt Pearl who grew up five to a bed, downwind of the outhouse, but owned four mortgage-free houses by the time I was born. She made an apple last for three days. If you asked her for a Christmas present, she'd glare and say, "You got the day off didn't you?"

HuffPo has inagurated a new column to suss out how, if, we're all adapting to this brave new world of utter insecurity. Maybe now America will become the place where we brag about how many we fit into how little space and not how big our flat screens are. Or maybe this is just a history we're doomed to keep repeating.

Super Senior

SUPER SENIOR....Looking for more financial geekery? Sure you are! The other day I asked Felix Salmon to explain super senior tranches for us, and today he obliges. It's too complicated to excerpt, but the nickel version is that it became yet another way for banks to increase their exposure to subprime loans by creating a synthetic version of the subprime market that was even bigger than the original. So instead of merely idiotically missing the housing bubble and losing lots of money on supposedly safe subprime-backed CDOs, they idiotically doubled (tripled? quadrupled? who knows) their bet by creating lots of synthetic subprime CDOs and then keeping them on their own books instead of selling them off. When the crash came, then, they lost money on both the real stuff and the synthetic stuff.

The full story is here. Enjoy!

Quantum of Solace

QUANTUM OF SOLACE....Moriarty tells us that he likes the new Daniel Craig version of James Bond:

I don't miss the fetishistic museum piece touches of the series at all. I don't miss Q branch. I don't miss the Moneypenny banter. I don't miss the breezy "let's have a chat" style M briefings. Honestly... there are 20-something Bond films in that style, and like most Bond films, I've seen every film more than once. Some of them, I've seen many times. That adds up. I think it's safe to say if you count individual viewings, I've seen something like 180 James Bond films in my lifetime. All with that same rhythm and style and the same cast sadly growing older while James Bond mysteriously hovers around the same age in one of the weirdest continuity choices in franchise history. Like I said, I don't miss the formula of it all. And frankly, if the Daniel Craig era never quite gets back to that, I'm perfectly happy. I wouldn't mind at all. They made those movies. Lots and lots and lots of those movies.

I get this. I really do. And yet....I have to ask: what is it that makes James Bond James Bond? At a minimum, two things. The first is the background: he works for MI6, his boss is named M, he gets cool gadgets from Q, etc. The second is his personality: he's dashing, debonair, fatally attractive to women, and never has a hair out of place. The problem with the Daniel Craig version of James Bond is that these things are mostly gone. And with those things gone, he's just a guy who works for MI6. His name might be James Bond, but he's not James Bond.

Now, I also happen to think Quantum of Solace wasn't a very good movie. The pace was so frenetic — chase, fight, chase, fight, chase, fight — that there was hardly any story that seemed worth following, and what story there was just wasn't very interesting. (Cornering the water supply of Bolivia? Seriously? And you thought the later Roger Moore movies were ridiculous?) Put that together with the new characterization — brooding, ruthless, intense, hair artistically out of place through half the movie — and I don't think anyone would so much as guess that this was a Bond film if the writers had changed the names around a bit. It would have been seen as just another Bourne Identity wannabe, and not a very good one.

Just my take, of course. But speaking of The Bourne Identity, here's another question: what's the deal with super-agents initialed JB? In a faceoff between James Bond, Jack Bauer, and Jason Bourne, who would win?

Via Ross Douthat.

Charge Your Cellphone By Talking

112px-Cell_phone_icon.svg.png Imagine a self-powered cellphone that charges by the pressure waves formed when you talk or walk. Researchers have found a certain type of piezoelectric material that can covert energy at a 100 percent increase when manufactured at a very small size (specifically 21 nanometers in thickness). This suggests that disturbances in the form of sound waves could be harvested for powering nanodevices and microdevices of the future.

Here's how it works. Piezoelectrics are (usually) crystal or ceramic materials that generate voltage when a form of mechanical stress is applied (think car cigarette lighters). It's an old technology now powering dance floors in Europe. Combine piezoelectrics with the strange, infinitessimally small nanoworld, where many materials change their properties dramatically (gold turns red, toxic, and liquid at room temperature; opaque materials like copper become transparent; insulators like silicon become conductors). Piezoelectric materials at 21-nm thick turn into power-harvesting titans.

The findings could have potentially profound effects for low-powered electronic devices like cell phones and laptops. Many contain nano-sized components (1 nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter). All need a lot of recharging. But pressure-senstitive, self-powered piezoelectrics could harness energy from the sound waves in your speech or your walk. Free of charge takes on a whole new meaning.

The research is published in Physical Review B, the scientific journal of the American Physical Society.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.