Without Fighting

To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

This week’s featured articles: The Summer of Snowden I: language of denial and A brief meditation on white twerking.

This week everybody was talking about eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons without war

Saturday, the Syrian government agreed to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the US and Russia agreed on a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical stockpile. If the plan works, then the Obama administration will achieve one of its main goals in Syria without using force.

As I wrote last week, though, American motivations in Syria have been muddled. So you should be happy if what you mainly wanted was to uphold international norms against chemical weapons. If, on the other hand, you wanted Assad overthrown, this plan won’t do that. The civil war in Syria, with all its civilian casualties and displaced people, will go on. If you just wanted America to stay out of a situation that doesn’t seem to have any clear solutions, you should be ecstatic.

Meanwhile, the UN inspectors are presenting their findings today. So far they seem in line with what the Obama administration has said: Sarin was used. According to a summary by The Guardian, the Secretary General “did not mention the Assad regime by name but the findings implicated forces linked to Assad.”

On the issue of threatening war and then stopping short of it: WaPo’s Dylan Matthews collects historians’ work on how important it is for a world leader to follow through on his threats. Not very, it turns out.

Paul Huth (now at Maryland) and Bruce Russett (Yale) analyzed 54 historical cases and concluded, “deterrence success is not systematically associated…with the defender’s firmness or lack of it in previous crises.” … The University of Washington’s Jonathan Mercer’s book, Reputation and International Politics, finds that there is no predictable effect of backing down in crisis.

Summarizing and over-simplifying a little: The usual reason leaders don’t follow through is that their threat turns out to be stupid. Your opponents understand this, and if it wouldn’t be stupid to carry out your next threat, they will take it seriously. Dartmouth’s Daryl Press imagines how our failure to attack Syria might be viewed in Iran:

When Iran’s leaders are trying to figure out if we’ll really mess with them if they interfere with tanker traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, they’ll ask, “Does the U.S. really care about global oil flows?” and “Can the US Navy really keep those sea lanes open?”, and the answers are “Yes, we care deeply,” and “Yes, the Navy can,” It would be foolish in the extreme to think that our willingness to intervene in a civil war in which we have no allies and no friends is a good indication to how we’d respond to attacks on genuine national interests.

The weirdest part of this whole story has been the reaction of American conservatives, who somehow see Putin getting an advantage over Obama. Whose ally is giving something up? I guarantee you, if Putin had threatened war unless Israel gave up some kind of weapon, and Obama pressured Israel into promising to do it, conservatives would not be saying Obama had gotten the better of the deal. Steven Benen summarizes in “Revenge is a dish best served coherent“.

and inequality

New numbers from economists Saez and Piketty show what you probably already suspected: The vast majority of the income gains from the post-2008 economic recovery have gone to the wealthy.

The WaPo’s Wonkblog has a great set of graphs explaining “how everyone’s been doing since the financial crisis”. The short version: bankers, corporations, and the rich are doing fine; workers and families not nearly so well.

and whether the government will shut down on October 1 or two weeks later

The fiscal year ends on September 30, and the House Republicans still seem not to have decided on a negotiating position. Most recent estimates say the government will hit the debt ceiling by mid-October. President Obama is refusing to negotiate over that issue. (I agree with that position, BTW. You negotiate over issues where you want to do one thing and your opponents want to do another. But the debt ceiling is more like a hostage crisis. Nobody wants the US to default on its debts or promises; Republicans are just counting on Democrats not wanting it more than they do.)

but I wrote about the NSA

This week begins a series I call The Summer of Snowden. Part I of the series examines what the NSA’s words really mean.

Just an aside: Foreign Policy reports that the NSA’s “Information Dominance Center” was

designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a “whoosh” sound when they slid open and closed.

Well, at least it’s not the Death Star.

and you also might be interested in …

America makes the best TV shows because our dysfunctional systems produce more drama. (Could The Wire have been set in a clean, prosperous, well-managed city? Hats off to Baltimore!) Cartoonist Christopher Keelty observes:

One thing that really interests me about [Breaking Bad] is how it juxtaposes two of America’s most catastrophic policy failures: The for-profit health care industry and the failed War on Drugs

The next Fed chair won’t be Larry Summers. As Treasury Secretary under Clinton, he championed the financial deregulation that prepared the ground for the Crash of 2008. And as President Obama’s first Director of the National Economic Council he was one of the architects of the save-Wall-Street-first strategy. So I’m not sorry to see him shuffle off the stage.

I’ve had a policy of avoiding outrage-of-the-day articles, so I’ve barely mentioned Pat Robertson or Glenn Beck at all lately. AlterNet’s Amanda Marcotte makes the case for covering them more closely, because otherwise they get to maintain one image for the general public and another for their followers.

There’s a widespread and concentrated effort on the right to keep the crazy talk as far out of sight of the opposition as possible, while simultaneously disseminating their ideas among the true believers. This reality doesn’t comport with the claim that they benefit from mainstream media attention, but the opposite.

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  • Abby Hafer  On September 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    The last bit about being deliberately two-faced when being a conservative talking head–that’s precisely what the anti-evolution crowd does. One face talks to mainstream media and sounds ever so innocuous. The other face fundraises amongst the far right, saying very different things. They’ve lost some court cases because somebody actually watched and recorded what they said on right-wing TV shows.

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