Saturday, July 18, 2009

Philip Bobbitt: Blurk Slayer

During some cross-country flying last week, I got done reading the lion's share of Book One of Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles. Besides reminding me of how much ground I wish I could cover in the field of European history, or the lessons to be gleaned from shrewd one-named diplomats (after Talleyrand, Richelieu, and Mazarin, my head started to hurt), I had the joy of seeing Bobbitt take two blurks head-on.

A blurk, by the way, is your fearless author's neologism that describes "Popular, conventional wisdom which may be factually right or wrong, but which loses meaning through frequent, often thoughtless repetition."

To emphasize, just because something gets thoughtlessly repeated doesn't make it wrong. Some blurks really don't make sense (Among my favorites is that 'offense wins games, but defense wins championships' which flies in the face of any attempt at logical explanation, because usually scoring more points than the other guy involves both sides of the ball). Some might have an element of truth and some might be spot-on. One blurk that I've been rightly called on the carpet for using here on this blog is the 'Hollywood is dominated by the Loony Left' standby of conservative talk-show hosts.

But anyway, back to Bobbitt.

There's a very popular blurk in foreign policy circles from the Left or the Right which is some variant of "Sanctions don't work." It's often said quite authoritatively, usually because the speaker heard someone else say it quite authoritatively, but as Sean Hannity shows us when he talks about tax policy, repeating something a lot and emphasizing its rightness does not make it so.

On page 320 of the paperback edition, Bobbitt writes that:

"...there is a consensus that economic sanctions do not 'work' and they are seldom studied by military strategists. This conclusion is the result of a profound misunderstanding about the role of such sanctions...the crucial points to bear in mind are that sanctions' true utility lies in the modesty of their impact, a useful thing for the market-state that tries to shun warfare where possible, and that only an internationally coordinated effort, as exemplified by the sanctions against Iraq and Serbia, can be effective in an era of globalized markets and transient capital.'

Bobbitt reminds readers that if sanctions drove a state into TOTAL collapse, they would fail in their own special way, because they would lead to war, the policy option they were designed to prevent. If a grain embargo on the Soviets, for example, had driven that state's people into starvation, it would have led to a war for resources.

Besides, there are some great examples where sanctions punish the market-state and thereby lead to real change, the most prominent of which might be apartheid South Africa. In that case, famously, real pressure from other international actors, including the pulling of pursestrings, helped twist the hand of those in power away from a morally repugnant policy.

The dismantling of apartheid brings us back a ways, but how about something from just this month? The turnaround of the Kang Nam 1, which may have been destined for Myanmar with proscribed weapons in the cargo hold, was likely influenced by UN Security Council Resolution 1874, where the Chinese and the Russians stood firm with us in sending a message not just to North Korean deaf ears, but to the rest of the people in the world who might be in a position to 'enable' that awful regime.

Sanctions sometimes work, and sometimes don't. Just repeating some line about 'sanctions don't work' because Charles Krauthammer thinks the UN is a bunch of namby-pambys, or because Janeane Garofalo wishes to hold America to some impossible "damned if you do, damned if you don't" standard, doesn't make it right.

A second blurk that Bobbitt challenges is the automatic singling out of defense spending as 'wasteful.' Bobbitt writes:

" is often assumed by many that the vast flow of international goods and information is a natural given and that any American resources spent to ensure international stability through defense expenditures are resources wasted because they are diverted from our economic well-being."

As a percentage of GDP, we're spending FAR less than we did in our own recent memory, or than the British did to maintain sealane pre-eminence when the Royal Navy ruled the world's oceans.

Another point I'd add is that the way we spend money on personnel (in absolute or relative terms) makes us hard to compare to near-peer competitors like Russia or China. This would probably shock most people -- even those who are relatively well-informed -- but the total annual pay of a senior enlisted person or junior officer living in the Northeast is going to come out in the very high five-figure range. Certain incentive pays, such as those for nuclear-trained personnel who get fat retention bonuses, can even push them north of the six-figure line. That's not even counting other personnel-bearing budget lines such as health care, housing offices, record-keepers, etc. Other militaries, esp. those non-volunteer ones that heavily rely on conscripts to fill the right quota/manpower numbers, just aren't comparable in this sense.

One benefit of defense spending that's not always properly appreciated is the R & D spillover effect into the rest of society. Remember, the very Internet you're currently using is ultimately coming courtesy of DARPA, which developed ways for computers to talk to one another back in the 1950s. And remember, the scientists who work in places like the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, DARPA, and in State College, PA then go do things like buy Nike sneakers and Dell laptops. As one friend of mine is fond of saying in response to complaints about the NASA budget, "It's not like we're shooting the money into space." Somewhere, a store clerk in Houston or real estate developer in Sugarland or The Woodlands appreciates this.

Then there's the real grandaddy of 'em all -- pensions. Simply put, the U.S. military has one of the best, most-reliable pension systems anywhere in the world. The costs of running that system are high and will continue to rise in the years ahead.

Trust me, I'm not advocating for runaway defense spending or for keeping unneeded positions around as some kind of white-collar jobs program. But in addition to Bobbitt's major point about the costs of maintaining the international system, we shouldn't assume that military spending is some sort of black hole from which money never returns. In fact, just ask anyone at a Dunkin Donuts between Lowell and New London -- sometimes it ends up in a franchise owner's cash register in response for glazed donuts and iced coffees with one cream, one sugar, and one Turbo Shot.


kad barma said...

I actually get the logic behind defensive emphasis to earn championships--scoring is far more volatile a skill than defense, and comparing batting averages to fielding percentages is a good introduction to the concept, and as the Brady-to-Moss combination learned to its chagrin, being the highest scoring tandem in history doesn't do much for you come playoff time if you can't earn things on the other side of the ball.

However, it's a useful point.

I'd also add there's a logical parallel between military spending and the taxes shopkeepers are happy to pay in order to pay for police and the resulting good public order. Without public safety, there are very few shoppers. Likewise, without good order in the world, there is a dearth of trade, and for a nation dependent on the safe passage of foreign oil tankers for its commercial life blood, it would be crazy for us not to support a strong military for that reason alone.

I'd suggest effective (civilian) oversight and control is a pre-requisite for success in both cases, but without the ability to deter lawlessness, the lawful would otherwise remain at a tremendous disadvantage.

C R Krieger said...

I am not sure I buy the idea that Hollywood isn't run by the left, ever since John Ford and Ethan Hawks stopped making movies, but moving on from that...I think the issue of if sanctions work is one that is generalized and comes into question when particular issues are brought up.

The sanctions against South Africa seem to have worked, but one wonders if it is more like Ghandi and the UK.  There are certain underlying political requirements for sanctions to work.

While I defer to The New Englander regarding the Korean vessel, I retain a degree of skepticism.  With Kim Jong Il one is never sure what is going on.  One thing we know is that overall North Korea has spun out the nuclear issue regardless of Administration in the White House or the Blue House.  I suspect that the Obama Administration will end up like the Bush Administration WRT to the DPRK.

The only people hurt by the sanctions against Iraq were the Iraqi people.  While I don't accept some of the death figures coming out of Canada and the UK, there is still no doubt that President Saddam Hussein didn't suffer but women and children did.  Further, it appeared to me that as the new century moved on sanctions against Iraq were breaking down.  France, Russia and China were interested in trade with Iraq.  If there had been no second gulf war the UN sanctions would have gone away and President Hussein would have been able to resume his nuclear program, if he so chose.

As for Kad's Komment, I absolutely agree.  We need civilian control of all governmental force, from the school crossing guard to the SIOP.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Thanks for adding those points and some yin to the yang..I saw John Lehman recently wrote an op-ed in the WSJ that was pretty critical of high costs in defense spending (for contracts and platforms), and then just saw Gates' announcement today about the 20,000 new troops. More combat support seems like a good way to spend the money we've got..