Category Archives: Book Review

White Fear; Black Bodies

s Book review:
Hayes, Chris. 2017. A Colony in A Nation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.).

The excellent and fastidious Chris Hayes is back with his second book; it’s a doozy full of righteous (patriotic) indignation; telling data and statistics; and is bathed in humane empathy in a surprisingly nuanced way. He tries to emphasize with quite literally everyone – that alone should be commended.

The book, A Colony In A Nation, comes off the heels of a highly divisive presidential election, seen by many as largely about identity issues, immigration, and race. The winning candidate, Donald J. Trump, pounced on and utilized white fear in a way that only dog whistles could previously capture.

Long live the dog whistle;
blue lives matter!;
all lives matter!

Hayes’ thesis is, as he himself puts it, “simple.” We have a divided justice system producing a divided country. One part of the U.S., which Chris dubs the “Nation” has a policing regime fit for the rules based democracy that we purport to be. Another part of our country, dubbed “the Colony,” has a policing regime with remarkable similarities to militarily-occupied colonies. These “two distinct regimes,” have disproportionate results.

Black Americans largely live in the Colony and thus live by the dictates of order over law. This order is administered by low-level bureaucrats and “petty officers.” When order prevails, you get results such as: “black men aged 20 to 34 without a high school degree have an institutionalization rate of about 37 percent.” Homicide rates in the Colony? 20 per 100,000. In the Nation? 2.5 per 100,000. There are even predominantly black neighborhoods, adjacent to white neighborhoods that “have a homicide rate that is 9,000 percent higher.”

Hayes illuminates the difference not only with hard numbers, but also with his on-the-ground experiences, some from his college years and some from his reporting from the past few years in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities.

In one particularly unique passage, Hayes, the host of the award-winning All In w/ Chris Hayes (MSNBC) visited police training headquarters in New Jersey where he participated in a virtual reality simulator. This simulates 85 different scenarios and recruits are assessed based on their actions. One must be quick. Chris draws his weapon in the first scenario; the officer reminds him that that was the incorrect move. “We’re only one scene in, and already the self-righteous liberal pundit has draw his weapon on an unarmed man holding a cinder block,” Hayes rights – channeling that his training officer was “delighted” to instill some humility into the pundit.

Hayes spoke with many everyday folks, black and white, and referenced many scholarly works on criminal justice, policing, and American history; making this book’s potential audience quite wide and it’s content myriad. (Down below, I’ll finish up my thoughts regarding this strategy).

As Hayes unpacks the causes of this Nation/Colony bifurcation, he starts from the top-down and makes his way downward, to me. You. Voters. Citizens. All of us.

How did this happen?

The War on Drugs, beginning with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and continuing through to this very day, is a good answer; a good place to start. (It’s not the earliest place to start, of course but it’s definitely relevant.) It was top-down; Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Congress passed laws such as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970, for example. But, Hayes, surmises that the War on Drugs is not the only answer. Hayes claims that “20 percent of the increase in incarceration,” can be legitimately considered occurring due to the precepts of this so-called War on Drugs.

In Ch. V, Hayes details a nice summary of what is known as “broken windows policing.” Beginning in New York City, under multiple mayors, and continued nationally by President Bill Clinton. It’s the idea that a vacant building with a broken window will facilitate and bring forth other crimes.  The idea was that “one could reduce crime by stamping out disorder.” “Stop and frisk,” was implemented; black and brown people were disproportionately stopped, humiliated, and has their constitutional rights violated. (Hayes notes that federal district judge Shira Scheindlin, in 2000, did find the policy constitutional.)

Hayes leaves no stone unturned; it’s quite an impressive feat, he weaves in history and then personal story and then reporting from Baltimore back to law, scholarship, and pointed philosophical musings.

Hayes is his most passionate when he writes about white fear being a “force” that is a “social fact” and “something burned into our individual neural pathways.” But far from coming across as morally superior, Hayes is up-front about his own biases and fear, growing up in the Bronx, a “white straight male.” He talks about getting a pass from police officers, who found weed on him as a twenty-one-year old; at the Republican National Committee conference in 2000 no less. He opens up about his fears; he agrees that that order is nice. Yet he is aware that order usually comes at the cost of violating Constitutional rights of fellow Americans, who belong in the Nation, but who live in and are policed by The Colony. In fact, in the last few pages of the final chapter, he waxes philosophically, shades of Peter Singer regarding the moral sandpit that comes with valuing order over law.

Hayes isn’t careless or ideological when he tackles the War on Drugs. (He does get a bit ideological at other times.) The Crack Years were horrifying and nearly every single crime, violent and non-violent, skyrocketed from the 1970s, into the early 1990s. In fact in 1992, the U.S. “set an all-time violent crime record with 1,932,274 incidents.”  People are driven by fear and fear is hard to assuage. Fear resides in our brain stem, an ancient part of our brain, Hayes reminds the reader.

Above when I mentioned the top-down side of the creation and propagation of the Colony, I referred to the bottom-up side, too. In the last chapter, Hayes references work from law professor James Whitman who concludes: “it is the strong anti-aristocratic strain in the American legal tradition that has made our punishment system so remorseless and harsh.” I agree with this analysis; I also agree that it’s madness that we elect prosecutors.  Perhaps the most democratic part of our system is our criminal justice system. This doesn’t shine a positive light on the American psyche or on direct democracy frankly.

Here is where I began to add up the cons of the book. Educated readers know most, if not all, of what he chose to write about. I must say that I find this book wanting. There are many paths that Hayes could have explored more, but he leaves them after promising introductions. He mentions Racecraft….doesn’t explore it. He begins to paint a picture relating what he calls the Colony to how the British treated the colonists here during the revolutionary days…then he never brings it up again. He begins to explore police training….and leaves it after a page or two. (I wouldn’t begin to write a book on criminal justice; this is extremely hard to do and the book is quite good and ranging.)

Chirs makes the reader fill in a bunch of details themselves. I simultaneously like this and dislike it.

Solutions? He doesn’t investigate any concrete solutions…at all.  I know Hayes has ideas; I’m a big admirer of his previous work. In interviews, for example, he talks about needing radical desegregation as a political and societal project that, if continued to be unmet, should be openly considered a moral failure. Now THAT is what I hoped he was going to explore.

I would be remiss to say that Hayes didn’t fill out his thesis – he did; I suppose I’m just expressing that I wanted the book to be different than what it was.

This book turns out to be about two-thirds journalistic reporting and one-third memoir. I’m not sure if Hayes would classify it as such, but it is how it reads nevertheless. Overall, I enjoyed reading it. The book is well-written – if sporadic- and needing a bit more of a focus.

I do recommend it if only for the last chapter alone.

 

Books: 2016

I present my favorite reads of 2016. Since I only read 4 books released last year, I will simply include in my list books that I read. In total, I finished 34 books and started many more.

6: The Way of the Knife:: the CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth (2013) Mark Mazzetti, reporter for The New York Times

This book, by Pulitzer-prize winning Mark Mazzetti, has astonishing anecdotes, literally, on every page. I had my nephew pick a number from page one through 327 and voila – “two hundred” he says. “OSS founder William Donovan was so despondent that President Truman had not named him the first director of central intelligence he decided to set up an intelligence operation of his own. During business trips to Europe he collected information about Soviet activities from American ambassadors and journalists and scouted for possible undercover agents.” When President Truman was made aware of such private shenanigans, he was mad, “calling him a prying S.O.B.” One example from one random page, and it is a good one. I read this book along the way of researching for my final analysis of President Obama’s counterterrorism (CT) policy and the most pertinent quote from the president himself was: “The C.I.A. gets what it wants.” My question is: what president has skirted the power of CIA the most? A muckraking funny-if-it-wasn’t- true expose on the CIA. One con would be that it’s anecdote heavy and hard to pull together a comprehensive understanding of the complex-nature of Intelligence work, the CIA, and the various actors, individuals and states.

5:  Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016)
Branko Milanovic, Senior Scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center

A fresh, updated accounting on what we know about macroeconomics and what this portends for the future. Milanovic, reforms a classic theoretical understanding of inequality – the Kuznets curve – and coins the Kuznets wave. Succinctly put, inequality rises as economies develop yet the curve flattens out as education, for example spreads. Milanovic adds more lines to the curve and argues that inequality starts to increase once again in developed countries for various reasons, such as high-skilled and information-based job growth. This book is about (1) the rise of the global middle class; (2) the stagnation of the developed world’s middle class; (3) the rise of the global 1%. His prediction is gloomy: we will most likely see increased inequality because the current global climate to tackle this problem is wanting and the task arduous and global governance is limited. “Social separatism” is increasing and this portends a precarious future in our ever-globalizing world.

4: The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (2012)
Thomas Borstelmann, a Distinguished Professor of Modern World History at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska

I keep trying to formulate exactly when much of the world took a right-wing authoritarianism and extreme form; look at photos of Afghanistan in the 1950s-1960s for an example of what I’m conjuring up. I keep getting to 1979. Well, before said year the 1970s was a fascinating decade that so many positive strides regarding civil rights for black Americans and also women. Income inequality started rising precipitously for the developed world in the middle of the decade and the first Islamic revolution of the modern era happened, when the Shah in Iran was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This global history, which really is American-centric, is a fantastic read. I think about this book all of the time. For readers of contemporary history, this is a good one that I stumbled upon while perusing the “sale” section at my local library.

3: The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy (2011)
Dani Rodrik, the Rafiq Hariri Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

We read this book in my proseminar in globalization and out of the ten books we read, this book warranted the most discussion and “thumps up” bar none. Rodrik brilliantly excoriates, at times but with minimal vitriol – his fellow economists and their religious adherence to the Washington Consensus. He provides data to support his argument that some sort of embedded liberalism or a updated version of Bretton Woods is the most secure, fair, popular, and effective way for states to enter the developed strata of states. It’s in this book that he presents the trillemma: you can pick two, but only two. We can either live in a world of deep globalization and democracy; deep globalization and global governance; or global governance and democracy. Rodrik inclines

2: Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis: Second Edition (1999)
Graham Allison, Philip Zelikow, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Department of History at University of Virginia, respectively

This essential read for IR students is one I am grateful was assigned; I used the Rational Actor Model and the Governmental Politics model to compare the president’s counterterrorism policy for my capstone research paper. Along with Organizational Structure Model, these 3 frameworks are theoretical kingpins. The case study analyzed was the Cuban Missile Crisis and it was brilliantly done. Essence became the bedrock textbook and the impetus for opening the JFK School of Government at Harvard. If you want to know exactly how the insider process happens, and the complexity and complications of hundreds (now thousands) of actors involved in decisions, this is a great start. A foundational IR text from a heavyweight scholar, Allison, who has since penned many more books that are worth reading.

1: The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of Global Order (1996)
Samuel P. Huntington, co-founder of Foreign Policy; Professor at Harvard; president of the American Political Science Association (APSA)

I’m linking to my blog post where I opined my feelings of this work. Seminal work here.

Best book released in 2016

Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror
Michael Hayden, former head of the CIA, NSA, and intelligence of the Air Force

Hayden has worked in the U.S. Intelligence community for decades and his part-memoir and part-current affairs review of the world we live in was my favorite memoir I read this year. For an intelligence official, the work was deeply honest, fair, and wide-ranging. The impression you get is of a big mind with big ideas and even bigger secrets; at once, a patriot who wishes he could tell Americans more but he can’t, for their security. I have been going through government official memoirs – I’ve only read a few so far – and this might be my favorite, though Chollet’s and Brooks’ are close. (I haven’t finished Brooks’ yet therefore it can’t be on this list but it’s damn good.)

I’m looking forward to reading so many more works next year – I hope to even finish listening to Moby-Dick!

The Brilliant Foresight of Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington’s seminal book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, is a foundational text for any student of international relations, globalization, and contemporary history. I have the fortune of hindsight and I have to say – this book might in fact be my favorite book I’ve ever read. It’s certainly one of the most important I’ve ever read re: my field of study, political science. It’s not that often that a book stands up like this one does. It’s not only useful as a period piece or a “hot take” but rather as a paradigm piece. My opinion is certainly twenty years late and most students do consider this a paradigm book; I’m simply expressing my gratitude that I experienced this read for myself. I can concur what others have said before.

Honestly, I can’t think of a more magisterial IR text that explains the current zeitgeist than this one. Jihad vs McWorld does a good job; not an IR text but Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is great too; Joseph S. Nye’s work is, of course, canonical as well. For what it’s worth, however, this text is paradigm-capturing and worthy of Kissinger calling it “one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the Cold War.” This is my favorite.

I will try and capture just why I think it predicted so much of what we are living through right now. Counting the essay, Huntington conceived of this understanding more than 23 years ago. It was the end of the Cold War, Fukuyama thought it was “The End of History”, and 9/11 and the Arab Spring were a decade, and two decades away, respectively. Yet, if I would have read this book before the turn of the century, I would have had a framework to understand it quicker than it has taken me.

Huntington Predicted the Russian annexation of Crimea
Just shortly into the first chapter and I was already enraptured by his definition of civilizations, for example, and then s.m.a.c.k – I thought, “what?! He basically just predicted Putin’s capture of Crimea. Damn.” In a paragraph where Huntington is testing the validity of statism, or neorealism, such as that exposed by John Mearsheimer, who foresaw a Russia-Ukraine “security competition,” he lays out precisely what happened 18 years later. “A civilizational approach emphasizes the close cultural, personal, and historical links between Russia and Ukraine and the intermingling of Russians and Ukrainians in both countries, and focuses instead of the civilizational fault line that divides Orthodox eastern Ukraine from Uniate western Ukraine, a central historical fact of long standing which, in keeping with the “realist” concept of states as unified and self-identified entities, Meirsheimer totally ignores.” He continues: “While a statist approach minimizes that and instead highlights the possibility of Ukraine splitting in half, a separation which cultural factors would lead one to predict might be more violent than that of Czechoslovakia but far less bloody than that of Yugoslavia.”

Huntington was sage-like here. Not only did he foreshadow the Russian annexation of Crimea, but he was correct regarding the comparisons as well. Casualties from the Ukrainian crisis are more than 9,000. The “Velvet Divorce” in 1993 of Czechoslovakia was bloodless; Slovakia has since become a quiet success of Europe. The breakup up of Yugoslavia was protracted, genocidal, and devastating.  Huntington was right: what was to transpire in Ukraine was somewhere in the middle, and it was about identity and culture, or to use his parlance, “civilizations.”

His framework based on understanding that culture is Real and that culture is tremendously powerful and binding, especially in a modernizing world that is cold, fast, and spiraling out of control, has predictive power. No good theory leaves home without predictive power. Ukraine effectively split, with 65% of Crimean’s being ethnically Russian. Under the civilizational paradigm, this break up makes since and those who studied this work, should have anticipated this. Huntington even argued that “contingency planning for the possible breakup of Ukraine,” should have been in the works.

“In the long run, Muhammed wins out”: Religious revivalism and Islamic Renewal
For those like myself who read science websites, and who know the ins-and-outs of and have read all of the New Atheist tracts published early in this new century, it’s easy to think that, or hope for depending on your worldview, religion is on the ropes. That, in fact, would be horribly wrong. Religion, a steady and reliable form of culture/identity like no other, is on the rise. Huntington really hammers the point home that the future of conflict will be about culture. And when wars are fought over cultures, culture loses. Huntington, again, was correct. “The Cold war division of humanity is over. The more fundamental divisions of humanity in terms of ethnicity, religions, and civilizations remain and spawn new conflicts. There is a subsection titled La Revanche De Dieu, or “The revenge of God” that I am jealous of. Great analysis with zero fluff or wasted words. If you have the book, this section starts at the middle of p.95 and ends at the end of p.97.

The Rise of the East, Latin America and Africa(?)
“The West is overwhelmingly dominant now and will remain number one in terms of power and influence well into the twenty-first century,” asserts the author. Although one can (and often does) split hairs regarding this statement, as of Dec. 2016 this is still true. In the context of this book, where Huntington paints the rise of the East, it’s particularly still relevant because he did predict what was on the horizon. This entire section is less spectacular than, in my opinion, his analysis about culture being central to our identities and the Islamic Resurgence, for example, this still is worth mentioning.

Latin America and Africa – sub-Saharan Africa – lack a “core” state that would allow them to rise to the level of say, the West (America is the core state), or the Sinic world (China, core), or the Orthodox world (Russia). The consequence isn’t necessarily given much thought but the analysis and prediction is true. Huntington puts a question mark after Africa (like he did at the end of the title when this was first published as an essay, which most people seemed to forget; “The Clash of Civilizations?,” is was the title of the essay iteration.) in this book since it was hard to envision a core emerging African power. The contenders were South Africa and Nigeria. Interesting. Latin America, Brazil and Argentina, and Mexico, also don’t seem to be likely leaders of a civilizational world. Mexico, has one foot in the West and one foot in Latin America. The future is up in the air and going to be determined by much contingency in the future. The reason: “Throughout history the expansion of the power of a civilization has usually occurred simultaneously with the flowering of its culture and has almost always involved its using that power to extend its values, practices, and institutions to other societies.” Pan-Africanism is a fiction that never materialized. Latin America is very diverse and just in the split of languages alone, makes it hard to foresee any one country becoming the “core” state of Latin America.

The rise of Asia, including India as the “core” state of the Hindu world, Japan (Japanese is  a civilization on it’s own according to Huntington’s paradigm), and China (the Sinic core) is an unstoppable historical force. The “blip” of Western dominance of 200 years will come to an end, and China, once again will be the leading power of the world by the middle of the next century. I can’t recall where I learned or who I learned this from, but a scholar has mapped the trend line of power and it is now sitting in Persia, working it’s way towards the East. 3 billion people all industrializing and modernizing is unstoppable. Well, at least by other people. Mother nature is a force to be reckoned with.

Conclusion
All-but-predicting the Crimea annexation by Russia; the rise of cultural and identity politics and the antidote of religion and community; and the likely power-shift from the West to Asia has come to pass, make The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of Global Order a must read. Impossibly relevant. Satisfying. Groundbreaking. The book, itself, is a paradigm. Huntington, in the last sentence, argues that a global order must be based on civilizations – regionalism (though he wouldn’t use that word), and bi- and tri-lateral regimes; globalization is only for the Davos World and global government seems like a 22-century utopian idea that we have yet to figure out. Until then: we must understand that culture and meaning and metaphysics matter tremendously.

Everyone should go out and pick up, and highlight, and annotate and devour this book. Certainly one of the best books I’ve ever read regarding international relations and the future of the global order.

*Bonus: Here’s a link to me reading this essay, basically, on my Foran Policy: Book Reviews & Miscellany podcast.*

The Future of Power

I think many conflicting, and seemingly incompatible phenomenon can exist – can be true – at the same time. I just read a book that reveals that nominal paradox in great detail. “The world is neither unipolar, multipolar, nor chaotic – it is all three at the same time,” ends the highly compelling The Future of Power.

The Future of Power by Joseph S. Nye, Distinguished Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, is quite encompassing and packs a punch that is more than it’s relatively short page length (234 pages). This book is an ambitious work. Dissecting the power zeitgeist in a hyper-globalized world is not an easy task. In particular, Nye examines America’s stature and role in the world. In examining the future of power relations between, within, and among states, NGOS, and individuals, Nye paints a complicated and complex picture.

Power is transitioning away from the U.S. but it is not going to one other country or entity; and it certainly isn’t transitioning away rapidly at all. No one country will be more economically powerful than the U.S. for the next 25 years. Further: the next leading power is the EU which is comprised of 28, or so, allies. The U.S. is going to be fine, especially if the U.S. “rediscover[s] how to be a smart power.” What is smart power?

Smart Power

Nye defines and redefines and references many international relations (IR) terms such as hegemony; soft power; and realism. He coins – or effectively brings to the market of ideas at the very least – a new term for power-measuring in the twenty-first century: smart power. Smart power is “liberal realism.” Smart power, for the U.S., is the “understanding of the strength and limits of American power.” Moreover: The U.S. should “develop an integrated grand strategy that combine[s] hard power with soft attractive power.” Finally, we should lead by example and “encourage liberal democracy and human rights at home and abroad where feasible at reasonable levels of cost,” that also “encourage[s] the gradual evolution of democracy but in a manner that accepts the reality of diversity.” Got it?

Nye likened the state of power relations to a 3D chess game. Dimension 1: Interstate military power is highly concentrated in the U.S. Dimension 2: Interstate economic power “is distributed in a multipolar manner among the U.S., the EU, Japan, and the BRICs.” Finally, Dimension 3: “Issues power such as climatic, terror, and pandemics is “highly diffused.”

According to the State Department, smart power is “the intelligent integration and networking of diplomacy, defense, development, and other tools of so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power.”

Nye does a great job of highlighting real examples and evidence of arbitrary and circular understandings or ideas. Nye also gives examples of how the world stage is also comprised of other actors, such as corporations and individuals, that now wield power.

Can smaller states utilize smart power?
Look at Singapore engaging in “active sponsorship of diplomatic activities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),” while also becoming a regional military power.

An example of a non-government individual of having and using soft power? Nye’s example: In 2007, film producer Steven Spielberg, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, “sent an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao to use its influence to push Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur.” It worked when “years of diplomacy could not.” Spielberg recognized the position China was in, and succeeded in his attempt at persuasion. That is soft power in an individual.

I think the best part of the book is just how much importance Nye allows to the Information Revolution. I certainly agree with this. Globalization is an information-based creation. A major reason we are seeing this power diffusion is the Internet. A tension exists between privacy and security; and there is a really good chapter regarding the cyberworld contained within this book.

We are just now really beginning to understand the battle we are in regarding the cyber realm. The Internet is Real.

Compare/Contrast – Moon & Sun:

In 2010, one poll found that 61% of poll respondents thought the country was in decline and only 19% trusted the government. …Over the past few decades, public confidence has dropped in half for major institutions.” [Nye Jr., 2011]

Meanwhile…

75% of Americans feel connected to their communities and say the quality of life there is excellent or good. According to a Pew poll, 111 million Americans say they volunteer their time to solve problems in their communities in the previous 12 months, and 60 million volunteered on a regular basis. 40 % said working together with others in their community was the most important thing they could do.” [Nye Jr., 2011]

Conclusion

Nye’s conclusion is an slightly optimistic one for us: “The United States is unlikely to decay like ancient Rome or even to be surpassed by another state, including China.” He continues: This is “not a narrative of decline.” Power is always shifting and evolving (and devolving, perhaps?) and American hegemony may be a thing of the past. Power transition is happening but not as rapid or in one direction as many argue. Perhaps China will be the next Soviet or Japan: the supposed next great power that settles for regional dominance.

As a careful analyst as he is, he knows the future is not predetermined: “There are a range of possible futures, not one.”

Americans might think that America is entering an era of decay but America is still quite the world power; just not quite as powerful as in the past, that is all. I must say that this book holds up remarkable well for being 5 years old. The U.S. dollar is still king. Check out the great Milton Ezrati on the primacy of the economic power of the U.S. in The National Interest. The U.S. dollar “is by far the world’s most traded currency, involved in 87 percent of all global currency exchanges, up from 85 percent in 2010,” in 2015 he writes. “For now the dollar remains supreme, ” exclaims the economist. America is the strongest individual country in the world.

Nye’s book is a must read for students of international affairs; in particular, for those interested in America’s role in the world; for those interested in China’s rise; and last but not least, those interesting in theory. You can’t understand the world, unless you understand power in all of its multifaceted faces.

2015: My Favorite Books

I read a lot of books this year; most were not released this year. What follows is my favorite books I’ve read that were released this year. I should point out that I almost never read novels; I prefer non-fiction. Though I do read all genres of non-fiction, I didn’t get to many other releases from this year that weren’t political science oriented. [I will include a link to a review of each book that I found insightful even if I don’t agree with ’em.]

ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
By Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan. Simon & Schuster. [Review/NYT]

I defy anyone to read this book and to not come away more confused and conflicted about Syria/Iraq. I write that as a compliment: Weiss and Hassan paint a complex and gray picture that is like reality which is deeply gray. To understand the rise of ISIS you have to understand de-baathification, shia/sunni divide, prison radicalization, occupation, conspiracies, Middle East history, and human frailty and persuasion.  These two illuminate what is going on and it is bleak: ISIS will be with us for awhile; so will the fight against ISIS. I recommend this book to every American who wants to understand the world a little more.

Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy
By Jonathan Rauch. Brookings Institution. [Review/the Wall Street Journal]

I have been looking for a book like this and I didn’t even know it. Astute and objective observers of contemporary politics in America are confronted with an ugly truth: the rise of amateurism and the complete annihilation of trust regarding the establishment. Rauch argues, forcefully and profoundly that this is bad for democracy by highlighting how politics actually work instead of how we, the populace, continue to think they work. I loved this short study.

Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone
By Scott Shane. Tim Duggan books. [Review/Lawfare]

This was my favorite read of the year because it is literally 100% exactly what I have been considering and thinking about and wanting to understand for the last couple of years. Dirty Wars came out and it was revelatory about the drone usage of Obama. Shane delineates just how the Obama administration legally considered using a drone strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who flew to Yemen. This fascinating account of how an all-American boy like Awlaki became, effectively, the number 1 enemy of the state. I can’t imagine a more detailed and considered account of Awlaki, the rise of drones, and the inner workings of the Obama admin then this book.

Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted
By Ian Millhiser. Nation books. [Review/Slate]

I read this one early in the year to compliment my formal class i was taken regarding SCOTUS. This book was deeply depressing; historically focused; and elegantly written. I read this book rather quickly because it was full of information that was so gripping. The main thesis: SCOTUS has consistently and rather blatantly ruled against equality of people; and the worker/labor movement. The Court is deeply partisan, political, and although punctuated by eras of true progressivism, has been handing out constitutional interpretations that have been mostly aligned with the ruling elites of the time. A couple of words doesn’t do this book justice: read it to understand the fight that the American people have always had to engage in regarding everything from the minimum wage to housing and legal and safe abortion.

The Stronghold: How Republicans Captured Congress but Surrendered the White House
By Thomas Schaller. Yale University Press. [Review/PublishersWeekly]

This book was released in January and I read it after listening to a fascinating interview of Schaller by Sam Seder on The Majority Report. Schaller through analyzing electoral histroy, demographics, and interviewing political insiders and operatives, comes to the conclusion that the GOP has basically become a Congressional party, in general, and a House-centric party, in particular. By focus testing candidates to win in more conservative state races, this has crippled the GOPs chances of taking back the White House. The catch here, if you will, is that Schaller now sees this as intentional in some ways. A party that just wants to block and weaken government, doesn’t care if they don’t take back the White House; they want to block legislation and make things run even worse than they do. A revealing insight into, effectively, the only major political party in the world that denies climate change.

Grey&Human[Pt.1]

I’m reading the magisterial reporting that is ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (2015) by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan and one sentence – on page 195 – stopped me in my tracks:

Two churches that had been burned or confiscated by ISIS were also “liberated” by al-Nusra, which declared its intent to restore them for Christian use.

These twenty or so words encapsulate the difficulties, complexities, and humanity (and inhumanity) of Al-Sham and the greater Middle East. I encourage everyone to read this book; I particularly encourage those who know very little about the history and realities on the ground here because their eyes will be opened and hopefully have the effect of disabusing them of any simple notions of the players on the ground; the motives of the actors, and what have you.

So much grey.
Very little white.
A dark shade of black.

US-Pakistan: Magnificent Delusions, Part 3

Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, The United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding
by Husain Haggani. PublicAffairs. 413 pp.

Part 1 covered the years 1947-1951. Part 2 covered 1951-1959. Part 3, below, covers 1960-1969.

JFK vs Ahub
Enter: John F. Kennedy, the telegenic Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who won the 1960 presidential election over the incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon (For new students of U.S. history, don’t worry, Mr. “I Am Not a Crook” Nixon will get his chance later…) by way of the Electoral College. John F. Kennedy, and his Vice President Lyndon Johnson, continued Eisenhower’s tactic of basically supporting both India and Pakistan. Ayub, now the Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan used this for domestic propaganda and conspiracy-drivel. The Kennedy administration invited Ayub to Johnson’s personal ranch in Texas and Ayub left “with assurances of continued military and economic assistance.” Concrete successes happened during this administration: the Indus Water Treaty, from 1960, “enabled Pakistan and India to share the six rivers flowing into Pakistan form the north, with the World Bank providing funding for Pakistan to build dams and storage capacity.” Similar to the grain shipment, the Kennedy Administration continued to pour in hundreds of millions of dollars to Pakistan; while simultaneously questioning the relationship similar to Eisenhower.

October 1962
China and India went to war in 1962, mostly over disputed Himalayan territory; It ended with China gaining control over the territory. During this war, the U.S. supplied India with arms – this angered Ayub, who – of course – used this as domestic fuel. However, Ayub understood – privately – that Pakistan didn’t have that much leverage but Kennedy “did keep his promise to Ayub to try to address the Kashmir dispute” between India and Pakistan. Mediated talks between India and Pakistan went nowhere and the Kashmir Problem remained.

November 22, 1963
U.S. President JFK was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald and interim president Lyndon Johnson, focused on domestic issues, “attempted to offer reassurance” to Pakistan that not much would change regarding their relationship. Haqqani adroitly describes Ayub’s three-prong strategy: first, Ayub would continue to complain about U.S. aid to India – while still asking for military assistance himself. Second, Ayub would further ties with Communist China. Finally, Ayub was not scared of using force regarding Kashmir. Why did Ayub think he had leverage? The Badaber Intelligence base set up by the CIA-U.S. Air Force Security Service to intercept radio signals coming from the Soviet Union. Ayub was getting more aggressive. The Prime Minister of India, Nehru, died in 1964 and this allowed for Ayub to engage militarily for the Kashmir region. Ayub insisted the the U.S. must support them in this battle. “From the US point of view there was no commitment to assist Pakistan in war it had initiated,” remarks the author.

Much happened in the next 6 years; one thread-line through all of this so far is continued military assistance from the US to Pakistan in exchange for vague anti-communist promises from Pakistan and – privately – the US reconsidering this relationship while simultaneously changing no behavior. On the Pakistan side, Ayub in the spring of 1969 resigned and counter to their constitution, implemented martial law. Neither country was fully satisfied and the status-quo became entrenched and full of more risks and possible flashpoints. Including: India. US and India were allies and Pakistan promised to not go to war against India with American-supplied arms; Pakistan did not listen. In 1965, Pakistan and India went to war over Kashmir and Jammu. In the end no territory changed hands and in a normal world, this would have really challenged the US-Pakistan relationship. In our real geopolitical realist world, all parties involved put blinders over their eyes and kept moving forward with their self-selected bad hands of cards.

So what became of that listening base? The lease expired and it was not renewed because, per Pakistan, this base did not benefit them and strained their relationship with China. The Pakistani public was not aware of this base; yet they were told about the ending of the lease. This dynamic is seen throughout this relationship.

The next decade is the Nixon/Kissinger decade, on the US side; on the Pakistan side saw the rise of Amin, and Bhutto. We see more war; genocide; and a military coup.