My Weekly Reader, 29 May 2018.

The war correspondent Thomas Ricks reads war books for the NYT Book Review.  It’s not worth summarizing his summaries, but he often has interesting observations to make.  Discussing a book[1] on the rise of autonomous-killing machines (“war-bots” like the “fem-bot” in “Austin Powers”) he reports that the Stuxnet computer virus was injected into the Iranian nuclear project’s computer system through flash-drives loaded with porn.[2]  More alarming, and less comic, is the contention that machines can learn and that, as they learn, they will become still more autonomous.  “The bottom line,” says Ricks, “is that the more an autonomous weapon is let free to roam in time and space, the more likely it is that something will go catastrophically wrong.”  So, while it seems impossible to stop the development of autonomous weapons, people should be working hard to prevent the development of autonomous nuclear and chemical or biological weapons.  There are degrees of catastrophe.

The Syrian Civil War (2011-the present) seems to have been going on forever (although not for anywhere near as long as the war in Afghanistan).  Will it never end?  A couple of scholars who have written recent books think not—or not anytime soon.[3]  Seeing the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq as consequences of the destruction of tyrannical “republics,” they think that there will be follow-on conflicts even after the likely victory of the Assad regime over its opponents and the defeat of the Islamic State.

The foreign policy of the Obama administration is starting to take fire from new critics.  The New Zealand political scientist William Harris has described it as “feckless” in Syria and Ricks says he portrays Secretary of State John Kerry as “almost buffoonish.”  (If you’ve ever seen photographs of Kerry in a one-to-one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, you might already have suspected this to be the case.)  Ronan Farrow has taken time off from belaboring highly-placed swine in other areas of American public life to upbraid political leaders for the shrinking role of American diplomacy in maintaining world order.[4]  However, not all of his argument serves his purpose.

Farrow once served as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, one of the pro-consuls of the American empire.  Holbrooke had “negotiated” an end to the horrible war in Bosnia, so he aspired to become Secretary of State.  However, he got stuck in civil life through the political incompetence of several Democratic presidential candidates.  Later, denied the top job at Foggy Bottom, he settled for special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Well, not really “settled.”  Farrow describes Holbrooke as “grasping, relentless,” and “oblivious to social graces in the pursuit of his goals.”[5]  In short, he was a jerk, especially in the eyes of other power-seekers and power-wielders in the Obama foreign policy establishment.  On the other hand, he thought that the only way out of Afghanistan lay in talks with the Taliban.  One key point here is that no administration wants to get charged with having lost a war, even when the war became unwinnable on another administration’s watch.  In a sense. Holbrooke was what Raymond Chandler once called a “tarantula on a piece of Angel’s food cake.”

A second point, however, is that individual ambitions and animosities (or amities) shape policy decisions.  Democrats didn’t have (and don’t have) a deep bench on foreign policy.  Holbrooke was an old guy from the Clinton administration from which the Obama administration wished to distance itself.  However, Holbrooke had accomplished something, and he had supporters as well as opponents.  So he got a job.  He died doing it.  Still, his “failure” to persuade could be read as a sign of how little traction Hilary Clinton possessed when serving as Secretary of State.

[1] Paul Scharre, Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War.

[2] So there is a market for pornography among Iran’s technical elite and it is tolerated by the watch-dogs of the regime.  Meanwhile, women are policed for immodest dress.  Tells you a lot about the Iranian Republic right there.  Still, one can be curious about the particular type of porn that interests Iranian scientists.  Suppose “Stormy Daniels” is a rock star.

[3] William Harris, Quicksilver War: Syria, Iraq and the Spiral of Conflict; Ahmed Hashim, The Caliphate at War: Operational Realities and Innovations of the Islamic State.

[4] Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (2018).

[5] Actually, this is pretty “American” behavior in the time before the Preppies, Yuppies, and investment bankers seized control of American foreign policy.  And much else.

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