Monday, November 2, 2009


COIN advocates like to cite the surge in Iraq as a model for success but Joost Hiltermann’s recent article in the New York Review of Books ought to give some real pause to this claim. COIN advocates claimed that increased security would lead to political gains, which would kickstart a virtuous circle. As theories go, it’s not wholly implausible (unlike, say, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis). But, as Hiltermann notes:
The surge's successes have been almost exclusively related to "security," i.e., stopping armed attacks. However, politics remains as fractious as ever, reflecting profound divisions among different Iraqi factions over central constitutional questions, including: (1) how to divide power; (2) how to allocate disputed territories, especially oil-rich Kirkuk; and (3) how to manage resources and share oil income. As Odierno and American Ambassador Christopher Hill realize, it is unclear how progress in security can be sustained without some sort of political accommodation.

So, if the practice has failed, how goes the theory? COIN has always posited that the important thing is hearts-and-minds, and therefore elevates the importance of the individual American platoon in dealing with the populace: it must assume a variety of tasks during the average day, as it must protect the populace with force, if necessary, but also help adjudicate the conflicts of the society it’s based in, solve its problems, etc. etc. And this latter part means that you’re putting an awful lot of discretion into the hands of the individual soldier. This is all well and good, but it means that bad apples can assume outsized importance (…it spoils the whole barrel, as the wisdom has it), and it means that the individual soldier must have familiarity with the culture; furthermore, it would be great if soldiers could speak the language themselves. These cultural skills are in deficit in the American army and American society generally. Hiltermann tells an anecdote about getting searched at an Iraqi checkpoint by Iraqis to show what I mean.
An American soldier lingering nearby, with no apparent mission other than to monitor the Iraqi soldiers, sauntered up to find out why I was being denied access to the Green Zone. After listening to my explanation that the Iraqis, now joined by an officer, required that I have an escort, he launched a verbal offensive that was as deeply insulting to the Iraqis' national self-esteem ("This is why we were able to defeat them in two days") as it was disrespectful and crude ("We could easily kill them all").

Nouriel Roubini notes the reasons to be very concerned about the global carry trade; right on cue, the Bank of England confirms it will be continuing the policies that make it possible.

Things I wasn’t aware needed defending: Tom Vanderbilt defends jaywalking.

This is a few days old, but I find the news that Google’s offering its GPS service free to be pretty interesting. Here’s a quote that piqued my interest: “Obviously we like the price of free, because consumers like that as well,” [said Google CEO Schmidt]. In that hardy classic of Web 2.0, they intend to…wait for it….support it by advertising. Maybe they can. But we’ve been multiplying and multiplying the platforms to carry advertising; isn’t it reasonable that we’re rapidly getting to oversupply of advertising with our increasingly scarce discretionary dollar? Meanwhile, Google continues in its direction, while the media companies seem to have collectively decided that paid is the way to go.

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