Category Archives: Theory

Happy Independence Day! Gil Troy on Centrism


Happy 4th to my readers in the U.S.A.! I hope the weather is better in your neck of the woods than NYC. It’s overcast and raining. Not the greatest weather for a bbq or fireworks. If the weather clears up I’ll post some pictures of the fireworks tomorrow.

Last year I wrote a post about one of the battles of the War of Independence, the Battle of Brooklyn as well as the tension between classical liberalism and social liberalism. This year I want to focus on centrism because I had an opportunity to see Gil Troy last night on CSPAN 2’s “Book TV” program. Troy is a professor of History at McGill University. He was discussing his recent book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents at the New America Foundation.

As is evident by the title, Troy is a centrist, and this book is part history and part centrist manifesto. His argument is appealing to me and I suspect for other centrists as well. Troy seeks to identify the “rich, vigorous tradition of muscular moderation in America” and he focuses on three elements or themes:

1. Pragmatism

2. Incrementalism

3. Romantic Nationalism

Why romantic nationalism? In a highly partisan political system, how do you deal with political passion and intensity without driving Americans apart? Troy argues that true centrism is built on a love of country and a desire to bring Americans together in a substantive way. Perhaps a better term would be rational patriotism.

My main disagreement was when Troy identified Obama as a centrist. At the beginning of the primary, Obama’s rhetoric was solidly centrist. His voting record proved otherwise as did his bases of support. Rather than being the candidate who would somehow “transcend race” his campaign operatives labeled Bill Clinton a racist.

Here’s Troy at the History News Network:

Obama’s vision of new politics, which she chides him for abandoning, is rooted in a traditional push for the center, with a renewed, optimistic vision for today.

Obama’s centrism is part of a great American political tradition. America’s greatest presidents were maestros of moderation, who understood that the trick to effective leadership in a democracy is finding the middle, or creating a new middle. George Washington viewed his role as more of a referee than a crusader. He preached repeatedly to his squabbling subordinates, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, about finding common ground. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office, negotiating, compromising, cajoling, and conniving to keep the badly divided North united against the South. That is why he emphasized fighting to keep the Union together rather than liberating the slaves, despite his personal dislike of slavery. Theodore Roosevelt, although temperamentally immoderate, proved to be an adept arbitrator, ending the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, and even earning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic skills in resolving the Russo-Japanese war. Franklin Roosevelt, though often denounced as a radical, in fact tacked carefully between the extremes of the radical left and the complacent right, inching America toward a modified welfare state.

Troy rightly dismisses the notion of centrists as fence-sitters who lack conviction. However, by identifying Obama as part of this tradition he does his thesis a great disservice. In the past month we’ve heard Obama twist to and fro and a variety of policy positions from trade to the war against Islamist extremism. Obama is not a centrist, he’s a typical politician who will say anything to any audience in order to get elected. This is not principled centrism.

Gil Troy blogs here. I look forward to reading his book.

You can watch the “Book TV” program below:

Lebanon and the Issue of Force in Democratic Societies


After widespread Hezbollah violence in West Beirut earlier this month, things seem to have settled down. Bu the political problem at the core of this conflict remains, the legitimacy and weakness of the Lebanese state. David Schenker (WINEP) provides some background:

In early May, the Lebanese government, led by the “March 14” ruling coalition, objected to Hizballah’s telecommunications network and its control over Lebanon’s international airport. The cabinet subsequently decided to remove the network and install an airport officer that was not sympathetic to the Shiite organization. In reaction, Hizballah cried foul and demanded that the government back down.

When the coalition stood its ground, Hizballah forces temporarily occupied Beirut. Nearly one hundred Lebanese were killed and 250 were wounded in the worst fighting since the country’s fifteen-year civil war that ended in 1991. After three days of fighting — which included Hizballah’s failed attempt to storm the Shouf mountain preserve of March 14 Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) stepped in and enforced a de-escalation. However, in the face of Hizballah’s overwhelming military might, and the LAF’s unwillingness to protect national institutions, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his coalition capitulated to Hizballah’s demands on May 14, and revoked the cabinet decisions.

[Video of Hezbollah rolling through West Beirut]

Michael J. Totten (Contentions) opines:

A year and a half of mostly non-violent resistance yielded Hezbollah bupkis. After one week of murder and mayhem, the Lebanese government caved. The lesson for Hezbollah is clear: when things don’t go your way, take the rifles out of the garage, hit the streets, and start shooting people and burning down buildings.

In the comments thread, OAO notes:

[A]n even bigger problem is that the lesson that totten says nasrallah learned was also learned by all jihadis and terrorists in the ME: violence not only works, but works fast and easy. there is nobody with the guts to stand up to it.

I agree there is certainly potential for this to happen and it is incredibly worrying. But what is the likelihood of a similar form of political instability being replicated in other Islamic countries? Is the weakness of Lebanon’s national state unique?

Put another way, “guts” or will is part of the equation in defeating terrorists. So is capacity. Any state that allows (or is unable to stop) citizens, residents, or other civilians within its borders to use force to resolve conflicts is clearly weak. Such a state fails to meet the minimum definition of a state: a monopoly on the use of force and violence to solve disputes. The police fulfill this function internally and the army and other armed forces externally.

The state, including the police and army, is incredibly weak in Lebanon. The places where radical terrorists have been able to gain large footholds (if not control) are in these sorts of failed and weak states. I’m thinking of Afghanistan and Somalia in the extreme cases but even places like northern Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers operate or southern Thailand and parts of the Philipines where Islamist separatists and groups affiliated with Al Qaeda operate. These are lawless places where the state is largely absent, either through neglect, lack of resources, graft, corruption, or some combination of these.

Rather than focusing on the lesson that Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah learned or taught the Jihadis, we should examine the lessons that Hezbollah taught democratic states this week.

First, when terrorist organizations say they are ready, willing and able to use violence to achieve their aims we should be ready, willing and able to use “disproportionate” violence against them. Moshe Arens makes this point in his recent Haaretz op-ed (“A cease-fire with terrorism?”)

How to fight terror became the subject of endless discussions during that difficult time. As long as Israel seemed unable to find an effective answer to Palestinian terror, the defeatists in our ranks claimed that terror could not be defeated by force, while the more cautious argued that terror could not be defeated by the use of force alone. The implication was that Israel had no choice but to concede to at least some of the terrorists’ demands – that they must be given a “political horizon.”

But once the Israel Defense Forces and the security services began to seriously tackle Palestinian terror, following the massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya in the spring of 2002, it quickly became clear that terror could be defeated by force. As a matter of fact, it could be defeated only by the use of force. The terrorists view any hints of Israeli willingness to give in to a portion of their essentially limitless demands as a sign of weakness, which only serves to encourage further acts of terror.

But Israel’s victory over Palestinian terror, which put an end to the daily bouts of suicide bombings, also induced amnesia in the minds of some of Israel’s leaders. The lesson was quickly forgotten. The shameful unilateral withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon, which served to trigger the second intifada, was acclaimed by them as a great success that brought peace to northern Israel – until the wake-up call came with the Second Lebanon War. At that point, twisted logic took over the minds of members of the Olmert government, and they acclaimed the first defeat Israel had suffered in its entire history as a defeat of Hezbollah. Maybe they will finally get some sense into their heads when they see what Hezbollah, which they claim to have defeated, is doing in Lebanon these days. What a missed opportunity!

Second, we need to not only maintain the political will to defeat this enemy but also the capacity. When a state is able to mobilize the two (will and capacity) it can be capable of victory against terrorism. This the case even for a weak state like Lebanon, as the national government made clear when it defeated the Fatah al-Islam terrorists.

Third, we need to understand how an organization like Hezbollah was allowed to develop to the extent that it has. I’m not talking about poverty breeding terrorism. It should be clear to every democratic government that allowing armed organizations dedicated to your violent overthrow to operate openly, allowing them to solicit funds from foreign governments, and allowing them to essentially create a state within a state is absolutely unacceptable.

Read More:

Eric Trager: Contentions

Michael Young: Daily Star

Thoughts on the Current Debate: A Perspective from the U.S.


[Image courtesy of Zombietime.]

I haven’t found the time to post a response to what Bob, Marko and the Drink Soaked Trots for War have been writing the past week or so. I’ve found the discussion stimulating aside from the occasional juvenile outbursts. I certainly find the West vs. Anti-West perspective to have some utility, especially vis-à-vis the current anti-totalitarian struggle we are facing.

The generic left-right divide does not actually capture the complexity of people’s politics in the U.S. these days. For example, an individual may be considered “conservative” on foreign policy issues and “liberal” on domestic issues. Plus, when you actually start to examine positions on specific issues things get more muddled. I’ve known many working-class individuals who are very “liberal” when it comes to wages, health care, and pensions but very “conservative” when it comes to the environment or matters of concern to the lgbt community.

Why this is the case is an interesting question to ponder. IMHO most Americans have similar ambiguities in their political identities. I suspect that part of it is we don’t have a long history of political parties tied to specific political ideologies like democratic socialism, communism, etc. in the United States. The parties espousing these sorts of ideas were all relatively short-lived, especially compared to those of Europe. This continuous institutional history goes a long way in explaining differences in worldview between American and European workers.

I think the entire issue of reality, cognition, and perception gets overlooked in these discussions and debates. It’s my contention, and I realize it’s a strong claim, that most people involved in radical politics in the United States are not involved for reasons that many would consider political. Instead, involvement in these groups and organizations provides a sense of belonging and identity.

Most of the actions that take place under the rubric of “radical politics” in the U.S. has very little actual political content, at least in relation to domestic or foreign policy. As Kevin Harris has argued, many people who join these marginal political groups are participating in a self-delusional political fantasy:

My first encounter with this particular kind of fantasy occurred when I was in college in the late sixties. A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple — to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

And what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective.

Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability. Thus, when he lay down in front of hapless commuters on the bridges over the Potomac, he had no interest in changing the minds of these commuters, no concern over whether they became angry at the protesters or not.

They were there merely as props, as so many supernumeraries in his private psychodrama. The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.

For want of a better term, call the phenomenon in question a fantasy ideology — by which I mean, political and ideological symbols and tropes used not for political purposes, but entirely for the benefit of furthering a specific personal or collective fantasy. It is, to be frank, something like “Dungeons and Dragons” carried out not with the trappings of medieval romances — old castles and maidens in distress — but entirely in terms of ideological symbols and emblems. The difference between them is that one is an innocent pastime while the other has proven to be one of the most terrible scourges to afflict the human race.

I’ve found that most people on the radical left (whether “authoritarian” or “libertarian”) subscribe to various forms of fantasy ideologies. For them, politics is about validating their own personal political beliefs (like being “anti-state”) rather than accomplishing anything political. That’s not to say that the libertarian left holds uninteresting political beliefs. But let’s be honest, how many of these black-hooded youths actually thinks “the state” is going to collapse anytime soon?

I used to consider myself an anarchist. Anarchism was–key word being was–a thriving political movement in the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because it had a strong foundation in working-class communities. Today it is mostly a fad for middle-class college students, like socialism in general. This, not government repression, explains the movement’s weakness. These ideologies lack any sort of appeal amongst the classes they were once associated with. Historian Ron Radosh refers to this as the “leftover left”.

Marko articulates similar thoughts when he writes:

It may be true, philosophically speaking, that anarchists who support autonomous communes are fundamentally different from statist socialists who support a centrally planned economy, but given the unlikelihood that the ideals of either will ever be realised, I do not consider it particularly worthwhile to discuss such differences. What matters is where one stands on concrete issues relating to struggles that are actually taking place…

And this is the key point: real, meaningful change is possible under the existing liberal-democratic order, whereas there is no reason to believe that this order can be overthrown and replaced by something radically different and better. If I have ‘made my peace’ with the existing order, it is not because I think the existing order is perfect, but because it is an existing order that can be improved, whereas the radical-left alternatives do not offer any realistic prospect for successful progressive change.

That’s the clincher. As I’ve written elsewhere, utopian political programs lead to dystopian outcomes. Reform is necessary in any society or system of government, economics, jurisprudence, and so forth. But revolution, at least as dreamed by the radical left in the U.S., is a fantasy.

Political Alignment and Identity: Pro-Western Versus Anti-Western Now More Important than Left Versus Right?


[Political Diagram by Marko Attila Hoare. Click for larger, legible, viewing.]

Thanks to Contentious Centrist and Bob for pointing me to this Ignoblus post which is commenting on a post by Marko Attila Hoare. To summarize, Hoare provided a diagram of contemporary political alignments (above). These alignments have less to do with left versus right (a dated but not entirely irrelevant paradigm) then pro-Western versus anti-Western.

Hoare writes:

The triumph of the centrist political model has led to one section of the Left and one section of the Right breaking away from their respective comrades and joining up in opposition to this model: this ultimately takes the form of a Red-Brown coalition. Conversely, a second section of the Left and a second section of the Right have likewise broken away from the first sections and come together in support of extending this model globally. This, then, is the principal ideological division in global politics today: pro-Western vs anti-Western; globalist vs anti-globalist; the democratic centre vs the Red-Brown coalition.

The essence of the division is that the pro-Westerners support the extension of the liberal-democratic order across the globe, through the politics of human rights, promotion of democracy, universal values and interventionism (not necessarily always military). The anti-Westerners oppose the liberal-democratic model, at least as a universal model; they admire or support movements or regimes that stand in opposition to the Western alliance or to Western values – all of which uphold religious fundamentalism or nativist nationalism, sometimes combined with a ’socialist’ veneer, as an alternative to liberal democracy.

Ignoblus’ post focuses on cultural codes and anti-Zionism. is on to something in connecting anti-Western sentiment and anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is a huge part of the contemporary radical left’s political identity, But this anti-Zionism should be examined within the context of a broader “anti-imperialism.” Hoare advocated a similar perspective in his review of Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies for Democratiya. Here is an excerpt:

In simplest terms, ‘imperialism’ can be defined as a state’s pursuit of empire or the expansion of its power, through acquiring territory from, or power over, other states or peoples. No reasonable person would not oppose this, but ‘anti-imperialism’ today means something other than opposition to imperialism. ‘Imperialism’, in the eyes of the average ‘anti-imperialist’, is coterminous with ‘the West’, i.e. with the US and its West European and Israeli allies. As such, it is used to refer to the bloc of states that dominates the world today, and there is undoubtedly something emotionally appealing to the individual ‘radical’ in apparently fighting that which is all-powerful. As an eighteen-year old Trotskyist and ‘anti-imperialist’ at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, I can testify to the empowering sense of self-righteousness I felt as I demonstrated against the US and its allies, in the course of which my views became increasingly extreme: I fervently believed that the US-led intervention was by far a greater evil than Saddam’s occupation of Kuwait; that it would be a blessing for humanity if the US and its allies were defeated; that such a defeat would trigger revolutionary outbreaks across the Middle East and even in the West.

[read it all here]

I agree that it useful to analyze contemporary conlficts as between the forces supporting economic and political liberalization and those opposed to this opening. However, like Ignoblus, I am rather uncomfortable being lumped in with president George W. Bush. My political opponents on the radical left have often reduced my nuanced centrist position to that of neo-conservatism but there is no need for Hoare to fall into the same trap. After all, part of the appeal of the Euston Manifesto among self-described leftists was it provided an opportunity to be robustly anti-totalitarian (i.e. “decent”) without being right-wing or conservative. Hoare also ignores the existence of ultra-leftists, anarchists, and other self-styled revolutionaries who advocate a third perspective that is classically “anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist” while also critical of Jihadist terrorism. I’m refering here to Three Way Fight, World War 4 Report, etc.

All in all, I find much affinity with what Hoare is writing on these issues and this diagram is a good first attempt at describing political alignments in the post September 11, 2001 era. I’m very interested in seeing Hoare and others develop these ideas further. For example, if muscular liberals are lumped in with neo-conservatives into some sort of political coalition, where does Hoare see the potential for political cleavages developing between these two groups?

Democracy Promotion: Process or Outcome?


Martin in Margins has an excellent post regarding the tension between emphasizing process or, emphasizing outcome, in democracy promotion efforts. Some analysts and academics place an emphasis on process. Essentially, the result of the election is less important than the election itself being fair and transparent. If people are given a political choice and they choose radical religious candidates over moderate secular ones, who are we to determine their political decisions? For others, often policymakers, the emphasis is on outcome. Simply stated, the goal of democracy promotion is fostering states that acknowledge private property rights and the rule of law, majority rule and minority rights, provide the political space for the development of an independent civil society (media, unions, professional organizations, etc.), and so on and so forth.

There is a tension between these two competing perspectives than many refuse exists. Martin notes:

I’ve written before about the difficulties that arise when a newly-democratic country makes a democratic choice, the consequence of which is to exclude or oppress significant sections of the population. The example I discussed in these earlier posts is southern Iraq, where the democratic election of conservative religious parties threatens the rights and freedoms of religious and political minorities, women and homosexuals. Some blame may be attached to the Coalition Provisional Authority, for the way it encouraged a communalist politics in the south and lent credibility to sectarian forces such as the Sadrists. However, the popular vote for the religious parties in the 2005 election appears to have been overwhelming.

So is this democracy? And where does it leave the strategy of encouraging the development of democratic reform in the Middle East, if the result is to install Islamist regimes which then proceed to limit democratic freedoms? I remember seeing a quote from a liberal Saudi woman who was emphatically against democratic change in her country, since she feared it would mean the election of an even more oppressively Islamist government. But does this mean that the west should revert to its discredited strategy of shoring up corrupt Middle Eastern dictators, for fear that their removal would lead to something much worse?

[continue reading]

Military Contractors, State Power and the Monopoly of the Use of Force


In the controversially titled “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” Charles Tilly made a rather uncontroversial observation, the consolidation of state power in Europe was accompanied by the monopolization of the use of force. In Tilly’s words, “A tendency to monopolize the means of violence makes a government’s claim to provide protection, in either the comforting or ominous sense of the word, more credible and more difficult to resist.” (see Bringing the State Back In). Yet recent trends in the United States and elsewhere suggest this cornerstone of state power may be eroding and with it, the ability of the U.S. to achieve success in the Long War.

“Businesses Worldwide. United for Peace”–International Peace Operations Association

The most recent, costly and controversial example of this shift are the private military contractors (PMCs) operating in Iraq. The Iraqi government recently restricted the movement of military contractor Blackwater to the U.S. Green Zone in response to allegations of indiscriminate violence and the targeting of Iraqi civilians. For critics, Blackwater and other PMCs are essentially mercenaries, hired soldiers with little sense of morality or loyalty.

The security contracting industry has been working hard to counter that image through their trade group, the International Peace Operations Association (IPOA). The IPOA considers itself “the most ethical, transparent, and effective voice of the Peace and Stability Industry in the world” and paints a different picture of military contractors than we see in the mainstream media. Contractors are removing land mines in Africa, assisting with reconciliation in the Balkans and performing other necessary functions in post-conflict zones throughout the world.

I asked a friend who served as a solider in the first Gulf War what he thought about the role of contractors, was it good or bad for the military, are they of use in specific roles, and so forth. He thought in specific instances, food preparation and service, transportation of basic supplies, etc. using contractors was better than having soldiers perform these tasks. However, when it came to the use of force he was much more critical. Soldiers are held to much stricter rules of engagement and to much harsher consequences and penalties for getting out of line. The contractors are outside of the chain of command and do not share these restrictions.

For the soldier, the behavior exhibited by many contractors is dangerous to our counterinsurgency effort. Unprovoked firefights are a major concern. On a more strategic level, the actions of contractors undermine U.S. attempts to win “hearts and minds” in Iraq and damages American credibility in the ideological struggle throughout the region.

Peter Singer’s recent study for the Brookling’s Institution, “Can’t Win With ‘Em, Can’t Go To War Without ‘Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency,” examines these concerns.

The point here is not that all contractors are “cowboys,” “unprofessional,” or “killers,” as Blackwater and other contractors are often described. Rather, most are highly talented, ex-soldiers. However, their private mission is different from the overall public operation. Those, for example, doing escort duty are going to be judged by their bosses solely on whether they get their client from point A to B, not whether they win Iraqi hearts and minds along the way.

Then there are the financial costs. Privatization works great for catering, but it has proved far less efficient for combat operations. Questionable contracts have resulted in the loss of billions of dollars.

Singer’s study explores how the use of contractors:

Inflames popular opinion against, rather than for, the American mission through operational practices that ignore the fundamental lessons of counterinsurgency.

As one set of contractors described. “Our mission is to protect the principal at all costs. If that means pissing off the Iraqis, too bad.”

Participated in a series of abuses that have undermined efforts at winning “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people.

The pattern of contractor misconduct extends back to 2003 and has involved everything from prisoner abuse and “joyride” shootings of civilians to a reported incident in which a drunken Blackwater contractor shot dead the security guard of the Iraqi Vice President after the two got into an argument on Christmas Eve, 2006.

Weakened American efforts in the “war of ideas” both inside Iraq and beyond. As one Iraqi government official explained even before the recent shootings.

“They are part of the reason for all the hatred that is directed at Americans, because people don’t know them as Blackwater, they know them only as Americans. They are planting hatred, because of these irresponsible acts.”

Reveals a double standard towards Iraqi civilian institutions that undermines efforts to build up these very same institutions, another key lesson of counterinsurgency.

As one Iraqi soldier said of Blackwater. “They are more powerful than the government. No one can try them. Where is the government in this?”

Forced policymakers to jettison strategies designed to win the counterinsurgency on multiple occasions, before they even had a chance to succeed.

The U.S. Marine plan for counterinsurgency in the Sunni Triangle was never implemented, because of uncoordinated contractor decisions in 2004 that helped turn Fallujah into a rallying point of the insurgency. More recently, while U.S. government leaders had planned to press the Iraqi government on needed action on post-“surge” political benchmarks, instead they are now having to request Iraqi help in cleaning up the aftermath of the Blackwater incident.


I’ll be writing more on this topic in the near future.

Ben Gidley: Social theory, the left, and terror


[Hat tip to Bob from Brockley]

The new issue of Street Signs [pdf], the magazine of the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths College, is out. Have a look at Ben Gidley’s “Chicken’s coming home to roost: Social theory, the left, and terror,” on page 27.

Here is the first paragraph:

When the September 11 attacks on New York happened, I was in my office in the Laurie Grove Baths at CUCR, trying to finish a report that was overdue. A colleague, Garry Robson, came into my office to tell me what was happening. It seemed unreal and my first thought, of which I am now ashamed, was that this was a distraction I didn’t need. I went downstairs to the communal office where people were standing around the radio listening to events unfold, then after a while returned to my office to try to finish off the report. It was only when I arrived home and started to watch the images on television that it began to feel more real. And then it began to feel painfully real when I spoke on the telephone to my mother – a New Yorker transplanted to Yorkshire.