Book review: Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War by Edward D. Mansfield
This book makes a convincing argument that it’s misleading to assume that democracies are less likely to wage wars. That assumption is true of mature democracies, but unstable nations that are trying to make a transition to democracy are more likely than autocracies to wage war. At least part of the reasons are increased nationalism, competition among politicians to be the most nationalist, and the weakness of stabilizing institutions.
The book offers some hints about how a transition to a democracy might be managed to minimize the risks, but this part of the book is more speculative and less convincing.
In spite of the book’s relevance to current events, it devotes little attention to the present. It covers the time period from the French revolution to the present with the perspective of a historian, and says as much about Iraq in 1948 as it does about the recent experiment with democracy in Iraq. It is somewhat valuable for reminding us how many attempts at democracy failed and have largely faded from collective memories.
The dry, scholarly style of the book is a bit mind-numbing.
Book Review: 1491 : New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
This book does a good job of discrediting several myths about the nature New World civilizations before Europeans arrived. It implies that significant parts of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel are wrong (in ways that Diamond should have avoided by consulting experts) – Indians were quite capable of repelling Europeans when their advantage consisted of guns and steel. After smallpox spread across the Americas (faster than Europeans), guns and steel were largely superfluous advantages.
The book presents evidence (alas, not enough to be conclusive) that most of the land in the Americas had been altered by civilizations that were much more sophisticated and varied than is commonly realized, and the myth that Indians were primitive savages is largely due to people mistaking the disease-ravaged remnants that the typical European colonist encountered for the pre-European norm.
The book also provides a few bits of evidence against historical determinism by pointing out how differently some aspects of civilization developed in the two worlds. For instance, the New World seems to have been first to get the concept of zero, but only used wheels for toys, and valued metals for their malleability rather than strength.
One very intriguing report is that the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation society was freer and more egalitarian than European society, and that this caused a number of Europeans to prefer Haudenosaunee society, but no Indians in that region preferred European society. It’s unclear how strong the evidence is for these somewhat controversial claims. I guess I ought to track down the books he references for this subject.
The book also describes the Inka empire as socialist, without any markets, but I’m disappointed at how little the books says about that (e.g. how broad a definition of market is he using?).
The main shortcomings of this book are the numerous anecdotes that add little to our understanding of Indian civilizations.
The Bush administration’s abuse of innocent Muslims hasn’t been getting as much coverage as it deserves, so I’m encouraging you all to spread the word about this account of the government’s continuing abuse of Muslims that it admitted months ago were innocent (thanks to Andrew Sullivan).
What is Congress doing about this boost to Al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts? Trying to restrict the habeas corpus rights of the victims so that we don’t hear about them.
The cover describes Stratfor (the intelligence company Friedman founded) as a “Shadow CIA”. By this book’s description of the CIA, this implies it has a lot of details right but misses many important broad trends. The book tends to have weaknesses of this nature, being better as a history of Al Qaeda’s conflict with the U.S. than as a guide to the future, but it’s probably a good deal more reliable than CIA analysis.
It describes a few important trends that I wasn’t aware of. The best theory the book proposes that I hadn’t heard before is the claim that the U.S. government is much more worried about Al Qaeda getting a nuclear bomb than the public realizes (for instance, the Axis of Evil is the set of nations that are unable or unwilling to prove they won’t help Al Qaeda get the bomb).
The explanation of the U.S. motives for invading Iraq as primarily to pressure the Saudi government is unconvincing.
The book’s biases are sufficiently subtle that I have some difficulty detecting them. It often paints Bush in as favorable a light as possible, but is also filled with some harsh criticisms of his mistakes, for example:
It is an extraordinary fact that in the U.S.-jihadist war, the only senior commander or responsible civilian to have been effectively relieved was Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, who was retired unceremoniously (although not ahead of schedule) after he accurately stated that more than 200,000 troops would be needed in Iraq
The person selected, Tom Ridge, had no background in the field and had absolutely no idea what he was doing, but that was not a problem problem since, in fact, he would have nothing really to do. His job was simply to appear to be in control of an apparatus that did not yet exist
But it’s hard to place a lot of confidence in theories that are backed mainly by eloquent stories. It’s unfortunate that the book is unable or unwilling to document the evidence needed to confirm them.
There’s a fair amount of agreement between this book and Imperial Hubris, but I’ve revised my opinion of that book a bit due to the disagreements between the two. The claims by Imperial Hubris that we don’t need to worry about a new Caliphate seem unpersuasive now that I see there widespread disagreement with that claim and weak arguments on both sides. The two books disagree on who’s currently winning the war, but I see no sign that defeat for either side is anywhere near close enough to be predictable.
In today’s press conference, someone asked Bush about how the turnout in the Iraqi elections would affect their legitimacy. The questioner seemed think that a very high turnout (such as elections in the Soviet Union produced) would make the results legitimate, but low turnout (such as typical local elections here in Silicon Valley produce?) would raise questions about the election’s legitimacy. Why do suggestions such as that not produce ridicule? Is it due to a preference for easily quantified criteria?
A few minutes later, Bush took great care to avoid supporting free speech for Muslims who hate the U.S (he was asked about Jordan, but could easily have talked about other parts of the mideast). This hints at a willingness to prevent jihadists who seem to have support from a nontrivial fraction of the Iraqi population from campaigning, which might lend some plausibility to their boycott of the elections.
Another issue that is important in determining whether the elections are legitimate is whether there is any reason for one part of Iraq to be subject to the ideology of the majority within Iraq. Iraq is hardly a nation in the normal sense of that word – it contains several cultures, not fond of the idea of nation-states, who were made into a country by British decree.
If I had somehow become U.S. president around the time that Saddam was captured, I would have dispensed with recreating a national Iraqi government, and simply held hasty elections for ruling councils in each town/city, then I would have withdrawn U.S. troops.
Book review: Imperial Hubris : Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, by Anonymous
This disturbing book whose author has now identified himself as Michael Scheuer, the former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, claims that bin Laden is being effective at persuading Muslims to wage a defensive jihad against the U.S. by making straightforward arguments based on scripture and descriptions of U.S. actions toward Muslims that are close enough to the truth to convince many Muslims that it would be sinful not to fight the U.S. He is succeeding because he ignores such U.S. offenses as alcohol, gay rights, man-made law and nation-states, and focuses on U.S. meddling in the Mideast.