Friday, November 27, 2009

Unfreezing My PoliSci Brain Parts and Actually Reading Some of my "PDFs to Be Read"

I'm taking this holiday break to whittle down my "Papers to Be Read" folder. (It's a topic I brought up in a NetSol blog post a few months back, Book Shame, Information Hoarding and Aspirational PDFs, about how our publicly-shared reading lists are often more aspirational than an indicator of intent.)

It's more than a little telling that I only just now added a "Read" subfolder (as in "Papers I've Actually Read"). At this point, many of the documents have been superceded and now only have value as snapshots of particular moments in history.

The first one was basically a warm-up: Speculative Fiction and National Security, a 7-pager by Adam Elkus and Crispin Burke (Starbuck, of Wings Over Iraq) for Small Wars Journal. It's fairly light look at the framework (mostly limitations) of speculative fiction and the scenarios depicted in futurism and sci-fi, concluding that their primary value isn't necessarily predictive, but instead as a way to get people to think about present problems in a different and perhaps more honest way -- because situations are presented in a fictionalized and more abstract context, we're able to look at things with fewer of our current investments and hang-ups.

The second is a lot lengthier, if not necessarily deeper: Integrating Security:
Preparing for the National Security Threats of the 21st Century
, a report from the Center for American Progress that came out a few weeks ago. It's a 60-something page recommendation for the Obama administration's National Security Strategy.

It deals in broad strategic strokes (e.g. combating extremism, engaging with adversaries, leveraging alliances), a fair amount of Bush-bashing, and also features many recommendations for bureaucratic reorganization and synchronization that will never see the light of day.

While I agree largely with the goals and methods outlined in the report, it lacks oomph. The report features nuance, deliberation, multilateralism, and an emphasis on what some call "soft power," -- non-military diplomatic and development solutions -- so it's severely disadvantaged by lacking the visceral simplicity of who to bomb next and how to better blow shit up.

("Soft power" is instantly weakened by the word "soft" -- there needs to be a better phrase. "Non-kinetic" is great, but that's really best used by the military. And improving the capabilities of governments is difficult and unsexy, even though we know that helping governments deliver essential services, especially in times of crises, is important in showing their effectiveness and keeping people from getting drawn to radical non-state actors that can get the job done.)

Also, on one hand, it does decry the militarization of stability operations and nation-building, while recognizing that in places like Afghanistan, they're sometimes the only folks who can get the job done (due to both security considerations and manpower and logistic concerns.)

The report seems to put a lot of weight into quadrennial reviews for the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, though from what I've heard (and I'm pretty far out of the loop), I've heard that the DoD's QDR is pretty much a pointless tail-chase exercise.

Personally, the report could use a little more punch, something to make key recommendations more accessible and sound biteable. The report gets pretty bogged down in bureaucratic restructure-ese, whereas I think (for example) that they could have wrapped up their international development bullets under the banner of a "Marshall Plan for Anti-Extremism." (Sure, the metaphor only goes so far, but it's accessible.)

It's pretty apparent that for the bulk of my career now, I've been too close to the marketing folks, and too far from the policy wonks.

Anyway, I'll keep working down into the pile and then see what bubbles up.

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