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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Monday, August 07, 2006


Wow, I'm a political blogger!

posted by Razib Khan at Monday, August 07, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
I'm feeling kind of strange, blogging about political and foreign policy issues. I'll be honest, I don't follow this stuff anymore, I have a hard time getting my head wrapped around a lot of topics and I don't expend much CPU cycles to the bread & butter of the political blogosphere. But a few points:

1) I've been motivated to make some negative comments about what I perceive to be unhinged fantasists because even if I don't focus on this area much I can spot incorrect assumptions since those assumptions are derived broadly from other disciplines.

2) Several individuals in a thread below referred to the potentiality of Islamists. As I said to Dean, England made its craven peace with Germany 1 year before war. Fascist brownshirts had been terrorizing Jews, Austria had been annexed and the Rhine remilitarized. Germany had already been involved in a World War. The comparison of the potentiality of threat seems a very stretched analogy to what had been a real threat since the fall of Bismarck. In fact, some of the potentialists seem to be making Anselm's Ontological argument for foreign policy: vulgarly, if one can conceive of a threat in the future, that threat must exist in the present.

3) Dean referred to Okham's Razor below in regards to parsimony. My rejoinder is that Okham's Razor holds insofar as one must not add unnecessary parameters! In behavior genetics it is more parsimonious to assume that genes, or environment, are responsible for all behavioral differences. But the reality is that genes and environment, as well as their interactions, play important necessary roles. We do not multiply unnecessary causes, but we do continue to add parameters so long as it yields more explanatory power.

4) Where does this leave us with the topic at hand? First, on the theoretical level we must examine this issue from more than realpolitik modelling of nations as rational actors, or the historical longview, or pop psychology, rather, we must synthesize as many disciplinary lenses as possible to form the best model possible. Why is this relevant? Because the leaders of Iran (for example) are humans, with human motivations, biases, blindnesses and outlooks. My reading of the cognitive psychology of religion for example leads me to the conclusion that some are overreading the millenarian rhetoric that is coming out of Iran, just as some Europeans become overwrought at the influence of radical Protestantism, that is, evangelical Christianity, in US politics.

5) Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing. Sometimes it isn't. The past 3 years have shifted my priors in terms of who to believe, or not believe. "Ye shall know them by their fruits."


Well, the last few years have dramatically reduced our insulation from the decisions made in Washington about foreign policy. So we are all political bloggers now. What's been sorely missing I think from political blogs is a rationalist approach to the issues, including the cignitive aspect - so really this is a niche a mile wide that you aree driving your truck through. I dont think there's anyone else out here doing that. So, enjoy it :) How else besides politics can cogsci folks get empirical?


the key for me is that cognitive science is floor 1. the human mind. social psychology is flour 2. sociology is floor 3. then the building begins to expand in all directions, as there is a history wing, a religion wing and a current events wing.

the problem, as i see it, is that too many people are working with flying fortresses, as they miss out on floor 1 and 2, and often 3 as well. they often do have some grasp of history, religion and current events, but that just isn't the whole picture. these wings deal with the reflective mind, and that simply isn't the totality of who we are.

more later.


I certainly don't think that Islamism is an existential threat to the west as a whole in the way that Germany and the USSR were, but the comparison is valid for two reasons:

1. It is a conflict which will occupy the west for the next generation.

2. It is an existential threat to some countries on the frontier - I am thinking not only of Israel, but also India, Philippines, Lebanon, others.

It does not necessarily follow that because the magnitude of the vector is smaller, we should therefore just live with it. There are a lot of lessons we can learn from previous world wars, for example: Will detente work, as it did with the communists? Doesn't look like it to me. How about appeasement? I think that there the lessons we learned with Nazism are valid.



what's in a word? is it islamism that is really a problem for israel or lebanon? hamas and hezbollah existed long before the war on terror, my understanding is that the war on terror is specifically focused on the problems arising from transnational terror networks which focus on the "far enemy" (the west).

i don't believe that india & the phillipines are in an existential threat at all. in fact, the moro rebellion and terrorism in the far south is because christian filipinos are demographically swallowing them and now dominate

Will detente work, as it did with the communists? Doesn't look like it to me. How about appeasement?

i have never proposed either.


p.s. just to be clear, i think lebanon is in way more danger than israel, but in both cases i don't think islamism in the "war on terror" sense is the main problem (e.g., GIA in egypt, al qaeda, etc.). i don't believe palestinians shifted from fatah to hamas within the last few years because they wanted a sharia state all of a sudden, rather, there are other local issues at work.


I agree that the root cause is not Islamism, but a certain worldview in which Islamism can make a good home - one in which Nazism and communism (for all that they are seemingly in conflict with each other) can also happily dwell.

Islamism is just the latest rebellion against the "unnatural" institutions of "modernism". But it is the war which we must currently fight. It is behind the latest events in Lebanon and Iraq.

Also, one thing that we can learn from WWII, is that leader DO do irrational things, e.g. attacking the US and USSR. Iran won't attack the US directly (currently it can't) but it might well attack Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc. And, from a perfectly rational point of view, the threat of that irrationality will put Iran in a position of power throughout the Middle East. Is that what we want?


Iran won't attack the US directly (currently it can't) but it might well attack Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc.

david, yes, it might, but what are the chances??? first, i don't believe for a second that the USA won't stand by israel if it is in genuine existential threat. iran is toast if it really is bent on destroying israel. that, i have no doubt. second, as far as saudi arabia goes, again, to invade saudi arabia would be totally irrational. the whole sunni world would turn against iran, and, again, i have no doubt that american air power as well as ground troops would come into play. there is no way iran can win.

so two points

1) the iranian offensive is predicated on mammoth irrationality, more than hitler's. the reason i say more than hitler's is that germany had great success before it opened up a second front. the greater irrationality was when it was clear that neither axis powers were going to win. that is a different circumstance than this.

2) if a iranian offensive is imminent, i see absolutely no reason to proactively attack them, they'll stick their hands into the trap and get get their face blown off. the ultimate issue is nuclear weapons, if iran has them and has long range weapons, then it is a different proposition.

finally, i don't agree with the idea that the mullahs of iran are autocrats in the way that saddam or hitler was. the current supreme leader is actually a relatively light-weight cleric who is outranked by many others who managed to kiss khomenei's ass. additionally, during the 1980s iran had an enormous TFR, today, the average woman is bearing less than 2 children, and my understanding was that the iranian youth are less than enthusiastic about the current regime....

iran couldn't defeat iraq in the 1980s with a far greater population and zeal. at that time the regime was much more popular. the main parameter that has shifted from what i can see is potential nukes and perhaps oil (though the early 80s were $$$ from what i remember).

the main doubt i have is in regards to nukes, i don't feel confident enough on this issue. but on all other counts color me skeptical.


the main doubt i have is in regards to nukes, i don't feel confident enough on this issue. but on all other counts color me skeptical.

I'm glad you said that, because from where I sit, the answer to the question "it might, but what are the chances???" has a very different meaning. I want to respond, "easy for you to say!" The fact that the US would then destroy Iran is not very comforting. Especially since I, for one, rather like Iran, and don't want it to be destroyed!

But even from the point of view of someone who is willing to play that game: The cold war was very unpleasant even without any bombs actually dropping. If we could have avoided the cold war as easily as we can avoid a nuclear Iran, I would have wanted to - even knowing that in the end nothing would happen.


I want to respond, "easy for you to say!"

of course. i grant that we have different cost vs. benefit equations.

but note my quote below, roger l. simon implied that the current threat might be worse than nazi german or the USSR for the USA (i presume). that's the frame we're starting from.


and david, for you to argue:

If we could have avoided the cold war as easily as we can avoid a nuclear Iran, I would have wanted to - even knowing that in the end nothing would happen.

isn't that also a case of "easy for you to say" ? Look, nuke proliferation is going to happen. Thank AQ Khan for it. I don't *want* a cold war with Iran, but hey that's the way its going to head, and in this case I think glasnost is going to be faster.

We need to stop looking for cheap and quick solutions and just get ready for the long haul. All this talk of WW4 or whatever is really just eth foreign policy equivalent of bread and circuses.


for an example of how uncritical acceptance of the mad mullah theory can totall draw analysis off the rails, look no further than Bernard Lewis, scared of the shadow of August 22.

This really strikes me as an amazing statement:

How then can one confront such an enemy, with such a view of life and death? Some immediate precautions are obviously possible and necessary. In the long term, it would seem that the best, perhaps the only hope is to appeal to those Muslims, Iranians, Arabs and others who do not share these apocalyptic perceptions and aspirations, and feel as much threatened, indeed even more threatened, than we are. There must be many such, probably even a majority in the lands of Islam. Now is the time for them to save their countries, their societies and their religion from the madness of MAD.


Look, nuke proliferation is going to happen.

It doesn't have to happen. It is currently in our power to stop it. Now is the time. Soon it will be too late. (I don't believe N. Korea will outlive its current ruler.)


ha ha, razib you cannot resist.
Current events are the field lab for all our theories!
wan't it you that said, "humans are not shaped by culture, humans shape their culture according to their needs?"
as a cognitive neuroscientist, you have a vast field lab to study conformational bias, cognitive dissidence, consensus effect, etc.
i lurve it. ;)


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.