Voice

I'm still waiting to be scared

Stephen Colbert's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's attempt to rally fear in the hearts of Americans through its foiled toner cartridge gambit continues to reverberate in homeland security circles. Clearly, there are still a few bugs in the system. That said, here are my quick takeaways:

1) Al Qaeda failed… again. Seriously, if al Qaeda is ostensibly the New York Yankees of terrorism, the Steinbrenners would have fired the GM and coach years ago.

2) As this New York Times round-up suggests, al Qaeda has had to adopt new tactics because its preferred tactics have been thwarted:

[It was] a rare attack aimed at the air cargo system -- one of the foundations of the global economy -- rather than the passenger system, which has received the most attention from governments working to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The Times story goes on to bemoan the failure to ratchet up security in the cargo system, which is a fair point. An implicit conclusion to draw from this switch in tactics, however, is that al Qaeda-affiliated groups are being frustrated on the passenger front.

3) Will Juan Williams now be fearful every time he sees a toner cartridge, even though most toner cartridges are not evil?

4) A common mantra about combating terrorism is that homeland security officials have to aim for a 1.000 batting average, while terrorists just need to get lucky once. I wonder if this is really true, however. Each time a new type of attack is thwarted, government officials learn a great deal about new tactics and methods, and a treasure trove of intelligence can be quickly generated. Failed attacks are likely to discourage some al Qaeda sympathizers, leading to more informants.

No, al Qaeda doesn't need a perfect track record, but failure after failure does carry strategic and operational costs.

5) The Saudi counterintelligence effort is getting an awful lot of good press.

Am I missing anything?

Daniel W. Drezner

Trick or treat, war or peace

Halloween approaches, and the good people at Foreign Policy want me to talk about horror, what with my comparative advantage in knowledge of the macabre and all. Ordinarily, I'd have declined, but I met both George Romero and Max Brooks today, so I'm feeling pretty good.

Without further ado, here are ten random and not-so-random thoughts about the international relations of fear, horror, and the undead. 

1) After reading Elizabeth Dickinson's and Joshua Keating's excellent round-up of how the Tea Party movement is scaring the s**t out of the rest of the world, I'm wondering if the Obama administration could use the movement, post-November, to get some concessions from other countries. Consistent with a two-level game approach, it would make sense for the administration to argue with, say, China, that somewhat more rapid appreciation of the yuan might prevent future President Sarah Palin from doing something disastrous for both countries.   

2) Over at The New Republic, Stephen Sestanovich demonstrates remarkably good taste in opening this blog post on "the role of the supernatural in foreign policy" by mentioning my forthcoming "funny new book." He notes the common theme in these books:

How and why does America succumb to fits of madness in its relations with other countries? Why does it so often overreach and overreact?

The answer, these books tell us, seems to lie in altered states of consciousness -- messianic enchantment, demonic possession, divine mission, what have you. Zombies, in other words, are no mere hypothetical threat. They're all around us -- and may have been running things for a long time…

For the supernaturalists, our policy regularly takes a wrong turn because of collective irrationality and rabid, arrogant moralizing.

Sestanovich thinks that these authors are exaggerating their claims just a bit, and provides some useful pushback. 

3) Sestanovich is also correct to point out that, "in writing about flesh-eating zombies, Drezner has, believe it or not, plenty of company these days." It's true, the IR zombie marketplace is becoming vastly more competitive. For an example of another zombie IR project, take a gander at James Der Derian's Project Z

Both Der Derian and Sestanovich use zombies as metaphors. Another way in which the undead is used as an IR metaphor is to represent  the persistence of ideas and institutions without any conscious thought. In that vein, check out Steve Walt and Dan Nexon on the future of NATO. Walt thinks that NATO is a zombie organization that will slowly decay into oblivion; Nexon thinks that the realist conviction that NATO will wither away has been around for about a generation, and might just be acquiring zombie status itself.  

4) A sociological follow-up to the last point. I know a lot of realists, I've had many drinks with a lot of realists, I've agreed and disagreed with them at times. Here's the thing that puzzles me: even though realists continually stress the importance of fear in world politics, realists are remarkably affectless passionless and unemotional in making these arguments. I'm not sure if this is because realists are not quite like other guys, or if realists might just exaggerate the role that fear actually plays in world politics. 

5) I think Marc Lynch is trying to scare people into believing that by ratcheting up the rhetoric, the Obama administration is locking itself into a path to war: 

The greatest danger of introducing open war talk by the administration is that it would represent the next step in the "ratcheting" -- which I've been warning of for months -- and pave the way either to a 1990's Iraq scenario or to an actual war. Once the military option is on the table, it never goes away. The only way to signal "toughness" in future encounters will be to somehow escalate beyond military threats -- i.e. to commit action, such as airstrikes or cruise missiles. And those would, by the consensus of virtually every serious analyst, be a catastrophe. If the United States isn't prepared to follow through on the threat --- and it really, really shouldn't be --- then it shouldn't make the threat. That would just either undermine credibility, or else give a hook for hawks to demand that actions live up to rhetoric. Dangerous either way. 

Meh. I've been hearing the "drumbeats for war with Iran" every month since 2006, and I think the United States is no closer to launching a military action. I understand the concern that we'll slowly talk ourselves into going to war, but this isn't the 1990s, it's 2010, and I've noticed that Americans are awfully sick of the current set of wars. 

Lynch also omits the one positive that this sort of rhetoric might have -- it might be a gambit to placate Israel into not taking military action -- which I think everyone agrees is  not a desirable outcome. 

6) I swear, this actually happened at a Fletcher School Halloween party back in 2006 that had some really bad bean dip.   

7) I see that the Rally to Restotre Sanity was not the only movement to deluge the District of Columbia. The Washington Post's Lisa De Moraes reports that promoters for AMC's The Walking Dead had their own little movement

8) Psssst… al Qaeda in Yemen… you're still not scaring me. A toner cartridge embargo, however, would be truly frightening. 

9) Oh, that reminds me… AMC's The Walking Dead premieres this Sunday. Watch it -- and be sure to take The Walking Dead survival test

10) This blog post to the contrary, I never considered myself an expert on the horror genre. But one of the interesting effects of writing in the social media age is that once my network of friends and colleagues knew that I was writing about zombies, I kept receiving links upon links whenever a zombie-related story made the news. Once someone establishes even a modicum of expertise on a subject, a close network can enhance that person's abilities to keep up on the latest developments in the given issue area. So many thanks to all of those who have e-mailed me over the past month about zombie news!