A few thoughts on the third debate

*Warning: what follows are a few thoughts with some semblance of structure about the foreign policy debate from last night. I don’t like the foreign policy of either candidate and find the American political coverage both of the debate and of foreign issues to be utterly disheartening. I have done little to no new research on any of the topics, do not offer solutions (yet), and at several points make opinionated statements that I have not necessarily adequately defended with examples pulled from my recollection of the debate or by briefly skimming through the debate transcript. Words are wind.

-“There is no reason that Americans should die [when we have Afghans for that].”

-Dear Mitt Romney, Barbados, Burundi, Palau, and the Vatican City are all four years closer to the bomb, too. That is how time works.

I sent out two tweets during last night’s foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (though I have since modified the wording of the first to make it pithier). I had one tweet for each presidential candidate, neither positive. For most of the day today I have monitored the coverage–everything from that this debate didn’t matter to which candidate appeared more presidential. Most of the coverage was inane, repetitive, and (if possible) more vapid than the actual talking points during the debate. Just one article truly went too far for me. I will get to this one in a moment, but I will say now that it was not the comments that Ann Coulter made. I’ve long since decided that, at least when I want to be serious, nothing she says is coherent or dignified enough to warrant a response. I prefer to deal with rational people and, as far as I can tell, she is not one.

To be honest, what Romney said scared me more than what Obama did. On one hand, I have significant qualms with how the administration is handling Iran, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and most of the rest of the world, not to mention drone attacks. On the other, I was never at any point surprised by what Obama said and I could see a mixture of pandering and basic precedent set in his first term in the answers. Romney never really provided answers of his own, but it was nonetheless interesting that he was the one who brought up the various militant Islamist groups that the President has not publicly addressed, particularly Mali and the student protests in Tehran.

Romney’s answers were often nonsensical, culturally imperialistic, and (borderline) offensive. To give one example, Romney repeatedly mentioned that Israel is the closest ally the United States has in the Middle East (Obama made the same claim at least once). This may be true, though I could easily see a case to be made for Turkey–a NATO member–officially and substantively being closer to the United States than Israel. On the Arab Spring, he said:

“I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president’s term and even further back than that, that we’d have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world, and that we would have worked more aggressively with our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government, such that it didn’t explode in the way that it did.”

In short: perhaps this whole supporting dictators and rigging elections thing doesn’t work so well in this age of instant technology–and while we support free elections, did you really have to vote for those guys?

Romney also pointed out the opportunities for US business in “Latin America,” claiming that there were “language opportunities” (whatever that means), brazenly claimed that Europe would support whatever sanctions the US wants on Iran, and that his relationship with Netanyahu will help determine Israeli policy on Iran. Romney said that we need to “indict” Ahmadinejad, though for what, it isn’t entirely clear (something about his words inciting genocide?). And, somehow, the teacher’s union is a foreign policy imperative. Presidential though he may have seemed, my biggest sense was that the President’s primary critique of Romney–that his foreign policy is rash and all over the map–seemed to ring true. And, yes, the United States does dictate to other countries.

As has been noted in a few places, this debate was notable for what was left out. Europe was hardly mentioned, Central and South America came up rarely, and climate change was never mentioned. It was also remarkable in that the candidates often agreed. Neither wanted to be involved in the regime change in Syria and both support increased defense spending, and on a number of occasions Obama was forced to counter Romney’s statements with statements that the administration already does what Romney proposed. More egregiously, though, both candidates lived in a world of blissful ignorance about history of even relatively recent events. For instance, there was a lot of talk about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but none that the United States supported Hosni Mubarak for decades–not to mention at least one gloss made between Tahrir Square and Tienanmen Square. And, of course, there was the role of America in the world:

“I absolutely believe that America has a — a responsibility, and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that — that make the world more peaceful. And those principles include human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections. Because when there are elections, people tend to vote for peace. They don’t vote for war.”

“America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office.”

The perpetual myth that is the American responsibility to civilize and defend the world–and the perpetual myth that democracies don’t go to war. Leaving aside that democracies don’t actually exist, the Melians probably have something to say about this and Kipling would love these guys. Sort of. They talk the talk, but really don’t want to get their hands dirty.

So, the article. I looked through the debate transcript and tried to recall some of my reactions from watching the debate last night. The accusation against Romney that comes up in the article posted above, but not here is that Mitt Romney made a geographical gaffe about Iran’s access to the sea. What we watched last night was an hour and a half of political bickering in front of a national audience and, for all we know, Romney might have been thinking about the Mediterranean as “the sea.” I would be more concerned if Romney was looking at a map and couldn’t figure out where Iran was, but I am fairly certain that he can pick Iran out on a map and would notice the other bodies of water. It is a misstep, but I dislike using this type of misspeaking to discredit his candidacy only slightly less than I dislike making fun of his name. It is something he said, but it is also something of even less significance than everything else he said during the debate.

If political language is meant “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” then it seems that now, more than ever, the media tries to do the same.

Assorted Links

Some articles I have been reading. This is an extended edition largely because I spent the last week hiking in the White Mountains and only just got back to the internet.

1. Will Civil War Hit Afghanistan When The U.S. Leaves? – An article in the New Yorker about the fate of Afghanistan. The Afghan interviewed is largely critical of the United States for the failure to create lasting institutions, including and especially a strong national army. It hits on most of the main issues, including ethnic, historical, and religious tensions in the region. The article hedges towards the same view as the Afghan interviewed in accusing the US policy in Afghanistan of being too superficial and transient.

2. In Defense of Cursive – A note about the decline of penmanship. Of course, it focuses mostly on the Declaration of Independence, rather than offering any actual suggestions. I like the idea (although my cursive is rather weak), but a rather superficial plea to keep cursive alive in this age where getting people to write anything by hand is a chore in and of itself is naive (at best).

3. Jackie and the Girls – An article in The Atlantic about John F. Kennedy and the contradiction that is the idolization of him. It approaches Kennedy through Jackie and some of the mistresses, and how Kennedy still managed to play the role of a doting husband and father. It is a fascinating piece, although it is also a little disappointing in that it begins with an account of Jackie Kennedy, claiming that she was a capable woman who “was never playing a short game,” but ends up talking about some other issues and only obliquely returns to this original premise. Fair warning, it does contain quite lurid details.

4. These 600-Year Old World Heritage Sites Might be Rubble by August – An extremist group (Ansar Dine) has seized Timbuktu, banned tourism because it fosters debauchery, and has begun destroying ancient shrines there.

5.Timbuktu tomb attack is an attack is an attack on our humanity – A CNN op-ed about the attacks made on world culture by extremist groups.

6. The Real Reason the U.S. Should Consider Cutting Military Aid to Egypt – An op-ed talking about why the US should (but won’t) cut military aid to Egypt.

7. The Truth About Harvard – A fascinating discussion of the core of the Liberal Arts at Harvard, and by extension, the rest of the academic world. The author argues that most history/English/philosophy professors lack confidence that their work or classes have any relevance to the real world, while those fields that provide practical application have no such issues. The author also suggests that this lack of confidence leads to an increased weakness toward grade inflation. In one of the anecdotes presented, the professor told the class that they would receive two grades: a private grade that is indicative of actual performance, and public “ironic” grade given to the registrar. I will probably have some further comments on this piece later.

8. The Grounded Campus – A suggestion on the Chronicle of Higher Education that suggests that traditional campuses can keep their place in education by focusing on the physical ground upon which they sit.

9. Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk – Some thoughts and advice from a professor about student enthusiasm.

10. Knights: The Agincourt Gambit – An excellent comic that combines Chess and History.

Alexander Essay no. 1

The series of Alexander Essays is taken courtesy of a course taught by Professor Waldemar Heckel at the University of Calgary. The list of topics may be found here

Evaluate Darius III as a political and military leader. Is he rightly depicted as cowardly and incompetent?

I feel obliged to preface this essay with a warning about expertise; I am not an expert on Ancient Persia. I do not know the customs well, nor am I as familiar with the political system as I should be. I am somewhat of a Greek history buff, although I stop short of expert, and am intimately familiar with the reign of Darios III through the Greek and Macedonian point of view, with the image of an incompetent, cowardly leader who tries to surrender half of his empire and twice allows his forces to be slaughtered as he flees to protect his royal hide. Then again, in battle the defeated had two options: give in and die in battle or flee and attempt to salvage a semblance of victory from the ruins o. The following is entirely generated from this knowledge, only afterward corroborated and edited with a review of Wikipedia.

Darios himself was only tenuously related to Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenid dynasty; one of hte reasons for the Persian weakness when Alexander invaded was that Darios had just securted the throne from the usurper Bagoas, and re-centralized the state after a series of local rebellions, including one in Egypt. Just when stability seemed neigh, the Macedonian invasion began.

In the histories and biographies Darios appears as a character four times: the Battle of Issus, in a letter to sue for peace, at the Battle of Gaugamela and in a death scene after Bessos stabbed him. In each of these appearances he appears a failure, especially in contrast to the daring of Alexander.

Greek kings and generals fought with their soldiers, often on the front lines and when the troops broke and ran, it was often a given that the commander had fallen. This was the contrast between Leonidas and Xerxes at Thermopylae as much as it was between Alexander and Darios. Persian aristocracy and the royal family risked themselves, but the Great King was something entirely; instead of fighting on the front, he was to lead the entire heterogenous force. Thus at both Issos and Gaugamela, Darios did not fight. Further, Darios did not stay to rally (i.e. die with) his troops. On one hand this is the mark of a coward, but on the other he had responsibilities to more than ust those soldiers on the field.

Upon close inspection, life would have been simpler for Darios to die or flee into ignomity, but he did not. The reason for flight became apparent ad Darios raised a second force; no doubt he would have done so, or attempted to do so again after Gaugamela if given the chance. This is the mark of a fighter.

In the letter sent to Alexander, Darios played a shrewd card in that many of Alexander’s men prefered to stop, too, so Darios sought to “grant” Alexander those territories he had already won, which also happened to be those most unruly provinces. While this would be an enormous hit to the Persian prestige, the empire and all of the Capitols would remain intact.

Lastly we have an account of Darios’ death. This often is used to portray a failed and defeated King, which it does, but also implies incompetence. Darios had been defeated, but this does not imply that he had made huge mistakes or that the betrayal of Bessos was anything more than a play to curry favor from the new victor–or a power play of his own. Behind the scenes Darios had funded a Spartan insurrection and launched his own counter in Memnon of Rhodes, an officer who had out-maneuvered Parmenion in the last years of Philip’s reign. The persistence of Alexander, the death of Memnon and the betrayal of Bessos were all beyond the control of Darios. That he played the game and lost does not preclude his incompetence, merely his unluck and that Alexander outdid him.

“North” is not “Up”

Just a quick note here:

An annoyance when it comes to geographical discussion is the concept of “north” and the basic assumption that that direction will also be referred to as “up” or “upper”. The two best examples I know of both refute this assumption: Egypt had an “upper” and a “lower” kingdom. The Upper Kingdom was south and the Lower Kingdom was north since the Upper Kingdom was higher in elevation and up the Nile River; Macedonia had “upper” and “lower” regions as well, with the Upper Macedonian cantons being “up” in the mountains and upriver, but to the west, while lower was on the plain and centralized. North in the Macedonian kingdom was Palioura.

“Up” is a spacial term that is also used for rivers and the basic meaning, elevation.

“North” is a geographical concept of where the needle in the compass points.

Please do not confuse these again.