Mar 27

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

I want to open this post up by explain how you should go about finding a “Fact Behaving Badly”.

Step 1: Hear a fact. If you hear an incorrect fact once, it can’t do too much damage. But if you hear it more than once, from multiple sources, move to step 2.

Step 2: Ask yourself, is this fact too good to be true? Too ideologically perfect? Could a political consultant have designed this fact? If yes, move to step 3.

Step 3: Google the fact. Or go to

For example? The other day, a co-worker of mine told another co-worker the story behind his space pen. NASA spent over a million dollars engineering a pen that would work in space. Do you know what the Russians used?

A pencil!

Having heard this story more than once, I asked myself, “Man, this story sounds way too anti-government to be true.”

It isn’t. Almost nothing in the story is right.

NASA used pencils--mechanical pencils, not wooden pencils, because of the fire risk--for years. But “because of the substantial dangers that broken-off pencil tips and graphite dust pose in zero gravity to electronics and the flammable nature of the wood present in pencils” NASA looked for an alternative. The inventor of the space pen developed it independently, as a marketing gimmick, and gave samples to NASA. After testing the new pens, NASA bought them from the entrepreneurial inventor. Within a few years, the Russians adopted the space pen as well. (H/T to Snopes and the Space Review for the debunking.)

Ironically, the space pen is the ultimate example of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Perhaps you heard about those $16 muffins the Department of Justice bought a few years ago? Yeah, not true. What about the $200 hammers? The $600 toilets? Or the $10,000 coffee makers? (H/T to Freethoughtpedia.) Mostly, the media takes complex items--a combination tea maker/coffee maker/soup warmer designed to work at high altitude in the cramped confines of a bomber--and re-dubs them as something simpler--a coffee maker!--then runs the story under a breathless headline decrying government waste. (If you bought these myths, don’t feel bad; newspapers repeat them all the time. The $16 muffin tricked The LA Times, CBS and CNN, along with 178 other news sources.)

Some facts behaving badly are true, if you don’t caveat them. According to this guy, NASA did technically spend $10,000 on a toilet. But as the website points out, that kind of makes sense when failure--zero gravity fecal matter everywhere--could cost lives.

With all this talk of money, Michael C and I got in the mood to share five somewhat-foreign-policy-related economic “Facts Behaving Badly”.

Myth 1: China owns all of our debt.

Yeah, not so fast. Pundits, politicians and comedians have repeated this claim so many times that most Americans now accept it as gospel. Except China doesn’t own all of our debt. They don’t even own half of it. China has, approximately, 8% of the U.S. debt, (at the time of this writing) an amount so low I’m not sure the average American would ever guess it. Indeed, foreign governments, in total, only own 32% of the U.S. debt.

If China doesn’t own our debt, who does? The super rich. I’ll let Robert Reich take it away, “This huge structural change in how America's rich finance government--from paying taxes to lending money--has gone almost unnoticed.”

Myth 2: America Imports Most of Its Oil.

No. “The U.S. now imports 45% of its petroleum, down from 57% in 2008.” So the word “most” no longer applies.

Myth 3: America gets most of its oil from the Middle East.

Again, no. Most of the rest of that oil doesn’t come from the Middle East. In fact, 69% of our oil imports come from five countries. Only one--Saudi Arabia--is Middle Eastern; three of them--Canada, America’s biggest oil importer, Mexico and Venezuela--are North or South American.

(This great Politico article debunks some other gasoline myths.)

Myth 4: America must become “energy independent”.

Even if America did, it wouldn’t lower the price of gasoline. Why not? Well, Canada went “energy independent” years ago, and guess what? They still sell their oil on the international market. America has been “agriculturally independent” for years, but still sells its agricultural products on the world market too. To hear why, listen to NPR’s Planet Money.

Myth 5: America no longer makes anything.

Let’s watch an ABC series on buying American-made goods. Man, American manufacturing sure has plummeted!

Except, as this article by MSNBC, or this story by NPR’s Planet Money, or this other NPR piece, or this CATO blog post, or even this news article from...ABC itself?...explains that America still leads on manufacturing. And even when China passes America, America will still only be in second place.

The great change between the past and present is the number of manufacturing jobs. Frankly, American productivity has increased tremendously from even ten years ago. Productivity, and ergo profitability, have skyrocketed, while companies outsourced low wage/manual manufacturing to cheaper overseas factories or robots. This is an issue of what types of jobs and at what rates people are willing to pay for goods. But this shouldn’t mean America dives into protectionism over manufacturing.

Mar 25

Before Eric C and I started blogging, we didn’t realize how often we would be misread. I’m not talking about disagreements on points of debate; we expected those. No, I’m amazed how often people extrapolate wild positions based on one or two lines. In our N.Y. Times guest post “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, some readers assumed I wanted the U.S. Army to force its soldiers to follow Christianity. (I definitely don’t.) The greatest example ever came from our (hopefully ironically-titled) post, “Join the Taliban...the Americans Will Kill You Anyways” when one reader assumed we were recruiting for the Taliban. (We weren’t.)

It happened again in “A New On V Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!”. I had a bit of fun at Marcus Luttrell’s expense for thinking growing a beard--in Army parlance “relaxed grooming standards”--would help him blend in with the locals. (In his exact words, “look like an Afghan fighter”.) The primary point of the post was to show how patently false this argument is.   

What I didn’t mean to argue was that soldiers shouldn’t let their hair fall down to their backs. As many commenters pointed out, beards help build rapport with local populations that, like in Afghanistan, that respect facial hair. Since I’ve never been much for uniformity in dress code in the first place, I’m not opposed to relaxing grooming standards; I just don’t think operators should grow beards under the mistaken belief they help them “blend in”.

If you want to build rapport go ahead. But do it right. While growing a beard may help build rapport, it’s one of the least effective ways to do it. A beard on someone who doesn’t speak the language is worth less than someone with a clean-shaven face who speaks Pashtun, Dari, Arabic or Farsi. (Also, the rapport reason is definitely abused by the special operations community. Most special operations units have relaxed grooming standards even if they don’t partner with local units or work with the local population.)

Here are a few even more effective ways to build rapport:

1. Learn the language. I deployed with a Special Forces battalion to Iraq. They used more interpreters than a regular Army battalion. The SF teams also spoke virtually no Arabic. Despite the widespread myth that Special Forces soldiers are fluent in multiple languages, most Special Forces Groups have not maintained even base proficiency in their assigned languages. (This applies even more for Special Forces Groups not aligned with the CENTCOM AOR.)

2. Live with your embedded troops. Even before the spate of “Blue on Green” attacks, most deployed military units lived in separate compounds. When I was deployed, this meant that U.S. troops shared a base with Afghan troops, but we lived in separate, walled off areas. How can you really build rapport if you don’t sleep and live together? You can’t. A beard won’t bridge the gap.

3. Invite Afghans to lift weights with you. Most Special Forces troops pride themselves on their huge muscles. If you don’t believe me, well, google “Special Forces workout”. (Or worse, “Navy SEAL workout”.) Yet I never saw Afghan or Iraqi soldier in a U.S. gym. If you want to build rapport, train and live together. (I also advocated in the last post that U.S. forces should work on slimming down. Sure you might have a beard, but giant muscles say to Afghans, “Remember, we’re different.”)

4. Use local weapons. Wear local clothes and Afghan military uniforms. Again, train as you fight. So why don’t our Special Forces use AK-47s, RPGs and the other weapons used by the Afghanistan National Army? Or wear the exact same uniform? It's about rapport, right?

5. Don’t wear your fancy Oakley sunglasses. If you want to build rapport, why not look the locals in the eyes without your glasses? Not making eye contact is disrespectful. And it lessens the perceived financial gap between our soldiers and Afghans. (This goes for your backwards baseball cap too.)

6. Recruit older Americans to meet with older Afghans. One of the completely offensive ways Americans interact with village elders is by having 20 to 30 year-olds fresh out of college leading meetings/shuras/jirgas. This is a personal bit of hypocrisy, because I led these meetings as a 20-year-old fresh out of UCLA. Of course, this means completely overhauling the U.S. military recruitment system--as Rosa Brooks recommended here--but it might have helped the U.S. win our last two wars.

7. Recruit more ethnic soldiers. Specifically, Pakistani, Iranian and Indian immigrants. This would cause a security clearance nightmare, but that probably says more about our security system process (developed during the Cold War) than reality.

8. Most importantly, don’t do anything that antagonizes the locals. I mean, will a beard help our troops one iota if the Afghans can see your “infidel” patch at the same time? Also, don’t talk about how uncivilized Afghans are. Don’t call all the locals terrorists. Hell, follow all the guidance in this post too.

Interestingly, when our last post went up, numerous special forces soldiers endorsed growing a beard, but not one advocated the entire military adopting relaxed grooming standards. If anything, most special operators who chimed in claimed I was jealous. I’m not jealous; I want our military to adopt effective fighting methods to win its wars. If growing a beard is so effective, every soldier in Afghanistan--not just Special Forces troops--should grow one.

Since every American unit in Afghanistan partners with Afghan units, every unit should reap the benefits of relaxed grooming standards, not just the special forces. And they should all follow this guidance before they start growing those beads.

Mar 19

When we last talked, I told you how I would have argued in favor of the motion, “Better Elected Islamists than Dictators”, a topic from Intelligence Squared U.S. from last fall. I laid out my argument along four points: this is about the long game, “let’s drop the -isms”, elections always trump dictators, and American foreign policy can be incredibly hypocritical.

Since I was not invited to this debate, I didn’t get to make those points. Today, I want to dissect the points that were argued in the debate. Consider this section my “in person rebuttals” to the debaters. (In fairness to the debaters, I had weeks to hone my arguments.)

Criticizing my side’s arguments:

Overall, from an intellectual standpoint, I liked my side’s main points. However, they didn’t really sell the audience on one key takeaway. Without one (and only one) take away, it’s hard to win an Intelligence Squared debate.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, arguing my side (for the motion), immediately linked the argument to terrorism...which is something I would have avoided. When challenged during the debate portion, I would have described how free and open elections help stamp out terrorism, but I wouldn’t have led with it. Here’s what Gerecht said:

“...better dictatorship forever than allow the Muslim common man, woman to elect Islamists in a free vote. Now, that's a pretty, I think, ironic position for them to take, because what they're essentially saying is they want to perpetuate the political systems which have allowed Islamic fundamentalism, including its most radical offshoots, jihadism, most famously al-Qaida, to actually grow stronger.”

Gerecht pulled this big gun out too soon. You just can’t give the other team time to counter it (which they did). By leading with it, the other side was able to (deceptively) criticize this position.

Gerecht also brings up Turkey in an excellent example of Islamists winning at the ballot box. A lot of this debate hinged on which side provided better examples, and this is a good one. The military ruled Turkey for years, then the Islamists took over. As Gerecht pointed out, the sky didn’t fall. The sky isn’t falling. And it doesn’t look like it will fall. Sure, Turkey’s Islamists aren’t perfect, but they are better than military dictatorships by a long margin...and they haven’t inspired Islamism either.

Brian Katulis also emphasized in his introduction that democracy and Islam are compatible. The key to any Intelligence Squared debate is to define the motions on your terms. He does that here. He also mentions the terrible actions of Moammar Gaddafi. I would have brought up Saddam Hussein too. Why did we go to war with Saddam if we should have embraced him as an ally? The opposition--which basically argued this ironic position--wasn’t forced to respond to this.

How I would have attacked my opponents:

In his introduction (in the transcript and on YouTube; not in the podcast), Rob Rosenkranz captures this (apparent) conundrum of supporting dictatorship, “the pro of dictatorship is a lot of these dictators are fairly reliable allies.” This has an incredibly easy counter: would Hitler have made an excellent ally? If rebels rose up to overthrow him, as he was committing a genocide, would you have supported him if he helped America fight the Communists? In this alternate history, I guess Rob Rosenkranz would say, “If he’s a reliable ally.”

To any clever internet debaters are out there saying, “Sure, bring up Hitler. That’s a crappy way to win a debate”: that rule doesn’t apply if the debate actually is about dictators, because you can’t discuss dictators without discussing Hitler. And you’ll lose a debate on dictators if you don’t bring him up.

Which the other side promptly did! Daniel Pipes argued that Islamism is the most reprehensible ideology ever created. In his words, “I think that the Islamists, whether elected or not, whether violent or not, Islamists of any sort whatsoever are barbarians, are totalitarians, are far worse than dictators.” Pipes went on to--brilliantly and academically disingenuously--distinguish between ideological dictators and “greedy dictators”. In the ideological camp he parked, you guessed it, Hitler, Stalin and “Islamists”.

This should be an incredibly awkward point, that one side supports mass murdering dictators. Ironic, hypocritical and argument-destroying. However, my side in the debate never crushed the other side with it. That’s why, ultimately, I think they lost.

Worse, the other side got away with it because of its sheer audacity and inaccuracy. Americans have forgotten the threat of fascism, are forgetting the threat of communism and now only live in fear of terrorism, er, Islamism. As a result, “Islamism” somehow becomes worse than tyranny and dictatorship. “Islamism” is somehow killing Americans regularly...when it isn’t. At all.

Frankly, on the spot, I would have trouble with this accusation. In hindsight, I would play up this myopia. I would also bring up examples of the benefits of democracy, and the threat of dictatorship. I would hope, though, had I been there, that, for the rest of the debate, I would destroy this distinction. Every dictator is ideological; every dictator slaughters his people to keep power; every American who supports dictators spits on the Constitution.

My side didn’t. But the pro-dictatorship side came out swinging in this debate. They helped the audience believe the impossible, that supporting dictatorships makes you a good American. Or that, somehow, the U.S. can encourage democracy in the Middle East, intervene to stop Islamists from winning the elections (how again?), and not create more terrorists along the way for meddling.

As a result, the correct side lost this debate.

Mar 12

Eric C and I are NPR junkies. (He started it.) And one of my favorite shows is Intelligence Squared US. Host John Donvan throws down an Oxfordian challenge to two sets of debaters to argue topics ranging from banning college football to genetically engineered babies. I love it--especially compared to cable news coverage--because the panelists go very deep into topics I often don’t know much about.

That was not the case for their topic last fall, “Better Elected Islamists Than Dictators”.
(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t listened to the above episode and actually care about who wins and loses, don’t keep reading.)

When it comes to the Arab Spring, I have pretty strong feelings. That’s why we spent weeks discussing this topic in January. To be clear, I am wildly for the proposition; elected Islamists are better than dictators. Always. I believe that everyone around the world is entitled to democracy, not just America.

As I listened to the debate, I started to get worried. My side let the other side set the terms. The opponents then leveraged the politics of fear to their advantage. I kept yelling at the podcast, “No, you should have said this! Don’t concede that! Say that’s a lie!” Since they didn’t...

My side lost.

But my side didn’t just lose, they got trounced. They started off with more supporters (38% of the audience), but only ended up with 44%. The opponents went from 31% of the audience to a whopping 47% supporting their side. For Intelligence Squared, that’s a walloping.

Which really hurts because this topic is probably the neatest summation of the entire “Arab Spring” issue. I mean, you could say, “Arab Spring, good or bad?”, but phrased this way, it really captures the nuance of the various positions. Considered among other foreign policy topics--the rise of China, Russia’s ongoing stuff--- this is far and away the most important change going on in the world.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I hate losing political arguments. (If I haven’t said that before, well I do.) So today and Wednesday, I want to set the record straight. On Wednesday, I will critique the arguments my side made during the debate. But first, four key points explaining why elected Islamists are better than dictators that my side left out:

1. This is about the long game. As long as the U.S. pursues short-term interests (which means installing dictators) over the long term (advancing democratic ideals), it will always have fractured relationships. This was true in the Cold War, and it has been true since 9/11. Pursuing a short term strategy will always keep America in danger.

The best example is the CIA’s involvement in Iran. The elected Iranian government in the 1940s started nationalizing oil, so, with Western help, the Shah took over. Ever since, the Iranians have resented American meddling in their country (including Western support of Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war). In each case, the US favored actions that benefited us in the short term, but have kept the problems with Iran continuing.

2. Let’s drop the “isms” argument. The opponents, as I’ll describe on Wednesday, managed to connect Islamism to fascism and Hitler. Well played, though totally inaccurate. On its face, this motion scares Americans with the dangerous sounding, “Islamism” and its connection to terrorism. This is on its face absurd, and I would make that point much more clearly.

3. Elections trump dictators absolutely. If I were debating on Intelligence Squared, I would have told a story that personifies this for the audience. I would have emphasized what it was really like to live under a dictator, asking the audience to imagine themselves with relatives disappearing to secret prisons and living under the crushing hand of dictatorship. If the other side wants to use fear, then pound them back with tragedy and horror.

4. Emphasize the hypocrisy. The problem with American foreign policy is that, to pursue American interests--variously either pro-American business policies or protecting American lives--American foreign policy often asks other people to sacrifice their liberty. In essence, to keep Americans free, we ask that others live in tyranny. Otherwise, how could any American argue that dictators are good for the people of those countries? This hypocrisy is the primary criticism of American foreign policy around the globe, and the primary driver of hostility towards Americans.

More than anything else, supporting the “Arab Spring” is a moral issue. Any American who believes in freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--for all mankind as the Declaration of Independence clarifies--must support the Arab Spring. You cannot rail against tyranny in America while supporting tyranny abroad. Doing so is either the height of arrogance, hypocrisy, ignorance or all three.